A List of Ten Lesser-Known-Yet-Exceptional Film Noirs

Our previous picture show curated a list of ten well-known film noirs (A List of Ten Must-See Film Noirs). Now we’re flipping the script: a list of ten lesser-known (albeit exceptional) film noirs.

We’re also expanding our time horizon to include movies beyond the putative 1948 or 1949 film-noir apogee.

Draw the blinds, dim the lights, and prepare a highball (or two) of whiskey. No, it isn’t bedtime — it’s noir o’clock.

First, a trailer:

  • Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
  • Time Table (1956)
  • While the City Sleeps (1956)
  • I Walk Alone (1947)
  • Dead Reckoning (1947)
  • Pitfall (1948)
  • Crime Wave (1953)
  • Cry Danger (1951)
  • Woman on the Run (1950)
  • Raw Deal (1948)

Let the picture show begin:

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). Barbara Stanwyck.

You’d think that a motion picture starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster would garner more longstanding ballyhoo, yet Sorry, Wrong Number — a gem to film noir fans in its own right — managed to go under the public radar and lack the kind of cachet compared to other films with either of the aforementioned actors, let alone the two of them combined in one production.

Sorry, Wrong Number is a story of invalid Leona Stevenson, played by Barbara Stanwyck, who, when alone one night in her posh Sutton Place apartment in New York City, accidentally overhears a scheme of a soon-to-happen murder on the telephone line and tries to stop it.

Burt Lancaster plays Henry J. Stevenson, Leona’s husband, while Ann Richards, Wendell Corey, Ed Begley, and William Conrad make up a well-rounded supporting cast full of noir veterans.

Director Anatole Litvak builds the film’s tension and suspense to a boiling point in the catastasis, all enhanced by wonderful noir-style cinematography and lighting.

We highly recommend watching this picture and charging it to your noir calling card. If your telephone provider calls about the purchase, tell them, “Sorry, wrong number.”

Time Table (1956)

Time Table (1956). Mark Stevens and Felicia Farr.

Mark Stevens was an actor who played in a couple of notable film noirs in the ’40s (The Street with No Name and The Dark Corner). Ambitious, Stevens carved a more directorial path for himself in the ’50s and produced a picture with his own production company. That film was called Time Table — a crime drama about a handsome payroll heisted from a train.

When the railroad insurance company investigates the claim on the insured payroll dough, the insurance team is stymied at every turn as they try to unravel what happened. Mark Stevens acts in the leading role as Charlie Norman, an investigator on the insurance team disillusioned with his quotidian, less-than-remunerative job. Ensembled is a seedy supporting cast consisting of Wesley Addy, Jack Klugman, and aphrodisiacal Felicia Farr as Charlie Norman’s inamorata.

This film may be one of the least recognized pictures on this list, even to most cinephiles. The script is well-written, and the acting delivers. Suspenseful, no doubt, this movie will surprise you and have you saying, “That wasn’t part of the timetable!”

While the City Sleeps (1956)

While the City Sleeps (1956). Left to right: Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell, and Ida Lupino.

“LIPSTICK KILLER STRIKES AGAIN,” stains the headlines in the paper. A serial murderer targeting attractive women is on the loose in a big city, and journalists of one of the city’s most reputable rags are eager to follow his every move and be the first to report his capture. At least that’s how the story goes in our next thrilling picture, While the City Sleeps.

Well-established director and émigré Fritz Lang leads production on this ’50s newspaper drama/crime thriller. George Sanders stars as Mark Loving, alongside his colleagues Jon Day Griffith, played by Thomas Mitchell, and ‘honest’ Harry Kritzer, performed by James Craig. The characters are all trying to be the first to solve the case of the “lipstick killer,” as part of a contest in which the winner earns a sought-after executive promotion at the paper dangled in front of them by the media company’s top banana. Dana Andrews plays a lead role in the film as Edward Mobley, a journalist in league with Jon Day Griffith in his quest for the prize promotion. Vincent Price is another notable co-star as the reluctant heir to his late father’s media company.

There is no shortage of romance in this flick with incredible performances from Ida Lupino, Rhonda Fleming, and Sally Forrest. Also, John Barrymore Jr. plays Robert Manners, a.k.a. the “lipstick killer.” (This is not a spoiler as the audience knows who the killer is at the film's onset.)

Filmmaker Fritz Lang was an ace at his craft. Working with a compelling story and a deep bench of stars and supporting actors, he made While the City Sleeps into a treasured noir.

I Walk Alone (1947)

I Walk Alone (1947). Left to right: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Lizabeth Scott.

Our next showing has a couple of things in common with an earlier film on our list, Sorry, Wrong Number: Hal Wallis produced both, and both star with Burt Lancaster, albeit in quite different roles.

In I Walk Alone, Burt Lancaster plays Frankie Madison, an ex-convict who went to the icebox in the ’20s after taking the rap for prohibition charges as his bootlegging partner, Noll ‘Dink’ Turner, played with suave vanity by Kirk Douglas, evaded conviction.

Many years later, in the ’40s, after serving his time, Frankie returns to New York City, where he finds Noll living comfortably as the owner of a high society club. That’s where he meets Kay Lawrence, played by the wonderful Lizabeth Scott, the club’s torch singer and Noll’s latest romantic distraction. Frankie, embittered by having to take the rap alone for Noll, wants retribution and his slice of the pie. Noll, however, doesn’t give in so easily.

Wendell Corey, Kristine Miller, and a brutish Mike Mazurki have stellar supporting performances in this picture.

In some ways, there’s an undertone in Frankie Madison’s character that carries an ethos arguably reminiscent of Willy Loman in The Death of a Salesman: a man from the roaring ’20s trying to catch up to the flying ’40s, a man feeling left behind and struggling to keep up with the times, albeit not as desperately or despondently as Willy Loman.

I Walk Alone is a great picture and a must-see for those who cherish ’40s noir.

Dead Reckoning (1947)

Dead Reckoning (1947). Lizabeth Scott and Humphrey Bogart.

Another picture starring Lizabeth Scott, Dead Reckoning, is the story of WWII captain ‘Rip’ Murdock’s search for this war-time buddy who took a powder while en route to receive the Medal of Honor.

Humphrey Bogart, an actor who needs no introduction, plays Murdock, who, on his investigation into the whereabouts of his friend, Lt. Kincaid, meets Coral ‘Dusty Mike’ Chandler, played by husky-voiced actress Lizabeth Scott. Morris Carnovsky and Wallace Ford appear in supporting roles and are no strangers to the noir genre.

There’s a darker, grimmer undertone to the script and cinematography that lends itself well to this post-WWII noir. Thrills and treachery abound in Dead Reckoning, and the on-screen chemistry between Scott and Bogart is palpable.

Pitfall (1948)

Pitfall (1948). Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott.

The third time’s the charm — so here’s Lizabeth Scott on our list for a third consecutive film. This time it's Pitfall, a 1948 noir steeped in infidelity and perfidious lovers.

Dick Powell stars as John Forbes, a wry insurance adjuster, who, after stewing in bouts of ennui with his prosaic job and staid family life, decides to change things up when temptress Mona Stevens, played by Lizabeth Scott, walks into his life. Forbes begins surreptitiously seeing Stevens while her oafish loverboy, J.B. MacDonald, played by Raymond Burr, is in prison. However, when he’s released and Stevens no longer reciprocates his advances, trouble soon follows.

Dick Powell is witty as ever in this film, and Raymond Burr delivers a creepy and loathsome performance. Lizabeth Scott is wonderful and compelling, as usual. Jane Wyatt plays Sue Forbes, John’s dutiful wife. (Although Wyatt had a knack for playing wholesome characters, she has occasionally been cast in depraved roles in the genre, such as her part in The Man Who Cheated Himself.)

For an under-the-radar noir at the height of the genre, Pitfall proves to be a humdinger: sardonic dialogue and moody cinematography all wrapped up into an exciting plot with deviant characters.

Crime Wave (1953)

Crime Wave (1953). Left to right: Gene Nelson, Phyllis Kirk, and Sterling Hayden.

Director André de Toth crafts a wonderfully noir picture in Crime Wave, a story of an ex-con torn between harboring a fugitive friend fleeing the law and his newfound allegiance to divorcing himself from his criminal past.

Steve Lacey, the parolee, played by Gene Nelson, is pitted between helping his miscreant former cellmate and cooperating with the authorities, causing him to draw a line between his former life and his new one, in which he and his wife, played by Phyllis Kirk, are striving to be upstanding citizens moving on from Steve’s delinquencies of yore. Sterling Hayden is the incorrigible detective lieutenant Sims, who stolidly stomps out crime and has an apparent distrust for Lacey (a ‘once a crook, always a crook’ kind of insular mentality).

We also can’t talk about Crime Wave without mentioning uncredited actor Timothy Carey, who delivers perhaps one of the most compelling performances of a deranged character in noir. (There’s a scene where Carey’s character falls down a steep set of stairs, and it’s incredibly convincing — because it was real. That’s right.) How he contorts his face to evince visceral or disturbing expressions is scarily good.

This early ’50s noir carries some of the hackneyed noir tropes, such as the ex-con clawed back into their checkered past and having to make a defining line in the sand on their allegiances and the person they want to be. Overall, Crime Wave’s excellent acting, cinematography, score, and writing produce a well-made “indie” classic for the noir archives.

Cry Danger (1951)

Cry Danger (1951). Left to right: Regis Toomey, Dick Powell, and Richard Erdman.

Danger! Dames! Dick Powell! All of this and more can be found in Robert Parrish’s 1951 picture, Cry Danger.

Powell plays Rocky Mulloy, an ex-con turned detective who tries to find out who committed the crime that he and his friend were framed for. Rhonda Fleming is Nancy Morgan, wife of Rocky’s friend who’s still in jail. Richard Erdman plays a sot named Delong, Rocky’s roommate and companion. William Conrad is Louis Castro, contemptible foe of Rocky Mulloy. Regis Toomey, Jean Porter, and Jay Adler are cast in supporting roles.

As usual, Dick Powell’s mordant humour is cynical and witty. Also, Parrish shot most of the picture in Bunker Hill, a neighborhood in L.A. There are plenty of noir-style shots at night in seedy trailer parks, as well as shots of downtown L.A.

While an ex-con trying to clear his name isn’t a groundbreaking premise for a noir, Cry Danger has plenty of thrills, witty dialogue, tragedy, and subterfuge that make it a compelling watch.

Woman on the Run (1950)

Woman on the Run (1950). Dennis O’Keefe and Ann Sheridan.

Beautifully shot in San Francisco, Woman on the Run tells the story of Eleanor Johnson, played by Ann Sheridan, whose husband, Frank Johnson, played by Ross Elliott, witnesses a gang murder in their neighborhood and narrowly escapes.

Afraid that the killer will find him, Frank Johnson goes into hiding as the police and his wife — aided by journalist Legget of the Graphic, played by Dennis O’Keefe —search for Frank. Although most of the film is centered around finding Frank before the killer does, the film’s main star is actress Ann Sheridan as Eleanor Johnson, Frank’s wife.

Throughout the search, Eleanor, who seems emotionally detached from Frank, comes to terms with their marriage's decay. The film is rife with witty persiflage and sharp criticisms of marriage in American society.

The film’s roller-coaster ending kicks the tension and suspense into high gear. Packed with banter, emotional insight, and suspense, Woman on the Run is a noir that both surprises and excites.

Raw Deal (1948)

Raw Deal (1948). Left to right: Dennis O’Keefe, Marsha Hunt, and Claire Trevor.

Gangster Joe Sullivan may have gotten a raw deal, but you’re bound to get your money’s worth in this noir.

Raw Deal stars Dennis O’Keefe as Joe Sullivan, a man who took the rap for his mob boss Ricky Coyle, played by Raymond Burr. (Burr was usually cast as mobster antagonists in films. His broad shoulders and brooding torso, coupled with his callous mien, were hallmarks of his villainy on the screen.) However, when an intentionally-flawed escape plan shows that his boss tried to rub him out, Joe flees captivity, running from the cops and searching for Ricky to settle the score.

Claire Trevor and Marsha Hunt are excellent in their roles as Pat Regan and Ann Martin, two very different dames. John Ireland, Whit Bissell, and Regis Toomey are additional supporting actors.

For a gangster betrayal-and-revenge noir, Raw Deal is melodramatic, climactic, emotionally fraught, and cynically macabre.

There could be many more noir films to add to this list, but we’ll stop the projector reel and close the curtains here.

We hope you enjoyed the picture show!

Writer. Musician. Super 8 filmmaker. Crossword puzzle creator. Associate at fintech company.

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