Film Noir: A Personal Journey

A few years ago, I turned 48. On a lark, I decided to celebrate (in part) by ranking my favorite film noirs in a Facebook post.

When I tried to recall every film noir I had ever seen, however, I realized that I needed to compile a master list of film noirs (which does not actually exist). To do this, I turned to my burgeoning library of books on film noir, as well as my Noir City 12 program book and the Internet Movie Database (IMDB).

You can surmise what happened next. I opened a new Microsoft Excel worksheet, starting entering movie titles from my 11 sources[1], and puzzled out a “film noir appreciation score” (or something—it was just called “SCORE” in the worksheet).

That is, I was trying to be “data-driven” about the process.

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I am often asked how I came to love film noir so much. So much that I spent a few years seeing each of the 50 films in “The Canon” in Ballinger and Graydon’s Rough Guide to Film Noir (2007) I had not yet seen. So much that I have celebrated my last six birthdays by programming a mini film noir festival for friends and family. So much that I have attended the last four Noir City film festivals in San Francisco (I live near Boston). So much that when I wrapped up my epidemiology doctorate soon after my 48th birthday, this is what replaced all of THOSE texts in my home office:

IMG_3104

And so much that I have spent the last two years…well, more on that later.

Still, when I am asked how I came to love film noir so much, I typically mumble, “I dunno.”

This post is an attempt to piece together my journey to becoming a film noir aficionado. Thank you, in advance, for indulging me.

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Just bear with me while I walk you through my SCORE construction process

Limiting myself to the “classic” era of film noir (roughly 1940-1959), but not to English-language films, I compiled a list of 184 titles appearing in at least one of my 11 sources.

For each film, I assigned values as follows:

  • Did I own it on VHS or DVD? If yes, then 1; if not, then 0
  • How many times had I seen the film? 1, 2, 3 or 4 (4=too many times to count)
  • How much did I like the film the last time I saw it? Integer value: 1 (blecch!) to 5 (damn, that was good!)
  • Would I see it again? This ranged from 0.1 (NEVER again) to 2.25 (yes, please, right now—particularly films I had seen only once, like Brighton Rock (Roy Boulting, 1947)

I then created a 0-100 scale using this formula[2]:

SCORE = (OWN*5 + TIMESSEEN*3 + LIKE*6.6) * SEEITAGAIN

Cognizant of the debate among film noir enthusiasts about which (or even whether) films directed by Alfred Hitchcock (11 of the 184 films) are film noir, I compromised by multiplying the SCORE of any Hitchcock film by 0.5. For example, Rebecca (1940) was knocked down from tied for 8th to 42nd.

In the Facebook post, I ranked my favorites from #24 (He Walked By Night [Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann, 1948)]) to #1 (The Maltese Falcon [John Huston, 1941]), with six “honorable mentions.” I chose 24 because it was half the 48 I was turning.

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The first detective fiction I ever read was almost certainly a collection of Encyclopedia Brown stories, somewhere around 2nd or 3rd grade. That was also around the time I discovered Charlie Chan, by way of the 1972 animated series The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan.

One quiet Saturday afternoon a few years later, I watched my first 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan film (along with a Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film—probably The Pearl of Death [Roy William Neill, 1944]). I quickly became hooked, as I describe here, here and here. As a result, by the time I graduated from high school, I was conversant with late 1930s/early 1940s black-and-white crime films (and countless reruns of Perry Mason). I had also seen a few neo-noir films (though I was unaware of the term), including the forgettable remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice (Bob Rafelson, 1981) and the seminal Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981).

That fall, I enrolled at Yale University. For most of my time there, Yale had six film societies operating simultaneously, meaning that on any given Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, there were at least 12 films being screened from which to choose.

I saw A LOT of movies those four years, including some excellent black-and-white crime movies I would later learn were film noir (The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity [Billy Wilder, 1944], Murder, My Sweet [Edward Dymytrk, 1944], more than a few arguably-noir Hitchcock films, among others). I was drawn to these movies (and still am) for many reasons. One, I liked the well-told stories of crime and mystery. To be more precise, I liked the directness of the stories. These films were purely plot-based; they told interesting stories without gratuitous adornment (no CGI or over-the-top explosions here, Michael Bay). Two, these stories were human-scale, typically featuring a handful of characters in a relatively contained section of space-time. Third, they were gorgeous. At the time, I had no idea who John Alton or Burnett Guffey or Nicholas Musuraca or John F. Seitz were, and I had probably never heard the word “chiaroscuro” or anything about German Expressionism, but I knew that these movies were visually appealing to me in a way that no other films were.

Equally important were the two detective fiction courses I took, during which I read my first novels by Dashiell Hammett (Red Harvest), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) and Mickey Spillane (I, the Jury), introducing me to the hard-boiled writers crucial to the early development of film noir. (And as I write this, I recall reading Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock for my senior-year high-school English class).

For the first of those courses, I devoured two breathtaking photography books: Brassai’s The Secret Paris of the 30’s[3] and, especially, Weegee’s 1945 masterpiece Naked City[4]. The high-contrast black-and-white photography in both volumes, particularly in Naked City, had a profound impact on me—so much so that I asked for New York Noir: Crime Photos From the Daily News Archive for my birthday a few years ago.

I have one other salient memory from my sophomore year at Yale. For a film course assignment, one of my roommates[5] watched a scene[6] near the end of The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946) over and over again on our room’s big screen television (it’s a long story). That episode may well have been my introduction to the term “film noir.

After graduating from Yale, I spent a year in Washington, DC, where I happened upon reruns of the 1959-62 television series The Untouchables. While not noir[7] (if only because Eliot Ness, as portrayed by Robert Stack, was just too goshdarned upstanding to be a noir anti-hero), I was riveted by the rich black-and-white cinematography (in my memory, it is still the blackest black and the whitest white I have ever seen), as well as Walter Winchell’s portentous voiceover narration.

The pieces were falling into place.

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When I entered the film data into my original Excel worksheet, I also entered the director, year of release, primary country of production…and whether (“1” if yes, “0” if no) that film appeared in each source[8]. I could thus sum the 11 columns to distinguish the 26 films with 10 or 11 “points” (out of 12; n=26, including The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity, Out of the Past [Jacques Tourneur, 1947], Detour [Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945], D.O.A. [Rudoph Mate, 1950], Criss Cross [Robert Siodmak, 1949], Touch of Evil [Orson Welles, 1958], and The Big Heat [Fritz Lang, 1953]) from the 32 appearing on only 1 or 2 lists and from the 126 films somewhere in between.

A light began to flicker in my head…

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Throughout the 1990s, living just outside Boston, I read all of the Hammett and Chandler I could find. I also discovered the noir master himself, Cornell George Hopley Woolrich (sometimes known as William Irish), and I voraciously consumed all of his novels and short stories as well. By my count, 27 film noirs have been made from his novels and short stories, far more than from any other author (and that excludes Mrs. Winterbourne [Richard Benjamin], the 1996 Ricki Lake vehicle adapted from I Married a Dead Man [1948]).

One day, browsing in the film/TV section of a favorite local used book store, I happened upon my first critical study of film noir. It was probably Jon Tuska’s Dark Cinema: American Film Noir in Cultural Perspective[9]. I remember reading the opening pages, in which the author dissected various scenes in Double Indemnity.

And I was riveted…though not enough to buy the book, which I have since regretted.

What I did not do, however, was watch a lot of film noir. At least, I did not watch a lot of “classic” film noir. Instead, I saw films like The Public Eye (Howard Franklin, 1992), Pulp Fiction and L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997) in the theater. I watched films like Hammett (Wim Wenders, 1982) and Se7en[10] (David Fincher, 1995) on television.

But once I moved back to Philadelphia in 2001, and I was living alone again, I began to watch classic film noirs in earnest. To the point where I began specifically looking in the “film noir” section of local video rental stores (remember those?) for these films.

Why then? I still don’t know, unless it was simply the culmination of 25 years of cinematic, cultural and literary exposure.

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The light that flickered in my head was an idea.

The idea was deceptively simple: start my original Excel worksheet from scratch, only this time I would enter EVERY film noir (not just ones I had seen) cited by an author in an official published LIST (be it explicit, like an encyclopedia or dictionary, or implicit, extracted from the texts of, for example, Hirsch, Muller and Naremore). From these LISTS (and resulting POINTS), I could rank all cited film noirs from the “universal” through the “questionable” through the “idiosyncratic.” I could aggregate LISTS and POINTS by director, cinematographer, year, country, studio and (ultimately) actors/actresses to rank their noir contributions.

I plan to publish articles based upon this research…you know, someday. Stay tuned.

In March 2015, I started the process by entering the 999 titles in Duncan and Miller’s Film Noir: 100 All-Time Favorites, followed by the 3,253 entries in John Grant’s A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide.[11] Since those tedious first few months, I have entered data from 40 additional sources.

Currently, the Excel workbook has 4,820 film noir titles (nearly half of which appear on only a single list), of which I have seen 558 (11.6%).

Interestingly, as you limit which of the 4,820 films should truly be considered noir (in epidemiologic terms, decreasing sensitivity [percent films labeled noir which are truly noir] while increasing specificity [percent films not labeled noir which truly are not noir]), the percentage of films I have seen increases:

Any film        558/4,820=11.6%

>2 LISTS         435/1,607=27.1%

>5 LISTS         359/881   =40.7%

>11 LISTS       269/463   =58.1%

>14 LISTS       234/341   =68.6%

>19 LISTS       149/171   =87.1%

I may not have seen every film noir every made, but I have seen the vast majority of films most widely considered noir[12].

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My love affair with film noir accelerated rapidly in 2003, when I bought a new DVD player: the first DVD I purchased was The Maltese Falcon. I now own upwards of 80 films, although such ownership is rendered somewhat moot by the increasing availability of film noirs on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon (and Xfinity OnDemand—thanks to Turner Classic Movies), as well as bowdlerized copies on YouTube.

Within a few years, I was buying my first film noir books: the Joan-Copjec-edited Shades of Noir: A Reader,[13] Arthur Lyons’ Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of FILM NOIR![14], Nicholas Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City[15], and Rough Guide.

You can see from the photo above where THAT has led.

On weekends, up until a few years ago, I would often rent three and four film noirs, then watch them voraciously (I still do this when I visit Martha’s Vineyard each  summer, where I can take advantage of the massive film noir selection at Island Rentals.

And I started listening to the DVD commentaries, particularly if they were by Eddie Muller, whose well-informed conversational style I admired. Listening to Muller’s commentaries led me to the Film Noir Foundation and, ultimately, Noir City.

This is essentially where I began this post, because I attended my first Noir City in January 2014, eight months before I wrote my 48th-birthday Facebook post.

I will conclude this post with an updated list[16] of my top 50 favorite film noirs, in more-or-less rank order (take the ordering with a box or two of salt). Given that I am agnostic as to when or where a film was released, or who directed it, I am presenting my top 50 film noirs from all eras (and with no “down-weight” to Hitchcock films). I am, however, limiting the list to films appearing on at least 3 LISTS (1/3 of the titles in the database).

Here, then, are my 50 favorite film noirs (classic-era films in bold, neo-noirs underlined):

  1. L.A. Confidential
  2. Out of the Past
  3. The Maltese Falcon
  4. Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)
  5. Foreign Correspondent (Hitchcock, 1940)[17]
  6. Hammett
  7. Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway, 1948)
  8. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
  9. Where the Sidewalk Ends (Preminger, 1950)
  10. The Dark Corner (Hathaway, 1946)
  11. The Big Clock (John Farrow, 1948)
  12. Dial M for Murder (Hitchcock, 1954)[18]
  13. The Public Eye
  14. Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944)
  15. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954)
  16. I Wake Up Screaming (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1941)
  17. Murder, My Sweet
  18. The Naked City
  19. Impact (Arthur Lubin, 1949)
  20. The Big Sleep
  21. D.O.A.
  22. Spellbound (Hitchcock, 1945)
  23. Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940)
  24. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner, 1982)
  25. The Killers (Siodmak, 1946)
  26. Kansas City Confidential (Phil Karlson, 1952)
  27. Too Late For Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949)
  28. He Walked By Night
  29. Cry of the City
  30. The Usual Suspects
  31. Black Widow (Nunnally Johnson, 1954)
  32. Double Indemnity
  33. The Street With No Name (William Keighley, 1948)
  34. Dead Again (Kenneth Branagh, 1991)
  35. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988)
  36. The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)
  37. The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949)
  38. Fallen Angel (Preminger, 1945)
  39. Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)
  40. Criss Cross (Siodmak, 1949)
  41. Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrik, 1957)
  42. The Blue Gardenia (Fritz Lang, 1953)
  43. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
  44. In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)
  45. Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)
  46. Detour
  47. Crime Wave (Andre de Toth, 1953)
  48. The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)
  49. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
  50. The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952)

Until next time…

[1] Ballinger, Alexander and Graydon, Danny. 2007. The Rough Guide to Film Noir. London, UK: Rough Guides, Ltd.; Christopher, Nicholas. 1997. Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City. New York, NY: The Free Press; Grant, John. 2006. Noir Movies. London, UK: Facts, Figures & Fun; Hirsch, Foster. 1981. The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. New York, NY: De Capo Press, Inc.; Hogan, David J. 2013. Film Noir FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Hollywood’s Golden Age of Dames, Detectives, and Danger. Milwaukee, WI: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books; http://www.imdb.com/search/title?at=0&genres=film_noir&sort=alpha&title_type=feature; Muller, Eddie. 1998. Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press; my personal copy of the Noir City 12 program book; Osteen, Mark. 2013. Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press; Osteen, Mark. 2013. Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press; Silver, Alain, Ward, Elizabeth, Ursini, James, Porfirio, Robert, eds. 2010. Film Noir: The Encyclopedia. 4th Edition. New York, NY: Overlook Duckworth; Silver, Alain, Ursini, James and Duncan, Paul (ed.). 2012. Film Noir. Koln, Germany: TASCHEN GmbH.

[2] Clearly, this was more scientific “veneer” than rigorous methodology.  I weighted ownership far too high and times seen not high enough. Still, proper adjustment of the subjective elements yielded values that seemed reasonable (achieving a loose form of “content” validity, sometimes called “face” validity).

[3] Translated from the French by Richard Miller. 1976. Pantheon Books: New York, NY.

[4] Uunabridged DaCapo Press reissue of the original volume published by Essential Press (New York, NY). The book inspired producer Mark Hellinger to helm the 1948 film noir The Naked City (Jules Dassin),

[5] Interestingly, that same roommate ended up playing a key role in the arguably neo-noir Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), even if Tarantino has said he does not make “neo-noir” films (quoted on pg.215 of the highly-recommended Naremore, James. 2008. More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts [Updated and Expanded Edition]. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press).

[6] The scene where Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) forces Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) out the door of Arthur Geiger’s home to be gunned down in the ambush meant to kill Marlowe.

[7] Although I would point to the Season 2 episode “The Purple Gang” (December 1, 1960), as one that closely resembles the look and mood of classic noir, particularly the final third of the episode, shot in a darkened warehouse lit primarily by weak overhead lights, flashlights and matches. It also features two noir veterans, actors Steve Cochran and Steven Geray…not to mention that Stack himself had starred in House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller, 1955).

[8] If it was unclear whether the source considered a given film “noir,” I entered “0.25” or “0.5” in the column. I also entered “2” if the film appeared in the Rough Guide “Canon.”

[9] 1984. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT.

[10] I am NOT a fan of the movie, despite its high critical acclaim (8.6 IMDB score)—but that may because I watched it alone, at night, in the dark, having just watched Babe with my then-girlfriend. There are scenes in that movie that still give me the creeps.

[11] Duncan, Paul and Miller, Jurgen, eds. 2014. Film Noir: 100 All-Time Favorites. Koln, Germany: TASCHEN GmbH; Grant, John. 2013. A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide. Milwaukee, WI: Limelight Editions

[12] Here are the top 10 film noirs (all 20 or more LISTS) I have not yet seen: Where Danger Lives (John Farrow, 1950); Pushover (Richard Quine, 1954); The Unsuspected (Michael Curtiz, 1947); The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak, 1946); The Enforcer (Murder Inc.; Bretaigne Windust and Raoul Walsh, 1951); The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix E. Feist, 1947); Roadblock (Harold Daniels, 1951); The Locket (John Brahm, 1946); Conflict (Curtis Bernhardt, 1945); Scandal Sheet (The Dark Page; Phil Karlson, 1952)

[13] 1993. London, UK: Verso

[14] 2000. New York, NY: Da Capo Press

[15] 1997. New York, NY: The Free Press

[16] SCORE = (OWN + TIMESSEEN*5.8 + LIKE*4) * SEEITAGAIN…more or less…

[17] An arguable film noir selection, I grant. But it does appear on 4 LISTS with 5 POINTS, so…

[18] 6 LISTS, 6 POINTS

3 thoughts on “Film Noir: A Personal Journey

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