C: Since our recent list of 10 Unmissable Film Classics mostly included comedies, I thought it might be nice to supplement with a few smaller posts, covering some of the neglected genres.
Here you’ll find five excellent crime thrillers that the Quibbling Siblings love — some dark but ultimately redeeming (we don’t go in for unmitigated bleakness in our family), some on the lighter side — all worth tracking down. For the purposes of this list, anything pre-1970 is considered part of the “classic” film era; I’m lifting the ban on color films, mostly because I couldn’t bear to leave out Charade a second time.
The Big Sleep (1946) is a noir gem, based on a Raymond Chandler novel about private detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe may be hard-edged, but he’s much more sympathetic than Sam Spade, the detective Bogie plays in The Maltese Falcon. This film finds Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) investigating a case of blackmail against the wealthy Sternwoods, unraveling a complex conspiracy with the eldest daughter (Lauren Bacall) at its center. What makes this film great are the many fantastic dry, snappy exchanges (“You’re not very tall.” “I try to be”). As a side note, Bacall’s costumes are stunners.
Key Largo (1948) pairs the same romantic leads as above, in a more psychologically taut picture with bang-up cast. Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a WWII vet who goes to visit the widow and father (Bacall and Lionel Barrymore) of a friend from the war, only to find their run-down Florida hotel overrun with a gang of mobsters led by Edward G. Robinson. Tensions rise indoors while a hurricane rages outside. The mounting intensity, the excellent lead and supporting performances, and the arc of Bogart’s character — from world-weary cynic to reluctant hero — make this a movie not to be missed.
Rear Window (1954) is another one of those totally classic pictures that too few people have actually seen. Jimmy Stewart plays a photographer stuck in his apartment with a broken leg, who whiles away his time in the days before cable TV by watching his neighbors through a zoom lens. The stories he invents about their lives entertain him and girlfriend Grace Kelly (more amazing costumes) until he begins to suspect one neighbor of murder. It’s a concept that has been spoofed and imitated dozens of times, but thanks to Hitchcock’s genius, the original version’s as tense and terrifying as it must have been in 1954 when the story was fresh.
Charade (1963) has an edge, but unlike the other four on this list, it’s a barrel of fun as well: a spy caper set in Paris, starring two of history’s most charming actors, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn plays Reggie Lampert, a socialite whose husband has turned up dead and who finds herself menaced by three men who all believe she knows the whereabouts of a fortune stolen by her husband. Grant plays a stranger — or is he? — who comes to her aid, and Walter Matthau is fantastic as a CIA agent trying to keep tabs on impulsive Reggie. It’s all thrills, double-crosses, false identities and sparkling flirtation, all the time.
In the Heat of the Night (1967) is another tense, psychological picture. An industrialist is murdered in a small Southern town and the police arrest a black man waiting for a train. But the arrested man, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), turns out to be a top police detective from Philadelphia. When his name is cleared, Tibbs stays on to get to the bottom of the crime, much to the discomfort of the racist cops he’s working with. Rod Steiger turns in a memorable performance as the police chief who slowly comes to respect Tibbs, who is a detective of the most satisfyingly kind: 100% cool and competent.
Plus one honorable mention…
Bonus: It’s hard to call The Thin Man (1934) a thriller, because its characters do a lot more drinking than detecting. The film’s charm comes, not from the standard Dashiell Hammett elements (gangsters, thugs and unreliable women), but from the protagonists: Nick and Nora Charles, rich private dick and witty partner in crime (detection). William Powell and Myrna Loy are both delicious; they carry off the couple’s snarky banter and their aloof but implicit trust with great aplomb. Audiences of the time went wild; Powell and Loy went on to do fourteen more films together!