Five films to cool off the steamy mid-summer nights in the naked city.
These films are our "big combo."
Despite its shadowy milieu, film noir is the cinema of heat: the heat between a man and a woman, the friction between men on collision courses, the burning need for vengeance or justice or just getting a little distance from your circumstances. It’s the perfect kind of film to relax with during the summer, when nerves and patience already run short – preferably with a whirring ceiling fan overhead and a tall glass of something chilled.
We’ve grown accustomed to Warner Brothers releasing their Film Noir Classic Collection box sets each July, but it looks as if they’re not doing that again this year. So we’ve put together our own five-pack of classic and semi-classic films to get you through the night.
1. Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) This ain’t the storybook you had as a kid. When a hard-boiled detective with one too many brutality complaints accidentally kills a murder witness, he must frame an innocent man for the crime – even as he falls in love with the man’s daughter.
One of several noirs and neo-noirs by writer-director Otto Preminger and starring Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney (the others include the classic Laura), the film is noir at its most primal. Yet the story remains nuanced and memorable long after viewing, thanks to compelling performances from every cast member. Though Mitchum and Bogart are most commonly considered noir’s reigning heavyweights, Andrews’ incredible reserve and depth help make him the thinking man’s noir anti-hero. DVD: Part of Fox’s “Fox Film Noir” library.
2. Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) Though many count 1955′s Atomic Age-themed Kiss Me Deadly as the last great noir of the classic period, Odds Against Tomorrow better deserves that title, looking ahead as it does to the Civil Rights Movement while still retaining noir’s classic themes and motifs. Harry Belafonte, Ed Begley Sr. and noir titan Robert Ryan conspire to rob a small town bank. But Ryan’s ex-con is a hardbitten racist, and the tension between him and Belafonte’s gambling addict simmers into a twist ending that M. Night Shyamalan only wishes he could concoct. Noir siren Gloria Grahame and Shelley Winters glimmer and tempt as women drawn into Ryan’s self-destructive orbit. DVD: Available from MGM.
3. Black Angel (1946) When a gadabout is falsely convicted for the murder of a blackmailing nightclub singer, his loyal wife (June Vincent) teams with the singer’s alcoholic ex-husband (the underrated Dan Duryea) to prove his innocence. Together they infiltrate a nightclub run by a powerful gangster (Peter Lorre), even as the ex-husband’s alcohol-racked memory begins to reveal the killer’s true identity. Haunting and memorable without lapsing into sentimentality or melodrama, the film remains undercelebrated but a must-see nonetheless, especially for the lush cinematography and the fine performance by the all-but-forgotten Vincent. DVD: from Universal.
4. The Blue Dahlia (1946) Not to be confused with Brian De Palma’s 2006 flop The Black Dahlia, this sharp edged, brittle bit of noir reunites frequent co-stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in Raymond Chandler’s original screenplay about a returning World War II fighter pilot investigating the murder of his dissipated wife. Chandler’s script is reflective of his Philip Marlowe novels’ serpentine plots and crisp dialogue, while Ladd and Lake’s chemistry lights up the screen as it did in This Gun For Hire and The Glass Key.
In real life, a bartender gave Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short the nickname “The Black Dahlia” because the movie was playing at a theatre down the street. Short liked the name, keeping it until her gruesome murder the following year. DVD: Somehow, The Blue Dahlia is yet to come to DVD. Just the same, it’s still widely available on VHS.
5. Kiss of Death (1947) An imprisoned jewel thief (Victor Mature) testifies against his cohorts to get early release after his wife’s suicide leaves their children indigent. Once on the outside, he works undercover to help the District Attorney (Brian Donlevy) bring down psychotic killer Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark).
The film belongs to Widmark, who plays the well-named Udo with such wide-eyed glee that Mature’s straight-jawed line delivery is almost completely overshadowed. You probably won’t ever forget the scene where Udo giddily throws a wheelchair-bound old woman down a flight of stairs. DVD: Also part of Fox’s “Fox Film Noir” library.
- Michael Kabel
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