The Big Heat: The 10 Sweatiest Film noirs (and Neo-noirs)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 4, 2020)

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “Hotter than the 4th of July”? Ice tea on standby:

Coronavirus. Massive unemployment. Murder hornets. Saharan dust… How could 2020 get any worse, you might ask.

With record-breaking scorching heat. That’s how.

Meteorologists on Tuesday revealed that July could bring unusually hot temperatures for more than two-thirds of the continental U.S., possibly matching the historic levels seen in 2011 and 2012.

A weather outlook released by the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center predicts “increased chances” for above-normal temperatures across most of the country as well as below-normal rainfall levels for the Four Corners and parts of the Central and Southern Plains.

Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist with IBM’s The Weather Company, said a pattern of high temperatures and boiling humidity in July could result in “potentially historic heat.”

“After a relatively warm June, we are expecting July to be unusually hot, with the most anomalous warmth focused in the north-central states Great Lakes region,” he told The Washington Post.

The extreme weather could hit parts of the country as soon as this weekend. Some areas in the Greats Lakes may see temperatures of up to 15 degrees above normal on Saturday, according to the Post.

In southern New England, meanwhile, temperatures could soar past 90 degrees by early next week. In the New York area, temperatures will be “slightly” above normal this Thursday, the National Weather Service projects.

The agency also predicts that limited rainfall and above-normal heat will lead to likely drought conditions for the Southern and Central Plains.

Oy.

So…with the mercury soaring in most parts of the country I thought I would curate a Top 10 “hot” noirs binge-watch…should you be so inclined. Hot-as in sweaty, steamy, dripping, sticky, sudoriferous crime thrillers (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 spending a hot holiday weekend ensconced in my dark, cool media room (actually, I don’t have a “media room” nor any A/C in my apartment…but I can always dream). So here you go (in alphabetical order)…

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Body Heat (Amazon Prime) – 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 young character actor named Mickey Rourke.

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Cool Hand Luke (Amazon Prime) – “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 drama.  Newman plays 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.

Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech (Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson’s screenplay is agog with classic lines), Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor turn. Also in the cast: Ralph Waite, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Anthony Zerbe, and Joy Harmon steaming up the camera lens as the “car wash girl”.

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Dog Day Afternoon (Amazon Prime) – As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from Sidney Lumet out-sops the competition. The AC 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 at once scary and heartbreaking as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s cameo. Frank Pierson’s tight screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

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High and Low (Amazon Prime) – Akira Kurosawa’s multi-layered 1963 drama is adapted from Ed McBain’s crime thriller King’s Ransom. Toshiro Mifune is excellent as a CEO who risks losing controlling shares of his company when he takes responsibility to assure the safe return of his chauffeur’s son, who has been mistaken as his own child by bumbling kidnappers.

As the film progresses, the tableau subtly shifts 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.

While the film is perfectly serviceable as an absorbing police procedural, it delves deeper than a standard genre entry. It is also an examination of class struggle, corporate culture, and the socioeconomic complexities of modern society.

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The Hot Spot (DVD only) – Considering he accumulated 100+ feature film credits as an actor and a scant 7 as a director of same over a 55-year career, it’s not surprising that the late Dennis Hopper is mostly remembered for the former, rather than the latter. Still, the relative handful of films he directed includes 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 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.

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In the Heat of the Night (Amazon Prime) – “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 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 (Amazon Prime) – 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 many films now regarded as “cult classics”, it was savaged by critics and tanked at the box office upon 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 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 (Amazon Prime) – A grimy (but strapping) itinerant (John Garfield) drifts into a hot and dusty California truck stop and” last chance” gas station run by an old codger (Cecil Kellaway) and his hot young wife (Lana Turner). Sign outside reads: “Man Wanted”. Garfield wants a job. Turner wants a man. Guess what happens.

An iconic noir and blueprint for ensuing entries in the “I love you too, baby…now how do we lose the husband?” sub-genre. Tay Garnett directs with a wonderfully lurid flourish. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch adapted their screenplay from the James M. Cain novel.

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Touch of Evil (Amazon Prime)– Yes, this is Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that celebrated and oft-imitated 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 one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (“You should lay off those candy bars.”). The creepy and disturbing scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge presages David Lynch; there are numerous flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles famously 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 (Amazon Prime) / Sorcerer (Amazon Prime) -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 Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 “existential noir” from 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 some 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.

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If you’ve already seen The Wages of Fear, you might want to check out William Friedkin’s 1977 action-adventure Sorcerer, which was greeted with indifference by audiences and critics upon initial release. Maybe it was the incongruous title, which led many to assume it would be in the vein of his previous film (and huge box-office hit), The Exorcist. Then again, it was tough for any other film to garner attention in the immediate wake of Star Wars.

At any rate, it’s a well-directed, terrifically acted “update” of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 film noir (I refer to it as an “update” in deference to Friedkin, who bristles at the term “remake” in a letter from the director that was included with the 2014 Blu-ray).

Roy Scheider heads a superb international cast as a desperate American on the lam in South America, who signs up for a job transporting a truckload of nitroglycerin through rough terrain. Tangerine Dream provides the memorable soundtrack.

 

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