Top 7 Underrated Film Noir Performances
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?
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.