Tired of the sappy and feel-good Christmas movies this holiday season? One good thing about the Christmas holiday being so pervasive is that it has appeared in all types of movies over the years, including films that are anything but feel-good fests. So follow me down these dark streets for a good long stare into the abyss, and perhaps a drunken, disheveled Santa will stare back at you.
I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948)
Tom Quinn (Don Castle) and his wife Ann (Elyse Knox) are a down-on-their-luck song and dance team. Tom can’t find work and his wife is forced to snuggle up to creeps every night at a low-class dance academy to pay the bills. One night, in a fit of frustration, Tom pitches his shoes (a pair of distinctive dancing taps) out the window at some noisy, fornicating cats. What Tom doesn’t realize is that he’s a character in a Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window, The Bride Wore Black) story and his innocent act of anger is also his ticket on the express train to hell. He soon finds himself arrested for murder, tried, convicted, and sentenced to die in the hot seat right after Christmas. Meanwhile, his wife goes on the hunt to find out who framed him, but the shopping days are counting down. This low-budget noir was directed by William Nigh from a great script by Steve Fisher (I Wake Up Screaming) based on Woolrich’s original story. As usual for Woolrich, things get pretty grim pretty quick, and the emotional roller-coaster never slows down. This film is rather obscure but well worth tracking down.
Cash on Demand (1961)
Peter Cushing gives a bravura performance in this taut, low-budget thriller produced by Hammer Films, who are more well-known for their classic horror films. Cushing is the miserly and martinet-ish manager of a bank who finds himself entertaining a sophisticated but ruthless bank robber (Andre Morell). Morell demands the full contents of the bank’s vault in return for the safety of Cushing’s wife and young son who are being held prisoner. The action all plays out just two days before Christmas and in fact, is an extremely clever reworking of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol — guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat while waiting for Santa.
Christmas Holiday (1944)
Wow, Universal Studio’s virginal chanteuse Deanna Durbin along with dance maestro Gene Kelly in a Christmas movie? That should be a light, heartwarming musical funfest! Guess again, Poindexter — this poison pill of a movie has to be one of the greatest bait-and-switches ever pulled off by Hollywood. Based on a W. Somerset Maugham story and directed by Robert Siodmak, one of the architects of the film-noir style, Christmas Holiday tells the story of love gone horribly wrong as starry-eyed Abigail Martin (Durbin) marries thoroughly rotten Robert Manette (Kelly). Tragedy ensues. Despite the full-force censoring power of Hollywood’s Production Code in effect at the time, Siodmak managed to sneak in implications of prostitution, homosexuality and incest into this sordid and highly entertaining film. It’s a surefire antidote to whatever sappy Christmas movies your in-laws inflict upon you.
Night of the Hunter (1957)
Some might consider this a cheat since the Christmas elements are only in the last few scenes of the film, but to those critics I say, “Bah! Humbug!” Charles Laughton’s brilliant southern gothic fairy tale demonstrates that in a world of pervasive and overpowering evil, true good can and does exist, and can sometimes even triumph. Much has been written, and deservedly so, about Robert Mitchum’s star-making performance as the embodiment of evil, the Reverend Harry Powell, but it’s the final Christmas-time scene between Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper and the children in her charge that leaves me a blubbering mess of tears every time I watch it. No truer embodiment of the spirit of Christmas has ever been committed to film.
Remember the Night (1940)
Fred McMurray plays a hardboiled cynic who’s the best at what he does, until he meets up with a tough-as-nails dame played by Barbara Stanwyck. The two of them embark on a simple plan that does not turn out the way they planned. That may sound like the plot for Billy Wilder’s 1944 film-noir classic Double Indemnity, but it’s also the setup for the absolutely wonderful 1940 Christmastime romantic comedy/drama Remember the Night. Directed by Mitchell Leisen from a brilliant screenplay by the great Preston Sturges, it’s a beautiful mix of just the right amounts of sentimentality, screwball humor and heartbreak. OK, this isn’t technically a film noir, but it does have many elements of the genre, and is the perfect Christmas film for us cynical romantic types — there are scenes that will just rip your heart out and a sorta happy ending that is fully satisfying while not being a saccharine cop-out.