November just got much more exciting: 'Noirvember' is here! But what exactly is 'noirvember' you may ask? (At least I did). 'Noirvember' is a month-long celebration of all things film noir, that gorgeous period (~1940-1959) in cinema where these films weren't necessarily saddled by particular settings or conflict, like a western or gangster movie might be, but rather they were defined by particular qualities in tone, mood, and style. In honor of this great occasion, I've compiled a few of my favorite film noir's below to help you all properly celebrate. I've also included great quotes from each film because one element I personally love about film noir is the particular and unique cadences of rhetoric and language.
And if anyone wants any drinking ideas for these movies, always go with bourbon. It doesn't matter how you take it, but bourbon is essential for watching femme fatales and slightly dubious men double cross each other in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
This Gun For Hire (1942): In the first of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake's on-screen pairings, a contract killer (Ladd) is double-crossed by his employer for a recent 'job,' and now the police are tailing him. Along the way, he meets a nightclub singer (Lake) who helps him get his revenge.
Double Indemnity (1944): Based on James M. Cain's brilliant novel, an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme by a provocative housewife (Barbara Stanwyck) who wants her husband dead. They almost get away with it, except for an insurance investigator (Edward G. Robinson) who is tasked with finding phony claims. Easily one of the top three film noirs ever made.
If anyone is interested, the book is excellent and worth a read.
Laura (1944): I've written about Laura before (I'm a big fan), and it's one of the greatest film noirs. While it's not necessarily an investigative thriller, it employs many film noir conventions: voyeurism, searching for answers, racing against time. A police detective (Dana Andrews) falls in love with a woman (Gene Tierney) whose murder he is investigating. Taylor Swift has nothing on this complicated romance.
My Name is Julia Ross (1945): A lesser known film noir, but definitely worth a viewing. Julia Ross (Nina Foch) is hired as a private secretary for a wealthy widow (Dame May Whitty). Soon after she arrives at her new employer's Cornwall estate, she awakes one morning to find all of her belongings gone, and even more strangely, everyone calls her 'Marion' and tells her she is the wife of the widow's son (George Macready), and has recently suffered a nervous breakdown. Is she Julia or Marion?!?!
Leave Her to Heaven (1945): A radiantly colored film noir, beautiful neurotic Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) meets and marries Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde). Desperate to hold on to her husband's love, she unnaturally does anything (no matter how disturbing) to keep other people away from him and out of his life. A must-watch for Tierney's brilliantly terrifying performance and the lush colored clothes and scenes of nature.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946): Another James M. Cain original story, this very sexy and explosive film noir stars two of the most beautiful stars of their time: Lana Turner and John Garfield. Hobo Frank Chambers (Garfield) finds work at a highway diner, run by Cora Smith (Turner) and her much older husband (Cecil Kallaway). Frank and Cora begin an affair as soon as they meet, and sometime after, plot to kill her husband. That often seemed to be the route secret lovers took in film noir.
Once again, this book is also an excellent read.
Nightmare Alley (1947): Another great book turned into a great film, star Tyrone Power wanted more challenging roles and bought the rights of the book himself so he could play the scheming carnival barker 'The Great Stanton.' Stanton's rise and fall in and out of the carnival world is tracked throughout the film, along with his ladies Zeena (Joan Blondell) and Molly (Coleen Gray).
Out of the Past (1947): The ultimate in noir melodrama, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), previously Jeff Markham, tries to break away from his seedy past as a private eye with a new town, job, and woman. Back in the day, gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) hired Jeff to find Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). Jeff finds Kathie and they fall in love, going so far as to lying to Sterling about her whereabouts and the lovers escape to San Francisco. No surprise, everything unravels from there. Most of this film is told in flashback, which makes it a classic noir. Most film noir stories are entwined with the characters' past; many of them are already doomed before the plot really begins, usually because of fate, bad luck, or their own flawed personalities.
Raw Deal (1948): A film that transcends the typical noir gangster picture and instead shows a paradoxical environment of sex and violence. 'Fall guy' Joe (Dennis O'Keefe) escapes prison to get his monetary share of a job done for a gangster (Raymond Burr). The gangster tries to have him killed many different times and different ways. Oh, and there's a love triangle with a gun moll and a kind-hearted social worker, the most common of all film noir stories.
The Naked City (1948): As the narrator startlingly states, "There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and this is one of them." A police procedural noir, shot on location in New York City, follows a murder investigation of a young model with a large little black book. As the veteran cop in charge of the case and the other assigned beat cops learn more about the dead model's personal life, the more intricate and complex her case becomes.
They Live by Night (1949): A key film noir of the late 1940's and Nicholas Ray's first outing as a director, this fresh, documentary-style film is one of the best around. Wrongfully convicted murderer Bowie (Farley Granger) escapes prison and teams up with two bank robbers so he can have enough money to hire a lawyer to prove his innocence. After an injury from the robbery, Bowie meets 'Keechie' (Cathy O'Donnell), the daughter of a sketchy gas station owner. They fall in love, decide to flee and marry, and live an honest life. Unfortunately, people from their past don't want to let them off the hook that easily.
The Reckless Moment (1949): With Max Ophüls as the director, this noir has an extended focus on irony and emotion, rather than just crime and drama. Because of this, the actors, particularly James Mason, Joan Bennett, and Geraldine Brooks, are all lead into invigorating and revelatory performances. Watching this whole movie gives the viewer a straining anxiety, but in a great way. Lucia Harper (Bennett) finds the body of a blackmailer who had been having an affair with her daughter (Brooks). Not wanting the police to think that her daughter murdered her lover, Lucia does what any loving mother would do: bury the body in a swamp. Another blackmailer (Mason) invades Lucia's life, and surprises himself by falling in love with her; he decides that demanding money from the love of his life is probably not a good way to win her over.
The Set-Up (1949): The best way I can describe this film noir is 'pungent.' By that I mean it is overwrought (in a fabulous way) with all the elements that make up a film noir, AND all the great aspects that often magically come together to make a great boxing film. Has-been boxer Bill 'Stoker' Thompson (Robert Ryan) is about to participate in what will probably be his last fight. Many people, including his own manager, have bet money that 'Stoker' will lose, but he does not know about this set-up (get it?). 'Stoker' and his wife (Audrey Totter) have a fraught time figuring out if this last fight is worth the $500 prize money. Once again, in true film noir fashion, the hero is already contending with his past, and dealing with the emotional implications of what his next step will bring for him and his few loved ones.
In a Lonely Place (1950): Based on Dorothy B. Hughes' brilliant novel, and another Nicholas Ray picture, troubled screenwriter and tinseltown murder suspect Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) can only depend on an alibi from his sultry neighbor (Gloria Grahame) to clear him of a murder charge. That's only a small portion of the story though. They both love one another, but their past selves inform their current desperations and struggles to find happy love lives with each other. Emotionally charged, with a mixture of devastating melodrama, suspenseful noir, and a trenchant commentary on Hollywood customs, you will be riveted.
The Narrow Margin (1952): A B-picture nominated for an Oscar?? Very unusual at the time, and still unusual to this day. The main action of the movie all takes place on a train (when that was still probable). A cynical detective (Charles McGraw) is assigned to safely escort a mob boss' widow (Marie Windsor) on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles so that she can testify against before a grand jury. While trying to keep the truth hidden about who he and his traveling companion are, the detective meets a lovely woman (Jacqueline White) and her precocious son, all while trying to keep the widow alive.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953): Probably the only film noir directed by a woman (Ida Lupino), this perfectly paced (in my opinion, anyway) film follows two friends (Frank Lovejoy and Edmund O'Brien) going on a fishing trip who pick up hitch-hiker Myers (William Talman), a secret sociopath. Once the friends find out how sadistic he is, they try to escape, and keep their friendship at the same time.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the film noir genre, any of the films listed above are fantastic and essential starting points. Happy #Noirvember!