Monday, November 11, 2019

Choose Your Own Noirvember

by Rosalie Lewis
We wrapped up #ScaryMovieMonth a little over a week ago, and now we’re on to a month of celebrating films of another type: #Noirvember, started ten years ago by the lovely Marya Gates (formerly of Filmstruck, currently of Netflix). I’ve loved seeing new converts to this celebration of all things film noir (both classic and neo varieties), but sometimes it can be hard to narrow down the viewing options. So to help solve this problem, and because frankly I can’t stop myself from writing about this genre, I’ve devised a little viewing guide/choose your own adventure extravaganza.

Would you prefer classic noir or neo noir?

If you answered classic, start with title #1.

If you answered neo, start with title #5.

1. Ace in the Hole
Kirk Douglas stars as a journalist determined to get the story … and if there isn’t much story to be told, he’ll do what it takes to change that. This Billy Wilder-directed picture almost certainly inspired 2014’s Nightcrawler, and also predicted the spectacles of reality television and clickbait. As with most Wilder films, this one has its fair share of fast talkers and funny lines, but the humor here is acerbic and the characters despicable. It’s a great introduction to film noir without going the route of the innocent man wrongly accused or the cop who’s on the wrong side of the law.

If you enjoy this film, you can pick up the Criterion release for half price all month long thanks to the Barnes and Noble sale.

Do you want more Kirk Douglas or would you rather spend some time in the company of a beautiful woman?

If you answered more Kirk, go to title #2.

If you prefer a lady, go to title #3.

2. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
This film marked Kirk Douglas’s debut on screen (at the recommendation of Lauren Bacall, pretty good bona fides). His character, Walter, is married to Martha (Barbara Stanwyck, a name you’ll come to know quite well if you watch more than like three noir movies). These two don’t have what I’d call the ideal relationship, which is why this isn’t a screwball comedy. Turns out Martha has some pretty nasty secrets from her childhood, and when her old pal Sam (Van Heflin) rolls into town, those secrets seem on the verge of being exposed. As if this little web of iniquity isn’t twisted enough for you, the lovely Lizabeth Scott pops up as a woman just released from jail and seeking the attentions of Van Heflin. But the main thing is, this movie is not afraid to go super dark and it introduced audiences to one of the great screen actors of the 20th century. This movie is streaming for free on Vudu and TubiTV; you can also rent it from Amazon or check your local library for the DVD.

Who do you want to see more of: Barbara Stanwyck or Lizabeth Scott?

If you said Stanwyck, go to #3.

If you said Scott, go to #4.

3. Sorry, Wrong Number
Barbara Stanwyck got an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for this performance, and when you see it you’ll see why. She plays a bedridden woman who overhears a telephone conversation that sounds like a murder plot, and sets about unraveling it herself when the police are of little help. Burt Lancaster plays the woman’s husband and there are appearances from Ed Begley and Wendell Corey as well. The movie was adapted from a radio play by Lucille Fletcher, which originally starred Agnes Moorehead in the Stanwyck role.

You can rent this via Amazon and a few other online platforms.

Do you want to stick with classic noir or try something different?

If you said classic, go to #4.

If you said something different, go to #5.

4. The Racket
Robert Mitchum and Lizabeth Scott co-star in this movie that pits an honest cop against the mob, with Scott playing a smoldering nightclub singer whose testimony puts a target on her back. Another frequent player in noir movies pops up here as the mob boss: Robert Ryan, who had previously worked with Mitchum in Crossfire. The performances here are all terrific, and don’t forget to pay attention to the cinematography by George Diskant. That guy knew how to create atmosphere and mood on a picture—he also worked on They Live By Night, The Narrow Margin, On Dangerous Ground, and Kansas City Confidential. Gorgeous work.

This one is available for online rental on a number of outlets, including Amazon and iTunes.

Time to mix it up! Do you want to try American neo noir, or flee across international borders?

If you said American, go to #5.

If you said international, go to #6.

5. Art School Confidential
You’ve got John Malkovich, Adam Scott, Anjelica Huston, Jim Broadbent, and Steve Buscemi in a movie based on a graphic novel from Daniel Clowes, the guy who gave us Ghost World. Why this movie didn’t succeed on that same level I will never know—maybe the lack of ScarJo? But trust me, you need to see this. Max Minghella stars as an art student named Jerome who begins to realize that success in the art world does not necessarily come from talent—it’s more likely to come from an unusual narrative or something crappy but pretentious. There are many laughs to be had from the more satirical elements of this story, as you may guess. But there’s something sinister going on in the movie as well: A serial killer is on the loose in the community. Jerome finds himself drawn into the mystery as he makes moral compromises in the name of art. Is this movie 100% neo noir? Do I 100% care? Only you can decide.

Rent this on Amazon or Google Play.

Let’s try some noir from another country. Would you prefer Japan or France?

If you said Japan, proceed to #6.

If you said France, proceed to #7.

6. A Colt Is My Passport
Have you met Joe Shishido? If you have, you know. No one forgets those cheekbones. If you haven’t, well, you’re about to. He starred in a ton of Yakuza movies, particularly those released by Nikkatsu movie studio. If you’ve seen him before, it was probably in Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill. This movie came out the same year (1967), directed by Takashi Nomura. It follows Shishido as a contract killer and his partner who get caught in the crossfire of a gang war between rival Yakuza bosses. It’s tense, bold, and features one of the all-time great movie endings. Even though this came out in the late '60s, it’s shot in black and white which makes it feel more like classic noir. The movie’s theme song sounds straight out of a spaghetti Western, with acoustic guitar and whistling; other moments in the film are scored by jazzy piano. It’s pretty entrancing stuff.

You can watch this via Criterion Channel or take your chances on YouTube; it’s also part of Criterion’s Nikkatsu Noir collection that’s on sale for half price this month.

Let’s jump around in time. Do you want to travel into the future or into the past?

If you said future, proceed to #7.

If you said past, proceed to #8.

7. Le Cercle Rouge
Jean Pierre-Melville is the godfather of French new wave noir, which you probably know if you’ve ever seen Le Samourai. This film, released in 1970, has him re-teaming with Alain Delon for a heist film that borrows from Rififi and influenced everyone from John Woo to the Coen Brothers. It’s a slow burn of a movie at 140 minutes, but not in the sense that you’ll ever feel like it’s dragging. Instead, think of it as a movie with a long fuse and there are firecrackers strewn all along it leading up to a barrel full of dynamite.

This movie was out of print for a while but you can stream it right now on Criterion Channel, so take advantage if you can. You can also rent it on YouTube.

Now we’ll try some British noir on for size. Would you prefer something offbeat or something traditional?

If you said offbeat, proceed to #8.

If you said traditional, proceed to #9.

8. The Frightened City
Did you know Sean Connery starred in a film noir before he donned the Bond? Neither did I til about three weeks ago, when my Connery-loving boyfriend tracked down a copy of this movie on eBay. It’s the only noir movie I can remember that features a groovy surf rock soundtrack—I guess that’s what kids in 1961 were into. Connery plays an enforcer for a group of gangsters that band together to collect protection fees from all the local businesses. A couple of Scotland Yard detectives are hoping he’ll turn against his employers and testify. Connery’s affections are divided between two beautiful women, which perhaps is the minimum number of love interests he requires to appear in a picture. Olive McFarland is Sadie, his faithful and sassy longtime gal. Yvonne Romain is the trusty busty Anya, a nightclub singer with a foreign accent, ooh la la. One of the crime bosses collects medieval weapons and torture devices; wonder if that will come into play later in the movie? This isn’t, like, premium grade A cut noir. But it is a lot of fun, and probably not a movie most people have seen even if they do love noir.

I’ll admit this might be tough to track down via streaming, but that’s why interlibrary loan was invented. Put those tax dollars to work!

And now for a directorial debut. UK or USA?

If you want to stay in the UK, go to #9.

If you want something made in the USA, go to #10.

9. Following
Christopher Nolan made this little stunner for $6000 in 1998, shot on 16mm film. A man (Jeremy Theobald) decides to follow various people around London—surely no harm could come from that plan—and happens across some criminal activity. Things escalate from there. Fans of the song "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer" may find a particular scene gratifying. I won’t say more. Highly entertaining, extremely efficient in its 69 minute runtime, and showed the kind of promise Nolan delivered on in spades in his next movie, Memento.

If you don’t have this in your collection already, you can pick it up on Criterion or rent before you buy via Amazon.

Ready for the final film in this little noir journey?

If you said yes, proceed to #10.

If you said no, comment with your favorite 2019 movie and I’ll give you another recommendation.

10. Kill Me Again
If we’ve got to come to the end, we may as well end with a Val Kilmer/Michael Madsen joint. This one was John Dahl’s directorial debut, released in 1989. Kilmer’s then wife, Joanne Whalley, got in on the action as well. The story follows a couple who rip off the mob for a cool million. To shake the heat and keep the dough for herself, the gal arranges for someone to fake her death. Naturally, because this is a neo-noir after all, there are some twists and turns and double backs and betrayals and fakeouts and violence and smarminess. It’s all pretty glorious and gritty, and guaranteed to make you miss Val Kilmer’s glory days.

You can rent this on Amazon and iTunes.

I hope you’ve enjoyed your mini-marathon of noir! Let me know in the comments what you’ve been watching this month, and what’s on your radar.


  1. i watched my new Kino blu-ray of Un Flic yesterday. fantastic movie. and the train heist is something to behold. as my friend said 'the train scene will make CGI lovers cringe until the end of the world', but i love it.

    i never thought of Art School Confidential as Noir, but now that you mention it, it make sense

  2. Jo Shishido is certainly not unknown to me. I saw Branded to Kill in the summer and a few others with him before that, including A Colt is My Passport. It is a fun watch. Those spaghetti western stylings make it stand out from the many Japanese gangster films of the period, particularly in that finale.

    I will try to get around to the 1950 film NIGHT AND THE CITY this month.

    1. Glad to encounter another Shishido appreciator. :)

      Anything Jules Dassin does is golden, so I'm sure you will enjoy Night and the City. Plus it features the magical combo of Gene Tierney and Richard Widmark, so you truly can't lose.

    2. I got around to watching Night And The City, Rosalie. It is terrific all around. The doom of Harry Fabian is very stark even by noir standards. It is a shame that Jules Dassin's American career practically ended after this.

      Another one I watched was Kansas City Confidential, which was shown on TCM's Noir Alley. It is a unique take on a heist story that entertains. I am always glad to see Lee Van Cleef show up on the screen.

  3. Pure Cinema has given me 4 recommendations that I've been meaning to watch:
    Ride the Pink Horse
    The Window
    Report to the Commissioner
    The Phenix City Story

    Pretty sure they're all noir or noirish... High priorities for me this month.

    1. I quite love Ride the Pink Horse; haven't seen the others but I will have to add to my watchlist!

    2. The Window is an excellent film, one of the few noirs with a child as the protagonist. Its portrayal of life in 1940s New York City was a big reason I enjoyed the film. I believe it is based on the same Cornell Woolrich story that inspired Rear Window.