Film noir remains one of the most popular, influential, and distinct cinematic genres to come out of Hollywood. With its collocation of shadows, harsh lighting, wise-cracking gangsters, tough private eyes, convoluted plots, and general air of mystery and menace, it’s no surprise that the film noir genre is responsible for some of the most beloved and critically acclaimed films to ever come out of tinsel town.
But while many people are familiar with film noir owning to films like ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946) and ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944), there are other, lesser known films to come out of the same era that, while not achieving the same level of attention or critical acclaim, are cinematic gems in their own right, even if they are sometimes a bit more rough or unpolished than their better-known brethren.
In lieu of examining some of the more better known film noirs to come out of Hollywood during this time, here is a list consisting of five classic “underrated” film noirs that, in no particular order, show that while not all film noirs are perfect, even the rougher, lesser known among them still deserves a view or two, if only because they add another dimension to the already well-trotted and well-known cinematic genre.
I Wake Up Screaming (aka Hot Spot)
An underrated classic, H. Bruce Humberstone's I Wake Up Screaming (1941) is a wonderful gem of film that boasts an interesting mystery, and the lighthearted tune of “Over the Rainbow” as a part of its soundtrack. When promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is accused of murdering Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), an actress he recently discovered, he eventually sets out with Vicky’s sister, Jill (Betty Grable), to try to prove his innocence and find the real killer along the way.
Although the evidence against him is circumstantial at best, things become complicated for Frankie owning to the involvement of the unscrupulous and menacing Inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar), who makes it quite clear to Frankie that he intends to pin the murder of Vicky Lynn on him, whether he’s guilty of the crime or not.
Although lead actor Mature is hardly the greatest leading man of the 1940’s (or any decade for the matter), Humberstone’s ‘I Wake Up Screaming’ still remains a terrific and engaging tale of mystery and suspense. Despite the fact that we, the audience, know that Frankie is innocent of Vicky’s murder, the film still captivates us because of the character of Ed Cornell – or rather, because of the acting of underrated actor, Laird Cregar.
Cregar is mesmerizing as the silk-voiced, bulking detective who is determined to railroad Frankie and pin the crime of Vicky’s murder on him. Soft-spoken but utterly menacing, what makes’ Creger’s Ed Cornell so fascinating is that his reasons for attempting to railroad Frankie Christopher remain an utter mystery throughout most of the film – so much so that the mystery of ‘why’ Cornell is trying to railroad Frankie is even more important and central than the mystery of who killed Vicky Lynn.
Thus, coupled with the fact that lead actress Betty Grable manages to make up for Mature’s lack of charisma and inject some much needed chemistry and enthusiasm into the scenes they share, help to elevate ‘I Wake Up Screaming’ from its B-movie status, and transform it into an underrated and underappreciated film noir classic.
At just under 70 minutes, Edgar G. Ulmer’s pessimistic and fatalistic ‘Detour’ (1945) stars Tom Neal as Al Roberts, a piano-player who starts to spill his story to police after being charged with several murders. According to Roberts, he was hitchhiking across California when passing motorist Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmond McDonald) picked him up and offered him a lift.
After Charles mysteriously dies, Al -- fearing he'll be blamed for the death -- dumps Haskell's body and then takes off with the dead man’s identity and car. Soon after, Al picks up another hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage), who as it happens, had ridden earlier with the real Haskell. After learning the truth, Vera quickly blackmails Al, threatening to turn him in for murder unless he agrees to do whatever she asks.
Though a bit rough-around-the-edges at times, Ulmer's ‘Detour’ is still a classic and a well-made film in its own right. Atmosphere plays a large role in continued interest in Ulmer’s film, as a palpable sense of gloom and doom can be felt in practically every scene, and adds a portentous dimension to the film that makes it rather captivating to watch.
Are Tom Neal and Ann Savage some of the greatest actors of their time? Probably not, but while their individual skills might not be up to snuff with some of their contemporary film noir stars, Neal and Savage’s bitter back-and-forth patter in ‘Detour’ is a lot of fun to watch as the two “frenemies” bicker with each other, and seem to be on the constant verge of murdering the other to be rid of them.
Although shot on the shoe-string budget and made quicker than most films, Ulmer’s ‘Detour’ remains a wonderful, if at times shoddy, picture that remains as fascinating today as it was when it first debuted (and, due to a mistake on the copyright holder’s part, also remains in the public domain, meaning it’s the only film on this list that you can watch for free).
Sleep, My Love
Douglas Sirk's ‘Sleep, My Love’ (1948) stars Claudette Colbert as Alison Courtland, a rich heiress who wakes up in the middle of the night aboard a train with a gun but no memory of how she got there. Returning home some hours later, Alison discovers, to her shock and horror, that she had taken a shot at her husband Richard (Don Ameche), though the latter forgives her, and has her start sessions with a “doctor” named Charles Varney (George Coulouris) in hopes of curing her of her sleep-shooting and memory loss. However, it’s quickly revealed to the audience that Charles is hardly a doctor, or that Richard is anything but a loving husband, and that Alison’s life rests in the hands of a handsome stranger by the name of Bruce Elcott (Robert Cummings).
A rather odd picture involving hypnosis, psychological manipulation and murder, Sirk’s ‘Sleep, My Love’ certainly sets itself apart from the other more familiar film noirs with its more fantastical elements, though sadly these aren’t enough to make the film as memorable as it could’ve been.
Claudette Colbert is certainly talented enough for the damsel-in-distress role she is given (actually, she deserves better than what the script provides her with), and Coulouris is perfect as the demented Svengalisque manipulator, but Sirk’s film could’ve benefited from a different male lead, as well as well other cast changes to help with an otherwise interesting and peculiar picture.
‘Sleep, My Love’ might not be as well-made or crafted as the two previously mentioned films on this list, but it is still an interesting film in its own right, and one that provides enough interesting elements to deserve at least one viewing, but probably no more than that, owning to its lackluster cast and its (even by film noir standards) convoluted plot involving hypnosis-based murder.
Anthony Mann's ‘Railroaded!’ (1947) stars Hugh Beaumont as Police Sgt. Mickey Ferguson, the lead detective on a robbery-turned-murder case who is initial skeptical of suspect Steve Ryan's (Ed Kelley) innocence, believing that no one else but him could’ve perpetrated the murder. However, all that begins to change when Ryan's beautiful sister Rosie (Sheila Ryan) throws herself headfirst into the case in hopes of proving her brother's innocence, as well as attracting the attention of Detective Ferguson.
Hugh Beaumont certainly does a reputable job as the film's hero, though there's nothing about him that’s particularly original, or makes him stand out. He isn't terrible or unwatchable by any means, but neither is he the most memorable film noir hero to ever grace the silver-screen. However, Ryan’s plucky and enthusiastic Rosie helps to make up for Beaumont’s at times sanctimonious performance, as does the film’s true star, John Ireland, playing the film’s villain, Duke Martin.
Ireland’s Martin, a greasy and cut-throat crook with an odd penchant for perfuming his bullets before he puts them in his victim's guts, practically steals the show as he goes after Rosie, and attempts to insulate himself between the girl and the detective investigating the murder he and his gang are connected to. His oleaginous charisma and at times scene-chewing delivery results in a fun and entertaining performance that, at times, can be downright ominous and frightening, as Ireland bounces back-and-forth between hammy and horrifying.
Although clichéd at times to the point of being ridiculous, ultimately Anthony Mann’s ‘Railroaded!’ is a lost film noir gem full with interesting (if not original) characters, well-paced plotting, and a climatic shootout between a clean-cut cop and psychopathic killer that serves as a traditional, yet strangely satisfying end to a competently made and underrated film noir.