Some favorite Hollywood Noir & French New Wave films
When people ask, “What’s your favorite movie?” I feel like responding, “Who’s your favorite kid?” And, no, I'm not kidding.
I don’t have a favorite movie. I don’t even have a favorite hundred movies. I might, if you pressed a fork into my hand and threatened me with a plate of tuna noodle casserole, blech!, whittle it down to—say—five hundred flicks.
And if you think that’s hyperbole, well, then we just can’t be friends.
So, when tasked by our fearless Francophile director to name my five favorite film noir entries, I was understandably nonplussed. With a list so short, I’d have to do some serious mental surgery.
For the sake of not being obvious, I couldn’t include my top classic commercial entries—Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, Casablanca (don’t even start), Dark Passage, or The Big Sleep. Cripe, did I really just name all Bogey pictures?
And a list this short would also have to omit my fav neo-noir productions—The Long Goodbye, The Man Who Wasn’t There (seen this movie soo many times), Sea of Love (the first screenplay I ever read), The Ice Harvest, Basic Instinct, and Cop Land—which is probably in my top 50 movies of all time and a masterpiece. So great!
Then there’s movies I love … but don’t consider noir or neo-noir or kinda-sorta-noir-ish or even once-lived-next-door-to-a-guy-named-“Noir” … but some folks do. That top five would include No Country For Old Men, 12 Monkeys, Batman (1989—frankly the only Batman that matters), Mulholland Drive, and The Pledge.
PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA: Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past.
So, what’s left?
Oh, only about a puhsquillion films.
But, since I don’t have space for the full metric puhsquillion, here are My Five Favorite Noir-ish Movies You May Not Have Watched—catchy title, huh.
The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) – Gossip columnist Burt Lancaster is a Broadway bigshot who hires ambitious backstabbing publicist Tony Curtis to ruin his sister’s wayward relationship with a jazzman. Things do not go well for anyone. What I love about this one is just how evil the main characters are. There are no good guys in this story. Only victims and victimizers. It’s fun to watch the twisted plot unfold and see a couple of real shit-heels get what they’ve got coming.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) – A couple vacationing in Switzerland become entangled in an international plot. You get to see a very young Peter Lorre here as well as a surprising ending, considering the times. This was a very early entry for Hitchcock, who ended up remaking the film in 1956. I haven’t seen that version, so I cannot comment, but this one is well worth a watch ... despite a number of “flaws” noted by some critics. And I, for one, enjoy the mix of suspense and humor.
A Bucket of Blood (1959) I love actor Dick Miller. He’s that guy everyone recognizes from a hundred different shows (180+) but few know his name. Anyway, here in what I consider to be Roger Corman’s first serious (purely accidental) piece of art, Miller plays goofy busboy Walter Paisley—what a perfect name—a guy who works at an insufferable café for beatniks. [Don't get me wrong, I love beat poetry, just not beatniks.] Women don’t take him seriously. Men laugh at him. And all he wants is to be accepted by the cool kids. I won’t spoil things by revealing how he becomes a respected artist and woos that bunch of poseurs … but it’s gruesome and fitting. Great sociopolitical satire and a good all-around Saturday night popcorn flick.
The Steel Trap (1952) – This is another flick that probably barely registers as film noir but we’re not working with uranium, here, so I’m gonna allow it. Joseph Cotton’s character is a banker who decides to steal a half-million bucks and run and does so without anyone noticing. Most of us have probably never considered, while daydreaming about scoring big with a heist—what, I’m alone here?—how the hell do you get the money out of the country? Fly commercially? Not a chance. Try and declare it—sure, if you’ve got a rich Saudi uncle who’ll vouch for you. You can’t drive it without the likelihood of border patrol seizing it and burying your headless corpse in the desert. You can take your chances with a boat but even if you survive the journey to Cuba, then what? Convince Castro you're one of the "good" imperialist pigs? Nothing goes right for Cotton's character and he decides to return home. But how do you put stolen money back in a bank you robbed without getting caught? It ain't easy. This film does a great job with pacing and suspense.
All the King's Men (1949) – People always say this and this time it’s true—you’ve got to read the book. I’ve read it three or four times. And, each time, I'm reminded why I love this story so. Yes, the movie is great. Broderick Crawford and John Ireland are so good as a salt-of-the-earth Southern good guy who turns semi-crooked politician-on-the-rise and his morally tortured do-gooder communications director/lackey. I don’t know why, but I get a strong Henry Fonda vibe from Ireland in his performance. Definitely watch the movie. But also read the book. Crawford’s character Willie Stark once quips, “You know, judge, dirt’s a funny thing—some of it rubs off on everybody."
SOME FAVORITE NOIR TAGLINES:
“From the moment they met, it was murder.” Double Indemnity (1944)
“This one was written with a machine gun.” Kiss of Death (1947)
“You know, a dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle.” Out of the Past (1947)
The French side of things was a different story. Though there are a few dozen French Films I adore, I’m not sure I’ve seen enough of the Nouvelle Vague to do any sort of list justice. Our Director Matthew Ben Miller is a far better one to talk cinéma français. But I'm a good soldier. So, with that weaselly little caveat out of the way …
Breathless (1960) – I can tell you right now, our director is not going to be happy with me. For as much as he appreciates Truffaut, he loathes Godard. I, on the other cliché, was surprised at how many of JLG's movies I truly enjoy. Breathless is really a portrait of listlessness and self-absorption framed around a killer-on-the-run thriller. OK, “thriller” is generous but I don’t know what else to call it. Anywho, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character kills a cop and spends most of his time pestering his girlfriend. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say Breathless feels like if you took a picture of a gun firing a bullet just as the bullet has left the barrel and you have been tasked with writing the bullet’s life story, as if it were a man, based only on what you see in this photo. Confused? Godard would approve of my explanation.
Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) – Oh how I adore this movie, from its strange beginning with the fortuneteller and the errant technicolor scene, in what is elsewise a black-and-white film. Cléo, another self-absorbed character, is played by the wonderful Corinne Marchand. The movie follows her as she nervously awaits tests to see if she has cancer, spending the day shopping, riding in a taxi, lying in bed, chatting with friends, talking to strangers. It’s existential in the best possible way—mental and physical. The movie is subtly poignant and deceitfully whimsical. For me it was a mental pallet cleanser after decades of Hollywood bouillie hypnotique.
The 400 Blows (1959) – Finally, a François Truffaut movie! This story of a troubled young French boy is somewhat autobiographical and stars a very young Jean-Pierre Léaud, who would go on to star in several more Truffaut films. The story of Léaud’s character Antoine Doinel being hauled down to the police station and kept awhile to scare him actually happened to Truffaut as a child. For reasons he says he never understood. My favorite part of this movie is Doinel's discovery of Honore de Balzac and his erecting a secret shrine in the great writer's honor.
Masculine Feminine (1966) – Another Godard film with another lead played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Here Godard gives us a dozen or so vignettes centered on Léaud’s character’s disillusionment with modern life as he works for the very commercialist machine which galls him—a marketing research firm. Commercialism, ennui, indecision—it’s another existential daytrip into Godard’s insecurities and his obsession with sex and violence—not that I’m complaining. I figure if you’re paying much attention to this life and not on the verge of either toxic empathy or Roman Holiday … you probably don’t have a pulse.
L'Insoumis "The Unvanquished" (1964) – This is probably more film noir than New Wave but it’s French and old and I frickin’ love it. In L'Insoumis a Frenchman played by Alain Delon deserts his military unit and tries making a living as a hired thug. But, when he becomes enamored with a female political kidnapee, he helps her escape. The two go on the run, and the bulk of the movie ends up being a perilous road trip adventure with romantic overtones and—of course—a tragic end.