Noir Nook: “Killer” Noir
Film noir is not easy to define. Sometimes it’s not that easy to tell whether a film is noir or not. Whenever I am asked to describe film noir, my answer is that noir films in general depict a universe marked by corruption, pessimism and hopelessness, and generally characterized by shadows, reflections and unique camera angles.
I also want to note that noir feature titles often contain words that serve as a meaningful description of this era of filmmaking – one-word titles such as Desperate, Pitfall, Caught, Cornered, and Framed are ideal indicators of noir sensitivity . as well as frequently used words in noir titles such as “fear”, “guilty”, “strange”, “cry” and of course – “kill”.
In this month’s Noir Nook, I’m looking at my top 5 noirs with a derivative of the word “kill” in the title – or, as I like to call them: “killer” noirs.
The murderers (1946)
This film is loosely based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and begins with the murder of a gas station attendant and ex-boxer named “Der Schwede” by two hired killers. The rest of the film, which is made up of numerous flashbacks, focuses on an insurance investigator’s efforts to find out who killed the Swede and why.
The film plays Burt Lancaster as the Swede who makes his cinema debut here. The cast also includes Ava Gardner as the double-faced femme fatale Kitty Collins; Edmond O’Brien as an insurance investigator; and William Conrad and Charles McGraw as the film title’s memorable killers.
Noir veteran Robert Siodmak received an Oscar nomination for directing The murderers (he lost to William Wyler for The best years of our life) – it was one of numerous noirs he directed, including Phantom Lady (1944), Scream of the city (1948), and criss-cross (1949).
The killing (1956)
This film revolves around an intricate, intelligently designed scheme to carry out a robbery on the racetrack. The program features a strange mix of characters with a variety of themes, including a grumpy cashier desperate to hold onto his gold digger wife, a bartender looking after his beloved, sick spouse, and a cop whose love of gambling has left him dangerously in debt .
Using a unique, non-linear narrative technique, director Stanley Kubrick – who was only 28 years old at the time the film was released – woven a large cast into a fascinating film that is one of my all-time favorites. Some of the film’s most memorable characters were brought to life by Sterling Hayden as the mastermind behind the robbery; Elisha Cook Jr. as cashier; Marie Windsor as Cook’s wife; and Vince Edwards throwing a wrench into the whole procedure.
Born to Kill (1947)
With two particularly unsavory main characters, Born to Kill focuses on a double homicide, the man responsible for the murders and the woman who knows he is responsible but is attracted to him despite – perhaps because of – his crimes.
Lawrence Tierney plays the aptly named Sam Wild, a rising psychopath who doesn’t hesitate to kill despite being warned by his pal (again Elisha Cook Jr.) that it “just isn’t doable”. And the woman who cannot stay away from him is portrayed by the always excellent Claire Trevor. Others in the cast include Isabel Jewell, as Laury Palmer, one of Sam’s hapless victims; Esther Howard, a friend of Laury’s, trying to find her boyfriend’s killer; and Walter Slezak, a shrewd private detective.
Directed by Robert Wise, whose pedigree included not only several first-class noirs – above all The establishment (1949) and Odds against tomorrow (1959) – but also classics like West Side Story (1961) and The sound of music (1965). During his career he won four Academy Awards and numerous other well-deserved awards.
The killer is on the loose (1956)
Wendell Corey, who often gets a bad rap for his inconspicuous characters, appears in this feature like you’ve never seen him before, and plays “Foggy” Poole, an unbalanced escaped convict who looks for an eye-for-eye Revenge is out against the police officer who accidentally – but fatally – shot his wife.
The policeman is portrayed by Joseph Cotten, and his wife – the object of Foggy’s vengeful lust – is played by Rhonda Fleming. Others include Alan Hale, Jr., best known for his role as the skipper on television Gilligan’s Island, and John Beradino, whom some of you may know from the ABC soaper General Hospitalwhere he was Dr. Steve Hardy played.
The killer is on the loose was directed by Budd Boetticher, who directed Randolph Scott in 1956 Seven men from now on and directed five other acclaimed westerns with Scott known as the Ranown Cycle (named after Scott and his producer Harry Joe Brown).
The killer who chased New York (1950)
A particularly topical noir given the current pandemic state of the world, this feature is about a woman smuggling stolen diamonds out of Cuba – but that’s not all she brought with her. She also contracted smallpox unnoticed by her, and upon her return to the Big Apple the disease begins to spread rapidly.
The smuggler / smallpox bearer is Sheila Bennet, played by Evelyn Keyes. As she gets sicker and sicker, it turns out she is being persecuted not only by health officials trying to stop the spread of the disease, but federal agencies trying to track down the hot diamonds as well. And that’s not all – Sheila also learns that her husband (Charles Korvin), who embroiled her in the smuggling rack, is with her two – with her SISTER! Let’s just say there’s a lot going on in Sheila’s life.
In contrast to the other directors of this “killer” group, the director is from The killer who chased New York – Earl McEvoy – is virtually unknown today and has only made three feature films during his career. He had more experience (though usually uncredited) as an assistant director on films such as The picture by Dorian Gray (1945) and The Stratton story (1949). Unfortunately, he died in 1959 at the age of 45.
And these are my top 5 “killer” noirs! Do you have “killer” noirs on your favorites list? Leave a comment and let me know!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on films and performers from the Film Noir and Pre-Code era, and the Editor-in-Chief of The dark side, a bimonthly newsletter all about film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of the Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter below @TheDarkPages.
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