What does film noir mean to you? World-weary gumshoes? Colorful gangland argot? Tough, no-nonsense dames? Killer cakes? This year, curator Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation take viewers around the world to see how this distinctly American subgenre left its mark on global cinema with Noir City: International, available online from Nov. 13 to 29 through the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. The series offers 19 titles available for streaming to viewers across the U.S. and U.S. territories. The cross-cultural crime results are fascinating, and, more often than not, fueled by a jazz soundtrack. While die-hard moviegoers will miss the annual opportunity to see gorgeous black-and-white photography in 35mm prints, there’s always next year. Meanwhile, this year’s anxieties may resonate with at least one genre-defining mood: alienation. Here’s a short guide to its hardboiled offerings.
Before exploring how other film industries adapted noir to their needs, revisit this definitive B-noir directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, now celebrating its 75th anniversary with a new digital restoration. Tom Neal stars as a down-on-his luck hitchhiker trying to get from New York to his jazz-singing girlfriend in Los Angeles. Along the way, he meets the volcanic femme fatale Vera (Ann Savage). With its acidic dialogue and archetypally lost characters, Detour is the platonic ideal of noir. For years, it was only available in scratchy transfers that seemed perfectly suited to its broken souls, but in this new restoration, you can see Savage’s expressions that much clearer.
Rusty Knife (1958)
The Nikkatsu film studio is the oldest in Japan, going back to the silent era and producing a steady supply of samurai pictures and historical dramas for decades. But in the late ’50s, the studio got into the youth market with a series of gritty crime dramas depicting wild youth and loose mores. This taut thriller, directed by Toshio Masuda, is set in the underworld of Udaka, a city whose postwar struggles left it terrorized by gangsters. Yūjirō Ishihara stars as an ex-con who vows to avenge the death of his girlfriend at the hands of a local crime boss. The bodies pile up, one of them laid to waste by a most unlikely weapon: a box of donuts.
Any Number Can Win (1963)
Director Henri Verneuil’s French heist film rings home the alienation of a degraded moral landscape through an overwhelming physical metaphor: the introduction of Brutalist architecture into old France. Jean Gabin of The Grand Illusion stars as an aging thief who’s fresh out of jail and appalled at what’s happened to his old neighborhood, where once elegant houses have been replaced by soulless high-rise apartment buildings. It doesn’t bode well for his ambition: one last heist, for which he recruits young and dashing, but inexperienced, Alain Delon. This meeting of two acting legends is backed up by a catchy jazz score from Michel Magne, whose title theme was a U.S. chart hit thanks to organist Jimmy Smith.
Pale Flower (1964)
This haunting crime drama, directed by Masahiro Shinoda, shifts one of the key leitmotifs of film noir—bad luck—to a distinctly Japanese setting. Muraki (Ryō Ikebe) is a middle-aged yakuza who’s been released from prison for a murder sentence, and he has no remorse … for killing, at least. Back on the scene, he frequents high-stakes gambling dens, where he meets the beautiful, hard-living Saeko (Mariko Kaga). The pair have a simmering chemistry, and the black-and-white cinematography paints Tokyo in a seedy, neon-drenched light. But the film’s most startling element may be Toru Takemitsu’s fantastic score, which uses traditional Japanese instruments in an unsettling din that seems to give voice to the inner demons bubbling under these seemingly emotionless figures. Shinoda went on to direct Silence, based on the same source that inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film, as well as the gorgeous 1975 horror movie Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees, and that track record proved he could do anything.
…And the Fifth Horseman is Fear (1965)
The absurdism of the Czech new wave brings film noir to the land of Kafka in director Zbyněk Brynych’s dazzling drama set during the Holocaust, the embodiment of existential doom. Miroslav Machácek stars as Dr. Braun, a Jewish doctor forbidden to practice in Nazi-occupied Prague. When an injured resistance fighter comes for help, Braun, in search of morphine, is forced to navigate a nightmarish city of brothels, gambling houses, and mental institutions as he tries to evade German officers. This political crime drama plays off the anxious noir mood to create a horrific invading bureaucracy that resonated in Czechoslovakia’s mid-’60s Communist dictatorship. With an unsettling, neurotic rhythm, driven in part by Jiří Sternwald’s nervous jazz score, noir’s black-and-white visuals become even more disorienting and the meticulously arranged geometric compositions are pregnant with meaning, like a wall full of clocks confiscated from Jews, representing their lost life and times. This is the dark tale of a man and a people consumed by fear of reprisals and threatened by their very government.
The Housemaid (1960)
The alienation central to film noir can be an almost spiritual malaise, as ex-cons and law-abiding citizens alike barrel down the road to vice, unable to find any refuge of goodness in a world gone wrong. This masterpiece of domestic horror was one of Bong Joon-ho’s inspirations for his Oscar-winning Parasite, and depicts a dark world where even a seemingly respectable middle-class milieu becomes a hotbed of death and derangement. On the surface, the Kims seem like a happy, prosperous family. Mr. Kim (Kim Jin-kyu) teaches piano to factory workers and his wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo) works as a seamstress at home. They’ve just moved into a new and bigger house with their two children, and the dynamic at work and home begins to go haywire after a factory girl sends Mr. Kim a love letter, which in a complex, fateful sequence of events leads him to hire Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim) as a live-in maid. Delirious and unpredictable, The Housemaid unfolds on dark and stormy nights under the specter of a household dramatic device that we could call Chekhov’s rat poison. The more time we spend with the Kims, the more we see their cruelty to each other, like Kim’s son regularly mocking his sister with polio as she struggles to walk. Director Kim Ki-young, who went on to direct the even more unhinged 1972 film The Insect Woman, extracts a dark entertainment out of his increasingly demonic characters, who plummet into a seemingly unending horror. It’s perhaps the least ostensibly noir-like film in the festival, but seen among more conventional noir plots, it seems to give birth to its own delicious sub-genre.