Category Archives: Detective Noir

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014) 2.33/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 70.9
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 114 mins
Director: Scott Frank
Stars: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour

A refreshingly focused thriller from a writer-director who continues to defy the current trend by honouring the genre’s best traditions of putting brains before action. Liam Neeson stars as an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic who’s hired by a drug dealer to find the brutal lunatics who kidnapped and murdered his wife – before they sent her back in pieces. Walk Among the Tombstones walks a number of lines very well. It’s dark without being dreary, thrilling but not over the top, and pensive without being boring. But most welcome of all is that it’s paced with an old time respect for story. The well nourished plot develops seamlessly around three or four intriguing characters from the excellent Dan Stevens as the atypical dealer with a thirst for vengeance to Brian “Astro” Bradley’s homeless kid who latches onto Neeson with notions of being a “Sam Spade”-like partner. And as the killers enter the fray, David Harbour and Adam David Thompson provide just the right amount of menace to not detract from the film’s tempered mood. After a solid debut behind the camera with The Lookout, the writer of Out of Sight and Get Shorty raises his game further by achieving a more comprehensive balance between the script, production design, Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s clean cinematography, and Carlos Rafael Rivera’s quietly tense score. Unsurprisingly, given his writing credits, the dialogue is laced with hard grit and the cast, particularly Neeson and Harbour, eat it up. The finale threatens some melodrama and a familiar backstory to Neeson’s character hold this one back a little but its overall tangibility and coherence raise it well above the recent fluff the genre has suffered. And on top of all that, how great is it to see Neeson back in a role worthy of his talent!?!

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T-Men (1947) 3.86/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.8
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 92 mins
Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: Dennis O’Keefe, Wallace Ford, Alfred Ryder

Ignore the propagandist and rather wooden introduction to the “six fingers of the Treasury Departments’s fist” and that completely unnecessary narration and what emerges within these 92 minutes is a gritty, cleverly written detective noir with a winding plot and more hardbitten dialogue than you can shake a blackjack at. Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder are the two Treasury Agents (or “T-Men”) infiltrating a counterfeiting ring operating between LA and Detroit. But, as they increment their way to the top of the organisation, they find it increasingly difficult to guard against discovery especially with Wallace Ford’s crafty “schemer” in the mix. With the great John Alton operating the camera and Anthony Mann orchestrating, T-Men is as sharp looking a noir as you’ll find. Whether it’s the neon signs reflecting in pools of rain water or their run-down backstreet locations, the grime of the city seems to be veritably painted into the cracks of the walls. Virginia Kellog’s story is a crime thriller dandy in its own right but John C. Higgins’ screenplay gives it a dynamism that rivals the most slippery of noirs. Ford steals the show as the panicky self-serving old-time crook and Ryder is every bit the wise guy/detective. While O’Keefe is perfectly solid, he’s undeniably missing the personality of the genre’s heavyweights. Throw a Mitchum, Bogie, or Widmark into that role (and remove that godawfully stilted narration) and T-Men would’ve been as good as anything the genre had to offer. As it is, well, it’s still a peach.

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The Dark Corner (1946) 2.57/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 66.1
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 99 mins
Director: Henry Hathaway
Stars: Lucille Ball, Clifton Webb, William Bendix

Mark Stevens stars as a private dick picked as a fall-guy by Clifton Webb’s ruthless art dealer when he decides to knock of the man stepping out with his wife. Leo Rosten’s cracking story is every bit on the level of the genre’s classics but a litany of rewrites and imported screenwriters does it no justice as the dialogue struggles dismally for the lyrical wit and cynicism of the hardboiled greats. Stevens too turns in a typically flat performance and while Lucille Ball adds personality, her lines are just as weak as the rest. The villains fare a little better with William Bendix giving us another memorable version of his rough-house henchman and Webb, though not spitting nearly as much venom as his Waldo Lydecker, is fittingly acidic. Henry Hathaway brings his modest touch to the movie’s directing and, while not proving memorable, the movie remains a wholly decent picture to look at.

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The Street With No Name (1948) 3.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.9
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 91 mins
Director: William Keighley
Stars: Mark Stevens, Richard Widmark, Lloyd Nolan

Thrilling undercover detective noir that sees Mark Stevens’ FBI agent infiltrate Richard Widmark’s methodical gang of thieves and murderers only to find himself in a highly organised underworld where every recruit is screened and validated through illicit access to confidential police files. Joseph McDonald (he who shot My Darling Clementine) brings an irresistible neon glow to the damp and murky streets of the fictitious Central City that ranks with the seminal look of that noir classic Murder My Sweet. Director William Keighley utilises every bit of it too as he frames many a dramatic moment around that glitzy grey world. Perhaps even more remarkable is Harry Kleiner’s script that, when enacted through McDonald’s lens and Keighley’s conceptualisation, was to become a major influence on everyone from Scorsese to David Chase. And it’s the inimitable Widmark who is chiefly responsible for its most potent realisations. As the quirky kingpin with a serious distaste for draughts and colds, Widmark’s “Alec Stiles” was to personify a new kind of American mobster whose intelligent yet impatient control over his gang led to many a violent reprimand and foreshadowed that of Goodfellas‘ Jimmy Conway and later on, one Tony Soprano. As the thorn in his side, Stevens is actually quite strong given that he could sometimes fall flat in the lead. Even if one is left with the impression that a more substantial actor would’ve made more of the role, it remains a playful turn as the streetwise detective and nicely complements the sophistication of Stiles’ clever helmsmanship. Where this piece of crime fiction falls short of the classics, however, is in its hokey championing of the FBI as a glowing beacon of honesty in the criminal justice apparatus. It was a feature of a peculiar type of movie being made at the time where the cooperation of the justice system in providing locations and on-set advice seemed to be repaid with an unabashed adulation.

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Crime Wave (1954) 3.65/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.5
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 73 mins
Director: André de Toth
Stars: Gene Nelson, Sterling Hayden, Charles Bronson

Another top class crime thriller from the annals noir, this one coming courtesy of maverick director André de Toth, who fought tooth and nail with Jack Warner so that Sterling Hayden could take on the role the latter wanted for a certain Humphrey Bogart. Hayden stars as the cynical detective on the tail of two escaped prisoners who are forcing an ex-con gone straight and his wife to help them in a bank robbery. Ted de Corsia is the brains of the nasty outfit, a young Charles Bronson is the volatile brawn and a host of other gnarly faces of the time (including an even spacier than usual Timothy Carey) provide the backup. Needless to say, Hayden chews the scenery about as much as does the toothpick sticking out his mouth in place of the cigarettes the doctor has banned. There’s rarely been a more grizzled character actor so well suited to gritty street noir but he tempers that nicely here with a veiled compassion for the two victims at the centre of the tale. Relatively unknown at the time, Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk are genuinely excellent as that couple and provide the perfect platform to connect both sides of the law. Crane Wilbur’s hard bitten screenplay simply oozes class and funnelled as it is through de Toth’s focused momentum, it gives the movie a palpable energy. Choosing to shoot on location in LA, de Toth dresses his film in that priceless atmosphere that was an unfortunately rare feature of the majority of studio shot thrillers of the day. From the first person perspective of the daytime driving sequences to the fleeting shadows of the nighttime encounters, he turns Crime Wave into the cinéma vérité masterclass of the LA noir.

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Mystery Street (1950) 3.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.8
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 93 mins
Director: John Sturges
Stars: Ricardo Montalban, Sally Forrest, Bruce Bennett

One of the earliest police procedurals, this wonderful little thriller focuses on the attempts of a detective to solve a Jane Doe case using the help of forensic medicine expert. Ricardo Montalban puts in a composed shift as the young detective and manages to work much of the charm he’d be later renowned for into a personality driven by perfectionism and the anguish of potentially being wrong. Bruce Bennett is slightly more languid as the learned expert who instructs the police on the science behind the clues. Forensics was still in its infancy at the time Mystery Street was made so one could’ve forgiven director John Sturges and co. for framing the movie entirely around the investigation but it’s to their credit that they made a proper drama of the characters and plot. As the investigation develops multiple strands, each is fleshed out by some memorable personalities. Jan Sterling makes a relatively brief appearance as the soon to be victim but sets a brass tone for the more heartless side to the story. The perennially eccentric Elsa Lanchester is delightfully untrustworthy as her greedy landlord while Betsy Blaire, as her kind neighbour, is a ray of sunshine in those otherwise murky digs. And then you have Sally Forrest almost stealing the show as the desperate wife of the man who the police have mistaken for the killer. Such casting provides a solid base to what was happening on the other side of the camera and, in fact, it’s perhaps the technical side to the film that most impresses what with its sly plot and Richard Brooks’ equally cynical dialogue dripping from the tongues of the good and bad alike. Bringing it all together is a pre-prime Sturges exhibiting the controlled energy of his later work but with a welcomed levity. Of course, having the great John Alton shooting the film is no small bonus and the lighting and use of perspective throughout is of surprising quality for a small feature, not to mention, a genuine treat. All in all, there’s little fault to be found here, just a cracking good story shot with plenty of class.

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Hidden Gems

I Love Trouble (1948) 3.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76
Genre: Film-noir
Duration: 88 mins
Director: S. Sylvan Simon
Stars: Franchot Tone, Janet Blair, Janis Carter

l_i-love-trouble-1948-dvd-franchot-tone-janet-blair-2f8bDig into the archives of film-noir and it’s not long before you unearth a forgotten jewel. I love Trouble is one such dusty gem. Franchot Tone is the smart quipping gumshoe, Stuart Bailey, hired by a concerned husband to investigate his wife’s history. A complicated mystery unravels as Bailey moves between Baltimore and California putting the pieces together and juggling one shrewd lady character after another. Don’t get too hung up on the jovial title nor that playful introduction which counts as the first of many bluffs, this is a hard boiled sidewinder of the Raymond Chandler variety. That it’s not Chandler but Roy Huggins who penned it isn’t as much of a disadvantage as some might think for it’s an astute reproduction of the former’s work, in particular, The Lady in the Lake and Farewell My Lovely/Murder My Sweet. The dialogue burning with caustic wit drives the plot forward one baby step at a time until you won’t know where it’s headed. And it’s cast reasonably well too. Tone is more Powell than Bogart but he can dust himself off and crack wise with the best of ’em. John Ireland scores well as the sinister henchman of Steven Geray’s shady nightclub owner but it’s the ladies who share Tone’s limelight. Janet Blair is suitably suspicious as the potential love interest while Janis Carter’s highly secretive lady of leisure makes for an even more ambiguous presence. S. Sylvan Simon offers an assured touch behind the camera and keeps the tension balanced despite the twists and turns. Alas, what came natural to Chandler was a tad mechanical to Huggins and the second-third act transition labours because of it. Simon reigns it in with enough time to spare however and presents us with a wry old ending that Chandler himself would be proud of.

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Detective Story (1951) 3.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.4
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 103 mins
Director: William Wyler
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, William Bendix

“You must have been kissed in your cradle by a vulture.” Kirk Douglas puts in a tour de force performance as a morally conflicted detective who allows his near fanatical dedication to bringing criminals to justice to excuse his hard edged and even violent treatment of anyone even suspected of misdeeds. This wasn’t an easy role to pull off but Douglas handles it with ease as he keeps the audience both rooting for him and appalled at him in equal measure throughout.

The assorted characters who make their way into his precinct during the course of the single day in which the drama is set are each fascinating in their own right and played perfectly by the ensemble cast. William Bendix scores especially well as Douglas’ caring partner, a more rewarding role to the tough guy persona he was normally govern to play. Robert Wyler and Philip Yordan’s screenplay is a real treat to the ears, littered with wonderfully cutting turns off phrase and some insightful character construction. Director William Wyler contributes strongly too, allowing the tension to build up softly in the background giving the drama an increasingly taught feel which peaks right at the end. However, this movie is all about Douglas who at the time was at the height of his powers and in practically every scene demonstrated just that.

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Laura (1944) 4.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.7
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 88 mins
Director: Otto Preminger
Stars: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb

Otto Preminger’s exploration of the two sides to obsession is quite simply a champion of its genre. Gene Tierney is the titular focal point of that obsession as the movie spirals dizzyingly towards her feminine ideal. The story begins with the investigation into her murder as Dana Andrews’ Detective MacPherson begins interviewing potential suspects: Clifton Webb’s venomous yet respected columnist and a young Vincent Price as her playboy suitor. As they each recount how they met Laura, her story is told in flashback and Preminger begins seducing the audience with the picture of an innocent, pretty, and vibrant young woman just as surely as MacPherson is being seduced.

Vera Caspary and Jay Drattler’s luscious script oozes dark and unfettered passion and the glowing cast feed off it one and all. Tierney is sensational in one of the great noir performances while Andrews was never better as the cautiously clever detective. Of course, on the acting front, all performances take second place to Webb’s truly memorable turn as the sniping elitist. With every word and self-regarding mannerism, he shoots daggers and it’s real treat to watch him go.

However, as good as the aforementioned are, Laura is all about Preminger’s directorial siren’s call. Made in a slightly more classical style than other film noir of its time, it makes for a more incisive character study. His staging, lighting, and slow tracking of the camera gives the film a sumptuous look which seeps into the audience’s subconscious and that in turn, imbues the story with an internalistic, almost voyeuristic feel. Laura is quite simply cinematic story telling at its best.

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The Third Man (1949) 4.79/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.8
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 93 mins
Director: Carol Reed
Stars: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli

Carol Reed may be credited with the direction of this noir masterpiece but Orson Welles’ fingerprints are all over it. Joseph Cotten stars as the American writer who arrives in post-war Vienna to stay with a friend only to learn he’s been killed in an apparent accident. The more he learns however the more he suspects foul play but his investigations soon get him into trouble with the mismatch of British, American, Russian, and French law enforcement. It’s a thrilling story that zips along and thanks to the unorthodox camera angles and sublime use of shadow the viewer is kept in a state of disorientation that mirrors Cotten’s state of mind. The final act involves some of the most seminal photography in film history as that most riveting of chases through the sewers of the city unfolds. Full of wit and intrigue, Graham Greene’s script is the equal of the Reed’s direction and with the arrival of the Welles’ character, it enters into a league of its own. That combined with the seminal direction ensures that The Third Man is rightly remembered as one of the very best films noir.

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The Killing (1956) 4.52/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 90.9
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 85 mins
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards

We shouldn’t be too surprised that the director who gave us the best science fiction film ever made, the best period piece ever made, the best black comedy ever made, one of the best horrors and one of the best war films (Paths of Glory) ever made is also responsible for one of the very best films noirs. Sterling Hayden is dynamite as the man with the genius plan to rip off a race track whilst staying ahead of security, the cops, the insecurities of his men, and the deviousness of their wives. The story has all the usual multiple threads of a film noir but it’s the way Stanley Kubrick brings it all together that is so fascinating to watch and indeed so compelling. The Killing is perhaps the earliest indication of the breadth of the great director’s confidence and the stunning innovation that came with it. Watch how he dollies the camera through the walls of the apartment (something Scorsese and Tarantino would go on to recurrently use to splendid effect) and revel in his exquisite and visionary lighting which he uses to disguise faces, eyes, and entire characters even when they’re speaking. And then there’s that electric screenplay with Jim Thompson’s seminal dialogue that went on to inspire some of the coolest films of the 90’s. And last but not least, it’s is also a chance to see the ingenious yet completely eccentric Timothy Carey in one of his more memorable cameos as “the shooter”.

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The Stranger (1946) 4.14/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 83.3
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 115 mins
Director: Orson Welles
Stars: Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young

One of Orson Welles’ more mainstream directorial offerings but a neat little film-noir nonetheless, The Stranger stars the man himself as a professor of history in an esteemed school and general upstanding leader of his tight-knit community. His life seems idyllic until an old friend comes to visit, bringing with him a relentless Nazi-hunter (Edward G Robinson) who believes the respected professor is a former high ranking concentration camp commander in hiding.

The Stranger has all the hallmarks of a great Welles film just in far fewer numbers. It begins with definite echoes of The Third Man (hinting he had indeed more than just acting duties on that picture) as we are served a beautifully shot yet ambiguous scene that sets the tone for what is to come. However, almost immediately we are transported to leafy Connecticut which might as well be another planet. Though the film loses most of its visually noirish feel from this point on, the switch still counts as something of a masterstroke, for nothing is as it seems. But with the arrival of Robinson’s character, the veil is steadily lifted.

The Stranger is not on a par with Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil, but it is an excellent film in its own right, marked by the story-telling flourishes we typically associate with Welles. The ending too is something which again evokes memories of The Third Man as the stakes are raised in fitting fashion. On the acting front Welles is as magnetic as ever but like the film as a whole, in a more subdued fashion. Moreover, his performance is complemented nicely by Robinson’s iron-hand/kit-glove to whom the film owes most of its charm. Welles counted The Stranger as his least favourite film, which isn’t too surprising given the lack of aesthetic flair and dark exploration compared to him more famous work. However, what it lacks in that department, it makes up for in sheer entertainment, for The Stranger is an exceedingly enjoyable thriller.

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