It’s a controversial statement. Can films ever be better than the novels on which they’re based? Chuck Palahniuk famously said he preferred David Fincher’s Fight Club movie over his own book. But reading calls on us to use our imaginations and subsequently put ourselves into the story to a greater extent than watching a movie, therefore consumers often become more attached to books than movies.
Yet, as deftly and as sharply as some novelists write, sometimes there’s nothing more incisive than the image of a smoking gun in grainy black and white.
5 – The Big Sleep (1946)
Raymond Chandler’s quintessential detective story has been directly adapted twice, with the Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski a loose third. But it is the first big screen incarnation that still holds up as one of the finest crime films ever made. Howard Hawks’ head-spinning noir had a baffling plot that prioritised mood and sexual chemistry over narrative cohesion and closure.
Again the Motion Picture Production Code forced the director’s hand so only cryptic references could be to the harder parts of Chandler’s novel, such as the then illicit pornography racket and homosexual relationships. The resulting maze of a story is a woozy ride through murder, set ups and betrayal, as scenes of exposition were replaced with flirtatious trysts and charged, race-horse dialogue.
Bogart’s genre defining performance as Philip Marlowe, and his spark with real life wife Lauren Bacall, laid the blueprint for world-weary but smooth-talking detectives, and double crossing femme fatales, for years to come.
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4 – The Killers (1946)
Expanding on Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name, director Robert Siodmak used Hemingway’s material for his feature’s opening scene before examining the murder through life insurance investigator Jim Reardon in the rest of the film.
When two hitmen, Max and Al, come to a small town to kill an ex-boxer called Ole ‘the Swede’ Andreson, the man’s gas station colleague warns him but he makes no attempt to escape. Max and Al murder the Swede and it’s up to life insurance investigator Jim Reardon to find and pay the beneficiary of the ex-boxer’s policy. As Reardon interviews the dead Swede’s known associates, he pieces together a story full of thugs, femmes fatales and double crosses.
Carlos Baker, Hemingway’s official biographer, stated that The Killers was, “the first film from any of his works that Ernest could genuinely admire.” And this praise was similarly shared by critics and consumers who applauded Siodmak’s film noir for its startling performances, creeping tempo and building suspense.
3 – Double Indemnity (1944)
Based on the blistering novella by James M Cain, Billy Wilder couldn’t have chosen a better partner to write the screenplay with than Raymond Chandler. The godfather of hardboiled detective stories, with his dry wit and banterful dialogue, was the perfect counter balance to the sordid inequities of James M Cain’s source material.
The adaptation, that’s since been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry almost didn’t happen. The novella was widely regarded around Hollywood as unfilmable due to its immoral characters and the restrictions imposed by the Motion Picture Production Code – an old set of ethical industry guidelines.
“The general low tone and sordid flavour of this story makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation… It is most important to avoid what the code calls ‘the hardening of audiences’… to the thought and fact of crime.”
Many marked Widler’s decision to remove the gas chamber scene as an improved ending, more succinct and screen-friendly. And now, over 70 years later, Double Indemnity is still regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made.
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2 – Murder My Sweet (1944)
There have been three adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell My Lovely, but it is Edward Dmytryk’s 1944 version with Dick Powell as the wise-cracking private eye Philip Marlowe that really nails the author’s vision on screen.
Farewell my Lovely by Raymond Chandler was originally three short stories the writer, in his own words, cannabilised, to fit together as a single novel. He sacrificed the clearly explained plots of Try the Girl, Mandarin’s Jade and The Man Who Liked Dogs for a more seductive, long-form aesthetic that sucks you into the murky world and complex characters. “My whole career is based on the idea that the formula doesn’t matter, the thing that counts is what you do with the formula; that is to say, it is a matter of style.”
Director Edward Dmytryk captured both Chandler’s style and made the story more concise for the big screen adaptation, distilling a cynical vision of society but nimbly countering this with Dick Powell’s light and airy lead performance.
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1 – Out of the Past (1947)
Author Daniel Mainwaring (pen name Geoffrey Homes) adapted his own novel Build My Gallows High into this masterful film noir. Robert Mitchum smokes a million cigarettes playing private eye Jeff Bailey, who’s hired by Kirk Douglas’ Whit Sterling to track down his missing love, Jane Greer’s trailblazing femme fatale Kathie Moffat, who disappeared after shooting him and stealing $40,000 of his money.
The film’s triumph is in the sexual and sultry bleakness of the whole affair, and the sharp as shards of glass dialogue from James M Cain who made uncredited but crucial script edits. According to Robert Mitchum’s biographer, Lee Server, it was “Cain who expunged Kathie of any traces of lovability.” When one character says of her, “She can’t be all bad – no one is,” protagonist Jeff Bailey states blankly, “She comes the closest.”
The cooly laconic performances, the stark lighting by director Jacques Tourneur and cameraman Nicholas Musuraca, and the simple premise of a man trying to escape his history, make this not only an archetypal noir, but one of the best book-to-film adaptations ever committed to celluloid.
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Also see our 20 Greatest Classic Crime Movies here.