film ˈnwär/ noun. a style, category or genre of film marked by a post-war mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace. The term was originally applied by French film critics to American thriller or detective films made in the period 1940–59. Foreign émigré directors such as Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, and others, who had been influenced by the highly stylized German expressionist* cinema, created films that featured morally ambiguous protagonists put in difficult situations which eventually lead to their downfall. There are very few happy endings in film noir. Film noir features highly theatrical acting, but emphasizes an almost documentary, real-life feel.
The following films all are prime examples of film noir. There are many more available in the Black Gold system as well. After each film description I have included a line (or two) of dialogue that helps to describe, or give a feel for, each film. I hope you enjoy this list as much as I did putting it together.
*German Expressionist elements in film feature:
• Anti-heroic (if not downright evil) characters at the center of the story...
• which often involves madness, paranoia, obsession and...
• is told in whole or in part from a subjective point of view.
• A primarily urban setting, providing ample opportunity to explore the criminal underworld...
• and the complex architectural and compositional possibilities offered, for example, by stairways and their railings, mirrors and reflecting windows, structures jutting every bit as vertically as they do horizontally so that...
• the director can play with stripes, angles and geometric forms sliced from the stark contrasts between light and shadow.
• Shadows, in fact, can take on an ominous presence of their own; think of the monster's shadow ascending the stairs in “Nosferatu”, the shadow preceding the murderer in “M” or the pursuit and capture of Maria in “Metropolis”.
– from an article by David Hudson on German Expressionism at http://www.greencine.com.
An early look at the impact of mass media in the public arena, featuring the story of a cynical and manipulative journalist. When a man is trapped alive in a mine collapse, an amoral, down-on-his-luck reporter takes over and prolongs the rescue effort in order to make a name for himself.
Tell-tale line: Charles Tatum: I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog.
When a criminal mastermind is released from prison, he builds a crew for big jewel heist to end his career. The heist goes off as planned, but a series of betrayals and bad luck leads to an unhappy end for all.
Tell-tale line: Dix Handley: Don't bone me!
An upright cop searches for answers for an apparent suicide of a fellow officer. When his investigation reveals that it was murder, and a bomb, meant for him, kills his wife, he he turns into a tool of white hot vengeance and justice.
Tell-tale lines: Bertha Duncan: [having explained her blackmail-protection plot] The coming years are going to be just fine.
Dave Bannion: There aren't going to be any coming years for you.
P.I. Philip Marlowe is hired by a wealthy family to take care of a blackmailer and other problems plaguing the family. Each problem turns out to be a cover for something else as he investigates. Soon there is a series of murders that makes his job very complicated, and dangerous.
Tell-tale line: Philip Marlowe: She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.
A cold-hearted killer of two innocent people romantically pursues the woman who finds the bodies, even after he gets hitched to the woman's half-sister. Scandalous!
Tell-tale line: Marty Waterman: You can't just go around killing people when the notion strikes you. It's just not feasible.
A small-town lawyer’s family is stalked by a man he once helped put in jail.
Tell-tale line: Max Cady: I got somethin' planned for your wife and kid that they ain't nevah gonna forget. They ain't nevah gonna forget it... and neither will you, Counselor! Nevah!
A prime example of a film noir; this story, told in flashback narration and using shadowy black and white cinematography, features ambiguous morality, a down on his luck shmoe pursued by a sexy, blackmailing femme fatale to a disastrous ending.
Tell-tale line: Al Roberts: That's life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.
Lured into an affair (eagerly) by his client’s wife, Walter Neff, an insurance man, is encouraged to bump off the husband and share the insurance proceeds with his wife. Unfortunately, Neff’s boss thinks something is fishy and decides to have the case investigated further.
Tell-tale line: Walter Neff: Do I laugh now, or wait 'til it gets funny?
June Mills and her sister Clara live a quiet life in a small coastal town until Eric Stanton, a smooth-talking con man, comes into their lives. He seems to fall hard for June, but Clara believes he's interested only in the family fortune. Meanwhile, sultry waitress Stella catches Stanton's fancy and thinks he might be her ticket out of town. The local cop knows more than he's telling about his fellow citizens and their tangled relationships, which draw even tighter after a shocking murder. Partially filmed in Pismo Beach
Movie tag line: Entertainment that all but explodes with dramatic tension!
A greedy sideshow sharp-shooter marries an ex-army marksman, then leads him on an interstate crime spree. Includes a bank robbery sequence, noted for being filmed in one shot.
Tell-tale line: Bart: We go together, Annie. I don't know why. Maybe like guns and ammunition go together.
An intelligent and cunning criminal kills a cop, steals electronic equipment and robs liquor stores without leaving a clue. The police department persists in their search for him, systematically using the latest scientific methods of detection. The culprit is finally identified, leading to a frenetic pursuit through the massive drainage system beneath the streets of L.A.
Movie tag line: Savage! ... Searing! ... True!
A classic, tension-packed, three-way dance of death about two middle-class American homebodies on vacation in Mexico on a long-awaited fishing trip. Suddenly their car and their very lives are commandeered by a psychopathic serial killer that they pick up on the road.
Tell-tale line: Emmett Myers: I had a watch like this once when I was 17. Nobody gave it to me. I just took it.
A Hollywood screenwriter, questioned falsely for murder, is drawn to his neighbor when she confirms his alibi. However, his volatile nature eventually threatens to destroy their one last chance for real love.
Tell-tale line: Dixon Steele: I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.
A down-on-his-luck shmoe is framed for a million dollar armored car heist. After being beaten up by the police, then cleared, he sets off to Mexico to find the real criminals and to find out who set him up.
Tell-tale line: Joe Rolfe: I know a sure cure for a nosebleed: a cold knife in the middle of the back.
Hit men kill an unresisting gas station attendant who is expecting them. Later, an insurance investigator uncovers his past involvement with the beautiful, but deadly Kitty Collins who seems to be in the middle of the whole case.
Tell-tale line: Lt. Sam Lubinsky: Don't ask a dying man to lie his soul into Hell.
Stanley Kubrick's account of an ambitious racetrack robbery is one of Hollywood's tautest, twistiest noirs. Aided by a radically time-shuffling narrative, razor-sharp dialogue from pulp novelist Jim Thompson, and a phenomenal cast of character actors, The Killing is both a jaunty thriller and a cold-blooded punch to the gut.
Tell-tale line: Johnny Clay: You like money. You've got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.
In this Mickey Spillane story, a detective gives a ride to a half-naked girl, who is abruptly killed by thugs. Almost killed himself, the detective tries to solve the murder. Along the way, he is told to back off by the Feds, a bomb is placed in his car, a friend is killed, and he himself is beaten, drugged, and held hostage. What the ending means is entirely up for discussion.
Movie tag line: Blood red kisses! White hot thrills! Mickey Spillane's latest H-bomb!
A detective falls in love with the dead woman whose murder he is investigating.
Tell-tale line: Waldo Lydecker: Love is eternal. It has been the strongest motivation for human actions throughout history. Love is stronger than life. It reaches beyond the dark shadow of death.
After the death of his partner, San Francisco private eye Sam Spade is dragged into a quest for a priceless statuette.
Tell-tale line: Detective Tom Polhaus: [picks up the falcon] Heavy. What is it?
Sam Spade: The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.
Mildred Pierce is a woman who will do anything to satisfy the demands of her spoiled daughter Veda, including divorce, opening her own business, and possibly murder.
Movie tag line: A mother's love leads to murder.
Down-on-his-luck private detective Phillip Marlowe searches for an ex-convict's missing girlfriend and finds himself in a dark world of mayhem and murder.
Tell-tale line: Philip Marlowe: "'Okay Marlowe,' I said to myself, 'You're a tough guy. You've been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you're crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let's see you do something really tough - like putting your pants on.'"
A psychotic self-styled preacher marries and murders a young widow for her money. He then pursues her children to get his hands on the money, only to meet his match in the form of a saintly farm woman.
Tell-tale line: Rev. Harry Powell: There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin' things, lacy things, things with curly hair.
Alicia Huberman becomes an undercover agent after her German father, who was sent to prison for treason against the U.S., commits suicide. She falls in love with government agent T.R. Devlin and together they attempt to bring down some German scientists in post-war South America. Tell-tale line: Devlin: Dry your eyes, baby; it's out of character.
Former private detective Jeff Bailey is trying to lead a quiet life, but his past comes back to haunt him and he finds himself framed for murder.
Tell-tale line: Jeff Bailey: You can never help anything, can you? You're like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.
A pickpocket unwittingly lifts a message destined for enemy agents and becomes a target for a Communist spy ring.
Movie tagline: How the law took a chance on a B-girl... and won!
A nefarious cop stalks a lonely, repressed Los Angeles housewife and decides to win her by killing her husband.
Movie tag line: Watch out for the Prowler!
When a man in mid-life crisis befriends a young woman, her venal fiancé persuades her to con him out of some of the fortune she thinks he has.
Tell-tale line: Kitty March: If he were mean or vicious or if he'd bawl me out or something, I'd like him better.
An ex-Nazi is allowed to escape from a German war crimes prison after WWII to lead the Allies to a notorious spy planning to revive the Third Reich. The trail leads to a small Connecticut town where intrigue and murder combine for a tense situation.
Movie tagline: The Most Deceitful Man A Woman Ever Loved !
A wealthy lady playwright marries a worthless actor who plans to kill her with the assistance of his mistress.
Tell-tale line: Lester Blaine: Why are you looking at me like that?
Myra Hudson: [Ambiguously] I was just wondering what I've done to deserve you.
Struggling Hollywood writer Joe Gillis becomes entangled with reclusive silent film star Norma Desmond, whose madness destroys them both.
Tell-tale line: Joe Gillis: You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I am big. It's the pictures that got small.
Set in post-war Vienna, an American pulp writer searches for a friend, Harry Lime, who turns out to be the king-pin of the Austrian black market.
Tell-tale line: Harry Lime: What did you want me to do? Be reasonable. You didn't expect me to give myself up... 'It's a far, far better thing that I do.' The old limelight. The fall of the curtain. Oh, Holly, you and I aren't heroes. The world doesn't make any heroes outside of your stories.
An elaborate mystery involving a corrupt police official in a squalid town on the Mexican border and a murder that ensnares a narcotics agent and his wife.
Tell-tale line: Vargas: This isn't the real Mexico. You know that. All border towns bring out the worst in a country. I can just imagine your mother's face if she could see our honeymoon hotel.
Cop Mark Dixon is in hot water with his bosses because of his rough style and tactics. He accidentally kills a murder suspect and tries to frame a known racketeer that he despises for the crime.
Tell-tale line: Det. Sgt. Mark Dixon: Maybe I'd better show you my hand, dream boy.
A young wife is caught in a spiral of deceit, blackmail and murder. Terrified that her psychiatrist husband will learn of her frailty, Ann Sutton attempts to cure herself with the help of hypnotist David Korvo. However, Ann finds herself plunging deeper and deeper into a psychological abyss as Korvo, with a diabolical plan of his own, manipulates her subconscious mind.
Tell-tale line: David Korvo: You were wise not to tell your husband, Mrs. Sutton. A successful marriage is usually based on what a husband and wife don't know about each other.
A psychopathic criminal with a mother complex embarks on the prison break of a lifetime in this chilling tale that features one of the most riveting finales in movie history.
Tell-tale line: Cody Jarrett: Made it, Ma! Top of the world!
When a conservative middle-aged professor engages in a minor dalliance with a femme fatale, he is plunged into a nightmarish quicksand of blackmail and murder.
Tell-tale line: Richard Wanley: There are only three ways to deal with a blackmailer. You can pay him and pay him and pay him until you're penniless. Or you can call the police yourself and let your secret be known to the world. Or you can kill him.