January 21, 2024

LOST NOIR, PART 2: More Overlooked Film Noir Thrillers

LOST NOIR, PART 2: 10 More Overlooked Film Noir Thrillers from the Classic Era (with one exception)


I'm relatively late to the party when it comes to film noir. Sure, I've seen the indisputable classics, but wasn't until doing Blu-ray reviews that I've come to love this dark new world. Well, new to me anyway.

Part of my appreciation for the genre comes from the good films that, for one reason or another, have somehow fallen into relative obscurity compared to, say, Double Indemnity. The following essay is a round-up of some noteworthy, lesser-known examples of film noir released during the genre’s heyday (with one more modern exception). So while you won’t find any Bogarts, Stanwicks or elusive falcons, these films are worth checking out by noir fans looking for something beyond the classics. And fortunately, all are easy to find on home video.

CROSSFIRE (1947) -
A whole lotta Roberts here (Young, Mitchum and Ryan), all of whom have appeared in their fair share of film noir classics. Then there’s the sultry Gloria Grahame, also no stranger to the genre. In fact, you could say that about a majority of the cast. Director Edward Dmytryk even gives Crossfire the look and feel we most-associate with film noir (though that could be because he didn’t have much of a budget to work with). However, one might not call it film noir in the purest sense. Narratively speaking, Crossfire unfolds more like a mystery with plenty of pre-Rashomon flashbacks filling in the blanks. It’s also a crime drama with a message, one with a lot more social importance than “Don’t light that dame’s cigarette.” One of the very first films to deal with anti-semitism, the plot involves a brutal murder which is eventually revealed to be a “hate crime,” decades before that was even a term. 

REPEAT PERFORMANCE (1947) - Whether or not Repeat Performance is true film noir is certainly open for debate. Noir guru Eddie Muller even acknowledges as much during his introduction to the film. After all, the basic concept seems more Rod Serling than Raymond Chandler. The plot does, at times, unfold like an extended Twilight Zone episode. It opens with our amiable heroine, Sheila Page, shooting husband Barney on New Year’s Eve. After wishing aloud to friend William Williams that she could re-do the whole year over again, Sheila’s wish is granted, this time with knowledge of what’s going to happen. However, she’s the only one who knows. Though certainly debatable, I’d argue even The Twilight Zone often ventured into noir territory, narratively as well as aesthetically. Sure, this film is primarily a supernatural melodrama, but one could easily argue it has its own femme fatale in homewrecking playwrite Paula Costello. The suspenseful final act definitely has the look, pace and tone of classic noir.

THE BEAST MUST DIE (1956) - Not to be confused with the 1974 British horror film, The Beast Must Die is a crackling Argentinian crime thriller just waiting to be re-discovered by film noir fans. But that’s not our initial impression. When sadistic, cold-blooded businessman Jorge Rattery claims he’s been poisoned just before dropping dead, we assume we’re in for a whodunit, especially since everyone in the room appears to have a good motive for murder. At first, the prime suspect is Felix Lane, a mystery writer whose diary reveals he was indeed planning to kill Jorge. But what are we to make of Jorge’s young stepson, seen hiding - and later destroying - the bottle containing the poison? It’s at this point the film turns into a tale of bitter revenge in the best noir tradition. The remaining narrative is presented in flashback. Felix’s son is killed in a hit & run and the police have no leads. So after a grieving period, Felix vows to find and kill the culprit on his own, a tall order since there are no witnesses. But eventually, he learns the passenger in the car is famous actress Linda Lawson and insinuates himself into her life in hopes of learning the identity of the driver. When he finally does, Felix sets about earning Jorge’s trust, waiting for the opportunity to catch him off guard.

THE GUILTY (1947) - In The Guilty, Mike Carr recounts the story of an unusual relationship between himself, troubled ex-war buddy & roommate Johnny and twin sisters Estelle and Linda. Estelle is essentially the “bad” girl who’s tumultuously involved with both men, but Johnny eventually falls in love with “good” girl Linda (which Estelle selfishly tries to disrupt). When Linda turns up murdered, Johnny is naturally the prime suspect, especially since he suffers from PTSD and is prone to blackouts. Though he declares he’s innocent, Johnny goes on the run, while Mike does a little investigating of his own. With an intriguing story, economical direction by John Reinhardt and excellent performances - especially Don Castle - The Guilty is an intriguing little thriller with a great twist ending.

HIGH TIDE (1947) - High Tide gives us cynical private dick Tim Slade, hired to protect unscrupulous newspaper editor Hugh Fresney from the wrath of local gangster Nick Dyke, the subject of an upcoming bombshell news story. But it becomes a murder investigation when the paper’s owner, Clinton Vaughn, is killed. Though Dyke is a primary suspect, one can’t rule out Vaughn’s money-grubbing trophy wife, Julie, with whom Slade once had a relationship. Like The Guilty, this one is presented in flashback and features another nifty twist ending, but boasts a more intricate storyline with intriguing plot turns along the way. Again, Don Castle makes an excellent protagonist. Speaking of which, it’s a shame he didn’t have a bigger career. His resemblance to Clark Gable notwithstanding, he had a naturalistic style all his own which certainly suited film noir. 

I WOULDN’T BE IN YOUR SHOES (1948) - While lacking the budget and production values that attract big stars and directors, this briskly paced, efficiently directed little slab of film noir is a fairly entertaining way to kill 70 minutes. The film opens with Tom Quinn on death row, due to be executed in a few hours. In flashbacks, the man recalls the events leading up to that point. He and Ann Quinn are a down-on-their-luck husband & wife dance team living in a tiny apartment. One night, a frustrated Tom throws his shoes out the window at a howling cat, but when he goes out to retrieve them, they’re gone. The next day, their luck appears to be taking a turn for the better. Not only have his shoes been mysteriously returned to their doorstep, Tom later finds a wallet containing $2000. Meanwhile, an old man with a shady past has been murdered. Later, the police match an imprint with one of Tom’s shoes, then identify bills spent by the couple as belonging to the victim. Tom is arrested, convicted and sentenced to die, though Ann insists he’s innocent. She implores Inspector Judd to help her find the real killer. Since he’s somewhat enamored with her, she offers to marry him if he can prove Tom’s innocence. 

SUDDEN FEAR (1952)  - In the opening scene, wealthy playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) is watching rehearsals for her latest play. Unimpressed by budding actor Lester Blane (Jack Palance), she decides he’s simply not suited to be a romantic leading man. She could just as easily be talking about Palance himself. But unlike Lester, I doubt he ever expected to be. Jack knew his real strength as an actor was being scary as hell...sometimes without even saying anything. That’s why he’s perfectly cast here (one of his earliest major roles). Though Lester doesn’t get the part in Myra’s play, he doesn’t appear to hold any grudges as he courts, charms and eventually marries her during the film’s first act. However, Palance’s face, eyes and voice provide all the foreshadowing the viewer needs to suspect Lester has a sinister agenda. And indeed he does. He and gold-digging girlfriend Irene (the lovely Gloria Grahame) plan on killing Myra for the millions he stands to inherit. Unfortunately for them, Myra learns of their scheme because she left the dictation machine on in her office.

THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME (1947) - As Larry Ballentine, Robert Young is an absolute, irredeemable bastard...and he’s the protagonist! When we meet Larry, he’s on trial for the murder of his lover, Verna, and takes the stand to tell his side of the story. He doesn’t sugarcoat it, either, freely acknowledging he married wife Greta because she’s rich, while having an affair with her best friend, Janice. Eventually, he plans to run away with Janice, but Greta intervenes by setting him up as a partner in a brokerage firm. Unable to resist the money, he unceremoniously dumps Janice and moves to LA with his wife. Soon after, Larry is seduced by one of the office secretaries, Verna, who freely admits being a gold-digger. However, they fall in love and decide to run away together. On the way to Reno, the two get into a fiery accident and Verna dies. Because she was burned beyond recognition, the police mistakenly believe the body is Greta, which Larry doesn’t refute. Since the crash was ruled an accident and everyone thinks Greta’s already dead, he figures he can return home and kill her without raising suspicion. However, he discovers her body at the bottom of a ravine, along with the note he left her. Larry dumps her into a nearby river and tries to put everything behind him, now rich and scot-free. Then things get complicated when Larry's former partner starts inquiring about Verna's disappearance. Capping everything off with a deliciously ironic twist ending, They Won’t Believe Me is another vivid example of Robert Young getting his bad guy groove on. And once again, he totally nails it. 

SYMPHONY OF A MASSACRE (1963) - In this woefully underseen French thriller, five shady businessmen decide to pool their resources for a major drug purchase that could reap millions. The plan goes awry when one of them, Jabake, decides he’d rather keep all that money for himself. He devises a fiendishly clever & elaborate plan to steal it back from their courier in-transit. However, his plans threaten to go haywire after being forced to kill the courier. The group begin to suspect each other, while Jahake is forced to commit more murder to cover his tracks when some of them find holes in his ruse. Ingeniously plotted with deft film-noir touches, Symphony for a Massacre is damn-near note-perfect, from the characters & performances to the tight-pacing & unusual music score. It’s a classic case of bad guys vs. worse guys, with Jahake as its morbidly compelling centerpiece. He’s arrogant, unlikable, conniving and cold-blooded, yet even though we despise him, we’re invested in his plan…perhaps because it took so much meticulous work to set into motion.

And the exception…

LAST LOOKS (2022) - Charlie Waldo is the main character in a series of comic noir novels by Howard Michael Gould. He’s a disgraced ex-cop now living as a recluse in a trailer in the middle of nowhere. Amusingly, he insists on only keeping 100 possessions at any time (which also includes a chicken). When an old flame arrives asking for help with a case, he initially refuses…at least until some thugs come by later, beat him up and warn him not to get involved. Maybe a little too laid-back at times - with a plot that’s ultimately superfluous - Last Looks is still very enjoyable. Gould and Director Tim Kirkby have created a charming homage to film noir and infused it with an offbeat sense of humor. Though not always laugh-out-loud funny, it’s consistently witty and features characters who might be worth revisiting from time to time.

Be sure to check our previous list...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to check these ones out