Noirvember: Seven lesser-known film noirs

16 mins read

Noir is probably one of the most discussed, analysed and praised genres of the classical Hollywood era. Between 1941 and 1958, the period heralded a range of classics that started with John Huston’s ​The Maltese Falcon and ended with Orson Welles’ ​Touch of Evil. But what about the films overshadowed by some of the big hitters of noir? In this collection, we take a look at seven lesser-known film noirs to explore in Noirvember.

Woman on the Run (1950)

Woman on the Run works on two levels: an entertaining female-led crime mystery and a melodrama about a failed marriage. With its plot simple in construct, Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) lands up in the wrong place at the wrong time by witnessing a murder. But, instead of reporting it to the police, he goes into hiding. Meanwhile, his estranged wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan), works with a local reporter (Dennis O’Keefe) to find him. Their joint search puts together pieces of a puzzle that will ultimately lead them to the murderer.

Given the film’s short runtime at 77 minutes, director Norman Foster ensures each scene is action-packed. With a witty, sharp and cynical screenplay, bathed in glorious atmosphere. And when you add to this a surprising twist and a cliche-free story arc for the female protagonist, Woman on the Run shines as a true gem of B-Noir filmmaking.

Director: Norman Foster

Crossfire (1947)

Crossfire is well-known among cinephiles for two reasons; it was the first B movie in history to receive a Best Picture Academy Award nomination and the first Hollywood film that openly dealt with anti-semitism. Based on the 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole​, the book’s exploration of homophobia found itself changed to racism for the film. A clear sign of the sexuality-based discrimination inherent in the American Hays Code of filmmaking.

The plot revolves around the murder of a Jewish man, Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene), and the subsequent police investigation. The culprit is likely one of the American soldiers (George Cooper, Robert Ryan) who were drinking with Samuels the night before his death. However, interestingly the film eschews this murder mystery plot for much of its run time. Instead, opting to observe its characters as they drift through life in an existential malaise free from motivation or goals, foreshadowing the cinéma verité style of filmmakers like John Cassavetes.

Featuring noir veterans Robert Mitchum and Gloria Grahame, Crossfire remains a milestone in American film history. With a screenplay that bravely and boldly depicted the anti-semitism of a Post-World War Two America. However, the investigating detective’s concluding monologue on hate crime and racism, while urgent then, is hypocritical today, especially in its avoidance of discussions on race hate against black Americans. While at the same time, the homophobic themes of the book were erased by a Hollywood where gay men remained hidden from view, and homophobia ran wild across American states.

Director: Edward Dmytryk

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)


No film noir list is complete without mentioning Barbara Stanwyck, who portrayed cinema’s most iconic femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson, in ​Double Indemnity​. However, while Billy Wilder’s masterpiece is widely cited as the film that set the standard for noir, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a lesser-known classic of the genre. Stanwyck plays the titular character of Martha as a cold-hearted, tough-as-nails businesswoman.

The film opens with a prologue showing a tragic event in Martha’s past. One that involved her two childhood friends; Sam (Van Heflin), a street-smart kid from the wrong side of the tracks and Walter (Kirk Douglas), the timid son of Martha’s private tutor. Before taking us into the present, where Martha finds herself in a loveless marriage with Walter. While at the same time, childhood friend Sam returns to town with unfinished business from the past.

The resulting story has more twists and turns than your average soap opera but remains highly enjoyable. While at the same time, many aspects of the screenplay remain notable for the suggestive use of implied sex. For example, when Sam and Martha rekindle their passionate love affair, the camera pans down from them kissing to a roaring fire. Before then dissolving from flames to burnt-out ashes, indicating a long and sensual physical event. And as implied sex scenes go in old movies, this one is up there with Hitchcock’s ​North by Northwest, where we cut from a kiss to a train entering a tunnel.

Despite a convoluted plot, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers manages to portray the existential loneliness of its characters. Despite their ruthless actions, the subsequent journey demonstrates sympathy as their underlying human frailty is revealed. But, it’s Barbara Stanwyck who shines in a great ensemble cast, despite not having nearly enough screentime.

Director: Lewis Milestone

Tension (1949)

Tension opens with police lieutenant Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) explaining his methods for solving a murder case, applying pressure, until the suspect snaps. Before, taking us on a narrated journey into a recent case involving Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart). A man who has continuously been humiliated by his wife Claire (Audrey Totter) who now has a new lover named Barney. With Quimby creating a false persona (Paul Sothern) to kill Barney and exact his revenge. However, as he visits Barney in the middle of the night, he discovers he can’t go through with the murder. But, when it transpires that Barney is dead, murdered by an unknown assailant. It is Quimby’s alter ego Paul Sothern in the frame.

The film’s portrayal of police methods is nothing short of remarkable, as Bonnabel uses unconventional and highly questionable tactics to crack the case. For example, he flirts with women, taking them out on dates to extract information. While at the same time manipulating both suspects and witnesses by playing on their fears, jealousies and insecurities. But, the icing on the cake is his affair with Quimby’s wife Claire, which ultimately leads to a ​Maltese Falcon​-esque finale.

Despite this, Tension is a fresh take on the classic love triangle, especially given the handful of characters it operates with. And while the identity of the murderer is relatively easy to figure out, that does not take away from the film’s enjoyability. Meanwhile, the transformation of Warren into Paul is subtle and well done. Still, it’s Barry Sullivan and Audrey Totter who steal the show – the latter, quite delightfully, portraying one of the most rotten Femme Fatales ever created.

Director: John Berry

Decoy (1946)

A film known for having the “toughest femme fatale” in noir history had to be included on this list.​ Decoy is a true-noir classic, made by one of the ‘Poverty Row’ studios, Monogram Pictures. Its tale, told through the flashbacks of a dying Margot Shelby (the tragically short-lived Jean Gillie) as she recalls the events leading up to her murder. In a plot that revolves around money and greed.

Margot’s boyfriend Frank has robbed a bank and hidden the money in a secret unknown location. But, Frank is now in prison, awaiting the death sentence for killing a guard during the heist. And Margot is determined to claim the money at any cost. Coming up with a diabolical plan to steal Frank’s body from the morgue after his execution, only to revive him with a “miracle” chemical to find out where the money is buried. However, her horrible idea needs support. Enter Jim, a gangster willing to fund the operation, and Dr Craig, the prison physician; both men seduced by the promise of a final cut of the money.

Decoy is delightfully violent and over the top with a short runtime, bordering on dark comedy throughout. The violence, bouncing from dastardly shootings to people being run over and gas chamber executions. While at the same time, the fantastical comedy sees a man revived just moments after his death, only to be shot a few minutes later. And while undoubtedly enjoyable, ​nobody could claim that Decoy is a cinematic masterpiece.

However, having the femme fatale as the narrator creates an exciting and fresh take, especially in a story where she has zero redeeming qualities. After all, this is a woman bordering on psychotic who deceives, seduces and lies to each man. Her own needs outweighing any moral compass she may have as she acts with little sign of remorse. But, the unrestrained nature of her character makes Decoy an absolute guilty pleasure in the noir genre.

Director: Jack Bernhard

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

The first film noir made by 20th Century Fox has a title more befitting of slasher horror. Initially titled ​Hot Spot, ​having been adapted from Steve Fisher’s novel of the same name. However, the title was changed shortly after release due to a tie-in with Photoplay magazine, and I Wake Up Screaming was deemed more dramatic.

The film opens with the police simultaneously interrogating Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) and Jill Lynn (Betty Grable) in connection with the murder of Jill’s sister, Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis). With their recollection of the events rendered in flashback form. Frankie is a promoter who helped Vicky rise to fame, only to find her murdered the day before she would have gone to Hollywood. His close relationship with Vicky, ensuring his place as the prime suspect. With police officer Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) obsessively working to prove his guilt. But Jill believes in his innocence, and together they start their search for Vicky’s killer.

As a whodunit murder mystery, I Wake Up Screaming is interesting, although nothing we haven’t seen before. However, the motive takes the film into the dark depths of film noir, as everything falls into place just as the credits roll. The resulting picture is much darker in tone than its contemporary ​The Maltese Falcon​. The film’s psychological themes of obsession, accompanied by some genuinely atmospheric imagery, foreshadowing many of the noir films that followed.

Director: H. Bruce Humberstone

Death is a Caress / Døden er et kjærtegn (1949)


Last but not least, Death is a Caress is a unique film; the first Norwegian noir to be directed by a woman (Edith Carlmar). With a story told through flashbacks, Carlmar’s film revolves around the tempestuous and destructive love affair/marriage of young car mechanic Erik (Claus Wiese) and older socialite Sonja (Bjørg Riiser-Larsen).

The first half of the plot resembles James M. Cain’s classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. However, the second half takes an exciting and provocative turn, offering us a more realistic solution to the recurring conflicts of the classic film noir. For example, instead of murder, we have a divorce as Carlmar embeds the narrative within the realism of European filmmaking. However, this does not apply to happy endings as the marriage ends in a tragedy.

Visually Death is a Caress has stood the test of time with some archetypical noir montages, alongside great editing. One scene, in particular, remains memorable as the hazy passage of time during a drunken night includes a surreal clock with beer bottles for hands.

But, what makes Death is a Caress different from its American cousins is the lack of studio censorship. After all, this is a 1940s film that openly talks about abortion and shows adulterers half-naked both pre-and post-coitus. In fact, at one point, Sonja’s female friends even justify her adultery by calling Erik more attractive than her husband. All of which creates a much more realistic journey than many American noirs of the time.

Director: Edith Carlmar

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