Although some noir movies came earlier and some came later, to me, the 1940s was the decade of the film noir. There are any number of great ones to choose from this period: Double Indemnity, The Third Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Out Of The Past, and the list goes on.
As for me, I can only focus in on one (for now), and my goal here isn’t to direct you toward the obvious. I consider the movies I’ve mentioned above to be classics of that genre. But what to do once you’re done with those? I’m recommending you start by checking out The Killers.
Before I begin, I should clarify that I don’t mean to imply that The Killers is some undiscovered gem. It was nominated for four Academy Awards the year it was released, and was selected to the National Film Registry just last year. So clearly people appreciated it then, and still do today. Even so, I don’t think it garners quite the same degree of recognition that other similar films from the same period do. If you ask most people to name a noir film, this is unlikely to be the first one to come to mind.
Released in 1946, The Killers stars Burt Lancaster (in his first feature film), Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien. The screenplay was partly based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway. The rest was written by Anthony Veiller (who was nominated for an Oscar), Richard Brooks, and the legendary John Huston, although Brooks and Huston were uncredited.
The first scene in the movie sees two gangsters with murder on their minds breeze into a small town one evening. They terrorize the occupants of a diner while they wait for their quarry to come to them. When he fails to show, they opt for a more direct approach.
This film grabs you right from the get-go. Charles McGraw and William Conrad have a great time playing the two gangsters. Their dialogue is taken directly from Hemingway’s writing, and it’s delivered convincingly and menacingly. The original story ended after the opening diner scene, so the aforementioned trio of writers extrapolate what happens from there. Thankfully, it’s a pretty skillful extrapolation that preys heavily on noir conventions, including the femme fatale, the tireless investigator, and the traditional convoluted ending of double crosses galore. Although Veiller’s writing is solid, some of the dialogue lacks the snap that was evident in Hemingway’s portion. Fortunately, the film’s brisk pacing helps to keep the movie from getting bogged down.
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