Monday, July 10, 2017

Film Noir Favorites

Poster for "Where the Sidewalk Ends"
Film Noir, a classic film style of the 40s and 50s, is noted for its dark themes, stark camera angles, and high contrast lighting. Film Noir films tell realistic stories about crime, mystery, femme fatales, and moral conflict. Most of these films were considered as low budget “B” movies in the forties and fifties but many are now regarded as ground-breaking suspense classics with great acting performances.***

I was only eleven years old in 1950 but still remember going to the movies every Saturday afternoon. Hardly anyone had a TV back then and the movies were still the favorite form of entertainment. My friends and I would take the bus that stopped at the corner and travel by ourselves to the various local movie houses in Queens. We never thought of venturing into Manhattan. 

Tickets usually cost 25 cents for the first run premier theaters and only 15 cents for less well-appointed second run establishments. In any case, for the money we were treated to a double feature preceded by five color cartoons, a newsreel, and often a short subject. For the price of admission, we could stay in the theater as long as we wanted and see the films over and over. It was a great treat and it never occurred to us that our parents might have welcomed the opportunity to get us out of the house all Saturday afternoon.

The double feature would usually consist of an “A” film or headliner and another film referred to a “B” film because of its lower costs and production values. Today, many of the so-called “B” films are now considered to be film classics while many of the “A” films are practically unwatchable.

Recently, a local man donated his 3000 DVD collection to a local senior center that for want of storage decided to sell them for a dollar apiece. I took the opportunity to buy up a number of favorite films especially those that are usually called film noir, a French expression that derives mainly from their dark subjects and settings.

Below is a sampling of eight powerful film noir films that my wife and I recently enjoyed watching again. They feature some of the leading stars of the era and were done by craftsmen who really knew how to gain and hold an audience. In addition to being good stories they also provide a real window into the past. I put up this post mainly for my older grandchildren so that if they watch them, they might realize that long ago their grandparents were teenagers sitting in dark theaters watching real life dramas of human love, desire, and wickedness.

I like to use the DVDs since they often come with commentaries and other bonus features but most of these can be streamed free from sources like Netflix or Youtube.

Where the Sidewalk Ends: Directed by Otto Preminger, this 1950 crime drama stars Dana Andrews and the beautiful Gene Tierney who had co-starred a few years before in the classic “Laura”, also directed by Preminger. Andrews played a bitter, angry police detective who finds himself in a jam. This film is classic film noir with stark, stunning black and white city nightscapes, and a haunting musical score.

Criss Cross: Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo play star-crossed lovers in this classic 1949 heist drama directed by “noir” specialist Robert Siodmark.  Dan Duryea plays the sleazy villain. One critic calls this film the second best film noir of all time. Lancaster was one of Hollywood’s greatest male stars and this performance was among his best.

 Dangerous Crossing: Jeanne Crain stars in this dark and devious conspiracy driven suspense thriller from 1953. Crain, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful stars ever, played a new bride setting out on a transatlantic honeymoon cruise. But when her husband vanishes, she discovers that not only can’t he be found but also that no one on the ship has any evidence that he was even booked on the cruise.

He Ran All the Way: John Garfield and Shelley Winters star in a gripping hostage drama from 1951. Garfield had a meteoric rise to stardom during the forties, but this film turned out to be his last since he died of a heart attack at age 39 shortly after its completion. In what some consider to be his best performance Garfield played a hoodlum who takes a family hostage after a botched robbery. Filmed in stunning black and white by the legendary cinematographer, James Wong Howe.

Human Desire: Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame star in a 1954 tale of love, lust, and greed directed by Fritz Lang and based on a story by Emile Zola. One of the characteristics of a film noir is the presence of a femme fatale, and Grahame was one of the best. The tense opening montage of a speeding locomotive sets the tone for the whole movie.

Pushover:  This 1954 film stars Fred MacMurray as a police detective who falls for a gangster’s woman who he has under surveillance. The beautiful Kim Novak makes a great femme fatale in her screen debut.

Vicki:  Jeanne Crain searches for the murderer of her glamorous sister Jean Peters in a tense police drama from 1953.  Richard Boone, who later starred as TV's Paladin, plays a creepy cop who turns up everywhere.

Drive a Crooked Road:  Mickey Rooney, the diminutive star of so many Hollywood musicals, turns in a strong dramatic performance as an innocent garage mechanic who is lured by a beautiful customer to join a gang of bank robbers in this 1954 suspense thriller. Diane Foster plays the alluring femme fatale.


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***This post is dedicated to Judy from Maspeth.

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