Noir City, the Music Box’s annual series of rare and nearly impossible-to-find film noir, is in full sway. (If you haven’t yet, make sure to read J.R. Jones’s rundown from this week’s paper.) This year the program features a selection of foreign titles, a welcome deviation from tradition that further supports the idea that noir wasn’t an exclusively American phenomenon. Among the most distinct film genres, noir isn’t defined in the same manner as the western or the melodrama—there’s something less tangible, more amorphous about noir—which explains why it’s sort of an umbrella category that unites various subgenres and seemingly divergent films. (It’s why such disparate films as They Live by Night and Sweet Smell of Success can both be considered noir.) Below, you can find my five favorite noir films.
5. The Big Heat (dir. Fritz Lang, 1953) Lang made a string of superlative noirs in the 1950s, but this one towers above them all, a blistering gangster drama focused on the thin line between lawfulness and criminality. Glenn Ford, in a terrific performance, is the ultimate Langian protagonist, dogged in his fight against fate and the existential crisis at hand. Just as good is Gloria Grahame, a tragic figure only because she’s slightly less corrupt than her peers. This one belongs to the canon at this point, but its audacity hasn’t wavered—the coffee scene is still a shocker, no matter how many times you see it.
4. Behind Locked Doors, aka The Human Gorilla (dir. Budd Boetticher, 1948) A quick, pulsating little noir from B master Budd Boetticher, Behind Locked Doors belongs to the “asylum” subgenre that includes Val Lewton and Mark Robson’s Bedlam and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor. Asylums prove an ideal metaphor for such noir themes as isolation and entrapment, but rather than rest on idle symbolism Boetticher transforms the setting by treating it like some sort of Kafkaesque labyrinth. Even by Boetticher’s standards, this isn’t a perfect film—he made plenty that are better—but it’s as stylish as noir gets, and Tor Johnson is memorable in his uncredited performance as “The Champ,” a violent patient who assaults anyone who enters his room.
3. 99 River Street (dir. Phil Karlson, 1953) An accomplished stylist whose deeply personal films resonated with sharp social commentary, Karlson is among those underappreciated B directors who made up for their lack of interest in narrative cohesion by imbuing their films with strong personality and vivid characterizations. Revenge is among the director’s pet themes, and it’s also a central concept of noir. His films survey the personal and even spiritual cost of vengeance; here, a former boxer hunts down his wife’s killer and finds himself caught up in a cycle of violence he’s unable to escape.
2. The Big Night (dir. Joseph Losey, 1951) Fresh off its Chicago premiere courtesy of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, Losey’s remake of Fritz Lang’s M (1951) is featured in this year’s Noir City slate. Though you shouldn’t hesitate to see that film (it screens on Thu 9/4 at 5 PM), The Big Night (made in the same year) is the pinnacle of Lang’s brief American period. This has all the makings of a classic noir: it’s stylish, pessimistic, and focused on the inevitability of violence, but it also benefits from Losey’s heightened social awareness. The critical, left-leaning comments on racism and sexism in his work put him on the blacklist, but thankfully, he left behind a powerful (albeit small) body of work that artfully illustrates the postwar, pre-Civil Rights America psyche.
1. Detour (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945) A masterpiece of Poverty Row, Roger Ebert called this film “the guilty soul of film noir.” Detour is that rare film whose brevity somehow communicates a tome’s worth of ideas and themes. The staging is bare-bones—Ulmer used a total of four sets (three interior, one exterior) and used stock footage and rear projection for everything else—and the narrative is stripped to virtually nothing, so all that exists is a creeping, paranoid mood and deep sense of alienation. How Ulmer achieved so much with so little is something of a marvel, but credit the milieu’s deliberate artificiality and the unconventional, oddly stilted performances. This is one of very few films rightly described as a “fever dream.”