Say yes to noir
Published: Friday, April 19, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 6:32 p.m.
In dark corners and alleys, in the smoky haze of a dive, another world fueled by greed and obsession operates during the hours made for sleep.
The film noir lives by moonlight.
These 10 films explore a world filled with people you would not want to turn your back on, but who are fascinating perhaps for that very reason.
1. ‘Sweet Smell of Success' (1957)
Everyone who wants to become someone must make it into the column of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the kind of man who makes you queasy whether you are crossing him or doing him a favor. Doing the latter is press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), who is dependent on Hunsecker for his livelihood. When Hunsecker sets out to ruin the young man dating his far-too-beloved sister, he turns to Falco to devise the relationship's demise. Neither Falco nor Hunsecker are weighed down by anything as heavy as scruples.
2. ‘Double Indemnity' (1944)
When insurances salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) comes to the home of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), he ends up being the one buying what she is selling: murder. Walter, instantly bewitched by Phyllis, cooks up a scheme to bump off her husband and make it look like an accident so she can collect on an insurance policy. When his boss (Edward G. Robinson) starts pulling at the loose threads of the insurance fraud case, Walter's life begins to unravel, too.
3. ‘The Big Heat' (1953)
In a city where the corruption is coiled tightly around elected officials and police alike, Sgt. Bannion (Glenn Ford) rattles the wrong cages when he begins to dig into an officer's suicide. When the retaliation turns personal, he switches from truth-seeker to avenger. Ford is fantastic as Bannion, a man whose whole life has been like a wooden ruler, only now there are chunks missing and he can't always draw a straight line.
4. ‘The Killers' (1946)
In a tense opening scene, two professional killers arrive at a diner in a small town looking for a regular there, “the Swede” (Burt Lancaster). They make quick work of finding him elsewhere and killing him, but before they do, a friend asks the Swede why the men are after him. “I did something wrong once,” he answers. An investigation reveals what that was as it retraces the steps that led to the Swede's bitter end.
5. ‘The Asphalt Jungle' (1950)
Fresh out of prison, “Doc” (Sam Jaffe), an elder statesman of thievery, has jewels on the brain, not rehabilitation. As he assembles a team to pull off a big heist, among the crew is hooligan Dix (Sterling Hayden), muscle with some brains mixed in for a change of pace. The heist scenes are riveting, playing out mostly in silence without a booming musical score distracting from the action. Getting the jewels proves easier than dealing with the double crosses and deaths that follow.
6. ‘Sunset Boulevard' (1950)
Writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) does not set out to become a kept man when he hides his car from debt collectors at the mansion of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former silent film star in serious denial that fame and youth have both left her. But soon he is part of her sad, delusion of a life when he agrees to punch up an atrocious script she wrote and, reluctantly, becomes her companion. Norma has existed in her own world for so long that she does not take kindly to Joe's decision to return to the real one.
7. ‘Laura' (1944)
Decades before AMC's “The Killing” set out to reveal who killed Rosie Larsen, this film posed the question: Who killed Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney)? It manages to give its answer in an hour and a half, not two seasons. As detective Mark McPherson investigates the fatal shooting of Laura, a woman who was to men what a piece of string is to a cat, he ends up enthralled with her as well. If even death can't end your charms, you know you've got it.
8. ‘Touch of Evil' (1958)
Yes, for some inexplicable reason, Charlton Heston is playing a Mexican, but that is the only flaw in this grimy gem. After a car explosion at the border, narcotics detective Mike Vargas (Heston) basically leaves his new bride (Janet Leigh) to fend for herself while he investigates the crime. In doing so, he ends up tangling with the corrupt and powerful Capt. Quinland (Orson Welles). The final sequence is perfection.
9. ‘In a Lonely Place' (1950)
When a young woman who went home with hot-tempered screenwriter Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is later found dead, he has an awfully pretty alibi in the form of Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), a neighbor who does not know Dix but vouches for his whereabouts all the same. Before long, they are living out a dream romance. But when police plant a seed of doubt about Dix in Laurel's mind, the suspicion puts their love to the test.
10. ‘Night and the City' (1950)
Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) would have to make some serious life changes in order to work his way up to being a weasel. Always on the hunt for a get-rich-quick scheme, he sets out to control wrestling in London by coming between a feuding father and son in the business while crossing anyone who gets in his way. Apparently no one ever told Harry that blood is thicker than water.
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