This isn’t going to be a definitive list by any means, but might be able to help someone that’s aware of the genre and has seen the hits — Double Indemnity, Notorious, The Big Sleep, etc — go a bit deeper. Just to make this harder on myself, I’ve taken away anything that’s in the Criterion Collection, and that means I can’t recommend the excellent Sam Fuller pickpocket noir Pickup On South Street, Nicholas Ray’s gutpunch In A Lonely Place, or Edgar G. Ulmer’s low-budget banger Detour. I’m also sticking to the “classic” look and feel here, so no neo-noir and nothing with subtitles, but maybe I’ll come back to those in the future.
(And if you didn’t know, the Criterion Channel has a whole block programmed as part of its November lineup, something that’s become an annual tradition on the streamer. There’s no crossover between this list and what they’ve got, but I can’t recommend Dassin’s Brute Force or the original Nightmare Alley enough.)
Let’s get right to it, shall we?
Criss Cross (1949)
This was actually among the first movies I selected as part of the local film society’s ongoing series dedicated to the genre. Burt Lancaster stars as armored truck driver Steve Thompson, a man who’s freshly returned to Los Angeles and looking to reconnect with his ex-wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo). Unfortunately, the future Mrs. Munster is now married to gangster Slim Dundee (genre stalwart Dan Duryea), and circumstances ensue.
Robert Siodmak’s mastery of the genre is plain here: Criss Cross moves quickly, the love triangle in the middle feels fresh, the armored car robbery is among the most thrilling genre sequences, and there’s even a very good dog. Special credit for Franz Planer’s cinematography, which still defines the genre’s look in most people’s minds.
Special note: This was remade by Steven Soderbergh as The Underneath. I think that version is pretty good, but I’m definitely in the minority there.
711 Ocean Drive (1950)
For whatever reason, I love Edmond O’Brien, and he’s great in this as telephone technician Mal Granger, a smart man who falls victim to his own avarice as he works his way up the syndicate ladder. Mal’s a telephone company geek who helps gangster Vince Walters (Barry Kelly) expand his off-track betting operation. Sure, the cut he gets from Vince’s pony racket is good, but he could do better, right? And that’s where it all starts to go wrong.
There’s a lot of torn-from-the-pages-of-Popular-Mechanics technical stuff in 711 Ocean Drive that may feel quaint in the wifi and Bluetooth era, but I loved seeing just how hard the mob would work to keep making money from other people’s greed. There’s a fantastic supporting cast — Dorothy Patrick’s Trudy is a particular highlight, and Otto Kruger is always a pleasure to watch — and the Hoover Dam climax may be a bit overblown, but man, it’s a lot of fun. The only sour note for me is the heavy-handed anti-gambling PSAs that begin and end the film, part of the whole movie’s “we’re telling the real story of what happens when you give the guy at the soda fountain a buck” marketing.
Hell Drivers (1957)
Who knew trucker noir was a whole thing outside of Jules Dassin’s excellent Thieves Highway? This anti-Capitalist British noir, directed by American Cy Endfield, tells the story of a recently released convict (Stanley Baker) and the only job he can get: driving ten tons of gravel over 20 miles of bad road a minimum of 12 times a day. A job like that takes a rough kind of man, and while Stanley Baker’s Tom did time, he’s determined to not let violence overtake his life again. That goes about as well as you’d think.
Along the way, there’s backstabbing, family strife, a girl (played by Gun Crazy’s Peggy Cummins), corporate shenanigans, a town dance, and a whole lot more. This one features a supporting cast that’s distracting at first (younger versions of Patrick McGoohan and Sean Connery show up and future Dr. Who William Hartnell plays a corporate crony), but the story moves too quickly for you to pay them too much mind.
Fritz Lang’s never been thought of as a light-hearted filmmaker, but his first Hollywood effort from goes places. Spencer Tracy is Joe, an all-American man who’s on his way to the big city to marry Sylvia Sidney’s Katherine, but ends up in a small-town jail for kidnapping based on some extremely specious evidence. This being the 1930s and rural America, a lynch mob is formed and he barely escapes their prairie justice, even if his dog Rainbow doesn’t. What occurs next shocked the hell out of me, and I don’t want to spoil it.
At the time, MGM was known for its shiny, razzmatazz-heavy musicals and light dramas, and this was a deliberate shift for the studio, an effort to create lower-budget fare to compete with Warner Brothers and Columbia. Tracy’s on fire here, and for those of us that grew up with the cuddly, Katharine Hepburn co-star version of him, it’s a revelation. The studio may have tacked on a happy ending (and kept Lang from making Tracy’s character an actual murderer), but the core of this movie is dense, dark, and bitter.
Now you can go read the next installment, in which Hollywood eats its own, a Coen Brothers influence makes itself known, an undercover cop hits a rough patch, and John Garfield turns in one of his best performances. If that’s not enough, the Film Noir tag features more of me bleating about the genre.