Re: RARA-AVIS: Top 10 Noir Films

From: Brian Thornton (
Date: 21 Aug 2003

At 08:56 AM 8/22/03 +1000, you wrote:
>Hi All,
>I've got some spare cash and I want to fill out my Noir DVD collection,
>probably via Amazon.
>Could everyone provide me with their picks of the best Noir films ever made?
>Then I'll hunt them down.
>I'll also keep a tally and post the results for anyone else who may need

Hi Steve,

GREAT topic! We could debate this for years.

Here are my pics, in no particular order:

1) "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr., Barton McLaine, and Ward Bond. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, adapted for the screen by John Huston. Directed by John Huston. Brilliant. Just absolutely bloody brilliant. Don't miss John Huston's father Walter in a walk-on role as
"Captain Jacoby, the master of the La Paloma."

2) "The Big Sleep" (1946) starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Elisha Cook, Jr., and as the bookstore proprietress, a then-unknown Dorothy Malone. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, screenplay by (among others) William Faulkner (yes, THAT William Faulkner) and Leigh Brackett
(yes, THAT Leigh Brackett). Directed by Howard Hawks. A 'flawed gem,' with Bogart looking (in the words of at least one Rara Avian) uncomfortable as Marlowe, having already owned (and I do mean OWNED) the part of Sam Spade. A then 14 year-old Andy Williams sang overdubs of Bacall's singing number in this one. Great film, though, nonetheless.

3) "The Glass Key" (1942) starring Brian Donlevy, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, and William Bendix. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, screenplay by Jonathan Latimer (who also wrote "The Big Clock"). Directed by Stuart Heisler. Don't let Ladd's name on the marquee fool you. This is Brian Donlevy's movie, the way "The Maltese Falcon" was Bogart's. Donlevy was usually type-cast as the sort of wicked, one-dimensional thug that Bogart spent most of the late 30s playing. "The Glass Key" allowed Donlevy to really show his stuff. His Paul Madvig is big, and burly, rough, funny, hearty, crooked as a snake's back and a GREAT guy. When the Coen Brothers did their somber, self-conscious (and uncredited) remake of this, Albert Finney's turn as the Madvig-type boss was utterly joyless. Someone should have strapped him (and them) into a chair and made all three of them watch both Brian Donlevy and William Bendix (as a joyously sadistic gangster) in the original. Alan Ladd was fine, and Veronica Lake was dull (go figure), but this is Donlevy's movie. A must have.

4) "Murder My Sweet" (1944) starring Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley and Mike Mazurky. Based on the novel "Farewell My Lovely" by Raymond Chandler, screenplay by John Paxton. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Talk about inspired casting. Dick Powell was a song and dance man in Busby Berkeley musicals during the 30s (anyone remember him singing
"Forty Second Street" in "Gold-Diggers of 1933"?) before Edward Dmytryk cast him as the first (and, in my opinion, one of the best) screen Marlowe. Clair Trevor should have won an academy award for her star turn as the femme fatale (an oversight which was remedied by the academy two years later, with her Oscar nod for "Key Largo"). Mike Mazurky was the definitive Moose Malloy.

5) "Out of the Past" (1947) starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Rhonda Fleming and Kirk Douglas. Based on the novel "Build My Gallows High" by Geoffreey Holmes, screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. The film that made Mitchum a star, and gave Douglas his big break. A grim adaptation of a grim novel. It's a great piece of film.

6) "The Killers" (1946) starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, and William Conrad. Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, screenplay by Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks (uncredited) and John Huston
(uncredited). Directed by Robert Siodmak. Talk about an all-star cast. Lancaster's first movie, Ava Gardner's first film as well, William Conrad is positively villainous here, and Edmond O'Brien gives the performance of his career as the insurance investigator piecing together the facts surrounding the killing of a nondescript gas station attendant in a sleep New Jersey town. Hemingway has been mentioned frequently on this list as contributor to the Noir literary tradition, and his short story of the same name is certainly grim. Big credit goes out to the trifecta of Veiller, Brooks, and especially Huston (whose fingerprints are all over this script) who took a great Hemingway short story and fleshed it out into a terrific script. Ava Gardner steals the film. Lancaster's fantastic, stalwart, square-jawed, and all that, but Ava is hypnotic, you can't take your eyes off her. No wonder Sinatra fell...

7) "Chinatown" (1974) starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. Screenplay by Robert Towne. Directed by Roman Polanksi. Yes, Nicholson, is Nicholson, and he's in his element here. However, one of the things about Jack Nicholson that gets lost in all of the sturm und drang about his prodigious talent is that he makes those around him better. For my way of thinking, it's the first-rate script and the ensemble cast who make this one of the greatest films of all time. Roman Polanksi got lucky. All he had to do was sit back and make sure the cameras were rolling. In fact, he had so little to do, that he even inserted himself into the cast (as the thug who slits Nicolson's nose).

8) "The Big Heat" (1953) starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Graham, Jeanette Nolan, and Lee Marvin. Based on the novel by William P. McGivern, screenplay by Sydney Boehm. Directed by Fritz Lang. GREAT direction by Lang (check out his silent masterpiece "Metropolis", too, now that it's been restored. It's worth a look), Ford is solid, Gloria Graham is riveting, Jeanette Nolan is hiss-at-you venomous, and Lee Marvin is unforgettable in his first really big break as an actor. Great film.

9) "Farewell My Lovely" (1975) starring Robert Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland, Sylvia Miles, Harry Dean Stanton, Anthony Zerbe, and Sylvester Stallone (in a tiny role). Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, screenplay by David Zelag Goodman. Directed by Dick Richards. I mention this film because even though he was a bit long in the tooth for the part by this point in his career, in my opinion, Robert Mitchum gives the finest screen interpretation of Philip Marlowe of any of the ones I've seen (James Garner comes a close second in 1969's "Marlowe", which was a screen version of Chandler's novel "The Little Sister"). I mean it. Mitchum's Marlowe is the best. Better than Bogart or Powell, and certainly better than Robert Montgomery! The cast is serviceable, Harry Dean Stanton is terrific as a very crooked cop. Check this one out.

10) "Double Indemnity" (1944) starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyk, and Edward G. Robinson. Based on the novel by James M' Cain, screenplay by Raymond Chandler. Directed by Billy Wilder. Everyone who knows anything about Raymond Chandler knows that he had ill-concealed contempt for the work of James M. Cain (who was too busy writing best-sellers to adapt his own work for the screen). He wasn't above taking Hollywood money to adapt it for the screen, though. The end result is worth a look. After all, Billy Wilder is remembered as a great comedic director, but this film serves as a reminder that he was just plain a great director, without qualification or categorization by genre. Edward G. Robinson's work alone is worth the price of at least a rental.

Ok, there you have them, my top ten noir films. Others will disagree with some or all of them, but that's the fun of discussing this stuff! Hope this list helps!

All the Best,


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