By Raquel Stecher
Several years ago Marya Gates, @oldfilmsflicker on Twitter, started #Noirvember, a yearly celebration of all things film noir. It’s a great way for the online community to share their mutual love for this amazing genre of classic film.
For those of you unfamiliar with film noir, it’s a movie genre born out of post-WWII Hollywood and known for its particular brand of storytelling and visual style, the use of light and shadow, the blurring of lines between good and bad, and the depiction of crime, vice, and sexuality. It was given the name Film Noir by French film critics in the mid-1950s.
The heyday of film noir lasted from 1944 to the end of the 1950s and produced some of the best movies ever made. When people give the 1950s a bad rap for being squeaky clean, I point to films from this genre and from others to show naysayers that not everything was white picket fences and family dinners back then.
Let’s take a look at some of my favorite films noir (yes, that’s how you pluralize it!) from the 1950s. And if you want to explore more options beyond the five films I recommend, take a gander at the DVD Netflix Film Noir genre page:
Not only is The Asphalt Jungle one of the best of the film noir genre, it’s also one of the best heist movies of all time. Directed by John Huston, this movie stars Sterling Hayden as Dix Handley, a petty criminal who dreams of going back to the country to buy the horse farm his family once owned. He agrees to participate in a jewelry heist to raise the funds to realize his dream. Also in the cast are Sam Jaffee, the heist’s mastermind, James Whitmore, Dix’s buddy (whom you might recognize from The Shawshank Redemption), Dix’s girlfriend Doll played by Jean Hagen (famous for Singin’ in the Rain) and Louis Calhern as Alonzo Emmerich, a corrupt lawyer who helps finance the heist. And in one of her early roles is Marilyn Monroe, yes that Marilyn Monroe, as Alonzo’s mistress Angela. She has a small but pivotal role in the film. This is a taut and captivating film that grabs you by the collar from the very beginning and won’t let go.
I might be cheating a bit choosing D.O.A. because it’s labeled either 1949 or 1950 (it premiered in December of 1949, but was released to the general public in April 1950). But I like to think that D.O.A. kicked off the new decade with a one-two punch. Right in the belly!
Directed by Rudolph Mate, the film stars Edmond O’Brien as Frank Bigelow, an accountant who has been poisoned and with the remaining time he has left must solve his own murder. If the plot sounds a bit familiar it’s been remade several times as D.O.A. or Dead on Arrival and the 2006 film Crank gives the story a contemporary twist. D.O.A. (1950) was an independent production shot on the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Besides the clever plot device, Edmond O’Brien delivers one of his best performances and Neville Brand is particularly effective as the twisted gangster Chester.
Ace in the Hole is one of those films that gets under your skin. It’s a bit twisted and very intense and keeps you thinking long after the credits roll. Directed by Billy Wilder, the film stars Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a reporter who will do whatever it takes to get his next big story. And I mean whatever it takes. When he learns of a man who became trapped in a cave, he sets out to report on the rescue mission. What would have been a straightforward rescue becomes a more complicated one with Tatum’s meddling. It results in a media circus at the expense of an innocent victim. Jan Sterling costars as Lorraine Minosa, the wife of the victim and one of the most hard-boiled dames of any film noir you’ll ever see. The story’s social commentary on media and corruption makes this film timeless.
The Big Heat is one of those films that I need more excuses to recommend to people because it’s just that good. Not only is it one of my favorite Fritz Lang films, it’s also in my top 10 of the film noir genre and one of the best revenge stories EVER. Glenn Ford stars as homicide detective Dave Bannion whose been assigned to investigate a suspicious death. When he dives deep into the seedy underbelly of corruption, he becomes a target and his wife is killed. Now Bannion means business. Among the members of the crime syndicate are Lee Marvin as Vince Stone, one of the most relentless and evil gangsters you’ll ever encounter on screen and his girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame). When Vince wrongs Debby, she and Bannion team up to see that justice is served.
We are lucky to live in a world where The Night of the Hunter came into existence. It truly is one of the finest films ever made, and the fact that it’s the only film Charles Laughton ever directed is a downright shame. While The Night of the Hunter didn’t make a splash when it came out in 1955, it’s gone on to be recognized as the masterpiece it is.
The film stars my favorite actor Robert Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell, a corrupt preacher and killer who discovers that his cellmate Ben Harper (Peter Graves) has a stash of money hidden somewhere. After Harper is executed, Powell infiltrates Harper’s world, tricking Harper’s wife Willa (Shelley Winters) into thinking he’s an upstanding gentleman. But Harper’s kids John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) know better and along with the help of the sweet yet tough as nails elderly woman Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) they try to escape Powell’s evil machinations. The showdown scene between Powell and Gish is quiet, haunting and gives me goosebumps every time.
Raquel Stecher has been writing about classic films for the past decade on her blog Out of the Past. She attends the TCM Classic Film Festival as well as other events where old movie fanatics get together to geek out. Raquel has been a devoted DVD Netflix member since 2002! Follow her on her blog Out of the Past or find her on Twitter @RaquelStecher and @ClassicFilmRead, Facebook, and Instagram.