I’m not sure why there are so many noirs set around the holidays, but maybe it has something to do with seasonal depression. We all know that this time of year can be especially hard on people, when our usual American propensity toward surface cheer becomes something of a national obligation. After all, we quite literally force each other to be—or to appear to be—“merry” (which, when you think about it, is a weirdly antiquated word that we never use in any other context) and to conform to our national religion of positive thinking. All that forced good cheer just gives some folks the winter blues.
Ah, that’s where film noir comes in. As a genre, noir has always been about what’s found underneath the surface of safe and secure facades. Are you tired of the 24-hour The Christmas Story marathon? Don't have it in you to spend another Christmas with the Cranks, or Fred Claus, or Will Ferrell? Join the club. Maybe this year, try on some film noir to cleanse your holiday palate. Here's an overview of some films that are either Christmas themed noir or are holiday movies with a strong touch of the dark side. Either way, just about everyone on this list has been naughty.
7. I, the Jury (1953)
This 3D crime flick was the first adaptation of a Mike Hammer novel. Although it's hobbled by a weak central performance by Biff Elliot as Hammer, it features glorious cinematography by the undisputed mater of noir lighting, John Alton. It also features strong work from the beautiful Peggie Castle, one of our Hard Luck Ladies of Noir, as a psychotic femme fatale. Last, but certainly not least, it has noir stalwart Elisha Cook Jr. in a Santa suit. Let that last line sink in. Elisha Cook in a Santa suit.
6. Christmas Holiday (1944)
Don't let title, or the fact that this film stars Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin, fool you. This is 100% noir from the genre’s greatest director, Robert Siodmak. Adapted by Herman J. Mankiewicz from a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the film stars Durbin as a young woman locked into a destructive relationship with nutjob Kelly. Set almost entirely at night—and photographed by the superb Woody Bredell—it’s a gorgeous-looking film with a good supporting cast that includes Gale Sondergaard and Gladys George.
5. The Ice Harvest (2005)
Adapted from the brilliant novel by noir master Scott Phillips, this pitch black comedy features John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton as a couple of mobbed-up guys trying to rip-off Midwest criminal kingpin Randy Quaid. Dark, violent, and bitingly hilarious, it was directed by the great Harold Ramis and scripted by Richard Russo and Robert Benton. My favorite line comes from Thornton, reflecting about his very recently deceased wife, who may or may not have died at the hands of a hitman, “He actually threatened to shoot Gladys if I didn't tell him where the money was. But I think he was counting on a level of commitment and affection between her and me that just simply wasn't there.” Side suggestion: this would make a fine double feature with Bad Santa.
4. L.A. Confidential (1997)
Christmas, James Ellroy style. The film starts out on Christmas Eve, and all through the jailhouse not a creature is stirring…except a bunch of drunk cops who start a race riot and get the ball rolling on a chain of events that upend crime in Los Angeles. If you haven't seen this neo-noir classic lately, check it out again. It's even better than you remember.
3. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
2. Meet John Doe (1941)
You can see these films as Christmas Capra style, or you can see them as Capra noir-style. Either way, they are the director's darkest films. It's a Wonderful Life is such a part of the culture you can be forgiven if you think it's overexposed. But it's the closest thing America has produced to an indigenous A Christmas Carol, our very own myth of yuletide redemption. It's also a dark, dark film. The film's central passage sees Jimmy Stewart sink to suicidal despair, sees unregulated fat cat bankers destroy democracy, and even features Gloria Grahame as a whore. What's more noir than that? Even darker than It's a Wonderful Life, though, is Capra's Meet John Doe starring Gary Cooper as a man who promises to commit suicide by throwing himself off a building on Christmas Eve. It's not as formally perfect as It's a Wonderful Life, but it sees as even bleaker world beneath the holiday cheer.
1. Blast of Silence (1961)
Do you hate Christmas? Do you hate everything and everyone, including yourself? Then have I got the perfect holiday movie for you. It's actor/writer/director Allen Baron's existential hit man drama Blast of Silence. A small-time assassin wanders around New York during the holidays, waiting to fill a contract, not knowing that his end is coming soon. It’s a deeply impressive film packed full of tremendous visuals, interesting performances, and a snappy script. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the film is the rich visual expression Baron gives it. With a background in cartooning, he had an instinct for interesting compositions and, working with a light crew, he was able to move around New York City grabbing to-die for shots. The city has rarely looked better in a movie. The script also features fascinating narration, unlike any narration I think I’ve ever heard in a film. It’s a running second person commentary on the action (“You’re relaxing now, hands cold again. There’ll be a gun in them soon.”) voiced by the blacklisted character actor Lionel Stander. Its function is fascinating. Who is this narrator? As near as I can tell it’s an internal monolog but one which is disengaged from the killer himself. It’s not his consciousness talking to us (it’s not his voice, after all), it’s his unconsciousness talking to him. It does manage to deliver some of the greatest closing lines in all of noir, “You’re alone now, all alone. The scream is dead. There’s no pain. You’re home again, back in the cold black silence.” Quick, someone put that line in a Christmas carol.
Jake Hinkson is the author of several novels, including the newly-released The Big Ugly.
Read all of Jake Hinkson's posts for Criminal Element.