Nicholas Ray's astonishingly self-assured, lyrical directorial debut opens with title cards and lush orchestrations over shots of a boy and a girl in rapturous mutual absorption: "This boy … and this gir … were never properly introduced … to the world we live in …" A shriek of horns suddenly obliterates all other sound – their shocked faces both turn toward the camera, and the title appears: They Live by Night.
Meet 23-year-old escaped killer Bowie Bowers and his farm-girl sweetheart Keechie Mobley (Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell), in an imaginary idyll of peace and contentment that will never come true for them. Bowie, jailed at 16 for killing his father's murderer, has known nothing but jail, and is still a boy. Having escaped the prison farm with two older bank robbers – T-Dub and the psychotic Indian Chicamaw "One-Eye" Mobley (Jay C Flippen, Howard da Silva) – he feels loyalty-bound to tag along on their crime spree. Keechie is Chicamaw's niece, and soon circumstances force them to lam it cross-country at the same time as they tremblingly discover love for the first time.
Somehow all the planets aligned for Ray, a novice director with an achingly poetic-realist vision of Depression-era Texas and the determination to implement it wholesale: a perfect source novel, Edward Anderson's Thieves Like Us; and exactly the right combination of producer (John Houseman), studio (RKO) and sympathetic studio head (Dore Schary). The result is luminous in its imagery, highly sophisticated in its musical choices (the folk song I Know Where I'm Going succinctly and repeatedly stresses that they don't know anything at all) suffused with romantic fatalism – they'll die by night, too; you know it from the start – and enriched by Ray's total identification with his characters' doomed trajectory. Ray's first masterpiece, and a pinnacle of poetic noir.
Kiss Me Deadly is the black-hearted apotheosis of film noir, and a key film of the 50s, embodying the profoundest anxieties of Eisenhower's America: it ends with the detonation of a nuclear device on Malibu beach and, presumably thereafter, the end of the world itself. Robert Aldrich's moral universe is so violently out of kilter that even his opening credits run upside down. His hero, Mike Hammer, is an amoral, proto-fascist bedroom detective and 1,000% scumbag, but the villains he encounters are far, far worse.
Kiss Me Deadly opens with a woman, naked under a raincoat, fleeing headlong and barefoot down a highway at night. Rescued by Hammer, then un-rescued by her faceless original captors, she dies screaming under gruesome torture with pliers (Aldrich was always at the vanguard in his use of violence). Thereafter, Hammer finds himself on a terrifying hunt through the criminal underworld of Los Angeles, from his gleamingly modern office in posh Brentwood to the dilapidated flophouses of Bunker Hill, as he bludgeons, browbeats, blackmails and brutalises his way inch by inch towards a resolution that will destroy everyone and everything, all in search of the elusive "Great Whatsit" – a deadly, molten, much sought-after package that's grandfather to the suitcase in Pulp Fiction and the Chevy Nova in Repo Man.
Aldrich, a patrician aristocrat and a committed leftist, despised Mickey Spillane's nihilistic worldview and Mike Hammer's Cro-Magnon brutishness, and gave them the adaptation they deserved. Ralph Meeker, who usually played scumbag saddle-tramps and mobsters, bagged the sneering lead role and remains indelibly detestable even today: "Open a window," says one disgusted cop, as Hammer leaves the room. Surrounded by gargoyles and grotesques, even on his own team – he uses his secretary Velma as willing sexual bait – Hammer is a cynic who knows everything about human weakness but nothing about the frame he's in. And it all ends with a bang – the big bang.
Taking its atmospheric title from a line in Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled novel Red Harvest (an allusion never explained), Blood Simple is perhaps the Coen brothers' most straightforward movie, even though it is, ironically, not at all simple. In a manner that would come to be their stock-in-trade, the film is a cacophony of cross-purposes, in some ways a rehearsal for their breakout effort Fargo, which also depicts a nefarious plan gone wrong. It also marks the use of literary genre elements in the "real" world, a formula that would later be refined by Quentin Tarantino.
As in so much film noir, the crux of the story is a case of cherchez la femme. In this case la femme is Abby Marty (Frances McDormand), wife of Texas bar owner Julian (Dan Hedaya). Julian suspects Abby of having an affair with one of his staff, and when private eye Loren Visser (M Emmet Walsh) confirms this to be the case, Julian sets a murder plan in motion. For most directors this would be enough, but the Coens embrace the full-on complications of the genre to create a genuine sense of an "easy" crime spiralling out of control.
One of the first films to cement the nascent Sundance film festival's reputation, Blood Simple isn't so much neo-noir as neo-neo-noir, using postmodern flourishes that still seem bold today. The most vivid is Walsh as Visser, presented more like a cold-blooded Universal Studios monster than a gumshoe, and the non-naturalistic lighting is often at odds with noir tradition, with the brothers allowing brilliant shafts of bright light to puncture the neon-lit dark. Best of all is the use of the Four Tops' It's the Same Old Song as a motif – a neat touch that expresses genre familiarity with affection rather than cynicism.
7. Lift to the Scaffold
Louis Malle's first fiction feature, based on Noel Calef's 1956 novel, occupies a very interesting space. It qualifies as film noir for its appropriation of US postwar cinema in its tale of lovers gone bad, but also heralds the imminent arrival of the French new wave. The director was in his mid-20s at the time and clearly using the crime-thriller genre (something he never returned to) as a testing ground and not a strict template. Perhaps that explains why his film is such a melting pot of influences, drawing not only on Hitchcock but also the Master of Suspense's overseas admirers, including Henri-Georges Clouzot and his Les Diaboliques.
As in that film, the story concerns a conspiracy to murder. Ex-Foreign Legion soldier Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), a veteran of French military misadventures in Algeria and Indochina, is planning to kill his boss, who is also his lover's husband. On paper, the plan is seamless – Tavernier secures his alibis and enters his victim's office unseen, by means of a rope – but things soon get messy. On returning to the crime scene to retrieve a key piece of evidence, Tavernier finds himself trapped in the elevator, leaving his car parked outside with the keys in the ignition.
Although its elements point towards nailbiting tension, this isn't so much what Lift to the Scaffold is about; it draws more on the blanket fatalism of film noir rather than the savage irony so often associated with the genre. Key to this is Jeanne Moreau as Tavernier's lover, Florence; in the film's signature sequence her man fails to turn up, so she walks the streets trying vainly to find him. Filmed on the fly without professional lighting, accompanied only by Miles Davis's brilliant, melancholy score, these few minutes capture the bleak and beautiful essence of Malle's film.
6. The Third Man
"One of the amazing things about The Third Man," Steven Soderbergh once wrote, "is that it really is a great film, in spite of all the people who say it's a great film." He's right. It's one of the greatest, in fact: a witty, elegantly shot and steadfastly compassionate thriller suffused with the dreadful melancholia of the finest noir. It's set in Allied-occupied Vienna, where writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) pitches up at the invitation of his old chum Harry Lime. Except that when Martins arrives, Lime turns out to be dead. At least that's the prevailing wisdom at his funeral.
To say anything else about the mystery that Martins unravels would be to jeopardise some of the zesty surprises of this 64-year-old masterpiece. (Is there a statute of limitations on spoilers?) But then The Third Man is about more than plot. The morally fermented atmosphere of Vienna mapped out by Graham Greene's screenplay (based on his own story) is sustained beautifully by Robert Krasker's cinematography, with top notes of mischief introduced by Anton Karas's sprightly zither playing. An unassuming actor named Orson Welles also puts in an appearance, skulking in a doorway in one of the wittiest of all movie entrances, then delivering a speech full of humble horrors from the vantage point of a ferris wheel overlooking the city.
The key to the picture's genius is undoubtedly the mutually nourishing collaboration between Greene and the director Carol Reed. Seen in tandem with their other films together (The Fallen Idol, Our Man in Havana) there is a strong case to be made for them as one of the finest writer/director teams in cinema. Reed is not only alert to every nuance in Greene's writing but adept at finding pointed visual equivalents for his prose. Back to Soderbergh: "Disillusion, betrayal, misdirected sexual longing and the wilful inability of Americans to understand or appreciate other cultures — these are a few of my favourite things, and The Third Man blends them all seamlessly with an airtight plot and a location that blurs the line between beauty and decay."
5. Out of the Past
No one ever smoked and brooded and loomed like Robert Mitchum. And he never did it as definitively as he does in Out of the Past, a stylish and devastating noir that was one of a hat-trick of perfect genre pieces directed by Jacques Tourneur in the 1940s (along with Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie). Viewers not enamoured of the actor's somnambulant manner might take the latter title for a description of what it must be like to act alongside Mitchum. But that would be to miss the bitter, internalised hurt and wounded hope he brings to his performance here; just because he's still, that doesn't mean he's not suffering.
Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, a private eye hired by Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to track down his errant lover, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who skedaddled after swiping $40,000 of his money. Oh, and shooting him. It may not be any surprise that when Jeff catches up with the fugitive femme fatale, there is a crackle of attraction between them. The seductive skill of the movie lies in its masterful evocation of that sensual, fatalistic bleakness crucial to noir. From Nicholas Musuraca's chiaroscuro cinematography ("It was so dark on set, you didn't know who else was there half the time," said Greer) to Roy Webb's plangent score and the guarded, electrifying performances, it's nothing short of a noir masterclass.
The screenplay was adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from his own novel, Build My Gallows High (the film's UK title). But the sharpened splinters of dialogue also bear the mark of Cain — James M Cain, that is, the legendary author of noir landmarks The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, who performed vital but uncredited rewrites. According to Mitchum's biographer, Lee Server, it was Cain who expunged Kathie of any traces of lovability. "She can't be all bad — no one is," one character remarks of her. To which Jeff shoots back: "She comes the closest."
4. Double Indemnity
Cameron Crowe called Double Indemnity "flawless film-making". Woody Allen declared it "the greatest movie ever made". Even if you can't go along with that, there can be no disputing that it is the finest film noir of all time, though it was made in 1944, before the term film noir was even coined. Adapting James M Cain's 1935 novella about a straight-arrow insurance salesman tempted into murder by a duplicitous housewife, genre-hopping director Billy Wilder recruited Raymond Chandler as co-writer. Chandler, said Wilder, "was a mess, but he could write a beautiful sentence". Noir's visual style, which had its roots in German expressionism, was forged here, though Wilder insisted that he was going for a "newsreel" effect. "We had to be realistic," he said. "You had to believe the situation and the characters, or all was lost."
And we do. Fred MacMurray, who had specialised largely in comedy until that point, was an inspired choice to play the big dope Walter Neff, who narrates the sorry mess in flashback, and wonders: "How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?" Edward G Robinson is coiled and charismatic as Neff's colleague, a claims adjuster who unpicks the couple's scheme. But the ace in the hole is Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson, a vision of amorality in a "honey of an anklet" and a platinum wig. She can lower her sunglasses and make it look like the last word in predatory desire. And she's not just a vamp: she's a psychopath. There are few shots in cinema as bone-chilling as the closeup on Stanwyck's face as Neff dispatches Phyllis's husband in the back seat of a car. Miklós Rózsa's fretful strings tell us throughout the picture: beware. Stanwyck had been reluctant to take the role, confessing: "I was a little frightened of it." Wilder asked whether she was an actress or a mouse. When she plumped for the former, he shot back: "Then take the part."
3. Touch of Evil
In the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson – the source material for this movie – the hero is an American man who has been married to a Mexican woman for nine years. It was Orson Welles who flipped the racial mix, and made the marriage brand new. Welles intended a story of three frontiers: the rancid Mexican-American border; the way a good detective becomes a bad cop; and a provocation on interracial sexuality. To be sure, it's a recognisable Charlton Heston in makeup as Mike Vargas, with Janet Leigh as Susie – but in 1958, that bond disturbed a lot of viewers. Moreover, the overtone of honeymoon is a wicked setup for threats of rape. Will the horrendous border scum get to Susie before Mike? If you doubt that suggestiveness, just notice how the car bomb explodes as the honeymooners are ready to enjoy their first kiss on US soil. This is a crime picture in which coitus interruptus has to be listed with all the other charges.
Metaphorically and cinematically, it's a picture about crossing over – in one sumptuous camera setup we track the characters over the border. That shot is famous, but it's no richer than the single setup in a cramped motel suite that proves how Hank Quinlan (Welles himself) plants dynamite on the man he intends to frame. These scenes were a way for Welles to say, "I'm as good as ever", but they are also crucial to the uneasiness that runs through the picture and the gloating panorama of an unwholesome society. The aura of crime has seeped into every cell of ordinary behaviour: the city officials are corrupt, the night man (Dennis Weaver) needs a rest home, and the gang that come to the motel to get Susie are one of the first warnings of drugs in American movies. Not least, of course, Quinlan – a sheriff gone to hell on candy bars.
So evil is not just a "touch". It is criminality in the blood. Marlene Dietrich's Tanya watches over this doom like a witch or prophet, a bleak reminder that there is no hope. Fifty years later, that border is still an open wound.
The near perfection of Roman Polanski's Chinatown starts with Diener/Hauser/Bates's haunting art nouveau poster for the film: an emblematic Hokusai wave breaks against Jack Nicholson's silhouette as the smoke from his cigarette floats up to merge with Faye Dunaway's medusa-like hair. The movie ends equally unforgettably with the line, "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown!", as lapidary a pay-off as Scarlett O'Hara's, "After all, tomorrow is another day."
Behind the angst-ridden noirs of the 40s and 50s lie the social and political tensions of the second world war and the postwar decade. Similarly, Chinatown was conceived, written, produced and released in the troubled period that included the last years of the Vietnam war, Watergate, and Nixon's fraught second term in the White House. But it retained its freshness, vitality and timelessness by being set so immaculately in an earlier period – Los Angeles in the long, hot summer of 1937 – and it deals with the scandals of that era, those touching on the complex politics of water in the arid west.
While gathering divorce evidence on behalf of a suspicious wife, Gittes (Nicholson) is sucked into a world beyond his comprehension involving municipal corruption, sexual transgression and the power of old money. He encounters the rich, ruthless capitalist Noah Cross (John Huston) and his estranged daughter, the beautiful Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), whose husband, head of the Los Angeles Water and Power Board, dies under mysterious circumstances.
In his screenplay, Robert Towne develops two dominant metaphors; the first centres on water. During a period of drought someone is dumping water from local reservoirs, and it becomes clear that this most precious of human resources is being manipulated by land speculators in their own interests. The name of Evelyn's husband, Hollis Mulwray, evokes William Mullholland, the Los Angeles engineer responsible in the 20s for the deals that, in the old western phrase, "made water flow uphill in search of the money". The name Noah Cross suggests the protective Old Testament patriarch played in the 1966 blockbuster The Bible by John Huston, but here reprised in a less benevolent mode as a self-righteous plutocrat who has harnessed the flood in his own interests.
The other metaphor is that of Chinatown, an inscrutable place that outsiders either stand back from or misread in a way that demonstrates the futility of good intentions. Jake worked in Chinatown during his days in the LAPD and, at the end of the picture, returns there in a bid for redemption that turns out to be an act of tragic pointlessness. He's in every scene, frequently with the camera just behind him. We see and experience everything from his point of view, with Polanski composing every frame, dictating each camera movement.
The movie captures the city in a summer heatwave: the blinding exteriors dazzle the eye and blur the judgment; shafts of light create a sinister atmosphere as they penetrate the dark interiors through venetian blinds. Jerry Goldsmith's superb score uses strings and percussion during moments of suspense and a distant, and bluesy trumpet for elegiac, contemplative scenes. Above all there is Nicholson's Gittes, a cocky, confident operator losing his social moorings and ending up as the proverbial drowning man reaching out for straws.
1. The Big Sleep
The "big sleep" of the title is of course death, but the action in Howard Hawks's classic hardboiled thriller from 1946, taken from the Raymond Chandler novel, often looks like the sleep of reason bringing forth monsters. Only the fiercest concentration will keep you on top of the head-spinning plot, and in fact the plot reportedly defeated its stars and director while they were actually shooting, cutting, reshooting and arguing about it. An explanatory scene was removed and replaced with one showing the leads flirting in a restaurant. Plot transparency was sacrificed in favour of the film's sexual mood music and making its female star, Lauren Bacall, every bit as compelling as she could be. The fact that Hawks moreover had to be relatively coy about the pornography and drugs makes the proceedings look even more occult and mysterious.
But the narrative's defiance of our comprehension is part of the film's sensational effect and its remarkable longevity: it means that scenes, characters, moments and quotable lines ("She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up") float up out of the mesmerising stew and into your consciousness like fragments of a dream. The noir fused pulp detective fiction with the enigmatic form of German expressionism and The Big Sleep is an almost surrealist refinement of the noir genre.
Bogart is Philip Marlowe, a private detective called in by an ageing sensualist when his pretty, tearaway daughter is being blackmailed. Yet Marlowe is enamoured of her sister: a very cool customer played, of course, by Lauren Bacall. She was 20 years old and Bogart, her husband, was 44 but looking older — unwell, and battling with a drinking problem. Nowadays, discussing the presence or absence of "chemistry" between stars has become a critical commonplace. Bogart and Bacall virtually invented the subject with their droll, laconic dialogue. There is a palpable charge in the air. Bacall ventilates the male atmosphere of the film, which is otherwise heavy, gloomy and dark: Bogart himself appears in almost every scene of the film and the mystery is also when he has time to go back home and sleep.
The movie's disturbing and incomprehensibly labyrinthine story of murder and betrayal now looks like a fable by David Lynch, but Hawks his own storytelling force and potent and distinctive presence. Decades later, Polanski's gumshoe would retreat from the unknowable mess of Chinatown, but the disturbing and chaotic crime-swirl of greed, vanity, lust and murder — its vortex too low down to be clearly seen — was trademarked by Hawks, Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep.