15. Port of Shadows (1938)/Le Jour Se Leve (1938) Directed by Marcel Carne
Carne and his frequent writing partner will forever be known for their unique, unforgettable costume epic, The Children of Paradise (1946), but there was a time when they created smaller, darker films which were film noir in just about all but name. Both films star Jean Gabin in his usual roles and both films leave no doubt that France, teetering on the edge of occupation, was not in a good collective frame of mind.
Port of Shadows shares a family resemblance with Pepe Le Moko and also is quite similar to the Hollywood proto-noir High Sierra (more on that later) made two years later, right down to the heart-tugging use of a small dog. However, the film has a poignant texture of its own and a rather misty, poetic look not quite film noir but effective nonetheless.
The plot casts the actor as an army deserter, regretful of his decision, trapped in bad circumstances with unsavory people, longing for another chance to make it right with a young women who seems to promise a another chance, which, as he and the viewer must know, has come too late.
More of an innovation was Le Jour Se Leve (which translate to the ironic Daybreak). This is the film that may well have introduced one of the key devices of film noir: the flashback. This device was crucial to such film noir staples as The Killers, Brute Force, Sunset Blvd., and that flashback heaven, The Locket. But few could match the skill with which the device was used in this picture.
The film opens near the end of the story. A young factory worker, who seems a decent type, has just killed a man. Out of desperation he has barricaded himself in his small apartment and is soon involved in a tense stand-off with the police.
During the night that follows he remembers, in three long segments, how he became involved with two very different women and how one malicious man, the eventual murder victim, brought a corrupting influence into their lives. Instead of finding the main character at a point when he has made a mess of his life, this film invites the viewer to watch as the man ends up doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons and the result is emotionally devastating.
In the matter of wrong and right, European-born RKO-Radio director Anatole Litvak remade the film in 1947 as The Long Night, an official film noir but only a fair film thanks to stricter censorship standards of Hollywood as compared to France a decade earlier. RKO didn’t want competition and tried to buy up and destroy all prints of the original. For about a decade it looked as if they had succeeded. Thankfully, there was some justice and they did not.
16. High Sierra (1940) Directed by Raoul Walsh
If High Sierra looked a bit darker and had been made half a decade later it would be a film noir. W.R. Burnett, that key noir writer, supplied the novel and one of the great film noir icons, Humphrey Bogart, finally broke out of the supporting actor vortex and into real stardom with one of his best performances, under the assured director of genre specialist Raoul Walsh.
Anyone who had seen the films of the French Fatalist school would find the plot familiar but U.S viewers of foreign films were few and far between at the time and the idea of sympathy/empathy for a flawed character or characters living on the wrong side of the law was rather novel for the time, certainly in a big studio picture.
Bogart portrays Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, a notorious criminal sprung from prison by corrupt politicos as a favor to his old crime associates, who need him for a big job. In a more conventional film Roy would be a bad guy and the audience would cheer his punishment at the hands of the law.
In this film the viewer sees things such as Roy going on a sentimental visit to the farm that was his childhood home and seeing that the farm boy who lived there was lost long ago. Fate throws two women in the man’s path: a tough girl/moll (film noir icon, Ida Lupino), to whose unspoken affections Roy initially turns a blind eye, and an innocent, seemingly pure young women (Joan Leslie), who happens to be lame.
While planning the big crime, Roy will use ill-gotten gains to cure the younger woman’s affliction in the forlorn hope of finding another chance. However, it’s too late for that and life throws the man a number of surprises, giving him both a loss and a gain, though not delivering him from his preordained destiny.
Oddly enough, this story, a natural for film noir, never quite became a true one. This version came too soon. Nine years later Walsh remade the film, quite well, as the western Colorado Territory and six years after that lesser hands remade it again in the original form, only in color and wide screen. Just as dogs and cats aren’t meant to be friends, neither of those processes are parts of true film noir grammar.
17. The Stranger on The Third Floor (1940) Directed by Boris Ingster
Americans, much less American film scholars/fans, tend to search for superlatives such as best, most, least, last and, in the case of this category, first. What is the first real film noir? As with many things in cinema history, that’s open to conjecture. Many point to the 1940 RKO B picture The Stranger on The Third Floor. This odd little film was the directorial debut of Boris Ingster, a writer and producer who would only direct a couple of films.
The story concerns a young reporter who has just made a ripple with his sensationalistic stories involving a recent murder trial which helped to convict a defendant who hysterically insisted on his innocence. However, his victory is short-lived when he first begins to have paranoid delusions that the obnoxious neighbor with whom he has just had an altercation has been murdered and that he will be arrested for the crime.
As it turns out, the neighbor has been murdered, probably by a creepy unknown man the reporter had seen on the stair landing just before the murder. However, relating the story doesn’t stop the police from arresting the reporter, causing his loyal girlfriend to go searching for the stranger.
The film only runs for a very little over an hour. The story is not complex but the visual style has a dark, nightmarish élan, highlighted by a nightmare sequence that is the film’s big claim to fame. It doesn’t at all hurt that the studio was smart enough to cast Peter Lorre in the title role. He receives top billing though he is seen only in glimpses until the climatic scene, when, much like his performance in M a decade earlier, he goes all out.
In fact, it isn’t at all unlikely that the director told him just to pretend his character from that film escaped to the U.S and kept on going his murderous way. It works as a cultural flashcard. However, the film had no immediate descendants, though it was made in the studio that helped to incubate the film noir style more than any other and at a moment just before it all came together.
18. The Maltese Falcon (1941) Directed by John Huston
This crime/mystery classic needs little introduction to film fans. Famously the directorial debut of one of the finest of directors, John Huston, the film, after two previous attempts, finally did justice to writer Dashiell Hammett’s classic genre novel.
The plot, quite famously, recounts how sardonic, far-from virtuous San Francisco P.I. Sam Spade (Bogart again, in the performance that cemented both his stardom and iconic status)gets pulled into the quest for a fabulous jeweled artifact sought by an extremely colorful group of international characters.
Huston was a major directorial force who refused to be pigeon-holed. A decade after The Maltese Falcon he would direct one of the great films noir (The Asphalt Jungle) but The Maltese Falcon doesn’t quite achieve that style. It is a bit fanciful, adventurous and, well, fun: something gritty, serious, character-driven films noir are not. However, the film’s dark view of human nature (which is one connecting thread in Huston’s work) and the study of Spade himself mark it as a film noir forerunner.
The character does come through on the side of “right” by the end but it’s clear that he does so more for his own self-interest than to a moral compass he doesn’t seem to possess. He wraps this caper up tidily (save for some possibly residual feelings) but his day of reckoning is coming. And that story would have made a great film noir.
19. Cat People and The Leopard Man (both 1942, both directed by Jacques Tourneur)/The Seventh Victim (1943) Directed by Mark Robson
Though these three films were directed by two men they are joined together by the imprimatur of a third, RKO producer Val Lewton. Lewton was among the most tasteful and literate men ever to work in Hollywood. He was a longtime assistant to major producer David O.Selznick. He was given his chance to shine by RKO when the studio decided to go into the horror film business.
As often was the case with that wonderful but star-crossed studio, they didn’t get what they wanted but what they did get was superb. Working with studio-enforced, audience-tested titles, Lewton came up with films that did have horror elements, though never unadulterated supernatural ones. They were really studies of the struggle between the savage and civilizing forces that control human beings and their actions, or, more plainly, between light and dark.
The inaugural picture in the cycle, Cat People, came closest to giving the studio what it wanted. Ostensibly, a young woman of supposed Serbian descent periodically turns into a great cat when provoked by strong sexually based passions. Actually the film is a study of repression, guilt, and the weight of the past and how it bears on the individual (very noir themes). The fact that the viewer is literally kept in the dark is just perfect.
Later that same year, the producer and his superb first director (who would go on to direct the key film noir Out of The Past) returned with another film, The Leopard Man. This one had no supernatural elements. Instead the plot relates how a leopard, which was being used as a publicity gimmick by a nightclub performer, escapes and brings death and terror to a small New Mexican town. Or does it? Human elements seem to be involved.
This one was especially important for being an early adaptation of a novel (“Black Alibi”) by Cornell Woolrich, perhaps the quintessential noir writer. Alas, it has both Woolrich’s strengths and weaknesses: the atmosphere and major set pieces (especially as realized by Tourneur) are superb but the plot, as is so often the case with the writer, doesn’t hold together due to wild coincidences, plot holes, and some outrageous devices. Still, the best parts would make any film noir proud.
Most film noir-like of all is a film that was among the least popular at the time of release, The Seventh Victim. Debuting in the thick of World War II, it’s not surprising that this dark and pessimistic film was largely rejected. Using an original concept, the story concerns a sheltered young woman journeying to Greenwich Village in order to locate her only relative, her missing older sister. New York City is hardly a comforting place to start with but her investigations lead to the fact that sis is on the run from a Devil-worshipping cult that feels was betrayed wjem she talked about them to her shrink!
It should be noted that the cult contains no dark hoods, no chalk-drawn pentagrams, candles or chants. Instead, it contains a group of very ordinary people who seem to have a great bitterness or emptiness over what life has brought to them, and when the sister turns up, she proves to be among the most troubled of them all.
The theme of the film is truly about grasping for life in the midst of death (and if that isn’t a film noir theme, what is?). The film ends with what can be interpreted as a double suicide or a suicide and someone else going out to burn off the last of life in a blaze of glory. Thankfully, the censors didn’t watch B films that closely.
20. The Murder Lives at Number 21(1942) and Le Corbeau (1943) Directed by H.G. Clouzot
Finally, at the very entranceway of film noir, comes the director who, if he had to, could have invented film noir all by himself, H.G. Clouzot. Henri Georges Clouzot might well be termed the anti-Renoir since he didn’t care that much about people’s reasons: they are ALL guilty of something.
These two films would be held up from distribution in the U.S due to World War II. Later, the international film scene would acclaim the director for both his existential 1953 thriller, The Wages of Fear, and 1955’s horror-thriller, Les Diabolique, but the acclaim was late and for the wrong films.
Pure undiluted Clouzot is to found in his first two major films. The first was a studio assignment, a thriller with comic elements made to help replace the Hollywood mystery films that could no longer be imported at the time. Yes, the story of a police inspector going undercover in a boarding house in order to uncover the identity of a serial killer does have the requested comic relief but the thriller elements are pitch black.
Le Corbeau, though, is a no-holds-barred picture and got the director in major trouble after the war. The Germans liked to exhibit the film as an example of the evilness of French provincial life and it was, for a time, thought that the director had collaborated with the occupiers. However, in calmer times it seems he was just slamming humanity as a whole.
The plot is set in a small rural town “anywhere in France.” This burg is a hot mess of doctors with questionable ethics, uncompassionate nurses with issues of their own, illicit relationships, individuals of easy virtue and other assorted foibles and vices. It’s already a powder keg and the fuse to ignite it is a wave of particularly vicious poison pen letters from someone signing themselves “Le Corbeau” (the raven or the crow).
The letters are bad enough but the rub is that “Le Corbeau” has to be someone in the know for every letter is dead on the money. The town explodes and the results are hair-raising. The thing is that guilt, innocence, good and evil are all hard to pinpoint (a point espoused by a character who may be the ultimate culprit in the film’s most visually striking scene). Justice of a sort is meted out to two characters by the conclusion but just who was guilty of what remains up in the air. That’s about as pure as film noir can be.
Just as the world grew darker in the time between the end of World War I and the coming of World War II, film also grew darker and found new ways to express the changes taking place in the larger world. By the time the conflagration was over and an uncertain new world had been born, the movies were ready.
Author Bio: Woodson Hughes is a long-time librarian and an even longer time student/fan of film,cinema and movies. He has supervised and been publicist for three different film socieities over the years. He is married to the lovely Natalie Holden-Hughes, his eternal inspiration and wife of nearly four years. You can visit his blog at Stream of Dreams.