Watch a Top Ten Movie List

I’m writing this during the second week of the COVID-19 lockdown. That is to say, last week my daughter’s school was closed and my company started ‘work from home’. It was also the week that the state of California (where I live) ordered a ‘shelter at home’ mandate. As I write this, the future is uncertain. It feels like many, many people are skirting the orders and/or not taking it seriously. Even people in my family have voiced doubt that the outbreak will, “not be that deadly”, and not-so-passively make fun of California’s “martial law”. They are speaking the party line of the Fox Network, which is focused more on the economy than the fact that, as I type this, 391 people have died in the US alone. That’s nearly 400 groups of friends and family who are now grieving the loss of someone they loved. And the projections are much, much worse. “Not that deadly” is such an insult. Not to mention the actual problem: our hospitals will become overrun very quickly, as we saw in China and Italy. But I digress. It’s just difficult not to talk about this stuff because I am in the middle of it. Hopefully you will be reading this when it is history, on the comfortable side. Finger’s crossed it all works out.

Anyway, progress on my list is a bit hampered by this “shelter at home” thing. I started looking around for things to do to stay busy when not working (which continues to be a lot). I was browsing Reddit and someone posted Paste magazine’s “Top 100 Film Noir” films. As I mentioned in the LA Funicular list item, I had taken a Film Noir class in college (taught, I’m pretty sure, by Thom Anderson, but I also remember Bill Moritz sitting-in. Two incredible humans, both of whom I was lucky enough to have had as official mentors while at CalArts) and have had a fondness for that genre ever since. The coming together of German Expressionist cinematographers and lighting artists escaping Nazi Germany, the Red Scare of Hollywood (including writers who indeed did have socialist leanings), the uncertain times of WWII and its aftermath (including the misogynist ‘femme fatale’ pendulum shift of women in the workforce during the war) , and the re-discovery of the nihilistic writings of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, plus a changing of the guard with regard to film Directing. Some of the greatest film Directors ever make the best of the genre: Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Wells, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, John Huston, even Akira Kurosawa. Then in the 70’s there was another re-invention brought forth by the likes of Roman Polanski, Robert Altman, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, etc. The timing of Film Noir, as a genre, is such a perfect zeitgeist of its time. Some of the best writers of their time contributed to the genre as they were drawn to Hollywood from not-so-lucrative playwriting and novelist careers: authors like William Faulkner, Clifford Odets, and Graham Greene were in their prime writing some of the best Film Noir entries.

I was attending film school in the early ’90s which was the renaissance of pulp movies. Quentin Tarantino came to show his movie, “Reservoir Dogs” before he had a distribution deal, James Foley came to show, “After Dark, My Sweet” (#96) (it was the time when Jim Thompson was being re-discovered. I ended-up collecting and reading all of his novels.), and theaters were showing big name directors and stars in the resurgence of Film Noir films: The Grifters (#94), Red Rock West (#61), even Barton Fink (which features characters inspired by Odets and Faulkner). The early-to-mid 1990s was also the new-age of independent filmmaking, lead by the likes of Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, John Singleton (rip), Richard Linklater and the like. It was exciting to see more directors of color and seeing different perspectives through their storytelling (note: it was not a strong period for female filmmakers, so it’s good to see things changing recently- now when do we get a good female take on Film Noir?). “Devil in a Blue Dress” is one of my favorite films of that new-noir period (it’s at #91 in the Paste list, which I find bordering on criminal) with crisp dialogue and stand-out performances by Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals, but it’s worth watching for Don Cheadle’s characterization of Mouse alone. It was the first time I remember ever seeing Don Cheadle and I was instantly a fan. But Mouse is a great character to begin with, thanks to author Walter Mosely.

On to the actual list. I’m a fan of Film Noir, I’m stuck indoors, and I came across a list of the Top Film Noir to dive into. I’ve seen 9 of the top ten, but it’s been a while, so time to dive back in. A quick breakdown of the top 100 list by date shows most of the films are from the 40s-50’s golden age, but nearly a quarter are from the late 80s-90’s resurgence of my college years. The top ten list, on the other hand, are all golden age save for one (Chinatown).

The Top Ten Best Film Noir movies of all time (according to Paste Magazine):

10) Sunset Boulevard – Not only had I seen this film in my Film Noir class in the early nineties, but my then girlfriend, an actress, took me to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation, which I honestly have zero memories of. Amazing how memory works. I do remember watching the film and my feelings were rekindled watching it again. Sunset Boulevard features one of the classic tropes of the genre: a despicable character getting their just desserts. William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck writer who is only too happy exploiting those around him and being generally a dick to everyone who has the gall to try to help him. There’s quite a bit of suspension of disbelief that needs to be employed to follow the exploits of Joe Gillis. It’s confusing when the protagonist is a terrible person. Am I supposed to root for him, or against him? Gloria Swanson plays the aged superstar, Norma Desmond, who’s performance takes a little getting used to due to the over-the-top nature. You just know she’s based on one or more of the silver screen ‘greats’ as they descended into obscurity. 1950 seems like the pinnacle of this story line. It’s the same year All About Eve featured Bette Davis as Margo Channing in a similarly over the top performance. I imagine Hollywood was awash with former stars not aging well and taking everyone down around them. Art imitates life. Despite starting with a murder scene, the gorgeous photography of John F. Seitz (seasoned film noir cinematographer of Double Indemnity, The Big Clock, This Gun for Hire, etc.), and being helmed by Billy Wilder, I’d argue that Sunset Boulevard is more psychological thriller than Film Noir. It’s where a morally flexible character becomes involved with an emotionally unstable character and unbeknownst to anyone is following a path laid-out by secret dungeon master character, Max Von Mayerling (played impeccably by character actor Erich von Stroheim). It features a stand-out performance by legendary Director Cecil B. DeMille. In support of the “Gillis is terrible to everyone who helps him” story line, he seduces his friend Artie’s fiancée at a party at Artie’s house after just asking to sleep on Artie’s couch for a few weeks. Classy, yes. But more importantly, Artie is played by a young Jack Webb, of Dragnet fame. Overall, the film has some memorable moments (“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille”), great performances, and beautiful photography. But unlikable characters make it difficult to truly enjoy. I would not put Sunset Boulevard on *my* top ten list.

9) Laura – There’s a lot of great things about Laura. First of all, there’s Waldo Lydecker, an arrogant, effete columnist/radio monologist who’s writing desk is a bathtub with a tray for his typewriter. He’s cunning and vicious, both verbally and with a shotgun. Then there’s detective Mark McPherson, who seems disinterested in everything (and everyone) around him, to the point of playing a little ball bearing baseball handheld game (the Gameboy of the mid-forties, apparently) while tossing out curve ball questions and barely glancing up to judge the reactions. He always seems one step ahead of everyone until he meets Laura. Then he loses his cool. The young competition for Laura’s hand, the cad who is clearly scheming and manipulative is played by a young Vincent Price. He’s big and awkward and speaks with *that* voice. It’s so good. He’s so good. So charming and hate-able. Everybody falls for Laura, which is of course why one of them tries to shoot her in the face. That’s love, baby.

8) Kiss Me Deadly – I mentioned Kiss Me Deadly in the funicular list item. It’s one of the movies that was shot around Bunker Hill and includes a few shots of the famous Eagle’s Flight. It’s a great film for Los Angeles sightseeing- Hollywood Athletic Club plays itself. This movie has so many wtf moments, especially in the very beginning when detective Mike Hammer nearly runs off the road when a woman (a young Cloris Leachman, a staple of 80’s TV like Facts of Life and Love Boat) wearing nothing but a trench coat jumps out in front of him. She’s desperate and breathing heavily (like, really, really unnaturally heavily) and he doesn’t even bother to ask what might be wrong (spoiler: everything is wrong) instead, he complains about how she almost wrecked his car. Which is actually a big deal because only four black Corvettes were build in 1954 and one of them is the car he’s driving in the film. Suddenly there’s a very disturbing (due to screaming, not graphic visuals) torture scene. Directed by Robert Aldrich, the movie has serious Samuel Fuller energy with close-ups on unusual characters, action pov in-car driving, and shaky zoom shots. This film came out a couple years after Fuller’s “Pick Up on South Street” (#40) and seems heavily influenced by it. You can see the elements Tarantino ripped off. The most obvious is a glowing suitcase McGuffin, which also looks to be the inspiration for the opening of the Arc/Nazi melting sequence of Raiders of the Lost Arc. There’s something about Kiss Me Deadly that I never picked-up on when I saw it 20 years ago- it’s almost the anti-noir. Mike Hammer has all the hallmarks of a noir hero- good one liners, out-smarting foes, figuring out complex plot points, smooth with the ladies, and ready to punch some noses (in one scene he punches a guy down a long flight of stairs and he smirks as he watches)- but what makes this so unexpected is that he’s ultimately in way over his head, he acts rashly in a way that endangers everyone around him. In short, he’s selfish and stupid. He’s in a relationship with his secretary and in a couple scenes its insinuated that he gets off having her be with other men as she’s out getting information. So he’s… complicated. The two had a great back and forth while he’s in traction in a hospital bed:

Hammer: “You’re never around when I need you.”

Velda: “You never need me when I’m around.”

The real star of the show in a wall-mounted reel-to-reel answering machine. I didn’t know answering machines existed in 1955, but no one in the film reacts when they see it (whereas I’d pay attention to nothing but).

Part film noir and part espionage, Kiss Me Deadly is a weird film. The sound design of the culmination scene is the thing of nightmares. The hero kind of… sucks. Plus there’s the stereotypes, from an astonishingly cartoonish Greek named Nick “Va Va Voom” to “Friday”, a floozy who leads with her lips, and square-head thugs who can’t win a fist fight with a gun in their hand. All of that said, it’s such an unusual film that it is one of my favorites from the list.

7) Out of the Past – I’m going to have to change my previous statement that I’d seen 9/10 of these movies before. I don’t think I saw this one before. There’s a lot to like here. First of all, so much of the feeling of film noir comes from deep shadows of night, but Out of the Past presents the same suspenseful dread in bright sunlight. Set in unlikely locations like Lake Tahoe, Bridgeport, CA (between Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes) and Mexico City (along with traditional locations of San Francisco and Los Angeles). There’s something amazing about how well crafted this film is, especially considering the director did relatively little else of this caliber (full disclosure, I just bought “I Walked with a Zombie” and it completely lacks the energy of this film). There are scenes of people fishing that are filled with tension. Fishing! Seeing young and vital Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas (who in real life died last month at one hundred and three years old!) working together is an incredibly dynamic duo. This was 13 years before Spartacus and only the third film in Douglas’ resume, but he has such presence. He doesn’t actually *do* anything to demonstrate his violent ways, but you feel it. In a physical fight, Robert Mitchum would probably mop the floor with Kirk, but the power dynamic is cutting with tension at all times. There is one moment of ‘suspension of disbelief’ (again involving fishing), but it is forgivable. Jane Greer is both disarming and maniacal. There is so much to like about Out of the Past. Seeing this makes this list item all worth it.

6) The Third Man – The most International of the films on the list, The Third Man is set in post world war II Vienna, a geopolitical hotbed with the city divided up in districts overseen by various occupying forces and a citizenry comprised of locals and shadowy foreigners alike. Joseph Cotton plays an American Western author, Holly Martins, who’d been summoned to the city by his old friend, Harry Lime. Upon his arrival, however, Holly finds his friend has been hit and killed in a car accident. He’s arrived just in time to attend his Lime’s funeral. From here, Holly behaves in the most American of all ways: he’s rude, belligerent, pompous, easily flattered, and simultaneously in need of and resentful of all the help he receives from those around him. Despite another situation where the protagonist is kind of a dick, the story is a whodunit weaved with mastery. Part of the charm is that many of the characters around Martins don’t speak English and he doesn’t speak German. I also don’t speak German and the effect is particularly effective because the feeling is that you are constantly missing out on vital information. Martins relies on other people’s translations, but his arrogance seems to keep him from the obvious- that his translators are controlling the message. The most intriguing character is played by an actor I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before, but he is so good Ernst Deutsch plays ‘Baron’ Kurtz, an acquaintance of Lime’s and someone who is clearly hiding something. He’s creepy in the way that Robert Blake was in Lost Highway– his angular features hint at something sinister and a curl of his lip denotes that he knows something we don’t. And there’s nothing more dangerous than someone in postwar Vienna with more Knowledge than you. Everyone in The Third Man seems to know more than Martins, but like a bull on roller skates, the American loudly tromps his way through the city nights, announcing his intentions and thoughts to everyone who will listen. The cinematography of the Third Man is among the best of the genre- the city plays a part as a patchwork of shadows, within which mysterious figures lurk. The finale scene within the labyrinthine sewer networks is particularly stunning. It feels like a chase through the confined spaces of a habitrail. It’s claustrophobic and the sound design highlights the confusion as the rat becomes surrounded. It’s a work of art. My one criticism (aside from the protagonist) is the soundtrack, which often feels like it’s an old travelogue, featuring regional, rustic music of Vienna that can turn a tense chase sequence into something Fellini-esque. If nothing else, The Third Man stands in contrast to the next film on the list, Touch of Evil, both feature Orson Wells, both considered some of the finest of the genre, but ultimately The Third Man feels more authentically of its time, more grounded in substance over style (though extremely stylish in its own right), and more relevant than the film Paste says deserves the spot ahead of it.

5) Touch of Evil – There’s no good way to say this. As a former film student, I know we’re supposed to deify Orson Wells. He is responsible for many of the film techniques that we take for granted now, but were groundbreaking at the time. This film has “the shot“. I know all this, but I have to say it: this film does not hold up well. In fact, it’s kind of a mess. At a time when studio films were ridged and nearly mechanical, Wells tried to tell a tale that flower more naturally, with dialogue that overlaps and filled with conversational ‘near misses’ that plague real-life. It’s an art-form that came and went, though I have no idea why. It’s a style that Steven Spielberg absolutely crushed in his early films like Jaws and Close Encounters. But at this transition point of big studio cast and crews, the performances and direction come off stilted and forced. And I love Hal Hartley movies! Stilted and forced can be great, when that’s what you’re going for. But Touch of Evil also includes cinematography that feels more like a flex than suiting the story. While “the shot” helps build tension, most of the rest of the cinematography is a mush-mash of extreme close-ups for no reason, hand-held sequences (a huge new thing!) for no reason and dutched angles that seem to be there just to be there. Speaking of being there just to be there, Marlene Dietrich plays a Mexican Fortune Teller who clearly has the role as a favor and to pad-out the list of famous actors. I wish it was just the style of filmmaking that didn’t age well, but nearly every aspect of the film is out of date. First of all, the systemic racism. The story tells the tale of a murder/assassination that happens in a border town (played by an overdressed Venice, CA), where conflict between a slick Mexican law official and an old-school American cop boils over into planted evidence and a convoluted sub-plot about a Mexican criminal’s brother exacting revenge on the Mexican lawman’s American wife. So, the racism… Where to start? There’s the above-board stuff: Wells plays Police Captain Hank Quinlan, a bloated, openly racist, moralistically vague character who is in recovery from alcoholism and being a two dimensional stereotype. Then there’s the systemic racism. 1958 was the golden age of whitewashing, unfortunately a thing that still happens. Charleston Heston, the whitest of the old white men, plays Mike Vargas, a Mexican policeman. Yes, he’s in brown face. The dialogue features many overt references to the interracial relationship between Vargas and his wife, Susan Vargas, played by Psycho shower murder victim, Janet Leigh. It’s difficult to explain Susan Vargas as a character. She waltzes into danger with a flourish of white privilege while demonstrating a complete lack of self-preservation and ignorance bordering on misogyny. She wanders across the border with a strange young man who doesn’t even speak the same language. She lounges around in boudoir attire while never meeting a curtain she understood the mechanics of. She goes beyond common damsel in distress by passively accepting the distress she’s in. She’s beyond worthless. She’s insulting. Nearly all the actors playing Mexicans are white. At least most of them don’t try any ‘authentic accents’. Then there’s Dennis fucking Weaver. I’m of the age where I mostly remember Dennis Weaver from the movie Duel and some of his late-in-life political activism. But in Touch of Evil, Weaver plays “the night man” at a roadside motel who is… special. His performance is… special. It is somewhere between scene chewing and farce. I can’t honestly tell what is happening. This is a performance that was Directed. By Orson Wells. All I can think is that this character is based on someone Orson Wells hated with some personal grudge that bordered on sadism. Like in a “that’s you. That’s what you sound like” kind of way. The performance is a trainwreck. Such is the plot. This was at a time when decency codes ruled supreme, so even when Susan Vargas gets drugged, they had to spend precious screen time to describe how she didn’t *actually* take drugs. The marijuana was just “blown over her clothes” and instead of being injected with heroin (like the needles left at the scene would have you believe), she was instead injected with sodium pentothal (the old ‘truth serum’). It’s funny watching this film through the eyes of modern sensibilities and free from the academic lens of technique (which Paste magazine clearly is not). Funny, odd, not funny ha-ha. This is number 5 on their list, which makes me question this entire endeavor.

4) Chinatown – The sole entry in the Top Five that wasn’t from the ‘Classic Period’ (1940-1958). It was just 5 years after his wife, unborn baby, and several friends were brutally slaughtered in his home while he was away that Roman Polanski was back in Los Angeles, set to film Chinatown because the script was so strong. It’s another one of those ‘perfect times’- Producer Robert Evans had risen to power inside the studio system and was pushing the new wave of filmmakers. Polanski, despite the tragedy in his personal life was at his creative prime as was the cast of actors from Jack Nicholson (in the middle of his insane number of incredible performances) to a young Faye Dunaway and an aged, yet threatening as hell John Huston (director of THREE films in this top 100: #11 The Maltese Falcon, #71 Key Largo, and #79 Asphalt Jungle). Burt Young, the character actor probably best known for is part as Paulie from Rocky (and somehow seemingly in every movie ever made). The story of Chinatown is one of water rights, another seemingly boring topic that is filled with corruption, wealth, resource hoarding, and suspense. You feel Jake Gittes (Nicholson) getting further and further out of his league. It’s also got the best incest plot after Oldboy (#81). John Hillerman from Magnum P.I. fame is the “I didn’t realize that was him!” role (like when you see PeeWee Herman playing a waiter in Blue Brothers). Chinatown elevates beyond the Classic Period of the other entries on this list as a modern take on film making style, performances, and soundtrack (Jerry Goldsmith who is clearly channeling his inner Ennio Morricone). Probably more importantly, free from the constraints of the censorship laws. In fact, I doubt the incest would survive if the film was being made today. Chinatown is a nearly flawless film. Deserves its spot so high on the list. “Forget it, Jake. This is Chinatown”

3) Double Indemnity – This film shouldn’t be as good as it is. It features a lot of details about insurance and real estate that would normally play like reading a long form contract. But this is another Raymond Chandler story and as such, it flows with action and dialogue that cuts to the root of the Human Condition. Its protagonist, Walter Neff, is played by Fred MacMurray, who would later play roles that could undercut the audience’s ability to take him seriously (most notably the father on My Three Sons and earlier staring in The Shaggy Dog), but it all works. MacMurray is stellar with a stoic subtlety while the film’s stand-out performance is by veteran tough-guy, Edward G. Robinson (as veteran insurance man, Barton Keyes) Side-note: One of the first scenes features Neff pulling up to a large house in Los Feliz – the location is actually in the Hollywood Hills – and remarking how it must have cost $30 thousand, “if they could ever pay it off”. That’s the equivalent of $440,928 in today’s dollars. I looked it up on Zillow and it’s a $2 million+ listing. Where inflation meets housing bubble. As with the other great 40s-50s films, the creative workarounds to describe things that the censors would never let through are strong in Double Indemnity, like this exchange between a witness and Keyes:

Salesman: “There’s a very good osteopath in town I’d like to see before I leave”
Edgar G. Robinson: “Osteopath. Well just don’t put her on the expense account”

Double Indemnity is a great balance of suspense and intrigue. The performances are wonderfully Chandler- flawed and swayed by temptation, piecing together the fragmented plot like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Even though it contains a framing device common in the genre with the end at the beginning (in this case with Neff recording a confession, bleeding from a gunshot wound), the audience wants in on how it’s going to get there. Absolutely one of the best of the genre.

2) The Big Sleep – This is my favorite Film Noir. My #1. In fact, I had happened to have downloaded and watched it a couple weeks before the list came to my attention because I love it so. The dialogue is so clever and droll. I wish I could be so smooth and poetic. Humphrey Bogart is the best Philip Marlowe (coincidentally also the best Sam Spade, so he seems to be born to play key characters written by both Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett). His chemistry with Lauren Becall (who was only 20 during initial filming!) is mesmerizing. But it’s the dialogue that shines. Written by Raymond Chandler (and William Faulkner as one of the screenwriters), there are so many great lines: “She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up.” In response to Vivian asking Marlowe, “Why did you have to go on?”, he says, “Too many people told me to stop.” the punk rock ethos ahead of its time. Marlowe is a Fuck You Hero.

1) The Woman in the Window – First of all, this film was directed by legendary German Director, Fritz Lang. His first Directing credit was in 1919! He made a few of the best films of the burgeoning art of filmmaking: Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), with its genius use of sound design. Later in his career he jumped to Hollywood and started making ‘genre’ pictures: westerns, war films, and Crime pictures (film noir). Some of his other film noir flicks include The Big Heat (#24), Clash By Night (#56), and Scarlet Street.

In The Woman in the Window, Edward G. Robinson plays Prof. Richard Wanley, a criminologist lecturer who chills with the homies at a private club each night while his family is away. There’s a great conversation between him and his two friends about being middle aged and out of practice for excitement. It’s an indictment of the mid-life crisis. Then for the rest of the film, we watch Wanley make every mistake and slip-up we would all hope to avoid were we in a situation where we were trying to cover-up a murder. Smart people being dumb is classic, but Robinson is so likable it feels natural and I’m rooting for him despite his rookie mistakes. Sure, the ending may be a trope, but it almost seems fresh since modern storytelling would forbid it. Still the tension increase as the noose tightens is great film making. One thing that came to mind while watching my way through this list is how much soundtracks have evolved. This is a case where 1944 films were all about orchestras, stemming from the tradition of live theater and the music underscores each emotional beat. It feels archaic now. Even comparing this film’s core and say, Chinatown, the art of movie soundtracks came a long way in 30 years. Not just the approach and style, but with an emphasis on storytelling and painting an aural representation. Being frank, I would not put Woman in the Window at the #1 spot on my Film Noir list (in fact, I’m not sure I’ve watched enough to create such a list), but I did enjoy it. Just not as much as the pacing, tone, and dialogue of The Big Sleep, the artistry of Chinatown, or the sense of foreboding demonstrated in Double Indemnity or Out of the Past.

Check this one off the list. Ten films while avoiding a global pandemic. It makes me want to watch the rest of the 100 list. If nothing else, there are some great films on the list, even if I disagree with the rankings. Remove the numbers and treat it like a bunch of films you should watch. Then go do it.