My Favorite Movies: Film Noir
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Film noir is classic moviemaking, because when you talk about film noir you’re not talking about a setting, like the desert in a western, or genre pictures, like sword-and-sandal epics or science fiction. What you’re actually talking about are the nuts and bolts of moviemaking: the rhythm of the dialogue, the tightness or looseness of the editing, the placement of the camera, the visual composition of light and shadow. This is why noir transcends genre, and why it could, and has been, a science fiction, a western, a crime thriller or a romantic drama. It can be anything it wants.
In the spirit of the Phoenix Film Festival’s Your Favorite Movies series, here are 10 of my favorite noir pictures from the golden age of noir in the 1940s right on through to today. You’ll notice by my choices that I like my noir a little pulpier than you might be used to. I’m also excluding one of my favorite noirs, which I will be adding to an upcoming list of my all-time favorite movies.
Double Indemnity — Insurance salesman Walter Neff has killed a man, staged his death and is now planning on running away with the man’s girl. But as he walks home, he’s startled by his ears: “I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” With Raymond Chandler’s brutal dialogue, Billy Wilder’s pinpoint-precision directing, and the white-hot chemistry of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity embodies all that was great about noir in the 1940s.
L.A. Confidential — Curtis Hanson’s 1997 adaptation of James Ellroy’s LA Confidential is a compendium of noir themes transplanted back into their 1940s source material. It’s a modern film, but other than color and modern actors — and breasts and violence — it looks, acts and sounds vintage. Told from varying viewpoints from within the Los Angeles Police Department, the film gave us Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce (who would later do another modern noir, Memento) and returned to us Kim Basinger as the sexiest screen siren since Rita Hayworth did that hair flip in Gilda. The plot can be hard to follow, but dig in deep and it’s rewarding beyond measure.
Detour — Edgar Ulmer’s 1945 low-budget Detour is down and dirty noir of the most basic order. It has a loser hero, a femme fatale, schemes with money and false identity, a convenient murder, crimes of circumstance … it borrows from all the classic building blocks of the noir catalog. Tethered, quite literally, to the plot — about a hitchhiker who assumes a dead bookie’s identity — is a murder so shocking that it still startles even after all these years.
The Killers — Famously based on an Ernest Hemingway story, Robert Siodmak’s 1946 noir staple begins like many noirs, at the end. Two hired thugs turn up to murder a former boxer (Burt Lancaster), who is tipped off to his impending doom, but refuses to flee. After he’s killed, others begin tracing his tragic trajectory backward, revealing crime, deception, and, you guessed it, a woman. The film was remade in 1964 by Don Siegel with Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan, and John Cassavetes in the Lancaster role. They switched boxing to race car driving, but the general premise is the same. The first film is the better version, although both are great.
Body Heat — Lawrence Kasden’s steamy 1981 thriller Body Heat is an accessible entry point into a long legacy of noir classics that rely on gullible men and seductive women. The man here is William Hurt, playing a greasy lawyer, and the woman is Kathleen Turner, the trophy wife to a rich executive. They conspire to kill her husband, but then everything falls apart, like Walter Neff before them. The lighting is gorgeous, the sex scenes are legitimately sexy, and the Turner’s hroaty purr is just perfect for this material.
Out of the Past — One of the all-time classic noirs, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 Out of the Past stars two of the great, Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, in a flashback-heavy crime thriller involving hush money, tax records, love triangles and cold-blooded murder. Visually, the film is luscious, with these beautiful black and white compositions, many of them with curly tendrils of cigarette smoke snaking their way through the inky blacks. If there was ever a film where the shadows could come alive and strangle the actors, this is it.
Touch of Evil — When people talk about Touch of Evil, they often talk about the brilliant three-minute-plus tracking shot that opens the movie. It’s a masterpiece as far as long takes go, but so many discussions end there, long before the heart of this gorgeous film has been unearthed. Of course, the film is also steeped in lore, with director Orson Welles fighting, and losing — and then many year after his death, winning — for final cut of the film. Today, with Welles’ cut, the film is noir legend, from its shadowy interiors and brazen dialogue to its cynical worldview and devastating conclusion.
Brick — Rian Johnson’s 2005 hard-boiled detective thriller takes place in a high school with teenagers. When one character talks about getting suspended from school, it’s given the same weight as Sam Spade losing his detective license — the film winks at you, but also expects you to buy into its rarely subtle interpretation of noir. And it all works brilliantly. As soon as you surrender to the setting and the characters, the noir elements take over, creating a convoluted web of crime, innuendo, deception and even murder, some of the many grown-up acts these teens undertake to prove a larger point about the genre and its long reach.
Basic Instinct — Yes, yes, Sharon Stone doesn’t wear panties. That’s what people remember about the film, but never that Stone was modernizing the femme fatale in big sweeping brushstrokes. Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 erotic thriller is a monument to the character, whose roots can be traced back to the very beginning of noir. Also, Michael Douglas is great, playing a cop who is blinded by his lust.
Chinatown — Roman Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown was one of the early throwbacks to the classics, and it was a terrific success because it understood the characters, their roles in larger plots and the sense of dread that hangs over noir plots. These films don’t have happy endings. They don’t skip off into the sunset. Noir means black, and things have to end in the darkness, which is what Chinatown is.