A collection of noir titles for all your Noirvember needs starring the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Angela Lansbury and Richard Widmark.
By this point, anyone familiar with my various tastes as a cinephile knows that my primary genre of choice is film noir. The dark alleyways, the morally grey anti-heroes, those beguiling femme fatales, those plots which are literal matters of life and death; all of it lends itself to a hypnotic breed of storytelling that’s rich in style as well as realism.
The existence of Noirvember shows I’m not alone in my love of this genre. Coined some time back, Noirvember is a month-long celebration of all things film noir where fans both discover new favorites and likewise become mesmerized by the classics once again. Like many other outlets, we here at Cinapse have curated a list of noir titles, all of which have recently made their Blu-ray debut. While some are remastered favorites and others are obscure gems, each one delivers in its own way that magic spell which keeps the genre so tantalizing for fans.
Pickup on South Street
It might seem odd that a noir film made after the genre’s heyday should be so highly-regarded. However it’s only odd if a person has never heard of 1953’s Pickup on South Street. Samuel Fuller’s film about a recently released pickpocket named Skip (Richard Widmark) who unknowingly lifts communist material from his latest beautiful mark Candy (Jean Peters) has become a noir classic thanks to its precision, characters and various twists and turns. The film is so slick and well-paced as any noir should be, yet manages to stop for some breathtaking character moments, particularly from the great Thelma Ritter as a stool pigeon. Pickup on South Street could be considered a cold war movie almost as much as as a noir populated with an anti-hero and a femme fatale. As a noir about the threat of communism, there’s a moral angle introduced that shakes each of the three main characters from one world and puts them into a far more real one. The decidedly 1950s note Pickup on South Street ends on may be bittersweet, representing the end of an era, but also manages a sliver of hope for the seemingly doomed characters.
Pickup on South Street is available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.
A Life at Stake
The B-movie had always been around during the genre’s prime years, but by the mid-50s, they proved to be the main source of noir offerings. While most were forgettable, others held onto the spirit of the genre, such as 1955’s A Life at Stake. Keith Andes plays Edward, a down-on-his-luck architect who accepts an offer to go into a real estate partnership with a wealthy Beverly Hills wife named Doris (Angela Lansbury). The deal is simple: He’ll design and build affordable houses which she’ll sell. Soon an attraction develops between the two, but Edward can’t help but feel that his life is in danger when Doris insists he take out life insurance on himself. Most B-movies were just re-worked plots of earlier titles and the same is true for this one. However, while A Life at Stake doesn’t bring anything new to the table in terms of story (although showing the femme fatale in charge of a business is a refreshing departure), it succeeds as a noir thriller thanks in large part to its performances. Every twist and turn is easily sold thanks to Andes’ and Lansbury’s performances. The former does well in showing a man battling paranoia as he tries to stay alive, while the latter coyly plays Doris in a way that makes you uncertain about her motivations until her final scene.
A Life at Stake is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Film Detective.
Corridor of Mirrors
Even though nothing beats the streets of L.A. and New York, the world of international noir is likewise full of intriguing tales featuring people who dally in the darkness. Many countries from Spain to England have managed to produce stylistic films of suspense and crime that fit right at home with the genre. Apart from the locale, many of these titles shared plenty of the same tropes as their American noir counterparts. However, once in a while certain foreign titles ventured into slightly unconventional territory, such as 1944’s Corridor of Mirrors. The film stars Edana Romney as Mifanwy, an English housewife who goes to a wax museum full of British murderers to visit the statue of a man named Paul (Eric Portman), whom she knew years before and who had a deep obsession with her. The best way to describe Corridor of Mirrors is as a noirish romance. There’s a disturbing quality to the film as Mifanwy becomes enchanted with Paul while he becomes captured by the fact that she resembles a love from years before. The result is a haunting tale of love where both parties soon find themselves unable to separate the past from the present. If it all sounds quite gothic, it’s various plot points and gorgeous shadowy style firmly place the movie in the world of noir.
Corridor of Mirrors is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.
No quintessential film noir list would be complete without the inclusion of 1941’s High Sierra. In the movie, Humphrey Bogart plays Roy, a recently-released criminal who immediately sets upon a final job he hopes will set him up for life. Forced to work with a pair of inexperienced guys (Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis) and a beautiful tagalong named Marie (Ida Lupino), things go from bumpy to disastrous as Roy finds out he can’t outrun who he really is. This early 40s entry possesses most of the elements that made the genre so thrilling and provocative, many of which can be found in the performance of leading man Bogart. But what really makes this title such a staple is the role of destiny within it and the way it dictates the road on which the main character travels on. The crime of High Sierra, which deals with the robbing of a posh California resort, provides enough action and suspense to make the movie entertaining. However, the real thrill comes with watching Roy try and fight against the kind of existence he was meant for. We see him try and go straight by helping out a disabled young woman (Joan Leslie) and attempting to start a life with her. But his fate is forever sealed and there is no escaping whatever is coming for him try as he might. Tragic as well as exciting, so rarely has a noir gone to the kind of philosophical lengths as that of High Sierra.
High Sierra is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.
Tension and fear have scarcely been as palpable in the world of noir as they are in 1949’s The Window. When young Tommy (Bobby Driscoll), a perpetual fibber, accidentally witnesses his neighbors (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman) commit a murder through a window on a fire escape, he struggles to find anyone to believe him due to his habit of telling lies. Once his neighbors discover that he’s witnessed the crime, Tommy knows he’s got to get someone to believe him before it’s too late. Although The Window isn’t even 80 minutes long, it’s a tribute to director name’s skill and flair that the film feels like a whole experience complete with moments of suspense and character-driven interludes. The heavies in the movie are as menacing as they can be, but its seeing Tommy try and survive a reality of maddening terror where, although he’s surrounded by plenty of grown-ups, no one can come to his rescue. The shadowy symbolism of film noir is here as is that element of fear which takes hold of the audience and places them right smack along with Tommy as he tries to stay alive. Driscoll would end up winning a special Oscar for his performance and although he lived a tragically short life, his work in The Window remains one of the best performances by a child actor ever put to film.
The Window is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Archive.
Even though I very much have a thing for Noirvember, I’m truly a sucker for the genre anytime of the year, not least of all in May when Noir City comes here to Austin. The event is a weekend-long retrospective film festival put on by the Film Noir Foundation that showcases newly discovered noir titles which have been saved and painstakingly restored for posterity and the fans themselves. A non-profit organization headed by founder Eddie Muller (the host of TCM’s Noir Alley), the FNF has made it their mission to preserve the art and joy of film noir for generations to come through these festivals, donations and sales of noir-related merchandise available on their site. Please consider visiting the FNF to help continue the efforts of keeping one of the richest genres in cinema history alive.
For more information about Noir City and the Film Noir Foundation, please visit: https://www.filmnoirfoundation.org/home.html