30 Overlooked Noir Films That Are Worth Watching
21. Criss Cross (1949)
Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) returns back home to Los Angeles, he is still in love with and hoping to reunite with his ex-wife Anna Dundee (Yvonne DeCarlo). However, the presence of gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) complicates the situation. To save themselves, Steve hatches a plan which will benefit both himself and Dundee but, doesn’t reveal all the details.
Burt Lancaster’s and director Robert Siodmak’s second and final collaboration, after the success of The Killers (1946) which gave Siodmark, a man who pioneered the noir look, his first and only Best Director Oscar nomination.
Dan Duryea, in spite of having a short role, brilliantly plays a thug, playing one of the most unpleasant villains in noir history. The film opens with a beautiful aerial shot, showing downtown night time Los Angeles, which is where the film was shot. The film is also remembered for its dark ending which is very consistent with the cynical nature of the film.
It was remade as The Underneath in 1995 by Steven Soderbergh.
22. No Way Out (1950)
Racial tensions run high when a white robber dies under the care of a black doctor (Sidney Poitier), the robber’s racist brother (Richard Widmark) is convinced that the doctor killed him. Matters go out of hand when the news goes out of the hospital.
The debut of Sidney Poitier, the film’s most memorable performance however is that of Ray Biddle played by Richard Widmark. Biddle, a bigot and a deeply unpleasant man who causes misery to all those around him wherever he goes, is unable to fathom a doctor who is black and will not allow a black man to treat his brother. Widmark was very uncomfortable with the Biddle’s racist comments and would often apologise to Poitier after takes.
Directed and co-written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (the other co-writer being Lesser Samuels) whose directing career often eclipses his writing efforts as in the case of multiple Oscar winning films All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives. No Way Out lost The Best Writing Academy Award to his All About Eve in 1951.
The film is also Saul Bass’ first film credit, he was responsible for the poster. Bass would go on to collaborate with Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese.
23. Panic in the Streets (1950)
Doctor Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark) and Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) begrudgingly work together as they have less than two days to prevent an epidemic of pneumonic plague.
Shot exclusively on location in New Orleans and directed by Elia Kazan, two years before his testimony as a “friendly witness” and a year before he directed the now classic A Streetcar Named Desire. He used long takes seamlessly, making the movie seemless like a crime thriller, but more like a character driven drama. A notable performance is given by Jack Palance who makes his debut playing gangster Blackie.
Although it failed to even recover from its cost at the box office, Edna and Edward Anhalt did win the Academy Award for Best Story in 1951 and the film was also nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1950.
24. On Dangerous Ground (1951)
Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), a police detective unable to trust anyone after dealing low life scum of his city, is ordered by his superiors to leave the city after roughing up one too many suspects. He is assigned to a case far away from the city to find the killer of a young girl.
Directed by Nicholas Ray who is best remembered for directing Rebel Without a Cause, the popularity of that film along with James Dean’s stardom, often leads to other aspects of Ray’s career getting very little to no attention. Ray would direct psychological dramas where the protagonist is often a person who is unable to live like everyone else around him. The influence of the characters in Ray’s film’s can be seen in Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, a man alienated from society who only sees evil in the world.
It was written by A. I. Bezzerides and Nicholas Ray and the film score was composed by Hitchcock regular Bernard Herrmann.
25. Clash by Night (1952)
Another case where the film is essentially two films linked with one another, Clash by Night tells the story of Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) who returns home after ten years to move back into her family’s home where her brother and his wife are living. Mae then starts dating the very likeable Jerry (Paul Douglas). But, Jerry’s friend Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), a man who is equally unlikable, starts to take an interest in her.
Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman with a mysterious past who spent ten years “back East.” Robert Ryan once again is typecast, this time not as a villain, but as an obsessive, violent and unsettled man who is fascinated by Mae. Paul Douglas plays Jerry, a happy go lucky sort of person who cannot handle confrontation. The film is also notable for starring Marilyn Monroe, who plays Mae’s sister-in-law in a supporting role.
In spite of the film having a typical noir plot, it’s a very uncharacteristic melodramatic film noir by Lang and probably the most uncharacteristic noir in the list. It is also not set in some big, dangerous American city but rather in the fishing village of Monterey, California. Directed by Fritz Lang after his underrated western Rancho Notorious, the film was based on the play Clash by Night by Clifford Odets.
26. The Narrow Margin (1952)
Two detectives are assigned to protect and safely deliver a gangster’s widow as they travel by train from Chicago to Los Angeles so that she can testify before a grand jury.
Starring two of noir’s greatest supporting stars in leading roles, Charles McGraw who plays Det. Sgt. Walter Brown and Marie Windsor aka “The Queen of the Bs” who plays Mrs. Frankie Neall, the gangster’s widow, the film was completed in 1950 and not released until 1952 as according to the director, Howard Hughes, the owner of RKO Studios ordered it for his private projection room and the film stayed in there for more than a year, apparently because Hughes forgot about it.
The film was directed by Richard Fleischer and was shot in 13 days of which only a few seconds were shot on an actual train. Fleischer, due to the lack of space, used handheld cameras. To save money, he would move them to simulate the train rocking. Substituting the landscape of a big American city with that of the interior of a train. The film was written by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard, who were nominated for an Academy Award for Writing in 1953.
The film’s ending, has also gone on to inspire countless Action and Thriller films. The film was loosely remade starring Gene Hackman in 1990.
27. The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Based on the real life incident of Billy Cook who in California in 1950 kidnapped a Sheriff who picked up Cook when he was hitchhiking, the film starts with the psychotic hitchhiker Emmett Myers (William Talman) stealing the belongings of the people who picked him up and then killing them.
Two friends (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy), who are going on a fishing trip, pick up Myers who is wanted for the murders. Myers tells them to take him towards the Mexican border so that he can escape. Failing to do so would result in their deaths.
The film is mostly remembered because actress Ida Lupino directed the film when Elmer Clifton got sick and couldn’t finish his directing duties thus the film became the first film noir directed by a woman.
Based on a story by Daniel Mainwaring, who did not receive credit due to blacklisting, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1998, perhaps the least seen Noir to be preserved.
28. The Big Combo (1955)
Police Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) uses all his available resources to investigate and hopefully take down ruthless crime boss Mr. Brown (Richard Conte).
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis and photographed by John Alton in his trademark style, using unusual low angles and low-key lighting which he’d often use for noirs. The film’s jazz score should also be mentioned as at the time, a more string driven score was common.
The film’s ending however is probably its most famous trait, aided by Alton’s lighting and the surrounding fog, it is one of noirs most famous and emblematic images.
Richard Conte, a man whose contribution to the genre is always overlooked, is excellent when playing Mr. Brown, a man who is convinced he is smarter than everyone else around him. The film also stars a young Lee Van Cleef as one of Brown’s henchmen. The film was written by Philip Yordan.
29. Mr. Arkadin (Confidential Report) (1955)
A dying man tells an American smuggler (Robert Arden) to investigate two names and declares them to be very valuable, one of whom is Gregory Arkadin (Orson Welles).
Shot in several locations throughout Europe and described by Welles as the “biggest disaster” of his life in 1982, the film wasn’t even released in the United States until 1962. The reason being Welles missed an editing deadline and like many of his films, it was edited without his input or eventual approval.
A version was released by Criterion in 2006 which is considered to be the closest to Welles’ vision and does contain a few of his trademarks including the innovative camera work, shooting from unusual angles and dramatically close-up shots as seen in Welles’ The Trial (1962). The entire film is told in the form of flashback seen most notably in his masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941).
The film has also been overlooked due to the relatively higher popularity of Welles’ other noir’s, most notably The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Touch of Evil (1958).
The film was released as Confidential Report in Britain and was based on a radio series which was based on the character of Harry Lime, the character Orson played in The Third Man (1949). Robert Arden was cast as the lead due to his work with Welles’ on the radio series. His performance was very poorly received and his career never recovered from it.
30. Plunder Road (1957)
The film starts with five masked men robbing a gold shipment from a mint train. The entire robbery lasts fourteen minutes. In these first fourteen minutes, none of the men talk to each other, instead, the only sounds heard are the rumbling of the train tracks, thunder and the heavy rain. The images associated with those sounds, in black and white, make for visually arresting scenes as well.
The film also deals with how these five men use three trucks to plan on escaping from the country and later reveals their unique way of disguising the gold for an easy getaway. The film is also notable for starring noir regular Elisha Cook Jr., who plays one of the robbers.
It was directed by Hubert Cornfield and the writing credits go to Steven Ritch.
The Naked Kiss (1964)
The bravest noir ever made. Samuel Fuller’s film about Kelly, a kind hearted, classical music loving hooker who arrives in a small town and decides to take up a new profession as a nurse to leave her old life behind, if only her past would let her.
Written and directed by Fuller, the film touches on brothels, mistreated prostitutes, sexual perversions and abortion. This was made possible through clever word play, excellent editing and use of a stylish daydream sequence.
The opening scene is one of the most striking ever with a scantily clad bald woman hitting a drunk with her purse until he falls and passes out. She then proceeds to take money from his wallet and continues to hit his face with it, cursing him throughout the scene.
Often overlooked due to the acclaim of Fuller’s cold war noir classic Pickup on South Street, it remains one of the most distinctive films ever made.
Author Bio: Arnab Sen is a student studying economics in Calcutta and has been seriously watching films for some time now.