As the month-long celebration kicks off again, Steph Green offers a pathway into the most morally murky of all movie genres...
There’s something deeply satisfying about hunkering down with a sexy, dark-hearted film noir in November, cigarette smoke swirling around the screen, soft rain falling outside. With plot gymnastics to avoid the harsh slap of Hays Code censorship laws and shot with moody, impressionistic cinematography, the film noir worlds of the 1940s and 50s were stuffed with vipers and vixens, investigators and criminals, love and betrayal. Before the saccharine joys of Christmas, the genre offers up the perfect palate cleanser of pessimism.
Twelve years ago, film critic Marya E. Gates created the term “Noirvember” as a way to unite fans of the genre around the world in a communal, annual challenge which has snowballed into a global film watching movement. The only rule is that you should watch and share your love of noir – so if you’re thinking of joining this year, we’ve collated some of the most fatalistic places to start…
The Gateway: Double Indemnity (1944)
“How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” As scheming villainess Phyllis Dietrichson, Barbara Stanwyck’s role in Double Indemnity is possibly the most iconic femme fatale in the history of cinema. Try and stop yourself leaning towards the screen in a daze as she uses her husky voice to snake-charm Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff into a morbid plot to kill her husband. It’s just endlessly fun to watch two terrible people smoke, scheme and call each other “baby”; a thrilling, sexy blueprint for the genre as a whole.
For more… Detour (1945) is a pint-sized amuse-bouche into the world of film noir
The Beloved: Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Gloria Swanson’s meta performance as an ageing star named Norma Desmond is rightfully seen as one of the most legendary characters in film noir history, if not the most infamous has-been hag of the silver screen – though this is perhaps harsh, considering how much empathy she extracts from you in her ghoulishly great final scene. A sad yet frequently funny tale of faded ambition and high camp, Billy Wilder’s story about hack screenwriter Joe (William Holden) and his leech-like mentality of hubris and hustle makes for a macabre watch, with expressionist cinematography enveloping the film’s central deceit in guilty, nightmarish tones. Along with a whole roster of iconic Hollywood cameos – Buster Keaton, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, to name a few – there has been no greater film about the film industry since. Debauched and divine.
For more… audiences adore the beauty and betrayal in Out of the Past (1947), starring Robert Mitchum
The Essential: In a Lonely Place (1950)
“Me fixing grapefruit. You sitting over there, dopey, half-asleep. Anyone looking at us could tell we're in love.” Swooningly romantic and darkly cynical in equal measure, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place extracts some of Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame’s finest performances. What sounds like a pulpy premise – a woman suspecting that her new boyfriend is a murderer – gestates into something heavy and hardboiled, with Bogie at his most bruised, vulnerable and dangerous as washed-up screenwriter Dix. There’s a pitch-black edge here, a streak of real malice, that makes this feel more raw and devastating than any other noir: a dark peep into the way men fail and then flail in the face of their most violent instincts.
For more… Shadow of a Doubt (1943) sees Alfred Hitchcock perfectly capturing the genre’s powerful paranoia in suburbia
Personal Favourite: The Big Heat (1953)
Cops, crime syndicates, corruption: The Big Heat has it all. Considering he was a pioneering figure in the German expressionist style much of film noir cribs from, it’s little surprise that Fritz Lang made a series of damn good noirs himself, and this is his best: a thrilling, action-packed and pathos-laden tale of murder and suspense. Glenn Ford is ice-cool as homicide detective Dave Bannion, taking on the bad guys in scenes of escalating danger. But the depiction of women in crime is also great here; Gloria Grahame’s “we’re sisters under the mink” line is an all-timer – and despite the central plot, the film is fascinating in its exploration of the psychological toll of being a “gangster’s girl” in a world full of men.
For more… twists, turns and electrifying chases abound in Carol Reed’s classic The Third Man (1949)
The Underseen: Sudden Fear (1952)
Surprisingly elegant considering its rather rote woman-in-distress narrative, Joan Crawford rightfully scooped her third Best Actress nomination at the Oscar for her performance as a successful playwright who falls for the devilish charms of an actor she rejected for a role in her new play. Despite these accolades and high regard, it’s often left out of the film noir conversation in favour of more famed gumshoe-type narratives. Don’t miss this: the way Jack Palance, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, manipulates his way into Myra’s world is skin-crawling, and the resulting paranoia is headily crafted by director David Miller.
For more… Lizabeth Scott is one of the most contemporarily overlooked noir stars, as proven in the devilish Too Late for Tears (1949)
The One in Colour: Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Not all film noirs need to skulk in the shadows – they can be just as atmospheric in the harsh light of day. As a deranged femme fatale with daddy issues, Gene Tierney’s Ellen is a memorably nightmarish black widow who allows her own neuroses and jealousy to spill out into acts of shocking cruelty, all with a red-lipsticked smile and perfectly pressed skirt suit. With Gone Girl-esque machinations, she manipulates married life with her new husband to her exact requirements; the melodrama unfurls to skin-crawling tension, with murder only the start of her plans. Lensed in lush Technicolour, the bucolic lakeside setting belies a hidden psychological horror.
For more… Alfred Hitchcock's endlessly influential Vertigo (1958) is the G.O.A.T.
The Late Masterpiece: Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
A jarring, dreamlike turn that fuses the plot of film noir with the effortless Gallic cool of the French New Wave, Elevator to the Gallows was released just as the genre’s popularity was waning stateside, but melding with global genres to intriguing effect. Twenty-four-year-old Louis Malle’s debut feature – ensconced in cigarette smoke and ineffable style – sees Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet play lovers who plot to murder the former’s husband, later separated after the scheme is botched. There’s throat-clenching tension aplenty in these scenes, overlaid by Miles Davis’ groundbreaking, desolate saxophone score.
For more… The Night of the Hunter (1955) was discarded in its day, but has rightfully been reclaimed as a southern gothic masterpiece