My Top 5 Favorite Watches of Noirvember 2021
Find some recommendations for your marathon next year.
What is Noirvember?
Between the spooks and scares of Halloween movies and the feel-good sentimentality of the holiday season’s rotation, many movie buffs spend the month of November with their own marathon of classic film noir.
Film noir is commonly associated with hard-boiled private dicks, femme fatales, dimly-lit urban streets, flashbacks, flashforwards — these are the signature pieces. However, film noir has now grown to include those films that are inspired by these tropes and traditions.
The films that I watched spanned eight decades (from 1941–2021), from noir to neo-noir. You can see everything that I watched here and you can find my top five below. I recommend each of these films to both noir fanatics and newbies.
#5: The Stranger (1946)
A man working for the War Crimes Commission suspects that an important Nazi official has folded himself into a quaint Connecticut town.
It had been four years since Orson Welles had directed a movie as his reputation had slipped following production on Journey into Fear. He needed a project to show that he could deliver a film under budget and on time. The Stranger proved to be that very project.
Clearly there was a lot of pressure in the director’s chair, but Welles also decided to not only play the film’s antagonist, but a Nazi at that — just a few shorts months after the end of WWII.
The guts that takes is really unbelievable.
And he pulls it off, too.
Surrounded by strong performances from Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young, Welles gives a great villainous performance while deftly steering the project behind the camera. The film is tense and surprising — if the premise isn’t enough to suck you in, the tension of the first ten minutes will. And you’ll ride that wave all the way to the end.
#4: The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
A tale of murder, crime and punishment set in the summer of 1949. Ed Crane, a barber in a small California town, is dissatisfied with his life, but his wife Doris’ infidelity and a mysterious opportunity presents him with a chance to change it.
Inspired by the likes of classics like Mildred Pierce, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Double Indemnity, the Coen Brothers were able to bring more than a few decades worth of noir influences to their take on the classic genre.
For this picture, the homage all starts with the black and white. It’s no surprise that legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins did great work behind the camera, but it’s even more impressive that the studio required them to film the movie in color for international markets, meaning he did all of this excellent work largely on his preparation and foresight.
The performances throughout the entire cast are memorable (including Coen-favorite and Joel’s wife Frances McDormand and relative newcomer Scarlett Johansson), but Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane is the real star of the show. He really soaks up all of the classic noir narration he gets, while also bringing the Coen quality that their movies are so known for. He fits right into their puzzle of older influences and fresh flavors easily and is a real natural for their style.
I feel like this movie isn’t as often discussed as other Coen favorites, but I think it gives many of those a run for their money.
#3: Five Minutes to Live (1961)
A guitar playing killer terrorizes a housewife while his partner robs the bank where her husband works.
Five Minutes to Live is one of the few Johnny Cash performances (he also sings the title song which I promise you will get stuck in your head) and he chews up every bit of scenery he can. It’s awesome. As a big Cash fan, it’s a treat to not only watch him play such a bastardly role, but it seems like he’s really having fun with it — it’s a shame he didn’t act more.
I must be honest — the film is sort of a difficult watch. Not because of the film itself (which is really exciting and earnest), but because it seems impossible to watch a high-quality version. The movie is in the public domain and it seems to be stuck in that bottom-shelf limbo. But it’s practically begging for a nice restoration on a solid Blu-ray release. I think it could really take off with some love and care.
#2: In a Lonely Place (1950)
An aspiring actress begins to suspect that her temperamental boyfriend is a murderer.
There’s a reason everyone cites the line, “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” Not only is it beautifully written, but it captures the film perfectly. Just read that again and tell me you don’t want to see this movie.
Not sold yet? It’s got one of the all-star teams of the time making it happen: it’s directed with a locomotive-like energy by Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause, Johnny Guitar, They Live by Night) with the luminous Gloria Grahame (It’s A Wonderful Life, Oklahoma!) and a truly terrifying performance from noir legend Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep).
I have to admit that I wasn’t so sure about it at the beginning but it just got better and better — and what an ending! It’s billed as “The Bogart suspense picture with the surprise ending!” and it totally delivers.
#1: Under the Silver Lake (2018)
Young and disenchanted Sam meets a mysterious and beautiful woman who’s swimming in his building’s pool one night. When she suddenly vanishes the next morning, Sam embarks on a surreal quest across Los Angeles to decode the secret behind her disappearance, leading him into the murkiest depths of mystery, scandal and conspiracy.
I almost didn’t want to put a modern film at the top of this list. It almost didn’t feel quite right. However, I feel as though Under the Silver Lake takes all of these noir traditions and tropes and flips them in a way that only a film distanced by this many decades post-height of the genre can do.
A down-on-his-luck “detective”, seedy underbellies, a twisted Los Angeles, the desired woman, growing paranoia — all of these things are present in this neo-noir, but they’re all presented in such a surprising way that really deconstruct the genre. And it is all wild.
Also, I can relate with the plight of Sam (a sharp Andrew Garfield) and the journey he goes on. I, too, would attend every party in Los Angeles, decode secret messages, and almost get killed many times just to find Riley Keough.
Credit: Each plot synopsis comes from Letterboxd via TMDb.