A Scene from the Noir Film The Big Combo (1955)
For me, 2019 has been the year of noir—both film noir, and somewhat less markedly, noir literature. I have just finished reading the New York Review edition of Elliott Chaze’s 1953 novel Black Wings Has My Angel.
In my Goodreads.Com review of the novel, I quote this incredible passage from page 35:
After all, no matter how long you live, there aren’t too many really delicious moments along the way, since most of life is spent eating and sleeping and waiting for something to happen that never does. You can figure it out for yourself, using your own life as the scoreboard. Most of living is waiting to live. And you spend a great deal of time worrying about things that don’t matter and about people that don’t matter and all this is clear to you when you know the very day you’re going to die.
I wondered in my review why, after attaining a dominant position in the world after World War Two had crippled most everyone else, and after years of growing prosperity, the pessimism of noir became such a persistent theme in literature, film, and even art (q.v. Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”).
The best film noir productions I have seen in the last twelve months include (in the order I have seen them):
- Joseph H. Lewis: The Big Combo (1955)
- Byron Haskin: Too Late for Tears (1949)
- Robert Montgomery: The Lady in the Lake (1947) – based on Raymond Chandler’s novel
- Anthony Mann: Border Incident (1949)
- Phil Karlson: 99 River Street (1953)
- Norman Foster: Woman on the Run (1950)
- Edmund Goulding: Nightmare Alley (1947) – based on William Henry Gresham’s novel
- John Huston: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
- Samuel Fuller: Pick-Up on South Street (1953)
- Fritz Lang: The Big Heat (1953) – probably the best of the bunch
- John Huston: The Maltese Falcon (1941) – an early outlier
- Fritz Lang: Clash by Night (1952)
- Frank Tuttle: This Gun for Hire (1942) – based on Graham Greene’s novel A Gun for Sale
- Abraham Polonsky: Force of Evil (1948)
- Alexander Mackendrick: The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
More than half the films were viewed on the TCM channel’s excellent “Noir Alley” series hosted by movie scholar Eddie Muller.
Although I consider myself an auteurist critic, I included the directors’ names in the list because of how widespread film noir productions were, especially in the postwar period, coming from a variety of studios and many different directors. Many were produced on shoestring budgets and sneaked through even though they were opposed by many studio heads, such as Louis B. Mayer of MGM.
Later this week, I will present a list noir writers who were partly responsible for the film trend.