As a whole, film noir is impossible to define. It’s not your average genre and to many, it’s not a genre at all. It’s a cinematic movement that happened at a specific time for specific reasons – WWII anxieties being one of the major catalysts. But trying to pinpoint exactly what film noir is tends to sap all the fun out of watching it. It was birthed out of the American pulps, stylized by German filmmakers, and named by the French. Those are certainties. But for all the talk of femme fatales and fedoras, noir is incapable of being pigeonholed.
Probably the best description of film noir I’ve ever heard is also a loose one. Author Dennis Lehane (Shutter Island) said, “In Shakespeare, men fall from thrones. In noir, they fall from the gutter.” It’s a breed of working class tragedy where any sense of security and stability are ripped from the characters; usually causing them to do some dirty deeds and lose their humanity in the process. Whether you live in the big city or the ‘burbs, doom is coming for you.
It’s that sense of oncoming dread – not detectives or dames – that drove many of the best noirs. It’s that same anxious dread that makes noir akin to horror, another genre that means different things to different people. And if you love them both, here are eight noirs of the classic era you’ll want to curl up to come nightfall.
And no, I did not “forget” Cat People. That film’s been covered on plenty sites already. I hoped to highlight a few under appreciated gems with this piece.
SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR (1947)
A Gothic Freudian nightmare from maestro Fritz Lang, Secret Beyond the Door follows the whirlwind romance between Celia, a beautiful trust fund kid, and a wealthy architect named Mark Lamphere, played by Michael Redgrave (The Innocents, Dead of Night). Up to this point, it sounds like a melodramatic snooze. But Mark has a particularly morbid hobby: he builds exact replicas of rooms where notorious murders have taken place. He believes that their design can dictate the actions that take place within. Homicidal symmetry, if you will. Mark shares all of his rooms with Celia…except one. What’s behind door number seven? Celia’s just dying to find out (sorry, couldn’t help it).
STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940)
Wholly unique amongst the early WWII noirs, Stranger on the Third Floor is a pitch-black son of a bitch spearheaded by striking cinematography and a performance by the almighty Peter Lorre. It’s the tale of a journalist named Mike who gets his big break when he witnesses a murder and fingers the killer, played by perpetual loser Elisha Cook Jr. (Salem’s Lot). But doubt soon begins to creep in and Mike isn’t sure he’s sent the right man to the gas chamber. And the real killer may be lurking in the apartment above…The keystone of the film is a hallucinatory dream sequence in which Mike himself is found guilty of murder. It’s an incredibly dark nightmare with German expressionistic aesthetics to spare.
WITNESS TO MURDER (1954)
Completely overshadowed by Rear Window in 1954, Roy Rowland’s Witness to Murder shares a similar voyeuristic plot. While it may not be as polished as Hitchcock’s film, it’s choked with suspense nonetheless and has the benefit of starring queen bee Barbara Stanwyck (The Night Walker). She plays Cheryl, an independent career woman who may or may not have witnessed a murder in an apartment across the street. It happened in the flat of Mr. Richter, a refined sadist who begins to gaslight the hell out of Cheryl – driving her mad and straight into the loony bin.
THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)
This lean, mean thriller was the only film noir of the classic period directed by a woman, Ida Lupino, a versatile artist who starred in a trillion films/TV shows. Taking place almost entirely inside a car, The Hitch-Hiker features one of my favorite villains, reptilian killer Emmet Myers. What makes him so scary is a physical handicap that gives him a drooping eye that never closes. After two fishing buddies pick him up hitchhiking, Myers pulls a gun on them. With his droopy eye, the two men are never sure if he’s sleeping or screwing with them – begging them to make a move so he can plug them. Under this constant threat, the men slowly begin to unravel.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947)
The story of an ambitious circus charlatan and his lover, Nightmare Alley is set in the dark underworld of carnies and the suckers they fleece. Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) plays said charlatan who backstabs one of his fellow carnies and uses her mind-reading gimmick to propel himself into stardom. The rapid fame and fortune don’t satisfy Stanton enough and, like in many great noirs, what goes up must come down HARD. The scene where Stanton’s web of lies unravels is an eerie, ghost-like moment that would be right at home in any gothic horror film.
THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945)
I’m cheating a bit here, as The Spiral Staircase is more of a “dark house” mystery than a noir in the traditional sense. Directed by German transplant Robert Siodmak, this creepy tale is a masterful exercise in suspense and atmosphere with one helluva one-two punch of an ending. A serial killer is loose, targeting young women with disabilities, and he’s got his sights set on Helen, a mute housekeeper working in a labyrinthine home that contains one, you guessed it, spiral staircase. Suffocating in claustrophobia and tense as hell, this simple, but effective Gothic mystery is definitely one to check out if you love a creepy whodunit.
THE DARK MIRROR (1946)
Another one from Robert Siodmak, The Dark Mirror is a spiritual forerunner of Brian De Palma’s Sisters and Twins of Evil (minus the vampire). When a well-to-do doctor is murdered, all signs point to Terry Collins as the culprit. But the investigators quickly learn of Collins’ identical twin sister, Ruth. Both twins (played by Olivia de Havilland) provide bulletproof alibis for one another – until one of them spirals into psychosis. And like in the best horror films, The Dark Mirror has a wonderfully dark, ambiguous ending.
The strange, sadistic Decoy has one major horror flavor going for it: the undead. Margot’s bank robber boy toy goes to the gas chamber before he can tell her where he stashed the loot. So she decides there’s only one way to find out where it is: bring him back from the grave. She seduces a prison doctor, snatches her man’s corpse and well…you’ll just have to watch it. His resurrection unleashes a tornado of double-crosses, murder, and good ol’ American greed. Believe me when I say Margot is one of the most ruthless femme fatales in all of noir and that Decoy is right up there with the meanest of the lot.