The Golden Age of film noir raged from the early 1940s to the late 50s. While there were certainly seminal, influential and highly watchable works from that first decade, the Golden Age was truly came to fruition in the 1950s.
The directors, actors and storylines all seemed to gel. The storylines are compelling, completely believable and illustrate the basest desires and instincts of the human race. In these movies, there is scant room for empathy and none for pity. A man or woman has simply “got to do what they got to do.” You'll be left, mouth agape, wondering if there is any hope for humanity.
Each of the following films portrays the gritty underbelly of life where no one will help you except yourself. While some of these classics have retained a modicum of notoriety among the film cognoscenti, they are, by and large, mostly forgotten by the current generation of the movie going public.
The reasons for the demise of these thought provoking encroachments into the human psyche are varied but revolve around the lack of patience in the modern film audience. Modern “films” routinely substitute explosions and gratuitous sex scenes for plot and character development. Not so, these magnificent examinations of the basest of human desires and motivations. They are, indeed, worth a view. Try one when you get tired of the clichéd and boring efforts produced by most of the studios today.
A powerful film known for its obvious lack of sympathy for its characters and a particularly unhappy ending. Somewhat dated because of the wrestling theme, it is still noteworthy for its accurate depictions of gangsters that predates Pacino’s Scarface and De Niro’s Goodfellas by thirty years. The protagonist, Harry Fabian, a minor con man and thief, with no redeeming values whatsoever, looks for his last chance to make it big time.
It’s not to be, however, and Fabian goes from one disappointment to another until the final catastrophe destroys him. Richard Widmark has never had a more cynical or beautiful character.
Strangers on a Train - Alfred Hitchcock (1951)
No one, before or since, has done the psychological thriller better than Alfred Hitchcock. Combine his directorial skills with the writing prowess of Raymond Chandler and there will surely be sparks flying. Considered a “toss off” movie by the master because of studio interference, Mr. Hitchcock still skillfully weaves a complicated and tense tale in part because of a surprisingly strong cast.
In the film, an amateur tennis star, played by Farley Granger, unwittingly agrees to murder a stranger’s wife in return for the murder of his own despised mate. The first murder is committed and the plot then revolves around the stranger’s attempts to force the tennis pro to fulfill his part of the bargain. Unrelieved tension marks this movie, unless you catch sight of the director climbing onto the train with a double bass, and the ending is suitably climactic.
The Wages of Fear - Henri-Georges Clouzot (1953)
Four men, destitute and stranded in an isolated South American town, are offered an opportunity to escape. Their task is to drive two trucks filled with a volatile and poorly packaged cargo of nitroglycerine through the slippery and poorly maintained dirt roads of a South American jungle. Else, they can slowly succumb to the privations and obscurity of the Las Piedras. Ice road truckers have nothing on these men.
The movie starts slow and examines the stultifying existence of the men. One by one they are lured into a suicide trip, but none are afraid as the alternative is worse. The last half of the movie is an extended action sequence. The men carom from one predicament to the next. In the end, only one survives to collect the reward and understand the true meaning of life. The final scene is bittersweet but particularly apt for the men who could rely on no one but themselves.
Sweet Smell of Success - Alexander Mackendrick (1957)
Abject hopelessness is not confined to remote, isolated corners of the Earth. Indeed, there is plenty to go around even in the heart of New York City. J.J. Hunsecker's, a notoriously corrupt, but influential gossip columnist readily sells access to his purportedly unbiased column for the right price. Sidney Falco can’t seem to get a mention for his clients to save his life and the tension builds between these two main characters.
Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco are brilliantly cast as a duo of conniving, no holds barred schemers who will do whatever it takes to achieve success. The plot is almost inconsequential as these two reprobates test each others resolve to sink to the lowest depths of human depravity. In the beginning, Falco gets the worst of it but the real fireworks begin when he begins to date the sister of Hunsecker. If you are looking for a happy ending, turn on the Disney channel.There is never a chance that either character will stray from their appointed course.
Touch of Evil - Orson Welles (1958)
Beautifully filmed, with groundbreaking effects including the opening tracking shot, this film is one of the last masterpieces of film noir. It has twists and turns galore, an eerily sleazy Dennis Weaver and, the femme fatale, herself, Marlene Dietrich. The plot involves political assassination, run of the mill murders, evidence tampering, kidnapping and a whole host of other illegal activities.
There is plenty of double-crossing as everyone suspects everyone else. The ending may seem contrived but that’s only because it has been copied so many times by directors from De Palma to Tarantino. What else can I say? Just watch it to see Charlton Heston play a mustachioed Mexican.
If you’re into films of the “noir” variety, check out this article on some masterful homages to the Golden Age of Film Noir, Neo-Noir Film Classics from the Last Half of the 20th Century.