Monday, August 31, 2020

Noir City Couch-y : A Film Noir Festival You Can Attend From Home

by Rosalie Lewis
Take me down to the film noir city
Where the lights are neon and the dames are witty
Oh won’t you please take me home?

Normally at this time of year, I’d be choosing my vintage outfits and counting down the minutes until I’d be safely ensconced in the Music Box Lounge, mingling with fellow noir aficionados and hoping for a Czar of Noir Eddie Muller sighting. That’s right, I’m talking about Noir City Chicago, the most wonderful time of my movie year, when I get to spend a week basking in the flickers of exquisitely lit motion pictures where there’s more than likely a double cross, a heist gone wrong, or a murder being pinned on the wrong man. Sadly, this year Covid has robbed us of this wondrous spectacle; so in its absence, I’m taking it upon myself to program Noir Couch-y: A film noir lineup you can watch from the safety of your own living room. I hope you’ll watch along with me, and discover some new favorites or re-discover some old favorites along the way.
I sneaked a peek at the programming of San Francisco’s Noir City 2020 because that happened pre-pandemic, and it appears that lots of cool international titles were on the agenda. I’m going to incorporate some international noir on my program as well, though I sadly do not have access to all the same titles that the Film Noir Foundation does (yet). I’m including films that can be readily tracked down online or at least via physical media that you could arguably get from your local library if you don’t own it yourself. Also, many prior years of Noir City have included a few neo-noir masterpieces, so I’m adding a few of those for variety.

DAY ONE: She’s Crafty (and she’s just my type)

The Letter (1940, directed by William Wyler)
Bette Davis stars as a woman who killed a man, claiming she had no choice because he was attempting to assault her. But the truth might be more complicated. This movie was scripted by Howard Koch, who wrote another letter-themed film, the Max Ophuls gem Letter From an Unknown Woman, in addition to co-writing Casablanca. Frequent Bette Davis collaborator Tony Gaudio served as cinematographer. I’m excited to finally watch this, which many cite as their favorite Bette Davis performance. It’s available for rent on Amazon and probably some other outlets as well.

The Last Seduction (1994, directed by John Dahl)
You’ve never seen Linda Fiorentino like this, at her wiliest and most conniving but still sexy as hell and pretty damn funny too. She plays Bridget, who steals some ill-gotten funds from her doctor hubby (Bill Pullman) and hits the road. In a small town dive bar, she meets a local guy (Peter Berg) with something to prove and it’s off to the races. Later, Bill Nunn joins the party as a private investigator and brings his usual panache to the fore. I recently watched and loved this movie on HBO; it’s also available pretty cheap on DVD if you prefer a physical copy.

DAY TWO: Nikkatsu Noir

I Am Waiting (1957, directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara)

Nikkatsu Corporation was founded in 1912, making it the oldest Japanese film studio. Criterion has curated an Eclipse box set with five of their noir titles, and this is the first one on the set. Like so many American noir films, this one features a boxer, gangster action, a beautiful but depressed club singer, and people in desperate situations. Yujiro Ishihara and Mie Kitahara star, fresh off their success in Crazed Fruit.

Rusty Knife (1958, directed by Toshio Masuda)
The two stars of I Am Waiting are joined by the inimitable Jo Shishido in this picture of an ex-con who may get an opportunity for vengeance against a powerful crime syndicate after the death of his fiancée. Art direction on this picture comes from Akira Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Matsuyama, and the score is from yet another Kurosawa crony, Masaru Sato. In other words, you’re in real good hands.

Take Aim at the Police Van (1960, directed by Seijun Suzuki)

If you’ve ever seen Suzuki masterpieces Branded to Kill or Tokyo Drifter, you know you’re going to be in for something special when his name is at the top of the marquee. Criterion’s description calls it a “taut and twisty whodunit,” so I’m pretty much sold automatically.

Cruel Gun Story (1964, directed by Takumi Furukawa)

Our favorite cheek implant recipient (really), Jo Shishido, is back in this movie about a man who plots an armored car heist to pay for his sister’s surgery after an accident leaves her confined to a wheelchair. Will things go smoothly? I doubt it!

All of these movies are currently streaming on Criterion Channel.

DAY THREE: It Came From the '80s

Jagged Edge (1985, directed by Richard Marquand)

This one’s fresh in my mind because I just watched it this week. Glenn Close plays a lawyer/mom defending Jeff Bridges against charges of a brutal murder of his wife and their maid. It’s the only noir I know that features a Ghostbusters poster in a kid’s room (and also a Return of the Jedi poster, a sort of Easter Egg given Marquand directed that too). The best thing about this movie is Robert Loggia and his potty mouth. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (who would go on to write Basic Instinct and Showgirls) gives Loggia all the best lines, and consequently Loggia was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar. You can rent it online via Amazon.

52 Pick-Up (1986, directed by John Frankenheimer)

Roy Schneider is blackmailed with a sex tape in this Elmore Leonard-penned film, also starring Ann-Margret, Kelly Preston, Vanity, and John Glover. It was released by Cannon Films, so technically you could save this one for next Junesploitation too, I suppose. If you got lucky during the Twilight Time going out of business sale, you might own a physical copy of this; otherwise, it’s currently streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime.

Body Heat (1981, directed by Lawrence Kasdan)
This sultry erotic thriller gives us the steamy pairing of William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. A Florida heat wave may contribute to the lack of clothing worn in this movie, but who’s complaining? As with so many erotic thrillers of the time period, John Barry provides the score. We get appearances from the likes of Mickey Rourke, Ted Danson, and Richard Crenna. Inspired by the works of crime writer James Cain, this is a neo noir for the ages (but not for all ages, if you catch my drift). For rent on all the major streaming sites.

Dead Calm (1989, directed by Phillip Noyce)
First up, we have young Nicole Kidman when she was still sporting that Aussie accent. Second, we have Sam Neill who basically gives me my life motto (What Would Sam Neill Not Do) to avoid bad situations. And then we have Billy Zane on a sinking ship that is *not* the Titanic. Making this even better, the movie is based on a novel Orson Welles tried for years to adapt into a film—and while it may not be Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons, it’s pretty damn entertaining. Also! George Miller apparently directed some sequences of this movie. How much more awesome do you need? None. None more awesome.

DAY FOUR: Parlez-vous Francais?

Shoot the Piano Player (1960, directed by Francois Truffaut)

Charles Aznavour stars as a downtrodden pianist in a Parisian night club. A waitress played by Marie Dubois (Jules and Jim, A Woman Is a Woman, La Ronde) falls in love with him, but every downtrodden dive bar pianist has a past they’re probably not telling you about. Truffaut adapted this from a novel by David Goodis, the writer behind such noir classics as Nightfall and Dark Passage; but of course since it’s French New Wave, it’s probably going to have some unexpected elements from your typical noir. That said, Truffaut was a big fan of American noir directors Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller, and this was nothing if not a loving homage to his American counterparts.

Le Trou (1960, directed by Jacques Becker)

I love a good prison escape movie, and Le Trou promises to be just that. This one stars Michel Constantin (who also appeared in Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle), Marc Michel (best known for his collaborations with Jacques Demy in Lola and Umbrellas of Cherbourg), Jean Keraudy (an actual criminal who was involved in the escape attempt this movie documents), Philippe Leroy (who worked with the likes of Dario Argento, Jean-Luc Godard, and Luc Besson), and French character actor Raymond Meunier.

Both of these films can currently be seen on the Criterion Channel.

DAY FIVE: British Blokes

The Long Good Friday (1980, directed by John MacKenzie)
The two reasons I can’t wait to watch this film are Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. Honestly, I don’t need anything else to recommend it. But I suppose it might intrigue you to know that this movie deals with police corruption, IRA conflict, and economic uncertainty in 1970s Britain. An actor I truly can’t abide, Pierce Brosnan, makes an appearance here, too, but I’ll let it slide this time. Watch it on Criterion Channel.

Brighton Rock (1947, directed by John Boulting)

Richard Attenborough plays a ruthless gangster named Pinkie Brown in this adaptation of a Graham Greene novel. I haven’t watched it yet so I only skimmed the plot description on Wikipedia, but it mentions a murder on an amusement park ride so that sounds pretty promising. Also, the Daily Mirror apparently found the violence too shocking for its moral standards, and insisted that it should not be shown to the public. Clearly, it found an audience anyway. It’s currently rentable on Amazon.

DAY SIX: Made by Women

Destroyer (2018, directed by Karyn Kusama)

Nicole Kidman looks a bit different here than in Dead Calm—older and angrier and still able to command our attention anytime she’s onscreen. Even though film noir has existed for 80 years or so, we still don’t see many noir or neo-noir films directed by women. I’d love to see that change and this is a good recent example of the lens a woman can bring to movies about possibly irredeemable people. Kidman plays a cop who seems to have lost her moral compass a while ago, playing both sides of the law to accomplish her ends. The Film Noir Foundation says, “To observe her is to be enchanted and repelled in almost equal measure.” I’m into it. See this on Hulu.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014, directed by Diao Yinan/produced by Vivian Qu)

This Chinese film may not be directed by a woman, but it’s produced by one and its premise is both grisly and fascinating: Dismembered human body parts start appearing in coal shipments in China’s Heilongjiang Province in 1999. In 2004, the same thing starts happening again and the detective who investigated the first case gets pulled back in. I’m eager to watch this one, which is currently available on Shudder.

DAY SEVEN: Two From Otto Preminger

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950, directed by Otto Preminger)

Noir regulars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney co-star in this cynical picture about a cop whose father was a hood and therefore he hates all criminals. If you know the name Otto Preminger, it’s probably because of his previous work with these two: Laura, Whirlpool, and Fallen Angel. This was his last movie for Fox, and while this may not be quite at the level of Laura, it still got high marks from critics upon release. This is the only film on the list I can’t find streaming, but it is available on DVD should you want to track it down.

Daisy Kenyon (1947, directed by Otto Preminger)
Joan Crawford plays the title role and the aforementioned Dana Andrews co-stars along with Henry Fonda in the final night of our virtual film fest. Despite the warring egos of Crawford and Preminger during production and the fact that Joan was playing a character 10 years younger than her actual age, the results speak for themselves in this love triangle that was forced to dodge Hays Code censorship at every turn. It’s available to rent on Amazon Prime.

That wraps up this Noir Fest! Be sure to tell me what you find time to watch in the comments, and add any suggestions you have so I can add them to my own watchlist.


  1. I recently watched THE LAST SEDUCTION for the first time in an effort to get over my Linda Fiorentino allergy. I liked that movie a lot, and I totally get why she popped into an indie It Girl for that brief period of time.

    1. I will always associate her most with Dogma, because that movie hit me at a pivotal time and I love her in it. I'm glad you liked Last Seduction!

  2. Ohhhhhh boy. Thank you a million times for bringing this to my attention!

    1. You're welcome a million times! :) I hope you enjoy some of these titles. Let me know if a favorite emerges!

  3. Great choices! Jo Shishido rules. Every time I watch 52 Pick-Up, I feel like taking a shower afterward; slime and sleaze ooze from the DVD itself!

    1. I'm glad to know you're a Shishido fan, he's the best! I was very sad to hear of his passing earlier this year.

      And thanks for the heads up on 52 Pick Up, I'll have to make sure I regularly clean my DVD shelf for slime and sleaze! haha!

  4. I love Noir, but not the ones from the 1980s with the exception of “Chinatown”. The so called Noir from the 1980s weren’t as good as those from the 40s through the 1950s.