Anyone who thinks of Fred MacMurray mainly as the jovial father on the 1960s TV series My Three Sons or the screwball title character in The Absent Minded Professor film, doesn’t know the real Fred MacMurray.
The real Fred MacMurray was the scheming insurance salesman and murderer in the 1944 film, Double Indemnity. In so many scenes, from his first meeting with Barbara Stanwyck, the wife of the man he would ultimately kill for his life insurance money, to a secret rendezvous in a grocery store, MacMurray has an undisguised devious look in his eyes yet a guarded set to his lips. (It’s a different, yet equally dishonest countenance he bore as Lt. Tom Keefer in The Caine Mutinty.)
Combine MacMurray’s persuasive performance with his two assured costars, Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson plus a script by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on the James M. Cain novel, and you have what many people think is the finest noir film ever made.
What do you think?
What are the best noir films?
Mystery fiction scholar Francis M. Nevins defines noir as, “…the kind of bleak, disillusioned study in the poetry of terror that flourished in American mystery fiction during the 1930s and 1940s and in American crime movies during the forties and fifties. The hallmarks of the noir style are fear, guilt and loneliness, breakdown and despair…” Although many noir films were stylish, often featuring avant garde cinematography, as Nevins points out, happy endings were rare.
If you do a Google search for “favorite noir movies” you immediately see a spread of movie posters in this order:
- Double Indemnity
- The Maltese Falcon
- The Third Man
- Out of the Past
It would be difficult to argue with that selection. The Internet Movie Database says Sunset Boulevard and Night of the Hunter edge out Out of the Past and Double Indemnity, though the latter film is ranked number five.
Films based on novels by the leading detective writers of the period rank high in many ratings. In addition to Double Indemnity, Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is another highly rated noir flick. The Maltese Falcon novel was written by noir master Dashiell Hammett and Chandler novels also became classic noir films such as The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely.
The writer who I would count as the fourth of the great noir authors, Cornell Woolrich, had more than two dozen of his novels and stories made into movies, many, unfortunately were forgettable adaptations. His most famous, Rear Window, was a superb suspense movie with many noir elements, not the least of which was the villainous Raymond Burr.
Other films I think you should consider for your top ten include: Brighton Rock, Lost Weekend, Touch of Evil and Kiss Me Deadly. Sydney, Australia, blogger, Tom D’Ambra, has one of the most comprehensive noir film websites you can find. Among his many suggestions: Journey Into Fear, I Wake Up Srcreaming and The Seventh Victim.
Many noir fans have favorite lines from films. One of mine comes from Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. He stares at Humphrey Bogart as he says, “By gad, sir, you are a character.”
So, think of some noir characters yourself, and let me know your favorite films of the noir era.
Tom D’ambra on noir films