Sunday, May 13, 2007

Top 10 Noir Protagonists

Over the next week I’ll be moving into a new apartment so I anticipate being pretty busy. Before the chaos begins, I thought I’d put together some posts to release over the next few days. I had so much fun with the top 100 noir that I’ve decided to do a themed series of noir posts.

First there will be seven days (starting today) of specialized top 10 lists within the film noir genre. Then I’ll update the top 100 and put out a review of the overlooked classic, “The Big Clock” (1948).

So for each of the next eight posts you’ll get a new top ten noir list from the following categories: Protagonists, Villains, Femme Fatales, Visual, Writing, Directors, Premises, B-movies and Endings. Enjoy!

Top Ten Noir Protagonists

1) Philip Marlowe played by Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep” (1946).
Sometimes the stars align, and the combination of Raymond Chandler’s prose, Howard Hawk’s direction and Humphrey Bogart’s delivery make this one of the most iconic cynical detective roles of all time. Bogart chews the dialogue and spits it out like bullets, all the while solving an elaborate case and courting the beautifully dangerous Lauren Bacall.

2) Dixon Steele played by Humphrey Bogart in “In a Lonely Place” (1950).
Bogart’s alcoholic, down-and-out screenwriter, who may or may not be a murderer, is at least as good a performance as his better known outings as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Imbued with director Nicholas Ray’s deeply personal reflections on life and art, Steele becomes one of the most devastating depictions of self-destructive tendencies. With the heroism removed, but with all the painful consequences of booze and violence left in, Steele makes a romantic noir lead who really test the boundaries between love and hate.

3) Jake Gittes played by Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown” (1974).
Jack Nicholson brings his slippery charisma to noir with a performance that makes full use of his quirky looks, gestures and voice. Nicholson perfectly captures the determined curiosity of the detective that everyone is trying shake (even the client). Spending the second half of the film with a bandaged broken nose only make him seem more vicious and resourceful. He never loses his smug sarcasm even when the odds are totally against him.

4) Harold Shand played by Bob Hoskins in “The Long Good Friday” (1980).
Hoskin’s greatest performance comes as Harold Shand, a London crime boss who returns from a trip to sign a major deal with the American Mob. Skipping the first half of the traditional “rise and fall” arc of many gangster epics, the film keeps a tight focus on the single weekend when Shand’s empire begins to crumble. Hoskins is at once despicable and sympathetic as the former working-class hood desperate to prove that he is destined to be king of the city, but destroyed by a twist of fate. His facial expressions in the long final shot are a standalone masterpiece.

5) Mike Hammer played by Ralph Meeker in “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955).
Surprisingly, almost nothing is lost in the adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s sadistic private eye in this ultra-grim noir. Ralph Meeker set the standard against which every dark hero would be judged for decades to come as a detective so brutal he makes the villains look civilized in comparison. His energy and presence jump out of the screen even as the cruel grin on his face during his many violent outbursts reveals his wicked, unsavory pleasure.

6) Sam Spade played by Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941).
The big breakthrough in noir that started the craze for the genre came with this John Huston directed classic. Sam Spade (a creation of Dashiell Hammett) remains America’s most memorable private eye, a detective whose verbal wit matches his gumshoe abilities. His biting banter and razor sharp mind only barely hide the weary cynicism and self-destructive pessimism lurking under the surface.

7) Edward Norton and Brad Pitt as Narrator and Tyler Durden in “Fight Club” (1999).
It might seem to be breaking the rules to pick two protagonists as a winner, but those who have seen the film are sure to know my reasons. Edward’s Norton plays a yuppy fallen angel, a corporate drone who starts to find violent outlets for his formerly desperate and commercialized life. When he meets Brad Pitt, the embodiment of all the masculinity and confidence he always wanted, thing begin to spin seriously out of control.

8) Jack Carter played by Michael Caine in “Get Carter” (1971).
Mike Hodges’s hyperviolent crime odyssey about a British gangster bent on finding out the truth behind his brother’s murder, remains one of the best revenge noirs ever made and an influence on countless successors. Carter kills often and without mercy, rarely presenting a case to the audience for his moral, ethical or legal superiority. His grimy, bloodthirsty efficiency comes with a fair amount of incidental development, which is why it makes the list above the even more existential “Point Blank” (1967).

9) Travis Bickle played by Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” (1976).
De Niro had many great roles throughout his career, but Travis Bickle still resonates as one of the most vivid and developed. As a socially stunted Vietnam veteran turned taxi driver, Bickle comes off as an unsympathetic lout. His sexism, racism and mental instability signal to the audience from early on that all is not well. Whether he’s spouting upsetting monologues, acting out in inexplicable and inarticulate ways or comically failing to blend into bourgeois society, De Niro captures it with honesty and realism. For all his many failings, Bickle’s central discontent and commitment to his twisted personal morality makes him impossible to dismiss.

10) Burton Fink played by John Turturro in “Barton Fink” (1991).
Turturro, in his best role, plays a successful New York playwright who scores a movie deal and moves out to sunny California. Isolated in a creepy, decrepit hotel room, his writer’s block is exacerbated by distractions that escalate from peeling wallpaper to a dead body. Directed as an insinuating surrealist nightmare by the Coen Brothers, it’s Turturro’s performance that sells the material. In a single evocative film, Turturro outdoes Woody Allen (in any movie) for every neurotic New York intellectual cliché of with superior humor, subtlety, sympathy, and realism.


Unknown said...

Excellent choices. I do very much want to see The Long, Good Friday still.

It's a shame that Barton Fink isn't seen more. Too bad people can't obsess over / quote that instead of The Big Lebowski. I want to have lots of cynical Jewish babies with John Turturro.

Molly said...

A great list - though my Marlowe would be Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet.

Bogart's Marlowe is brilliant, and he offers a good combination of cynicism and sweentess - it's always surprisingly charming to watch him sit down on top of his desk and flirt with Lauren Bacall.

But he's a little too smooth. I think that Powell's Marlowe is more interesting. He definately has the cynicism, and you can tell he's an old romantic, much as he tries to pretend not to be, but Powell's Marlowe also has more cash-hard recklessness than generally suave Bogart tends to convey. I love his line, 'If I always knew what I meant, I'd be a genius!'

So I'll pick Powell for Marlowe, the reluctant softie, and let Bogie have hard-as-nails-son-of-a-bitch Sam Spade.