Before we had The Noirvember Files (our series dropping the spotlight on essential film noir selections), we picked seven essentials as a primer for the genre to watch during your first Noirvember. Here is this quick list of recommendations.
Many better writers than me have taken it upon themselves to explain film noir, contextualize it historically, trace its aesthetic precedents to German expressionism, and so forth. I am essentially just a doofus who watches too many movies, and so my purpose here today is to tout a few.
Before continuing, a brief explanation of the parameters. The movies I’m choosing from were released between the years 1941 and 1958, which is by the orthodox definition of the term the period of proper film noir. Everything prior, by this reckoning, is proto-noir (I guess), and everything after is neo-noir.
The bookends of the period are The Maltese Falcon and Touch of Evil, which I haven’t listed here, not because they don’t rule but because they, like Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep, are the most famous examples of the genre. This is not to say everyone’s already seen them. See all those movies. But also see these:
Dark Passage (1947)
Based on a story by the great David Goodis, a considerable portion of Dark Passage is shot from Humphrey Bogart’s character’s subjective POV, much in the manner of Robert Montgomery’s The Lady in the Lake (which you should also see), but with a smoother execution that doesn’t overwhelm the story.
Bogart breaks out of the joint, being a professed innocent, and seeks to clear his name with the help of a just-happened-by-at-the-right-time Bacall. All kinds of stuff happens, and a lot of it involves Agnes Moorhead, which should be enough to sell anyone. But just to seal the deal: this is one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen that I can also simultaneously and with no contradiction whatsoever declare to have something for everyone. So there.
In A Lonely Place (1950)
Bogart again, but there’s literally no such thing as too many Bogart movies. And it’s also arguably in that “too famous for this list” group but fuck hierarchies, fuck assumptions about what “everyone” has seen, fuck everything except movies. With that out of the way, In a Lonely Place is one of the greatest movies ever made, starring one of the greatest stars who ever lived, directed by one of the best filmmakers of all time: Nicholas Ray.
Bogart plays a screenwriter with severe anger issues, and the story is about how he may or may not have committed a murder, but it’s a good enough movie that you can’t just sit on the “of course he didn’t do it, he’s the star” assumption. Gloria Grahame is fabulous in this. Watching this movie is basically just experiencing awe for an hour and a half, although you may need a stiff drink afterward.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Pulp legend (and shithead) Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, turned upside down and refashioned into a deconstructionist tool that pokes around metacinematically within both noir and science fiction, resulting in a movie whose influence arguably looms larger than any other picture on this list (Repo Man and Pulp Fiction, to pluck two personally beloved examples out of the sky, owe memorable bits to Aldrich’s “great whatsit” here). Not only is Kiss Me Deadly fun, it’s cool, and that doesn’t exactly grow on trees.
No exaggeration, this is the definitive cinematic depiction of self-destructive erotic longing. Laura is essential not only to understand movies, but a ridiculously long list of things in life as well. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made and it’s one of the smaller subset within that list of movies that you absolutely need to see if you love movies. That might sound like pressure, but if anything I’m understating the case here.
The Naked City (1948)
While I am guilty as charged as a homesick expatriate New Yorker, the inclusion of The Naked City on this list is entirely for reasons artistically meritorious. First of all, the number of classic films noir that even take place in New York are limited, let alone ones actually shot there, let alone ones actually shot there with this level of texture and detail.
Also, Jules Dassin got screwed by the blacklist, so any chance to show him some love, even posthumously, should be taken. The writing might be a little wobbly, but this is a gorgeous piece of film, and is the ur-procedural for hundreds of New York cop shows and movies since.
Phantom Lady (1944)
Phantom Lady is good, but I’m including it here to talk for a moment about the literature from which film noir sprung, and particularly about Cornell Woolrich, a prose stylist of astonishing talent — equal to Hammett and Chandler, without even breaking a sweat — whose novels and stories were the basis of dozens of classic films noir, the most famous of which is probably Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
Woolrich was notable among his peers for writing exceptionally good women characters, a standard which he might not meet by today’s exacting rubrics, but worth mentioning nonetheless. (I feel bad for slighting the movie version now; it’s Robert Siodmak, which means it’s good, and the film’s look and performances are top-notch.)
Scarlet Street (1945)
A confluence of generational talents, Scarlet Street is one of the highlights of Fritz Lang’s late-period string of great films noir, with a startlingly uncharacteristic performance by Edward G. Robinson as a schnook who gets pushed around, Joan Bennett being the best, and Dan Duryea as maybe the definitive scumbag noir character running around fucking everything up.
A delight from start to finish, and every five minutes there’s another set-up where you’re like “ah, right, Fritz Lang really is one of the half-dozen or so best directors in the history of film, how quick I am to forget.” (You could just as easily sub in The Big Heat for this, but I recommend you watch them both, as well as any and all Fritz Lang movies within reach.)
While you’re at it, watch every John Garfield and Robert Ryan movie you can. Same goes for Barbara Stanwyck and Lizabeth Scott. And Anthony Mann. And lots of other people. This list is incomplete, thoroughly inadequate in every way. Don’t waste your time listening to me, go out and devour as many films noir as you can. Consume the shadows, lest they consume you.