Best Discoveries of 2021: Film Noir
(Last year's Part I and Part II)
A brief introduction: I watched a fair amount of film noir in 2021, but not nearly as many as I saw in 2020. One reason is that I’m still discovering new-to-me titles, but that list is shrinking. Yet I’m no expert, and I haven’t seen nearly all there is to see in film noir, not even close. I estimate I have at least 200 American film noir pictures from the recognized noir era (1941-1959) I’ve never seen, not counting the international movies. While I have a long way to go, I’ve probably seen all of the big-name noirs, so it’s fun discovering some of the lesser-known or hard-to-see titles.
There’s always someone who takes issue with what I call film noir. (Eddie Muller frequently has the same accusation thrown at him, so I consider myself in good company.) These are all films that are at least “noir-stained,” containing some element of film noir. My list, my rules.
Unlike other lists from my Discoveries posts, this one covers all the film noir I saw (other than rewatches) this year, good or bad. I hope you’ll find something here to check out.
Stolen Identity (1953) Gunther von Fritsch (borrowed from a friend)
Lacking the proper papers, taxi driver Toni Sponer (Donald Buka) has to be careful he never gets stopped by the police. When Toni’s latest fare ends up dead in the backseat from a bullet, he knows he’s going to have to cover it up. Even worse, he takes the dead man’s papers and assumes his identity. But will the killer come back for Toni? And why does the dead man’s lover (Joan Camden) pretend in front of others that Toni is the man she loved? This Austrian-produced English language film noir was produced in two versions, English and German, with different casts (the German edition from 1952 titled Abenteuer in Wein) and directors (Emile E. Reinert for the German version) but this one is worth seeking out.
The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963) Ken Hughes (Network UK Blu-ray)
Anthony Newley plays Sammy Lee, an emcee/comedian at a small London strip club who spends 24 hours trying to repay a loan shark before the inevitable happens. Julia Foster plays a young woman who once met Sammy, was taken with him, and wants to work with him. A gripping crime/noir film from Great Britain that’s still potent. The film is part of The Strange World of Gurney Slade (UK) Blu-ray set from Network.
The Detective (1968) Gordon Douglas (Twilight Time Blu-ray)
Frank Sinatra plays a detective investigating the murder of a gay man, which for 1968, was somewhat controversial, but not as dated as you might think. A darker film than I expected with an excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith.
So Evil My Love (1948) Lewis Allen (Kino Lorber Blu-ray review copy)
Victorian noir with Ray Milland playing both an artist and a con artist, seeking to fleece the owner of a boarding house (Ann Todd). I reviewed this one for The Dark Pages earlier this year.
Cast a Dark Shadow (1955) Lewis Gilbert (Criterion Channel)
The always impressive Dirk Bogarde stars as Edward “Teddy” Bare, who kills his much-older wife Monica (Mona Washbourne) for her money, only to learn that she hadn’t updated her will in his favor. No problem, thinks Teddy, I’ll just try again with another rich widow. But feisty Freda Jeffries (Margaret Lockwood) may be more than Teddy can handle. Cast a Dark Shadow is one of the better Brit noirs, yet rarely discussed. A new release (a double feature with the 1946 noir Wanted for Murder) from Cohen Media Group should help correct that.
The Suspect (1944) Robert Siodmak (Kino Lorber Blu-ray, review copy)
Another period noir, this time set in 1902 London, finds Charles Laughton suffering as henpecked husband Philip Marshall, who befriends a young woman (Ella Raines) looking for employment. When Marshall’s shrewish wife Cora (Rosalind Ivan) dies, everyone believes her death was accidental except for that pesky Scotland Yard inspector (Stanley Ridges). Another one reviewed in The Dark Pages.
The next three films were all covered in a post as well as one of my YouTube videos, which you can see here:
Thunder on the Hill (1951) Douglas Sirk (Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema II, Kino Lorber box set)
The Price of Fear (1956) Abner Biberman
The Female Animal (1958) Harry Keller
Hell Is a City (1960) Val Guest (You Tube)
Stanley Baker is on the right side of the law this time, playing a police detective investigating the death of a young girl. Nice Brit noir co-starring Donald Pleasance.
Abandoned (1949) Joseph M. Newman (Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema III, Kino Lorber box set)
When Paula Consodine (Gale Storm) travels to Los Angeles to find her missing sister, she discovers a shocking secret, with the help of newspaperman Mark Sitko (Dennis O’Keffe).
The Las Vegas Story (1952) Robert Stevenson (Criterion Channel)
Vincent Price can’t wait to get to Vegas with his new wife Jane Russell, but he's more attracted to gambling than Jane Russell. (Big mistake.) A likable but familiar story, made more interesting by the cast, which includes Victor Mature, Brad Dexter, Hoagy Carmichael, Jay C. Flippen, and Will Wright.
Stranger on the Prowl (1952) (aka Imbarco a mezzanotte, 1952) Joseph Losey (Olive Films Blu-ray)
The translation of the Italian title Imbarco a mezzanotte is Boarding at Midnight, which is more accurate, at least initially. Paul Muni plays a man called “the stranger with a gun,” a criminal who’s not really hardened, but rather down on his luck and on the lam, trying to find a boat to take him away from the Italian seaport town where he’s wanted. After accidentally killing a shopkeeper, the stranger runs into a young boy named Giacomo (Vittorio Manunta), who steals a bottle of milk for his poverty-stricken family. It’s almost impossible not to compare this film to Bicycle Thieves (1948), but such comparisons are unfair, although the neorealism is unmistakable. The film often moves rather aimlessly, making its 85-minute running time feel more like two hours. While not a great film, anything directed by Joseph Losey is worth seeking out.
The Man Who Died Twice (1958) Joseph Kane (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
After learning of her husband’s death, nightclub singer Lynn Brennon (Vera Ralston) returns home to find three men fighting on her apartment balcony. One falls to his death, one is shot, and another escapes. It’s a wild opening to a movie that can’t possibly sustain such action throughout its running time, but it doesn’t have to. The mystery of what really happened to nightclub owner T.J. Brennon is compelling, especially when Brennon’s estranged brother Bill (Rod Cameron) comes to investigate his brother’s death. This is a solid noir that should be better known. Thanks to Kino, you can now discover it. (I just hope Mike Mazurki didn't own that jacket for very long.)
Rope of Sand (1949) William Dieterle (Olive Films Blu-ray)
A South American diamond mine provides the backdrop for this tale of greed, revenge, murder… all the things that make for a good film noir. Burt Lancaster plays Mike Davis, a hunting guide hired by a client who ignores Davis’s advice and trespasses into land owned by a diamond company, a property ruthlessly patrolled by the sadistic man in charge of the company’s police unit, Paul Vogel (Paul Henreid, in possibly my favorite Henreid role). Yet after being away for two years, Davis returns for… revenge? More beatings from Vogel? But there’s more: The shifty manager of the company Fred Martingale (Claude Rains) gets seduced (or does he?) by an opportunistic nightclub dancer (Corinne Calvet) while Davis is approached by the sleazy Toady (Peter Lorre), who hopes Davis will cut him in on anything Davis is able to shake out of (or steal from) Vogel. We’re also treated to appearances from Sam Jaffe, Hayden Rorke, and the always-welcome Mike Mazurki. I’m not sure why, but Lancaster supposedly hated this film. Rope of Sand is a noir that isn’t often talked about, but it’s terrific.
I, Jane Doe (1948) John H. Auer (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
Standing trial for the murder of a fighter pilot named Stephen Curtis (John Carroll), a French woman (Vera Ralston) refuses to give her name. Calling her “Jane Doe,” the judge sentences the woman to the electric chair, yet the woman collapses along the way, and soon winds up in the prison hospital, where we learn her story. Amazingly, Curtis’s widow, attorney Eve Curtis (Ruth Hussey), decides to defend Jane Doe. This very interesting courtroom drama is another film that had mostly fallen off the film noir radar, but thanks to Kino, we can enjoy I, Jane Doe. Pair this one with The Man Who Died Twice for a nifty Vera Ralston double feature.
The Fake (1953) Godfrey Grayson (Amazon Prime)
Okay, so this isn’t the most original premise: Someone is stealing priceless paintings and replacing them with fakes. London’s Tate Gallery is the location for this movie, which is more mystery than noir, although it does contains some noir elements. Dennis O’Keefe plays the inspector, assisted by museum employee Coleen Gray. Routine, but enjoyable.
The Web (1947) Michael Gordon (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
A wealthy businessman named Andrew Colby (Vincent Price) is worried. That’s because a man named Kroner (Fritz Leiber), one of Colby’s former employees who went to prison for embezzlement, is about to be released. Colby hires lawyer Bob Regan (Edmond O’Brien) to act as his bodyguard against Kroner. Sure enough, Kroner makes an attempt on Colby’s life, but Regan prevents it. Regan’s the hero, right? Maybe not. Regan starts hanging out with Colby’s secretary (Ella Raines), which is nice, but thanks to some inside info from a cop (William Bendix), Regan begins to think he’s been set up. This is a terrific noir, released this year from Kino Lorber.
Espaldas Mojadas (1955) Alejandro Galindo (VCI Entertainment Blu-ray)
Previously discussed here
Dragnet (1954) Jack Webb (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
I firmly believe Dragnet could’ve been something other than a routine police procedural, several levels above the television show that had been on the air for more than three years by the time this theatrical feature was released. After the killing of a local bookie (Dub Taylor), Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb) and his partner Frank Smith (Ben Alexander) seek to gather information. They get what seems like a reasonable tip that hoodlums Max Troy (Stacy Harris) and Chester Davitt (Willard Sage) were connected to the bookie, but can’t get any solid evidence or much cooperation from witnesses.
This is all pretty standard stuff, but Webb and screenwriter Richard Breen (not to be confused with censor Joseph Breen) pass up an opportunity to explore police methods that border on harassment and more, which would’ve made the film quite edgy for its time. Still, it’s fun to listen to the rapid-fire banter between Webb and the people he’s grilling. I’ll probably watch this again for the Toby Roan commentary, but I was a bit disappointed with this one.
Fly-By-Night (1942) Robert Siodmak (Noir City DC)
This is a fun combination of film noir and screwball comedy that really works. Jeff Burton (Richard Carlson), a young doctor attending a medical convention, finds himself accused of murder and manages to escape the cops with an unwilling partner (Nancy Kelly), both of them searching for the wartime secret behind “G32.”
Shakedown (1950) Joseph Pevney (Noir City DC)
Newspaper photographer Jack Early (Howard Duff) will do anything to grab front-page-worthy pictures, even if he has to ignore the rules or scruples. After a few encounters with (and jobs for) racketeers, Early finds himself in big trouble. Another good new-to-me noir with Brian Donlevy, Peggy Dow, and Lawrence Tierney.
The Beast Must Die (1952) Román Viñoly Barreto (Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Discussed as part of Noirvember 2021
A Life at Stake (1955) Paul Guilfoyle (The Film Detective Blu-ray)
Discussed as part of Noirvember 2021
Chicago Syndicate (1955) Fred F. Sears (Columbia Noir #4 Blu-ray box set, Indicator)
Discussed as part of Noirvember 2021
The Missing Juror (1944) Budd Boetticher (YouTube)
You guessed it: Noirvember 2021
I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948) William Nigh (Warner Archive Blu-ray)
And why not one more from Noirvember 2021?
Woman in Hiding (1950) Michael Gordon (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
Deborah Clark (Ida Lupino) is on the run from her husband. She believes Selden Clark (Stephen McNally) killed her father in order to take control of the father’s mill. Deborah skips town, adopts a new identity, but a bored newsstand worker named Keith (Howard Duff) recognizes Deborah and thinks he can nab the reward for her capture. But things never go as planned. This is a good little noir that almost no one talks about, featuring Lupino and Duff before they married in real life.
Okay, I’m done. So let me know what film noir titles you enjoyed for the first time in 2021.
Next time: My Top 10 covering everything I saw in 2021.