The Best Discoveries of 2020: Film Noir Part II
Here’s Part II of the noir I watched this year, good or bad. At least one person has taken issue with some of the films I included on Part I of my list. That person probably didn’t read my introduction. This list includes movies that may not be considered film noir by everyone, but at least contain some noir element(s). In a few cases, those elements are pretty thin, but the bottom line is that there’s enough noir elements in these films to get your attention. Some of these are just good films however you categorize them. (And some are just not-so-good films however you categorize them!) Regardless, I hope you’ll find something here to enjoy. (For several of these, clicking on the title will give you more information.)
Madigan (1968) Don Siegel (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
NYC Detective Daniel Madigan (Richard Widmark) and his partner (Harry Guardino) seek to bring in a criminal named Benesch (Steve Ihnat), but Madigan foolishly loses his gun to Benesch, resulting in all sorts of problems, which Madigan seems to have in abundance: He’s in hot water with the police commissioner (Henry Fonda), his wife (Inger Stevens), and more. Madigan is a film that has one foot in classic Hollywood and the other in the emerging New Hollywood. At times it comes across as a TV movie, but at other times it aims higher.
The Madonna’s Secret (1946) Wilhelm Thiele (YouTube)
Thanks to The Nitrate Diva for including this film in a video on lesser-known film noir titles unavailable on DVD and Blu-ray, but which are (at least for now) on YouTube. This odd entry stars Francis Lederer (who sort reminds you of Peter Lorre, only more handsome and more refined) as a portrait artist whose models all suffer the same fate: death. Ann Rutherford and Gail Patrick co-star in this noir/mystery that’s pretty easy to figure out, but contains some fabulous cinematography by John Alton.
The Minus Man (1999) Hampton Fancher (Amazon Prime)
Owen Wilson? Always plays a good guy, right? Well…. I hope you'll check out this neo-noir from 1999.
Ms .45 (1981) Abel Ferrara (Tubi)
This revenge movie could’ve been just another exploitation flick, but Ferrara has more on his mind. Very effective and a great use of New York locations.
The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942) Henri-Georges Clouzot (Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, UK)
Part comedy, part thriller (with a few noir elements thrown in), The Murderer Lives at Number 21 follows the frustrations of residents of the Montmartre district of Paris as they watch a serial killer strike with unnerving frequency. He even leaves a calling card with each new corpse, announcing that "Monsieur Durand" has struck again. Discovering that the murderer lives in a boarding house at No. 21 Avenue Junot, Inspector Wens (Pierre Fresnay) moves into residence disguised as a minister. Thanks to my friend Tim for suggesting this one.
My Gun is Quick (1957) Victor Saville (as Phil Victor), George White (Amazon streaming)
This film noir based on the Mickey Spillane novel contains some of the noir look and atmosphere, but the story, dialogue, and acting are sorely lacking. Kiss Me Deadly this ain’t.
Never Let Go (1960) John Guillermin (MGM DVD)
One of my great regrets in missing Noir City 18 this year was not being able to see a film I’d heard about for a few years, Never Let Go, starring Peter Sellers in a non-comedic role. I thought I’d catch up with the film at one of the Noir City festivals later in the year (we know that didn’t happen), but when I saw the DVD at a used bookstore, I snagged it faster than a booster can jack a car, which is precisely how Never Let Go opens. Click on the title for more.
The Night Holds Terror (1955) Andrew L. Stone (Kit Parker/Mill Creek Noir Archive Vol. 2: 1954-1956 Blu-ray set)
The night also holds exasperation. If you like home invasion stories, this one’s for you. (Also see Blind Alley from Part I of my Film Noir Discoveries post.) John Cassavetes leads a trio of thugs (including Vince Edwards and David Cross) who pose as hitchhikers, then force Good Samaritan Gene Courtier (Jack Kelly) to take them to his home and give them all his money. Since the bank won’t open until the next morning, the thugs have time for lots of shenanigans (as well as bad acting from bad writing). A definite rip-off of The Desperate Hours (a much better film, also from 1955), but it does have a couple of good moments.
No Man’s Woman (1955) Frank Adreon (Amazon Prime)
This one’s worth watching for a marvelous up-to-no-good schemer role played for all it’s worth by Marie Windsor, but the rest of the movie isn’t up to the high standard she sets.
Ossessione (1943) Luchino Visconti (Noir City International)
My favorite film version of The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Pool of London (1951) Basil Dearden (Kanopy)
Basil Dearden films are always worth your time, and Pool of London is no exception. Dan (Bonar Colleano) is a merchant sailor who’s used to smuggling black market items, but Dan and his friend Johnny (Earl Cameron) find themselves in trouble with a gang of jewel thieves. The plot may sound routine, but Dearden is never content to give you a typical drama. There’s much more going on.
Queen Bee (1955) Ranald MacDougall (Columbia DVD)
Joan Crawford is in rare form in this otherwise turgid Southern drama (that’s hardly Southern at all) co-starring Barry Sullivan, John Ireland, Betsy Palmer, Lucy Marlow, and Fay Wray. Queen Bee is sometimes referred to as a film noir, but even though I include it here, I can’t completely go along with that. Watch it for the wonderful Charles Lang cinematography and for Joan ripping everybody a new one.
Race Street (1948) Edwin L. Marin (Warner Archive DVD)
Many thanks to my friend Tim for recommending this one. San Francisco racketeer Dan Gannin (George Raft) and his friend Detective Barney Runson (William Bendix) may be on different sides of the law, but they both want to find out who killed a bookie named Hal (Henry Morgan). Race Street is a terrific little noir that rarely gets talked about, but should. It’s got great cinematography, including some very inventive camerawork (especially an impressively staged musical number) by J. Roy Hunt, plus some nice work from Marilyn Maxwell, Frank Faylen, and others.
Razzia sur la chnouf (1955) Henri Decoin (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
Jean Gabin plays Henri, a tough, no-nonsense guy called in to shape up a large-scale drug operation in France that’s stumbling, earning far less money than it should. Co-starring Lino Ventura, Albert Rémy, and Magali Noël, Razzia is a solid crime thriller that’s fun to compare to American films from the same period. The film played at Noir City International and was released last year on Blu-ray.
The Shadow on the Window (1957) William Asher (YouTube, Noir Archive Vol. 3: 1957-1960 Mill Creek Blu-ray set)
Somehow I missed this one on my Noirvember posts. Little Petey (a very young, pre-Leave It to Beaver Jerry Mathers) was playing outside until he looks through the window of his house and sees three thugs (Gerald Sarracini, Corey Allen, John Drew Barrymore) terrorizing his mother (Betty Garrett). A truck driver finds Petey wandering down the street, clearly in a daze and unable to talk. No problem. The truck driver takes him to the police station where Petey’s dad Tony Atlas (Philip Carey) is a detective. A combination home invasion/kid noir tale starts well, but like many home invasion tales, becomes tiresome while the three thugs terrorize and fight among themselves. Mathers, however, is very good.
She Played with Fire (aka Fortune is a Woman, 1957) Sidney Gilliat (Noir Archive Vol. 3: 1957-1960 Mill Creek Blu-ray set)
Director Sidney Gilliat has had his ups (Green for Danger, 1946) and his downs (Endless Night, 1971), but She Played with Fire lands somewhere in the middle. More mystery than noir, a man named Moreton (Dennis Price) claims a fire damaged several of his works of irreplaceable art. An insurance investigator named Branwell (Jack Hawkins) suspects something fishy, but unexpectedly meets Moreton’s wife Sarah (Arlene Dahl), Branwell’s ex-girlfriend. Things get a bit convoluted, and the ending lacks power, but Hawkins and Dahl are good.
Shoot to Kill (aka Police Reporter, 1947) William Berke (Forgotten Noir Collector’s Set 1, VCI DVD set)
Another one I forgot to include in my Noirvember posts, possibly due to it being so bad I tried to forget about it. A newspaper reporter (Russell Wade) seeks to bring down a corrupt District Attorney (Edmund MacDonald) with the help of the DA’s secretary (Susan Walters). Unless you’re a hardcore noir fan that really wants to see everything, you can probably skip this one.
Stark Fear (1962) Ned Hockman, Skip Homeier (uncredited) (ByNWR)
I’d never head of the Nicolas Winding Refn movie project until I saw a mention of it in the recent Noir City eMagazine in an article by Farran Smith Nehme. (See, it pays to subscribe!) Stark Fear is just one of several rare, forgotten, or unknown films available to watch for free. Skip Homeier stars as Gerry, an abusive husband (Homeier? Say it isn’t so!), who blows a fuse when his wife Ellen (Beverly Garland) tries to help them out of their financial straits by working as a secretary for an Oklahoma developer named Cliff (Kenneth Tobey). Things get wild and violent as Ellen learns more about Gerry while finding herself in some frightening situations with some very odd people. Much of the film doesn’t work, but it’s worth a look.
Storm Warning (1951) Warner DVD
More thriller/drama than film noir, Storm Warning certainly has problematic elements, but it definitely worth seeking out.
Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950) Michelangelo Antonioni (Noir City International)
More from Noir City International
The Story of Molly X (1949) Crane Wilbur (YouTube)
Don’t mess with Molly X (June Havoc), the leader of a criminal gang. Who’s on her heels but policeman Charles McGraw. Worth checking out. Click on the title for more info.
Strangers in the Night (1944) Anthony Mann (Internet Archive)
Gothic noir about a WWII veteran (William Terry) who seeks to meet the woman who wrote to him while he was in the service. Thanks to my friends Laura C. and Jan W. for telling me about this one.
Suspense (1946) Frank Tuttle (Warner Archive DVD)
Frank Leonard (Albert Dekker) manages an ice-skating revue featuring his wife Roberta (British Olympic figure skater Belita). When the act begins to get stale, Leonard - desperate to save the show and his venue - agrees to a crazy idea suggested by one of his peanut vendors (Barry Sullivan). Yet Peanut Boy has it bad for Roberta, which could really liven up the show… A much better noir than I was anticipating. This one played on Noir Alley not long ago.
Talk About a Stranger (1952) David Bradley (ok.ru)
Based on a Charlotte Armstrong short story, Talk About a Stranger is another “kid noir” with a good performance by young Billy Gray and outstanding cinematography by John Alton. Click on the title for more.
They Made Me a Killer (1946) William C. Thomas (Alpha Video DVD)
There’s just something about this low-budget noir picture that I like, and not just its unintentional laughs. Click on the title for more.
Time Limit (1957) Karl Malden (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
Man, what a nail-biter! Karl Malden’s lone directorial effort features Richard Basehart as an American officer accused of aiding his North Korean captors while in an POW camp. Richard Widmark is assigned to defend the major, but he knows he’s not getting the full story. Okay, this is more thriller than film noir, but Time Limit is an excellent film with the entire cast at the absolute top of their game.
Time Table (1956) Mark Stevens (Amazon Prime)
(Yes, that's Jack Klugman in a small part from his motion picture debut.) This unjustly overlooked noir about an insurance detective (Mark Stevens) investigating a train robbery has some nice twists and turns, and even though the ending disappoints a bit, it’s solid. You could almost think of it as a poor man’s Double Indemnity, but you may also see it as an offshoot from other noir titles. (Hey, being derivative isn’t always a bad thing.) If you have Amazon Prime, check this one out.
Unfaithfully Yours (1948) Preston Sturges (Library DVD)
Unfaithfully Yours is the first Preston Sturges film I’ve seen that I haven’t loved. Sturges was a master of screwball comedy, but this tale of an orchestra conductor (Rex Harrison), convinced his wife (Linda Darnell) has been unfaithful, is very dark. My disappointment is no doubt tied to my dislike of Rex Harrison as well as my aversion to how professional musicians and conductors are portrayed in film, so I plan to give this a rewatch in the near future.
Vice Raid (1959) Edward L. Cahn (Mamie Van Doren Film Noir Collection Blu-ray set, Kino Lorber)
Bottom line: a tiresome Mamie Van Doren “frame a cop” picture.
The Vicious Circle (1957) Gerald Thomas (Amazon Prime)
Brit noir with John Mills as a man suspected of murder. This one’s pretty easy to figure out and not very satisfying.
Vicki (1953) Harry Horner (20th Century Fox DVD)
This remake of the early film noir I Wake Up Screaming (1941) is really unnecessary, but surprisingly worth watching.
Violence (1947) Jack Bernhard (Warner Archive MOD DVD)
Lesser noir focused on exposing racketeers, featuring film noir’s greatest malady: amnesia.
Whispering Footsteps (1943) Howard Bretherton (YouTube)
A Poverty Row noir worth checking out.
Whistle Stop (1946) Léonide Moguy (Amazon Prime)
This one could’ve, should’ve been better, but it does star Ava Gardner and includes Tom Conway and Victor McLaglen. But then there’s that wooden George Raft performance… Still worth checking out.
A Woman’s Face (En Kvinnas Ansikte, 1938) Gustaf Molander (Noir City International)
Think of this one as a pre-noir starring Ingrid Bergman as the leader of a blackmail gang. This one makes you wish she had played criminals more often.
So between this and Part I, that should give you a few things to seek out (or maybe avoid) over the holidays. I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and wonderful New Year! Stay tuned for maybe one or two more posts in 2020.