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Lesser Known Film Noir Gems

Just about every film buff and mystery fan knows the classic films noir: “The Big Sleep”, “Murder My Sweet”, “Out of the Past”, “Sunset Boulevard”, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity.” Here are a few not-quite-so-famous noirs that are also worth a look…

“Scarlet Street” – (1945) Edgar G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, directed by Fritz Lang. Same stars and director as 1944’s “Woman in the Window” but the chasm in tone and character highlights the difference between standard crime melodrama and film noir. In the earlier flick Robinson is meek and somewhat naïve but in “Scarlet Street” he’s a plain fool. Bennett is a saucy flirt in “Woman in the Window” but flat-out wicked in “Scarlet Street.” And Dan Duryea here is as despicable as only Dan Duryea can be.

Fave line, Bennett, repeated in eerie voiceovers: “Jeepers, I love you Johnny.”

“The Blue Dahlia” – (1946) Penned by Raymond Chandler, starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and Bill Bendix as a returning GI with a steel plate in his head. Ladd returns from his service overseas to find his wife has fallen in with a fast crowd. Chandler wrote it as they shot and allegedly polished off a case of Scotch, with round-the-clock nurses in attendance, in order to get the script done on deadline. The original draft had brain-damaged Bendix as the heavy but the Pentagon objected.

Fave line, Bendix, going ballistic at the hot jazz on the jukebox: “They’re playin’ dat monkey music again!”

“In a Lonely Place” – (1950) Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, what a combo, good as Bogie and Bacall. Bogart plays a down-on-his-luck screenwriter with anger management issues. Directed by Nicholas Ray, whose marriage to Grahame was coming apart at the time. That tension, and disillusionment, is clearly reflected in this dark and powerful film.

Fave line, Bogart: “I was born when you kissed me. I died when you left me. I lived a few weeks while you loved me.”

“Laura” – (1944) Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and Vincent Price as a Southern gigolo. Directed by Otto Preminger. Detective Andrews falls in love with the portrait of the gorgeous, murdered Tierney. A four-star flick, though purists would say it’s not a true noir since Gene Tierney’s Laura is not a femme fatale. Won an Oscar for cinematography.

Fave line, Dana Andrews, when asked if he’d ever been in love: “Dame got a fox fur outta me once.”

“The Big Combo” – (1955) America’s romance with film noir was nearing an end. Black and white film was soon to be obsolete, and the family-focused 50s weren’t fertile ground for cynicism and mordant humor.

This story of crusading cop Cornel Wilde versus cunning mobster Richard Conte is one of the last of the breed. Brian Donleavy plays a down-on-his-luck hood who wears a big speaker around his neck as a hearing aid, and which figures famously in his demise. A plot-challenged B film, but a damn good lookin’ one!

Fave line: “Shoots me with my own gun. That’s what gets me.”

“I Wake Up Screaming” – (1941) Stars Victor Mature and Betty Grable in a rare serious role. Promoter Frankie Christopher, being grilled by police in the murder of a model, recalls in flashback: Meeting her as a waitress, trying to parlay her beauty into social acceptance and a lucrative career.

He succeeds only too well. She’s on the eve of deserting him for Hollywood when someone kills her. Frankie teams up with the dead girl’s sister (Grable) to track down the killer.

Victor Mature and Betty Grable, who make no one’s list of Hollywood’s great thespians, nonetheless have great chemistry.

Fave line, Mature, to the cop who’s hounding him: “Must be a great life. Kinda like a garbage man, only with people.”

“Ace in the Hole” – (1951) About a struggling newspaper reporter exploiting the story of a man trapped in a cave. Cynical to the gills.

Stars Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling, directed by Billy Wilder, his first film project where he enjoyed complete control.

The film was originally panned as too nasty but has enjoyed a critical renaissance in recent years. In 2007 Roger Ebert wrote of Kirk Douglas’ performance, “It’s as right-now as a sharpened knife.”

Fave line, one of the best of all time, Jan Sterling: “I never pray. Kneeling bags my nylons.”

I would like to add one final flick to my list of lesser known noir gems…

“Nightmare Alley” – (1947) Starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. I can think of no finer example of noir’s premise – fate has got you in the crosshairs – than this tale of a young carny huckster who parlays the cheap tricks of ‘mind-reading’ into a lucrative career as a swanky nightclub ‘mentalist.’
Heart-throb Power, to his undying credit, lobbied for this very unsympathetic role in an attempt to prove he was a real actor.

Fave line, Power: “Mister, I was born for it!”

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© Copyright John Knoerle 2015