by Rosalie Lewis
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.
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)
The Last Seduction (1994, directed by John Dahl)
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)
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)
Dead Calm (1989, directed by Phillip Noyce)
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)
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)
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.