Our friends at the Classic Film & TV Café created and celebrate National Classic Movie Day on May 16 every year. The celebration takes place across social media, but the main event is a blogathon on a special classic film related theme. This year participating blogs will write about their Four Favorite Noir. Here are mine after much rumination.
Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947)
I start with Out of the Past because for me it is perfect. Interesting story, outstanding dialogue, a great cast, and stunning cinematography make this one a standout.
Out of the Past stars Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas in a terrific thriller/adventure/melodrama replete with crooked characters, double-crosses, and murder. Delicious combinations.
All players are great in this film. Mitchum is Jeff Bailey who starts a new life in a small town trying to get himself out of the past. Jane Greer plays Kathie Moffat (troubled name if I ever heard one) the woman from the past, the femme fatale whom Bailey goes after and falls for. Kathie she is a doozie, one of the most memorable duplicitous dames ever committed to the screen. Jeff Bailey is hired by tough guy, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to bring Kathie back to him. Sterling owns her. She owes him. And because Jeff falls for Kathie a dangerous, complicated, engaging plot unfolds. I cannot take my eyes off the screen for its entirety.
The brilliant Nicholas Musuraca is Directory of Photography for Out of the Past and manages one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. That may not be saying much but I assure you it awes visually and keeps one rooting for the people who forge a web of lies and murder you will not soon forget.
Out of the Past also features Rhonda Fleming, Dickie Moore, Theresa Harris, and Richard Webb.
Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944)
“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died.” That is close to the greatest opening line in movies. It captures you like the portrait of the lovely Gene Tierney as Laura captures the heart of Det. Mark McPherson played by Dana Andrews.
McPherson is looking at the portrait of Laura Hunt after the young woman is found dead with a shotgun blast to the face in her apartment. Among the people McPherson interviews in the investigation are columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) who was Laura’s mentor, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) who is in love with Laura’s fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). All three are eccentric characters and McPherson has a tough job ahead made even more so by his falling in love with Laura thanks to that gorgeous portrait over the fireplace.
Like the other films included here, Laura is a film noir staple with familiar elements of the genre. Laura tells most of its story in flashback with the beautiful Gene Tierney the center of everyone’s attention in life as she does in death. That is all I will say in hopes of not spoiling Laura for anyone who has never seen it.
Laura is the perfect blend of noir and Hollywood glamour with many elements that make it iconic. And I happen to fall for all of it every single time. I promise it is not only because Det. McPherson happens to mention a doll from Washington Heights, and I happen to be a doll from Washington Heights. It is much more than that. Laura is beautifully shot by Joseph LaShelle who won the Best Cinematography Oscar for his work in this. The music is a dream, one of my favorite scores, by David Raskin. It is the high-falutin world of Waldo Lydecker, and those arrogant society people Laura is better than. It is the way Dana Andrews kills the fedora. It is everything about this one.
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944)
I happen to have chosen this same movie for the anniversary edition of The Dark Pages, which also required a favorite noir be chosen. I wish I could leave this Billy Wilder gem off the list to be more original given there are so many great films noir, but in truth it is the standard and I never tire of watching it.
Double Indemnity tells the story of Phyllis Dietrichson, a housewife who is bored by her
old, curmudgeonly husband. Or so it is told by a bleeding Walter Neff, the insurance agent who’s talking into a Dictaphone to open the movie. In flashback we see how Neff met Dietrichson at the home she shares with her husband. Neff was there to sell renewals on the Dietrichsons’ automobile insurance policies. Mere seconds later Neff falls prey to Phyllis and before you know it the two are plotting the murder of Phyllis’ husband. Walter Neff and the viewer never get over that first impression. Everything goes south from there.
Double Indemnity is meticulously directed by Billy Wilder who also co-wrote a hell of a screenplay with Raymond Chandler whose imprint here is the fabulous dialogue. Wilder’s storytelling cannot be touched. The look of the film is memorable thanks to cinematographer John F. Seitz and its affecting music provided by Miklós Rózsa, both contributing to the mood of the film. For my money though, the reason I come back repeatedly to watch this terrific film, is for the actors, three perfect specimens.
Fred MacMurray, known primarily for playing nice guys in romantic comedies up to that point, does a terrific job in Double Indemnity convincingly portraying the noir essential role of the weak, easily corruptible, deeply flawed man who is the perfect partner in crime for a scheming diva.
Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is one of the truly memorable femme fatales.
From the moment we meet her clad in a towel, dressed in a manner that might render most women vulnerable to a handsome stranger, Phyllis takes complete control as she looks down from a position of power she never relinquishes. She is rotten to the core.
As the main threat to the murderous couple, Edward G. Robinson is perfection. His depiction of irritable, funny, big-hearted, insurance adjuster Barton Keyes who has a “little man” who lives in his gut that serves as a warning when some claim seems “off,” is a standout. As wonderful as both Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are in Double Indemnity, Robinson makes the movie. Add to that one of the best bromances you will see in any screen story.
John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
A heist takes place in an unnamed midwestern city by a group of gritty men. The planning and aftermath give character studies not soon forgotten. Each man’s fate is carefully orchestrated and for once a picture offers satisfaction for all elements offered. That is thanks to John Huston’s direction and the screenplay he co-wrote with Ben Maddow, but it is also due to the picture’s stellar cast. There is not a wasted moment or glance. Sterling Hayden plays the lived-in crooked principal to a tee. You can feel the weight of the world that’s on his shoulders on your own. Luck has not graced Dix Handley and he is due. Jean Hagen, whose performance in Singin’ in the Rain two years later cemented her comedic chops, proves her depth as Doll Conovan, the woman who will do anything for Hayden’s Handley. Louis Calhern and Sam Jaffe are outstanding in their respective roles, a lawyer pretending to be rich and straight and a career thief who does not apologize for it. The entire supporting cast is wonderful, including James Whitmore and Marilyn Monroe, two actors of whom I am fond.
If you happen to be a fan of heist movies, then The Asphalt Jungle is an absolute must.The heist here makes my heart want to jump out of my chest while they are committing it despite my having seen the film numerous times. These shady characters are people we connect with, people we feel for even though we do not condone their criminality. They have families, hopes, dreams, and were dealt a dirty hand from the get-go. “Crime is just a left-handed form of human endeavor,” Louis Calhern’s character says, the worst of them because he pretends to be straight, in an explanation of sorts of how an audience feels about these characters. In a sense they are not criminals, they just commit crimes, in part, I feel, because they live in this grim world that gives few a chance to make it. The heartbreaking ending of the picture proves me right there. I think. Anyway, this is a hell of a picture, a masterpiece of noir, of heist, of American film.
For now stay in the shadows and spend Classic Movie Day enveloped in noir. I am confident my four are solid but I cannot wait to read the other entries in the Four Favorite Noir Blogathon. Be sure to visit the Classic Film & TV Café for many more noir favorites, baby.