Megan Abbott is the award-winning author of seven novels, including Dare Me and The Fever. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Wall Street Journal. She is also the author of The Street Was Mine, a study of hard-boiled fiction and film noir. Her latest novel is You Will Know Me.
Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, and Nicholas Ray: the film-noir hat trick. Based on Dorothy B. Hughes’s very different but equally brilliant novel, it’s doomy, romantic, pitch-black, and unforgettable. The Criterion extras here are particularly superb, with special attention to the movie’s turbulent backstory (Ray and Grahame were divorcing during production). This is the movie for which I’m most intensely evangelical. It feels as vital now as it did a half century ago.
It’s very hard for me to pick a favorite Douglas Sirk movie, but ultimately it’s this one, a sumptuous tearjerker with Sirk’s signature cultural critique. The moment when Jane Wyman, after sacrificing her own happiness for her children, receives a television set as a Christmas gift in lieu of their presence shatters me every time. No one understood melodrama like Sirk, or how to sharpen it into the dagger it’s meant to be.
Another brilliant adaptation, this time of a Davis Grubb novel (a bestseller). It’s a gothic fairytale of childhood, full of shadows and silhouettes and countless images that linger in your head forever after. I first saw this as a kid, and the stupendously terrifying Robert Mitchum (as a murderous “man of god”) still hasn’t left my haunted unconscious.
The most perfect screwball comedy ever, to me. I can turn it on at any point and be laughing within seconds. Also, one of the sexiest marriages ever captured on film: Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea, competing for most delectable. Witty, naughty, and utterly unpredictable—all the things screwball should be.
The smartest and meanest in the noir cycle, with Ralph Meeker at his sexiest and nastiest as Mike Hammer and a constellation of complicated females, from Maxine Cooper as the hot-to-the-touch Velda to Cloris Leachman and Gaby Rodgers as two dangerously lost women. Praising it for its “thoroughgoing seediness,” Paul Schrader calls it film noir’s masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why.
I almost went with Blow Out, which is probably director Brian De Palma’s best, but there’s a special, heightened allure in Dressed to Kill: lush, sleazy, ideologically complicated, and distinctly crazy, it’s a movie that I could watch over and over and still uncover more under its slick surfaces.
Exquisite John Ford, breaking all our hearts. This is the western I recommend to people who don’t think they like westerns. The scene when Victor Mature as the tubercular Doc Holliday recites Hamlet’s famous soliloquy shouldn’t work, but it absolutely dazzles.
I adore Robert Altman, and in some ways this feels like the least-Altman Altman, but it’s like no other movie I’ve ever seen. Putatively the story of two women who became roommates in a resort town, it’s about so much more: female identity and the slipperiness of the self. I first saw it, cut up by commercials, when I was ten or eleven, and I felt like it was whispering secrets about the nature of womanhood into my ear and I’d better listen close. I still think that.
Film noir at its most delicious and perverse. It’s iconic for Rita Hayworth’s striptease, but that’s its least dirty part, a tease for everything else that is sneaking in under the Production Code’s radar.
I first discovered this movie, and director Samuel Fuller, more than fifteen years ago via A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. I’ve never been the same since! The first four minutes take your breath away, and it only gets better and stranger, almost hallucinatory, after that. Did anyone understand the grand beauty and horror in pulp like Samuel Fuller?