November is the month wherein movie lovers, programmers, and critics turn their attention to the genre of film noir — Noirvember as it’s come to be known. While the main impetus for this is undoubtedly the hashtag-friendly wordplay of the name, there really is no time of the year that better reflects the aesthetics of the genre than these long, dark days of fall.
While the precise definition of what makes a film noir is up for debate, one of the agreed-upon conditions is a heavy atmosphere of cynicism, fatalism, and doom. This is especially true of the noirs of the 1950s.
More than just the current season, these films are evocative of this larger moment in American history. And while reducing them to mere analogs for today’s headlines would devalue them, they nonetheless serve as cracked mirrors reflecting the current state of the world — a world steeped in paranoia and pessimism.
With that in mind, here are five film noirs of the 1950s that are as relevant today as when they first came out.
In A Lonely Place (1950)
The second decade of film noir kicked off with one of the most emotionally devastating examples of the entire movement, Nicholas Ray’s (very, very, very) loose adaptation of Dorothy B. Hugh’s equally influential novel of the same name.
The film traces the doomed romance between Hollywood screenwriter Dixon “Dix” Steele (Humphrey Bogart in what may be his best performance) and his next-door neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame in what is definitely hers). The two meet after Dix is picked up for questioning in the strangulation of a young woman last seen in his company. Laurel, who saw the girl leave his apartment, provides him with an alibi, though by no means an airtight one.
Despite the cloud of suspicion that hangs over Dix, Laurel begins a blissful love affair with him — until she begins to have doubts about his innocence after all. What’s remarkable about the film is that it eschews the standard expectations of its genre: Laurel’s suspicions don’t come about due to holes in his story or new pieces of physical evidence, but rather from Dix revealing his true self over time — his possessiveness, his anger and jealousy, and the quickness with which he resorts to violence. This is all compounded by rumors of Dix’s past history of domestic abuse.
The revelation of the killer takes a backseat to deeper questions regarding human nature: Can someone ever truly change, or do our personalities and past actions dictate our ultimate fate? The answer, at least to anyone who’s the least bit familiar with noir, should be obvious.
As current-day Hollywood finds itself reckoning with men whose history of misogyny and abuse are finally catching up with them, In A Lonely Place offers a haunting examination of the tragedy of it all, in which the actions of the Dix Steeles of the world leave a trail of broken hearts — those belonging to their friends, their colleagues, their partners, and especially their victims — in their wake.
Ace In The Hole (1951)
Speaking of men like Dix Steele, Kirk Douglas stars in the next film on our list, playing Chuck Tatum, a narcissistic, unscrupulous newspaper reporter who finds himself exiled to a small New Mexico publication. There he happens upon an amateur treasure hunter (Richard Benedict) trapped in a collapsed mine shaft deep within a mountain said to be cursed by ancient Indian spirits.
Tatum is able to spin the story into the biggest break of his career, attracting so many gawking tourists in the process that a makeshift town springs up around the mountain in which the treasure hunter remains trapped. While everyone involved seeks to profit from the misfortunes of the buried man, Tatum goes even further. Despite telling his young protégée, “I don’t make things happen, all I do is write about them,” he maneuvers to have the rescue operation prolonged, in order to drag out the story so he can squeeze it for all it’s worth. This leads to tragedy, and by the time Tatum realizes what he’s done, it’s too late to fix it.
Billy Wilder helped define the genre of film noir with Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). While those movies take a dark view of humanity, they seem downright utopian compared to Ace in the Hole, a film that few others of any era can match for sheer misanthropy (perhaps only 1957’s one-two combo of A Face in the Crowd and The Sweet Smell of Success).
While those who parrot Donald Trump’s “Fake News” refrain would be quick to see their own mistrust of the media reflected back at them by Wilder’s film, the movie is less interested in indicting the press than American society as a whole — from the big-city sharks who manufacture sensationalist stories, to the forces of capitalism that exploit it for financial gain, to the small-town rubes who can’t get enough of it.
Pickup On South Street (1953)
Moving from a film about a newspaper man operating as a force for evil to one made by a newspaper man who represented all that was righteous in his day, we come to this subtly satirical thriller from Sam Fuller. Fuller moved into motion pictures from a long career in newspapers, an experience he drew from in order to imbue his films with the tight, punchy economy of the best hard-boiled reportage, as well as to provide a sense of verisimilitude to the way his shady characters operated.
The shady character at the center of Pickup on South Street is Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), a professional pickpocket — or “cannon” — who’s already been sent upstate three times, and is looking down the barrel of a life sentence should he get busted again. Being the overly cocky, utter nihilist that he is, Skip doesn’t let that stop him from robbing the beautiful Candy (Jean Peters), a subway commuter who is acting as courier for a mysterious deal put together by her ex-boyfriend Joey.
Neither Skip nor Candy are aware that she’s been tasked with delivering the patent for a deadly chemical, stolen from the government at the behest of Soviet infiltrators. In short order, they have both the law and the reds gunning for them.
Film noir, with narratives rife with tales of espionage, served as the ideal platform for anti-communist propaganda. Fuller, however, was too smart and too cynical to give in to simple red-baiting. Pickup on South Street makes its sharpest points when laughing in the face of calls to patriotism (asked by a Fed if he’s truly willing to sell out his own country, Skip scoffs “You waving the flag at me?”) or pointing out the general ignorance of the populace (a professional police informant — or “stoolie” — remarks, “What do I know about Commies? Nothing. I know one thing — I just don’t like them!”)
Still, the film finds the humanity in its small-time hustlers, who, in the end, do the right thing not out of patriotic or moral duty, but to protect and avenge one another. This honor amongst crooks is what separates them from the real criminals like Joey, who recalls, in all of his sweaty, desperate, foolish maneuvering, any number of young upstarts within the Trump administration, who stand accused (officially or unofficially) of colluding with Russia. While many have placed their hope in the diligence and intelligence of the Fed leading the grand-jury investigation into these real-life traitors, we could use someone like Richard Widmark to simply hand them a world-class beating.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Often regarded as the first postmodern noir, Kiss Me Deadly remains one of the most shocking movies ever produced by a major studio. Panned and ignored upon release, it has since proven to be one of the most influential films of any era, that influence noticeable in films as iconic and varied as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Repo Man, Pulp Fiction, and Seven.
The film is an adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s bestselling Mike Hammer detective novels. Hammer served as an avatar for male power fantasies of his day, as well as the prototype for just about every vigilante antihero who would come later, from Dirty Harry, to Death Wish’s Paul Kersey, to Marvel Comics’ Frank Castle (aka The Punisher).
What makes Aldrich’s film so ahead of its time is that it managed to subvert not only the tropes of the genre, but also the fascist ideology at the heart of Spillane’s most famous creation. Here, Hammer, as played by Ralph Meeker — the walking picture of placid amorality, unflappable but for the traces of boyish sadism that surface when he’s putting the hurt on someone — is reduced to a vain, greedy, stupid private dick who is only interested in finding his next big score.
He gets a line on that score from a hitchhiker fleeing a cabal of shadowy forces hunting for the “Great Whatsit” (as his secretary/mistress Velda dubs it), the object they are committed to acquiring even at the cost of a potential holocaust.
Kiss Me Deadly is noir as apocalyptic fever dream. It is more fatalistic than even the Book of Revelation, as the seventh seal found here is opened not to fulfill any divine prophecy, but out of sheer stupidity and greed. While the black humor of the ending plays as outrageously today as it ever has, watching our atomic fears come to fruition at the hands of a vapid, mercurial blond idiot has become an all-too-real possibility.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
While this film may not seem as outwardly apocalyptic as the the previous one, it manages to feel even more hopeless in context — here is a movie that can be termed pre-apocalyptic not in its concerns with the death of all human life, but rather the death of the human spirit. If Kiss Me Deadly posited that our stupidity and greed are what will doom us in the end, Odds Against Tomorrow lays its money on the true culprit being our limitless penchant for resentment. Here, as so often is the case in real life, that resentment comes in the form of racial hatred.
The plot of the movie and its central crime is deceptively simple: a disgraced ex-cop has a “full-proof” plan to rob a poorly guarded small-town bank. It’s a three-man job, with the logistics of the operation requiring one of them to be black.
On the surface, the team recruited seems perfect. Slater (noir staple Robert Ryan) is a hot-tempered, two-time convict on the wrong side of middle age with no means of support save his girlfriend’s charity. Ingram (Harry Belafonte) is a slick young jazz musician awash in gambling debt and estranged from his family. The two are equally adept, serious, and trustworthy (as far as thieves go), and neither has anywhere else to turn. They should be able to pull off the job with relative ease, but, as is always the case in film noir, fate has other ideas.
These two despise each other from the moment they meet, and their shared racial animus will eventually set off a literal powder keg that swallows them both up in flames.
What gives Odds Against Tomorrow extra bite is that, as we watch Ingram interact in everyday society, we’re shown a picture of harmonious integration that seems almost too good to be true. The white people he comes into contact with all come off as sincerely friendly — including the police. The film subtly establishes the kind of world that Martin Luther King would describe from his dreams four years later … before it blows it all to hell shortly after Ingram is introduced to Slater.
As personified by Ryan, Slater is the picture of wounded — and therefore dangerous — white masculinity. Feeling that he’s been screwed over by life, he mopes around, showing nothing but disdain for everyone he encounters (save, surprisingly, a little black girl he runs into at the beginning of the film, with whom he is genuinely playful, even as he blithely addresses her by a racial epithet). He lashes out violently at the slightest provocation, and he only ever seems genuinely engaged when hurting someone or describing what it feels like to take a life. He saves the brunt of his misanthropy for Ingram, and in doing so, we see how Slater’s particular style of white-man’s-burden racism is used as a means of transference for his bottomless fear and self-hate.
Ingram, meanwhile, falls into a similar psychological trap. While the film never tries to draw an equivalence between him and Slater (Ingram, while distrusting of white society, is not an antisocial racist), his desire for revenge during the film’s final moments overtakes his instinct for survival.
Odds Against Tomorrow is a prescient movie in more ways than one. Stylistically, it shows traces of the jarring editing and moody non sequiturs that would come to be a defining feature of first the European new wave, and later the films of New Hollywood. But more than that, it’s remarkable in how it seems able to look past the hope of the nascent civil rights movement of its day, into to the violent, bitter years that came afterward, the same in which this era of American Carnage is currently mired.
Odds Against Tomorrow serves as a fiery, if solemn, exclamation point to an era where the movies captured our deepest worries about who we were as nation, and our biggest fears about what we were to become.
Happy Noirvember, everyone.
Zach Vasquez lives in the shadowy underworld of Los Angeles.