The OFCS (Online Film Critics Society) recently launched a poll in order to find the 50 best film noirs. The results, and blurbs written by other OFCS members, are available here.
Part 1: Films 49-40
=40. The Set-Up
The Set-Up is a short but near perfect distillation of the film noir, with many of the key elements but with a big dose of heart. The camera roves through one space in real time (The Set-Up is one of the first films to be made in real time), powerfully conveying the limited choices open to Robert Ryan’s aging boxer. He is certain that he has one more good fight in him and his self-belief wins through only for there to be consequences thanks to his double-dealing manager. Ryan, in what is undoubtedly his best performance, gives the film hope and an emotional connection where otherwise it would be merely harshly realistic and relentlessly down dispirited. Brilliantly shot, you can see traces of The Set-Up in later great boxing films such as Raging Bull and Fat City.
=40. The Woman in the Window
One of the great ‘despair’ noirs, it unfolds with a horridly inescapable determinism. Unlike the other Lang/Robinson/Bennett/Duryea noir Scarlet Street, which is about cruel people being cruel to a dopey innocent, The Woman in the Window is effective since Robinson’s fall is so inevitable. When we first see him, his lecture theatre blinds have put him behind bars and he remains imprisoned in one way or another throughout the film. The Woman in the Window also has one of the best double-endings ever, both satisfying conclusions to different facets of the film – one completing Robinson’s cruel fate to devastating effect and the other concluding Robinson’s study of a trapped mild-mannered nobody.
Part 2: Films 39-31
Part 3: Films 30-20
Part 4: Films 19-11
Part 5: Films 10-1
3. The Third Man
One of the best film noirs for its realism, humour and story but also for its skewed approach. Holly Martins, a writer of cheap fiction, seems to know that he is in a film noir and acts like a heroic PI despite having absolutely no idea what is going on – at one point he hilariously mistakes his chauffeur for a kidnapper. He is the ultimate amateur detective, hopelessly naïve and gamely, often drunkenly, wandering through the story while other peoples’ lives are ruined. A subplot involving Alida Valli is the film’s real heart – the men run around with guns in sewers while Valli’s life is ruined by heartbreak and the all too real threat of deportation. One great scene sums this up beautifully – Martins blithely antagonizing the police while Valli desperately tries to shut him up, knowing that the consequences can be so much worse for her than for him.
Another oddity is the film’s interest in post-war Vienna, barely functioning under widespread crime and four different police forces that can barely communicate. The ruins of Vienna are evocatively presented, giving the constant impression that there is a lot going on just beyond the parameters of the story, one which plays out so casually that the big twists and turns seem almost irrelevant. Reed increases the confusion with tilted frames, cock-eyed perspectives and by coupling the images with Anton Karas’ brilliant zither score, which will stay in your head for days.
All of this is great, but little compared to the appearance of Orson Welles in what is surely one of the best character introductions in film history. Not to mention one of the best monologues (improvised by Welles) and one of the best final shots, powerfully expressive of heartbreak, longing and the end of a romance.