10 great New York noirs

With the classic thriller Cry of the City, filmed on the streets of Little Italy, out on BFI Blu-ray and DVD, we take a walk on the wild side with 10 of the best film noirs set in New York.

16 April 2015

By Sam Wigley

Cry of the City (1948)

Like 1980s hip-hop, film noir has a New York axis and an LA axis and each variety has its own special flavour. Los Angeles noirs call to mind Orson Welles’s description of the city as a “bright, guilty place”, where sex, sin and corruption play out amid the boulevards, nightclubs, sprawling hillside villas and towering palms. In New York, everything is closer and noisier: you can get dirt under your fingernails just watching these claustrophobic thrillers set in a city of rattling subways, tenement buildings, sleazy cocktail bars and sweaty courtrooms.

Other cities also figured in this great wave of 1940s and 50s crime films, but these two metropolises on either coast held sway. Of course, it was all Hollywood product: the New York noirs were made – and not always in New York – by Hollywood studios and filmmakers. But, in the immediate postwar years, NYC was at the centre of a new studio trend for shooting on location. Inspired by Italian neorealist films such as Rome, Open City (1945) and Shoeshine (1946), and the immediacy of the work of tabloid crime photographers such as Weegee, American filmmakers added a fresh, gritty edge to thrillers such as Kiss of Death (1947), Force of Evil (1948) and Side Street (1949) by taking their cameras onto the streets of the five boroughs.

Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948) is one of the best films to have emerged from this trend for docu-noir. Set on the streets of Little Italy, it stars Victor Mature and Richard Conte as one-time friends who now find themselves on different sides of the law: Martin Rome (Conte) is a hardened criminal recuperating under police arrest after a shootout that left a policeman dead, while Lieutenant Candella (Mature) is the cop determined to bring him to justice.

With Cry of the City out on BFI Blu-ray and DVD, we set our watches to New York time and round up 10 more memorable noir classics set in the Big Apple.

Phantom Lady (1944)

Director: Robert Siodmak

Phantom Lady (1944)

Phantom Lady was released in February of 1944, the year that the film noir style really started to gather momentum. Double Indemnity, Laura, The Woman in the Window and Murder, My Sweet all followed that autumn – and if Robert Siodmak’s film is any less well known than those films, it can only be down to its lack of star power. In the shadows and intrigue department it really delivers.

Engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is imprisoned for the murder of his estranged wife. His story about being out with a woman he’d picked up in a bar that night can’t be corroborated – the enigmatic woman has disappeared, and everyone who saw them together claims Scott was alone. In the intoxicating mystery thriller that follows, it’s up to his smitten secretary Carol (Ella Raines) to prove his innocence. Highlights include an atmospheric nocturnal scene on the New York subway platform as Carol is followed by an edgy barman who knows his guilty secret is up. Even more memorably, there’s a pre-Whiplash jazz drumming scene in a Manhattan club that’s a mini-masterpiece of rhythm, silhouettes and canted angles, as lusty loser Elisha Cook Jr beats out a solo with orgiastic energy.

Scarlet Street (1945)

Director: Fritz Lang

Scarlet Street (1945)

As this list progresses, there’ll be more talk of noirs set in New York coinciding with a Hollywood trend for realism and location shooting. Fritz Lang’s Greenwich Village-set melodrama Scarlet Street belongs to the other kind: it was filmed entirely on sound stages in California, in a Manhattan of the mind.

Edward G. Robinson is Chris Cross, a meek painter who we first meet at a work party celebrating his 25 years of service as a cashier. He’s unfulfilled and stuck in a loveless marriage, his life passing by in drudgery and compromise. Enter Joan Bennett as Kitty – the leggy answer to his lustful middle-aged dreams, but a cruel femme fatale who will use his gullibility, physical yearning and artistic modesty to all but destroy him. Scarlet Street is a companion piece to Lang’s previous film, The Woman in the Window, reteaming Robinson and Bennett, and with slimy self-interest provided by Dan Duryea – the actor behind some of noir’s most memorable low-lifes. Both films belong firmly in the noir pantheon, though Scarlet Street needs to be stored there with a health warning: 70 years after it was released, its bleakness remains total and crushing.

The Dark Corner (1946)

Director: Henry Hathaway

The Dark Corner (1946)

Critic Andrew Sarris called this “a poor man’s Laura”, and he’s right, but when you’ve seen Laura that umpteenth time The Dark Corner offers more than enough pleasures of its own. Like Otto Preminger’s classic, it involves a downtown detective (Mark Stevens) who gets caught up in a nefarious mystery in a more well-heeled part of New York – in this case, the Fifth Avenue art world.

Clifton Webb all but reprises his villainous aesthete role from Laura, playing acid-tongued art dealer Hardy Cathcart. “Art is the only ecstasy left that isn’t immoral or illegal,” Cathcart claims at one point, later insisting that “I’m clean as a peeled egg” – yet he fairly drips with sin and superiority. Lucille Ball is on hand as the detective’s secretary, there’s a smattering of vivid shots on the streets of Manhattan, and it’s all stylishly directed by Henry Hathaway – not least in an apartment murder scene that’s drenched in shadow and in which the sound of jazz filters up from the street. Watch out for glimpses of the long-demolished Third Avenue L, an elevated railway in Manhattan and the Bronx that was a popular location for many films of this era, including fellow noirs The Naked City (1948), The Window (1949) and Side Street.

Kiss of Death (1947)

Director: Henry Hathaway

Kiss of Death (1947)

Director Henry Hathaway has his name on a number of important postwar New York noirs – not just The Dark Corner, but the semi-documentary The House on 92nd Street (1945); Fourteen Hours (1951), the original man-on-a-ledge suspenser; and this gritty moral drama about a convict, Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), who turns informer.

This is the one in which Richard Widmark made his unforgettable screen debut as the delinquent psychopath Tommy Udo; he with the manic giggle and the propensity to push wheelchair-bound old ladies down stairs – a landmark in screen sadism. When Nick first meets him behind bars, Tommy tells him he’s in there for “shoving a guy’s ears off his head – traffic ticket stuff”. Tommy is one of noir’s most memorable ne’er-do-wells, lighting up what could have been a rather dour thriller. The film begins at Christmas time with a suspenseful heist high up inside the Chrysler Building – one of many real-life New York and New Jersey locations used throughout the film.

The Naked City (1948)

Director: Jules Dassin

The Naked City (1948)

This 1948 police procedural thriller is an interesting Hollywood chapter in the international postwar trend for capturing the real world – a movie self-consciously shot entirely on location on the streets of New York. This was far from the first time that a Hollywood film had used extensive location shooting; what was new was the simultaneous attempt (inspired by Italian neorealism) to get at the truth about life in a seething modern metropolis.

It’s all set during a hot New York summer, and hinges on the efforts of a homicide detective (Barry Fitzgerald) to investigate the murder of a former model, who we see being drowned in her bathtub in the opening moments. For all the vivid footage around the city, however, it’s the storytelling artifice that may strike us now – particularly the omniscient narration which plucks this story from many and encourages our protagonist this way and that. “There are eight million stories in the naked city,” goes the famous closing narration, “This has been one of them.” Perhaps on another day, our story might have been a comedy or a musical, but this time it was a film noir – with all the stylisation, dramatic emphasis and bent realism that that suggests.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Director: Anatole Litvak

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

An early example of the home invasion thriller, Sorry, Wrong Number stars Barbara Stanwyck as Leona Stevenson, a bedridden neurotic who overhears a phone conversation on a faulty line that convinces her that she is to be murdered that evening.

It’s based on a popular 1943 radio play by Lucille Fletcher, which Orson Welles once called “the greatest single radio play ever written”. He should know, of course, though 70 years later the film adaptation feels scuppered by its flashback structure, in which Leona slowly pieces together the mystery of why somebody would want to kill her – and exactly what part her absent husband (Burt Lancaster) plays in it all. If her mystery solving feels contrived, however, and the momentum somewhat laggardly, there’s still much to recommend: Stanwyck’s Oscar-nominated escalation to shrill hysteria, a moody and mysterious interlude on Staten Island, and the palpable sensation – now as then – that there’s nothing so scary as an intruder in the house when you’re alone at night.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Director: Otto Preminger

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

The water sluicing down a pavement drain in the opening shot of Where the Sidewalk Ends prepares us for another classic noir wallow in the gutter. This is the third of a trio of noirs starring Dana Andrews and directed by Otto Preminger, following the upmarket NY thrills of Laura (1944) and the East Coast gem Fallen Angel (1945).

Here Andrews is Mark Dixon, an NYC detective whose rough methods with the criminals he so hates (his father was one) get him into deep trouble after he accidentally kills a man. This being a Twentieth Century Fox production, Preminger’s film has a harder, more realistic edge than many film noirs, with evocative location work in Washington Heights complementing a sense of the morally corrosive quality of the big city that prefigures films from On Dangerous Ground (1951) to Taxi Driver (1976). Preminger regular Gene Tierney plays a cabbie’s conflicted daughter, who falls for Dixon even as he inadvertently puts her father under suspicion of the murder.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Director: Sam Fuller

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Sam Fuller’s in-your-face Cold War-era noir is an example of the genre at its most forceful and economic, showing just what can done within an 80-minute running time if the director has enough verve, imagination and sheer pulp energy – three things Fuller had bags of. Things kick off in the sticky heat of a New York subway train. Two men are eyeing up a beautiful fellow passenger, Candy (Jean Peters) – we later find out they’re surveillance men, so their voyeurism is strictly professional. Then Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) shuffles toward her in the carriage, and his invasion is bolder still, maintaining an insolent stare as he fishes her purse from her handbag.

Six years after his debut in Kiss of Death, Widmark is no less fantastic here as the pickpocket who unknowingly becomes a spare part in an anti-communist sting; in Candy’s purse is a microfilm that American intelligence hopes will lead them to a network of communists. Skip lives in a shack on the East River, right by the Brooklyn Bridge – a detail that suggests how creative films of this era could be in their depictions of the city.

While the City Sleeps (1956)

Director: Fritz Lang

While the City Sleeps (1956)

Like Scarlet Street, this later film noir from Fritz Lang (his penultimate film in Hollywood) never actually sets foot in the real New York. The newspaper office, the apartments, the bar, even the few streets in what is a very interior film – they were all done in California. You can tell, but it never detracts from what doubles as a brilliant press drama and a serial killer thriller. It centres on a struggle for power at a Manhattan media conglomerate. After the death of its owner, his playboy son (Vincent Price) offers leadership of the company to whichever of the senior staff can bag an exclusive on the capture of the ‘Lipstick Killer’ who’s terrorising the city by night.

Of course, Lang all but invented the serial killer film with M (1931), and like that classic, While the City Sleeps is as fascinated with the machinations of society – specifically, the police and the media – as it is with the killer. This is surely among the first films to show how TV had become entrenched in the way we consume news, with Dana Andrews on splendid form as the boozy celebrity newscaster who’ll happily use his own fiancée as psycho bait.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Where Fritz Lang had gone with While the City Sleeps, Boston-born Scottish director Alexander Mackendrick pounced with this 1957 masterpiece, perhaps cinema’s definitive satire on the venality of the gutter press.

Even the social critique of his Ealing farce The Man in the White Suit (1951) was insufficient warning for the acid Mackendrick pours on here, having come to Hollywood in the mid-50s, leaving Ealing and England behind him. Scripted in collaboration with Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, Sweet Smell of Success stars Burt Lancaster as tabloid baron J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as grasping press agent Sidney Falco. It’s a tale of gossip, slurs and the ability of the printed word to destroy reputations – a power wielded without scruple by Hunsecker and facilitated with sycophantic cunning by Falco; their verbal sparring is worthy of a Billy Wilder film. Film noir aside, this is one of the all-time great New York movies, with luminous cinematography by James Wong Howe capturing the nefarious gleam and glimmer of the city by night. You can feel the hum of a Manhattan evening.

Your suggestions

Force of Evil (1948)

To our list above, you voted to add these great film noir thrillers set in New York City…

  1. Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)
  2. Killer’s Kiss (Stanley Kubrick, 1955)
  3. I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1948)
  4. Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman, 1946)
  5. Blast of Silence (Allen Baron, 1961)
  6. Odds against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959)
  7. The Window (Ted Tetzlaff, 1949)
  8. The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)
  9. Side Street (Anthony Mann, 1949)
  10. House of Strangers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949)

Opening on Wall Street and ending with a climax at the George Washington Bridge, Abraham Polonsky’s classic 1948 film Force of Evil topped our poll this week as the film you thought deserved a place in our top 10. The story of the leader of a crime racket who tries to get more power by eliminating lesser rivals, it stars John Garfield, a familiar face from other 40s noirs such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Body and Soul (1947). Stanley Kubrick’s early film, Killer’s Kiss, was also a popular choice, though we had to disqualify nominations for Kubrick’s subsequent film, the heist movie The Killing, which is set at a racetrack… in Los Angeles.

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