Not long after the very first National Classic Movie Day Blogathon, I wrote a post on my top 5 Film Noirs. A month later I lengthened it to ten (#6 and 8 would no longer have any chance of being on that list). However, at the time, I had hardly seen any, as it wasn't particularly my favorite genre - some of them were a little too violent or dark for my taste. As I got older though I discovered that they were actually really good. Like, REALLY GOOD. Becoming a Robert Ryan fan also helped ;) Anyway, without further ado, here are four of my favorite Noirs.
I loved Act of Violence (1948) so much I rewatched it again a month later and took over 300 screenshots (you can see them here on my blog Facebook page - don't go all the way to the end if you haven't seen the movie). On the surface, war hero Frank Enley (Van Heflin) has a great life. He has a beautiful young wife (Janet Leigh) an adorable baby, and is well respected by his community. But when a mysterious man with a limp begins to stalk him, Enley's life quickly unravels and his dark secret is exposed. He confesses to his wife that during his time in a POW camp he became an informer in exchange for food. The man who is following him (Robert Ryan), was his friend Joe, who suffered torture because of Heflin's actions. Joe is out for revenge, intent on killing Enley and punishing him for his actions. Enley tries to run from Joe and even hires a hit man, with the help of a woman he meets in a bar (Mary Astor). Of course, being a Noir, the viewer already knows that Enley is doomed to his fate.
The deft cinematography of David Surtees is a visual depiction of Enley's worsening nightmare. It "shimmers with sunlight" at the beginning of the film and gradual descends into something "straight out of a Freudian nightmare"(Film Noir FAQ, David J. Hogan, p. 343). This is also aided by on-location shooting. The director, Fred Zinnemann, had "learned the value of authentic locations, and this new picture gave him and Surtees a chance to photograph the real LA, where Enley flees and descends into the criminal underworld." This "sense of realism extended to the actors as well. 'No makeup of any kind was used on any member of the cast,' wrote Surtees. 'We tried to maintain on the screen a high standard of skin texture.' This technique heightened the hard set of Ryan's face, with its lined brow and sneering mouth" (The Lives of Robert Ryan, J.R. Jones, p.84-85).
Nightfall (1956) is what I call a "snowy noir." There's something about black and white cinematography and snow that I just love. Also, this film stars Aldo Ray (anybody else think he has a sexy voice? lol). Vanning (Ray) is a commercial artist who has been wrongly accused of murdering his friend while on a hunting trip in Wyoming. Not only that, but he's also accused of robbing a bank. Following from town to town is an insurance investigator for the bank and the two real bad guys, the pistol whipping, trigger happy Red and John (Brian Keith), the brains of the outfit. Vanning meets a model, Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft), at the bar one night and let's his guard down a little. As they exit he is intercepted by John and Red, who intimate that Marie was helping them. He manages to escape and heads to Marie's apartment to confront her but she assures him of her innocence. He tells her his story and then the two of them take the bus to Wyoming to try and find the money that can clear his name. The movie climaxes with an epic shootout/fight involving a snowplow. You can watch it on YouTube. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur(who directed another favorite of mine, Cat People) with cinematography by Burnett Guffey.
In Phantom Lady (1944), a man is accused of murdering his wife. The only person who could provide him with an alibi is a "phantom lady" with an unusual hat. His secretary, Kansas (Ella Raines), sets out to clear his name. I was blown away when I first saw this movie and Raines became an instant favorite. Rather than me try and describe it, please just do yourself a favor and watch it.
Elwood Bredell was selected as cinematographer. He was advised by director Robert Siodmak to "study Rembrandt's paintings as an example of how dark shadows could attract the eye of the viewer toward a certain portion of the composition." There is a "contrast between the bright, well-organized business world inhabited by Carol and her boss and the city's distorted, menacing underworld, as Carol slides even further down the rabbit hole," and a "nightmarish atmosphere through highly stylized moments, rich textures, and claustrophobic settings... Siodmak favored low-key lighting, which would lend itself to sharply contrasting shadows and large areas of black" (Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, The Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock, Christina Lane, p. 147-148).
Nobody Lives Forever (1946) stars one of my favorite actors, the ever-troubled John Garfield. It is unusual in that much of the film takes place in the sunlight instead of the typical Noir darkness and on the beach instead of the city streets. Even then, the dark scenes are shrouded in mist instead of bathed in garish neon lights.
I'm going to cheat a little here and link up a post I wrote on the film several years ago. There are lots of great screenshots on the post.