1. Wild Boys of the Road/Heroes for Sale (1933)
Two height-of-the-Depression William A. Wellman features recently liberated to DVD in crisp restorations. If you’ve never delved into early talkie movies, here’s a place to start. The camera work is fluid and masterful, and the social commentary on a country coming apart at the economic seams may shock you, as will the frank depiction of drug addiction and sexual assault. This was pre-Production Code stuff, after all, before Hollywood started censoring itself to satisfy the blue noses.
2. Cat People (1942) /Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Val Lewton was the genius producer at RKO studios who pioneered the earliest “horror” genre, though confusing Lewton’s psychological studies with contemporary “horror” would be a serious mistake and will only lead to resentment and recriminations. This DVD disk features his first effort (Cat People) and (in my mind) his best (Curse of the Cat People). The Lewton atmospherics are all black-and-white spookiness. Because Cat People was a surprise hit, the studio demanded a sequel and insisted it be called Curse of the Cat People. Lewton took the title and then did what he pleased, which really has little to do with the first movie. Curse of the Cat People stands out as one of the few Hollywood movies that puts an innocent child under threat of bodily harm, and it looks deeply into the secret lives of children. If you prove yourself capable of appreciating Val Lewton’s art, you should then treat yourself to the other films in his “horror” series, all of them now available on DVD: I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945), and Bedlam (1946). Nothing opened up my appreciation for black-and-white cinematography like these works.
3. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
Okay, you’ve heard of this one, but have you seen it? It’s another outstanding William A. Wellman-directed movie, a western totally unique in that every bit of it, stomping horses and all, was filmed on a sound stage rather than outdoors. Sounds unlikely, doesn’t it, but it actually works. It works primarily because of the dark psychology of mob violence and for the performance of Dana Andrews, one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood back then, as a falsely accused drifter. Wellman was a master of the basics – where to put the camera in order to tell a suspenseful story.
4. Detour (1945)
Low-budget, mean-spirited, bleak in outlook, where would you find a darker film that better summed up the trapped American male of post World War II America? This strange, almost hallucinatory yarn has attracted a cult following, particularly because of its female star, the appropriately named Ann Savage, who dismantles gonads as a hobby.
5. Born to Kill (1947)
It may be obvious by this point that I love black-and-white crime and suspense movies, and there are thankfully many to watch on DVD in beautifully restored versions. This one, directed by Robert Wise, stars Lawrence Tierney, who plays a thug as well as a thug has ever been played. Tierney was a much-used “heavy” in the movies and did a ton of TV work before his death in 2002. He’s beloved in my household for the one episode of Seinfeld he appeared on, playing Elaine Benes’s intimidating father (the episode when Jerry turns his new suede coat inside out to save it from the weather, only to become the “pink boy” to Elaine’s hyper-virile father, who already thinks everyone he meets is gay). Tierney appears in Born to Kill opposite Claire Trevor, as the wicked woman. Also features the ever dependable Elisha Cook Jr. as the squirrelly side-kick.
6. The Naked City (1948)
Directed by Jules Dassin on location in New York City at a time when Hollywood movies were rarely shot on location. This is the movie that launched the TV show of the same name that dominated 1950s TV dramas. Gritty realism, police procedure, masterful camera work from a filmmaker who probed deeply into the American underbelly and who got himself blacklisted as a Commie for his efforts. This is the first of four Dassin movies on this list, which would make him, if not my favorite director of all time, at least my favorite dead director of all time.
7. The Set-Up (1949)
Another Robert Wise-directed film, starring Robert Ryan playing a long-shot boxer wearing the whiff of failure. He’s so washed up as a prize fighter than his own manager sells him out to the Mob. This is the ultimate realistic film about the corrupt world of professional boxing, done in real time, which is to say that the story as told lasts 72 minutes, which is the precise running time of the movie.
8. Gun Crazy (1949)
Also known as “Deadly Is the Female,” and they ain’t kidding! Oh my God, if you’re a film nut and haven’t seen this, you’re not going to believe your eyes. Directed by the little known Joseph H. Lewis, this movie is like no other noir you’ve ever seen. From the brilliant entrance of the deadly femme Annie Laurie Starr, the blond carnival performer with guns in both hands, to the famous long single take of a bank robbery and getaway in progress, all shot from the backseat of the getaway car, Lewis shows you what a master could do with no budget to keep you riveted on the screen.
9. Thieves Highway (1949)
The second of my Jules Dassin movies on this list, starring one of my favorite actors from this period, Richard Conte. Dassin always takes the side of “working stiffs,” and Conte is just a common man, a war veteran, trying to earn a living hauling fruit to the San Francisco fresh-market brokers. The main villain is the boss broker, played well by professional heavy Lee J. Cobb.
10. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
You’re bound to have heard of this one, if for no other reason because of the brief small role by a very young Marilyn Monroe, but this well textured crime drama directed by John Huston is essential to your appreciation of what black-and-white cinematography achieved as an art form. Remarkable for Sterling Hayden’s starring role as a “hooligan” with a dream of horse farms in Kentucky and for the surprise casting of little Sam Jaffee (most famous, perhaps, for playing Einsteinian eggheads and philosophers) as the criminal mastermind with a foreign accent. The Jaffee character says ruefully at one point, “Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one’s all right, he turns legit.”
11. Night and the City (1950)
Jules Dassin again. This film, starring Richard Widmark as a loser-hustler, was made entirely on location in London, England, where Dassin had gone to evade the Hollywood blacklist. He had been “outed” as a past member of the American Communist Party (back in the agitated 1930s) and was not going to be able to work again, but Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, gave him this assignment to be completed in England, thus avoiding the blacklist. Dassin never made a film in the U.S. after this, nor another film for an American producer. Both Dassin and Widmark died within days of one another in 2008.
12. No Way Out (1950)
Starring Richard Widmark, who was typecast often as a vicious character, and Sidney Poitier in his first screen appearance as a black doctor who must save the life of a white racist who hates his guts (Widmark). Poitier was 22 years old when he made this film. Widmark, though he played a lot of psychotics, was by all reports the gentlest and kindest of men. Startling that such material got an airing in the Age of Eisenhower, particularly some of the racist language that comes out of Widmark. Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this amazing movie features a vivid race riot that strips the hide off American illusions of equality.
13. Panic in the Streets (1950)
Richard Widmark again, this time playing the good guy, a Naval medical officer trying to head off an epidemic of plague in New Orleans, which is being unwittingly spread by a creepy member of the underworld played by Jack Palance. Directed by Elia Kazan. Gorgeous black and white photography.
14. 14 Hours (1951)
The ultimate man-on-a-ledge suspense thriller, with Richard Basehart threatening to jump for the 14 long hours of the title, while gentle schlub policeman Paul Douglas tries to talk him out of it. Things only get worse when the jumper’s girlfriend and mother show up, leaving his motives for suicide a little easier to figure. The clarity of the black and white photography is just so crisp on the DVD.
15. Ace in the Hole (1951)
Only recently liberated from film archives to DVD, this Kirk Douglas feature is one of Billy Wilder’s best films and one of the least known. Based loosely on the famous Floyd Collins case in 1920s Kentucky, when Collins got stuck in a cave hunting Indian relics while hundreds of rescuers worked over several days to free him. The Collins episode captivated the attention of the entire nation. This Billy Wilder version is moved to the New Mexico outback (it was filmed on location near Gallup, N.M). Wilder turns it into a probing examination of the American love of spectacle, as the attempt to rescue a man trapped in a cave turns into a “big carnival” (which was the alternate title for the movie). Kirk Douglas plays a newsman-on-the-make who happens to be in the right place at the right time to “own” the story of the rescue. When other news reporters try to get access, one of them reasons with Douglas: “We’re all in the same boat.” The Douglas character answers, “I’m in the boat. You’re in the water. Now let’s see how you can swim.” This is an abrasive portrait of American hucksterism like none you’ve ever seen.
16. The Desperate Hours (1955)
You’re a nice, respectable American businessman living in an upscale American suburb, with a nice wife and two nice kids. And one day a desperate escaped convict (played very well by an aging Humphrey Bogart) and his two escaped convict pals break into your home and hold you and your family hostage. Directed by William Wyler, this little black and white thriller is appropriately claustrophobic, and Bogart is just fine playing bad.
17. Rififi (1955)
The last of the Jules Dassin movies on this list, this one was filmed five years after “Night and the City,” a span of time during which the genius Dassin could not get work. He was handed this script by French movie producers, who wanted a little crime drama about dark-skinned North African immigrants in Paris robbing a famous jewelry store. Dassin shaped the material in a different direction, turning the robbers into his own brand of working-class heroes, and filming one of the most amazing 30-minute robbery sequences, with hardly a word of dialogue. Dassin himself took the role of one of the robbers under the screen name of “Perlo Vita.” I could rave about this film at length. Suffice it to say that Dassin was one of America’s great filmmakers who was driven from our shores by intolerance and political bigotry, which makes him doubly a hero.
18. Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
Another Robert Wise-directed movie, this one remarkable in many ways – for casting singer Harry Belafonte totally against type as a small-time crook, for casting Robert Ryan totally according to type as a slightly bigger-time crook with another racist chip on his shoulder about having to team up with a black man, and for Ed Begley Sr. as the most unlikely mastermind of a big bank heist. The movie is also distinguished by a pulsing jazz soundtrack, quite unusual at the time. With this movie, we’re at the end of that incredible long period of distinctive, astounding black and white artistry that really defined the movie experience in America for decades ... before color photography and computer-generated-imagery ruined everything.