If like this writer, you ever feel a little underwhelmed by a lack of mysterious and powerful females in film nowadays, or an absence of the old-fashioned Hepburn-Bogey scratches-and-kisses chemistry between lead actors, then here’s a list of three films noirs to bring that missing colour.
OUT OF THE PAST (1947)
Robert Mitchum was as handsome as Cary Grant, as big as John Wayne and as dangerous as Robert De Niro. In Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past he simmers as ex-private eye Jeff Bailey, dragged back into his old life from his new one as a gas station owner. Jane Greer plays Kathie Moffat, Bailey’s old flame and the current squeeze of Kirk Douglas’ crooked gambler Whit Sterling. Moffat is ice-cool under pressure between these two powerful men, with the loyalty of an alley cat and the imperiousness of a sphinx. Any lesser woman would not have been Mitchum’s match.
As Bailey is dragged back into his old life and old memories with Moffat, he tries to square away the loose ends, old scores and former troubles of the heart in order to get back to his steady, nice small-town girl Ann. But they call them femmes fatales for a reason and the tragic, complicated love affair between Bailey and Moffat is dragged up out the mists of the past into a violent present and compels right up to its dramatic conclusion.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1955)
Was there ever a more perfectly constructed noir ever made? Adapted by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler from James M. Cain’s superb novel of the same name, it brings all the subtle, dramatic clout you would expect from three giants of the genre. The tale revolves around a love affair forged in murder and forever tainted.
As with Hitchcock’s Rope, the film’s curious power comes from the audience’s simultaneous need to see the couple get away with their heinous crime and pay for it. Fred MacMurray plays insurance salesman Walter Neff who comes up with the perfect crime to help Barbara Stanwyck’s Mrs. Dietrichson murder her husband and collect a huge life insurance payout.
But Dietrichson is not the ingenue to this kind of caper she makes herself out to be. Nor is she simply an emotionless Lady Macbeth manipulating Neff for her own avaricious ends. The two’s dance into Hell, chased all the way by Neff’s friend, colleague and wily investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is one of the most gripping and nuanced doomed romances ever committed to screen.
THE BIG COMBO (1955)
Less well-known that the two other films on this list is this thrilling gem of era. The Big Combo has the wise guys, gangster molls and hard-living detectives of a Raymond Chandler plot. Cornel Wilde plays the city cop Lt. Leonard Diamond trying to bang to rights the supremely machiavellian crime boss Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). All straightforward enough, except he has fallen in love with Brown’s girl, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) who hates and fears the gangster and whom Diamond needs to make his case.
Compared to the dark twistedness of the other two pairings in this list, Diamond and Lowell’s romance is agonising, almost chaste. Wilde is dogged and everyman in his pursuit of the unpursuable and charismatic Browne. Lowell is mesmerising as a suicidal woman drowning in the sin of her overpowering captor-lover. Under the luminous camerawork of John Alton, Wallace gives one of the defining performances of noir’s mysterious women: trapped, wounded, by turns morose and defiant.
Visually iconic, The Big Combo has never been as critically recognised as it deserves. Watch, if only for a torture scene where no hand is laid on Lt. Diamond and no blood is spilled, yet full horror and retribution is exacted.