30. The Set-Up
Director: Robert Wise
Before Robert Wise helmed The Sound of Music, before he enjoyed a briefly sustained stint on the Academy Awards’ circuit, he made movies like The Set-Up. Before he made The Set-Up, though, he edited two Orson Welles masterpieces, The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane (for which he was also nominated for an Oscar). Wise’s time with Welles shows in the crisp, clean construction of The Set-Up, a movie that hits with quick percussive impact and spares no time from one bout of action to the next. The film strikes a comparison between youthful and experienced viewpoints: James Edwards’ boxer on the rise is brimming with self-assurance, while David Clarke’s battle-scarred ring veteran speaks aloud to pugilists’ inevitable decline. Is Robert Ryan’s last attempt at glory worth suffering for? Is it worth the mental trauma it inflicts on his wife (Audrey Totter, showing off a different side of herself ahead of 1950’s Tension)? Wise answers both queries pretty definitively, but he builds drama so well that he handily earns the neatly tied-up ending. —A.C.
29. Blade Runner
A box-office flop on its initial run, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (and its numerous post-theatrical re-edits) has since become one of the defining pillars of sci-fi filmmaking. Besides exploring deep, existential questions of what constitutes humanity and the repercussions that come with creating artificial life, the movie features extraordinary performances by Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer, as well as some of the most emotionally intense action set pieces ever put to film. Moreover, a good portion of the film’s appeal lies in its incorporation of film noir aesthetics—shadow-filled, rainy metropolitan exteriors, a brooding yet resourceful investigator hero, retro ’40s fashion—into its dreary, dystopian setting. At one point, the film even boasted a Philip Marlowe-esque voiceover narration that was thankfully excised from future cuts. Once regarded as a failed experiment, Blade Runner now registers as nothing short of a classic. —M.R.
28. Night and the City
Director: Jules Dassin
London is cast as a waking nightmare in Jules Dassin’s charged portrait of greed, which stockpiled surpluses of pathos and anxiety early on, behind the scenes. Vilified for past Communist sympathies, Dassin was sent to Britain by 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck to shoot the adaptation of Gerald Kersh’s best-selling novel (which Dassin admitted he never read). Along with his newfound status on many a Hollywood blacklist, Dassin was told by Zanuck the foreign production would also help lead actress Gene Tierney get over a breakup—she was allegedly suicidal as a result. So even before the cameras started rolling, Night and the City was steeped in despair. Factor in Richard Widmark’s turn as Harry Fabian, a small-time wheeler-dealer who attempts to infiltrate the local wrestling subculture, and Dassin’s refusal to grant his characters clemency, and Night and the City hits new depths of noir pessimism—all threat, no sentiment. It’s no stretch to draw parallels between Dassin’s displaced filmmaker and Fabian’s Yank in London, nor his vision of the noir city, quintessentially American, across the pond. Harry is, as his long-suffering friend Mary (Tierney) tells him, “an artist without an art,” a cipher left to scavenge the hellish urban underbelly, London’s architecture practically suffocated in expressionist chiaroscuro. The bottom-feeders (more Tinseltown commentary, mayhaps?) he comes across are liars of one sort or another: forgers, thieves, panhandlers, smugglers, promoters—but even they have a niche, a trade. “You could have been anything. Anything. You had brains … ambition. You worked harder than any 10 men. But the wrong things. Always the wrong things…” Mary laments. Harry’s nothing, and Dassin—hotly and brilliantly—lets the anger seethe. —A.S.
27. Mildred Pierce
Director: Michael Curtiz
Like Double Indemnity, Michael Curtiz’ Mildred Pierce succeeds on the strength of its leading lady; in this case that’s the immortal Joan Crawford, who plays the film’s central character, not to mention all of its heart and soul. (Arguably, it’s the most definitive Crawford performance of all time, at least next to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.) Mildred Pierce is a strong woman driven by an inexhaustible love for her children, Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), but she’s also stymied by the restricting grasp of a patriarchal society. Even Veda is contemptuous of Mildred for daring to have the moxie to have it all. The film is about more than prickly mother-daughter relationships, of course, specifically the murder of Mildred’s second husband. But sandwiched in between Curtiz’ probing whodunit lies one of noir’s most sympathetic and purely humanist tales. —A.C.
26. The Postman Always Rings Twice
Director: Tay Garnett
“A beautiful femme fatale saunters into an unsuspecting man’s life and entices him into committing murder for her.” This logline could be used to describe any number of classic film noirs. Most of this can be traced back to author James M. Cain, who wrote two books—Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice—that hinged on this premise. In the case of Postman, the archetypal sucker is a drifter (John Garfield) who falls into an affair with a beautiful married woman working at a diner (Lana Turner, in one of her most memorable performances). The two subsequently hatch a scheme to murder the woman’s much-older husband and seize control of his assets. Incidentally, MGM actually purchased the rights to Cain’s novel shortly after it was first published 12 years prior, but it took the success of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity adaptation at Paramount to convince them the story and its mature themes were a viable gamble. Even before that, Cain’s book had been unofficially adapted into two foreign productions—Le Dernier Tournant in France and Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione in Italy. It would go on to be adapted several more times, including again in 1981 with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, but the 1946 version, with its button-pushing steaminess and stylish direction, remains the gold standard. —M.R.
25. The Wrong Man
Leave it to the master of suspense to meld docudrama realism with the melodrama of film noir. “Alfred Hitchcock’s powerful portrait of a man … drawn from life!” The Wrong Man’s original trailer proclaims. It’s to the film’s credit that Hitch doesn’t screw around here, telling in full the story of a man falsely convicted for robberies he never committed. Unsurprisingly, Hitch is every bit as interested in the effects of the outrageous miscarriage of justice that befalls Manny Balestrero as he is in the lasting trauma his detention inflicts on him and his family. The Wrong Man puts a high premium on claustrophobic camerawork—we feel like we’re as confined as poor old Manny—but the film’s greatest impression is left in its aftermath. —A.C.
24. The Big Heat
Director: Fritz Lang
A pot of boiling coffee to the face is among the lasting impressions that remain long after the first, and second, and tenth viewings of Fritz Lang’s seminal noir. Glenn Ford stars as Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion, the poster boy of black-and-white morality in a sea of film noir gray. He’s a man on a mission, Johnny Law out to clean up the ruinous city. You see, something about the suicide of his colleague, one of scads of cops in the back pocket of the local mob boss, doesn’t sit right with him, and Lord help anyone who gets in his way—or even in his periphery. As the potential for justice seems to slip away, so convinced does Ford’s underdog become of his holy crusade, he’s blind to the collateral damage—emotional, too—or maybe it’s just that his self-righteousness trumps everyone and everything else. Black-and-white no more, eh? Along with Ford’s relentless (anti)hero (that parenthetical, depending on how you look at him), Gloria Grahame is incredible as the moll of Lee Marvin’s (also outstanding) second-in-command gangster. Working from a Saturday Night Post serial adapted by former crime reporter Sydney Boehm, Lang is meticulous in depicting the transition from principled family man to revenge-seeking vigilante, and the below-the-surface hypocrisy of this by-the-book guy, who prefers his own gun to the police department’s, anyway. Viewers can take the thrills at face value—and there are many, and they’re glorious and gut-churning. But what we think is a rather straightforward, if brutal, takedown of systemic corruption becomes something more nuanced, and chilling. “Keep the coffee hot,” the ultimately “triumphant” detective tells a clerk. Given the bodies left in his reckless wake, that line still feels too soon, some 60 years later. —A.S.
23. The Killing
Once upon a time, before Stanley Kubrick entered the pupal stages of his career and subsequently emerged as a god and master of his medium, he made movies like The Killing. Lean, mean and economical to a fault, The Killing gets lost in the shuffle of Kubrick’s career landmarks, but the man wielded impressive influence even in overlooked 80-minute heist flicks. (The Quentin Tarantino we all know and love and loathe might be a very different filmmaker today if not for The Killing.) Kubrick’s work here is no-frills and elegantly straightforward: Sterling Hayden plans one final holdup before retiring and settling down with Coleen Gray. No twists and turns, just good old-fashioned theft at the racetrack. The film revels in the gray morality of Hayden’s good intentions. Crime pays, at least until it doesn’t. —A.C.
22. In a Lonely Place
Director: Nicholas Ray
One of the great noirs of all time and one of the great feel-bad movies of all time. In a Lonely Place treats redemption as a cruel joke, a spell of relief that lasts only long enough for us to view its obsolescence. The film takes jabs at Hollywood and celebrity while telling the kind of dangerous love story E.L. James wishes she could write; Humphrey Bogart is a bad, bad man, but he’s also grossly compelling. He plays Dixon Steele, a Tinseltown screenwriter fallen on hard times whom we sympathize with in spite of ourselves. Apart from being a sad sack, he’s also an explosive lunatic with a frighteningly short fuse, which makes him dangerously alluring bait for his new neighbor, Laurel (Gloria Grahame). Theirs is an ill-fated romance, and through it, Nicholas Ray makes a hauntingly grim study of masculinity, set against the ratcheting suspense of a murder mystery yarn. —A.C.
21. Drunken Angel
An act of genre deconstruction and muted political critique all in one. Akira Kurosawa plays with noir tropes more than he plays to them, deflating film noir’s inherent machismo by revealing the chief heavies of his cast as scrabbling cowards. Depending on your mood, Drunken Angel’s climactic brawl between Toshiro Mifune’s Matsunaga and Reizaburô Yamamoto’s Okada may either read as hilarious, pathetic or tragic. Aren’t mob heavies supposed to be intimidating? Like Rashomon, Drunken Angel puts male toughness on trial and makes it look ridiculous, but the study of manliness might be a smokescreen for Kurosawa’s veiled jabs at the board of censors installed by the U.S. government in post-World War II Japan. Note the Western clothing. Observe the recurring image of the bubbling muck that serves as one of the film’s central locations. The American occupation whitewashes and corrupts Japanese culture in equal measure, and Drunken Angel captures it all with deft humanism. —A.C.