Top 7 Underrated Film Noir Performances

Posted by Laura Grande June 14, 2013 10 Comments 21844 views

Known for its German Expressionist-inspired visual style, film noir is a hybrid of gangster flick and detective mystery with an often pessimistic look at the greater social problems. Noirs are usually set in dark, crime-riddled cities — places that come alive in the night; crawling with gangsters, con men and double-crossing dames. The central figures are almost always either a private eye, a down-on-his luck detective or a lonely drifter/former athlete who is forced into a life of crime through some accidental occurance and must come face-to-face with moral corruption and sexual transgressions. We’ve all got our favorite noirs, some of the more obvious choices being Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Blvd. But what of those lesser-known gems that just so happen to feature brilliant, underrated performances?

What’s your favorite film noir performance? Tell us in the comments!

Lest we forget those compelling silver screen incarnations, here is my list of the…

Top 7 Underrated Film Noir Performances

John Dall as Barton Tare in Gun Crazy (1950)

Still image from "Gun Crazy"

A precursor to 1967’s ultra-violent Bonnie & Clyde, Gun Crazy is (sadly) a largely forgotten noir that also happens to be one of the finest examples of the genre. Barton Tare, the antihero at the centre of this cautionary tale, is a fundamentally decent man whose tragic flaw is that he treats guns as an extension of himself. A lanky and jittery man, Bart feels like a new person when he takes aim at a moving target. When he locks eyes with fellow gun aficionado Laurie (Peggy Cummins), Bart embarks on a whirlwind adventure that results in death for more than one character. For a figure that could easily be viewed as a villain and nothing more, John Dall instead gives a charming performance that draws the audience into his dangerous web. Between his electric chemistry with Cummins and his good-natured ways, Dall leaves viewers with the unsettling realization that, if someone as seemingly good and decent as Bart can commit such atrocious crimes, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Jean Hagen as Doll Conovan in The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Still image from "The Asphalt Jungle"

As the long-suffering main squeeze of Sterling Hayden’s Dix Handley, Jean Hagen gives a startling intimate performance in what is essentially a tiny secondary role. Appearing in only a small handful of scenes, Hagen no less leaves a strong impression with viewers, specifically during the heart-tugging moment when she reveals her fears and doubts to Dix. As she slowly rips off her fake eyelashes, letting mascara drip down her face, Hagen’s Doll Conovan lays her emotions bare in an attempt to convince the love of her life to leave his criminal past behind him. Her tiny, heartbreaking smile at the end of her monologue concludes what is likely one of the most compelling female-driven scenes ever captured in a film noir.

Robert Ryan as Stoker in The Set-Up (1949)

Still image from "The Set-Up"

Easily one of the greatest film noirs ever made, The Set-Up may be largely ignored nowadays but it has a huge celebrity admirer in director Martin Scorsese who cites the film as his influence for Raging Bull. Robert Ryan, a familiar face in the genre, gives his finest performance ever as Stoker, an aging boxer who continues to struggle in amateur rings in order to bring home some cash. When a local gangster demands that Stoker throw a match so that he could win the big bucks, the boxer grapples with whether or not he should proceed. Surrounded by youthful up-and-coming boxers and men who only want to use him as a “fall guy” in the ring, Ryan gives what is arguably the most naturalistic performance ever given in a noir. In a genre that embraces acting embellishments and tough-guy talk, Ryan’s quietly effective performance is one of the finest incarnations of a struggling athlete. You won’t soon forget this beautiful performance.

Claire Trevor as Helen Brent in Born to Kill (1947)

Still image from "Born to Kill"

Hiding her character’s true twisted nature beneath a sweet, alluring exterior is a Claire Trevor specialty. As Helen Brent, a recently divorced woman who finds herself attracted to the murderer who is trying to woo her sister (yes, really!), Trevor is all long legs and sex appeal — the ultimate femme fatale. Whether she’s curled up on a couch or face-to-face with an adversary, Trevor is electric. She makes being bad look — and feel — so good.

Robert Young as Finlay in Crossfire (1947)


It’s not an easy task to upstage two talented noir regulars like Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, yet Robert Young manages to carry this controversial film squarely on his own shoulders. As Homicide Captain Finlay, Young is the good-guy cop who must uncover the reason behind a man’s recent murder at the hands of one of a group of soldiers recently returned home. Young’s Finlay risks death and the violent wrath of the tight-knit group of soldiers to reveal the truth. To find the man, Finlay must discover the motive — and watching the mystery unspool through good old-fashioned detective work is pure entertainment.

Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Still image from "Murder My Sweet"

As is the case with the main protagonist in the majority of film noirs, Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe is hired by an ex-con to discover the whereabouts of the man’s missing girlfriend. He’s a regular man lured into a tangled web of conspiracies, secrets and a dramatically rising body count. Powell gives a steady, appealing performance, lending Marlowe a cool-as-a-cucumber exterior even though his mind is constantly whirring and solving mysteries with every step. As a traditional noir hero, Powell excels in this subtle, engaging performance.

What’s your favorite film noir performance? Tell us in the comments!

About Laura Grande

Laura Grande is a Toronto-based writer working in digital media. A (wannabe) movie buff who just wants to spend her days writing about classic film, she also loves history, travel, hockey, literature and anything related to Scotland.

View all post by Laura Grande

There are 10 Comments

  1. - June 14, 2013
      -   Reply

    This is a great list and terrific breakdown of what makes noir a favored genre for all us film nerds. I especially love your focus on The Set Up – wish more people knew about this one. Of course the list could be endless, so rather than suggest amendments, I would add: Orson Welles in both Touch of Evil and Third Man, Barry Fitzgerald in The Naked City, Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place and Rita Hayworth in Gilda.

    • Laura Grande
      - June 15, 2013
        -   Reply

      Thanks so much! It was definitely a fun one to write.

      I’ll admit that I didn’t know anything about The Set-Up until a family friend recommended it to me. And I’m glad he did. Loved every minute.

      I do love Orson Welles in Touch of Evil but I don’t think his performance is underrated. It’s a huge film and most people commend his performance.

  2. Richard
    - June 14, 2013
      -   Reply

    All memorable picks – I remember all of them, although the choices in the comment seem less lesser known, so I won’t add Robert Mitchum in ‘Out of the Past’. A few others that come to mind are Mickey Rooney in ‘Quicksand’, Claire Trevor in ‘Raw Deal’, Farley Granger in ‘Side Street’, Allen Baron in ‘Blast of Silence’, Robert Ryan in ‘On Dangerous Ground’, Jean Peters (not sufficiently lesser known?) in ‘Pickup on South Street’, Edward G. Robinson (too well known) in ‘Scarlet Street’, Joan Bennett in ‘The Reckless Moment’ . Do I correctly recall that ‘The Set-Up’, a favorite, is in real time?

    • - June 14, 2013
        -   Reply

      Um, I think RIchard just dissed me?

      • Richard
        - June 14, 2013
          -   Reply

        Oh, no! Controversy, which I’ve spent my whole life avoiding!! But, mea culpa, I totally missed the operative question, “What’s your favorite film noir performance?”, and the list is for “underrated film noir performances”, not “lesser known film noir performances” (??). I’m sure Orson Welles, Barry Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart and Rita Hayworth are underrated, no matter how high they rate. So add Robert Mitchum in ‘Out of the Past’ to my list, which is too long.

      • Richard
        - June 15, 2013
          -   Reply

        And Constance Towers in ‘The Naked Kiss’.

    • Laura Grande
      - June 15, 2013
        -   Reply

      I’ll definitely have to check these recommendations out. Thanks! Especially the films with Claire Trevor and Robert Ryan.

      As for The Set-Up, I believe it’s supposed to be relatively close to real time. There are long extended scenes in the dressing room where Stoker is waiting for his turn to fight.

  3. Random Walker
    - June 15, 2013
      -   Reply

    Mr Robinson as Christopher Cross in Scarlet Street…

  4. - August 12, 2013
      -   Reply

    Dana Andrews in Where The Sidewalk Ends — but then it seems like Dana Andrews is always underrated. I especially like WTSE, for the great chemistry (again) btwn Dana and Gene Tierney. He’s even a detective named Mark (again) just like in Laura.

    I heartily agree on The Setup. I just watched it for the 1st time a few weeks ago, and it’s haunting me still. I’m becoming a huge Robert Ryan fan — watching him as Larry in The Iceman Cometh (his last film; he would die of cancer shortly after film was made) squeezes my heart, his performance is so painful & raw.
    Great list.

  5. - October 15, 2013
      -   Reply

    You’ve included 7 superb performances that transcend the ages. I’ll try to come up with a few more:

    Richard Conte as Mr. Brown, the unrepentant villain of “The Big Combo”.

    Richard Conte as Eddie Rico, desperate to get his family away from the mob in “The Brothers Rico”.

    Dan Duryea as Martin Blair, falling for a girl and looking for a killer in “Black Angel”.

    Scene stealer Wallace Ford in “T-Men”, hapless and careless as The Schemer.

    Ida Lupino as Lily Stevens in “Road House”, a chanteuse with fatal allure.

    Gloria Grahame as Debby Marsh, the girl who thought she knew all the angles, in “The Big Heat”.

    Helen Walker, colder than ice in “Nightmare Alley”.

    “The Set-Up” is my litmus test for film critics. So few pass muster.

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