Friday, May 18, 2007

My Favorite 10 (11) Film Noir B-Movies

B-movies are generally low-budget, quickies produced by minor studios and/or non-famous crews. They are often forgotten and rarely viewed today, but many are solid, worthwhile films.

1) “Hollow Triumph” (1948) [also known as “The Scar”]
John Muller is a criminal on the run, who discovers that he looks almost identical to a psychologist named Dr. Bartok. Bartok believes that humans are essentially blind to all details that do not directly concern themselves and will easily accept convenient lies. In a series of ridiculous ironies, Muller kills the psychologist and impersonates him, both professionally and in his love life. To pull off the job, he has to give himself the ugly scar that Dr. Bartok had, but since he bases his self-mutilation on a reverse-negative photo, the scar ends up on the wrong side. Will Bartok’s friends and associates remain blind to the inconsistency?

2) “Narrow Margin” (1952)
A short, efficient noir thriller often hailed as the greatest B-movie ever made, “Narrow Margin” is the tale of an officer assigned to protect a high-profile female witness during a train trip to the trial. They have an immediate clash of personality, but must both learn to work with each other. As the train ride progresses, the tension and intrigue mount, with several twists unleashed in an effective barrage.

3) “Panic in the Streets” (1950)
A newly arrived illegal immigrant is found killed on the docks of New Orleans. The case would normally not get much attention, but the coroner (played by Richard Widmark) discovers that the corpse was carrying a deadly plague. The police must find the killer (who has been exposed to the disease) within 48 hours or he’ll become contagious and the whole city might be devastated by the outbreak.

4) “Nightmare Alley” (1954)
A magician, struggling to be the best, breaches his ethics and gradually finds his success on the slide. A rare example of circus-noir with an obvious, but wickedly ironic, ending. An influence on “The Prestige” (2006).

5) “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1950)
In Otto Preminger’s under-rated film, a brutal cop unwittingly kills an innocent suspect during interrogation. When he tries to cover up the manslaughter, he becomes trapped at the scene of the crime and accidentally frames the father of his love interest.

6) “The Big Combo” (1955)
An early example of noir excess, “The Big Combo” revels in every cliché, taking lighting, fog, criminal arch-villains and bloody-minded henchmen to new extremes. Full of strange aberrations, stylish flourishes and nihilistic undertones.

7) “The Woman in the Window” (1944) [along with “Scarlet Street” (1945)]
A psychology professor (Edward G. Robinson) finds himself with a beautiful corpse on his hands and a blackmailer threatening him. He’s called in to be the psychological consultant on the crime (essentially analyzing himself) and the tension really starts to mount. A year later, the director reunited with the cast and made “Scarlet Street” an unrelated noir of equally noteworthy power.

8) “Kansas City Confidential” (1952)
See full review here.

9) “DOA” (1950)
A man must solve his own murder, in this low-budget stroke of genius.

10) “Elevator to the Gallows” (1957)
An early French New Wave film noir by director Louis Malle, this film follows a pair of lovers who arrange to kill the wealthy husband of the female partner (played by Jeanne Moreau). The killer pulls of the crime on the top story of a skyscraper after hours and makes it look like suicide, but gets trapped in the elevator on the way out. He tries desperately to escape while his lover wonders the streets and gets into new trouble.

11) “Gun Crazy” (1949)
I snuck in an 11th! Someone needs to champion the little guys. “Gun Crazy” is a popular B-movie gem about Bart Tare, a boy who grows to manhood utterly obsessed with guns. He eventually unites with Annie Laurie Starr, a woman just as turned-on by firearms as he is, and the two help each other go out in a blaze of glory.


Molly said...

Yay for noir excess in the Big Combo and Nightmare Alley! Personally, I like Scarlet Street better than Woman in the Window. Though the latter does have one of those great WTF? Fritz Lang endings that say, 'yes, this happy ending IS completely unrealistic'.

Personally, I'd also throw in a vote for Detour (1945), Edgar Ulmer's ridiculously expressionistic road movie about a struggling piano player who tries to follow his girlfriend and Manifest Destiny to California but loses his future somewhere in the American Heartland. Also, Ann Savage is a singular femme fatale (see my comment on that list)

FilmWalrus said...

Katie also prefers Scarlet Street, but again, some of my decision is based on the fact that I haven't seen Scarlet Street in a while.

As for Detour, I was relatively unimpressed. I know you like your Ulmer ("Black Cat" and all that) but he's not one of my favorites. The extreme low budget is an interesting draw, but I tend not to join in on the retroactive praise the film has gained: many critics, including Ebert, claim Detour as the top B-movie of all time.

I do totally agree on the Femme Fatale call. Ann Savage is extremely unsympathetically brutal and delivers a perpertually raging performance where nothing is treated in proportion (in the best possible sense). I didn't include her simply because I forgot about "Detour" in terms of characters.

Molly said...

I forgot about her too until you told me to look into other femme fatales.

I agree that Best B Movie of all time is going rather too far.