Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to introduce our initial “best-of” set of choices, starting off in the film noir category. But we have a twist, ours are the best film noir you’ve probably never heard of.
We hope the following will inspire you to sample these fine films, which may or may not be recognized for the gems they are. We aim to please — and to surprise.
Ok, let’s get to Frank’s choices listed in no particular order:
— Stranger on the Third Floor, RKO, 1940. This tidy gem (running time, a zippy 64 minutes) stars Peter Lorre, one of the genre’s founding stalwarts, as a crepuscular creep who slits the throats of two victims. The script for this designated programmer is a bit wobbly, and concerns an upstanding news reporter (also a police suspect) and his clear-eyed fiancee. The visually impressive film is justifiably praised by cinephiles today for its many technical attributes that would later be adopted by Welles and (producer-creator) Val Lewton. It is considered the first true film noir.
— The Set Up, RKO, 1949. Film noirs are most often distinguished by the suitability of their stars (say, Robert Mitchum versus a stodgy Robert Montgomery or Humphrey Bogart versus a wiseacre Dick Powell). The star of this one, Robert Ryan, is terrific as an aging boxer brutally beset by mobsters because he wouldn’t take a dive. Ryan, in great shape, is utterly believable as the fighter, and noir notable Audrey Totter is on hand as the wife back in the shabby hotel room. Trivia: the ringside bell is struck by “timekeeper” Arthur Fellig, better known as Forties crime photographer Weegee.
— Detour, PRC, 1945. Tracking down a decent print of this one is well worth the challenge. Hollywood bad boy Tom Neal (who slugged actor Franchot Tone over the hand of party girl Barbara Payton) and Ann Savage give surprisingly convincing performances as a piano player (Neal) on his way to the coast and the murderous female hitchhiker who abducts him. Tense, tough, densely plotted and building to a downbeat, fatalistic conclusion. Who said film noir was for the faint of spirit?
— Too Late For Tears, United Artists, 1949. Lizabeth Scott (born Emma Matso in Scranton, Pa.) is one of the most accomplished of noir actresses, appearing in many genre titles almost all good. She’s a big favorite of both Frank’s and Joe’s. She’s here in spades in this picture which mixes all the elements: 60-thousand G’s in a duffel bag tossed by chance into a passing convertible, a detective on the take (Dan Duryea, one of noir’s most talented regulars), illicit sexual doings, duplicity, double-crosses, guns and an unexpected fall from a balcony.
— The Hitch-Hiker, RKO, 1953. Two likable blokes (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) on the road pick up the wrong man, and all hell breaks loose. This one is based on a true-life incident, and was the only noir directed by a woman, Ida Lupino, who graced many a genre title as a superbly sultry actress. What pulls the movie together is the evil performance of working actor William Tallman as the murderous psychotic waving that pistol in the back seat. Tense, psychological drama.
— T-Men, Eagle Lion Films, 1948. A cops-and-robbers saga, specifically about U.S. Treasury agents breaking up an especially brutal counterfeiting ring. There are creditworthy performances from Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder, among others, directed by Anthony Mann. What made this tense police hunt for us is the presence of one of our favorite working actors, Charles McGraw, as the sadistic nasty who slowly slays a stool pigeon (a hapless Wallace Ford) by locking him in a steam bath and then running up the temperature. Marvelous.
Finally, this bonus choice: Shoot The Piano Player (Tirez Sur Le Pianiste) 1960. French filmmaker Francois Truffaut’s second movie with Charles Aznavour starring as a cabaret pianist with a past beset by a criminal gang thanks to the antics of an inept brother. This one is not technically a film noir — strictly an American art form — but is more a hommage to the genre and a most enjoyable one at that.
Ok, there you have it. A half dozen (plus one) recommendations that you’ll enjoy. We are pleased to credit two indispensable sources: FILM NOIR, An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward; and Eddie Muller’s DARK CITY: The Lost World of Film Noir.