Les Diaboliques director Henri-Georges Clouzot put ‘60s French sex symbol Brigitte Bardot on trial in his 1960 noir — much as the press had done for her sexually liberated image — as a carefree modern woman accused of murdering her lover. But as Harvard Film Archive points out, “with La Verité Clouzot responded to the accusations of his own irrelevance hurled by the nouvelle vague upstarts who brazenly grouped him together with the so-called ‘cinéma du papa’ of the old guard that they adamantly repudiated.” La vérité was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
Elevator to the Gallows
Twenty-four-year-old filmmaker Louis Malle made his feature debut and revealed another side to Comédie-Française actress Jeanne Moreau in this 1958 thriller. Maurice Ronet stars opposite the “new Bardot” as her ill-intentioned lover. Miles Davis recorded the improvised score (watch, below) while performing in Paris at the Club Saint-Germain.
A humbled yakuza hitman (Ryo Ikebe) makes his way from prison to the gambling parlor where he meets a mysterious woman (Mariko Kaga) and becomes embroiled in the high stakes of her thrill-seeking lifestyle. Japanese new wave director Masahiro Shinoda was inspired by Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal.
1964. South Korea. Directed by Lee Man-hee… Lee made 51 feature films in the 14 years he was active as a director (1961–75), and Black Hair, made early in his career, is one of his most celebrated. A fast-paced thriller or film noir whose action virtually transcends genre, the film features a scarred woman, a gang boss, an opium junkie, and a taxi driver—and that’s only the beginning.
The Wild, Wild Rose
Grace Chang looks very Gilda in this still from Hong Kong musical noir The Wild, Wild Rose — a retelling of Carmen. (For more Hayworth/Carmen connections, see 1948’s The Loves of Carmen.)
The Scarlet Dove
Prominent Finnish filmmaker Matti Kassila was inspired by a dream for his 1961 tale of infidelity, befitting noir’s oneiric style.
From Filmsnoir writer Tony D’Ambra:
In 1938 Finnish director Nyrki Tapiovaara made Stolen Death (aka Varastettu kuolema), an elliptical thriller about a revolutionary political cell in Helsinki. Impatient for action the protagonists embark on an ultimately futile and tragic attempt to buy weapons from an arms dealer. A dark erotic triangle frustrates the actions of the fervent group of naïve young radicals. Romance, subterfuge, and betrayal are played out on urban streets and in deep focus, and mostly as a silent film, with many enigmatic scenes serving to enhance the intrigue. The moody expressionist cinematography and the tragic scenario pulsate with poetic realism. The doomed heroine played by Finnish actress Tuulikki Paananen has a presence as disarming as Garbo.
Inspired by James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, Luchino Visconti’s 1943 debut is considered a noir-ish forerunner of Italian neorealist cinema due to its bleak portrayal of rural life in the European heartland.
Story of a Love Affair
Slant’s Dan Callahan on Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1950 debut film about a tragic love affair: “The unsurpassed beauty of Antonioni’s visual art lifts his two-penny story and hollow people into the exalted realm of the senses; it’s a noir dissolved and re-made into existential poetry.”
“Look if you like… but look out! She’s Man Bait!” screams the poster tagline for Hammer Films’ 1952 British noir starring bad-girl sexpot Diana Dors. Hammer was known for their horror cycle, but the studio made a number of thrillers during their early years. Man Bait happens to be the work of Terence Fisher, one of their most prolific directors who helped shape the studio’s legacy.
Our friends across the pond made some formidable noirs, but it’s hard to resist the delightful camp of this other Hammer Films’ feature starring Barbara Payton as a feisty femme fatale.
The Man from Cairo
The Man From Cairo is a bit of a melting pot. George Raft, an American leading man known for his portrayal of gangsters, headlined this 1953 British noir. It would be his final top-billing role. The movie was shot in Italy by Mario Albertelli and featured Greek superstar Irene Papas.
Critic Terrence Rafferty discusses Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 noir, Stray Dog:
Stray Dog, the ninth film directed by Akira Kurosawa, is a detective story that’s also meant to function as a commentary on the desperate social conditions of postwar Japan: a kind of neorealist cop movie. The filmmaker wrote his screenplay first in the form of a novel, because his model was the French mystery novelist Georges Simenon — creator of the worldly, humane Inspector Jules Maigret, whose ability to crack tough cases depended more on social and psychological acumen than on any Holmesian puzzle-solving genius. (The Maigret figure in Stray Dog is a wise, middle-aged police detective named Sato, played by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura). In the sixties, Kurosawa told Donald Richie: “I wanted to make a film in the manner of Simenon, but I failed. Everybody likes the picture, but I don’t.” Kurosawa was right, in a way, about his failure to imitate Simenon. Stray Dog isn’t as tidy or compact as a Maigret novel, but for the best possible reason: it’s the work of a more generous and more complex artist.
Senses of Cinema on Yasujirô Ozu’s gangster tale of redemption:
In Dragnet Girl, Ozu ventured outside his habitual terrain, in both setting and genre. Normally he concentrated on the everyday rituals of the average family, on the rifts and rapprochements between parents and children as they swing between resistance and conformity to social pressures on matters of wide public concern – changes in marriage, education and employment patterns, shifts in morals and manners. In this film he focused on the troubled relationship between a gangster and his moll (who is also a member of the typing pool in a business company during the day). Not noted for his interest in sex and violence, let alone heterosexual relationships, Ozu would seem to be out of his depth. But he characteristically charms us with injections of humour, visual rhymes and homages to Hollywood, as well as demonstrating his ability to extend his visual repertoire beyond washing lines, telegraph poles and kettles.
None of us are cool enough to hang with Akira Kurosawa collaborator Toshirô Mifune in the director’s 1948 yakuza film. An alcoholic doctor and tuberculosis-ridden gangster form an uneasy friendship in the miserable setting of postwar Japan.
We wrote about Peter Lorre’s Der Verlorene in our recent article about “one-film wonders”:
Best known for his creeptastic role as a serial killer in Fritz Lang’s M, Peter Lorre directed his own noir-styled film, also co-written by the actor. He traveled back to Germany to make the movie based on a true story about a scientist haunted by his past. Dr. Rothe (played by Lorre) performed research for the Nazis during the war. He murders his fiancée after learning she was a spy selling his secrets.
The Golden Plague
The corruption of village life at the end of World War II from Hamburg-born director John Brahm.
Death of a Cyclist
A socially connected couple engage in a secret affair, hit a bicyclist with their car, and drive off in fear of their relationship being exposed in Juan Antonio Bardem’s paranoid nail-biter. “It succeeds most at capturing the general climate of fear and oppression in Franco’s Spain. In this atmosphere, doing the right thing takes enormous courage and invites enormous consequences, and the chilling effect is palpable,” writes critic Scott Tobias.
Eye for Film’s Rebecca Naughten on Carlos Saura’s 1960 social realist Palme d’Or contender:
Played by non-actors, there is a naturalness to the gang’s interactions with each other that contributes to Saura’s presentation of them as ‘modern’ youths – alongside the preening in the mirror, or the self-conscious straightening of their suits, there is a swagger to their group behaviour that by extension suggests their awareness of their power as a collective as opposed to individuals. They have a group identity based on where they’re from but also that of ‘youth’ more generally, as seen in the sequences in dance halls where they are part of a mass of dancers, and blend into the crowd while trying to pick up girls or drowning their sorrows at the bar.
The Black Crown
Golden Age of Mexican cinema goddess María Félix stars in this 1951 French-Spanish melodrama about an amnesiac woman who struggles to remember the details of her husband’s death amid his affair.
Deadlier Than the Male
Do not cross Danièle Delorme’s Catherine in Julien Duvivier’s Deadlier Than the Male, who the Village Voice called “a female cobra on a course of ruthless aggression against all men.” Seriously, don’t even. If you have to choose one French noir, this 1956 stunner makes a stellar case for the spotlight.
A Man Escaped
Most of the action in Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped takes place inside a prison cell. François Leterrier’s Fontaine, a member of the French Resistance, plots his escape from a Nazi jail. As Roger Ebert explained in his 2011 review, Breton is most interested in the “certain despair” of his character as he contemplates his fate: “Watching a film like A Man Escaped is like a lesson in the cinema. It teaches by demonstration all the sorts of things that are not necessary in a movie. By implication, it suggests most of the things we’re accustomed to are superfluous. I can’t think of a single unnecessary shot in A Man Escaped.”
Yakuza maestro Seijun Suzuki made this stylized crime tale almost a decade before his better-known noir Branded to Kill. Dig the sumptuous black-and-white photography, Mario Bava-esque mannequins, and artistic set pieces.
Branded to Kill
The 1967 neo-noir that got Seijun Suzuki blacklisted from the Japanese film industry (he wouldn’t make another movie until ten years later). Composer John Zorn wrote an essay on the movie’s breathtaking visuals for Criterion:
Flipping around the channels of late-night TV in my Tokyo apartment in 1984 I came across what seemed like a B movie from the ’60s. The studio: Nikkatsu. The star: Joe Shishido. The director: Seijun Suzuki. I was not at all prepared for what I was about to see, and I remember spending much of the following hour or so riveted to the screen with my mouth open. That night changed my life and set me on a journey to explore the darker side of a culture known predominantly for its classical beauty.
Don’t Ever Open That Door
Argentine director Carlos Hugo Christensen tackles two Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish) adaptations for his 1952 thriller.
Rosaura at 10 O’Clock
Nominated for the 1958 Palme d’Or, Mario Soffici takes a Rashomon-style approach to his tense Argentine noir in the retelling of an encounter with an enigmatic blonde from multiple viewpoints.
A prostitute dreams of a different life, but is bound to the porter of the Big Moon bar and brothel in the Belgium port of Antwerp. He happens to be her pimp. An Italian sailor promises to rescue her from her misery — but not if the dangerous doorman can help it.
Retour de manivelle
From the New York Times’ 1958 review of Denys de La Patellière’s There’s Always a Price Tag:
Since it is vaguely reminiscent of that superb Gallic chiller “Diabolique,” it should be pointed out that this newcomer does not have the invention and tensions of the earlier thriller. “There’s Always a Price Tag,” however, does offer a complement of taut portrayals that do justice to a script that is adult and sparse even if it takes a mite too long to arrive at its ironic dénouement.
Fun fact: when star Michèle Morgan moved to Hollywood from France, she had a house built (in 1944) at 10050 Cielo Drive. The home became the site of the Manson family murders in ’69.
La Bête Humaine
Jean Renoir’s adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel stars Cat People actress Simone Simon as the troubled Séverine, who is forced to help her husband commit murder. She seeks refuge in the arms of a train engineer with a dark secret (Jean Gabin in an equally memorable performance). The Village Voice discussed the film in a 2012 essay:
In La Bête Humaine and Remorques, we can detect certain tendencies of the Old Wave, among films frequently grouped under the evocative catchall “poetic realism.” There is an implicit esteem for labor in Renoir’s attention to the engineer’s station rituals, as in the work of Grémillon, who satisfies his documentary impulse through a detailed rendering of the tug’s operations in Remorques, or through the details of a dam’s construction in 1943’s ambitious Lumière d’été, which, like all great films, creates its own contained world, a birdcage inn in the French Alps. (If occasionally schematic in its opposition of a vitiated aristocracy and good, doughty laboring class, Lumière provides Pierre Brasseur a career role as the wild card, melodramatic, self-hate-immolated painter Roland.)
Le deuxième souffle
Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1966 existential neo-noir finds an escaped gangster joining his brothers in bloodshed in Paris to hide out. He needs one final heist to set himself up for retirement, which isn’t easy since there’s an inspector on his tail. “The implosive Le deuxième souffle captures the pathos, loneliness, and excitement of a life in the shadows with methodical suspense and harrowing authenticity, and contains one of the most thrilling heist sequences Melville ever shot,” writes Criterion.
Bob le flambeur
Roger Ebert on the influential Jean-Pierre Melville noir:
Before the New Wave, before Godard and Truffaut and Chabrol, before Belmondo flicked the cigarette into his mouth in one smooth motion and walked the streets of Paris like a Hollywood gangster, there was Bob. Bob le Flambeur, Bob the high-roller, Bob the Montmartre legend whose style was so cool, whose honor was so strong, whose gambling was so hopeless, that even the cops liked him. Bob with his white hair slicked back, with his black suit and tie, his trenchcoat and his Packard convertible and his penthouse apartment with the slot machine in the closet. Bob, who on the first day of this movie wins big at the races and then loses it all at roulette, and is cleaned out. Broke again.
In 1948, during the McCarthy era, American director Jules Dassin was one of the filmmakers blacklisted from Hollywood. He wouldn’t make another movie until 1955’s Rififi after moving to Europe. In the below interview with the filmmaker, he discusses his initial disinterest in adapting Auguste Le Breton’s crime tale. Dassin’s masterful heist movie has influenced countless films, from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs to Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven.
Teenage thug Pinkie Brown (a young Richard Attenborough) runs a dangerous gang in Brighton during the late 1930s. But his criminal career gets put to the test when he marries a witness to one of his hit jobs in order to keep her quiet. A rival gang threatens to take over his territory once and for all. Brighton Rock was retitled to Young Scarface in America. The movie earns its name as both films share an underdog narrative. Brighton Rock plays up the murky moral ground that noir is known for — and which European noir often played to the extreme.
The October Man
Sound on Sight writes about Roy Ward Baker’s amnesiac noir, The October Man:
While there is no Sherlock Holmes to be found in The October Man, the endeavor is a finely tuned, appropriately moody story of one man’s dealings with those who reject and question him due to his handicap. The movie even makes a valiant attempt at establishing a mystery, although it sadly plays its cards a little too evidently to keep audiences guessing, thus making the answer to the film’s ultimate question quite obvious long before the filmmakers go for a surprise with the reveal. Despite that blemish, the movie is a very handsomely crafted piece of 1940s cinema, its visual identity steeped in what many recognize as film noir lighting techniques and set design, and aided in no small part by a delightful, colourful cast of characters that populate its world.
The Small Back Room
From the innovative visual stylists who brought us The Tales of Hoffmann and The Red Shoes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1949 film The Small Back Room delves into a “back room” British scientist’s personal hell during World War II as he defuses enemy bombs while battling his alcohol addiction.
Women of Twilight
Boarding-house noir (complete with bedbugs!) and a touch of exploitation . A group of unmarried mothers rent rooms from a sadistic landlady who farms their babies out to the highest bidder.
Vince Edwards’ first screen appearance (uncredited) was in Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage, a gritty noir adapted from a novel by David Goodis. Edwards is arguably best known as the lead in Murder by Contract. The Scavengers, directed the following year by the underrated John Cromwell, is a solid B picture filmed in Hong Kong and the Philippines. [It’s] not quite up to the noir heights of either the actor or the director but still quite compelling all the same. Edwards stars as a former smuggler who goes to Asia to locate his missing wife. Unfortunately, his wife has fallen in with a bad crowd.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s poison pen letter noir would make Poe proud. The dangerous and anonymous letters sent to a French village doctor, accusing him of illicit goings-on, are signed “The Raven.” The story was inspired by a real-life mystery.
Henri-Georges Clouzot made Hitchcock shake in his shoes with this 1955 horror-noir, in which the wife of a tyrannical headmaster at a boarding school and his mistress conspire to kill the louse. Old Hitch tried to option the film, but lost out to Clouzot who imbues the film with an unbearable sense of dread and dark beauty.
Shoot the Piano Player
A piano player, a waitress, and a couple of gangsters. The great Pauline Kael on François Truffaut’s 1960 film:
When I refer to Truffaut’s style as anarchic and nihilistic, I am referring to a style, not an absence of it…. What’s exciting about movies like Shoot the Piano Player…is that they, quite literally, move with the times. They are full of unresolved, inexplicable, disharmonious elements, irony and slapstick and defeat all compounded — not arbitrarily as the reviewers claim — but in terms of the film maker’s efforts to find some expression for his own anarchic experience.
Murder by Proxy
Another Terence Fisher noir for Hammer Films about an American in London who gets taken by a beautiful blonde.
Murderers Among Us
A melancholic, expressionist love story about surviving the horrors of war and letting go of the past.
Le dernier tournant
Pierre Chenal’s 1939 film was the first time James M. Cain’s noir-loving novel The Postman Always Rings Twice was adapted for the big screen.
Quai des Orfèvres
From The New Yorker:
A stunningly well-made entertainment, this detective film by Henri-Georges Clouzot features the master actor Louis Jouvet in the role of a police inspector. His world is contrasted with that of the music hall, represented by the full-blown, hypersexual Suzy Delair. When this voluptuous slut sings “Avec Son Tra-la-la,” she may make you wonder if the higher things in life are worth the trouble. With Bernard Blier as Delair’s worshipful-masochist husband, Charles Dullin in the role of a lecherous hunchback, and, as a lesbian photographer, Simone Renant, at the time said to be the most beautiful actress in Paris. The film took the top prize at Venice, but in this country it never got the audience it deserved.
Stranger on the Prowl
From Movie Morlocks:
Though [the film is] shot on the streets, nothing feels off the cuff. It is a highly composed, artificial kind of neorealism, unaided by the presence of former Hollywood fixture Paul Muni. Though no longer a star, Muni was still a name, at least enough to get the film financed. Muni was happy for the work, but reportedly terrified of being associated with Communists, according to Losey. His terror translates to the screen, in which the already frog-faced actor uglies himself up more, skulking around corners with oily hair, deep pockets under his eyes, and a wardrobe seemingly carved out of a potato bag. He is haunted and hunted by the whole town, a seemingly stateless specter shadowing Europe. It’s a moody metaphor for Losey’s in-between status at that point, a freshly blacklisted artist with no visible means of support outside of the US.
From Roger Ebert on Jean-Pierre Melville’s extraordinary plot-twister:
To see both Belmondo and Piccoli in 1962 is to be reminded how early they embodied their distinctive screen presences: Piccoli, the balding, saturnine slickster with the five-o’clock shadow, and Belmondo, the oily outlaw punk. One trick that Melville plays is to dress them, and others, in essentially identical trench coats and hats, and then shoot them in shadows or from behind, so that we are misled for a while about who we’re watching. This, coupled with a habit that some of them have of straightening their hats before a mirror, perhaps suggests they are interchangeable, playing different games by the same rules.
A Colt Is My Passport
Branded to Kill director Takashi Nomura made a yakuza crime film for the Nikkatsu Corporation and pulled out all the stops. The spaghetti western-style vibes are strong.
Cruel Gun Story
Chipmunk cheeks be damned, Jô Shishido is too cool in Takumi Furukawa’s Nikkatsu noir.
I Am Waiting
An embittered boxer, a nightclub singer searching for love, and a group of ruthless gangsters who try to snuff out their dreams.
Scott Tobias on Josef von Sternberg’s influential silent crime tale, considered the first noir by many:
Working from a story by famed playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht, von Sternberg’s 1927 hit Underworld set the template for American gangster films to come, including the Hecht-penned Scarface. Though not as sophisticated or visually striking as the other films in the set, Underworld imbues gangsterism with a subtle (and perhaps unintended) glamour that stuck, as did its propulsive images of explosions, car chases, duplicitous molls, and rival kingpins. Yet von Sternberg was ever the romantic. His interest wasn’t in criminal mischief, but in how it heightens a love story complicated by jealousy, loyalty, and lust. George Bancroft stars as a swaggering kingpin who suspects (correctly) that an enemy is eying his moll (Evelyn Brent), but misses the deeper attraction that develops between her and his right-hand man, a reformed drunk (Clive Brook) who owes Bancroft his life. Though von Sternberg handles big setpieces like a bank robbery and a prison break with aplomb, they merely raise the stakes on a more intimate, thorny conflict behind the scenes.