Noir Nook: Best Noir of the Year – Part 2
For last month’s Noir Nook, I started one of my favorite lists to date – the best film from each year of the classic noir era; Part 1 covered 1940 through 1949. For some of those years, I’ll admit, it wasn’t easy to come up with a single film, but it was always fun. And this month, I’m serving up Part 2: the years 1950 through 1959. Here goes…
Next to 1947, I think that 1950 may just be one of the greatest years for noir – in fact, I’m going out on a limb to say it just might be even better! After all, this is the year that gave us so many gems: The Breaking Point, DOA, Gun Crazy, In a Lonely Place, Night and the City, No Man of Her Own, shake down, Sunset Blvd, The Damned Don’t Cry, Where the Sidewalk Ends… it’s an embarrassment of riches – how’s a person supposed to choose??? But I finally made my pick: The Asphalt Jungle. This classic heist film tells the tale of a motley crew of men who come together to knock off a jewelry store. Led by notorious career criminal Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the participants include the getaway driver (James Whitmore), who has a hunchback and loves cats; the expert safecracker (Anthony Caruso) with a devoted wife and young baby; and the small-time hood (Sterling Hayden) with a dream to return to his old Kentucky home. With a first-rate cast that also boasts memorable performances by Marilyn Monroe and Jean Hagen, The Asphalt Jungle is a nearly perfect noir.
Interestingly, my choice for 1951 came down to two films starring Kirk Douglas: Ace in the hole other detective story. As it happens detective story is freshest in my mind, as I recently saw it on the big screen at a film noir festival in Chicago. Still, I have to go with Ace in the hole. This ripped-from-the-headlines film centers on Chuck Tatum (Douglas), a former big-time reporter who’s now stuck in the sticks covering quilting bees and county fairs. That is, until he learns that a local man is trapped in a cave, and he sees his path back to his former glory—as long as the luckless man stays put.
I gave serious thought to Scandal Sheet. other Narrow margin almost made the cut. But for 1952, I had to give the node to Sudden Fear: it stars Joan Crawford and Gloria Grahame, and it’s got a cracking good story with a perfectly satisfying noir ending. Crawford is Myra Hudson, a wealthy and successful playwright who marries actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) after a whirlwind romance. Myra is blissfully happy, but her joy subsides when she finds out that (1) her husband doesn’t love her, (2) her husband is stepping out with his old girlfriend, and (3) her husband and his old girlfriend are planning to kill her. boom
Yikes – two excellent films for this year, either one of which could, on any given day, be considered the best noir of the year: The Big Heat other Pickup on South Street. On this given day, I decided to go with The Big Heat. Even if you’re not familiar with this film, you probably know about its most iconic scene, where Gloria Grahame gets a face full of scalding coffee courtesy of her brutish boyfriend, played by Lee Marvin. Glenn Ford stars as a crusading cop who is determined at all costs to find the man behind the murder of his wife. Toss in standout performances by Jeanette Nolan as the steely widow of a corrupt cop, and Alexander Scourby as a refined but scary gang leader, and you’ve got yourself a first-rate noir.
So far, 1954 is turning out to be my easiest year – my pick, hands-down, is Shield for Murder. One of my favorite underrated noirs, Shield for Murder stars Edmond O’Brien as Barney Nolan, described on the cover of the paperback source novel as “a trigger-happy cop who hid behind the law.” The film opens with Nolan murdering a local bookie and covering it up as self-defense. What he doesn’t know is that there is a witness to his crime. Three guesses as to what he does when he finds out – and the first two don’t count.
yikes From the easiest year to the hardest. How to choose between The Big Combo other New York Confidential?? I gave it lots of thought and finally had to select The Big Combo. It’s one of those films that I can see a hundred times and still catch myself smiling with appreciation. Cornel Wilde stars as Lt. Leonard Diamond, who has two obsessions: a ruthless gang leader named Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), and Mr. Brown’s alluring but unstable girlfriend, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace, Wilde’s then-wife). Also on hand are Mingo (Earl Holliman) and Fante (Lee Van Cleef), two of Mr. Brown’s loyal minions, and Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), the number two man in Mr. Brown’s operation who meets an end that will be seared into your consciousness.
A no brainer year. My pick is one of my all-time favorite films: The Killing. This time-bending masterpiece directed by Stanley Kubrick tells the story of an unusual assortment of men – mostly non-criminals, in the traditional sense – who unite to execute a flawlessly planned racetrack heist. The men include ex-con Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), the mastermind of the scheme; racetrack bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer), who needs the cash from the heist to care for his invalid wife; and mousy racetrack cashier George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who’s hoping the big payday will build some esteem for him in the eyes of his buxom, gold-digging wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor). The Killing, for my money, is not just the best noir of 1956, but one of noir’s best offerings overall – I’ve seen it on the big screen, I own it on VHS as well as DVD, and I never miss it when it airs on TV. (Am I being clear on how much I love this one?)
I’d love to choose Plunder Road as the best film of 1957 – it’s a neat little noir, rarely discussed, but thoroughly time-worthy. But I simply must pick Sweet Smell of Success. Riveting from start to finish, this film stars Burt Lancaster as Walter Winchell-like columnist JJ Hunsecker, who rules the streets of New York like a king with his realm, and Tony Curtis, in what I consider to be the role of his career, as Sidney Falco, a slimy press agent who’ll stop at nothing to get ahead. There’s not a dull moment in this top-notch feature – it’s one of those I can’t see enough.
I discovered Murder By Contract just a few years ago, and I’ve seen it several times since. That’s how good it is. Vince Edwards (who ain’t no Dr. Ben Casey) is spellbinding as Claude, a cold-blooded hitman with one rule: he won’t accept contracts on women. So when he’s hired to kill a witness in a mob trial, he’s thrown for a loop when he finds out his target is on the distant side. Featuring interesting characters, first-rate writing, and a unique jazz guitar score, this is one noir you won’t forget soon.
No question: my pick for 1959 is Odds Against Tomorrow, which is also the film that I consider to be the last of the classic noir era. Directed by Robert Wise, this story centers on former cop Dave Burke (Ed Begley), who hires ex-con Earle Slater (Robert Ryan) and musician Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to carry out a bank robbery. Integral to the success of the heist is the fact that Earle is white and Johnny is black – but the scheme is complicated by Earle’s unabashed racism. The superb cast includes Shelley Winters as Earle’s devoted girlfriend, and Gloria Grahame as their trampy neighbor. Keep your eyes peeled for the film’s climax, which is literally explosive, filled with irony, and one of noir’s most powerful.
And that wraps it up for the best noirs from each year of the classic era. What are your picks? 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 movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film other Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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