The gothic/noir environment, 20 films:


The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston) -1950
[Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Marc Lawrence, Marilyn Monroe]
screenplay: Ben Maddow, John Huston
source: novel by W.R. Burnett

camera: Harold Rosson
music: Miklós Rózsa

A well-planned and executed jewelry robbery runs headlong into bad luck and treachery.

Possibly the best heist movie of all time. Certainly an influence on two other contenders, Rififi ('55) and The Killing ('56). Poignant performances by Sam Jaffe and Louis Calhern, each doing a variation on a dirty-old-man theme. Marc Lawrence is also wonderful as a very nervous operator with a lot to be nervous about.


Barton Fink (Joel Coen) - 1991
[John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi]
screenplay: Joel & Ethan Coen
camera: Roger Deakins

music: Carter Burwell

A celebrated New York playwright, attempting to script a Wallace Beery wrestling picture, stumbles onto the fast track to hell at the Hotel Earle in Hollywood.

Somewhat based on the experience of playwright Clifford Odets (1906-1963), this is a movie about the writing process, about writer's block and selling out. A respected playwright goes for the money and can't pull it off, and the Coen brothers don't cut him any slack at all. Tony Shalhoub plays a nerve-wracked studio hack in a great performance somewhat reminiscent of Marc Lawrence's in The Asphalt Jungle.


The Big Heat (Fritz Lang) - 1953
[Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Alexander Scourby, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan]
screenplay: Sydney Boehm
source: Saturday Evening Post serial by William P. McGivern
camera: Charles Lang
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof, Arthur Morton, Henry Vars

In the wake of his wife’s murder, a cop goes on the offensive against a politically-connected crime organization.

Glorious Gloria Grahame is one of the wonders of Hollywood, and this role is one of her best. Lee Marvin is also in fine form as the two express their innermost feelings over coffee. Fritz Lang left Germany as the Nazis were consolidating their hold, but the vision of society in darkness came with him, best expressed here and in Scarlet Street ('45).


The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer) - 1934
[Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Egon Brecher]
screenplay: Peter Ruric
source: story by Edgar Allan Poe
camera: John J. Mescall
music: Heinz Roemheld

Americans on a honeymoon in Hungary find themselves caught in a web of revenge and satanic ritual.

Very slick expressionist/art deco look to this, completely different from Ulmer's grunge masterpiece, Detour ('45). This is sadism in high style, and the style is almost as delirious as Josef von Sternberg's masochistic ode to Dietrich, The Devil Is a Woman made the following year. These crazed Austro-German artists were everywhere in those days and a damn good thing too.


Black Sunday (Mario Bava) - 1960
[Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani]
screenplay: Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrei
source: short story by Nikolai Gogol, "The Viy"
camera: Bava
music: Roberto Nicolosi, Les Baxter (US)

Killed at the stake centuries ago, a woman returns from the grave to take possession of her look-alike descendant.

Barbara Steele is a sort of fetish goddess to her fans, who step back in awe as she punishes and is punished. Her face is a marvel. As in the case of Gloria Grahame, the parts don't quite seem to belong together; but, as with Grahame, a powerful persona holds everything in place, and the effect is mesmerizing. Gothic maestro Mario Bava understood all this perfectly.


Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer) - 1981
[Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Ann Dusenberry, Nina Van Pallandt]
screenplay: Jeffrey Alan Fiskin
source: novel by Newton Thornburg, Cutter and Bone
camera: Jordan Cronenweth
music: Jack Nitzsche

Richard Bone is witness to the disposal of a murder victim. His aimless loser friend Alex Cutter, needles him into a pursuit for justice that threatens a powerful local buisnessman.

John Heard plays an alcoholic Vietnam vet and Jeff Bridges an unmotivated hustler, two men attempting to find meaning in the sludge. The term neo-noir fits quite well, but the film's personality is unique. Some viewers and critics found the three protagonists (the two above + Lisa Eichhorn) to be completely unlikable. True, their flaws run deep, but I'm always rooting for them down to the wire.


Decoy (Jack Bernhard) - 1946
[Jean Gillie, Edward Norris, Robert Armstrong, Herbert Rudley]
screenplay: Nedrick Young
source: story
by Stanley Rubin
camera: L. William O'Connell

music: Edward J. Kay

A man on death row is the only one who knows the location of $400,000 in stolen money. His mistress plots to revive him after his execution and recover the stash.

Two British actresses who showed up as femme fatales in very American movies had a real knack for noir. Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy ('49) and Jean Gillie in Decoy. Neither went on to great things, though they had what it took. Gillie died of pneumonia not long after Decoy was released. This movie is poverty row (Monogram in this case) at its best.


The Devil's Backbone (Guillermo del Toro) - 2001
[Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve]
screenplay: del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Muñoz
camera: Guillermo Navarro
music: Javier Navarrete

In a boarding school for orphans of the Spanish civil war the ghost of a young boy haunts the premeses in search of revenge.

The malevolent current that permeates this beautiful gothic entry is that of the Spanish civil war itself as in del Toro's companion piece, Pan's Labyrinth (2006). The setting shifts between the humid grey orphanage basement to the arid yellow plain outside, one as threatening as the other.


Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix) - 1981
[Frédéric Andréi, Roland Bertin, Richard Bohringer, Gérard Darmon, Chantal Deruaz]
screenplay: Beineix, Jean Van Hamme
source: novel by Delacorta (Daniel Odier)
camera: Philippe Rousselot
music: Vladimir Cosma, Alfredo Catalani

The maker of a bootleg opera tape finds himself, through a bad bit of luck, the target of Parisian mobsters. Help comes from an unlikely duo of free spirits.

Another entry into the "style as delirium" category, this time the style is French pop-bohemian, something you can also get a taste of in Le Samuraï ('67) and La Femme Nikita ('90). The live-wire convoluted storyline plays out like a fever dream.


Don't Look Now (Nicholas Roeg) - 1973
[Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania]
screenplay: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant
source: story by Daphne Du Maurier
camera: Anthony B. Richmond, Roeg
music: Pino Donaggio

John and Laura Baxter, trying to come to terms with the tragic death of their daughter, are hounded by a series of threatening, possibly supernatural, events.

Venice itself seems haunted as Sutherland and Christie try to find something, anything, to hold on to after the loss of their child. It's difficult to tell at what point gothic mist lifts and everyday murder comes down.