And Now the Darkness: a Film Noir Sampler

Perhaps you’re laughed out by now (especially after reading my “No Time for Comedy” article last week—insert smiley face here).

For me, after movie comedy, my next preferred genre consists of films in the NOIR family. Now of course, if NOIR were a family, it would be a dysfunctional one at that, filled with such disparate types as the wrong man, the vengeful man, the desperate man, the ex-con, the escaped con, the fatalistic man, the femme fatale, the hardboiled private eye, the greedy gangland boss (or financier), the corrupt cop, the innocent female (who represents the “hero’s” shot at redemption), the cackling coot on the sidelines, the naïve, all-too-trusting individual, the poor slob who has “early, untimely death” written all over his forehead and many others If they gathered for dinner, there would be recriminations and accusations a-plenty—along with plenty of snappy dialogue. Perhaps one might even contribute a voiceover (a specialty in NOIR which doesn’t seem to work nearly as well anywhere else) so that an uninvited guest can decipher the relationships and twists and turns of the conversations. And of course there would be the low-key lighting that lends itself to black-and-white—should you want to get a picture.

Since I would want you to conserve your funds (perhaps for the bottle of booze that you’ll want by your side while enjoying your noir feature), many of these films are available for free on YouTube – including ones you might not expect. Here is a very subjective list of some excellent films in the NOIR family that will envelop you in the darkness—gladly—should you desire to.

If you’re a Dan Duryea fan (and who isn’t), there are many Duryea noir classics that can be found on YouTube (many of them also on Amazon Prime—which is free if you’re a Prime member—but there is a yearly fee for that). You can start with The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, two seminal noirs co-starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett (both directed by Fritz Lang). Each has got the trusting soul (Robinson) at the mercy of others who might take advantage (Bennett, Duryea). Both have good dialogue, some good plot twists and satisfying payoffs (including the controversial wrap-up for Woman in the Window). There are some lesser Duryeas that are worth looking at (Larceny, Johnny Stool Pigeon.  But if you’re a Duryea fan, you can’t go wrong with his performance as the slimy private eye in Manhandled (he’s great, the rest is OK) and more importantly Black Angel, starring Duryea as a lovelorn pianist who tries to help a young woman clear her condemned husband. Heartbreaking, powerful—and proof that there was more to Duryea than people originally thought. (And by the way (shameless plug coming) my favorably reviewed book (from Film Comment and Sight and Sound) Dan Duryea: Heel with a Heart is out in paperback this September. End of shameless plug.

John Garfield fans can find two NOIR classics on YouTube. Body and Soul is here in a good print, and it’s one of Garfield’s most popular films and he is in top form as the boxer caught up in a corrupt business. For my money though, the essential Garfield film is Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point and it’s also currently on YouTube (with foreign subtitles, but try to overlook them). Garfield’s Harry Morgan, a fishing boat skipper trying to make ends meet, entering into some shady dealings, and espousing Hemingway’s famous “A man alone ain’t got no chance” It’s also a film that Garfield had a good deal of creative input on, especially as to the shaping of Morgan’s character. Underappreciated at the time, The Breaking Point is a superb film and essential NOIR viewing.

Richard Conte is also well-represented here. You can see the charismatic Conte charming, cruel and sadistic in The Big Combo opposite Cornel Wilde’s determined, plodding, and occasionally hapless detective. The Blue Gardenia, minor but still entertaining Fritz Lang, is also here (albeit under a foreign name—look for Azul in the title). However, you can also find New York Confidential, one of those 1950s crime expose films, and Conte is in good form as a hit man with divided loyalties, alongside Broderick Crawford as crime chief Lupo, burdened with a rebellious daughter (Anne Bancroft), a crumbling empire, and bad digestion. 

Finally, here are two of my favorite corrupt cop films – both films in which a cop takes advantage of his position to murder some poor criminal slob who happens to be carrying a big wad of dough. In Shield for Murder, brutal cop Edmund O’Brien will stop at nothing to achieve the American Dream via a middle-class home in suburbia, while Pushover has Fred MacMurray (ten years past Double Indemnity) falling for gangster’s moll Kim Novak and plotting to relieve said gangster of the ill-gotten gains from a bank job. It’s a film that should be better known—so see it.

Mike Peros
Author: Mike Peros

Mike Peros is an author whose new book, JOSE FERRER: SUCCESS AND SURVIVAL, the first biography of the Oscar and Tony-winning actor, has just been published by the University Press of Mississippi, while his previous book, DAN DURYEA: HEEL WITH A HEART is now available in paperback.