08/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Best "Under the Radar" Film Noir by Farr

Getting a little tired of all that bright sun? Is it getting a little hot for you? I get it. Sometimes it's nice to go someplace dark and cool, where nobody knows you. Only -- just because they don't know you, doesn't mean they'd either want to know you, or care if something bad happened to you.

In fact, they might want something bad to happen, only you don't know it, because you haven't figured their angle yet. You don't know how desperate people can become, sometimes until it's too late. That's why when you go to the dark and cool places, you have to keep looking behind you, and still you may just break out in a cold sweat.

Welcome to film noir, indeed a world unto its own. In my book, this type of picture, done right, has always deserved the highest of praise, because even though they were mostly "B" pictures with miniscule budgets and none of today's techno-gadgetry to rely on, they made up for it in their yarns, their patter, and their atmosphere. That doesn't take money or gimmicks so much as sweat and inspiration.

So let's go for a ride and visit my picks for the top ten noirs of all time. These choices are strictly under the radar -- no better-known, glossy "A" entries like "The Maltese Falcon", "Double Indemnity", "The Woman In The Window", "The Big Sleep", or even "The Asphalt Jungle". I adore and admire these flicks of course, but it'd be too easy, too predictable, see? And "easy" is a word you use sparingly in the land of noir; as for "predictable", it's not even in the vocabulary.

10) Kiss Me Deadly (1955) - Private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) seeks the killers of a blonde hitchhiker abducted from her car on a dark, isolated road, only to cross paths with a gangster (Paul Stewart) and a duplicitous scientist (Albert Dekker). The trail of mysteries eventually leads to the contents of a stolen box which Hammer's secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) describes as "The Great Whatsit." All bets are off as the film builds to its climax. Young director Robert Aldrich (who'd go far) comes close to noir perfection with "Kiss Me Deadly", transferring the pulp flavor of Mickey Spillane's books to the screen. Spillane's battered hero, private eye Mike Hammer, (with Meeker ideally cast), represents the true noir protagonist, devoid of pretension or romance. His fundamental, unwavering concern is for his own-and his client's-survival, and there's plenty to be concerned about. Ahead of its time when released, "Deadly" is a tense, thrilling masterpiece of Cold War paranoia.

9) Kansas City Confidential (1952) - Corrupt ex-cop Timothy Foster (Preston Foster) recruits three heavies for an armored-car robbery that goes off without a hitch. The authorities mistakenly nab ex-con Joe Rolfe (John Payne), however, since his delivery truck is identical to the one used in the job. Joe is not too happy about the confusion, and goes looking for the perpetrators down in Mexico. Made with limited resources, this tightly plotted caper film is gripping and memorable for introducing an ingenious trick into the world of noir: Foster has his men hide their faces with masks so none of them can identify each other at any time. (Decades later, Tarantino adapted this plot point for "Reservoir Dogs.") Under Phil Karlson's direction, Payne (who began his career as a romantic lead) is appropriately steely as Joe, and Coleen Gray alluring as his gal, but it's the mean, malevolent turns by Foster, Lee Van Cleef, Neville Brand, and Jack Elam that make "Confidential" so diabolically good. By all means, don't keep this sleeper confidential.

8) Kiss of Death (1947) - Pinched in a Manhattan jewelry heist, Joe Bianco (Victor Mature) faces a tough choice: He can rat out his accomplices to assistant DA D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy) or spend 15 to 20 in the clink, far from his two young daughters. Joe loves his family, but he's no stool pigeon, and elects to do the time. But after a tragic event, he changes his mind and makes parole. Joe settles into a quiet, honest life with his new wife, Nettie (Coleen Gray), until a vicious mobster he testified against, Tom Udo (Richard Widmark), is unexpectedly released, forcing him to meet the threat head-on. Scripted by the great Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, this taut gangster thriller is chilling and literate, with consummate performances by Mature (at his dour best as unwilling squealer Bianco) and co-stars Donlevy, Gray, and a young Karl Malden. But the film is best remembered for launching the career of Widmark, never creepier than here, playing a sadistic criminal with a cackling laugh. Director Henry Hathaway handles the noir elements with expert attention to detail, filming the stark action on-location in 1940s New York City. For a gritty, hard-hitting crime drama, pucker up for "Kiss of Death."

7) D.O.A (1950) - A CPA and all-around "regular Joe", Frank Bigelow ( Edmond O'Brien) decides to leave his small town for a fun weekend jaunt to San Francisco. There, for reasons unknown. he is, in effect, gradually murdered by unknowingly ingesting a slow-acting poison. Upon discovery of the act, he takes on the mind-bending duty of investigating his own murder. Question is, will he find the culprit in time? O'Brien's steely, measured lead performance as an everyman caught in an authentic nightmare, a terse, biting script, and director Rudolf Mate's assured but unobtrusive camerawork make this entry a cult favorite for the ages. Don't miss it, and whatever you do, avoid the inferior remake. Who needs it, when the original "D.O.A" remains an ingenious, engrossing thriller, expertly shot on location in San Francisco and Los Angeles? That opening dialogue in the film's first scene is worth the price of admission alone. (Also, look for comely "B movie actress Beverly Garland in a featured role, and gnarly character actor Neville Brand in his film debut.)

6) Gun Crazy (1949) - From a tender age, Bart Tare (John Dall) displays a weakness for guns that gets him into trouble and steers him on the wrong path almost from the beginning. That path leads him right into the arms of Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a sexy little firebrand who can also shoot straight, and whom you'd never bring home to mother. When by perverse fate these two characters link up-- romantically and otherwise-- the shooting really begins. Produced as a "B" movie, "Crazy" earns a solid "A" for quality. Ahead of its time, and more than slightly twisted, this humble little piece is one of the more unique and imaginative crime dramas you'll see, connecting the dots between violence and sex. The sex part emanates mainly from Cummins, who stays in your memory for her memorable carnival shooting sequence, and for conveying the simple yet frightening concept that such a pretty, diminutive young woman could be quite so dangerous.

5) The Narrow Margin (1952) - Tough-talking LA detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) arrives in Chicago to escort a cynical mobster's wife (Marie Windsor) to a California grand jury, where she plans to testify against her estranged husband. Unfortunately, the mafia has other plans for Mrs. Neall-namely, to rub her out. After his partner is gunned down leaving Neall's apartment, Brown is on high alert, and must outwit a team of gangsters who follow them onto a sleeper train, but seem to have no idea what their female target looks like. A smart, edge-of-your-seat thriller set almost entirely on a West Coast-bound train, "Margin" captivates thanks to its many sudden plot twists and ingenious central tension: Brown doesn't know which of the men on-board are gangsters, and the hit men don't know which of the female passengers to bump off. McGraw's gritty, hardboiled cop and Windsor's catty moll play off each other extremely well, and portly actor Paul Maxey adds a bit of mystique as an irritating, perhaps devious passenger. Snappy dialogue, crisp pacing, and even-handed direction keep Richard Fleischer's "Margin" flying like a bullet. This is infinitely better than the 1990 remake starring Gene Hackman.

4) Pick-Up On South Street (1953) - Small-time grifter and pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) gets more than he bargained for when he picks the purse of beautiful but naïve courier Candy (Jean Peters). It turns out the purse carries microfilm with top-secret information being sold to Communist spies. Soon Skip and Candy are emmeshed in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse they can barely grasp , involving the New York police, the feds, and the spies themselves. You have to wonder whether the pair will actually live long enough to explore their growing mutual attraction. Idiosyncratic director Sam Fuller's most successful film is prime noir with priceless tough guy patter emanating from the scummy Skip, also featuring a sultry femme fatale turn from Peters. On-location shooting in lower Manhattan adds an authentic feel and the premise itself is a cut above most standard crime stories: beyond the espionage yarn, the audience yearns to know whether Skip, a man seemingly with no conscience, can develop one under extraordinary circumstances. Widmark is aces, as is the prolific Thelma Ritter playing Jo, a veteran stoolie.

3) Nightmare Alley (1947) - Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is a carnival employee who over-reaches in his quest for fame and fortune. He picks up a mind-reading technique (which boils down to a bunch of sophisticated code) from trusting colleague Zeena (a blowsy Joan Blondell), then discards her for a younger woman and appropriates the code for himself. Now hitting the big-time in night-clubs, Stanton feels he can't lose, but the higher he gets, the farther he's bound to fall. Director Edmund Goulding creates one of the screen's most indelible noirs, with the seamy carnival world providing an ideal setting. Power excels against type as the sleazy Stanton (a role he loved playing), and Blondell brings the perfect cheap, faded quality to small-timer Zeena. Jules Furthman's hard-boiled script keeps us guessing just how Stanton will eventually tumble. Dripping with a deliciously dark mood and atmosphere, mystery fans will find "Nightmare" right up their own alleys.

2) The Big Heat (1952) - Scrupulous police detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) targets sinister mobster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) after a colleague's suicide note implicates him in corruption at the city-government level. In response, Lagana's men plant a car bomb meant for the snooping cop, but instead kill Bannion's wife, prompting the enraged lawman to seek vengeance. This brutal, in-your-face noir thriller about organized crime and political graft directed by the great Fritz Lang ("M") is about as hardboiled as they come. For starters, the dialogue stays consistently sharp and blunt, like a smack in the jaw, and Ford's portrayal of the obsessed Bannion is downright fearsome. "Heat" is particularly memorable for two performances: Lee Marvin, as psychotic henchman Vince Stone, and the peerless Gloria Grahame, as a sultry moll whom Marvin victimizes in a most horrific and memorable way. Crisply paced and unrelentingly fierce, "The Big Heat" is one steamy ride.

1) Out Of The Past (1947) - Private detective Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is hired by slick, high-ranking mobster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, in one of his first screen roles), to find the crook's runaway mistress, Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer). Apparently, the young woman got into some serious mischief and ran off with $40,000 of Sterling's dough. Tracking her South of the Border, Bailey meets and falls for Kathie's seductive charms, setting off a chain of events that drags him ever deeper into a world of lies, treachery, and betrayal. Replete with expressionistic lighting, ominous atmosphere, cynical dialogue, and a positively sizzling femme fatale, Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past" is perhaps the quintessential film noir. In a star-making performance, Mitchum cemented his image as a laconic, world-weary fatalist, while the white-hot Greer- radiant as Kathie-makes one of the most sensual entrances in film history. All conspire to make Tourneur's "Past" damn close to perfect- and my choice for number one "under the radar" noir.

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