Classic Film Noir in the Criterion Collection

For the massive Criterion Blogathon, I knew I couldn’t highlight just one of the many great films found in their library. As we’re in the midst of Noirvember, I thought why not do a bit of an overview of the traditional noir films found in the Criterion Collection? In this post, I’ll be looking at films featured in both the Criterion Collection and in the 250 Quintessential Noir Films list from the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? website. Looking at TSPDT’s noir list, there’s a total of 19 films featured in their catalog as of today.

Though TSPDT breaks its own criteria for some excellent exceptions, I’ll be omitting five of the films that are in both lists. So I won’t be including The Naked Kiss, as it misses the 1940-1959 time period, as well as The Third Man (I know, I know) and Mr. Arkadin, as they weren’t produced in the U.S. Furthermore, I won’t be including two Hitchcock classics, Spellbound and Notorious, as they’re unfortunately out-of-print like The Third Man, and I want to focus on what’s still in print at Criterion. I’m making a small mention of these films because, though I won’t be covering them, they’re still well worth a watch.

So for my entry, I’ll just be giving an overview of each film with some small thoughts, including background information on the main players and their place in the Criterion Collection. This list is ordered by the film’s spine number in the label’s library; I’m doing it this way so you can see when each film entered the catalog and to make sense of Criterion’s taste in selecting noir titles. Additionally, each spine number links to the film’s page on Criterion’s website.

The Killers (1946), directed by Robert Siodmak

Spine #176

Two hitmen are sent to kill “the Swede” (Burt Lancaster), a gas station attendant in a small town. Instead of running away, Swede waits for them in his room and doesn’t resist their bullets. Life insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) tracks down the Swede’s friends and associates to find out what led to his death and discovers that all the events are linked with the elusive Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner).

The Killers is one of the most well-known films of the classic noir genre, and it features all the ingredients the genre is famous for. Much of the film is told in flashback as each of the Swede’s acquaintances recall past events to Reardon. And of course, the film features one of the deadliest dames of film noir. Swede is so devoted to Kitty, and because of her, he gets involved with a robbery that ultimately leads to his demise.

Aside from its noir status, this was an important film for the three top-billed stars. The Killers was Edmond O’Brien’s first venture into film noir, and he later went on to star in noir classics D.O.A. and The Hitch-Hiker. Though he never rose to huge fame like his co-stars, he still had a fulfilling career and won an Oscar in 1955 for a film he did with Ava Gardner called The Barefoot Contessa (he was nominated again 10 years later for Seven Days in May, which reunited him with both his The Killers co-stars). Gardner had many small and uncredited film roles in the early 1940s, and it wasn’t until this film that she got her big break and became one of Hollywood’s most glamorous leading ladies. As for Burt Lancaster, The Killers was his first-ever movie role! Though he wasn’t yet the acclaimed star he would later become, Lancaster received top billing for the film. The actor himself is a favorite of the Criterion Collection, starring in The Leopard as well as two other films featured on this list.

Two other people I want to highlight are actor Charles McGraw and director Robert Siodmak, as they’re both most recognized for their work in the noir genre. McGraw played a supporting character as one of the killers (for which the film is named), and he often played a supporting tough guy in his noir films. He’s in the supporting cast of three other Criterion titles as well, including Spartacus and In Cold Blood. Siodmak has nine films featured on TSPDT’s noir list, making him the second most recognized noir director there. Among his many noir credits are Phantom Lady and Criss Cross, with the latter film reuniting him with Lancaster three years later.

Producer Mark Hellinger initially wanted director Don Siegel for the job, but the loan out fee from Warner Bros. was too high. Ironically, Siegel went on to direct the remake almost 20 years later. And for your convenience, Criterion pairs the 1946 and 1964 films into one package so you can see Siodmak’s and Siegel’s take on Ernest Hemingway’s short story.

Pickup on South Street (1953), directed by Samuel Fuller

Spine #224

On a crowded New York City subway, pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) does his usual business and steals Candy’s (Jean Peters) wallet. What Skip doesn’t realize was that Candy’s wallet contains microfilm with government secrets, and she was on her way to delivering this information to a Communist spy ring. As he now possesses the film, Skip becomes the number one target for both the police and the enemy agents.

Pickup on South Street features three lead characters that have some complicated backgrounds fit for the noir genre. Skip is a cocky pickpocket, and on top of that, he’s a three-time convict. On the surface, he has no redeeming qualities, and through most of the film he’s only looking out for himself. Candy is an ex-prostitute who’s been sending information to Communists for months, but her only reason for doing business with them is to finish a favor for her ex-boyfriend (who is also a Communist). And Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter) gets by as a professional informant, helping the police identify her friend Skip as the thief on the subway and later telling Candy where Skip lives. All three initially have selfish motivations, but as the film progresses the three characters’ actions begin to show that they’re not as bad as they seem.

Richard Widmark got his start as an actor in the film noir genre, giving an unforgettable debut performance as sociopath Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, which earned him his only Oscar nomination. Jean Peters isn’t as well-known as her contemporaries, but director Samuel Fuller chose her for the part over studio favorites Betty Grable, Shelley Winters, and Ava Gardner, and this is probably the best performance from her short career. She can also be seen in Technicolor noir Niagara (made the same year as Pickup on South Street), which co-stars Marilyn Monroe. Thelma Ritter’s portrayal as Moe earned her an Oscar nomination, her fourth in a row! She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress from 1951-1954, and was later nominated two more times, but sadly never won. This is my favorite of Ritter’s roles, and here she gives one of the most heartbreaking performances in film noir.

Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald also provides some great photography of the film’s urban settings. Like many noir films, the streets are shown in high contrast with characters often lurking in the shadows. MacDonald’s work on this film is best exemplified in scenes set at Skip’s waterfront residence. He also uses a great deal of close-ups, further heightening the tension in scenes where Skip is on the subway pickpocketing. Just like actress Jean Peters, he also worked on Niagara in the same year. MacDonald’s work can also be seen in Criterion titles My Darling Clementine and Bigger Than Life; I think this proves that he truly excelled in both black-and-white and in color.

Samuel Fuller is the most popular director in the Criterion Collection featured in this post, though Pickup on South Street is his only appearance here. You can check out what else Criterion offers of Fuller’s work here, which includes the 1964 noir The Naked Kiss.

Thieves’ Highway (1949), directed by Jules Dassin

Spine #273

War veteran Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) returns home to find his father, a fruit farmer, has lost both his legs at the hands of a ruthless produce dealer named Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Nick then goes into the truck driving business to earn more money for his family and to avenge his father.

Thieves’ Highway is a noir with a bit of an unusual premise, as the film’s criminals hail in a San Francisco produce market. Regardless of its unusual urban setting, it still features the usual noir tropes, with a protagonist not only trying to adjust to life after the war but one that is also set on getting revenge for his family. Valentina Cortese plays a streetwalker who on the surface serves as the film’s femme fatale. She’s initially sent by Mike to distract Nick while his truck full of produce is being stolen. As it turns out, she’s a compassionate character and knows Mike is a bad guy and ends up helping Nick as best as she can.

Richard Conte played both heroes and villains in many noir films, including The Big Combo and The Blue Gardenia. Conte’s co-stars are favorites of the Criterion Collection, as both Valentina Cortese and Lee J. Cobb have two other films featured in the catalog. For Cortese, this includes Day for Night, in which she earned her only Oscar nomination. And for Cobb, this includes his most prolific work from the 1950s, including a villainous turn in On the Waterfront, which earned him his first of two Oscar nominations.

Unlike many of the films being made at the time, Dassin’s films always had a stronger sense of legitimacy to them because they weren’t made on a set (as you’ll notice with the next few films featured here). Thieves’ Highway was filmed on location at the Oakland Produce Market and other surrounding areas and is noteworthy for its accurate depiction of what it’s like working in produce.

Jules Dassin’s French noir masterpiece Rififi was the director’s first Criterion appearance, and this film marked his second. He made a string of Hollywood noir films from the late 1940s to 1950, and I’d argue that Thieves’ Highway is his most overlooked of that time period. It’s certainly not the best of his films, but it’s still a worthwhile watch.

Night and the City (1950), directed by Jules Dassin

Spine #274

Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is an ambitious hustler wanting to live “a life of ease and plenty,” but his schemes never seem to work out. He ignores his past failings and works as a promoter for a famous wrestler, hoping to finally get financial independence. But history has a way of repeating itself, and Harry finds out that he can’t keep conning himself like he does everyone else.

Night and the City is a film dripping with selfish characters and double-crossing, elements that are present throughout the noir genre. As the film’s anti-hero, Harry has little to no redeeming qualities, making it hard to root for him and his endeavors. He steals from his girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney) and often makes business deals with seedy married couple Helen (Googie Withers) and Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan).

Gene Tierney is one of the most prolific faces in noir; she earned an Oscar nomination for her role as a femme fatale in Leave Her to Heaven and starred in one of the most famous films in the genre as the title character in Laura. Here her role is rather thankless, but she was brought on with the assistance of 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. At the time, Tierney was suffering from depression, and Zanuck hoped that working on the film would lift her spirits. Still, her role as Mary is important in showing that Harry wasn’t all bad at one point, and towards the end of the film she’s his only source for redemption.

The film adds Dassin’s touch of realism by featuring real-life professional wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko as Gregorius the Great, a Greco-Roman wrestler that Harry forms a business partnership. Additionally, actor Mike Mazurki was a professional wrestler prior to his movie career and portrayed Gregorius’ rival The Strangler. There’s a particularly tense fight scene between the two wrestlers that makes it feel as if you’re watching an actual match and not a movie.

Though Night and the City was primarily produced in the U.S., it was filmed on location in London as director Jules Dassin was being blacklisted from Hollywood. Dassin was under a lot of pressure to get the film made right away and put together the script without reading the book beforehand (you can watch a clip of his Criterion interview talking about it here). After filming, he wasn’t allowed back on studio property to oversee the post-production. Despite all the trouble surrounding the director at the time, he still managed to create a compelling noir, one that is regarded among Dassin’s best films.

The Naked City (1948), directed by Jules Dassin

Spine #380

Homicide Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) investigate the death of a model found dead in her bathtub. Though it initially appears that she killed herself, the detectives soon discover that she was actually murdered. As the police force fills in the blanks of the victim’s past, the mystery behind her death becomes more complex when they find she’s connected to a string of apartment burglaries.

The Naked City is more of a police procedural than pure film noir but is still a unique one in the genre and among Jules Dassin’s filmography. Like many noir films, it features voice-over narration, but instead of coming from the protagonist, it’s voiced by the film’s own producer Mark Hellinger. It’s an unusual narration as it doesn’t come from a character that has any connection to the story, and is instead works more as a commentary on the character’s actions, sometimes even breaking the fourth wall.

The film has a large cast of characters led by Barry Fitzgerald, one of the great character actors of the time. Also part of the cast is noir veteran Ted de Corsia, who often played the tough guys and gangsters. Here he plays a former wrestler that serves as an important connection to the film’s homicide case. de Corsia’s other noir credits include The Big Combo and The Lady from Shanghai, the latter of which provided his film debut. He also has a supporting role in The Killing and Spartacus, both Stanley Kubrick films in the Criterion Collection.

Just like Dassin’s previous Criterion additions, it was shot on location in New York City and gives the film a distinctive, documentary feel. The Naked City opens with some spectacular aerial shots of the city and includes shots of real people roaming the city throughout the film. The most exciting scene comes in the film’s well-crafted climax, where the characters chase after each other through the busy streets and end up on top of a city bridge.

Of all the films featured here directed by Jules Dassin, this is probably my favorite of his. The Naked City is pretty straightforward for a noir, but what helps set it apart from the others is its emphasis on the investigation process, and how it makes New York City a character itself.

Brute Force (1947), directed by Jules Dassin

Spine #383

After being released from solitary confinement, Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) begins planning an escape with his fellow inmates. All of them are fed up with the way the prison is run, where the warden has less power than his guards and instead acts in favor of the sadistic Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Their escape plan starts to unravel as Munsey uses physical and mental force to turn one of the prisoners against Joe and his men, leading to a bloody climax.

Brute Force is a prison drama crafted with some popular noir tropes to set the grim atmosphere. The film revolves around the poor conditions the prisoners live in, but as it was made under the studio system, not a lot of violence could be shown. Through shadows and close-ups, Jules Dassin was able to dodge the censors and create a disturbing picture for the characters. Furthermore, each inmate in the cell is given a backstory via flashback, and in every story, it was their love for a woman that landed them in jail.

Burt Lancaster’s made this film following his debut in The Killers. He gives another superb performance filled with varying levels of rage, as his character Joe becomes more desperate to break out and return to his sick wife. Ann Blyth is best remembered as the spoiled daughter in melodramatic noir Mildred Pierce, and here she plays a minor role as Joe’s cancer-ridden wife Ruth. A couple of other women in the film also have strong ties to film noir; Yvonne de Carlo (Criss Cross) and Ella Raines (Phantom Lady) portray wives of Joe’s fellow inmates in flashback scenes. The real standout performance comes from Hume Cronyn as the villain. His role as Captain Munsey played against type, as he usually played much kinder characters. What really makes him terrifying as a character is how calm and collected he is as he tortures the prisoners, and more often than not we see his emotionless reaction to the violence he inflicts than the action itself.

One more person I want to highlight is the film’s screenwriter Richard Brooks. Brooks was involved in writing the screenplays for a number of noir films before taking on the director position, such as Key Largo and Crossfire, and even wrote an early draft of The KillersIn Cold Blood was very recently added to Criterion, and is regarded as one of Brooks’ best directorial efforts.

Though Brute Force was the first among several noir films Jules Dassin made in the postwar period, it’s the director’s last entry in the Criterion Collection (so far). Looking at this film as the director’s catapult to acclaim, you can see that Dassin was a force to be reckoned with.

Ace in the Hole (1951), directed by Billy Wilder

Spine #396

Former big-city reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is frustrated with the lack of excitement surrounding Albuquerque, as there’s little to report on for the local paper. After hearing word of a man trapped in a cave, Chuck uses the situation to his advantage and exploits the story in an effort to bring himself back on top of the journalism world.

Ace in the Hole is one of the bleakest noir films I’ve ever seen, and certainly Billy Wilder’s most dismal. There aren’t really any characters you want to root for; there’s only Leo Minosa, the helpless man stuck in the cave whom you’re hoping will make it out alive (but as this is a film noir, it’s highly unlikely). Chuck Tatum is the most contemptible of them all as he manipulates everybody around him to get what he wants. Though he’s a terrible person, you almost can’t help but admire how cunning he is.

Star Kirk Douglas and writer-director Billy Wilder have important connections to the noir genre. Douglas made his film debut in the noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and followed that up with Out of the Past, one of the most acclaimed noir films of the era. He can also be seen in Criterion titles Paths of Glory and Spartacus, both directed by Stanley Kubrick. Wilder directed what is often regarded as the quintessential noir, Double Indemnity. He made The Lost Weekend the following year, and a few years later came Sunset Blvd.

Ace in the Hole was Wilder’s follow-up to the successful Hollywood-based noir and turned out to be a film of firsts for him. It was the first film he worked on as a producer; it was the first film he made following the break-up with his writing partner Charles Brackett, and it was his first film to be a critical and commercial failure. Paramount Pictures even renamed the film “The Big Carnival” without Wilder’s consent, hoping the more upbeat title would bring people in. Despite having an unsuccessful run upon its release, Billy Wilder and co-writers Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman earned an Oscar nomination for their screenplay. A quick example of some of the clever dialogue the script is filled with: “I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you – you’re twenty minutes.”

The film provides an interesting look at the nature behind human interest stories and how they’re sensationalized, where the impact of the press creates a huge media circus (maybe “The Big Carnival” was an appropriate title after all). Of all the films featured here, this is perhaps the most relevant to us today.

The Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton

Spine #541

Self-professed preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is serving time in prison for car theft. He learns that his cellmate Ben Harper (Peter Graves) has hidden $10,000 that he stole in a robbery. Upon his release from jail, Harry becomes obsessed with finding the money and tracks down Ben’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and her two young children.

The Night of the Hunter plays out like a Gothic fairy tale with a noir twist. The film fits the argument of film noir being a style over a genre as it doesn’t share the usual plot components. Stanley Cortez’s high contrast cinematography helps highlight a lot of the juxtaposition to be found in the film, and the overall themes of good versus evil and love versus hate (as exemplified on Harry Powell’s hands). It also shows how different religious characters interpret their faith; Harry Powell uses his beliefs to justify his actions while Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) takes God’s word to heart and helps people in need.

Robert Mitchum is one of the most recognizable faces from the noir genre, often offering a cool, subdued performance in films like Out of the Past and Crossfire. But here he’s both charming and chilling as the sociopath preacher, making him one of the most terrifying villains to hit the movie screen. Lillian Gish also gives a wonderful performance as a strong-willed caregiver to stray children. She may be frail in appearance, but she still holds her own against the likes of Mitchum.

The film was directed by one of the most highly regarded actors of the time, Charles Laughton. His work as an actor can be seen in five films in the Criterion Collection, including his Oscar-winning performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII. The Night of the Hunter though was Laughton’s only film in which he worked as a director. Upon its release, the film was a critical and commercial failure, which unfortunately discouraged Charles Laughton from directing other films.

Though it wasn’t successful during its time, it’s proven to be an enduring film with an expressionistic style that continues to influence directors today. And the film’s dream-like imagery stays with you long after watching. The Night of the Hunter is easily one of Criterion’s best films, noir or otherwise.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957), directed by Alexander Mackendrick

Spine #555

Broadway gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is the most powerful man in the press, as his faithful readers cling to his printed words as gospel. The only person he can’t keep his hold on is his younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison), who’s in love with up-and-coming jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Determined to prevent her from getting married, he enlists sleazy press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to split them up by any means necessary.

Sweet Smell of Success features two of the most despicable characters in film noir. J.J. Hunsecker and Sidney Falco basically operate without a moral compass, manipulating people to do their bidding through bribery and blackmail. Hunsecker takes it a step further as he has Sidney do all the dirty work for him, especially where it concerns his sister Susan. With all the venomous words he throws at people, whether in person or in his column, it’s hard to believe Hunsecker has a soft spot for anyone. But it’s his vicious nature that ultimately drives the one person he loves away from him.

Burt Lancaster makes his third (and last) appearance on this list, playing a character you love to hate. Though Hunsecker is a looming figure right from the start of the film, he’s physically on screen for less time than you think and doesn’t make his first appearance until the twenty-minute mark. Lancaster’s performance here is easily my favorite of his career. Tony Curtis is more recognized for his work in lighter comedies, but he still gave exceptional performances in heavy dramas such as this. He really holds his own against Lancaster, and the two actors work wonderfully off each other in their scenes together. Curtis was in two movies with Lancaster prior to this, including an uncredited role in the film noir Criss Cross.

There are also a few people behind the scenes worth mentioning. Cinematographer James Wong Howe captures New York City beautifully in black-and-white. His excellent black-and-white cinematography can also be seen in The Baron of Arizona and Seconds, both in the Criterion Collection. Sweet Smell of Success features music conducted by legendary composer Elmer Bernstein, whose jazzy tunes perfectly set the mood. Along with a compelling story, writers Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman provide the two main characters with razor-sharp dialogue, including one of my all-time favorite movie lines: “I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

Sweet Smell of Success is a dark tale set in the journalism world that would actually make a great double bill with Ace in the Hole. But if I could only recommend one film noir to watch on this list, it would be this one (it may or may not be my favorite one featured here). Even though it came out in 1957, it still feels fresh today. Check out Criterion’s Three Reasons video if you need any more convincing.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955), directed by Robert Aldrich

Spine #568

On a lonely night on the road, private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up a frightened woman on the run. His good deed though sends him down a deadly rabbit hole of intrigue as he tries to uncover the big plot his passenger is connected to, which involves a mysterious box.

Kiss Me Deadly is a bit of a genre-bender as it blends noir with some sci-fi elements. Just by watching the opening credits (which can be viewed here), you know you’re in for a wild ride, something Mike Hammer isn’t aware of at that point. Many noir films feature an investigator of some sort, but here he’s a particularly nasty character. Hammer is a corrupt detective and is brutal in approach, often beating people up to get the answers he’s looking for. Even when the film begins, he’s more concerned about his car than his passenger. He’s in good company though, as the film is filled with villainous characters all after a mysterious box, a MacGuffin that’s also referred to as “the great whatsit.”

Ralph Meeker is best remembered for his role in this film, though he acted in a couple of noir films prior to it. Another role he’s remembered for is Paths of Glory, also a Criterion title. Kiss Me Deadly also features the film debuts of Maxine Cooper and Cloris Leachman. Cooper portrayed Hammer’s secretary and occasional lover Velda, while Leachman played a small but important role as hitch-hiker Christina.

The film was shot on location in Los Angeles by Ernest Laszlo, including a scene filmed near the Angels Flight incline railway. It’s notable for serving as a time capsule of some L.A. locations that are no longer there today, such as the ones filmed in Bunker Hill. Laszlo infuses some interesting, high-contrast cinematography, and his shots are especially great with the nighttime, urban backdrop. His work can also be seen in noir films D.O.A. and While the City Sleeps, as well as in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in the Criterion Collection.

Kiss Me Deadly arrived near the end of the classic noir period, twisting some of the genre’s conventions to make an unusual film that’s now become a cult classic. Still, its metaphor for Cold War paranoia and its overall nihilistic tone fits perfectly in between the traditional noir that preceded it and the neo-noir that soon followed.

The Killing (1956), directed by Stanley Kubrick

Spine #575

Veteran criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) plans one last heist before settling down with his fiancée Fay (Coleen Gray). Convinced he has a fool-proof plan, Johnny assembles a team to steal $2 million from a race-track, including betting window teller George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.). But when George tells his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) about the robbery, she hatches a plan of her own with boyfriend Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) to steal their money.

The Killing is one of the most complex films in the noir genre with an intricately timed heist. On top of that, it has one of the biggest double-crosses that ends in a bloodbath. The characters all operate on the wrong side of the law, but their plan is so well-constructed that you’re hoping they succeed. And because of the high tension, every false move made keeps you at the edge of your seat.

Sterling Hayden is a familiar face in film noir and starred in several films in the genre, including another acclaimed heist film, The Asphalt Jungle. The rest of the cast is filled with actors who have shown up in numerous noir films, with Elisha Cook Jr. being the most recognizable of the film’s team. He played a supporting role in many noir films, including The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. The film’s two main actresses also have numerous noir credits: Coleen Gray played the kind-hearted love interest in Kiss of Death (her film debut) and Nightmare Alley, while Marie Windsor played the femme fatale in Force of Evil and The Narrow Margin.

Along with a formidable cast, the film has sharp dialogue and a tight script. What sets it apart from other similar films of the time is that it explores the perspectives of different characters throughout the heist. And the fluid camerawork and fast-paced editing make the film feel contemporary even though it was made nearly sixty years ago. It’s a film that’s often imitated by other movies, but never quite perfected like it is here.

Though Stanley Kubrick had directed other films before, The Killing was his first major picture and foreshadowed what was to come of the legendary director. Criterion includes his earlier noir Killer’s Kiss as a supplement, so you can see how much Kubrick grew as a director in just a year.

Ministry of Fear (1944), directed by Fritz Lang

Spine #649

During World War II, Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is released from a mental hospital after spending two years there. On his way to London, he stops by a village fair and wins a cake by correctly guessing its weight. He discovers that his prize contains valuable information wanted by a Nazi spy ring and soon finds that he’s being pursued by them.

Ministry of Fear walks a fine line between film noir and espionage thriller. It has the shadowy visuals the genre is known for as well as a paranoid protagonist on a mysterious journey but otherwise doesn’t have a lot of the usual noir conventions. Still, it’s one of the most visually compelling films featured here, which is especially evident in a scene where Stephen finds himself at a gathering for a séance.

Ray Milland excelled at playing a man in desperation, playing such roles in noirs like The Big Clock and The Lost Weekend (which won him an Oscar). He also stars in another Criterion title, The Uninvited. Though his role is small, Dan Duryea is a notable face in film noir, especially remembered as a smarmy wise guy in Lang’s Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window.

Fritz Lang is the most prolific noir director on TSPDT’s list, with eleven titles to his credit, including The Big Heat, one of the most acclaimed in the genre. Film noir was strongly influenced by German expressionism, a style that Fritz Lang excelled in prior to the noir movement. His film M (another Criterion title) was one of the early 1930s films that inspired the overall tone of the cynical films to come in the postwar period.

Ministry of Fear was Lang’s first true film noir, and though it doesn’t quite reach the levels of his more prestigious outings in the genre, it still provides a beautifully lit glimpse of what was to come from the director in the following years.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947), directed by Robert Montgomery

Spine #750

A former GI named Gagin (Robert Montgomery) arrives in a New Mexico border town as a fiesta is being prepared. He’s in search of gangster Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), the man responsible for his best friend’s death, and plans to blackmail him for revenge. As he tries to stay hidden from Hugo’s men and an FBI agent, Gagin is aided by carousel owner Pancho (Thomas Gomez) and an elusive peasant named Pila (Wanda Hendrix).

Ride the Pink Horse has one of the coolest titles ever bestowed on a film, letting the audience know that they’re in for an unusual film. Considering the time period in which it was made, it’s a relief to see that the Hispanic characters aren’t stereotyped and are the ones willingly aiding Gagin, unlike his fellow Americans, who turn out to be violent and treacherous towards the protagonist.

Robert Montgomery is more known for his lighter roles in films, but in 1947 he directed and starred in two noir films. Lady in the Lake was Montgomery’s directorial debut, coming out nine months before Ride the Pink Horse. That film is known for its experimental first-person point of view, where the audience sees everything Montgomery’s character sees (he’s only on-screen through reflections). Thomas Gomez earned an Oscar nomination for his role here and became the first Hispanic actor to be recognized by the Academy. Interestingly enough, he was up against two other noir roles that year: Robert Ryan in Crossfire and Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (all three lost to Edmund Gwenn’s portrayal as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street).

The film was written by screenwriting team Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht, whose other notable works together include His Girl Friday and noir Kiss of Death. Hecht also wrote the screenplay for Criterion titles Spellbound and Notorious, both directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Producer Joan Harrison also worked with Hitchcock, writing the Oscar-nominated screenplays for Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent, both featured in the Criterion Collection. And cinematographer Russell Metty worked on two noir films directed by Orson Welles, The Stranger and Touch of Evil, as well as two color films in the Criterion Collection, All That Heaven Allows and Spartacus.

This is one film that I heard almost nothing about prior to its inclusion in the catalog, and I only just watched it earlier this month. It’s a film that deserves a wider audience, taking the political anxiety felt in the postwar period outside an urban setting.

Gilda (1946), directed by Charles Vidor

Spine #795

Shortly after arriving in Buenos Aires, small-time gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is caught cheating in a blackjack game. He manages to talk his way into a job with the casino’s owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready) and becomes his right-hand man. Their partnership becomes strained when Mundson’s new wife Gilda (Rita Hayworth) enters the picture, as she turns out to be Johnny’s ex-lover.

Gilda features one of the most famous characters in the noir genre, and in film history in general. The character though is not a typical femme fatale, as she’s not cold or manipulative like ones often found in noir. Some would even argue that she really isn’t a femme fatale and is really just a woman who loves to have fun and puts herself before others. Though she often disregards the feelings of Mundson and Johnny, she’s ultimately faithful to the two men in her life.

Although this is Rita Hayworth’s most iconic film role, she only did a few other noir films after, most notably in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, where her trademark red locks were bleached blonde. This is her first film in the Criterion Collection, though her image here plays an important role in Mulholland Dr. Glenn Ford on the other hand is featured in two Criterion titles, Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma, both westerns directed by Delmer Daves. Prior to Gilda, Hayworth and Ford co-starred in two other films (one of which was directed by Charles Vidor) and later co-starred in two more films (with another film directed by Vidor).

Cinematographer Rudolph Maté gives the sunny setting of Buenos Aires are dark look with characters often lurking in the shadows, which is evident in scenes where Johnny is tailing Gilda. Much of the film takes place at night, so the locations are often dimly lit and further emphasize the mysterious interlinking pasts three main characters share. Maté also photographed Hayworth in the noir The Lady from Shanghai, and his work can be seen in Criterion titles Foreign Correspondent and To Be or Not to Be.

Gilda is the latest classic film noir to be added to the catalog, and I’m very excited for its release in January. Looking at Criterion’s other noir titles, it doesn’t have a lot of the same cynical or stylistic elements that the others share, but it’s a seminal noir nonetheless and is one of the most well-known films of its time.

I hope this inspired you to check out some great noir films featured in the Criterion Collection as we near the end of Noirvember. There are a few great titles here that I wouldn’t have discovered sooner if it wasn’t for Criterion, so I’m thankful to them for highlighting some underrated noir films in their expansive library.

As I mentioned earlier, I wrote this as a part of the Criterion Blogathon, where a ton of bloggers have been discussing many of the great films found in the collection. Click the banner below to read more entries from this past week!

11 thoughts on “Classic Film Noir in the Criterion Collection

  1. Pingback: Criterion Blogathon: Day 6 Recap | Silver Screenings

  2. Wow – incredible overview of some great noir titles. I like how you pointed out the notable things about each film, and you seem to do it unhurriedly. The result is an energetic tribute to Film Noir.

    If I ever run into anyone who wants to learn more about film noir, I’m going to send them here. A lot of sites cover noir and its context, history, etc., but your essay motives a person to watch these films right now!

    Thanks for joining the blogathon and for providing this comprehensive look at the Criterion noir titles.

    • Thank you so much for the kind words! And that was my goal – to motivate people to check out these great films as soon as possible.

      Congratulations on the blogathon success, and thanks for co-hosting it!

  3. Thank you for posting this. My first thought was the same as Ruth’s — comprehensive. This is almost encyclopedic, but written beautifully and enjoyable to read. It is no coincidence that some of my favorite Criterions are on this list. I like that you even included a recent release (Pink Horse) and an upcoming release (Gilda). Noir films are popular enough that Criterion cannot get the rights to a lot of the heavy hitters, but this sampling is a good representation of the genre.

    Again, thank you for participating! This is one of my favorite posts of the week.

    • Thank you, it was great seeing the trends in Criterion’s selection. And I couldn’t resist covering Gilda, a noir favorite.

      Congratulations on the blogathon, and thanks for co-hosting! Can’t wait to read everyone’s posts, the ones I’ve read have been spectacular.

  4. Pingback: Films in 2015: November | cinema cities

  5. Very well done, Keisha, and quite an entertaining read! As you know (I think), I love film noir, but each of your mini-reviews told me something about noir I hadn’t know before. I own almost all of these movies on DVD, seven of which are Criterion versions, but now I want to go out and buy the other seven on Criterion!

    My favorite of the bunch would have to be ‘Night and the City’…and yes, as promised, a look at ‘Ministry of Fear’, which we seemed to feel the same way about!

    • Thanks Todd! It was interesting seeing the trends in films noir that Criterion has selected for their catalog, I wonder what they’ll add next! Night and the City is a great one, I re-watched it in preparation for this post and really enjoyed it more the second time around, Richard Widmark is so good in it.

  6. Pingback: My First Year with Blogathons | cinema cities

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