Getting Started with Noir: 10 Films to Watch

  1. The 39 Steps (1935) starring Robert Donat & Madeleine Carroll [https://knightleyemma.com/2019/11/16/the-39-steps/]

2. The Maltese Falcon (1941) starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, & Sydney Greenstreet

3. Laura (1944) starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, & Judith Anderson [https://knightleyemma.com/2008/10/15/classic-movie-review-laura/]

4. Notorious (1946) starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, & Claude Rains [https://knightleyemma.com/2019/10/30/notorious/]

5. The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall

6. The Killers (1946) starring Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner [https://knightleyemma.com/2014/02/08/the-killers-1946/]

7. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas, & Lizabeth Scott [https://knightleyemma.com/2011/09/10/the-strange-love-of-martha-ivers-1946/]

8. Out of the Past (1947) starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, & Kirk Douglas [https://knightleyemma.com/2009/08/05/out-of-the-past-1947/]

9. In a Lonely Place (1950) starring Humphrey Bogart & Gloria Grahame [https://knightleyemma.com/2009/08/23/in-a-lonely-place-1950/]

10. Strangers on a Train (1951) starring Farley Granger, Robert Walker, & Ruth Roman

“Gaslight” (1944) starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton, & Angela Lansbury

Named for this movie, “gaslighting” has become a recognized form of controlling and manipulative behavior. It involves an exploitative person manipulating those who suspect him/her into doubting themselves and questioning their own perceptions, so that they distrust their own suspicions of the manipulator. This behavior is now classified as a form of psychological abuse.

[1] The first scene establishes the dreary tone of the film. It is nighttime in London and a murder goes unsolved.

[2] Charles Boyer has in this film a thankless role, that of a devouring immoralist who has only two possible moods– brief burst of anger needing to be controlled and an exuded charm that must be slightly overdone at times.

[3] The actress – who would soon become blacklisted after her marriage to Italian director Roberto Rossellini – can convey every emotion and nuance of her character through her amazingly expressive eyes. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The original Broadway stage play and source for the screenplay was Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton, which opened at the John Golden Theater on December 5, 1941 and ran for over a 1,200 performances! The original stage cast included Leo G. Carroll, Vincent Price, and Judith Evelyn. After the death of her famous opera singer aunt/guardian, Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), goes to study in Italy to see if she has any talent as a singer as well. She falls in love w/ a charming/older man who works as a composer, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), and they return to London and take up residence in her aunt’s townhouse. Gregory limits her having visitors and going out. He keeps saying that his wife is unwell to anyone who asks. She begins to notice strange goings-on: missing pictures, strange footsteps at night, and gaslights dimming. Paula feels like she may be going out of her mind!

Bergman (who won an Oscar for her role) spent some time in a mental institution to research her role, studying a woman who had suffered a nervous breakdown. This was a suggestion from Cukor, who is known for his ability to draw out fine performances (esp. from women). As my mom commented, this was rare type of role for Bergman. I learned that the actress was initially reluctant to take on this role, as she considered herself to be very strong/independent. She worried that she’d be unable to convincingly play a timid/fragile woman.

Dame Angela Lansbury was only 17 y.o. when she made this- her movie debut! Lansbury (who was nominated for an Oscar) had never acted before her screen test, but she impressed director George Cukor w/ her natural talent. The scene in which the sassy/flirty maid Nancy lights a cigarette, defying her mistress Paula, had to be postponed until near the end of production. The social worker who was monitoring Lansbury refused to allow her to smoke (while she was a minor). New scenes not in the original play were added to this version. Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten) was changed from a stout, sardonic elderly man to a young, handsome one (as a potential love interest for Bergman). For his part, Cotten relished the chance to play a heroic role, as he had done shady/negative roles in the few years before.

Cukor asked producers (who were reluctant) to hire Paul Huldschinsky to design the Victorian sets. Huldschinsky was a German refugee who fled his native country because of WWII. He knew much re: upper-class European decor, b/c his family had grown wealthy through their newspaper business and his wife was the heiress of a railroad fortune. When he moved to the U.S. most of that money was gone and he got by working on smaller pictures. However, his luck changed w/ this picture, and Huldschinsky won an Oscar for set design.

Film Noir re: Pandemics: "Panic in the Streets" & "The Killer Who Stalked New York"

Panic in the Streets (1950) starring Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Jack Palance & Zero Mostel

This is a lesser-known movie from director Elia Kazan; it was made before his masterpieces: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden. In New Orleans, an illegal immigrant feels sick and leaves a poker game while defeating the small time criminal Blackie (a young Jack Palance). He is chased by Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel- best known for Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway) and Poldi (Guy Thomajan), then shot by Blackie. His body is dumped in the sea and recovered the next morning by some beat cops.

A police surgeon notices something unusual when he cuts into the body. Lt. Cmdr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark), a family man and doctor w/ the U.S. Public Health Service, is called in to to examine the body. He diagnoses a highly contagious disease- pneumonic plague- and declares that everyone who may have had contact w/ the dead man be found ASAP. The mayor supports his efforts, though some other civic leaders are doubtful. Reed estimates there are 48 hours before the disease begins to spread. He joins a gruff policeman- Capt. Tom Warren (Paul Douglas)- to find the killers.

In the scene where Palance hits Widmark on the head w/ a gun, the actors rehearsed it with a rubber gun, but when the cameras rolled, Palance substituted a real gun. Widmark, who wasn’t expecting it, was out for 20 mins! Widmark commeted: “Why did he switch? Who knows?” In an interview, Widmark recalled how Palance got into the mood of his character by beating on Zero Mostel (off-screen). Mostel had to go to the hospital after his first week on the movie!

…a simple story, but it is still effective and with a great villain. The engaging plot has not become dated… Jack Palance performs a despicable scum in his debut, and the camera work while he tries to escape with Zero Mostel is still very impressive.

You can feel, see and smell the New Orleans of 1950, thanks to Kazan, his cast and script.

The great thing about this movie is the Oscar winning script. The dialog in this movie is also absolutely magnificent and gives the movie a feel of reality and credibility.

Kazan’s work offers a contrast between the confusion, sickness and immorality of the streets with the modest, calm home life of the Reeds. Despite all the danger, ultimately he returns back to the bosom of his family justified and satisfied. The implication being that social balance has been restored, at least for the moment by his professionalism and curative skills.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The Killer Who Stalked New York (1950) starring Evelyn Keyes, Charles Korvin, William Bishop, & Dorothy Malone

Columbia Pictures paid director/producer Allen H. Miner $40,000 for the rights to this story (based on a smallpox outbreak in NYC in 1947). Millions of New Yorkers were vaccinated against the disease. Robert Osborne (TCM) said that Columbia had to sit on the movie for about 6 months in order to let the similarly-plotted Panic in the Streets to leave the theaters. Sheila Bennet (Evelyn Keyes) returns to NYC from Cuba carrying $40,000 worth of smuggled diamonds – and smallpox, which could start a devastating epidemic. A treasury agent loses her, but keeps on the trail, while Public Health doctor Dr. Ben Wood searches for the unknown person spreading the deadly disease. Sheila is concerned only with her husband Matt, who plans to run off w/ the diamonds… and maybe also Shelia’s younger sister!

Keyes (a prolific actress best known as Scarlett’s younger sister- Suellen- in Gone with the Wind) thought that studio head (Harry Cohn) cast her in this (un-glamorous) role as payback for rejecting his advances. She sued Cohn and the studio, settled out of court, and was released from her contract. Keyes’ hair was bleached blond and she had on unflattering makeup (making her look older than her 34 yrs.)

With the country presently in the mist of a viral outbreak that has the entire state under quarantine and the country on full alert, The Killer that Stalked New York is as pertinent today as it was when it was released in 1950.

What we have then is a gritty, somewhat newsreel sounding (and looking) film whose narrator walks us through all the ironies of modern urban epidemiology.

The anthrax attacks of 2001, the fears of weaponized smallpox being used by terrorists, the concerns about vaccinations and the amount and safety of vaccines, the inability of governmental agencies to work together and share information effectively all come to mind when one watches this film.

The biggest problem is the direction, which is also all over the place. With a story like this you’d expect some sort of tension or suspense but none never happens. Keyes is pretty good in her role but the screenplay really doesn’t do her any justice as our feelings for her character are never really made clear.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Midsommar” (2019) starring Florence Pugh

I think this film depicts a broader social commentary about cult mindset – the destruction of one’s individualism and systematic breakdown of one’s personality to become part of a “collective”/hive mindset.

To have another person acknowledge your grief, confusion and deep inner pain would be therapeutic. Instead of ignoring it, denying it, putting a mask on to try and be ‘happy’ without help. …the friend tells Christian, ‘dude, she needs therapy’ and he’s right- she does. But the group of boys Dani travels with are unable or unwilling to sympathize with her- the main person who should, Christian, was checked out.

I was also disappointed in how the main characters were handled. I hoped they would be given some depth, but they ended up becoming cliche caricatures.

-Excerpts from reviews posted on YouTube

Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are a young American couple with a relationship on the brink of falling apart. But after a family tragedy keeps them together, a grieving Dani invites herself to join Christian and his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village. What begins as a carefree summer holiday in a land of eternal sunlight takes a sinister turn when the insular villagers invite their guests to partake in festivities that render the pastoral paradise increasingly unnerving and viscerally disturbing. -Synopsis from A24 (studio)

Whoa, WHAT did I just see!? And what does it mean? This indie horror film, or perhaps psychological drama, is now on streaming (Amazon Prime). The writer/director, Ari Astor, explained that this was the story of a break-up. It’s also about the individual’s need for connection, community, and acceptance. Warning: This is NOT for everyone, as it is slow, has a long running time, and has several scenes (incl. blood, nudity, etc.) which will be difficult for sensitive viewers. I heard re: this film in Summer 2019 from a few podcasts, so did get spoiled on some of the events. I was even shocked by the gruesome nature of two scenes in particular.

He’s my good friend and I like him, but… Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you? -Pelle asks re: Christian

Pugh (Amy in Little Women) does a fine job w/ her role; sadly, she is the ONLY character who is well-developed. We can empathize w/ Dani, who suffers a great loss, lives w/ anxiety, and fears being “too needy.” She is studying Psychology in grad school; she could benefit from some counseling herself. Reynor (an American/Irish actor) doesn’t have much of a screen presence, though he is tall and conventionally handsome. He is the boyfriend who has one foot out the door; from the get go, we know he’s NOT deeply invested in the relationship. Later, he tries to “collaborate” w/ Josh, who is more of a scholar and has done background work on the Harga. As some critics commented, Christian didn’t deserve the harsh ending which he received.

Christian and his fellow American pals (Mark and Josh) don’t speak and act like grad students in Anthropology; they seem like stereotypical/insensitive frat boys. Pelle (Swedish actor Vilhelm Blomgren) is the friend who invites the others to spend the Summer in his community; he seems trusty, sensitive and kind. Pelle is concerned about Dani’s mental state; it has only been a few months since she had a tragedy in her life. Mark (British actor Will Poulter) is the comic element; he wants just get high, and to hook up w/ Swedish women (who he calls “the most beautiful in the world”). One the other hand, Josh (American actor William Jackson Harper), has a curious mind and plans to do his thesis on these Harga people.

This film is very white; it’s about an insular/rural Swedish commune where the sun always shines. I did like seeing the diversity when it came to age, body type, and size. There are some scenes w/o English subtitles, so most viewers will be confused like the Americans. A black journo commented that she didn’t like seeing the few people of color (POC), incl. Josh and the British couple- Connie (Elloria Torchi from Indian Summers) and Simon (Archie Madekwe)- being used as one-note plot devices. Was this intentional? Or is this what happens in most horror stories to everyone, incl. POC?

Some things work very well in this film. Aster has a vision and he goes for it full-force (world-building). It is unusually beautiful to look at and the cinematography is award-worthy; it was shot primarily in Hungary (stand-in for Sweden). The special effects are unique; I’ve never seen anything like it). A few viewers commented that these reflect what it feels like to be on ‘shrooms. You will find yourself wondering- how did Aster come up w/ this stuff!? I learned that he conducted years of research. FYI: The rituals conducted all have basis in history- yikes!

Rewatch: Notorious (1946) starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, & Claude Rains

Following the conviction of her (German) father for treason, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, in her early 30s) takes to heavy drinking and partying. One night, she meets a stranger at her bungalow in Miami (a party crasher). They drink long into the night (after her pals leave or fall asleep drunk), and she insists on going on a drive. When Alicia’s car is stopped for speeding and swerving on the highway, the stranger shows the cop his ID. The cop salutes him and quickly drives off, issuing her no ticket. Alicia gets very angry and combative when she realizes that her passenger is a government agent, T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant).

The next morning, he reveals that the feds have been bugging her house for 3 mos; she shared the place with her father. We also discover that Alicia is patriotic (she had an American mother and adopted the US as her homeland) and detests the doings of her father. The feds want Alicia to spy on some of her father’s old (Nazi) friends operating in Brazil. They land in Rio, Alicia quits drinking, and over a week, she and Devlin develop feelings for each other. She says “I love you” to him, but he doesn’t say those exact words back. They plan to have a romantic chicken dinner together (in her apartment), but Devlin is called away.

When Devlin goes to see his boss, Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), he learns details about the mission which has been chosen for Alicia. His heart sinks- she will have to seduce a wealthy and powerful man, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who used to have feelings for her. The feds seem to think this will be an easy task for a woman (“not a lady”) like Alicia, who is “notorious” not only for her father’s crimes, but her wild lifestyle.

Wow, who knew Alfred Hitchcock could do romance this well!? It helps that he has megastar (and gorgeous) co-leads in Grant and Bergman who help to anchor this story. When these two actors are close- it’s like sparks are flying onscreen! Bergman is playing against type here (as some critics have noted). She looks tired, hungover, and disheveled the morning after she meets Devlin. Grant is quite reined in (as his character demands), so you need to focus on his eyes and the (small) expressions of his face. If you’ve only seen younger (he’s 42 here) and comedic Grant movies, you’re esp. in for a treat.

Hitch does a lot of things which reveal him to be “the master of suspense”- building tension w/ music, unique takes on close-ups, playing w/ shadows, and the trope of the controlling mother (played here by a formidable-looking Austrian theater actress- Leopoldine Konstantin). Even mundane domestic moments in the Sebastian mansion are made suspenseful, thanks to the director’s choices. The screenplay (which is lean, yet still gripping) by Ben Hecht scored an Academy Award nomination. Character is revealed not only through what is said, but w/ tone and action. Some embraces, kisses, and laughs conceal the truth, others reveal the truth. After all, Alicia and Devlin hide their love for each other, b/c of the mission and- like ordinary people- b/c they’re afraid of getting hurt.