As far as anybody knows me by rep, they probably associate me with horror movies, maybe even Westerns. But noir films are a major interest of mine. I went almost half my life without any appreciation for the genre, but I was lucky enough to be prompted to study them at Wesleyan University, where I had access to explore these amazing films, before streaming services or even Blu-Ray existed. More importantly, every time my uncle and I get together, this is what we watch. It might not be my go-to field of expertise, but I love to be educated.
So here’s my list of five – I spent a lot of time deliberating over what to include before realizing that it’s such a rich genre that I could pick almost any five and not go wrong. So I just hurried up and picked a handful at random. With these five, trust me, you won’t go wrong.
Most noir experts call Out Of The Past (1947) one of the finest films in the entire history of the genre, and I surely agree. It’s literally a perfect movie. The Big Steal doesn’t reach those heights, mainly because few movies can. But it’s worth revisiting if only because it reunites the stars of Out Of The Past, Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum. That’s a gigantic “if only.” Like Out Of The Past, The Big Steal was written by Daniel Mainwaring, this time adapting someone else’s source material rather than his own. Instead of Jacques Tourneur as director, we have Don Siegel, whose skill set is different but no less estimable. He’s more of a straight shooter, so to me, The Big Steal feels a mite more conventional than Out Of The Past, not as lyrical or romantic. Still a better-than-average example of a movie genre with more than its share of better-than-average.
Lee Marvin aside, there’s no studio-era leading-man-slash-character-actor I love harder than Robert Ryan. In life he was a good man, but on screen he had a tremendous capacity for viciousness. What fascinates me about Ryan is how even when playing vicious men, his eyes suggested an inner torment, either causing or caused by the deeds his characters committed. It just wasn’t in him to play one-note villains. House Of Bamboo, directed by the master Sam Fuller, is a potent example of Cinemascope color-noir. It was shot by Joseph MacDonald, who also shot My Darling Clementine, itself a striking film visually since it beautifully and surprisingly wedded noir aesthetics to the expanses of the John Ford Western. If only for the look of it, and for the location photography of Japan, House Of Bamboo is an under-discussed gem, but Robert Ryan is what makes it essential. Robert Ryan is what makes American movies essential, really.
The Lineup (1958)
If up above I suggested Don Siegel was in any way a step down from Jacques Tourneur, I hope to make it clear, that wasn’t the aim. He’s one of my favorite directors and on a list limited to five, I’m naming another one of his films. This one works largely as a showcase for a single actor. The great and probably still underrated Eli Wallach plays a real nasty character called Dancer, who commits certain acts of violence in this movie that are truly shocking – I mean, the kind that’ll make you say “Oh shit!” out loud, and that’s even by the hardened standards of a modern moviegoer like myself who’s been on the receiving end of movie-maniac cruelty as depicted by practitioners as varied as Wes Craven and John Woo. Not sure anybody thinks of Eli Wallach immediately when asked to name the most unforgettable villains in American film, but go see The Lineup and get back to me.
Though I’m sure there’s plenty that can (rightly) be said about the appropriations and likely inaccuracies of Hollywood studio pictures depicting foreign locales and locals without ever leaving the soundstages of Los Angeles, there’s still something fascinating to me about them, the same way “spaghetti” Westerns are so enthralling to me. There’s a cultural dissonance to movies like that which feels weird to me and almost a little otherworldly. As these movies go, I feel like director Josef Von Sternberg’s earlier Far East noir The Shanghai Gesture is probably more, as the youths say, “problematic” when looked at with modern-day eyes. As art, Macao is probably slighter and maybe even more fun. It’s a trade-off maybe. Either way, this one has Gloria Grahame, from In A Lonely Place and The Big Heat, one of the absolute greatest noir actors there ever was. Seek her out!
If the game is picking underrated movies, Thieves’ Highway might not qualify; after all, it’s in the Criterion Collection. In the context of director Jules Dassin’s career, though, it’s definitely underrated – the two movies he made before this one were Brute Force and The Naked City, two of the greatest noirs, period, and the two movies he made after it were Night And The City and Rififi, which are also two of the greatest noirs, period. Thieves’ Highway stars noir stalwart Richard Conte, best known to most of us as Barzini from The Godfather, and it’s a vengeance-fueled crime story about truckers, which is low-key one of my favorite subgenres. Jules Dassin is one of the great directors of all time, surely highly qualified to be called “underrated,” although I hope more people continue to discover and appreciate and learn from his wonderful films.
Jon Abrams is the Editor-In-Chief at Daily Grindhouse. He is a New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac whose complete work and credits can be found at his site, Demon’s Resume. You can contact him on Twitter as @JonZilla___