As I work my way though the vast, shadowy world of film noir, I’m enjoying the discovery of so many obscure titles as well as international film noir, so you really won’t find many of the more famous noir titles here (although I rewatched many of those this year). What you’ll see is a list of 30 film noir movies I discovered this year for the first time. If the movie is available on a legit DVD or Blu-ray, I’ve linked to it. If not, you can probably find these films “through other means,” as we might say. We can quibble over how we define film noir, and your milage may vary, but all of these films are at least noir-stained. I hope you’ll find something new to discover in the year ahead. (Also check out last year's list.)
The Well (1951) Russell Rouse
I was delighted to finally get to see this film (and the next two titles) at Noir City 17 in San Francisco in January. The story of a young black girl who gets trapped in a well may not seem very noir-ish, and maybe it’s not, but it’s an effective - and important - film you should see if you get the chance.
The Scarlet Hour (1956) Michael Curtiz
Okay, so The Scarlet Hour may not feature the greatest cast in the world, but it is directed by Michael Curtiz, and thanks to the Film Noir Foundation, it screened at several Noir City festivals in 2019. An unhappy marriage leads to a jewelry heist, which - as we might expect - goes wrong.
The Crimson Kimono (1959) Samuel Fuller
Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta play two buddies, both Los Angeles police detectives, both Korean War veterans, and both attracted to the same woman (Victoria Shaw) while working on a murder case. Fuller’s script expertly balances the action of a murder investigation with poignant social commentary. The Crimson Kimono enjoyed a 2017 release from Twilight Time and was included in one of last year’s finest box sets, Samuel Fuller at Columbia, 1937-1961 from Indicator. You can also find it (with no extras) on the Noir Archive Vol. 3 set from Mill Creek that came out earlier this year.
Inner Sanctum (1948) Lew Landers
New York Confidential (1955) Russell Rouse
Richard Conte, Broderick Crawford, Anne Bancroft. Organized crime, a hit man. J. Carrol Naish, Barry Kelly, Mike Mazurki, Celia Lovsky. Do you really need any other reason to watch this one?
Murder is My Beat (1955) Edgar G. Ulmer
Loophole (1954) Harold D. Schuster
Eyes in the Night (1942) Fred Zinnemann
Edward Arnold plays Duncan MacLain, a blind private eye, assisted by his loyal guide dog Friday, in a tricky case involving a woman named Norma (Ann Harding), who believes her former lover Paul (John Emery) is involved with her young stepdaughter (Donna Reed). To make things worse, Paul turns up dead.
Definitely a mystery with some noir elements, but very worthwhile, especially for Arnold and the dog Friday.
Lured (1947) Douglas Sirk
After her friend disappears, Sandra (Lucille Ball), a dancer living in London, is approached by police investigator Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), who suspects her friend has been abducted by a serial killer via personal ads in the newspaper. Temple asks Sandra to help him catch the killer by answering one of the killer’s ads. A remake of a 1939 Robert Siodmak French film Pieges (or Personal Column), Douglas Sirk’s Lured is an effective noir more people should see.
Silent Dust (1949) Lance Comfort
Mr. Denning Drives North (1952) Anthony Kimmins
Mr. Denning Drives North has a lot in common with Max Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment (1949): Tom Denning (John Mills) is very concerned that his daughter Liz (Eileen Moore) is dating an older man (Herbert Lom) with a sketchy past. Denning’s interference leads to a tragic accident that he seeks to cover up. It seems Denning has succeeded, but then the unfortunate happens… Kimmins also directed The Captain’s Paradise, which appeared on my Discoveries of the 1950s list. You may not drive out of your way (Sorry, that was terrible…) to see Mr. Dennings Drives North, but if you run across it, it’s worth 93 minutes of your time.
M (1951) Joesph Losey
I put off watching this film for years, perhaps decades, thinking it was a waste of time to remake Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic. Boy, was I wrong… The story is the same: Both the police and the criminal underworld seek to capture a child killer (David Wayne) in Los Angeles. (Oddly enough, both the 1931 and the 1951 versions were produced by the same man, Seymour Nebensal.) This 1951 version is, if not as powerful as the original, at least pretty close, plus it’s arguably David Wayne’s finest performance. Don’t be a dope like me: See it as soon as you can.
Quai des Orfèvres (1947) Henri-Georges Clouzot
Pianist Maurice (Bernard Blier) and singer Jenny (Suzy Delair) eek out a living playing in a music hall in post-WWII Paris. One night Maurice sees his wife getting a little too friendly with an older man named Brignon (Charles Dullin) and follows him to his home to settle the score. When Maurice arrives, he discovers Brignon’s already been killed by someone else. Good stuff. There’s a Kino Lorber Blu-ray coming in February 2020, but if you simply can’t wait, you can pick up a Region B Blu-ray from StudioCanal right now.
Panique (1946) Julien Duvivier
More French mayhem. Julien Duvivier’s first film after returning to France from Hollywood finds femme fatale Alice (Viviane Romance), just released from jail, meeting her lover Alfred (Paul Bernard), who’s recently murdered a woman in a Paris suburb. Believing that elderly Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon) witnessed the murder, Alice sets out to discover just how much he knows, but the elderly gentleman thinks she’s attracted to him. Don’t miss this one, especially on the new Criterion Blu-ray.
The next three films are all available on Nikkatsu Noir, the Eclipse Series 17 DVD set from Criterion (which I highly recommend). The Nikkatsu studio, in response to the very popular American and French crime films, created some wonderful black-and-white Japanese noir, all of which are essential viewing:
I Am Waiting (1957) Koreyoshi Kurahara
Yujiro Ishihara plays a former boxer who meets a club singer named Saeko (Mie Kitahara), a woman on the verge of ending it all. Hoping to hide her out from the gangsters who aren’t exactly overjoyed at her leaving her job at the gangster-controlled cabaret, the boxer is forced to confront something worse than he ever faced in the ring.
Take Aim at the Police Van (1960) Seijun Suzuki
When a prison truck is assaulted and the convicts inside murdered, the prison guard driver (Michitaro Mizushima) gets sacked for negligence. Disgraced, he seeks to track down the men who killed the prisoners and ruined his life.
A Colt is My Passport (1967) Takashi Nomura
This terrific yakuza film stars Joe Shishido as a hit man caught between two rival gangs. All five films in the Eclipse set (which also includes Rusty Knife and Cruel Gun Story) are solid.
Ransom! (aka Fearful Decision, 1956) Alex Segal
Most people are familiar with the 1996 remake (minus the exclamation mark) with Mel Gibson, but have never seen the original starring Glenn Ford as Dave Stannard, a businessman whose son is kidnapped and held for - guess what? Ransom! When the kidnappers demand $500,000 for the release of the boy, the police chief (Robert Keith) and a local reporter (Leslie Nielsen) inform Stannard that regardless of whether or not he pays, the kidnappers will probably kill the boy. Hearing this, Stannard goes on a rampage and turns the tables on the kidnappers. Or does he? An effective film and one of Ford’s finest performances.
The Garment Jungle (1957) Robert Aldrich, Vincent Sherman
I was pleased to catch this one at Noir City Chicago in September. Lee J. Cobb stars as Walter Mitchell, owner of a New York garment factory who fights tooth and nail to prevent unionization, despite the wishes of his employees. Mitchell hires gangster Artie Ravage (Richard Boone, in top form) to keep the employees in line, but Mitchell’s son (Kerwin Matthews) becomes one of the leading agitators for the factory workers, also becoming close friends with one of the union organizers (Robert Loggia). More drama than noir, The Garment Jungle still packs a powerful punch with some great performances.
Assignment: Paris (1952) Robert Parrish, Phil Karlson
I’ll watch anything Phil Karlson is associated with, even though he was fired during the filming of this movie. I’m not sure how much of Karlson’s work survives, but this Cold War newspaper noir has a lot going for it, including Parisian and Hungarian locations. Dana Andrews plays Jimmy Race, an aggressive reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune, sent to the newspaper’s Paris office, where editor Nick Strang (George Sanders) sends him to interview the Hungarian ambassador. The problem? Race gets framed on an espionage charge. Assignment: Paris also stars Märta Torén and Audrey Totter and is available on the Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944-1954 release from Mill Creek.
Desert Fury (1947) Lewis Allen
Desert Fury is a film I’d been trying to see for years, so I had no qualms whatsoever about a blind buy of the Kino Lorber Blu-ray. Here’s why: Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) and Johnny Ryan (Wendell Corey, in his film debut) play two hoodlums who find themselves in a desert town outside of Reno, where Eddie’s ex-girlfriend Fritzi (Mary Astor) runs the Purple Sage casino. This time around, Eddie’s more interested in Fritzi’s rambunctious daughter Paula (Lizabeth Scott). The local lawman Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster) wants to run the two hoodlums out of town, mainly because he’s in love with Paula. Desert Fury contains several interesting elements: (1) it’s in color, (2) it has a female protagonist, and (3) it suggests Eddie and Johnny were something more than friends. Some claim Desert Fury isn’t a film noir at all while others embrace it warmly. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray contains an excellent commentary by Imogen Sara Smith. I also reviewed the film for The Dark Pages earlier this year.
Nora Prentiss (1947) Vincent Sherman
No abras nunca esa puerta (Don’t Ever Open That Door, 1952) Carlos Hugo Christensen
No abras nunca esa puerta may be my favorite film noir discovery of 2019. Based on two works of short fiction by Cornell Woolrich, this two-story anthology film features a door as its central character, separating its protagonists from evil choices. In the first segment, "Alguien al teléfono,” a man (Ángel Magaña) seeks to avenge his sister’s death after she commits suicide due to her enormous gambling debts. This is a fine story, but the film really takes off in the second and final segment, "El pájaro cantor vuelve al hogar,” with Roberto Escalada as a an ex-convict who returns home to his blind mother, who believes he has reformed. (Hint: He hasn’t.) I won’t spoil it for you, but the cornerstone of the film is a terrific silent scene involving the blind woman. Unfortunately I could only find the film on YouTube without English subtitles, but don’t let that stop you from watching.
Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) William Castle
William Castle would find his groove and true life calling in the horror genre about a decade later, but before then, he spent a significant amount of time directing crime pictures (one of which you’ll read about in a few moments). Johnny Stool Pigeon is a fun one with a great cast. Howard Duff plays George Morton, a narcotics agent who goes to Alcatraz to enlist the help of Johnny Evans (Dan Duryea), a man he helped put away. Morton wants Johnny to join him for an undercover sting operation that will bust up a heroin smuggling ring. The film is combination of compelling action and business-as-usual moments, but you’ve also got Shelley Winters, John McIntire, Leif Erickson, Barry Kelley, and Tony Curtis (billed as Anthony Curtis). You’ll probably have to watch this one on YouTube.
Wide Boy (1952) Ken Hughes
No, it’s not a movie about a fat kid, but rather a British noir well worth watching. In fact, after a short review of the film for Noirvember, I also recommended a number of other Brit noir titles.
The Whistler (1944) William Castle
I was dumbfounded to discover (thanks to Letterboxd) that William Castle was my most-watched director in 2019. Yet I have no regrets and offer no apologies. The Whistler begins an eight-film Whistler series from Columbia Pictures, all but one of which starred Richard Dix. Yet Dix doesn’t play the title character; no one does. (Hmmm…. I’ll leave you to discover this for yourself.) Dix plays a businessman who can’t live without his wife, who just passed away. He hires a hit man to help him end it all, but later has a change of heart. Yet he discovers that the hit is something he can’t undo.
If you continue in the series, know that Dix plays a different character in each film. From what I’ve heard, this is not the best film in the series, but even so, it was a fun watch. You can find the films on YouTube or on other websites, as well as various DVD releases, the best of which is available from Sony. As far as I know, you can’t purchase them as a complete box set, but if anyone knows otherwise, please let me know. (The Whistler was also a popular radio show with over 235 hours of broadcasts.)
The Naked Alibi (1954) Jerry Hopper
Screaming Mimi (1958) Gerd Oswald
Man, what a weird movie… I don’t think I can top the description given by Remy Dean at Medium: “An exotic dancer (Anita Ekberg) witnesses a man getting shot moments after he tries to knife her in a shower, so she goes to a psychiatrist (Harry Townes) for therapy, who falls in love with her and takes over her life…” Screaming Mimi features amnesia (the all-time #1 malady of film noir), psychoanalysis, murder, a fierce dog, a strange statue, Burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, and, of course, the curvaceous Anita Ekberg. It’s become quite a cult film, very much worth seeking out, not only for the weirdness, but also for the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Burnett Guffey. Ekberg would become a worldwide phenomenon two years later in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but that was probably a cakewalk compared to what she’s asked to do in Screaming Mimi. Check it out.
The Big Bluff (1955) W. Lee Wilder
(The Big Bluff is not to be confused with the 1933 German comedy of the same name.)
I spent so much of this film yelling out loud, “Lee Wilder! Why didn’t you ask your brother (Billy Wilder) how to frame this shot???” W. Lee Wilder’s ultra-low budget venture stars John Bromfield as Rick De Villa, who wants to split town with his married lover Fritzi Darvel (Rosemarie Stack), but he’s out of money. Ah, but Rick meets a terminally ill high society girl named Valerie Bancroft (Martha Vickers) whom he can woo, clean out her bank account, and then dump. Let me be honest: This isn’t a very good film (and the DVD transfer is terrible), but you should watch it for Martha Vickers and the film’s nifty ending.
Christmas Holiday (1944) Robert Siodmak
After receiving a Dear John letter on Christmas Eve, just before flying home, dejected U.S. Army Lieutenant Charlie Mason (Dean Harens) meets a beautiful New Orleans club singer named Jackie (Deanna Durbin), who diverts Charlie’s depression by telling him her troubled story (in flashback, of course): Jackie’s husband Robert Manette (Gene Kelly) is in jail for murder, ruining her life as a result. It’s not his fault, but having seen Gene Kelly’s later musicals first, I have a hard time buying him as a noir character (I had the same problem with the 1950 film Black Hand.) The ending is hokey, but Siodmak does some great work and Deanna Durbin is quite good. You can find it on YouTube.
As I mentioned earlier, I saw many more film noir titles from the classic era for the first time this year, but these were the most enjoyable. I hope you’ll find a few here to investigate for yourself. And please let me know what film noir gems (or duds) you discovered in 2019.
Photos: Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, Zeus, NY Times, Radio Times, Rare Film, Senses of Cinema, Criterion, The Movie Database, Priced Out, Medium