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There are, of course, dozens of film noir movies. But what makes some of them classics, while others remain just damn good films?

We say these five are classics because, quite simply, they remain as effective today as they did to audiences who caught their initial releases. Despite their minor deficiencies, they have withstood the test of time superbly.

Please note that this list is hardly comprehensive. Some obvious titles are not covered here — The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, M, Gun Crazy, Out of the Past, Touch of Evil  among them. Consider this asa modest listing of less celebrated titles which are nonetheless Classics.

Stranger on the Third Floor (Remastered Edition)RKO, 1940.  This tidy gem (running time, a zippy 64 minutes) stars Peter Lorre (pictured above with actress Margaret Tallichet), 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 (1949), 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. (that’s them above) — 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. As we noted yesterday, 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. Get this and several others from this post on Classic Film Noir (The Man Who Cheated Himself / The Hitchhiker / Detour / D.O.A / Too Late for Tears / The Stranger / Strange Love of Martha Ivers / Quicksand / The Scar).

— 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. Get this film and several others on John Alton Film Noir Collection (T-Men / Raw Deal / He Walked by Night) – The ClassicFlix Restorations on Blu-ray.


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