Tom Jolliffe offers some must-see noir movies to celebrate Noirvember…
It’s November, also known in some film circles as Noirvember. To celebrate the genre of film noir as well as the neo-noir that has evolved some of the classic staples into more contemporary styles, here is a selection of essential film noir. It’s a cold and dark month, perfectly suited to celebrate a genre known for its gripping shadows, murderous plots, femme fatales and brutal approach to crime, life and death.
The third man
Carol Reed’s iconic and groundbreaking film noir has aged as well as anything from the classic Hollywood era. Holly Martin (Joseph Cotton) is sent to investigate the death of an old friend, Harry Lyme. He uncovers a web of intrigue and corruption in Vienna before things take another (and iconic) turn when Lyme (Orson Welles) shows up very much alive.
The film’s Viennese settings certainly lend themselves to big shadows, dark alleyways and atmospheric caverns and Reed’s sleek visuals are utterly resplendent, giving the whole thing a quirky and unsettling feel. Cinematically, this could be the model for classic noir. It’s breathtaking, the plot is still as exciting, the unforgettable finale and Cotton, Welles and Alida Valli are magnificent.
Roman Polanski’s iconic neo-noir was a true throwback to the film noir classics of the time. A murder mystery set in the 1930s, as a morally ambiguous PI (and former Frisco Chinatown detective), Jake Gittes takes on a simple spy job that turns into murder, intrigue, corruption and dark family secrets. It’s possibly one of the best scripts ever committed to a film (Robert Towne), while the performances of Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in particular are superb. It’s a stone cold classic.
The Maltese Falcon
This iconic film noir, based on equally iconic source material (Dashiell Hammett’s book of the same name), is the epitome of what a film noir can be. The plot twists and turns, with a slew of dangerous and infamous characters (among them, Peter Lorre). Our effortlessly cool detective at the center of danger is Sam Spade, played by the inimitable Humphrey Bogart. The book almost wrote the book on dark fiction. The film did the same for film-noir in cinema.
Michael Mann has become synonymous throughout his career with neo-noir classics, with Heat being particularly emblematic. It all started with Thief, a moody, neon-soaked thriller about a sure-fire cracker looking to earn enough to retire to his dream life. James Caan as our titular thief never looked better in a role that played to his badass strengths, while maintaining an undercurrent of philosophical depth. The thief keeps a photo collage of his “dream” life, as a constant reminder of what he’s looking for, picking up Tuesday Weld (she’s also stunning) in his ambitions along the way.
Thief is brilliantly written with razor-sharp dialogue. Meanwhile, Tangerine Dream’s dripping visual style and heart-pounding score bring the gripping safecracking sequences to life. Mann had a painstaking attention to detail, often wanting an intense level of realism about how the cops and robbers in his films operated. We have seen this in Heatwith the forensic sequences in man hunter (which strongly inspired ITUC) and it all started here with the array of tools that Caan and his Jim Belushi cohort use to take down scores. Mann wonderfully captured the rugged determination and sweat required to crack a safe.
SEE ALSO: James Caan’s Finest Hour: Thief
It’s still Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. Memento is a brilliantly clever murder mystery that begins with murder and unfolds in reverse, as we discover how Leonard Shelby came to find his wife’s killer. The big thing about the movie is that Shelby doesn’t have a short-term memory, which means her entire investigation has involved leaving notes for herself or, for very important details, tattooing herself. The more we see his investigation, the more we see how easily he can be manipulated, even deceived by himself. Moreover, for a director sometimes accused of aloof and cold characterizations, Memento remains one of Nolan’s most emotionally engaging works.
He may have become more infamous for a leg-crossing scene and near-explicit sex scenes than anything else, but beneath these atypically brash moments from shlockmeister Paul Verhoeven, we also see the other side of his cinematic genius. . Primary instinct at the Heart is a classic neo-noir femme fatale story. Sharon Stone as Catherine Trammell is superb. She’s sultry, sexy, intense, and exudes black widow danger as she lures men into dangerous and potentially deadly scenarios.
Michael Douglas plays a detective investigating a murder, with his eyes on her, but she’s smart and evasive. She begins to suck him into her web and he falls right into the trap, one beaver at a time. The film is smarter than you might think, as usual for much of Verhoeven’s work. The lascivious blind spot of the male species, so easily manipulated, ironically dissected (and punished) here. Jerry Goldsmith’s cinematography and score are wonderfully evocative of the classic black period.
Stanley Kubrick’s breakout and somewhat groundbreaking thriller would become a huge source of inspiration for Quentin Tarantino. reservoir dogs. The Racetrack Heist plays out with the fractured timeline as we learn more about how things went wrong. Kubrick’s mastery of craftsmanship, albeit young, is on full display here. It’s a classic black, coming at the end of the genre’s initial period. Plus, it’s so overshadowed by Kubrick’s upcoming litany of classics, that The slaughter is often overlooked.
A hitchhiker assumes the identity of a dead man. A moment of opportunistic madness. He then finds himself blackmailed by an unscrupulous femme fatale. It’s a very supple, yet fast-paced black, stylistically ahead of its time. It also plays with the chronology since our protagonist, a jazz pianist, tells his “detour”. This low-budget B-picture has since become a defining example of the genre. It looks great belying its low budget and is full of striking shadows and a mass of black atmosphere.
It would be remiss not to include a film by one of the masters of cinema, vertigo. A complex, woven plot laid the foundation for the intricate narrative evolution of many neo-noir and crime thrillers. A former detective with a crippling fear of heights (following a work incident) is tasked with performing a simple job and following a friend’s wife, who is subject to strange distractions during the day. She is apparently obsessed with a long-dead woman (who has a tragic history).
John (Jimmy Stewart) becomes enamored with the woman (Kim Novak), having to engage straight away when she throws herself into a river. The beginning of the link. He ends up witnessing her death, unable to follow her to the top of a building (due to said fear of heights). Then the film turns into a tail of psychological breakdown and obsession as he encounters a woman bearing a striking similarity to the recently deceased. Then more twists…vertigofor good reason, has often been counted among cinema’s greatest of all time.
Let’s throw in some science fiction. The story of Steven Spielberg’s murder is particularly interesting. It has very dark visuals and an array of dark and shady characters, among many double crossovers. The interesting part lies in the notion of pre-crime, where film technology allows a criminal to be tried and convicted of murder, before he has even committed it. This opens up a range of philosophical questions about fate and fate versus choice.
Tom Cruise is excellent, and the movie never becomes just another star vehicle. He gives a great performance and the action is always superb. In the 20 years since its release, it has become somewhat forgotten and overlooked (unfairly enough). Minority report remains one of the best science fiction films of the century. This may be the last big blockbuster Spielberg did, especially since he seems to put his best work into more intellectual/intellectual imagery (on things like Loan player one for example). Minority report works super well and intellectually very well though.
SEE ALSO: Noirvember: direct selection on video
What are your favorite films noir (classic or neo)? Let us know on our social media @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and avid film buff. He has a number of films released on DVD/VOD worldwide and several releases scheduled for 2022, including Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray) , Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more information on the best personal site you will ever see… https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/