Raymond Chandler is considered one of the fathers of noir for good reason. His wonderful creation, Philip Marlowe, is one of the most popular detectives in crime fiction, and all of his books were adapted for films. In my opinion, the best of these is The Big Sleep (1946) adapted from the Chandler novel of the same name and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It’s also directed by Howard Hawkes, one of the masters of that film period and his skill at directing such a sweeping, complex piece is firmly on display. Don’t let complex scare you away though. The point of The Big Sleep is in the journey taken to find out whodunit, not actually the “who” who “dunit,” so sit back and enjoy Bogey and Bacall at their best. For an updated version, you can try the 1978 adaptation starring Robert Mitchum.
The 1946 film adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, is another must see for noir fans. This classic was written by another master of the genre, James M. Cain and is actually the third adaptation (after one in French, and one in Italian), and the best known. John Garfield stars as a drifter who stops into the diner that Lana Turner’s character runs with her much older husband. Of course, a scorching affair ensues, and murder is soon plotted. Getting rid of Lana Turner’s husband is just the beginning of a life of bliss for the two lovers. What can possibly go wrong, right? Well, quite a lot can, actually, and it shows that fate and karma are too very fickle mistresses. This one is truly a classic and not to be missed.
Rear Window (1954) starring the incomparable James Stewart, Raymond Burr, and the beautiful Grace Kelly is another shouldn’t-be-missed classic. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and adapted from a 1942 short story by Cornell Woolrich called “It Had to Be Murder,” Rear Window is considered to be one of Hitchcock’s best and garnered four Academy Award nominations.
James Stewart plays photographer LB Jeffries who is confined in a wheelchair after breaking his leg during an assignment and spends the following summer at his window, watching his neighbors in their daily lives. Soon he witnesses a few things that lead him to believe that a murder has occurred, and the mystery is afoot. It’s a great mystery, and also a wonderful glimpse into the things people hide amidst their daily routines. Put this one on your must-see list, if it isn’t already.
Strangers on a Train (1951) is another Hitchcock classic based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel. Starring Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, and Robert Walker, it follows the story of two men who meet on a train and begin to realize that murder may be in each other’s interest. It’s also interesting to note that Raymond Chandler first drafted the screenplay for this film, although almost none of his work was used because of personality clashes between him and Hitchcock. Hitchcock would drag meetings on for hours with his verbosity, and Chandler just wanted to get down to business. Eventually things got so bad that Chandler was summarily dismissed. Oh, to be a fly on that wall…
Last, but certainly not least is City Streets (1931), based on a story by Dashiell Hammett. It may be one of the first major film noirs, and stars one of the film greats, Gary Cooper. If you’re looking for noir of the gangster sort, this is where to find it. Guns and molls abound and, because it was released before the implementation of the Hays Code in 1934, it contains violence and profanity (i.e., references to prostitution, the drug trade, and gang violence, among other things), that wouldn’t be seen again in movies until a few decades later. For more “pre-code” noir goodness, check out Underworld (1927), The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932), and Little Caesar (1931).
So there you have it, a few of my fave classic movies of noir. For a bit of extra fun, try Marlowe (1969) starring James Garner. If you’re a fan of his, you’ll love it, and it brings Chandler firmly into the ’60s, with hippies, go-go girls, Rita Moreno as a stripper, and a pre-star Bruce Lee. Loads of fun to be had!