Noir

QUICKSAND (1950)

Quicksand 1950

Quicksand refers to the impressively pathetic hole that Danny Brady (Mickey Rooney) digs for himself throughout this fatalistic workingman’s noir. What starts as “borrowing” $20 from the till at the garage where he works turns into grand larceny and murder. The film’s message damning greed is steeped in gritty atmosphere provided by Long Beach’s waterfront amusement park, The Pike. As Danny sinks further into the clutches of fate, he learns the hard way that stealing money from the till is just the tip of the corruption iceberg.

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PLEASE MURDER ME (1956)

Please Murder Me

In hindsight, you know why Angela Lansbury makes such a wicked femme fatale? After planting herself in the national consciousness as kindly old gumshoe Jessica Fletcher for 12 years, seeing her in a role like Myra in Please Murder Me is jarring. Earlier in her career she scored big playing baddies and this little B-thriller is a great example of her dark side. Directed by Peter Godrey (The Two Mrs. Carrolls), Please Murder Me is 74-minutes of nasty little power plays and shocking revenge through sacrifice. And one super sketchy murder trial.

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T-MEN (1947)

T-Men 1947

T-Men is one of those semi-documentary films (like Call Northside 777) that brown noses the feds, but viewers expecting an over-staged presentation of federal prowess will be surprised. These “semi-documentary” films are usually not my bag, but this one is seriously dark and downright ruthless in parts. It also never romanticizes the life of a U.S. Treasury agent. It does quite the opposite, in fact. There’s a fair amount of newsreel propaganda and even a “public service announcement” from the Secretary of Treasury acting as prologue, but T-Men feels way more like a brooding underworld noir than stiff government kitsch.

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ROAD HOUSE (1948)

Road House 1948

First off, I wanna say that the road house depicted in Road House is AWESOME. It’s low-ceilinged, built like a log cabin. There’s a bowling alley, a bar, a sporting goods store, and Ida Lupino playing piano. This is the coolest (fictional) joint west of Chicago. Now if it wasn’t for the tension between its manager and owner, Jefty’s Road House would be perfect.

After Richard Widmark struck it big with Kiss of Death and Street With No Name, Ida Lupino personally requested that he play in Road House, which was her star vehicle. He essentially plays a variation of Tommy Udo, with the psychotic tendencies clicked down a few notches. But ho boy does he resurrect that beautiful, unnerving laugh from hell. Road House, directed by Jean Negulesco (Mask of Dimitrios), has a simple story infused with brilliant dialogue and heaps of noir aesthetics. Man, I really love this sharp little movie.

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FORCE OF EVIL (1948)

Force of Evil 1948

Dammit, Joe. What have you done? Like Dorris said, you’re an evil man. “Evil,” huh. That’s not a word someone throws around too easily, ‘cept when they’re talking about some crooked ass politician or a villain in a comic book. But you, Joe Morse, you’re just a lawyer with his hands in a few pockets. Does that make you evil? Maybe, Joe. Maybe.

Filmmaker Abraham Polonsky first worked with actor John Garfield (The Postman Always Rings Twice) on the boxing film Body and Soul. For his directorial debut (and only film for over 20 years), Polonsky adapted Ira Wolfert’s novel Tucker’s People – a strongly researched journalistic tale of the illegal numbers racket. In the hands of Polonsky, Force of Evil transcended the novel’s concentration on this one crime and instead held up a mirror to the entire system. Unlike most film noirs that chart the corruption and demise of one man, Force of Evil broadly looks at the destruction of an entire organization, and the cops and politicians that surround it – making it a wholly significant American film and a major film noir.

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THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946

The first American adaptation of Cain’s 1934 lurid classic is the 1946 Tay Garnett directorial effort The Postman Always Rings Twice. The funny thing is, in the novel, there’s no postman and he never rings twice. It’s never alluded to, nor is the line ever spoken by any of the characters. Many have speculated on Cain’s reasoning for the title, though the author himself explained that it came out of a conversation with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence, who would become relieved when he would hear the postman ringing twice because he was eager to know the results of a submitted manuscript. Cain figured it would well as a metaphor, so he used it.

In Garnett’s film, the character of Frank gives a totally ridiculous and superfluous dialogue about “ringing twice” right before his execution. I suppose they didn’t want to confuse audiences with the title, so they threw that in there. Anyways, The 1946 Postman Rings Twice is a dark and claustrophobic film that lacks the tragic punch of Visconti’s Ossessione three years earlier, but packs its own steamy noir wallop that’s got sexual chemistry to spare between its two stars, John Garfield and Lana Turner.

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PRIVATE HELL ’36 (1954)

Private Hell 36

So far on this journey through noir, the meanest crooked cops I’ve come across are featured in Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Prowler. Hell, the latter is going to be nearly impossible to beat. But here’s another bullet-proof example of noir’s police force with polished palms and bulging pockets, as well as the lengths they’ll go to saddle a dame. Co-written by the queen bee Ida Lupino, Private Hell 36 is a subtly smart film that mounts and screws the idealism of the mid-1950s. And looks good doing it.

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PLUNDER ROAD (1957)

Plunder Road 1957

On the surface, there doesn’t seem like Plunder Road has much going for it. No big name stars, a low budget, and a second string Turkish director with a total output of eight films. But holy hell, this is one remarkable slice of noir. From the opening sequence in which a cast of hardboiled crooks pull off a multimillion dollar heist in the pouring rain, to the impossibly tense freeway climax, Plunder Road is one mean little film. Everything superfluous has been stripped away. Dialogue is scarce. Characterizations and back story are vague. All that’s left is an astounding exercise in crime and punishment.

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HUMAN DESIRE (1954)

Human Desire

Human Desire isn’t nearly as good as the previous year’s Fritz Lang, Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame collaboration, The Big Heat, but for what it’s worth, the film has a lot going for it. The main issue I had with it is Ford’s hollow performance. Typically he’s always on point, elevating the other actors whenever he shares a scene with them without chewing the scenery. His performance is really flat in Human Desire though. It seems like the studio threw the three of them together in an attempt to replicate the success of The Big Heat, but it just didn’t work as well this go around. Ford seems bored by the murder and seduction going on around him. Regardless, Grahame brings her trademark sultriness and Lang’s camerawork is darkly wonderful as always, making Human Desire an admirable noir.

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THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948)

The Street With No Name 1948

Fresh off his Oscar nomination for Kiss of Death, Richard Widmark was scooped up as a contract player for Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox. While Tommy Udo was a pure sadist through and through, Widmark’s villainous character in The Street With No Name is a much more likable snake. The film is an unofficial sequel to House on 92nd Street and was one of many procedurals backed by the feds, who gave director William Keighley and the rest of his crew access to their offices, crime labs, and training facilities. While most of these J. Edgar Hoover handjobs can be pretty drab, as their main goal is to hype up the FBI and make all their agents look like golden boys, The Street With No Name is a fairly gritty film, anchored with strong performances by Widmark and Mark Stevens (The Dark Corner).

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