As any fan of classic movies seeking treasures on streaming services knows, it’s a wasteland out there. There are oases, of course, but at any given time there are fewer options for pre-1970 movies between the three major streaming services—Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu—than you could find in your better neighborhood video stores twenty years ago.
Given that, there are some treasures to be found out there, especially on Prime Video. The problem is knowing what to look for. Since the shuttering of FilmStruck, there really isn’t a service that curates its catalog of classics (Kanopy, a free service offered from public and college libraries, is an exception). So, consider this your guide to streaming noir, and, for this inaugural installment, we’ll look at the options among the big three streamers.
Netflix is first in subscriber numbers but last in its commitment to classic movies. It does, however, currently feature a couple of noir classics. Many services offer a copy of Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946), with Orson Welles as a Nazi war criminal in hiding and Edward G. Robinson as the government agent on his trail. Netflix, to its credit, presents the superb Kino Classics master, which is also streaming on Kanopy.
The most thrilling of the three collaborations between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, The Third Man (1949) stars Joseph Cotten as a cynical American pulp novelist and Orson Welles as Harry Lime, a ruthless black marketer in the rubble-strewn underworld of post-war Vienna with blood on his hands. Quaint old-country clichés collide with the reality of the devastation of the war and German expressionist exaggeration mixes with droll, understated British wit to create a continental crime classic. And amidst it all Welles steals the show with barely ten minutes of screen time.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) is a thriller of demented wish fulfillment turned into a waking nightmare, with Robert Walker in a career-best performance as a demented playboy who spins a story of swapping murders with a champion tennis player (Farley Granger) and proceeds to carry it out. Scripted by Raymond Chandler from the novel by Patricia Highsmith (a master of psychopathic characters and warped psychologies), it’s a highlight in a career of masterpieces.
Amazon Prime Video
There’s an enormous library of films available to rent on Amazon Video, but what I’m looking at are those available free as part of the Prime Video subscription. It’s an offbeat collection, which is what makes it so much fun, and it’s far, far larger than the Netflix library. The classics are also prone to disappearing without notice, sometimes after only a few months or even weeks of availability, so you may not want to wait before streaming that rarity that catches your fancy.
Samuel Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. (1961), starring Cliff Robertson as a career criminal out to revenge his father’s murder, features his patented tabloid style, with punchy, pulpy energy and Kino-fist imagery. Organized crime is merely another form of big business here and his hero so warped by his underworld upbringing that he can’t see beyond his own emotional world.
Shockproof (1949), directed by Douglas Sirk from a screenplay by Fuller, stars Cornel Wilde as a cynical parole officer who falls for ex-con Patricia Knight and throws both his future and hers away to run off. Sirk directs this handsome lovers-on-the-run thriller with an economy that makes the most of its modest budget, and brings a romanticism that softens the shadows of Fuller’s tabloid sensibility and the noir atmosphere.
The Burglar (1957), adapted by David Goodis from his own novel (and featured in Noir City 2019), drops Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield into a sordid world of twitchy crooks, flophouse hideouts, duplicity as a way of life, and an atmosphere dripping in sexual longing and lust. Paul Wendkos directs with fractured, jagged storytelling and gargoyle close-ups that move the expressionism of the early noir classics into a more contemporary world.
Blake Edwards proves himself a fine hand at the thriller in Experiment in Terror (1962), a tense, austere post-noir crime drama with Glenn Ford as an FBI man who enters a battle of wits with an asthmatic extortionist who kidnaps an innocent girl to force a bank teller (Lee Remick) to rob from her own institution.
Reach deeper into the catalog and you’ll find some less well-known noir artefacts, like Joseph Losey’s The Big Night (1951), a kind of juvenile noir with John Drew Barrymore as an angry young man out to revenge the brutal beating of his old man (Preston Foster), and Hugo Haas’ Bait (1954) with Cleo Moore as a scheming blonde who marries gold prospector Haas while plotting with her lover (John Agar). I’m also fond of Fear in the Night (1947) with Paul Kelly and DeForest Kelley in a Cornell Woolrich nightmare, but Amazon’s master is a little soft, nowhere near the crispness of the rest of the titles here.
And it’s not limited to the U.S. It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), directed by Robert Hamer for Ealing Studios, pulls together the stories of working class civilians and underworld criminals who are more connected than they realize on a single Sunday. Googie Withers stars in the handsome mix of Brit Noir and social drama.
And from France is Jean-Pierre Melville’s cool, often cruel Le Doulos (France, 1963, with subtitles), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a smiling underworld informer in a crime fantasy of cops and crooks and elaborate plots.
The closest that Hulu has to classic noir at the moment is Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950), a psychological western by way of a gothic melodrama, with a dark, shadowy style right out of Mann’s earlier film noirs. Starring Barbara Stanwyck as the tough, fierce daughter of land baron Walter Huston, the psychological tensions and Freudian undercurrents are mirrored in the stark, striking imagery.
But Hulu also has Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974, R), from Robert Towne’s labyrinthine script inspired by classic films noir and real Los Angeles history. Jack Nicholson strolls through the role of cynical private eye J.J. Gittes with the sneering confidence of a smart cookie in a situation far more complex than he realizes and Faye Dunaway brings an echo of tragedy to potential femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray.