Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

At the height of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, four German exiles in Hollywood:

  • director Fritz Lang
  • playwright Bertolt Brecht
  • composer Hanns Eisler 
  • and actor Hans Heinrich von Twardowski

... combined their skills to make Hangmen Also Die!, a surprising film noir propaganda piece about the Czech resistance.

Twardowski plays Reinhard Heydrich, an SS Obergruppenführer and the 'Reich-Protector' of Czechoslovakia, an infamous character from history and known alternately as 'The Hangman' and 'The Butcher of Prague'.

When he is assassinated by a surgeon (played by Brian Donlevy), the city is locked down and the doctor must rely on the help of the resistance to evade capture. 

Hangmen Also Die! is a fine mix of war picture, film noir and political thriller, with other surprising elements including mad Nazi darkness to the fore.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) may be considered one of the few blessings the patriarchy has offered us.

I will add the disclaimer too, that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is not really a film noir.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre isn't here on the Classic Film Noir website by sufferance however, and as a Humphrey Bogart film it can be enjoyed on these merits alone, and although it's an adventure tale, there is plenty paranoia and deceit on offer.

One observation from the off, and something that seems to jar somehow, is that it’s hard to read about this film without the word ‘great’ being used and overused, and then used again, and overused some more, on account of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre being a great film.

You know.

To begin with, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre ranked 30th on the American Film Institute’s 100 cinematic milestones list, when in fact is possibly not really a milestone of a movie, and in places more like a millstone of a movie.

Also this 'great' movie was apparantly fourth ever favourite film of Stanley Kubrick, and the actual favourite film of Sam Raimi, so it must be great; perhaps.  

Perhaps it is great.

Rogue Cop (1954)

Rogue Cop (1954) opens with no fanfares and no music at all in fact. Clearly the producers were going for the music of the streets.

And what is the music of the streets? 

It's the footsetp of a crooked cop, the whispering of a stool pigeon, the gasp for life of a man stabbed to death in a penny arcade, and its the sirens which open and close this film noir police procedural tale of coppers on the take.

To commence with, a grumbling burlesque dancer wanders into a penny arcade and why didn’t she know this was going to cheapen her day further, is beyond us. 

But a murder quickly turns things on their tails, and the story of Rogue Cop begins.

So much of film noir takes place inside police procedural. Desks, ID parades, arguments with the boss, locker rooms, stool pigeons and bad cop / bad cop routines abound.

Death in the Garden (1956)

Death in the Garden (1956), by Luis Buñuel, is not too color, not too adventursome, nor too surreal in tone ... to be a guest on Classic Film Noir.

Death in the Garden is certainly of the film noir period, and appearing in 1956 it includes and adds to a few of film noir favourite themes, including politics, paranoia, the femme fatale, the innocent charged with crimes they didn't commit, and murder, deceit and a bag of greed.

Never could such color be called film noir, and Death in the Garden is a riot of such raucous Eastmancolor, that you'll be seeing bright green jungles in your dreams, after watching it.

Properly titled Le Mort en ce Jardin, and concerning itself with some rugged intrigue, Death in the Garden is a film of two parts, both of which have much to recommend them. 

There are often political kicks to be made in film noir, and it's the same here. In fact Death in the Garden, it is said, sets out in part to play as a mirror-image of Franco’s Spain from which Buñuel exiled himself. 

The theme of rebellion is to the fore and the state oppressors seem keen not only to snatch each worker's share of the natural world - in this case the men are diamond prospectors - and repress any dissent with force.

Watch out though, Simone Signoret is to hand, and as fate would have it, she has not suffered enough, working as a greedy small time prostitute in this sweaty, greed-riven male outback.

The Crooked Way (1949)

The Crooked Way, 1949, (starring John Payne, director Robert Florey) isn’t one of the celebrated film noirs.

It’s not the most convincing film of its time either, and fails to deliver the levels of paranoia that the great film noir dramas do.

It doesn’t feature a detective but follows the story of a much truer noir archetype — the WWII veteran, and his struggle to readjust to civilian life.

It is far from dull however, and perhaps The Crooked Way should be better known than it is, as it is one of the truest expressions of another 1940s Hollywood obsession — amnesia.

Boy they loved amnesia back then. It isn't just amnesia's power as a plot device. That we could almost taken for granted. What is truthful about amnesia in the forgetful halls of cinema, is that the present wipes away the past, and the past is a political battleground.

Forgetfulness is what cinema is all about, and by the 1940s the pictures had become the escapist medium par excellence, and Hollywood's thrillers sometimes reflected this.

Private Hell 36 (1954)

The 1954 crime film noir thriller Private Hell 36 seems somehow familiar.

From the fade into the New York skyline and the rising incidental music, there seems to be something about it that is so well known as to be embedded in our media subconscious.

What is it?

Perhaps Private Hell 36 feels like we have just come off a commercial break.

It feels so much like the classic cop shows which were to follow on the heels of the many police procedural thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s.

This might be to do with director Don Siegel. Siegel went on to give voice to some of the best cop action of the 1970s in particular. Over a few years, for example, he offered this little run:

  • Coogan's Bluff (1968)
  • Madigan (1968)
  • Death of a Gunfighter (1969)
  • Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)
  • The Beguiled (1971)
  • Dirty Harry (1971)

Certainly these are not all cop films, and yet there's plenty crossover between the wild west and the city beat, with Clint Eastwood and John Wayne both featuring. But there is a template here for the kind of lawlessness versus the law, with a very rough divide between the two, that became the norm for 1970s TV viewership.

And Don Siegel learned it all in film noir.

Hitler's Children (1943)

Book burning, bad-ass Berlin-based Nazis, tell like it partially is in the fourth highest grossing film of 1943  ― Hitler's Children, directed by Edward Dmytryk.

Hitler's Children stars Tim Holt, Bonita Granville, and Kent Smith.

The film does not mess around in portraying the brutalities real and imaginary associated with the Hitler Youth, represented particularly by two young participants.

Both love and the church stand resolute in the face of the overwhelmeing Nazi menace, which makes a nice change from "democracy" being what everybody is hoping is going to save the day.

At the heart of things is not just an amazing love story, some interesting propaganda and a festival of horrors, but this was directed by one of film noir's then most dynamic exponents, Edward Dmytryk.

Hitler's Children is not entirely Dmytrk's trademark 'docu-drama', although it does have some documentary sequences, even a couple with the Fuhrer of the film's title featured.

It is also told in the barest of flashback which tops and tails it, and proposes to be an American teacher, based in Berlin in 1933.

It also purposes to be an adaptation of the non-fiction book of the same name by American author Gregor Ziemer. The short Disney film and short book that this comes from features the story of Hans, a boy born and raised in Nazi Germany, his indoctrination in the Hitlerjugend, and his eventual march to war.

The story of Hitler's Children is pretty different, and the hero isn't even called Hans. He's called Karl Bruner and his story tells of his zealous youth, rampant career Nazism in the Gestapo, burning love which cannot be quelled, and his demise at the hands of his evil bosses and their puritanical employment practices.

Le deuxième souffle (1966)

Jean-Pierre Melville takes his favourite elements from the era of the film noir crime films, and treats them to some realism. 

The mood is always empty, and there is very little in the way of fun. 

There are some pretty, but pretty vacant dancing girls, who are only smiling because it is their job to smile, and their repeated turns and even their rehearsal, early in the picture, are as fun as it gets.

This is Le deuxième souffle (1966), a wonderful, omenous, wide ranging and all-enveloping French film noir and gangster flick.

Because it's French film noir, there is always going to be a slight difference. Some things are taken more seriously, like the back stories of the hoods, molls, cops and gangsters.

At the samw time, some scenes make less sense than we might like them to, but we are always midway through everything, and in real life, there is no scene setting. The sadness is somewhat hidden beneath the piped smooth vibraphone-based jazz that plays in the bars and clubs, and even in some of the featured houses.

This beautiful tense, funny, hard French film noir opens suddenly showing into the finale of an escape from prison. One man dies during the escape, but the other two make it out, and we follow them on an atmospheric run through the forest, in a minimal opening credits sequence with very little music.

From there Le deuxième souffle is one long and epic criminal ramble.

The Woman in the Window (1945)

It’s plastered on thick.   

Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) opens with Edward G. Robinson giving a college lecture, while behind him the words SIGMUND FREUD are written on a blackboard.  

If only he had turned to read that board himself.  

Ten minutes later Joan Bennett, playing the strange femme fatale of the title, turns up in a see-through blouse, and asks him to her apartment to see her etchings. 

That would be enough for many pictures, but in terms of the psychological goodies of film noir, The Woman in the Window probably has it in greater quantities than any other movie of the era.

The story is as fine a descent as featured in any film noir.  After psychology professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) sends his wife and two children off on vacation, he sees a striking oil portrait of Alice Reed played by Joan Bennett in a storefront window.

Later, he meets the subject of the portrait, who is standing near the painting watching people gaze at it. Reed convinces Wanley to join her for drink, and thereafter there's murder, shootouts, clues, crime scenes and comic dialogues ... culminating in one of the greatest story-telling cliches of all time.

A Letter To Three Wives (1949)

Just as they are about to take a group of less fortunate children on a riverboat ride and a special picnic, Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) and Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) receive a letter from their mutual friend Addie Ross informing them that she has run off with one of their husbands. 

However, she leaves them in suspense as to which one. 

This is the setup for A Letter To Three Wives (1949), and the main body of the movie describes in portmanteau fashion, how all three marriages are in fact strained, or in some difficulty or other.

This is the work of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, one of the more versatile talents in Hollywood at the time, and he even won a Best Screenplay Academy Award for this film.

This is one reason A Letter To Three Wives finds its way on to the Classic Film Noir website, but the reason it particularly appealed was the character of Linda Darnell.

711 Ocean Drive (1950)

Vintage Columbia Pictures 1950 crime film noir 711 Ocean Drive, starring Edmond O'Brien, Joanne Dru and Otto Kruger, tells the story of how an ambitious and happy go lucky expert in telephony becomes a mean and vicious gang-land leader.

It's a wandering tale of crime, bookmaking and the perils of making a fast and succesful rise in the world of gangsterism.

It leads us from the small bookies of coastal California, through the high lives and low lives of its gangster antagonists, to wind up on and within the Boulder Dam in Arizona, where the gangster meets his inevitable end.

Edmond O'Brien is known from other contemporary film noirs such as The Killers, A Double Life and The Web (all 1947), to D.O.A.and Backfire in 1950.

And he does good guys just he does bad guys, and here we see him doing both.

Sure, he starts off as the wisecracking and fun telephone engineer, who likes nothing more than to bet in the horses.

But when he has the bookmaking system explained to him, and the importance of telephony, he is offered a job that he can't refuse.

Border Incident (1949)

Border Incident (1949), starring Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy and Howard Da Silva is a film noir set in the wild border lands between Mexico and California.

Director Anthony Mann is maybe better known for the gritty westerns he made with James Stewart in the 1950s.

However he also directed some memorable film noir favourites such as T-Men (1947), He Walked By Night (1948) and Raw Deal (1948).

Curiously, Border Incident lacks any femme fatale, or indeed any female character at all, and is an unusally violent film for its day.

Border Incident winds its way on to film noir lists, therefore, primarily because of the photography, which teems with interesting closeups, wide-angle lenses, low-angle shots, tons of shadows and light, and a lot of darkness, from which scared and tense faces emerge.

We'll dig deeper into whether this is an actual film noir or not, later. 

But first it's the politics.

Woman in Hiding (1949)

Psychological tremors abound ― promised in the haunting voice of the dead bride who introduces the movie. 

Accident ― suicide ― or murder?

Woman in Hiding (1949) does not at the outset present a solid film noir man and woman relationship. 

Ida Lupino plays a sensible level-headed albeit dead woman who back in the days when she was living, was fairly confident she could resist the advances of her father’s factory manager.

She presents the vulnerability of the bereaved person, and its this value that Ida Lupino plays to the fore, as she set out to be one of the most consistently swithering paranoid women in all of the world of noir. 

Her imagined illness is a perfect foil to the creepy Seldon, who uses the death of her father to try and crowbar his way into her affections. He's the worst kind of schemer crooked film noir husband there is, and is after her father's mill, although his real focus is on being the biggest bully of women going.

His main thing is persuading otherwise wise women like his wife, that they are in fact suicidally crazy. Once the women doubts herself, the rest of the world will just take his word for it.

Cornered (1945)

Cornered (1945) brings Dick Powell back to the film noir screen, and opens with him being refused a passport between London and France.

Undeterred, Powell slams his hands in his pockets, storms out of the passport office, and promptly swims the English Channel.

It’s that spirit that dominates Cornered (1945, Edward Dmytryk starring Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel and Nina Vale.) 

The war had only been over for a matter of minutes before the film noir canon kicked off a whole new epoch in cinema — a time of uncertainty, deceit and featuring men whose identities were always up for grabs.

Generally these guys were suckered by deceitful women, but often they didn’t know which way to wear their pants to begin with.

Either way, the post war male was wholly bruised and confused.

Who exactly was he fighting?

Fallen Angel (1945)

"Hey you — I’ve seen the sleeping act before. You know your ticket ran out the last stop!"

With these words a sassy ass bus driver drops off the world’s next noir victim on the outskirts of Walton, and in the middle of the night.

It’s Fallen Angel, a film noir starring Alice Faye, Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell, director Otto Preminger.

Stuck in Walton, 150 miles short of his destination, our anti-hero Dana Andrews wanders into the local diner, where the locals are up to a decent amount of skulduggery, worried about a missing girl called Stella.

It isn’t long before the said floozy breezes in, her legs at a dangerous angle.

She swipes the hero’s hamburger and he exits to wander the streets alone.

The Seventh Veil (1945)

The Seventh Veil (1945) is a variety of woman’s film. 

This may sound dismissive but the so-called 'woman's picture' is a sometimes unacknowledged genre from in particular the 1940s, a similarly themed series of films which focus on the mental health of domestic, middle class women. 

Often the women in these films are prisoners, either physcial or mental, or as here ― both. 

Because of this, these heroines are also generally quite paranoid.

You can tell The Seventh Veil is one such ‘paranoid woman film’ because of how it opens ― a woman in a sick bed. 

It’s Ann Todd (playing Francesca) and she is in the traditional pose of the ‘sick’ woman, in a bed, asleep one second, and the next frighteningly alert to the disturbances of her mind. 

It doesn’t matter necessarily that this bed is in a sanatorium ― these beds are just as often in houses, generally creepy, weird houses, but domestic situation nonetheless.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

One of several highway film noirs, The Hitch-Hiker (director: Ida Lupino, 1953) is brutal, effective and in its day introduced a new kind of criminal to the screen.  

With a compelling normality, The Hitch-Hiker shows the kind of pointless hold ups and killings that in the 1950s were generally framed as a social-problem crime film.  

The Hitch-Hiker is also a mess of huggable and homoerotic heteronormativity, with two very close men on a fishing trip (or is it?), bullied at gun point in their car and in the desert, by a dominating sadist, who has an evil ‘bum eye’ to boot.

The Hitch-Hiker follows the movements of killer Emmett Myers (played by William Talman), who robs and murders his way around the country.  

During the opening credits we get glimpses of Myers and his victims, setting the stage for the introduction of Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), two buddies on their way to a fishing trip in Mexico.

Then the film opens and a lot more comes a rolling through the flood gates.

Phantom Lady (1944)

Not everything that they say is film noir, may be film noir.  

It depends on what you consider to the elements of film noir to be, although you’d generally be looking for some luckless, dark and erotic tale of crime, generally in what is known as society’s underbelly.  

In Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmark, 1944, starring Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Elisha Cook, Jr, Thomas Gomez and Regis Toomey) we have most of that on show.  

It’s one of the most purely enjoyable film noirs out there — unpretentious, fast and pleasing to watch. 

It has a frantic ‘rape by jazz’ drum scene that is famed through all cinema, and is a high point of the sub-genre which we may carelessly call ‘The Wifelet Seeker Hero.’ 

High Sierra (1941)

Although High Sierra (1941) is likely perceived by the public as a ‘Humphrey Bogart’ picture, it is not entirely fair to see it that way. 

Indeed, High Sierra is notable in many ways for how Ida Lupino’s character develops, and how she is portrayed. 

Viewers will also note that Ida has top billing too, before Bogart, and that is worth something!

Critically, Ida Lupino plays a fairly ‘straight’ role here, and hers is not a character the readily fits into the various tropes and stereotypes which it is often said, dominate the female portrayals in the style.

By ‘straight role’ we can confidently say the following of Ida Lupino in High Sierra ― her character is consistent and develops across the course of the action. 

While not cast as a femme fatale, or domestic simp of some sort, Ida's character, Marie, falls in love with Humphrey Bogart’s character, Roy, and remains true to the end. The entire episode is presented as her story, and her journey, with the viewer experience being hers.

Conversely, Bogart’s character is typical of a certain type of male from this era of film noir ― he may try to be doing good, but fate and his lower nature are in fact in control. 

This means Roy Earle (Bogart) regularly makes wrong decisions, and not just when he is railroaded into them. 

Jennifer (1953)

One of the lesser known wonders of the film noir style is the paranoid woman movie

Classics of the genre are well-known ― Rebecca ― and probably the cream of the complete crop ― The Secret Beyond the Door (1947).

Dark Waters (1944) is another downbeat and typically melodramatic example, while others like The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) offer less routine scenarios, and more complex outcomes.

And speaking of outcomes, and before we proceed, here is the habitual Film Noir Spoiler Alert.

There will be spoilers in this article, as if you didn't see any of this coming! Find the full Official Spoiler Alert here.

The setting for a typical paranoid woman film is always either a house, or a marriage, or preferably both. The two are hard to separate in the noir canon, and are usually haunted not by the dead, but by the weirdness or wickedness of the living.

Psychologically, these paranoid woman movies question marriage, and perform on a woman’s fears on entering into marriage. The idea is that in acting out these spooky and unknown scenarios offers a psychological satisfaction ― the opposite of a ‘triggering’  effect.

To ensure that nobody is triggered, indeed, and to make sure that the paranoid woman films perform as desired, their action is consistent and always to be expected.  Usually the only surprise is the reveal.