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Existential heroes. Psychotic villains. Fatalistic femme fatales.
Noir could be described as the wrong fork in the road taken by the desperate middle class. Their experience typically leaves them cynical, jaded and merciless, which is like life itself with the veneer of civility stripped away.
Here is a list of films in the Criterion Collection that drill to the soul of human greed, avarice and lusty desire in that brooding, deadly genre known as noir.
Years ahead of its time and a template for the French New Wave to follow. As Mickey Spillane's brutal detective Mike Hammer, Ralph Meeker sneers and snarls and bare-knuckle fights his way through L.A.'s corrupt underbelly of scum on his obsessive quest for what his mistress calls "The Great Whatsit." It's a MacGuffin with a hot bang; a plutonium punch in the gut for the Cold-War era. Savage. Ugly. Relentless. Directors are still trying to understand and duplicate the incredible effects of this Robert Aldrich masterpiece. Gets my vote for greatest film noir of all time.
Not a false note in this cynical tale of post-war Vienna. Mysterious, bleak, amoral. A hypnotic musical score composed for a stringed instrument known as a zither, which is simultaneously cheerful and vaguely sinister -- rather like the peculiar character Harry Lime, the titular "Third Man.". One of the greatest closing shots in film history; so good that Martin Scorsese riffed on it in The Departed.
The granddaddy of caper films. A famous silent sequence lasts the duration of the heist, tightening the suspense to unbearable levels. Enough fatalism for three films.
The film that put Kubrick on the radar of cineastes everywhere. A sordid tale of low-lifes robbing a racetrack. Career-defining performances from Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook Jr. and the compulsively watchable Timothy Carey, who would damn-near top himself the following year in Kubrick's seminal anti-war film Paths of Glory. The Killing's innovative non-linear structure has been endlessly imitated, notably by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs.
Effective minimalism on a budget as a brooding hitman wanders the city, contemplating his job. Great look at the grime and grit of New York City in the early 1960s. Filmed on a pittance; looks like a million bucks.
A vicious little noir by Sam Fuller, that master of the low-budget independents. Richard Widmark always came off half-crazy. Here he's full-blown and over the edge.
Director Louis Malle made a star of stunning Jeanne Moreau in this Parisian crime thriller in which the lover of a wealthy woman conspires to murder her husband. As with many great noirs, weird coincidences and a surplus of bad luck leads to inevitable doom. Great jazz score composed and performed by the incomparable Miles Davis.
Jean Renoir, the son of French Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, made this film noir before there was a name for the genre. Jean Gabin (Grand Illusion) stars as a train engineer prone to violent seizures. When the wife of the railyard owner tries to seduce the engineer, the film veers into the dark realm of two classic noir tropes: madness and murder.
A masterful exercise in breathless suspense and a direct inspiration on Hitchcock, who adapted another story by the screen writers of this film for what would become known as Vertigo. The final 15 minutes will drive you right up the wall. Diabolique was so terrifying in its time (and remains potent today) that it inspired Hitchcock to make Psycho just to see if he could do better. Call it a tie.
“There are eight million stories in the Naked City and this is one of them." So begins the voiceover of this classic and hugely influential noir -- the template for naturalism in modern crime films. I had to get director Dassin on this list one more time and this has to be the film to include. That Irish treasure Barry Fitzgerald plays the world-weary cop on the hunt for a woman killer. Shot entirely on location in the Big Apple, this odyssey will take Fitzgerald's homicide investigator from the dank sewers to the lofty spires of the highest skyscrapers in New York, the deadly Naked City.
Burt Lancaster redefines sociopathic villainy in this masterful tale of JJ Hunsecker, a Walter Winchell-like columnist who rules NYC and ruins reputations with poison-pen commentaries in his nationally-syndicated newspaper column. Co-star Tony Curtis was seldom better as a toadie press agent willing to stoop nearly as low as Lancaster's columnist in order to get publicity for his clients. In a venal quid pro quo relationship, they conspire to ruin the romance between Hunsecker's sister and a musician who Hunsecker decides is not good enough for her. Hunsecker has some seriously incestuous issues barely sublimated behind his steely resolve to destroy anyone he desires with the malicious twist of a phrase in late 1950s America, when newspapers still had that kind of power. Stunning cinematography offers a spot-on look at what Gotham was like in 1957. Co-written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, who later penned North By Northwest, my favorite film. That makes Sweet Smell of Success a worthy late addition to this list, even though it is missing a femme fatale. To all those who favorited my list: thank you. To those who clamored for the inclusion of Sweet Smell of Success, here you go.