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Film Noir

Philip Archer's Top 50

Stumbling into Darkness
by Philip Archer

Film Noir Note
by Simón Cherpitel

Film Noir, perhaps defined as 'dark cinema' or 'night movies', is a loose genre with crime and corruption at its core that was spawned in America by the emigre of German expressionist directors, especially Fritz Lang, marked by that cinema's expressionistic lighting and unique camera angles, which merged with the American private-eye, modern cowboy (the laconic loner carrying a gun) literature of the late 1930s (Dashiell Hammett, Rayond Chandler). Lang's 1931 German M with Peter Lorre as a child murderer is a definitive Noir percursor, while his American Fury in 1936 set the bleak tone of the flawed hero, wrongly accused, who turns savagely vengeful, followed by You Only Live Once with its again wrongly accused and doomed hero in 1937. Stranger on the Third Floor by Boris Ingster in 1940 is generally considered the first drop in the cinema stream that flowed in a torrent through the 40s and 50s ending with Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959. But the influence left by the great Film Noir era has affected nearly every film since that portrays the social alienation of crime and individual corruption.

Most Film Noir were low-budget, shot on location in city streets, though often in the city structures of studio back lots, with an abundance of night scenes. With few exceptions, all were shot in black and white. More than the 'look' is the mood of Film Noir which is very dark, and all the heros are seriously flawed individuals.

With the exception of a few bigger budget films featuring A-list actors, chiefly Humphrey Bogart, most Film Noirs were low-budget programmers that usually played either the top or bottom half of a double-cinema bill, depending on its stars. Robert Mitchum was top half, Dennis O'Keefe was bottom half. Essentialy Film Noir as a cinema movement died with the death of the B movie, whose production became the province of television, which largely rejected Noirish themes as too bleak or violent for TV viewing tastes.

Although there were a few Noir films made in England in the early 1960s and François Truffaut did his wonderful tribute to Film Noir with Shoot the Piano Player in 1960, in America, movies that might have been main-stream Noir a few years before became categorized as thrillers, playing single bills, such as J.Lee Thompson's Cape Fear and Blake Edward's Experiment in Terror in 1962. Then after lying domant for 20 years, a resurgence of explicit Noir style and themes began in 1982 with Ridley Scott's Blade Runner that has led to an abundance of 'futuristic' or 'techno' Film Noir which continues today.

Philip Archer
Top 50 Noir

The Big Combo
Joseph H. Lewis - 1955

The Maltese Falcon
John Huston - 1941

Double Indemnity
Billy Wilder - 1944

Out of the Past
Jacques Tourneur - 1947

Gun Crazy
Joseph H. Lewis - 1949

The Killers
Robert Siodmak - 1946

Postman Always Rings Twice
Tay Garnett - 1946

Asphalt Jungle
John Huston - 1950

Where the Sidewalk Ends
Otto Preminger - 1950

Charles Vidor - 1946

Edgar G. Ulmer - 1945

The Night Of The Hunter
Charles Laughton - 1955

The Big Sleep
Howard Hawks - 1946

Odd Man Out
Carol Reed - 1947

Otto Preminger - 1944

Shield For Murder
Edmond O' Brien &
Howard W. Koch - 1954

The Naked City
Jules Dassin - 1948

Kiss Of Death
Henry Hathaway - 1947

Pickup on South Street
Samuel Fuller - 1953

The Big Heat
Fritz Lang - 1953

Scarlett Street
Fritz Lang - 1945

Cry of the City
Robert Siodmak - 1948

Rudolph Maté - 1950

Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder - 1950

Night and the City
Jules Dassin - 1950

The Prowler
Joseph Losey - 1951

Body and Soul
Robert Rossen - 1947

Criss Cross
Robert Siodmak - 1949

The Narrow Margin
Richard Fleischer - 1952

Kiss Me Deadly
Robert Aldrich - 1955

Touch of Evil
Orson Welles - 1958

Force of Evil
Abraham Polonsky - 1948

Murder My Sweet
Edward Dmytryk - 1944

Raw Deal
Anthony Mann - 1948

This Gun For Hire
Frank Tuttle - 1942

Strangers on A Train
Alfred Hitchcock - 1951

The Killing
Stanley Kubrick - 1956

They Live by Night
Nicholas Ray - 1949

Blue Dahlia
George Marshall - 1946

In a Lonely Place
Nicholas Ray - 1950

Detective Story
William Wyler - 1951

Kansas City Confidential
Phil Karlson - 1952

Ace in the Hole
Billy Wilder - 1951

Follow Me Quietly
Richard Fleisher &
Anthony Mann - 1949

Woman In The Window
Fritz Lang - 1945

The Hitch-Hiker
Ida Lupino - 1953

City That Never Sleeps
John H. Auer - 1953

Anthony Mann - 1947

Elia Kazan - 1947

Brute Force
Jules Dassin - 1947

Philip Archer
into Darkness

Sometime in our life, we ask ourselves, 'How did I get here?' It is not a question reserved for just a spiritual foray into one's existence, but most times a more personal inquiry into our life, and how we arrive at our destiny. In my case the question is how did I end up in a world consisting of mostly long gone heroes, $2.00 hotel rooms, and the doom and the gloom that I have come to know and love as Film Noir.

Honestly, I have never been accused of being Walt Disneyish, but I have never thrown a crippled woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs either. As a man in my 40s, I never had any idea earlier in life that I would end up here. I had no attraction to black and white (except for the occasional Oreo), and I celebrated that day back in 1964 when my father brought home our first color TV.

Flash forward to the 80s and the advent of the VCR and home video. I owned a record store at the time. My first experience with video was an offer from a wayward cousin to get me and my family a hot Beta Max machine at a reduced rate. What did I know about Beta and VHS. So being the trusting fool I am, I handed my cousin $500.00 for a couple machines and set off to brag about my new found luck.

Twenty years later, I have yet to see that cousin again, or my Beta machine. However, word reached me recently that he is no longer with us. Apparently, he passed on under mysterious circumstances, alone and destitute, his body found on a dark and dingy New York street. The only information I have been able to gather is that it happened sometime between midnight and dawn, and that he was stabbed with a big knife. The only possession he seemed to have in the world was a Beta copy of Nightmare Alley.

Anyway, back then I chalked it up to experience and pushed on. The year was 1984, and VHS was starting to take off. Video stores were everywhere. I thought to myself that the combination of records and video would be a natural.

Not wanting to brag on myself, but I was doing it long before the current claimers to the throne. Hey, I'm not bitter - but if I ever get my hands on the box that Mike Hammer was after - BOOM! - no more Tower! (Hmmm... my dark side seems to be unveiling itself here.)

Anyway, the whole point of this part of the story is not to tell you that my video store propelled me into the world of film noir, as if through video I discovered classic after classic. No, like most people, I was interested in the latest release, sitting on the edge of my couch waiting for Rambo 3, and all the other blockbusters that Hollywood was churning out at the time.

My stumble into darkness came much later, well after my little store was eaten up by the big chain machinery we have today.

Fast-forward to 1999. I had just stumbled out of another one of those bad relationships with a dame I should have stayed clear of the first time she offered me a glass of ice tea. I rented a one-room flat in a dump, on a dead end street in what was supposed to be the 'city of dreams,' to wallow in the misery that had become my existence.

As I sat alone watching all 3 DVDS of Jurassic Park, I wondered where life would lead me next. I had sworn off women. I was just going to sit here night after night with the lights out, collecting and watching my favorite DVDS on my newly purchased 55" widescreen Mitsubishi TV. But the purchase of the widescreen TV would prove to be a virtual washout, for little did I know who and what would follow.

After a month of growing more facial hair, eating frozen pizza, and building a Julia Roberts DVD collection, life threw me the straightest curve ever. A friend convinced me to venture out of my dimly lit flat, and come to Atlantic City to see a well known musical duo I have long admired. Gruffly, I replied that there would be people there, dames especially. And this year, I have no use for them. But, as often happens, fate deals a different deck. Like Al Roberts, I realized a Detour might lie in my future. I needed to get there. Why, I didn't know. I just needed to get there.

Fortunately for me, and unlike Al Roberts, I had those greens needed for the trip and a car. So at least no Charles Haskell Jr. would be in my future. As I drove down the Garden State Parkway, I saw a red-headed beauty trying to hitch a ride "Oh no," I said, "not this time," and proceeded to push the peddle to the floor. I would make it to AC unscathed.

Arriving in Atlantic City, I was still wondering if I had erred. No woman was gonna turn my head, I proclaimed. Even if Julia Roberts was waiting there and proclaimed that she just couldn't live another day without me.

Then it happened, swiftly and without warning. I walked into a smoke filled lounge called The Dizzy Dolphin, and there she was. My eyes immediately landed on her. A tall, sensuous brunette, with eyes so brown and beautiful that if she was surrounded by Hayworth, Bacall and Bergman, I would not have noticed. Frozen, and unaware of anyone else in the room, I knew I had to have her. No! I had sworn off women for good I told myself. But I could only stare as she took another drag of her cigarette. Who was this woman?

The glance she gave me was an icy stare that would make Stanwyck look like Mary Poppins. However, I realized that at least she knew I was alive. Never one with a lot of courage, I simply slithered into a chair, my eyes fixed on this unknown femme fatale.

My mind reeled with ideas of how I could approach her. My first thought was the 'aww shucks' Jimmy Stewart approach. I could pretend to stumble and land at her feet, get up from the floor, dust myself off with that embarrassed grin of a foolish schoolboy. Yes, that's it. Then it occurred to me that this dame wasn't looking for a foolish schoolboy.

Immediately, the dashing debonair Cary Grant persona flashed into my head. That's it, I'll be charming, suave and devil may care. That will attract her attention. I found a waitress and ordered Grant's usual choice of bourbon. But how do I pull this off when I never tasted bourbon in my life, and don't really even drink? That put a crimp in this plan. One sip of bourbon in her presence could result in me spitting it up all over her slinky, revealing black dress. Nope, this certainly would not endear me to her. After all, I was not the only one who noticed her. Just a moment ago, a man walking in had stared at her for so long that he banged into a table. After his Jerry Lewis routine, that guy had no chance. But my Cary Grant idea would have to go.

I was getting desperate. Maybe I should just go up to her and smack her across the face like Bogie would. That always seemed to work for him. Fortunately, I quickly realized something like that could likely get me killed.

Then it came to me like a flash from Raven's gun. Kiss her, I thought. Just walk up to her like a stranger in the night, put my arms around her and place the most passionate kiss on her lips that she's ever imagined.

Suddenly, I'm Grant, Olivier, and Duryea, all rolled into one. Pushing my way through the crowd of admirers around her, I stare passionately into the eyes I've adored since walking into the room. I don't say anything, as our eyes meet and lock for a dramatic, soul touching second. I firmly place my left hand behind her head pulling her lips towards mine. Our lips move closer, and I revel in my moment of bravado. As our lips begin their decent into heaven, an icy cold feeling runs up my spine. For a split second I think maybe it's the moment at hand sending the tingling sensation up my spine. Then, I feel nothing as a big hole opens beneath me, and I fall in head first with the hole closing over me.

When I wake up, the closing credits of Jurassic Park 3 are just ending. She was a dream.
I hate these cruel twist endings.

Actually, the real story of how I found Film Noir isn't that interesting. My cousin recommended Double Indemnity to me, and it went from there. Why I love Noir is something else. What I found when watching my first Noir film would leave a lasting impression on me. What was this movie bathed in shadows and filmed in darkness?

I recognized Fred MacMurray from My Three Sons. But Steve Douglas a murderer? And where are Chip and Ernie? Nowhere to be found. The snappy, hard, acid tongued dialogue. The plot to murder an unsuspecting husband who gets strangled and tossed on train tracks like yesterdays old newspapers. The deceit, and the double cross of a trusted new lover. As I moved further along into Noir, the great 40s and 50s location shots of our major cities of long ago attracted and enthralled me. The stars like Lancaster and Stanwyck, Mitchum, Ford, Widmark and Ladd. The B grade stars like O'Brien, Wilde, Donlevy, and Andrews. Even the bit players that seem to show up everywhere, like my favorite all-time character actor Tito Vuolo.

This was something I now loved, and have not been able to shake since the day I watched Double Indemnity. I had to have all the Noirs that were available, by hook or by crook. First, to every store for what I could find from an internet Film Noir list. Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Big Combo, Impact, D.O.A. Thankfully, these classics had already been released on DVD. The Naked City, Odd Man Out, Sudden Fear, The Blue Gardenia, the cult classic Detour, and more all available for me to feast upon. Then came a move from my lifelong home state of New Jersey to Long Island, N.Y., and walking into a local video store with a classic VHS section to-die-for, including at least another 150 out-of-print Film Noir titles on VHS, never released on DVD (or at least not till I got my DVD recorder). I am knee deep in Noir now, since finding other rarities on Ebay, and from generous collectors as well as some great digital cable stations that still pop up with some rare classics now and then...Boomerang, Fallen Angel, Where The Sidewalk Ends, Nightmare Alley, Narrow Margin, Nora Prentiss, The Damned Don't Cry.

The list goes on and on, and my collection has presently grown to over 400 titles. And there are still many, many more of these classics to find. So I am on alert 24/7 looking to acquire and preserve the best I can of these classic films, which if you are reading this, we all have come to know and love as Film Noir. But, as I travel through my life, I will always have an eye out for that brunette.
If she is real, I will find her. Where the Sidewalk Ends movie poster

Big Combo movie poster

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Big Combo movie poster

Out of the Past movie poster

Gun Crazy movie poster

Postman Always Rings Twice movie poster

Odd Man Out movie poster

Pickup on South Street movie poster

D.O.A. movie poster

Body & Soul movie poster

Kiss Me Deadly movie poster

Laura movie poster

Where the Sidewalk Ends movie poster

The Big Heat movie poster

Raw Deal movie poster

Suddenly movie poster

Dark Corner movie poster

Blue Dahlia french movie poster

In a Lonely Place movie poster

Night & the City movie poster

Detective Story movie poster

Ace in the Hole movie poster

Woman in the Window movie poster

Desperate movie poster

Detour movie poster

Desperate Hours movie poster

Brute Force movie poster

Big Heat movie poster

Murder My Sweet movie poster

Thieves Highway movie poster

Big Sleep movie poster