Robert Siodmak holds the top spot on the strength of three of his greatest works, The Killers ('46), Criss Cross ('49) & The File on Thelma Jordan ('50). As is often the case in Noir, all 3 films deal with protagonists who allow themselves to be manipulated and destroyed by the wrong woman. Kitty Collins (Jane Greer), Ana Dundee (Yvonne DeCarlo) & Thelma Jordan (Barbera Stanwyck) are ruthless Femme Fatales who take advantage of decent guys to get what they want. Eddie Muller, the widely acknowledged "Czar of Noir" & host of TCM's Noir Alley put it succinctly when he said, "you can tell it's Noir because the women always kill for money, but the guys kill for the dame." In doing so, the guy usually ends up dead. The Killers & Criss Cross are 2 of my Top10 Film Noir movies and capture the essence of Noir, complete with pools of light surrounded by darkness, flashback plot structures & witty, razor sharp dialogue, but Siodmak's direction sets them apart. His ability to create heightened tension and a rich visual style, punctuated by splashes of expressionistic lighting & scenery, elevated his pictures beyond traditional studio genre releases.
Fritz Lang gets on this list not just for a couple of quality pictures, but for the breadth of his Noir output. Beginning with Woman in the Window ('44) through Human Desire ('54) Lang made no fewer than 7 stellar American Noir Films, including Ministry of Fear ('44), Scarlet Street ('45), Clash By Night ('52), Blue Gardenia ('53) and my favorite The Big Heat ('53). Gloria Grahame (pictured above) played in both The Big Heat & Human Desire, alongside Glenn Ford, while Lang was working under contract at Columbia Pictures. Dating back before even his German masterpiece M ('31), Lang focused on damaged people looking for a place in the world and his Noir canon was no exception. In fact, Lang's Noir sensability and style pre-dated the movement itself and his use of expressionistic techniques foreshadowed much of what would become identified as Noir. Stylistically, he was ahead of the curve & can be credited, alongside several others as having an enormous influence on the "look" of Noir. Richard T. Jameson, in his chapter about Lang in Film Noir: The Directors (Alain Silver & James Ursini, Eds) puts Lang's importance in perspective when he wrote "Would film noir have happened without Fritz Lang? Probably...but would it have been as rich and strage, as philosophically provocative and aesthetically exciting? ..No other (director) possessed a person vision-both style & worldview-so apt to the cinematic environment." (p. 149)
Alfred Hitchcock did some great work in noir, but his films usually just get lumped in with his more straight forward suspense/thrillers from the 50's & 60's. The work he did in the '40's, however, was some straight up Noir magic. Particularly films like Spellbound ('45), Notorious ('48) & Shadow of a Doubt ('43) reflect a noir sensability, if not specific plot devices and mood. Combined with several later Noir-esque films, like Strangers on a Train ('51) & The Wrong Man ('57), Hitchcock has quite a deep roster of films that reflect his unique point of view, while still capturing Noir attitudes and imagery.
Billy Wilder might be my favorite director on this list, if only because he is the most versatile writer/director in movie history. Having started his career at the German movie machine (UFA) in the early thirties, Wilder had a leg up in terms of imagery & style because most of the mise en scene in Noir came out of German expressionist filmmaking of the late '20's & early '30's. Where he separates himself from his German contemporaries, however, is in his clever writing & his caustic sense of humor. His Noirs similarly range from dark (Double Indemnity '44), to black comedy (Sunset Blvd '50) & finally to a pitch black condemnation of everything, including the viewing public (Ace in the Hole '51). Stylistically, however, the pictures get brighter and brighter, until the brutal New Mexico sunlight practically scorches everything in sight in Ace in the Hole. Wilder's Noirs stretch across and intermix genres, but hold at there core the Noir sensibilities of cynicism, a dark world view, seriously flawed characters & and inevitability of the tragic conclusions.
Nicholas Ray directed 6 Noir films, but will always be best known for Rebel Without a Cause ('56). Unfortunately for most folks they will miss out on what I believe to be his best work, In a Lonely Place ('50), a moody and brilliant Noir starring Humphrey Bogart & Gloria Grahame. I Lonely Place Bogart is not the hero, he is a murder suspect, an alcoholic and most decidedly a miserable & rotten person in a performance unlike anything else in his career. Ray brilliantly uses lighting to capture Bogart's Dixon Steele mood as it shifts throughout the film & Gloria Grahame (Crossfire '47, The Big Heat '53, Human Desire '54), a Noir stalwart, gives one of her finest performances of her career. The final shot of In a Lonely Place is both heartbreaking and inevitable...and quintessentially Noir. His other Noirs include They Live By Night ('48-his first film), Knock on any Door ('49). Born to Be Bad ('50), On Dangerous Ground ('51), & Party Girl ('58).
Jules Dassin directed films that did not fit into the overtly defined 'rules' of noir. There were no femme fatales preying on the weakminded anti-hero or hardboiled language. Instead, in films like Thieve's Highway ('49), The Naked City ('48) & Night & The City ('50) Dassin placed the underdog in a place where they wanted something more and often broke the law or took on authority in order to achive it; often failing miserably. Dassin's underdog champion stance was well earned,as he was a victim of the House Un-American Committee's witch hunt of the late 40's. In fact, Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was credited with helping to get Dassin out of the country on assignment for Night & the City just weeks before he was to be named in committee hearings, which resulted in his being blacklisted in 1950. His protagonists were more human than most Noir heroes, subject to desires that were meant to rid themselves of oppression & poverty, more than simply personal enrichment. They could love sincerely and were often supported by the love of a good woman. Working with novelist/screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (They Drive By Night '40, On Dangerous Ground '51) Dassin creates a realistic story about fruit trucking in the central part of California that rival's Steinbeck in it's reflection of societal oppression. Similary, Richard Widmark's Harry Fabian, in Night & the City, is one of the most haunting and engaging characters in movies. Only when he stops running is he subject to pay the price for his actions, for his existence.
Orson Welles created & usurped quite of bit of what became the language of movies in films like Citizen Kane ('41) & The Magnificent Ambersons ('42). He also enhanced and exaggerated certain Noir conventions in films like Touch of Evil ('58) & The Lady From Shanghai ('47). The house of mirrors finale of Shanghai could easily represent the twisted mind of many Noir anti-heroes and the extended floor level shots in Touch of Evil only play to the oppressive nature of many Noir environments. But in all his films its the style that makes them enjoyable to watch again & again, and while it doesn't qualify here, his performance as Harry Lime in The Third Man ('49 Carol Reed) should get him on any Noir list. The fact that he performed in all 3 films sighted only enhances his connection to Noir.
John Huston's The Maltese Falcon ('41) is sometimes credited as the starting point of the Noir cycle in American film. Although he only made 2 additional films that can be overtly identified as Noir, Key Largo ('48) & The Asphalt Jungle ('50), the indelible impression he left on the movement is unmistakable & many of Noir's stylistic traits reverberate throughout Huston's other work (Beat the Devil '53, The List of Adrian Messanger '63). Typical of Huston's work, in that a pseudo family, in this case a group of criminals, come together towards a certain goal, only to have the group crumble and ultimately fail, is The Asphalt Jungle, my favorite of his Noirs. The bleak outlook of the film's main character, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), reflects the Noir ethos, as do the cramp interiors, barren exteriors & overall fatalism of the plot.
Edward Dmytryk & Otto Preminger both directred a handful of stellar Noir films including Murder My Sweet ('44) & Cornered ('45) for Dmytryk & Laura ('44), & Where the Sidewalk Ends ('50) for Preminger, but what gets them on this list are 2 of my favorite Noirs/ Dmytryk directed Crossfire ('47), a thrilling who done it wrapped in a social message film. Robert Ryan brilliantly plays the racist Montgomery, while the supporting cast includes Robert Mitchum, Gloria Graham & Robert Young in a story that unravels the death of a Jewish man at the hands of returning soldiers. Similarly, Angel Face ('52), directed by Preminger, features Robert Mitchum, but it's twisted psychological plot revolves around a femme fatale, played by Jean Simmons.