Underneath this Veronica Lake–Alan Ladd thriller (1946) lies Raymond Chandler‘s only original screenplay—a suitably hard-nosed affair about a war vet whose homecoming coincides with the murder of his unfaithful wife. Though it has the Chandler flavor and occasionally captures the feel of his sunbaked Los Angeles, the film falters under the uncertain, visually uninventive direction of George Marshall—wildly miscast here, when any vaguely sympathetic hack from Stuart Heisler to Frank Tuttle would have been just fine. With William Bendix and Howard da Silva.
Fritz Lang‘s 1956 film was one of his personal favorites, a taste shared by few critics at the time, who never forgave him for leaving Germany and Die Nibelungen. A contest is announced at a New York newspaper: the reporter who catches the notorious “Lipstick Killer” will become the paper’s new editor. The story is a cynical twist on Lang’s famous M: the sex killer becomes the most sympathetic character in the film, as Lang reserves his venom for the desperately competitive reporters, including Dana Andrews, Thomas Mitchell, Ida Lupino, and George Sanders. 100 min.
This paranoid 1965 thriller by Otto Preminger is one of his most darkly poetic and wrenching films, a reflective mid-60s return to the ghostly film noir style he developed at Fox in the 40s. An American woman living in London (Carol Lynley) believes her four-year-old daughter has been kidnapped. The police can’t do much to help because, try as she might, Lynley can’t prove to them that she ever had a daughter at all. Gradually it becomes clear that the subject of the investigation is not the missing child but the absence of love in Lynley’s own life. As in The Human Factor, Preminger approaches the mystery of human irrationality and emotion through logic and detachment; the effect is stingingly poignant. With Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, and Keir Dullea. 107 min.
John Farrow directed this tasteful film noir (1948), which is something of a contradiction in terms; it’s reminiscent of Fritz Lang without Lang’s hysteria. Ray Milland stars as a crime reporter working for a magazine run by Charles Laughton, and his investigation of a murder leads him right to the boss’s office. Farrow creates a coldly threatening atmosphere, mainly through his expert use of the styles and shapes of modern architecture. Not a great thriller, but not bad. Based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing; it was remade almost 40 years later as No Way Out. 95 min.
A superb, too-seldom-seen film noir from 1951. Director Robert Parrish junks the expressionist shadow play that usually goes with the genre, substituting a keen eye for gritty Los Angeles locations and a sharp handling of dialogue. Dick Powell is sent to prison on a trumped-up charge; finally released, he goes looking for the gang boss who set him up. With Rhonda Fleming and Richard Erdman.
Raoul Walsh’s heroes had a knack for going too far, but none went further than James Cagney in this roaring 1949 gangster piece. Cagney is a psychotic punk who sleeps in his mother’s lap between jobs; otherwise, he’s continually in motion, blasting away at cops and bystanders. Pure id, he could be the most unbalanced hero in film noir, yet Walsh’s swift, pounding direction keeps you cheering for him up to the famous ending, which finds Cagney shouting “Top of the world, ma!” as the world he ignited goes up in flames. His own energy does him in: he can’t contain it, and he finally explodes—the film leaves you drained and weirdly exhilarated. With Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly, and Virginia Mayo.
A brilliant 1975 film noir by Robert Aldrich, with all the power of his Attack!, Kiss Me Deadly, and Legend of Lylah Clare. Burt Reynolds is an emotionally damaged police detective searching for his lost motivation in the rubble of an LA shadow world populated by pimps, whores, and killers. Aldrich’s vision of a spreading, inescapable moral corrosion is insidiously depressing when it is not immediately horrifying. The sinister mise-en-scene is compromised only by a few overripe lines from screenwriter Steve Shagan, and Reynolds reveals himself as an actor of depth and complexity.
Alan Rudolph redreams the dream of film noir in this dense, beautifully executed, highly stylized romantic fantasy (1985), about an ex-cop (Kris Kristofferson) who yearns to rescue a beautiful, childlike young woman (Lori Singer) from the influence of her lover (Keith Carradine), a hapless drifter gone bad in the big city. Rudolph’s deft mix of tones, from extravagant black farce to quietly observed psychological realism, gives the film a quirky, compelling emotional rhythm; his use of vivid color and associative editing (horizontal movements within the frame are rhymed or reversed from shot to shot) lends the proceedings a touch of the hallucinatory. The extraordinary cast (it really does have the depth of high Warner Brothers) includes Genevieve Bujold, Joe Morton, George Kirby, and Divine (who, in male garb, plays a mob chief possessed by an ineffable sadness).
An action film for people who don’t like action films, directed in overstated CinemaScope by John Sturges in 1955. Spencer Tracy is a mysterious one-armed man in black who faces down the residents of a small isolated town, whom he suspects of having killed the father of his Japanese war buddy. Spence knows karate, Robert Ryan and the rest of the rednecks don’t; but everybody can moralize like hell.