Category Archives: Film Noir

When Murder Smells Like Honeysuckle: 3 Noir Film Classics

How could I have known that murder
could smell like honeysuckle?
James M. Cain
Double Indemnity

No Spoilers

Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner, The Killers ©

American Film Noir was most prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, though films emulating that classic era are still being made (sometimes called Neo-noir to differentiate them from the original classics). Popular with audiences and often made by renowned directors like Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and Otto Preminger, the films were frequently based on hardboiled detective or crime fiction, such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, Film Noir explores morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. Usually, the male protagonist is more bad than good, although he mostly justifies his criminal or morally reprehensible behavior, or blames it on something (or someone) else. Film Noir features Voice-Over narration, mostly from the male protagonist’s perspective, keeping the viewers clearly on the side of that character since their worldview is usually limited to that of the doomed male.

Fred MacMurray & Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity ©

The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male wears suits or neatly pressed clothes, and is virtually always clean-shaven (day-old stubble, at most). He may be more experienced with this fists than with weapons, but he acquits himself admirably with a knife or a gun if the situation arises. Whether he’s a private investigator (The Maltese Falcon), a criminal (Little Caesar), a drifter (The Postman Always Rings Twice), or an unscrupulous insurance salesman (Double Indemnity), the male protagonist of Film Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex. He’s had some dubious dealings in the past that make him as morally ambiguous as the female protagonist: the femme fatale.

John Garfield & Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

The femme fatale is a woman of questionable moral virtue. She’s often contrasted with the “good girl” or the “girl next door” who loses the male to the dangerous femme. Beautiful and duplicitous, with Hollywood-worthy costumes, impeccable coiffures, and glamorous make-up, the femme fatale ensnares the male, who is so drawn to her that he will do anything — even commit murder — in order to possess her love. Sexual passion goes along with her love, of course, but the doomed male protagonist wants the femme’s love even more than he wants her sexual fidelity. When the male is as morally dubious as the female, the femme fatale can usually out-think and outmaneuver her male counterpart.

The Film Noir classics Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice were based on crime fiction novels written by James M. Cain. The Killers used Ernest Hemingway’s story of the same name to start the film, then supplied a gritty original screenplay with the characters’ back-story. Screenwriters, directors, and actors worked hard to keep the films as close to their literary inspiration as possible, giving audiences some of the best films ever made.

Double Indemnity
(1944)

Double Indemnity opens with a gun-shot insurance salesman, Walter (Fred MacMurray), sneaking into his company offices at night to record a confession, which becomes the characteristic Voice-Over for the remainder of the film. Wise-cracking, womanizing Walter relates his initial contact with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he flirts outrageously though she’s already married and, furthermore, offended by his behavior. Phyllis is not only physically striking: she’s a damsel in distress. Lonely and anxious, she’s worried about her husband’s dangerous job but helpless to protect him. When she discusses accident insurance, Walter becomes wary, but it’s too late: he’s already obsessed with the “dame.”

Fred MacMurray & Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity ©

With Phyllis’ reluctant help, Walter sets in motion a murderous plan to get the girl of his dreams and a huge pile of money from his own insurance company. To really reap the financial benefits, however, the husband’s “accident” needs to trigger the policy’s “double indemnity” clause, a provision for payment of double the face amount of the policy, payable only under certain specific and statistically rare conditions.

Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, & Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity ©

When Walter’s colleague, Insurance Investigator Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing against type as an honest man) and the victim’s daughter Lola get suspicious about the husband’s “accident,” Walter’s and Phyllis’ adulterous relationship and their forbidden love are severely tested.

With snappy dialogue and great acting, Double Indemnity has all the hallmarks of the Noir genre: atmospheric lighting, a morally dubious male protagonist, Voice-Over limiting the audience’s perspective to the male’s version of the tale, and the dangerously duplicitous femme fatale.

The film was closely adapted from James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, which is itself a classic of crime fiction, and which the author based on the true story of Ruth Snyder’s notorious 1920’s murder trial. Available for rent ($3.99 for 24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

The Postman Always Rings Twice
(1946)

When the unemployed, homeless drifter Frank (John Garfield) stops at a roadside diner, he’s immediately attracted to the owner’s curvaceous, long-legged, young wife Cora (Lana Turner, in her most famous role).

Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

Frank takes the job offered by diner-owner Nick (Cecil Kellaway) and begins pursuing Cora, who treats him with disdain. Soon, though, Cora, who married her older husband for security, begins to fall for Frank. The couple wants to be together for the rest of their lives, but Cora doesn’t want to run away and live a drifter’s life. She has ambitions “to be somebody.” Somebody who has an established home and income. Somebody who runs a successful diner. Somebody who is a widow rather than a penniless divorcée.

Lana Turner & John Garfield, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

After an initial “accident” goes awry, the lovers realize that neither of them is the type who could commit murder. Their attempt at a “trial separation” and a platonic relationship prove frustrating, however, and the two decide that life without each other may not be worth living. When outside parties who suspect nefarious goings-on at the diner intentionally pit the lovers against each other, Cora’s and Frank’s love is strained and their trust in each other frays. What are they willing to do for love, and can that love survive murder and betrayal?

The title has nothing to do with the story itself, neither in the James M. Cain novel nor in the film, though the film unsuccessfully attempts to force the title to fit by pretending, at the conclusion, that the “postman” is God, who’s not present anywhere else in the film.

Cain himself claimed that he chose the non-sequitur title because he had always been nervous after submitting a manuscript for publication, and noticed that his postman always rang twice. The Postman Always Rings Twice is available for rent ($3.99/24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

The Killers
(1946)

After the murder of quiet, industrious, unassuming gas station attendant “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster, in his first role) by contract killers, fellow townspeople are confused and frightened. Furthermore, they’re disconcerted by the fact that The Swede was apathetic and even nihilistic when warned of the killers’ presence and openly stated intention to murder him.

Burt Lancaster, The Killers ©

Intrigued by the reason behind the contract hit, insurance investigator Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) attempts to piece together Swede’s life story. For some bizarre reason never sufficiently explained in the film, Reardon turns “detective,” determined to unearth every aspect of Swede’s life.

Reardon discovers that Swede had plenty of secrets, including quite a few criminal missteps, any one of which could have, theoretically, gotten him killed.

Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner, The Killers ©

After learning about Swede’s involvement with the gorgeous and seductive girlfriend of a gangster, Reardon is convinced that Kitty Conway (Ava Gardener, in the first role that brought her extensive attention) had something to do with Swede’s death.

The killers in The Killers ©

The deeper Reardon delves into Swede’s past, however, the more endangered Reardon’s own life becomes, especially after he learns that Swede knew his killers personally. Can Reardon discover who ordered the hit on Swede — and why — before someone silences Reardon himself?

The first twenty minutes of The Killers is adapted directly from Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name, complete with the author’s distinctive dialogue (which then disappears from the film). The remainder of the Oscar-nominated screenplay is original. The Killers was considered a somewhat radical film when first released because it departed from the then-traditional narrative format and used flashbacks to tell the bulk of the story. Available for rent ($3.99/24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

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Shutter Island, the Film, Is Shuddery Good

No Spoilers

You probably recognize American Film Noir when you see it. Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, the films explore morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male protagonist wears suits and is virtually always clean-shaven (or sporting day-old stubble, at most). Though he’s had some dubious dealings in the past that make him morally ambiguous, he is almost always portrayed as the victim of a femme fatale, a woman of highly questionable moral virtue.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in 1947 Noir Classic, Out of the Past ©

Beautiful and duplicitous, the femme fatale ensnares the unwary male protagonist, who is so drawn to her that he will do anything — even commit murder — in order to possess her love. Sexual passion goes along with her love, of course, but the doomed male protagonists of Noir want the femme fatale’s love even more than they want her sexual fidelity.

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in Hitchcock’s Rebecca ©

Whether the male protagonist is a widower attempting to find happiness in his new marriage (Rebecca), a private investigator dealing with unscrupulous adventurers (The Maltese Falcon), or a drifter who gets involved in a murder conspiracy (The Postman Always Rings Twice), the male protagonist of Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex.

Neo-Noir pays homage to Noir classics, using “updated themes, content, style, visual elements, or media that were absent in film noir of the 1940s and 1950s.” Shutter Island, a 2010 neo-Noir film by Martin Scorsese, based on the 2003 bestseller by Dennis Lehane, is one of the more fascinatingly complex neo-noir films.

Mark Ruffalo (L) and Leonard DiCaprio (R) in Shutter Island ©

Though lacking the characteristic noir Voice-Over which limits the story to the male protagonist’s perspective, Shutter Island nevertheless keeps the audience focus firmly restricted to the story of US Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio). On assignment in 1954 with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy is investigating the disappearance of a female inmate of Shutter Island: a psychiatric facility isolated in Boston Harbor and housing the most dangerous of the criminally insane.

Marshals Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, L) and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, R) heading for Shutter Island ©

On Shutter Island, psychiatrists and nurses, led by the facility’s Director, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), are ostensibly using revolutionary psychotropic drugs and intensive psychotherapy — along with “empathy” — to treat the dangerous inmates.

Director of Shutter Island, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) ©

All of the doctors and staff are extremely uncooperative with the law officers, however, leading Teddy to suspect that something nefarious is happening on the Island, especially at the Lighthouse, which guards refuse to let the Marshals enter.

The Lighthouse on Shutter Island ©

Haunted by his experiences as a soldier liberating the Nazi concentration camp Dachau,

American soldier liberate Dachau in Shutter Island ©

as well as by the death of his belovèd wife Dolores (Michelle Williams),

Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) in Shutter Island ©

Teddy is determined not only to find the missing inmate, Rachel, who disappeared from a locked cell on a locked ward, but to unearth Shutter Island’s sinister — perhaps criminal — secrets.

Teddy and Chuck, attempting to reach the Shutter Island Lighthouse ©

Ultimately, like all neo-noir protagonists, Teddy becomes “trapped in a difficult situation” and is “forced to make choices out of desperation.”

Leonard DiCaprio as Teddy in Shutter Island ©

Suspenseful and gripping, Shutter Island ultimately becomes heartbreaking — even if you think you’ve guessed the ending about halfway through — mostly because of Leonardo DiCaprio’s incredibly powerful performance as the noble but flawed Teddy.

Rated R for mature subject matter, Shutter Island received mostly positive critical reviews and has become Scorsese’s second-highest grossing film worldwide, earning over $294M. It’s available for rent for $2.99-3.99 from Amazon, from iTunes, and from YouTube.

 

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Some Scary Films for a Really Scary Halloween

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October is #ScaryMovieMonth and Halloween is one of the best nights to gather and watch scary movies with friends. Whether you like classic horror films or spine-tingling suspense films, here are some of the best films for Halloween. From horror films that have become classics and suspense films that are scary in horrific ways without being horror, to Noir films that are so bad they’re scary bad, you’re sure to find something to enjoy on Halloween.

Horror Classics

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If you want horror films that have become classics in the genre, my 7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World will delight you. From Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining to Gary Oldman’s in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, from Nicole Kidman’s frightened widow-with-children in The Others  to the super-scary children of Let Me In and The Orphan, these top films are sure to have someone hiding under the covers. Shriek away, my Lovelies.

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7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World

Scary Suspense Films

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Prefer suspense films for your scary Halloween fare? There are seven top-notch suspense films that are thought-provoking and spine-tingling. They may not have ghosts, but then again, they may, as in Guillermo del Toro’s critically acclaimed The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone. Want something meatier for Halloween? Try Open Grave. Don’t want anything but psychological thrills? Check out The Bad Seed or The Innocents or Identity. Shivers and shudders galore, my Lovelies.

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7 Suspense Films for Halloween

Comedy Noir

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Perhaps you’re having a party this Halloween and need some films to entertain your guests without distracting them from socializing. These 5 Noir films are just what you need playing in the background. They’re Noir, but they’re bad Noir, as in really bad Noir, as in so bad in every way imaginable that, despite their attempts at menace and horror, the films become funny. From DeForest Kelly’s film debut as the hypnotized victim who thinks he committed a murder in Fear in the Night to Anne Baxter’s scenery-chomping role as an Insane-Asylum-Inmate-Saved-By-Her-Doctor-And-Terrified-Of-Birds in Guest in the House, from the multiple marriages in The Bigamist to the identity-stealing-husband in The Man with My Face, you’ll laugh till you cry with these five unintentionally comedic Noirs.

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A Comedy of Noir: 5 Must-See Films

Happy Halloween, my Lovelies.

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A Comedy of Noir: 5 Must-See Films

No Spoilers

Two silhouetted figures in The Big Combo (1955). The film's cinematographer was John Alton, the creator of many of film noir's stylized images. from Wikipedia

You probably recognize American Film Noir when you see it. Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, the films explore morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. Usually, the protagonists are more bad than good, although they mostly justify their criminal or morally reprehensible behavior, or blame it on something (or someone) else.

440px-lady_from_shanghai_trailer_rita_hayworth6 (Wiki)

Film Noir features Femmes Fatales, women of questionable moral virtue. Beautiful and duplicitous, with Hollywood costumes, impeccable coiffures, and glamorous make-up, the femme fatale ensnares unwary males who are so drawn to her that they will do anything — even commit murder — in order to possess her love. Sexual passion goes along with her love, of course, but the doomed male protagonists of Film Noir want the femme fatale’s love even more than they want her sexual fidelity.

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Whether he’s a private investigator (The Maltese Falcon), a criminal (Little Caesar), a convict (The Postman Always Rings Twice), an unwary insurance salesman (Double Indemnity), a government investigator (The Stranger), or an unfortunate victim of circumstance (D.O.A.), the male protagonist of Film Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex. The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male wears suits and is virtually always clean-shaven (day-old stubble, at most). He may be more experienced with this fists than with weapons, but he acquits himself admirably with a knife or a gun if the situation arises. The male protagonist has had some dubious dealings in the past that make him as morally ambiguous as the femme fatale, but the male is almost always portrayed as the victim of the femme. Film Noir features Voice-Over narration, mostly from the male protagonist’s perspective, keeping the viewers clearly on the side of that character, since their worldview is limited to that of the doomed male.

lonelyplacetrailer Wiki

 American Film Noir was most prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, though films emulating that classic era are still being made (sometimes called Neo-noir to differentiate them from the classics). Many of the Film Noir of that period were based on hardboiled detective or crime fiction, such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon; James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity,The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce; Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely;  Cornell Woolrich’s story “It Had to be Murder” (as Rear Window) and novel I Married a Dead Man (made into several film versions, all with titles different from the novel as well as from the previous films), and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

Film Noir was not only popular with audiences, it was made by renowned directors: Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, this is a disputed title in the Film Noir canon), Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend), Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train and Rear Window), and Otto Preminger (Laura and Angel Face). Unfortunately, Hollywood does not live by critical acclaim alone. It is an industry that thrives more on earnings than on awards. Enter a slew of films imitating the popular classics of Film Noir.

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Some of these imitators are bad, really bad, so bad that they actually manage to become amusing, although they are unintentionally so. Most often made by and starring unknown talents, Comedy Film Noir is often in black-and-white, but marred by jarring soundtracks, claustrophobic sets, and fragmented cinematography techniques that are ostensibly attempting to symbolize fractured or fragmented psychological states (see the Joan Crawford photo above).

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The femmes in these films are never sans makeup, and they sometimes change glamor gowns between takes of the same scene, jolting viewers out of the fictional world. Their back-seamed stockings never have snags or runs,

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négligées and peignoirs abound,

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and kitten-heels are de rigeur, even in the boudoir and powder room.

The doomed male protagonists usually appear in suit-and-tie, sometimes wearing the same suit throughout the entire film (sans wrinkles, of course, and sometimes with a rather casual belt), ocassionally sporting two-tone Oxfords that “scream vintage.” Our male protagonists wear their Oxfords with bathrobes, too.

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Male or female, the characters have the best-coiffed hair in history, and their hair never moves, no matter how fast they’re driving in convertibles, or how hard the tree branches above them are shaking.

Combine all of the above-named elements, throw in lots of inappropriate touching and panicked grabbing, season with sappy or melodramatic dialogue, and you’re heading deep into Comedy Noir territory.

In an attempt to restore dignity to some of these forgotten films, I’ve put together a short list of some of the more interesting Comedy Noirs, presented here in no particular order, with their prize-winning attributes at the end of each selection.

Drumroll…

And the Winners are…

♦♦♦

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Fear in the Night
(1947)

Operating on the fallacious premise that hypnotism can make people do things against their morals and their will, Fear in the Night is one of the more unintentionally humorous Noir films. From bizarro cinematic techniques to jarring music, the film features some of the best bad acting Hollywood has to offer. Virtually every scene takes place in a claustrophobically tight set, as if the director thought he was staging a play. The femmes don’t scream or shriek in this film, but that doens’t meant they’re not melodramatic.

Featuring DeForest Kelly in his film debut as the stone-faced, glassy-eyed protagonist forced to commit murder and then trapped in a nightmare of amnesia, his Voice-Over is just like the classics in Film Noir, only without any distinguishing or memorable characteristics.

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Winner
Silliest Noir

Fear in the Night

♦♦♦

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Guest in the House
(1944)

Anne Baxter does a scenery-damaging job in this psychological noir. As the Insane-Asylum-Inmate-Rescued-By-Her-Doctor, Baxter chews up more curtains, pillows, bedclothes, and men’s suit lapels than you can imagine. If the women’s Bride of Frankenstein‘s coiffures don’t have you laughing till the tears come, then the scenes with the bird are sure to slay you.

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From the time Baxter arrives are her fiancé-doctor’s family home to the time she decides she wants the house and the already-married-brother-in-law, you’ll be wondering how the other actors got through the scenes without rolling their eyes. The diary scenes are especially cringe-worthy, but the finale, with the birds, makes it all worthwhile.

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Winner
Scenery-Chewing Noir

Guest in the House

♦♦♦

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The Bigamist
(1953)

With an all-star cast to die for, including Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino (who also directed), Edmund Gwenn, and Edmund O’Brien, you’d think this film would have been a clear Oscar contender. Instead, the suspense fizzles out by the time you see the title: The Bigamist. Instead of viewers wondering what the protagonist is going to do about the two women he loves, the only mystery is how many times the women in his life can give him escape routes which he stupidly fails to take.

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This one will have you rollicking in the aisles by the time all the protagonists end up in court, if only because of their expressions during the judge’s didactic speech.

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Winner
Star-filled Noir Trifle

The Bigamist

♦♦♦

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The Last Movie:
A Film Noir
(2012)

The Last Movie is ostensibly an American film about people trying to make an American film which will be a remake of a Russian film which is an adaptation of the classic American film noir, Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, only nobody making the American remake of the Russian adaptation ever acknowledges the original classic.

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More about trying to make a film than an actual interesting film itself, the sound alone  in The Last Movie is bad enough to be laughable. Each and every single line in the film, dialogue or monologue, Russian or English, is repeated about 3 lines later, in the background, like people talking in a cinema while you’re trying to watch a movie. You’ll want to turn around in your seat and punch somebody. Each and every single line in the film, dialogue or monologue, Russian or English, is repeated about 3 lines later, in the background, like people talking in a cinema while you’re trying to watch a movie. You’ll want to turn around in your seat and punch somebody. Laugh every time you catch yourself trying to figure out what they’re saying in the background when you just heard it about a half-minute earlier, in the foreground.

Winner
American Film about American Film adapted from
Russian Film based on American Noir Film Classic

The Last Movie: A Film Noir

♦♦♦

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The Man with My Face
(1951)

Despite the intriguing jpremise of a man’s returning home one day only to discover an identical look-alike has taken over his life, The Man with my Face, starring Barry Nelson as the horrified and confused protagonist as well as the nasty antagonist, quickly tosses out the suspense when it reveals which man is the imposter.

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The special effect of the Doppleganger is marred by always being blurry, but at least the director was trying to doing something unusual in an age before CGI made it all so much easier. Blackmailers run amok in this film, and all the femmes, whether fatale or not, display mucho bare shoulders, perfectly coiffed hairdos that never move in the wind, and the requisite kitten-heels.

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Most of the characters try to talk each other to death, if only because Attack-Doggie got bored and refused to cooperate until his agent negotiated a raise. If you’re not laughing by the time the protagonist attempts to muss up his crew-cut during the climactic shoot-out, you’re not paying attention.

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Special award for the Doggie.

Winner
Noir with Doberman

The Man with My Face

Note: Some of these films are available free on the internet, but please don’t support piracy of intellectual property. None of these films is in the public domain, and should not be posted in their entirety. Most of the films listed in this post are available for cheap (rent or purchase) on Amazon: all are available for free viewing to Prime members.

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