Editor’s Note: Max Allan Collins has written over 50 novels and 17 movie tie-in books. He’s also the author of the Road to Perdition graphic novel, off which the film was based. With his new Mickey Spillane collaboration “Lady, Go Die” in great bookstores everywhere, we thought it would be fun to ask him for his ten best films noir. In true noir fashion, we bit off more than we could handle…
We have to begin with a definition of noir, which is tricky, because nobody agrees on one. The historical roots are in French film criticism, borrowing the term noir (black) from the black-covered paperbacks in publisher Gallimard’s Serie Noire, which in 1945 began reprinting American crime writers such as Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Horace McCoy, Jim Thompson, Mickey Spillane, W.R. Burnett and many others.
The films the term was first applied to were low-budget American crime thrillers made during the war and not seen in France till after it. The expressionistic lighting techniques of those films had as much to do with hiding low production values as setting mood. In publishing circles, the term has come to replace “hardboiled” because it sounds hipper and not old-fashioned.
I tend to look at dark themes and expressionistic cinematography when I’m making such lists, which usually means black-and-white only; but three color films are represented below, all beyond the unofficial cut-off of the first noir cycle (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955). Mystery genre expert Otto Penzler has declared private eye stories inherently non-noir; well, no one can be right all the time.
Here they are. The Ten Greatest Films Noir:
10. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Yes, I know I’m supposed to prefer Billy Wilder’s James M. Cain adaptation, Double Indemnity (1944), but that film is cold at the center, and classic Cain generates heat. For me, most great films noir are love stories – as you can see by the full list – and director Tay Garnett offers us John Garfield at his roughneck best loving Lana Turner in virginal white.
Theirs is a story of lust so large, the smallness of their greed pales. The American dream of Cain is always writ small (kill a husband, gain a diner) and this film gets that.
9. Pickup on South Street (1953)
Director/screenwriter Sam Fuller was a tabloid filmmaker, and his films throb with emotion – love, hate, action, violence, as he himself put it. His independent films can seem raw and primitive, but when a studio job didn’t inhibit his individual style, he could come up with a moody, energetic noir like this.
Sneering Richard Widmark is a self-centered pickpocket who accidentally lifts some “commie” secrets from hooker Candy (Jean Peters), one of two women who will redeem him. The other is the sad mother figure Mo (Thelma Ritter), whose death scene is Fuller at his best, ridiculous yet moving, corny yet deeply felt.
8. The Killers (1964)
Don Siegel, the great B movie director who became Clint Eastwood’s go-to-guy, made what would have been the first made-for-TV movie had it not been found unredeemably violent. Instead it went to theaters, where among the minds it warped were my own. The overlit Universal Studios look makes this no less a noir. With the barest nod to the credited Hemingway story, contract killers in Ray-Bans (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) kill racing driver Johnny North (John Cassavetes). As the killers attempt to get paid, flashbacks depict the heist that femme fatale Angie Dickinson got North into.
The bad guy is Ronald Reagan.
7. Born to Kill (1947)
From the director of The Sound of Music comes this bleak yet riveting noir. Greedy dame Helen Trent (Claire Trevor, who manages to seem self-assured and needy) falls for homicidal maniac, Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney, whose real-life menace leaps off the screen).
The most sympathetic character is another killer, an apparent homosexual buddy of Wild’s (perennial nebbish Elisha Cook, Jr.), while the detective in the piece is a sleaze (smarmy Walter Slezak). Helen’s admirable beau and her nice sister are boring sods.
We’re trapped – and compelled – into rooting for psychopath Wild and the sociopath Helen. The amorality here is right out of Jim Thompson.
6. Nightmare Alley (1947)
Like James Stewart, Tyrone Power came back from combat a changed man. The pre-war pretty boy wanted more challenging roles, like the carny “hero” of William Lindsay Gresham’s harrowing novel. Audiences recoiled, but the years have been kind to director Edmund Goulding’s carnival saga.
Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Helen Walker make perfect noir leading ladies for the charismatic, amoral Power as he uses charm and a gift of gab to climb from sideshows to a nightclub psychic act, ultimately staging a cruel con. Though some complain that the ending is softened, this film remains a disturbing, unflinching look at sawdust life.
5. Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Wonderful as The Maltese Falcon (1941) is, somehow it seems too A-list Warner Bros. to be a noir; likewise the confusing The Big Sleep (1946). And in both cases the star power of Bogart overwhelms the literary detective. But in this version of Raymond Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely,” Dick Powell – battling his boy crooner image – has just the right worldweary touch of tough guy mingled with the requisite wise-ass to become the definitive screen Phillip Marlowe.
Just watch him light a match off the ass of a cupid statue.
And director Edward Dmytyrk brings Chandler’s poetic prose to life via outrageous noir expressionism.
4. Chinatown (1974)
Screenwriter Robert Towne’s interest in the corrupt history of 20th Century Los Angeles resulted in one of the great private eye stories. Though Towne nods to Chandler, his Jack Gittes – tailored for pal Jack Nicholson – is Phillip Marlowe’s opposite, a slick, self-interested divorce dick. Again at the heart of a great noir is a tragic romance, that of Gittes and client Evelyn Mulwray (perhaps Faye Dunaway’s finest performance), amplified by director Roman Polanski’s insistence on a dark ending.
The classic Jerry Goldsmith score was written quickly to replace a lesser one. Nicholson teamed with Towne on the much underrated coda, The Two Jakes (1990).
3. Vertigo (1958)
Hitchcock’s masterpiece, little appreciated on its initial release, is another private eye story, though few notice that. James Stewart, that light leading man whose wartime combat turned him into a haunted figure, is caught up in a maelstrom of intrigue and romance when he makes the mistake of falling for his client’s wife, Kim Novak.
What seems a supernatural tale takes an all too real turn into tragedy, and that’s only the start. Light on dialogue and heavy on hypnotic filmmaking, Vertigo finds Hitchcock – aided and abetted by composer Bernard Herrmann – at the top of his devious game.
Stewart and Novak deliver career-best, heart-felt performances.
2. Gun Crazy (1950)
Surpassing even Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, this is the crowning achievement of great B movie director Joseph H. Lewis, master of the extended take. Bart Tarre (John Dall) is obsessed with guns…and with carnival sharpshooter Annie Laurie (Peggy Cummins). His tortured love for the gleaming-eyed psychopath, and their mutual lust, provides the engine of a violent road trip punctuated by robberies staged audaciously by Lewis and his outlaws.
Is there a more wonderful noir moment than when the lovers drive off in separate directions, to protect themselves, only to turn around and fly into each other’s arms, embracing their doom?
1. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
The unofficial end of the first noir cycle is a dizzying expressionistic fever dream that accurately conveys the feel of a vintage Mike Hammer novel while at the same time attempting to criticize Mickey Spillane. Ralph Meeker as Hammer seeks the “great what’s it,” an atomic box containing unspeakable wealth and horror.
Around him are a quirky bevy of beauties, notably Maxine Cooper as Velda (Hammer’s secretary, lover and conscience), Gaby Rodgers as angel of death Lily Carver, and Cloris Leachman as Christina, the naked hitchhiker whose murder Hammer seeks to avenge even as he wonders, “What’s in it for me.”
Supplementary List: The Asphalt Jungle (1950); The Big Heat (1953); The Big Combo (1955); T-Men (1947); Laura (1944); Knock on any Door (1949); Out of the Past (1947); Detour (1945); White Heat (1949); Touch of Evil (1958); Sunset Blvd. (1950)
What makes your list?
Check out Cole’s October 2011 interview with Collins.