Shadow plays

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996


More movies should contain these things: dirty money, double-crossing dames, dark alleys, corrupt tycoons, fall guys, hired goons, lust, treachery, murder.

The argument over which is the first film noir movie will go on forever, but for our purposes it's "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), directed by John Huston. There's something essential about Humphrey Bogart with gun and trenchcoat getting the drop on Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr.

"This Gun for Hire" (1942), directed by Frank Tuttle, has Alan Ladd doing a sinister turn as a gunman out for revenge. Veronica Lake and her peek-a-boo hairdo are on hand to complicate things.

"Double Indemnity" (1944), based on the James M. Cain novel and directed by Billy Wilder, is one of the great American movies. The plot of the weak man roped in to a murder by the amoral woman has been used often, but never better.

"Detour" (1945), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, takes advantage of its low budget in this tale of a drifter falling in with a scheming woman. The phone cord death scene, however, is slightly ludicrous.

"Mildred Pierce" (1945), directed by Michael Curtiz from the novel by James M. Cain, starts off a bit soapy in this story of an ambitious working woman. But it takes some deliciously sinister twists by the end.

"The Big Sleep" (1946) had Howard Hawks directing Humphrey Bogart in the Raymond Chandler classic. If that's not a knockout combo, there's also major chemistry between Bogie and Lauren Bacall.

"The Killers" (1946), directed by Robert Siodmak and based tangentially on an Ernest Hemingway short story, put Burt Lancaster through the shadowy paces. Terrific soundtrack is by Miklos Rozsa, who died July 27, 1995.

Finally in 1946, John Garfield blew into Lana Turner's greasy spoon and found murder on the menu in "The Postman Always Rings Twice." Novelist James M. Cain cooked this one up.

"Out of the Past" (1947), directed by Jacques Tourneur, gave Robert Mitchum a turn to wear the trenchcoat. Mitchum's nemesis in a deadly love triangle is Kirk Douglas, seen here in full snarl.

"Key Largo" (1948), directed by John Huston, finds Humphrey Bogart eyeball to eyeball with Edward G. Robinson in a seedy hotel as a hurricane roars in. Robinson is a gangster on the run and Bogie is the man to stop him.

"Gun Crazy" (1949), directed by Joseph H. Lewis, shoots off kinky sparks when nebbishy John Dall meets up with gun kitten Peggy Cummins and they take to the highways on a crime career. A raft of lovers-on-the-lam-with-guns movies starts right here.

"The Big Heat" (1953), directed by Fritz Lang, features bad girl actress Gloria Graham as an underworld moll who becomes informant for crusading cop Glenn Ford. Lee Marvin is the eminently hissable gangster.

"A Kiss before Dying" (1956), directed by Gerd Oswald from Ira Levin's novel, is about a social climbing man willing to murder to have entre to the country club life, Robert Wagner is the suave fellow with the black heart.

"Harper" (1966), directed by Jack Smight with Paul Newman as novelist Ross MacDonald's private eye, is a bit self-consciously smartass. But intriguing plot about a missing millionaire and tart supporting performances put it over the top.

"Point Blank" (1967), an early outing by director John Boorman, is completely dominated by Lee Marvin in full underworld glower as a shooting victim who survives, then sets out for revenge.

"In the Heat of the Night" (1967), directed by Norman Jewison and drenched with Oscars, wore its civil rights conscience on its sleeve. Sidney Poitier deigns to help sort out skullduggery and murder in a hick Southern town where swag- bellied, gum-chewing, wet-armpits Rod Steiger wears the badge.

"The Honeymoon Killers" (1970), directed by Leonard Kastle, featured the rotund Shirley Stoler and smarmy Tony LoBianco as the couple whose crime was to lure lonelyhearts women into marriage with LoBianco, kill them, and take their money. If there is such a thing as sleazy art, this is its acme.

"Chinatown" (1974), directed by Roman Polanski, planted private eye Jack Nicholson in a convoluted puzzler about Californians in a murder plot involving water rights. John Huston and Faye Dunaway have an interesting relationship.

"The Conversation" (1974) starred Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert trying to stay sane in a world of extreme paranoia. Coppola directed this sophisticated masterpiece about a man losing his grip.

"Night Moves" (1975), directed by Arthur Penn, has Gene Hackman as private detective tracking runaway girl to the Florida Keys and finding sinister plots. Beneath surface calm there's disturbing undercurrents.

"The Late Show" (1977), directed by Robert Benton, mixes noir elements with New Age goofiness as aging private eye Art Carney finds he must team up with hippie-dippy Lily Tomlin to solve murder of his partner.

"Body Heat" (1981) was a conscientious tribute to film noir by first-time director Lawrence Kasdan with William Hurt as a lustful lawyer lured into murder scheme by femme fatale Kathleen Turner. The ending is slightly ruthless.

"True Confessions" (1981), directed by Ulu Grosbard, is a complex and and unsettling tale of seamy underside of upper crust Catholic society in Los Angeles. Cop Robert Duvall and priest Robert DeNiro are brothers who know all the secrets.

The Coen brothers' "Blood Simple" (1984) became an instant classic of the genre in story of two corners of triangle out to kill the third. Camera work is too, too clever. M. Emmet Walsh is uproariously scuzzy.

"The Grifters" (1990), based on a Jim Thompson novel, has scam artists galore, an unhealthy mother-son relationship, and a sadistic gangster who does quite a trick with oranges. Stephen Frears directed and the top shelf cast includes John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and Annette Bening. This is as "bad" as it gets.

"After Dark, My Sweet" (1990), based on another Jim Thompson novel, is fascinating not so much for its perfunctory kidnapping plot but for its performances by Jason Patric as a punch-drunk drifter and Bruce Dern as the unsavory "Uncle Bud."

"Red Rock West" (1994) introduced director John Dahl, a promising film noir revivalist. In this outing, Nicolas Cage is the drifter who is mistaken for a hitman the minute he blows into some huckburg. He plays along to score the dough, but then the real hitman, Dennis Hopper, shows up and the fun begins.

Director Dahl all but trumped himself in 1995 with "The Last Seduction," featuring Linda Fiorentino in a star-making turn as a female con artist whose hard-boiled exterior conceals a heart of stone.


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