Film noir started out as a distinctly low budget, B-movie phenomenon. In the forties and fifties, studios cranked out a seemingly unending series of cheapo thrillers to fill out the bottom of double bills. Many of these flicks were shot in a matter of weeks, or sometimes even days, and often barely cracked an hour in running time. While a lot of these one-hour toss-offs were instantly disposable and immediately forgettable, scattered among the dunghill were some diamonds.
When low-rent quickie assignments were put into the hands of talented filmmakers, in fact, the results were often more interesting than the big-budget two-hour A-list pictures which they were ostensibly designed to support. With minimal budgets and featuring only second-tier stars (or third- or fourth-tier “stars”), filmmakers found they had a great deal of creative freedom. If no one in the head office cared about the finished product, it stood to reason, then you could do what you wanted so long as you came in on time and on budget. In this fly-by-night world where less money equaled less oversight, film noir grew unimpeded by the usual restrictions on style, content, and moral turpitude.
Here then is an introduction to some of the most interesting entries on noir’s roster of one-hour mini-gems:
1. Detour-(1945)-65 minutes: Although Czech-born director Edgar G. Ulmer toiled in the lowest depths of the Hollywood machine—the cluster of zero-budget studios dubbed “Poverty Row”—his talent was unmistakable. His masterpiece, Detour, stars Tom Neal as a flat-broke piano player trying to get from New York to LA. He makes a catastrophic mistake when he steals a dead man’s car and then stops to give a lift to a psycho hitchhiker named Vera (played by the terrifying Ann Savage) who immediately sets to work ruining his life. The weakest antihero in noir meets the meanest femme fatale who ever lived in a one-hour-and-five-minute blast of bargain basement existentialism. Detour is noir stripped to its bare essentials, noir in its purest uncut form. A man, a woman, a few bucks, a couple of nights, liquor, cigarettes, death. Maybe it’s fate. Maybe it’s bad character. The only thing for certain is that it doesn’t matter.
2. The Devil Thumbs A Ride-(1947)-62 minutes: Another psycho hitchhiker flick, this time courtesy of b-movie specialist Felix E. Feist. Ted North plays an affable traveling salesman who stops to give a lift to wild man Lawrence Tierney and, in true noir fashion, has his kindness repaid in misery. Tierney commandeers the car, picks up some dames, runs over a cop, and strangles a girl in a lake. That’s before he steals North’s identity and tries to frame him for murder. This thing moves like a bullet and features real life nutjob Tierney’s definitive performance. Quentin Tarantino, who directed Tierney in Reservoir Dogs, once said “Devil Thumbs a Ride should really be called The Lawrence Tierney Story.”
3. The Threat-(1949)-66 minutes: Another Felix Feist joyride, this prison escape flick stars Charles McGraw as a thug named Kluger who busts out of Folsom and tracks down the cop who put him away. Our sympathy is naturally supposed to be with the stolid lawman, but all eyes are on the hypnotically nasty McGraw as he snarls his way through the picture and slaps around the rest of the cast.
4. Talk About a Stranger-(1952)-65 minutes: What a weird little movie. Talk About a Stranger is an unlikely, and uneasy, blend of a film noir and a children’s movie. A strange little boy growing up in the orange groves of Southern California becomes convinced that his neighbor is hiding something, maybe even murder. The movie’s secret weapon is cinematographer John Alton. The king of noir visuals, Alton turns this boy’s misadventure into something truly insidious and creepy.
5. Follow Me Quietly-(1949)-60 minutes: Obsessed cop William Lundigan hunts an elusive serial killer known as The Judge, a strangler who strikes randomly on rainy nights. Not a perfect film but gorgeously shot and well-acted. The Judge—who seems motivated in part by some mixed-up religious sense of purity and sin—is an uncanny foreshadowing of the character of John Doe in David Fincher’s 1995 neo-noir Se7en.
6. Armored Car Robbery-(1950)-67 minutes: Let’s start with that title. Has there ever been a less poetic name for a movie? Probably not, but it’s a perfect title for this movie because Armored Car Robbery is about as poetic as a kick in the teeth. It’s a hard, lean little thriller, and it’s every bit as nuanced as its title would suggest. Cop chases armored robbery gang. Heists get pulled, asses get kicked. Director Richard Fleischer also made Follow Me Quietly.
7. Night Editor-(1946)-68 minutes: A married cop (William Gargan) has an affair with a sexy socialite (Janis Carter), but one night as they’re parked down by the ocean they witness a man brutally murdering a young woman. Gargan wants to pursue the murderer, but Carter, who seems disturbingly turned-on by the dead body, stops him. She tells him he’ll lose his wife and child, his job, his whole life. Soon enough, Gargan is assigned to the case, only to discover that the murderer is a high society friend of Carter’s. Was she in on the murder? Or—even worse—was she so turned on by the brutality of the slaying that she fell in love with the killer? Underrated flick anchored by Carter’s performance as one of the sickest femme fatales on record.
8. My Name Is Julia Ross-(1945)-65 minutes: A young woman gets a job as a caretaker for a kindly old lady with a weirdo son. Two days later she wakes up in another house in other town with everyone calling her by a different name. Directed by the great Joseph H. Lewis and shot by ace noir cinematographer Burnett Guffey, this is an English mystery rendered in the noir style.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor