The gothic/noir environment, 20 films (cont'd):


The Grifters (Stephen Frears) - 1990
[Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening, Pat Hingle, J.T. Walsh]
screenplay: Donald E. Westlake
source: novel by Jim Thompson
camera: Oliver Stapleton
music: Elmer Bernstein

Three grifters with intimate ties and conflicting agendas raise the stakes from money to life itself.

Riveting adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel. Angelica Huston is at her absolute best. Thompson had possibly the bleakest outlook of any noir writer. Catching him on film would seem impossible, but it's been done a number of times. This movie is a prime example, but see also Série noir ('79), Coup de torchon ('81) (Thompson has a solid French following), and After Dark, My Sweet ('90).


The Innocents (Jack Clayton) - 1961
[Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins, Michael Redgrave]
screenplay: William Archibald, Truman Capote, John Mortimer
source: novel by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
camera: Freddie Francis
music: Georges Auric

Sent to be governess to two children in a remote mansion, Miss Giddens begins to believe that two troubled lovers, now deceased, are trying to possess the souls of the youngsters.

I differentiate between gothic and horror largely on the basis of whether atmosphere or shock is the prime mover. As regards atmosphere, this is as gothic as it gets. I'm very fond of Deborah Kerr, particularly in this and Black Narcissus ('47). It's worth noting that the woman who excelled as nuns and governesses is also known for the most famous screen kiss ever, on the beach in the waves in From Here to Eternity ('53).


The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes) - 1976
[Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel]
screenplay: Cassavetes
source: story by Cassavetes, Martin Scorsese
camera: Mitch Breit, Al Ruban

music: Bo Harwood

A strip-club owner with gambling debts he can’t pay is given an out: commit a murder to clean the slate.

The noir aspects of this movie make it an atypical Cassavetes flick. Ben Gazzara in the lead role had difficulty relating to his character, who is sleazy and not very bright, so he was surprised to find that Cassavetes intended this strip-club operator to be the director's own alter-ego.


Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan) - 1986
[Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane]
screenplay: Jordan, David Leland
camera: Roger Pratt
music: Michael Kamen

Simone is a high-class call girl, but the world she inhabits is run by men motivated by greed and supported by violence. She forms a bond with her driver George, but their mutual affection can’t overcome their environment.

The chemistry between Hoskins and Tyson is odd and wonderful, something with which director Neil Jordan seems quite comfortable (see The Crying Game ['92]). Michael Cain is a cold-blooded business hood in another of his many impeccable performances.


Night and the City (Jules Dassin) - 1950
[Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Hugh Marlowe, Francis L. Sullivan, Herbert Lom, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Mike Mazurki]
screenplay: Austin Dempster, Jo Eisinger
source: novel by Gerald Kersh
camera: Max Greene

music: Benjamin Frankel, Franz Waxman (US)

Harry Fabian concocts a plan for cutting in on the London wrestling scene. His ability to execute can’t keep up with his ambition, and he sinks deeper and deeper into the black hole of the city’s underworld.

Widmark plays a business hood, but he's not all that cold blooded. He's pretty much one step behind the cold-blooded guy all the way. And that would be Herbert Lom. Two actors in great form play the untrustworthy proprietors of a night club, Googie Withers and Francis L. Sullivan. This deserves to be on the short list of noir classics with Out of the Past ('47) and Double Indemnity ('44), but it doesn't normally show up that way.


Oldboy (Park Chanwook) - 2003
[Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang, Dae-han Ji]
screenplay: Jo-yun Hwang, Chun-hyeong Lim, Joon-hyung Lim, Chan-wook
source: comic by Minegishi Nobuaki, Tsuchiya Garon
camera: Jeong-hun Jeong
music: Yeong-wook Jo

A man has been kidnapped and held in a sealed apartment for fifteen years. He is suddenly released and sets out to find out who did this and why.

Oldboy maintains its startling and outrageous moves right up to the moving and romantic conclusion. There's no disconnect, though. The latter issues quite naturally from the former. A very fast and devious movie.


Onibaba (Kaneto Shindô) - 1964
[Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Sato]
screenplay: Shindô
camera: Kiyomi Kuroda
music: Hikaru Hayashi

Two women in war-ravaged 14th-century Japan rob and murder lost samurai for their own survival. A returning veteran and a diabolical mask play havoc with what little equilibrium there is.

Survival against the forces of war, of nature, of the unknown is not here a matter of avoidance. Instead it's a matter of weaving in and out of all the primal forces. But sooner or later you'll weave in and you won't weave out.


Point Blank (John Boorman) - 1967
[Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O'Connor, John Vernon]
screenplay: Alexander Jacobs, David & Rafe Newhouse
source: novel by Donald E. Westlake, The Hunter
camera: Philip H. Lathrop
music: Johnny Mandel

While trying to exact revenge on the friend and wife who betrayed him, Walker gets help from a mysterious man with plans of his own.

Psychedelic noir is what you have here. I don't know whether Boorman was imbibing in something exotic or if it was an offshoot of the times. In any case, the movie combines techniques of disorientation with a hell-for-leather plot. Marvin is terrific, simultaneously bewildered and aggressive.


The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson) - 1943
[Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, Evelyn Brent, Elizabeth Russell]
screenplay: DeWitt Bodeen, Charles O'Neal
camera: Nicholas Musuraca
music: Roy Webb

Mary Gibson, searching for her sister Jacqueline in Manhattan, runs into a group of satanists who also want Jacqueline and mean her no good.

A perfect blend of gothic and noir. Produced by the great Val Lewton. Various members of his crew (known as the snake pit) went on to make significant contributions to film noir. For example, the year after this was filmed, composer Roy Webb scored Murder My Sweet. Cameraman Nicholas Musuraca shot Out of the Past in '47. One of the glories of the Lewton canon is character actress Elizabeth Russell. Watch for her as Mimi.


Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa) - 1949
[Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji, Eiko Miyoshi]
screenplay: Ryuzo Kikushima, Kurosawa
camera: Asakazu Nakai
music: Fumio Hayasaka

The gun of a young homicide detective is stolen and used in a series of crimes. An older detective helps him gradually zero in on the criminal.

Kurosawa's noir films (Drunken Angel ['48], Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well ['60], High and Low ['63]) are as impressive as his samurai outings, if not as spectacular, and both genres employ the talent and personality of Toshiro Mifune. This is one of the greatest partnerships in movie history.


This isn't a "best of" list as such, but each of these is a movie I revere. I don't think that's putting it too strongly. I admit to being a bit promiscuous with my reverence. These were taken as representative of a larger list, which recently ran over 570 entries.