Several directors are associated with Film Noir. Today we highlight those we deem “the most notable.”
We are keeping it deliberately vague — “notable” is an elastic term — since this is not an awards contest. We’d just like to list just some of the film noir directors that we especially like. Some labored in the semi-poverty-row studios, others in more mainstream contexts and at least one ranks among the most acclaimed movie directors ever. Here we go:
JACQUES TOURNEUR — Born in Paris in 1904, Tourneur came from a distinguished show biz family (his father was a director, his mother an actress) and landed in Hollywood by the early Thirties, directing one reelers for MGM. At RKO he encountered our favorite creative producer, Val Lewton, and directed several of his productions including two of our favorite horror films, 1942’s Cat People and 1943’s I Walked With A Zombie. His piece de resistance in the noir genre was 1947’s Out of the Past costarring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. Yes, the plot is hard to follow but the look and style of the film plus superb performances make it a worthy classic. Credit, of course, goes to its director (pictured above with his favorite Parisian gargoyle) and cinematographer Nicholas Masuraca.
JULES DASSIN — Although perhaps best known for being the husband of Oscar-nominated actress Melina Mercouri (for 1960’s Never On Sunday, which he directed) , Dassin was born of Russian-immigrant parents — “we were so poor, it was ridiculous.” — in Connecticut in 1911. Despite long odds — including being blacklisted — he emerged as a strong studio director in several genres both in the U.S. and in Europe. Dassin is especially known for his classic caper outing, 1955’s Rififi. His handful of noir titles includes two we especially like: 1949’s Thieves Highway and 1950’s London-set Night and the City with Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney. In the latter includes Stanislaus Zbyszko, a Polish ex-wrestler turned actor, as a veteran Greco-Roman wrestler decrying the fake state of the sport. Dassin had seen Zbyszko wrestle, and remembered him for the role in his film. Zbyszko and Mike Mazurki (as “The Strangler”) engage in an extraordinarily lengthy and realistic wrestling scene that is certainly one of the most intense in movie history.
ANTHONY MANN — Mann was born Emil Anton Bundsmann in 1906 in a small town near San Diego, Calif. A child actor, he quit school early and found work off-Broadway in the mid-Twenties. He directed his first Broadway production in 1933, and a year later formed his own summer stock company with one especially notable acting member, James Stewart. Hollywood came calling in the late Thirties, and Mann went on to furnish first-class productions for a number of studios including RKO. Today he is best known for his series of tough big-screen westerns starring Stewart, and for his seven excellent noir titles. Each is worth another look. We are partial to 1947’s T-Men, costarring Dennis O’Keefe, Wallace Ford and (in an especially sadistic turn) Charles McGraw; and to 1949’s Border Incident costarring the unfamiliar noir faces of George Murphy and Ricardo Montalban. (It was an MGM production, after all).
FRITZ LANG — Vienna born ( in 1890) the former Friedrich Christian Anton is one of the most storied and acclaimed director in film history. Fritz, as he was universally called in Hollywood, directed several all-time classics (M, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse, Metropolis) in Germany before migrating to Hollywood in 1934, as the Nazis were getting revved up. He had a mixed career directing big studio and independent productions, but excelled in most of his several noir outings. We are partial to 1944’s Woman in the Window costarring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett and featuring a shockingly nasty turn from one of the very best noir villains, Dan Duryea. We also like Lang’s companion film, 1945’s Scarlett Street. Note: Lang directed 1953’s The Big Heat. Yes, that’s the classic noir in which Lee Marvin tosses a pot of scalding coffee in Gloria Grahame’s pretty face.
JOHN HUSTON — The son of actor Walter, Huston directed The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, Key Largo and (a picture we particularly like) 1953’s Beat The Devil. Need we say more?