Pépé le Moko (1937)
Jean Gabin is cool and Mireille Balin is an angel in this fatalistic but not noir classic. What is subversive is that the lovers are not bourgeois: he is a gangster and she is a kept woman. Only the French could produce a tragedy of such romantic pathos, with the Casbah an exotic labyrinth of both despair and sanctuary. So was inaugurated poetic realism. A film for the soul.
Dark Waters (1944)
A southern thriller of cruelty and entrapment from Andre de Toth. This little known bayou gothic challenges Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase for atmosphere. Merle Oberon heads a solid cast which includes Thomas Mitchell and Elisha Cook Jr. as bad guys, and Franchot Tone as a small-town doctor who saves the day. Oberon’s luminous innocence seduces you from the outset.
The Enforcer (1951)
Bogart as an activist DA pursues Murder Inc in a noirish police procedural. The first time the sinister usage of ‘contract’ was spoken on the screen. Bogart sadly just goes through the motions, but the motley crew of contract killers display a truly disturbing pathology.
The Glass Wall (1953)
A great socio-realist sleeper buried by Columbia on release. Director Max Shane and DP Joe Biroc showcase the teeming streets of New York. While Shane had a hand in the excellent script, his direction could have been tighter. The protagonist, an Hungarian war refugee played by Vittoria Gassman, jumps ship after his request for entry into the US is rejected. Scenes of the desperate Gassman amongst the crowds on the streets of NY are documentary, and the central noir motif of individual alienation in the anonymity of the city is dramatically evoked – a cold glass ‘wall’. Gloria Grahame is beguiling as a young woman on the skids who helps.
Border Incident (1949)
Essential expressionist noir from director Anthony Mann, DP John Alton, and writer John C Higgins, is a savage critique of US agribusiness. Alton’s imagery is wholly subversive. Ostensibly a police procedural about the trafficking of illegal farm workers from Mexico for the farms of Southern California, Alton’s rendering of the desert landscape with a haunting natural light elevates the exploitation of the ‘braceros’ to the realm of tragedy, and from tragedy to a damning political indictment.