The big heat: The 10 sweatiest film noirs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2016)

With the mercury continuing to soar in many parts of the country, I thought I would cobble together a selection of “hot” film noirs. Hot-as in sweaty, steamy, dripping, sticky, sudoriferous cinema (get your mind out of the gutter). If you’re like me (and isn’t everyone?) there’s nothing more satisfying than gathering up an armload of DVDs (along with a 12-pack of Diet Dr. Pepper) and happily spending hot days ensconced in my dark, cool media room (actually, I don’t have a “media room” nor any A/C in my studio apartment…but I can always dream). So here are my Top Ten (in alphabetical order)…

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Body Heat– A bucket of ice cubes in the bath is simply not enough to cool down this steamy noir. Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Double Indemnity homage blows the mercury right out the top of the thermometer. Kathleen Turner is the sultry femme fatale who plays William Hurt’s hapless pushover like a Stradivarius (“You aren’t too smart. I like that in a man.”) The combination of the Florida heat with Turner and Hurt’s sexual chemistry will light your socks on fire. Outstanding support from Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, J.A. Preston and an up-and-coming character actor named Mickey Rourke.

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Cool Hand Luke– “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in his iconic role as the eponymous character in this 1967 drama, a ne’er do well from a southern burg who ends up on a chain gang. He gets busted for cutting the heads off of parking meters while on a drunken spree, but by the end of this sly allegory, astute viewers will glean that his real crime is being a non-conformist.

Stuart Rosenberg directs; sharp script by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson. Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech, Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor turn. Also with Ralph Waite, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Anthony Zerbe, and Joy Harmon as the (seriously-is it hot in here?) “car wash girl”. Oh… and did I mention the car wash scene?

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Dog Day Afternoon– As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from the late Sidney Lumet easily out-sops the competition. The air conditioning may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation).

Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale is both scary and heartbreaking in his role as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s memorable cameo. Frank Pierson’s whip-smart screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

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High and Low– Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 noir, adapted from Ed McBain’s crime thriller King’s Ransom, is so multi-leveled that it almost boggles the mind. Toshiro Mifune is excellent as a CEO who, at the possible risk of losing controlling shares of his own company, takes full responsibility for helping to assure the safe return of his chauffeur’s son, who has been mistaken as his own child by kidnappers. As the film progresses, the backdrop transitions subtly, and literally, from the executive’s comfortable, air conditioned mansion “high” above the city, to the “low”, sweltering back alleys where desperate souls will do anything to survive; a veritable descent into Hell.

On the surface, it plays as a fairly straightforward police procedural; and even if one chooses not to delve any further into subtext, it’s a perfectly serviceable and engrossing entertainment on that level. However, upon repeat viewings, it reveals itself to be so much more than a mere genre piece. It’s about class struggle, corporate culture, and the socioeconomic complexities of modern society (for a 50 year old film, it still feels quite contemporary).

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The Hot Spot– Considering he accumulated 100+ credits as an actor in feature films and a relatively scant 7 as a director of same over the course of a 55-year career, it’s not surprising that the late Dennis Hopper is mostly remembered for the work he did as the former, as opposed to the latter. Still, it’s worth noting that those 7 films he directed include Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Colors, and this compelling 1990 neo-noir.

Don Johnson delivers one of his better performances as an opportunistic drifter who wanders into a one-horse Texas burg. The smooth-talking hustler quickly snags a gig as a used car salesman, and faster than you can say “only one previous owner!” he’s closed the deal on bedding the boss’s all-too-willing wife (Virginia Madsen), and starts putting the moves on the hot young bookkeeper (Jennifer Connelly). You know what they say, though…you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Toss in some avarice, blackmail, and incestuous small-town corruption, and our boy finds he is in way over his head.

And damn, it’s hot.

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In the Heat of the Night– “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding here as well, I always found it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when in reality Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated, but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme.

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The Night of the Hunter– Is it a film noir? A horror movie? A black comedy? A haunting American folk tale? The answer would be yes. The man responsible for this tough-to-categorize 1957 film was one of the greatest acting hams of the 20th century, Charles Laughton, who began and ended his directorial career with this effort. Like a great many films now regarded as “cult classics”, this one was savaged by critics and tanked at the box office upon its initial release (enough to spook Laughton from ever returning to the director’s chair).

Robert Mitchum is brilliant (and genuinely scary) as a knife-wielding religious zealot who does considerably more “preying” than “praying”. Before Mitchum’s condemned cell mate (Peter Graves) meets the hangman, he talks in his sleep about $10,000 in loot money stashed somewhere on his property. When the “preacher” gets out of the slam, he makes a beeline for the widow (Shelly Winters) and her two young’uns. A very disturbing (and muggy) tale unfolds. The great Lillian Gish is on board as well. Artfully directed by Laughton and beautifully shot by DP Stanley Cortez.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)- A grimy (but strapping) itinerant (John Garfield) drifts into a hot and dusty California truck stop/”last chance” gas station run by a dusty old codger (Cecil Kellaway) and his hot young wife (Lana Turner). Sign outside reads: “Man Wanted”. Garfield needs a job. Turner needs a man. Guess what happens. An iconic noir and the blueprint for ensuing entries in the “That was good for me too, baby…now how do we lose the husband?” genre. Tay Garnett directs with a wonderfully lurid flourish. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch adapted their screenplay from the James M. Cain novel. Bob Rafelson’s 1981 remake (with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange as the illicit lovers) was much more “uncensored” yet somehow…not as deliciously sordid.

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Touch of Evil– Yes, this is  Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that famous opening tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor, and stands as one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (who deadpans “You should lay off those candy bars.”). The scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a creepy, leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge could have been dreamed up by David Lynch; there are numerous such stylistic flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

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The Wages of Fear– The primeval jungles of South America have served as a backdrop for a plethora of sweat-streaked tales (Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God come to mind), but this 1953 “existential noir” from director Henri-Georges Clouzot sits atop that list.

Four societal outcasts, who for one reason or another find themselves figuratively and literally at the “end of the road”, hire themselves out for an apparently suicidal job…transporting two truckloads of touchy nitro over several hundred miles of bumpy jungle terrain for delivery to a distant oilfield.

It does take a little time for the “action” to really get going; once it does, you won’t let out your breath until the final frame. Yves Montand leads the fine international cast. Clouzot co-scripted with Jerome Geronimi, adapting from the original Georges Anaud novel. The 1977 William Friedkin remake Sorcerer has its detractors, but I definitely recommend a peek.

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