As the always-delectable annual Noir City festival kicks off at LA's American Cinematheque--it's the 16th installment--on March 21, we here at TOH! have listed our own favorite 15 classic noirs of all time. That doesn't mean they're the best, or the most renowned, and we've probably left off some of your faves. (Let us know.)
Co-hosted by the Cinematheque and the Film Noir Foundation, Noir City sets up residence for two weeks every spring at the glorious Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The emphasis is on both classics and obscure, hard-to-see gems, while the programmers seek out the best possible presentation format -- be it a new 35mm restoration or DCP.
This year's Noir City focuses particularly on foreign noir. There's a Brit double feature of "Brighton Rock" and "It Always Rains on Sundays," French classics "Rififi" and "Quai des Orfevres," Italy's "Ossessione" and Argentina's "Hardly a Criminal."
See our picks and trailers below.
Anne Thompson's Top 5:
1. "Touch of Evil" (1958): Orson Welles' bravura noir starts out strong with a delirious sustained single shot, as newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Vargas (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh) stroll across the Mexican border to the sound of Henry Mancini and a ticking bomb, which explodes after they kiss. Welles leads you into a bizarre cross-border mystery (shot in sumptuous black-and-white) that resonates today, rife with corrupt cops and out-of-control gangsters, along with the fabulous Marlene Dietrich, who finally says of the derelict detective played by the corpulent Welles: "He was some kind of a man."
2. "Port of Shadows" ("Le Quai des Brumes") (1938): One of the first French films to be called "film noir" by critics, Marcel Carné's atmospheric tragic romance stars the great Jean Gabin--cigarette perched on his lip--as an army deserter who steps out of the fog into a remote bar at the edge of Le Havre where he meets and falls for sultry teenager Michèle Morgan, who is trying to escape the clutches of her godfather (Michel Simon), who also loves her. Some gangsters are sniffing around trying to find her missing ex-boyfriend. Like many noirs, in this fatalistic drama, no good deed goes unpunished.
3. "Double Indemnity" (1944): This movie brings a triple dose of hardboiled noir, as writer-director Billy Wilder and screenwriter Raymond Chandler adapted James M. Cain's infamous novel about a femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) who lures her prey, gullible insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), into her plan to murder her husband. Stanwyck and MacMurray have great chemistry as they flirt, but the couple run out of time as MacMurray's wily boss (Edward G. Robinson) closes in on their scheme. "How could I know that murder was going to smell like honeysuckle?" asks Neff.
4. "Elevator to the Gallows" ("L'Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud") (1958): New Wave director Louis Malle's stunning feature debut stars Maurice Ronet and breakout Jeanne Moreau as two doomed loners wandering the murky shadows of Paris at night, accompanied by a moody percussive jazz score by Miles Davis. In this Hitchcock and Clouzot-inspired crime meller, an ex-mercenary soldier (Ronet) executes a plan to murder his boss, who is married to his lover (Moreau). But things go awry and the man winds up trapped in an elevator-- with his car running outside.
5. "Alphaville" (1965): Jean-Luc Godard's glorious black-and-white surreal sci-fi noir stars trenchcoated Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution, who tries to save dame in distress Anna Karina. ‘’Reality is too complex. What it needs is fiction to make it real,” intones the computer at the film’s beginning. "Alphaville" exaggerates reality. Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard did not flood Paris with light. Instead they photographed at night on real Paris locations in order to make a film with the creepy feel of a nightmare. When it came to his own filmmaking, Godard was always playing with ideas. He saw his films as works of criticism: to him, art criticizes itself. "Alphaville" is packed with references: Dick Tracy, Henry Dickson, Flash Gordon, and most especially, "Underworld USA," Sam Fuller’s masterpiece of malevolent dark-street ambience. Fuller’s quote from Godard’s next film "Pierrot le Fou" could easily apply here: “The film is like a battleground. Yes…love…hate…action…violence…death…in one word, emotion.”
Beth Hanna's Top 5:
1. "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950): John Huston's tale of the One Last Heist gone bad is as beautifully directed as it is acted by its terrific ensemble -- headed by Sterling Hayden, with supporting turns from Sam Jaffe, Marilyn Monroe, Louis Calhern and James Whitmore. The tragic final scene, which takes Hayden away from the corrupt city streets and out to the impossible ideal of a farmstead, is one of the best closers in noir history, period.