The chattiest, dreamiest, and wittiest of noir mysteries, Otto Preminger’s Laura begins with a murder and a romance—cool cop Dana Andrews falls for the dead woman, personified by Gene Tierney’s wall portrait. Then Tierney’s heroine walks in from a weekend away, and no one’s sure who the body belongs to. All in all, the film is virtually owned by Clifton Webb, the feyest and most acidic character actor of the 1940s.
The concept of the “femme fatale” was old hat when James M. Cain wrote his vicious thriller Double Indemnity, but (with some help from this film adaptation, which was coscripted by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder) he made the man-eating antiheroine into the dramatis persona of the postwar era.
The John Huston film noir based on the Maxwell Anderson play and set, imperatively, on the titular Florida island in the off-season and during a typhoon. A gaggle of gangsters (led by Edward G. Robinson’s sadistic kingpin) find themselves trapped with a handful of honest victims, including Humphrey Bogart’s disillusioned war vet. Claire Trevor won an Oscar as a weepy lush, and though the film is filthy with hard-boiled dialogue and character, its hothouse atmosphere of Key Largo is irresistible. With Lauren Bacall.
A poker-faced slalom through the icy fields of true-crime docudrama, Joel and Ethan Coen’s cascade of frozen Minnesotan cops and crime is probably the loopiest based-on-fact murder drama ever made, something like In Cold Blood reimagined by Dave Barry. Somehow, the filmmakers tell the snowbound saga of a tumbling-dominoes permafrost bloodbath—featuring nerve-frayed scam source William H. Macy, wired hired gun Steve Buscemi, and serene pregnant policewoman Frances McDormand (who won an Oscar for her performance)—as cold realism, yet retain their trademark absurdism and larky rhythms. Having grown up in a Minneapolis suburb, the Coens know the vernacular inside and out; though it often feels like a snarky plummet down a long flight of stairs, the movie ends up being a celebration of quiet banality. By the time we reach the wood chipper, we’re as thankful as McDormand’s Chief Marge that there’s a mittened world full of idiotic pleasantries and all-you-can-eat restaurants to go back to.