How many nights have you looked at your partner, roommate, or friend and asked “so what do you want to watch tonight?”. Even though you have top tier cable, it’s like Bruce Springsteen once wrote “57 channels and nothing on”. In this Oh Brother blog, I am recommending a genre of film that typically provides something for everyone; Film noir. If you like mystery, romance, the occasional song and dance, and murder this blog is for you.
Film noir is a name given to films to describe a certain Hollywood crime style usually emphasizing cynical attitudes and motivations. The most popular films of this style are from the 1940’s and 1950’s. They often use a low-key, black and white visual style with roots in expressionist cinematography. Following, I offer a few film noir recommendations and directors sure to please everyone on movie night.
Although usually shot in black and white, it’s not required to be considered film noir. Many connect the phrase to French movie critics who used noir to describe the emerging movement of mainly black and white Hollywood films with dark, pessimistic themes and signature motifs such as antiheroes, rain slicked streets, dark shadows, and seductive femme fatales.
One of the greatest film noir Directors, responsible for some of the best movies of all time, is Billy Wilder. If you are ever stuck for a film to watch on a Saturday night, let me recommend a few of Wilder’s greatest hits. Starting with perhaps the best noir of all time Double Indemnity starring Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson, and Barbara Stanwyck. The film tells the story of an insurance salesmen, MacMurray, who lets an alluring housewife, Stanwyck, seduce him into pulling off an insurance scam only to get tracked down by his colleague, Robinson.
Double Indemnity features several elements that make the format so enjoyable. When the bad guy in a film noir is dying or already dead, his voice often narrates the story to the point of his death. Wilder was great at this, not only in Double Indemnity, but in the masterpiece Sunset Blvd. Another Wilder gem stars Kirk Douglas called Ace in the Hole. If you watched it tonight you would think it was ripped out of yesterday’s NY Times. Other must-see Billy Wilder films include Sabrina, Some Like It Hot, Stalag 17, and The Seven Year Itch.
The next noir director on my list of favorites, played Mr. Freeze on the cheesy 1960 Batman TV show, is Otto Preminger. Preminger put a lot of absurd scenarios on the screen, but you couldn’t look away. My favorite Preminger film of all-time stars one of the most beautiful actresses in film, Gene Tierney, in the movie Laura. Laura also stars Dana Andrews who plays a detective working to solve her mysterious death. In one scene, he gazes at Laura’s portrait on the wall trying to put together the pieces of the murder when she casually walks in the door taking the mystery to a new level. With a critics score of 100 on Rotten Tomatoes, this one is a joy to watch.
Other Preminger classics include Anatomy of a Murder with James Stewart, Where The Sidewalk Ends starring the aforementioned Dana Andrews in his fourth Preminger film, and Frank Sinatra as a drug addicted drummer in The Man with the Golden Arm. A guy with big dreams who always gets in trouble with either the women in his life or the drugs in his arms. Any Otto Preminger movie will have you glued to the screen wondering not if the good guy wins, but who is the good guy in the film.
Finally, I must include the Director who filmed what many, including yours truly, refer to as the best movie ever made, Orson Welles and Citizen Kane. Though technically not a film noir, it does contain a lot of noir elements with its use of shadows, a detective story, and romance angles. Welles was both a great actor as well as director. He starred in one of the great Carol Reed directed film noirs, The Third Man. a clinic in the use of black and white. Also, to Welles’ credit, is Touch of Evil another film that uses black and white as a storytelling device. If you turned off the sound the shadows sometimes tell an entirely different story. Citizen Kane was recently released in 4k UHD by the Criterion Collection and to call it stunning is not doing it justice. A remastered 4k Touch of Evil is scheduled for release on March 15, 2022 from Kino Lorber Studios.
All the movies listed should make for a great answer to the question “what do you want to watch tonight?” But I can’t end without mentioning Director Fritz Lang, who is responsible for some great film noirs including The Woman in the Window, Hangmen Also Die, Ministry of Fear, and Scarlet Street to name a few. If you are not a fan of black and white films, give a few of these a try and you might just become a film noir fanatic. If you prefer your noir in color, one of the best ever is Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson. Fade to black….and white.