In CREW CUTS, the Rough Cut staff are given a simple question about their deepest feelings on film, life, and beyond. To celebrate the month of November and its connection to the shadowy, cynical world of film noir, we wanted to hear about the staff’s favourites of the genre, be they black-and-white or in glorious neon colour.
What’s your favourite film noir?
Gun Crazy (1950) dir. Joseph H. Lewis
Duh! An absolute essential, for good reason. Joseph H. Lewis changed everything with that bank robbery scene. I imagine you’re going to read about this film about ten more times in this edition of Crew Cuts, so I won’t belabor the point — you get it by now, it’s That Bitch of the noir world. And it’s not even a detective story!
The Big Combo (1955) dir. Joseph H. Lewis
Underrated! Sure, the story is average and the lead (Cornel Wilde) is incredibly dull, but it doesn’t matter because cinematographer John Alton is going wild with the chiaroscuro and the score is fucking delicious. Where most noir movies have orchestral scores, this one’s got brass and woodwinds for days, courtesy of composer David Raskin. Listen to the opening track! Listen to those horns! It’s so sexy! Speaking of sexy, Richard Conte stars as the very cool and stylish villain. That’s reason enough to watch it, but also there’s a scene where it’s implied that he goes down on Wilde’s IRL wife, which infuriated Wilde and makes their fictionalized animosity even more fun to watch (as one Letterboxd review puts it, it’s “charisma-vacuum Cornel Wilde versus… energy prism Richard Conte”). Conte’s accompanied by his queer-coded henchmen Fante (spaghetti Western staple Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman), and Conte’s aforementioned dullness just reinforces how cool this trio of bad guys are. If you’re watching this movie, you’re watching it for them (and for their increasingly creative forms of violence — the film makes another brilliant use of music in a fantastic scene involving a drum solo). If you liked Gun Crazy, give this one a go — it’s by the same director, and though it’s not quite as refined, it’s still super fucking cool.
Thieves’ Highway (1949) dir. Jules Dassin
Now that you have fallen in love with Richard Conte, watch him being all hot and intense and full of righteous anger in a leading role! If we’re being particular, Thieves’ Highway is a film gris — a term that refers to noir films with left-wing narratives — which makes sense, because it’s the last film Jules Dassin made in Hollywood before they kicked him out for his leftist politics. The whole thing is about the vicious and greedy politics of agriculture and the produce market, told from the point of view of Conte’s Nick Garcos — but the fruit-and-veg milieu is a stand-in for all the markets of the world, for the cruelty and callousness of capitalism on the whole. Not only is the protagonist a working-class Greek immigrant; his love interest, Rica (Valentina Cortese) is an Italian immigrant and sex worker (!) who is portrayed as a far better person than Nick’s rich, white, blonde, American girlfriend. The scene where Rica and Nick first meet is one of the all-time great noir flirtation scenes, and the whole thing goes down in almost total silence — the only lines exchanged are “Match?” “No match.” There might not be any matches, but there are sparks galore, baby. Fucking fantastic!
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
Finally, for a neo-noir, one that goes down smooth — a film by a couple of noir-literate pros at the top of their game. The Coen brothers (obviously, unsurprisingly) execute their vision with full competence and confidence, and their screenplay would make their beloved literary influences, like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, proud. Billy Bob Thornton was born to play Ed Crane. Frances McDormand is in this, being her usual brilliant self. James Gandolfini is in this, doing the same. Roger Deakins is the cinematographer. It sells itself!
I like my noir mean, with desperate characters and a feel-bad ending, so it kinda makes sense that my love for the genre has only been deepened by this confusing and sad year, spent driving around LA. Winding around in the hills, I can momentarily imagine that I’m Walter Neff, on my way to fall in love with a femme fatale and commit a seedy insurance scam.
Here are my 3 most beloved LA noir movies, and the little traces of them that I’ve enjoyed while living here.
Mulholland Dr (2001) — visited the strange, fairytale-like cottage apartments where Naomi Watts discovers her own dead body. have not stopped by the back of Winkie’s diner yet. possibly too scared to do so.
Under The Silver Lake (2018) — I really love this hare-brained neo-noir that is just as sprawling and troublesome as the city itself. Andrew Garfield’s useless, obsessive protagonist wakes up in Hollywood Forever cemetery, on the grave of 1920s starlet Janet Gaynor. The cemetery is a few blocks away from me, a good place to walk around and encounter cranky squirrels and peacocks.
The Big Lebowski (1998) – u know the dumpster The Dude crashes his car into, when he accidentally flicks a lit joint onto his crotch whilst driving and vibing out to Creedence Clearwater Revival ? that scene was shot on my street. firmly the only cool thing about where I live.
Then again, my two favourite movies that are film noir proper — Gun Crazy (1950) and Ace In The Hole (1951) – don’t really take place in LA. The latter sees Kirk Douglas’s amoral newspaper man ruining lives in New Mexico, and the former is a super horny, cross-country road trip between two people who really like guns.
When Gun Crazy came up in our group chat, we were tickled to find out that four of our writers consider it a fave film noir, validating Ivana’s estimation right up top that it is indeed That Bitch of the noir game. Claire, why are you crazy about Gun Crazy?
Noir is a delicious genre of dangerous dames and moody lighting, and while there are so many noirs to choose from (DOUBLE INDEMNITY! GILDA! SUNSET BOULEVARD!), I just can never get past Gun Crazy (1950) — coincidentally, neither can my fellow members of the Rough Cut Crew. When Bart Tare (John Dall) is swept up by sharp shooter Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), they enter a life on the run as another loved-up gun-toting couple on a crime spree.
With the Production Code limiting how much crime and violence could be depicted on screen, Gun Crazy builds suspense in creative ways that still leave me breathless. Typical of the noir genre, this film is all smoke and mirrors when it comes to violence: especially true in the final scene, a misty, suspense filled showdown shrouded by reeds and unseen assailants closing in. The pièce de résistance, of course, is the bank heist scene, filmed in one continuous long-shot, while the camera is situated at the back of their car, looking on. Mwah! Magnificent!
Speaking of the Production Code, during the writing stage, the script had many changes made by the PCA — namely, Bart’s character was completely changed, with the addition of a court scene where family members and teacher demonstrate Bart’s good character as a child in the opening scene. This was so that as an adult, he could come across as a “Good Boy Led Astray” with a strong moral compass and “innocent” fascination with guns, seduced into the dark side by the alluring foreign blonde. I find these interventions fascinating, especially since the plan sort of backfired. The Code demanded crime be punished and not look desirable in any way? Jokes on you, because Gun Crazy is as sexy and thrilling as all get out.
Riverdale (2017-) — Yes, I am saying it. If neo-noir is characterised by their use of light and shadow, the blurred lines between good and evil, right and wrong, and themes of alienation, what could demonstrate all this better than teen melodrama, Riverdale?! This “dark” take on the beloved Archie Comics shares a lot of similarities to another neo-noir, Twin Peaks: season one begins with a dead Prom Queen/King, set in a town full of secrets behind closed doors, where the adults are all hiding something and it is up to the teens to find answers. The show also fully embraces its oddities and, quite frankly, batshit storylines, but throughout the seasons, it maintains integral themes of noir, all while filmed in this moody, neon-drenched aesthetic — which makes it more accurate to call it a neon-noir.
A particular shout out to season 3, episode 11 ‘The Red Dahlia,’ where Riverdale takes a visit to NOIR TOWN, which is full of visual and literal noir references. In his opening voiceover, Jughead (Cole Sprouse) paints a picture straight out of a 1940s film, a tale of lies, murder and beautiful dames, as well as referring to himself and Veronica as Phillip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall later on in the episode. Riverdale is full of camp, and the way it often makes allusions and references to classic cinema makes it, in my eyes, literal art. Embrace it!
In hot pursuit of yet another one of those blindly ambitious acts driven by lockdown (i.e. finishing the Sight & Sound Top 250, reteaching myself piano, becoming the next Masterchef etc.), I set this month’s goal to watch all the noirs…and did not even come close. Though one such film that I did get around to was Gun Crazy, which is a crazy coincidence considering that not two, not three, but FOUR (aka more than half) of us Rough Cutters were willing to fight to the shadowy, black-and-white ends to write about it!
Truly, this was an utter thrill to watch — and I was captivated by its sexy eroticism, and the burning, wrenching LUST that drives this duo to the end of the world with and for each other. Sheila O’Malley’s piece dedicated to Penny Cummings’ performance, down to the details of the way she eats, is divine; it made me look at the entire film, and appreciate the dynamics between Laurie and Bart, in a different way.
I’ve also been doing a deep-dive into one of the early, pivotal figures of the ‘Berlin School’, Thomas Arslan — and really enjoyed (if that’s even the right word for it) his cool, extremely precise neo-noir In the Shadows (2010), which showcases the interiors and exteriors of grimy, underworld Berlin through the lens of a lone professional criminal. This film is clearly influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville’s minimalist crime dramas (such as Le Samouraï , another film I watched for the first time this month — wow), and Arslan’s taut control of the mise-en-scene, editing, camerawork and lighting, means there’s so much going on beyond what is explicitly said. His visual direction, both clinical and elegant, is seriously one to marvel at.
I caught the Coen’s debut Blood Simple (1984) recently — a neo-noir that runs on the obfuscating engines of its four main characters; although quite remarkably, the fine-grained complexity of the film’s knotty twists and turns are laid out very cleanly, very neatly by Joel and Ethan in a curt 99-min sitting. There are some ridiculously great images here — a solitary wriggly hand speared by a knife on a windowsill; a man crawling for his life in the shadow of a midnight highway; a heaving mass of dirt squirming from the live body underneath. M. Emmet Walsh is the bomb.com as a jokey big-boned Texan private detective whose refrain ‘if the pay’s right, and it’s legal, I’ll do it’ is halved with little hesitation; young Frances McDormand (Blood Simple = Pre-Nomadland  viewing?) is magically enigmatic as scorned runaway, Chekov’s gun in jeans pocket. It’s at once both pathologically serious and shockingly funny — watch it!!!