Great Film Noir Movies in the Public Domain
In theme and style, Film Noir is a highly distinctive genre that enjoyed its heyday during the 1940s and 1950s. “Noir”, of course, translates from French into English as “dark”, and these philosophical films explore the darkness of the human condition in the guise of crime dramas. The genre conventions of what are typically B-picture parables encompass voice-over narration, flashbacks, amnesia and nitty-gritty cinematography, often of bleak urban landscapes commonly shot at night in black and white. Unconventional camerawork frequently includes shots with skewered angles and chiaroscuro, accentuating a psychologically fraught state of mind. Noir’s expressionistic form conveys a shadowy world that’s out of kilter, inhabited by hardboiled dicks and dames, guys on the lam and femme fatales, obsessed with sex, greed, power and other base, all-too-human desires. These action-packed motion pictures of persecution, pursuit, paranoia and passion are modern morality plays – where good doesn’t always triumph over evil in a cinema of cynicism.
Touch of Evil (1958) – One of the best things Charlton Heston ever did was to use his star power to insist that Orson Welles direct this moody thriller set at a seedy Mexican border town (but largely shot at Venice, California). Widely acclaimed as a masterpiece, Welles co-stars as a corrupt cop who vies with straight shooter Heston portraying a Mexican narc, whose honeymoon to blonde beauty Janet Leigh is disrupted. Henry Mancini composed the score and a memorable supporting cast includes Zsa Zsa Gabor, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver, Joseph Cotton plus Marlene Dietrich as a fortuneteller who chillingly informs Welles, “Your future’s all used up.”
Dementia (1955) – John Parker’s nightmarish, violent flick about insanity has no dialogue (a pre-Johnny Carson Ed McMahon provides narration in some versions) but features some of Film Noir’s cinematic staples: A shabby hotel, nightclub, city streets. Variety reviewed Dementia, which stars Adrienne Barrett, as: “May be the strangest film ever offered for theatrical release.”
The Big Combo (1955) – Helmer Joseph Lewis brings the violent sensibility of his 1950 Gun Crazy to this taut saga fraught with sexual tension, as police lieutenant Cornel Wilde tackles crime lord Richard Conte. Shot by Oscar winning cinematographer John Alton, written by veteran Noir scripter and Academy Award winner Philip Yordan, the cast includes Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace and a pre-Spaghetti Western Lee Van Cleef.
Scarlet Street (1945) – Hollywood heavyweight Edward G. Robinson plays a mousey middle-aged man increasingly entangled with Femme Fatale Joan Bennett, who’s conniving with boyfriend Dan Duryea to swindle him. Legendary Vienna-born director Fritz Lang helmed this remake of Jean Renoir’s 1931 La Chienne, adapted by Oscar winner Dudley Nichols.
The Red House (1947) – Edward G. Robinson plays peg-legged Pete and Judith Anderson is Ellen, who conspire to conceal deep dark secrets from adopted daughter Meg (Allene Roberts) at their rural home full of traumas. Rory Calhoun co-stars in this mystery Leonard Maltin calls an “exciting melodrama,” directed and written for the screen by Delmer Daves (the same year he helmed Dark Passage with Bogie and Bacall).
Kansas City Confidential (1952) – John Payne stars as an ex-convict trying to turn his life around who is framed for a bank robbery he didn’t commit. Determined to prove he’s innocent, the ex-con goes to Mexico to catch the real perpetrators in what a poster calls a “picture that hits with bullet force and blackjack fury!” The cast includes future Western stars Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand.
D.O.A. (1950) – This compelling drama will keep viewers on the edge of their seats. Edmond O’Brien stars as poisoned accountant Frank Bigelow – with only days to live he sets out to find who is murdering him and why. Ernest Laszlo’s realistic cinematography of San Francisco and L.A.’s streets enhance this Noir classic (remade twice!), co-starring Luther Adler (acting guru Stella’s brother) and Neville Brand (Laredo), with music composed by multiple Oscar winner Dimitri Tiomkin.
Beat the Devil (1953) – With its A-list cast and crew this offbeat concoction is far more literary and humorous than most Noir offerings. Co-scripted and directed by two-time Oscar winner John Huston, Beat the Devil spoofs his 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon, which did much to lay down Film Noir’s genre conventions. Set and mostly shot in Italy, famed novelist Truman Capote and British journalist Claud Cockburn (who made the famous quip: “believe nothing until it has been officially denied”) co-wrote the screenplay, reuniting Falcon’s Peter Lorre with Humphrey Bogart. Beat the Devil co-stars Italian bombshell Gina Lollobrigida, British character actor Robert Morley, Jennifer Jones and Bernard Lee, who went on to portray M in the early 007 thrillers.
Gilda (1946) – Rita Hayworth scorches the screen up as the title character. Gilda is one of Film Noir’s ultimate femme fatales and the apex of a love triangle that involves her husband, Buenos Aires casino owner Ballin Munson (George Macready), and her ex-lover, American gambler Johnny Farrell. As the latter, Glenn Ford provides the voice-over narration that is a Noir staple, while sexy Rita croons “Put the Blame on Mame” in an unforgettable nightclub scene in this celebrated movie helmed by Hungarian-born Charles Vidor.
Hollow Triumph (1948) – In Street with No Name author Andrew Dickos lists Hollow Triumph as possessing another Film Noir genre convention wherein “Psychology itself can acquire a sinister, manipulative function…” After a robbery goes bad and he’s hunted by a gambler, medical school dropout turned criminal John Muller (Paul Henreid) assumes the identity of a psychiatrist. Joan Bennett, a veteran Noir seductress, co-stars in this movie aka The Scar, lensed by Academy Award-winning director of photography John Alton.
Rififi (1955) – This “grandfather of modern heist films” was directed by Jules Dassin, who co-wrote the script with others, including Ben Barzman – both were blacklisted Tinseltown talents living abroad during the McCarthy era, according to Dave Wagner and Paul Buhle in Blacklisted, The Film Lover’s Guide to the Hollywood Blacklist. The tautly shot caper movie is in French, with English subtitles – with pictures such as Marcel Carné’s 1939 Le Jour se lève starring tough guy Jean Gabin, Film Noir had its roots in French Poetic Realism plus German Expressionism.
The Stranger (1946) – Onetime Hollywood wunderkind Orson Welles directed and co-starred in at least five Film Noir classics, including The Stranger. Edward G. Robinson, another Noir stalwart, is a war crimes investigator hot on the trail of a Nazi believed to be hiding out in postwar Connecticut. All-American girl Loretta Young portrays the young woman who, unwittingly, is about to wed an architect of the Holocaust.
Suddenly! (1954) – Made only nine years before the JFK assassination, in this tense Eisenhower-era drama hired guns plot to shoot the U.S. president as he passes through small town America. The assassins are led by John Baron (Frank Sinatra), called “a savage, sensation-hungry killer!” in movie posters. Co-stars Sterling Hayden as Sheriff Tod Shaw, who woos pacifist Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates).
The Chase (1946) – Postwar disillusionment is a recurring theme in Hollywood’s Film Noir and is expressed in this melodrama starring Robert Cummings as out-of-work WWII vet Chuck Scott. He’s hired as a chauffeur by merciless mobster Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) and becomes ensnared in a triangle with Eddie’s wife, Lorna Roman (played by French actress Michèle Morgan), and suffers from amnesia. Philip Yordan adapted mystery novelist Cornell Woolrich’s book for the screen version that co-stars Peter Lorre.
The Girl Hunters (1963) – This Roy Rowland-helmed Panavision picture is notable because it marks the only time pulp novelist Mickey Spillane (who also wrote the script) portrayed his famed literary creation, Mike Hammer. The hardboiled private eye snaps out of a prolonged alcohol-fueled funk after discovering his longtime secretary Velda may not have been murdered, after all. Lloyd Nolan, who often played gangsters and the private dick Mike Shayne during Hollywood’s Golden Age, depicts Federal Agent Arthur Rickerby, while blonde Brit Shirley Eaton – famous as the Bond girl rather memorably painted gold a year later in Goldfinger – plays Laura Knapp.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953) – Ida Lupino – probably Hollywood’s only female Film Noir director during the genre’s heyday – helmed this harrowing tale wherein two pals on a fishing trip, Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy, make the mistake of giving a ride to William Talman, who turns out to be an escaped crazy prisoner. Lupino co-wrote the suspenseful screenplay with her husband, Collier Young, who also produced this picture shot in part at California’s famed Lone Pine location.
The Naked Kiss (1964) – This salaciously named low budget movie about ex-prostitute Kelly (Constance Towers) is written and directed by former crime reporter Sam Fuller, known for pushing the envelope with shock value. The Naked Kiss has a riveting, violent opening and goes on to deal with the sensitive subject of pedophilia, as ex-hooker Kelly strives to redeem herself, pitting innocence against guilt. This cult favorite co-stars Anthony Eisley and Michael Dante.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) – Hollywood heavyweights made this movie produced by two-time Oscar winner Hal Wallis; directed by another two-time Academy Award-winner, Lewis Milestone; co-written by five-time Oscar nominee Robert Rossen; starring four-time Oscar nominee Barbara Stanwyck as the title character. Martha Ivers is a controlling, domineering woman with a dark past. In his screen debut Kirk Douglas (no stranger to Oscar himself) plays Martha’s henpecked husband, the alcoholic D.A. Walter O’Neil, who is aware of the crime Martha committed years earlier. This “gripping melodrama,” as critic Leonard Maltin reviewed it, co-stars Van Heflin, Lizbeth Scott and Judith Anderson.
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