60. The Verdict
Director: Don Siegel
Don Siegel’s debut picture, The Verdict rests between two axes: Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Siegel could have shot the film and styled his misé en scene any way he wanted, and none of it would have mattered so long as he kept his two leading men on the cast. The Verdict is all about them, both from the perspective of narrative and in terms of the viewing experience. Lorre has a habit of stealing our attention while hanging out at the edges of the frame, while Greenstreet uses his imposing bulk to command from the center of the camera. They make a fun pair as antiheroes trying to redeem Greenstreet’s disgraced Scotland Yard superintendent when an innocent man is sent to the gallows thanks to his botched investigation, while Siegel soaks their mission in noir’s dark-washed style and black humor. —A.C.
59. Shoot the Piano Player
Director: François Truffaut
François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player feels like the tragicomic reverse of Melville’s Le Doulos (No. 53). Instead of adapting French literature through an American lens, Truffaut does the reverse, turning David Goodis’ crime yarn Down There into an altogether unpredictable story about commercialism, artistic purity, and the ways our pasts catch up with us. Shoot the Piano Player keeps its tongue firmly in cheek as Truffaut oscillates between absurd slapstick and heartbreak. A man swears to his honesty on his mother’s soul, and the camera cuts away to dear old mom as she falls down dead in her kitchen; Truffaut’s protagonist, Charlie (Charles Aznavour), plays a ditty in the dive bar where he works, haunted by the death of his wife as well as his rising career as a concert pianist. The film is a romp until it’s a downer. —A.C.
58. Gun Crazy
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Of all the films on this list, Joseph H. Lewis’ deliriously lusty Gun Crazy might be the best starting place for viewers looking to brush up on their film noir. Gun Crazy gets it. More than just about any noir of any era, Gun Crazy understands on a cellular level why people watch noirs, why the criminal element has such an incongruously romantic appeal. The film is an embarrassment of naughty delights, notably the tension between John Dall and Peggy Cummins, so taut it’s fit to snap; it’s also made with high-level craftsmanship, best exemplified in a bravura bank robbery sequence shot in one jaw-dropping take. Men do all kinds of crazy stuff in the name of love. Watching Dall embark on a life of gun-toting crime with Cummins doesn’t strike one as all that far-fetched. —A.C.
57. Sexy Beast
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Two decades may as well be a lifetime removed from his career-defining, Oscar-winning role as Gandhi in this wicked 180 for Sir Ben Kingsley. In Jonathan Glazer’s slick directorial debut, Kingsley portrays ferocious sociopath Don Logan, who drops by his retired partner-in-crime Gal Dove’s rural Spanish villa to demand his participation in “one last job” (right), a bank heist in London. The word “no” doesn’t register in Don’s vocabulary, though a litany of scalding, Cockney-infused vitriol most certainly does. As the situation rapidly and bloodily deteriorates, the depths of Kingsley’s savagery is astonishing. Ian McShane intimidates as Logan’s underworld boss, and Ray Winstone, as the contented former safe-cracker on the receiving end of Don’s unchecked rage, provides the most obvious study in contrasts. Note the physicality of Gal’s doughy, overly tanned domesticate versus Don’s lean, mean monster, without an ounce of body fat or, it seems, humanity. (Not-so-fun fact: Kingsley based the characterization on his … grandmother.) So, too, does Glazer (Under the Skin) counter the blistering sun and craggy mountainsides with large bodies of water—both as setting and plot device, in still and torrent form. Sexy Beast is a sophisticated thriller that deals in conflict of all stripes. —A.S.
56. Clash By Night
Director: Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang’s soapy love triangle, adapted from the Clifford Odets play, stands apart thanks to leading lady Barbara Stanwyck. City girl Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns to her native Monterey, California, a salt-of-the-earth coastal community where she reconnects with her resentful younger brother and his impressionable girlfriend (played by Marilyn Monroe). Once a politician’s mistress, Mae has played fast and loose with her life choices and has nothing much to show for it, hence her words, “Home is where you’ve come to when you run out of places.” With equal measures of resignation and embitterment, Mae starts dating an uncomplicated but solid fisherman (Paul Douglas) whom she knows will take care of her. But since she can’t leave well enough, if uneventful, alone, she starts hanging around a drunken, married prick (Robert Ryan) who mirrors her cynical worldview. She marries the simpleton and has his baby but has an affair with the S.O.B., also a nasty misogynist—there’s a not-so-under current of domestic violence and S&M throughout the melodrama—until the fit hits the shan, and Odets’ signature, stylized dialogue smacks the aw-shucks out of small-town life, jarringly so. Split in two parts, separated by a year, of almost equal length, Clash By Night adds up to more than the sum of its boilerplate parts. By framing the portrait of fear and deep disappointment amid the angles of Monterey, with its docks and canneries, Lang heightens the organic consequences of bad decisions—as inevitable as the waves rolling in to shore. There’s a neo-realist tension to the usual genre themes of repression, betrayal, and forgiveness, introduced with Lang’s opening, documentary look at the local fishing industry. As Mae comes to grips with the pointlessness of it all—“Love because we’re lonely, love because we’re frightened, love because we’re bored,” she shrugs—Clash By Night offers a resounding example of the classic noir patriarchy, its femme fatale ultimately put in her place. —A.S.
55. The Last Seduction
Director: John Dahl
John Dahl hit his stride in this uncompromisingly vicious character study. Bridget (Linda Fiorentino) is a brazenly sexual, proudly scheming vixen who makes off with the bank she convinced her husband to sell drugs for, then snags an unsuspecting stranger in facilitating the getaway. Fiorentino is Oscar worthy as the diabolical femme fatale. Not only does she have absolutely zero compunctions whatsoever, she delights in every foul deed, whether it’s telling her spouse to screw off or screwing her next unwitting victim. Career everyman Bill Pullman has his moments as the jilted hubby out for revenge, and Peter Berg is quaintly endearing as the dummy who falls for her. But this is far and away Fiorentino’s show. With more balls, intellect and self-possession than her male counterparts could muster among themselves, her character bristles with contempt. She toys with her victims when she’s not yawning at them, or flat-out throwing them away. “How ’bout us going out on a real date sometime?” Berg’s poor sucker asks Bridget after a romantic straddle against a chain-link fence. “Why?” she asks—ain’t nobody got time for that. As with Red Rock West, The Last Seduction is self-aware but sincere. It’s sublimely dry, dark comedy that’s dead serious. We can only imagine what the female-fearing Powers That Be at the Production Code would’ve done with this cinematic middle finger. —A.S.
54. Miller’s Crossing
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Like O Brother, Where Art Thou? a decade later, Miller’s Crossing is a terrible choice for those who prefer their Coen films a little less Coen-ish. It’s highly stylized, confusing and often ridiculous. But the parts of this Barry Sonnenfeld-shot noir that do work are glorious—the blustering menace of Albert Finney’s Irish mob boss, Gabriel Byrne’s casual indolence as his right-hand man, and most of all, John Turturro’s masterful painting of the spectacularly weaselly bookie Bernie Bernbaum. “Look in your heart! ”—Michael Dunaway
53. Le Doulos
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
At the start of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, a handy dandy intertitle card kindly lets us know that the film’s name refers either to a style of hat or a police informant. Once the picture commences, we get plenty of both plus the oozing-cool style of Melville, whose tendency to play down everything in his frame makes even his use of shadow and light seem aloof. Le Doulos is the most-least French contribution to this list; it’s Melville’s adaptation of a novel by Pierre Lesou, but he blends Lesou’s words with twists on symbols and staples of American noir. A purist might argue that combining a French novel with American sensibilities is an implicit rejection of the filmmaking model he and his fellow Rive Gauche comrades established in the 1950s. In truth, that synthesis produces a celluloid slurry that’s uniquely Melville, minimalist and slick. —A.C.
52. Mulholland Dr.
Film noir has always been an unmistakable influence in the work of David Lynch, the patron saint of bizarrely gleeful genre experiments. With Mulholland Dr., however, Lynch took his fascination with the subgenre to a whole other level, depicting a world where a character’s interior life influences not only the film’s visual style but its narrative structure as well. In the first great performance of her illustrious career, Naomi Watts plays a wide-eyed actress newly arrived in Hollywood who stumbles upon a beautiful young woman who can’t remember who she is. That pithy logline only touches the tip of the iceberg, as the film delights in throwing numerous other subplots and mysteries at its audience only to violently pull the rug out from under them in its latter half. Mulholland Dr.’s brilliance is enough to make David Lynch’s exile from the feature film world all the more painful. —M.R.
51. The Long Goodbye
Director: Robert Altman
It’s muggy in L.A. and Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is shrouded in an opaque suit, a getup whose fabric one assumes barely breathes, especially with so much cigarette smoke clogging up its woolly pores. He’s a deeply square person—though it’s the early ’70s, he can’t even make smoking look cool, and though he lives in an apartment complex with a giggly group of young coeds given to shirtless shenanigans and still sweating off the hangover of Free Love, he’s a barely noticed figure. He’s a loose thread on the fallow fringes of a sophisticated city, a grown man with nothing better to do on a clear, late night than feed his cat … if he can even find it. Marlowe is a man of another time, “a born loser” as even one of his closest friends calls him. And the world into which Altman abandons him isn’t one of dark alleyways or the damp, wan glow of streetlamps—there’s hardly a shot of chiaroscuro to be found—it’s the bright dawn of something new and something disconcertingly shiny in America. The Long Goodbye is Altman’s stab at and devastation of film noir, pitting its beleaguered protagonist not against those stuffy, old, deeply ingrained mechanisms of institutionalized evil, but against a much younger brand of nihilism. In Altman’s noir-ish wasteland, there is nothing lurking beneath the surface—it’s all surface—and our only moral compass is a chain-smoking, asexual dweeb who isn’t so much righteous as he is just plain ignored. —Dom Sinacola