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10 Classic Film Noirs that you must watch

Classic film noir, as we see it externally, blotched in shades of black and white, deals with areas of the human psyche that are predominantly grey. Although its blackness can be attributed on myriad levels to the malicious joy and devilish schemes at play, its murky silhouettes can be traced into the bed of sleeping conscience or where it is kept in the ‘dark’ of unfamiliar territory and oblivion. Emblazoned by filaments of nihilism, eroticism and sensationalism, the noir entails a clogged mesh of fate, brought methodically by humans upon themselves or by storming circumstances that close in on them like a dead end labyrinth.

More often than not the centre stage is taken by the prototype ‘everyman’ figure and a sociopath, grappling with each other and within themselves, or a sole average Joe distorting into something inexplicable and at times criminal, by a strange turn of events, unveiling a version of him that he never knew existed. It lays bare the ‘noir’ and fragmented nature of desires and desperation that master and enslave its sentient victims by casting them as shadows on the screen, whereby people are made mere projections of their darker side, ominous and gripping in its presence.

10. The Strange Woman (1946)

Credit: United Artists

Set in an urban pastoral, in a miasma of darkness and delinquency, The Strange Woman is the story of a ruthless goddess (Hedy Lamarr) and her insidious plunges into sexuality, which she wields as weapon upon her bewitched lovers. The Gothic enigma girdling her ambivalence manifests in the form of a subconscious being riven between an angelic altruism and a sadomasochistic passion.

09. Drunken Angel (1948)

Credit: Toho

Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel maps the poison and putrefaction of post war Japan on myriad levels, focusing at its centre an alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) and his patient, a classic anti-hero, a TB afflicted ‘yakuza’ thug, Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) hurtling from the severity of his state. His battle of denial is played out dramatically in a spell of delirium where Matsunaga forces open a coffin by the simmering sea, only to have his own decedent self-rising and chasing after him. There is a constant ebb and flow of ‘The Killer’s Anthem’ and images of the typhoid cesspool, brimming with virus and vermin, recur oneiric of both physical and spiritual septicity.

08. Suddenly, last summer (1959)

Credit: Columbia Pictures

The baffling ambiguity surrounding the death of Sebastian forms the bone of contention between his cousin, Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) and mother, Violet (Katharine Hepburn). Tennessee William’s play dares to excavate into themes radically provoking for its time with its suggestive piquancy of homosexuality and incest never fully made explicit and the graphic horror of anthropophagy in broad daylight. The film poses a strong statement against social prejudices of the time, the inanity of phobia that drives aunt Violet to confine Cathy in an asylum and even be disparaging enough to arrange for her lobotomy in order to eliminate every shred of that memory liable to besmirch her late son’s reputation. The ‘noir’ rumpus of the film is reverberated throughout, from the exotic cannibalistic flytraps in Violet’s garden to the piercing sound and fury of the asylum. The sonorous screams of trauma and its lurid scenes tug at every corner of Cathy’s mind as she posits her narrative of what happened last summer, descending as she does, into wild agitation, as she gets nearer and nearer to the truth.

07. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Billy Wilder takes his audience on a panic-stricken ride with this memorable masterpiece, stealing glimpses into the claustrophobic airs of a Gothic mansion at Sunset Boulevard. In its quaint yet deluxe chambers, resides in solitude the legendary star of the silent era, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson); stacked away from the public eye for years, but she is stuck in the past, her visions and emotions unable to look beyond the fancies of her halcyon days. Aged and imprisoned, both by her circumstantial reality and in herself, she exemplifies the archetype of the ‘madwoman in the attic’; in her neurosis, she begins to lose sight of herself and lives in wait for the day she would have her place back in the limelight again. The visuals, expressions and discourse strike at the heart of plangent pessimism, attaining fullness and perfection in its theatrical tragedy.

06. The Woman in the window (1944)

Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In The Woman in the Window, we see an eerie manifestation of a man’s desires, his darkest veins realized in a riveting muddle of events gone wrong. Fixated by the larger-than-life portrait of a beautiful woman, Wanley, a psychology professor, keeps her image at the back of his mind and is descended into a trance with her in a world that soon turns nightmarish. Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) crosses extremities to conceal manslaughter at her apartment without much foresight, and blurts out specifics circling the enigmatic homicide in discussions with his comrade, the district attorney. The mesh is further twisted by the deceased’s seedy bodyguard who intrudes upon their cover and blackmails them to no end. The entire dream sequence is played out like an alarming sonata, culminating in catharsis when Richard is jolted back to reality after a long-winded, action-packed slumber.

05. Don’t bother to knock (1952)

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Nell Forbes’s ordeal of her lover’s death coupled with a history of suppression by her family are resurfaced after an encounter one night with a stranger. Marilyn Monroe stuns with her avant-garde flair in fitting into the shoes of the deranged girl by progressively taking the wraps off her bottled-up insecurities at every stage and enacting her vulnerabilities sympathetically. Jeff (William Holden) whose questions uncork her apprehensions undergoes a constructive transformation from an egotistical sleaze to someone more sensitive, more insightful towards other people’s adversities, which enables him to man up and put his life on track: a development achieved, however, at the cost of Nell’s psychological stability. Notwithstanding its refined noir appeal, Don’t bother to knock critiques the abrasive control placed on a woman’s freedom by society at the time giving it the most authentic streak while leading us on tenterhooks.

04. Leave her to heaven (1945)

Credit: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation

Splashed in the richest hues of Technicolor, the romantic expectations of Leave her to Heaven are thwarted into a crude divergence as the couple’s relationship forebodes signs of devastation. Gene Tierney’s femme fatale offers a case study in Othello’s syndrome, of what it’s like to be so overtly consumed in love, possessive enough to kill and be killed: she loved not wisely but too well. Ellen Berent exudes a haunting charm, even as her malice and envy only serves to further alienate her husband; scrutinizes sharply with the eyes of a vixen and in her shadiest moments, preys on anyone Richard grows too fond of.

03. Shadow of a doubt (1943)

Credit: Universal Pictures

One of the most unsettling masterpieces Hitchcock made, Shadow of a Doubt manifests itself in the form of a looming terror that seizes young Charlie (Teresa Wright) when she joins each puzzle piece to ascertain her suspicions when her once-beloved uncle reverts to secrecy. Her qualms strike an implausible quarter with her constant vacillations, even with a psychopathic uncle sharing her roof, who contrives successively to have her killed. While the crook’s bone-chilling presence and bleak wariness cloud over the happy hearth of their home, the plot protracts over a breadth of mockery and absurdity with a jocular father who finds recreation in wracking his brain over murder mysteries and two detectives roaming their front street, without specificity of aim or clue, like Thomson and Thompson in the Tintin comics, and even taking their time to fiddle with Charlie’s baby sister Ann. Joseph Cotten, distinguished mostly for redeeming roles, especially that of the insightful detective in films, takes on the cold-blooded, split character of Uncle Charlie with depth and deft, almost writhing to camouflage in normalcy, as his truer, seamier side gets the better of him in the end.

02. Gaslight (1944)

Credit: Loew’s, Inc.

Based on the play Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton, the term has been used to denote the systematic manipulation of a husband (Charles Boyer) who psychologically torments his wife (Ingrid Bergman) by displacing valuables placed at her disposal and blaming her for everything he deliberately did, dismissing every claim of hers as mere figments of delusion, ultimately driving her to the point of questioning her own sanity. At the same time, he conveniently covers up his own violent outbursts as sheer frustration and concern over her deteriorating mental health. Boyer’s character evinces dubiety from the outset, when he proposes to move into the cobwebbed, dilapidated house at No. 9 Thornton Square, which belonged to Paula’s aunt, an eminent opera singer, where she had also been murdered in cold blood. Amidst its timeworn furniture and relics, she unearths letters signed by Sergis Bauer inviting the conspicuous ire of Gregory, thereupon instigating his gradual ensnarement of Paula in her past and present trauma. Placed on house arrest, her paranoia escalates in the nocturnal hours as she strains to make sense of the flickering gaslight accompanied by a man’s footsteps in her attic.

01. Double Indemnity (1944)

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity begins and ends as a confession by Walter Neff (Fred McMurray), a salesman whose frantic pursuit of cash and love led him into his own pitfall of doom and defeat. When encountered by the devious and seductive Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), Neff joins hands to execute the carefully planned ‘accident’ of her indifferent husband to secure double insurance on his death and seal their future, overlooking the opportune condition of his homicide that serves to spark controversy and arouse suspicions, causing them to spiral between angst and insecurity to take the next step forward. Moreover, their plan gets perforated by an incidental flaw (typical of hard-boiled whodunits), affecting a domino effect, culminating in their ultimate nemesis.

Honourable Mention:

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Scarlet Street (1945)

Laura (1944)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Strangers on a Train (1951)

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Mildred Pierce (1945)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Gilda (1946)

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Srimayee Ganguly

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