The Gritty, Edgy Moodiness of Film Noir: 24 Classic Examples

nighthawks_by_edward_hopper_1942 Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

If she is rude to the waiter, she will be rude to you.

If your dog dislikes him, walk away.  Slowly.

There is always a price to be paid for crossing the line.

Listen to your intuition.

Navigating through life would be so much easier if one always followed simple rules.   Too frequently, emotion trumps the rational mind, but a diversion away from one’s true course can provide an opportunity to learn valuable lessons — if one should be fortunate enough to survive, that is.
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Cinematic exploration of the triumph of passion over common sense is the domain of Film Noir, an outgrowth of European Expressionism, which flourished in America from the early 1940s through the late 1950s.  The creators of Noir crafted their gripping stories by thrusting realistically flawed characters into morally challenging situations; then, rather than fashioning contrived outcomes, stood at a discreet distance and allowed human nature to take its course.
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Most Noir films are “B” movies, the shorter pictures produced as undercards to the marquee features.  Constrained by small budgets, Noir offers crisp and sharp dialogue and tight plotting.  Short running times permitted none of the directorial self-indulgence endemic in modern-day film.
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The genre’s archetypical black-and-white photography (budget-driven, once again) and the predominance of nighttime or half-lit daytime settings infuse atmospheric moodiness with menace.
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Invariably the setting of a Noir — whether an opulent, hilltop apartment building in San Francisco, an unlit New York warehouse, a lonely desert road, or a dingy block of flats in a bleak Los Angeles neighborhood — is as essential to the story as any character in the film.
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Because the contemporaneous Hays Code governed the messages and images films were permitted to convey, a fortuitous circumstance for lovers of the genre, in Noir films all crimes, all sins, and all errors of judgement are punished.
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Inasmuch as motion pictures were a 20th-century contribution to the age-old tradition of transmitting life lessons through storytelling, Noir offered mid-century movie audiences a chance to engage in thought experiments — What if I were to give in to temptation?  What if I succumbed to the lure of something for nothing?  What if I took the wrong path?  What might happen? — within the safe realm of fiction.
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There are hundreds of films in the Noir anthology.  Today I would like to recommend to you two dozen sparkling gems for your viewing enjoyment.  Accompanying each title you will find a list of stars, the name of the director, the setting, a brief description, and a theatrical trailer.
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Classics of the Genre

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The four films listed here number among not only the best Noir of all time but also the best films of all time.

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Director: John Huston
Setting: San Francisco
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For a newcomer to Film Noir, The Maltese Falcon is a must-see.  Boasting a tight, brilliant plot, impeccable dialogue, and several iconic and career-defining performances, gets better with each subsequent viewing.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: New York City
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A stylish, taut, and riveting drama.  As police detective Mark MacPherson (Andrews) gradually falls in love with the brunette (Tierney) whose murder he is called to investigate, he finds he is not alone in his obsession with the stunning Laura.
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Director: Billy Wilder
Setting: Los Angeles
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In this simple and compelling cautionary tale about the perils of passion, insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) finds the lure of illicit financial gain irresistible when his partner in crime is a knockout blonde (Stanwyck).
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Director: Tay Garnett
.Setting: the southern California coast
Drifter Frank Chambers (Garfield) succumbs to the charms of a blonde bombshell (Turner) after a chance stop at her husband’s gas station.  His motive for subsequent criminal acts — avarice, lust, or a desire to save a damsel in distress — becomes moot as a series of irreversible decisions dooms him and his paramour.
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The Element of Chance

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Some of Noir’s most compelling stories place characters in hazardous situations not entirely of their own making.  Three highly recommended masterpieces —

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Director: Rudolph Maté
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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To my mind, this film is a must-see.  It employs a brilliant and innovative premise: after discovering to his horror that he has been poisoned, a very ordinary accountant (O’Brien) devotes his few remaining hours on Earth to identifying his murderer.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: the central California coast
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Having run out of money to pay his fare, drifter Eric Stanton (Andrews) stumbles off a bus at an unfamiliar hamlet on the central California coast, where he finds himself drawn into the inhabitants’ rivalries, hatreds, and crimes.  Preminger’s trademark mastery of atmosphere keeps viewers transfixed through the denouement.
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Setting: Los Angeles
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As amnesic U.S. Marine (Hodiak) returning home after World War II finds himself mistaken for a wanted murderer.
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Unwillingness to See or Reluctance to Act

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“If only he had seen her as she really was.”

“If only she had recognized the danger before it was too late.”

“If only he had had the strength of character to take the difficult stand.”

Human frailty provides a treasure trove of source material for Film Noir.  Three to watch —

Impact (1949)

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Stars: Brian Donlevy, Helen Walker, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn
Director:Arthur Lubin
Settings: San Francisco and Sausalito, California; Larkspur, Idaho

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Businessman Walter Williams (Donlevy) pays dearly for idolizing his glamorous and much younger wife (Walker) and refusing to see her as she is.
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Director: Robert Siodmak
Setting: urban eastern U.S.
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Washed-up boxer Ole Andreson (Lancaster, in his film debut) rejects the offer of a police job and opts instead for a criminal path that ultimately costs him his life.
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Settings: Multiple, including Lake Tahoe, California; Acapulco, Mexico; and New York City
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When an unexpected visitor turns up at the gas station he owns, retired private investigator Jeff Markham (Mitchum) finds to his chagrin that he cannot escape the errors of his past.
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Consequences of a Single Decision

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The knife-edge, yes/no decisions made in a fog of emotion and without sufficient input from the cerebral cortex produce fascinating storylines for Film Noir.  At times a viewer wants to reach through the screen to shake sense into a self-destructive character.  Five of the best —

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Director: Andre De Toth
Setting: Los Angeles
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A classic Film Noir set-up: insurance investigator John Forbes (Powell) is bored with his job and suffocated by the financial responsibility of supporting his loving wife (Wyatt) and exemplary young son in post-War Los Angeles.  When in the course of his work Forbes meets a beautiful gangster’s moll (Scott), he sets his feet on a path sure to destroy his life.
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Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Settings: Reno, Nevada; rural Arizona; Los Angeles
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Embittered jazz pianist Al Roberts (Neal) makes a split-second decision to hide the body of a man he did not kill and thereby seals his own fate.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: Rural southern California; Baja California, Mexico.
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Two southern California pals (O’Brien and Lovejoy) tell their wives they are on a fishing trip when in fact they are bound for Mexico in search of extramarital excitement.  A stop to pick up a hitch-hiker upends their plans.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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Lonely San Francisco businessman Harry Graham (O’Brien) pursues a friendship with the attractive and intelligent Phyllis (Lupino) during his frequent work-related trips to Los Angeles.  A one-night tryst puts Phyllis and Harry into a bind that Harry resolves by breaking the law.
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Settings: Rural Wyoming; Los Angeles
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Two friends on a hunting trip (Ray and Albertson) stop to help two stranded motorists who turn out to be bank robbers on the lam.
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Capers and Action Films

Seabiscuit and John "Red" Pollard finally won the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940, defeating stablemate Kayak II. It was Seabiscuit's third attempt to win racing's biggest prize at the time. They had been beaten a nose by Rosemont in 1937 and a nose by Stagehand in 1938. Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

By virtue of its taut plotting and crisp dialogue, Noir produced numerous riveting and satisfying films centered upon action and well developed set-piece capers.  Six not to miss —
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Director: Stanley Kubrick
Setting: Los Angeles
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Career criminal Johnny Clay (Hayden) decides to undertake one last heist, a burglary of Santa Anita racetrack, before settling down to marry his girl (Coleen Gray).
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Director: Raoul Walsh
Setting: California, especially Los Angeles
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Brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini (Raft and Bogart) struggle with loan sharks, hitch-hikers, rough terrain, sleepless nights, and conniving women as they endeavor to scratch out a living in the trucking business.
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Director: Jules Dassin
Setting: California, especially San Francisco
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With the help of other drivers and a local prostitute, wildcat trucker Nick Garcos (Conte) wages war on an unscrupulous produce supplier (Cobb) in order to save his family’s business and preserve his father’s honor.
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Setting: Aboard a train from Chicago to Los Angeles
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A police seargent (McGraw) charged with escorting a gangster’s wife from Chicago to a Los Angeles courtroom, where she will testify against her husband, finds he is sharing the train with the hitmen she is trying to elude.
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Director: Don Siegel
Setting: San Francisco
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A San Francisco dope-smuggling ring that slips packets of drugs into tourists’ luggage is stymied when a drug shipment disappears from the custody of an innocent mother and her little girl.
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Director: Edward Dmytryk
Setting: San Francisco
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A mentally ill man terrorizes San Franciso by killing women with a sniper’s rifle, all the while penning desperate letters to the police in hopes that they will catch him.
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Relationships on the Edge

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The gritty realism of Film Noir produced some fascinating character studies focused on male/female relationships.  Three of the most engaging (and most chilling) —
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Director: Nicholas Ray
Setting: Los Angeles
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A budding romance between tempestuous screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart) and his new lady neighbor (Grahame) is badly strained when the police suspect Steele of murder.
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Director: Fritz Lang
Setting: Monterey, California
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Restless “black sheep” Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns to her family home after an ill-fated love affair.  She finds herself torn, with nearly disastrous consequences, between a level-headed man (Douglas) whom she finds boring and a difficult hothead (Ryan) whom she cannot resist.
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Director: David Miller
Settings: A cross-country train; San Francisco
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Successful playwright Myra Hudson (Crawford) falls deeply in love with and marries dashing actor Lester Blaine (Palance).  Her discovery that he plans to betray her transforms her passionate love into murderous hatred.
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“Homicide, Sweet Homicide.” – Eight Reasons to Check out the Best Series Ever Produced for Network Television

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Before HBO delivered the gritty, engrossing hopelessness of The Wire, the city of Baltimore starred in Homicide: Life on the Street (or Homicide, as it came to be known informally), one of the greatest drama series ever produced for U.S. television.

Based on the book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” by Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon, and co-produced by Baltimore native Barry Levinson, Homicide premiered on NBC in January of 1993 as a mid-season replacement series.  NBC renewed Homicide for a second half-season in January of 1994 and then for four complete seasons from the fall of 1994 through the spring of 1999.

If you have never seen Homicide: Life on the Street – or if you have seen it, but not recently – I strongly recommend that you find Homicide on DVD or on YouTube, select your most comfortable chair and footrest, and settle in to immerse yourself in Homicide’s gripping and thought-provoking universe.

Here are eight reasons to give the series a try.

1. Fascinating Characters

Almost unique among police dramas, Homicide is character-driven.  The show’s detectives necessarily collect evidence, interrogate suspects, and try to solve crimes, but as they do so the narratives and dialogue emphasize character development over police procedure.

Every character in Homicide, from the police department’s top brass to murder suspects, detectives, medical examiners, and city locals who serve as witnesses, is well-crafted and realistic.  Excellent casting, acting, and writing work together to offer the audience detailed insights into the various personalities.

In this scene, two detectives wax philosophical about their work and their lives while on a stakeout in a suburban home.

 

Homicide is essentially modern-day Greek tragedy.  Every character has believable flaws, and some have fatal flaws whose tragic consequences, artfully played out over many months, inevitably bring those characters down.

The series drives home the point that homicide detective work is hardly compatible with marriage.  Of the 19 main characters’ 13 marriages, 10 have ended in divorce. Two characters have been widowed. Only one main character enjoys a successful marriage, and even his wife leaves him for a few months during the series. There are also four affairs among main-cast characters, at least two of which continued off-screen.

2. Gripping Stories

Whereas police procedural dramas usually focus on one story per week, most episodes of Homicide involve at least two interwoven plot lines that subtly complement one another by offering either opposite outcomes or contrasting comedy and tragedy.  In some cases, plot lines coordinate with themes and events from the outside world, such as religious holidays or, for example, a real-life visit to Baltimore by the Pope.

Homicide broke with television precedent, and ran afoul of network bosses, by presenting some stories without happy endings.  Every season includes at least one story of an unsolvable crime or a criminal who gets away with murder.

Practicing “show-don’t-tell” instead of the more polemical style embraced by other police dramas, Homicide addresses a wide variety of topics, including AIDS, police corruption, unhealed wounds from the Civil War, Black Muslims, African revival movements, serial murderers, the legacy of the Vietnam War, dangerous dogs, alcoholism, gender politics, child physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and myriad of thorny questions related to race.  Real 1980s and 1990s crime stories pepper the series (in disguise), including the Jonbenet Ramsey case and the Gianni Versace murder.  Several episodes relate to the drug trade, but drugs are refreshingly not the show’s central theme (cf. The Wire).

Here, the mother of a murder victim becomes friendly with the mother of his young killer before either of them realizes the relationship of the other the tragedy that has engulfed her son.

 

3. Outstanding Scripts

One of the greatest film scripts of all time, James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, succeeds in part by breaking scenes of wrenching emotional anguish with perfectly timed moments of hilarity.  Homicide adopts a similar model.  Artful scriptwriting advances character development, promotes verisimilitude, and provides moments of very welcome humor. Here are just a few examples (from IMDb and Wikiquote).

SB Bolander (Ned Beatty).

Det. Stan Bolander: Sometimes I wanna call my wife just to hear the sound of her voice. But I know that five minutes into that phone call, my blood pressure is going through the roof, the phone is sailing across the room and I’m wishing that she’s on a plane falling out of the sky. It’s over. I know it’s over. But I had to replace six telephones before I, I really got the hint.

PandB Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Bayliss (Kyle Secor).

Det. Bayliss: Frank, I work with you, not for you.
Det. Pembleton: Excuse me?
Det. Bayliss: You never say please, you never say thank you.
Det. Pembleton: Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.

CandM Cox (Michelle Forbes) and Munch (Richard Belzer).

Dr. Julianna Cox, CME: Don’t you even wonder why?
Det. John Munch: Why what?
Dr. Julianna Cox, CME: Why he lied.
Det. John Munch: I’m a homicide detective. The only time I wonder why is when they tell me the truth.

Det. John Munch: The only thing I have in common with Judaism is we both don’t like to work on Saturdays.

Det. Frank Pembleton: You know, sometimes you’re funny. Then there’s now.

Medical Examiner: Another drug dealer. Collect all thirteen in the series, win a set of dishes.
Det. Stan Bolander: Live stupid, die young.

Det. John Munch: From the tracks on his arms, large caliber wound, proximity to a heroin market… I’d say it was a heated dispute about the symbolism of red and blue in 18th-century French romantic poetry.

JHB Brodie (Max Perlich).  KH Howard (Melissa Leo).

J.H. Brodie: Well, you’re a girl. A woman. A woman. A woman with wild red hair. I can’t stay with you.
Sgt. Kay Howard: What are you afraid of? I’m going to chain you to the bedpost and cover you with butter?
J.H. Brodie: Only thing is, I know that you won’t.

SC Crosetti (Jon Polito).

Det. Steve Crosetti: Either it’s murder, or this library has a very strict overdue policy.

Det. John Munch: Name one miracle that’s happened in your lifetime.
Det. Stan Bolander: How ’bout the fact that I haven’t killed you yet?

ML Lewis (Clark Johnson).

Det. Meldrick Lewis: Remember kids, don’t just say no to drugs, say “No, thank you.”

GandB Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) and Bayliss (Kyle Secor).

Lt. Giardello: Bayliss, where’s Pembleton?
Det. Bayliss: Uh, I don’t know, Gee.
Lt. Giardello: Don’t say, “I don’t know.” He’s your partner, you should know his every move, his every breath. Like a lover, he should never be far from your thoughts.
Det. Bayliss: That was poetic.
Giardello: I’m in no mood for sarcasm.

Det. Lewis: Nothin’s missing, so I guess we can rule out a robbery, huh?
Det. Pembleton: We don’t guess, Meldrick, we hypothesize. We infer. We extrapolate from the evidence. We do not guess.
Det. Lewis: Go easy on me, would you, Frank? It’s early in the morning, I haven’t had my first donut yet.

Detective: Doesn’t that stick in your craw?
Det. John Munch: I took the liberty of having my craw removed years ago so that I could sleep at night.

Det. Lewis: A member of the Baltimore City Police Department, Homicide unit, used the word ‘Wow’ on a crime scene?

Det. Munch: You know, Stanley, this woman, you gotta respect her. Why she goes out with you, I’ll never know. As far as I’m concerned, your good fortune hangs right there with the great mysteries of life, right alongside the whereabouts of the lost tribes of Israel and the true meaning to the lyrics of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Det. Tim Bayliss: Homicide, sweet homicide.

4. Superb Acting

Homicide’s ensemble cast is excellent throughout the series’ run in spite of frequent personnel changes.  New characters blend seamlessly into the cast by virtue of great writing and acting and strong chemistry among the performers.

Most of actors in Homicide were relative unknowns when the series was produced.  Several, including Melissa LeoAndre Braugher, Clark Johnson, Kyle Secor, Reed Diamond, Callie Thorne, Jon Seda, Toni Lewis, Giancarlo Esposito, and Erik Todd Dellums, made their reputations on Homicide and subsequently enjoyed great success.  Stand-up comedian Richard Belzer has built his recent career out of playing his Homicide character, John Munch, in several other television series, including Law and Order: SVU.

Here we get to see the ensemble in action as the detectives explain their interrogation procedures for a squad room documentary.

 

Detectives Meldrick Lewis and Terri Stivers demonstrate those interrogation techniques in an interview with charming and utterly ruthless drug lord Luther Mahoney, the series’ most infamous criminal.

 

5. Camerawork and Editing

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A visual trademark of Homicide is the use of a single, hand-held camera. This places the audience in the middle of the action and imparts a sense of (at times claustrophobic) immediacy.

In the later seasons, key plot moments are repeated percussively one or more times to enhance dramatic tension.

Here, the moving camera invites viewers into this confrontation between Det. Meldrick Lewis and Luther Mahoney in a neighborhood bar owned by three of the squad’s detectives.

 

6. Style

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Since Homicide was required to abide by mid-1990s network TV standards, the series builds its dramatic tension without the relentless barrage of strong language and the graphic sex and violence characteristic of more recent brilliant dramas such as Deadwood, Mad Men, The Wire, Homeland, and House of Cards.  The subtlety born from those restrictions renders Homicide both enthralling and easier than more recent series to watch.

7. Baltimore

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The city of Baltimore is a vivid character in every episode of Homicide.  The show’s writers carefully weave into their stories idiosyncratic traits of Baltimore’s culture, such as crab feasts, duck pin bowling, Ft. McHenry, the city’s Canadian Football League team and later the NFL’s Ravens, Edgar Allen Poe, the Orioles baseball team, Chesapeake Bay fishermen, the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, hillbilly influence, and diner waitresses who call all of their customers, “Hon.”

The series’ casting of small parts is excellent.  The production uses local actors, ensuring that most of the bit players deliver their lines in the region’s distinctive and nearly inimitable accent.

8. Music

Every episode of Homicide is introduced musically by a minimalist percussive theme in a minor key, which occasionally reappears to mark the show’s dramatic moments but generally remains in the background.  Most of the series’ incidental tunes are vocals by contemporary artists, some of whom are relative unknowns. Throughout its run, Homicide makes effective use of musical montages to advance plot lines and to develop its characters.

This montage follows detectives from their quiet squadroom New Years Eve party to a variety of murder scenes and work sites.

 

This poignant episode-ending montage shows three different men who are grieving for a murdered woman and depicts Det. John Munch’s reconciliation with his Jewish heritage.

 

Homicide: Life on the Street maintained superb quality all the way to the end of its seventh and final season.  A masterpiece of series drama, it stands up to multiple viewings and never ceases to be entertaining.

I strongly recommend that you check it out.

Quotes for Today

Det. Tim Bayliss: Fourteen years old… When I was fourteen, jeez, I was in the ninth grade, and I don’t remember much of what I was doing, but I know I was nowhere close to picking up a gun and shooting another kid.
Det. Frank Pembleton: How old should our shooter be?
Det. Tim Bayliss: Not fourteen.
Det. Frank Pembleton: So if he’s what, fifteen, sixteen years old, it makes any more sense?
Det. Tim Bayliss: No.
Det. Frank Pembleton: How old should he be then? What’s the cut off age? Seventeen? Eighteen?
Det. Tim Bayliss: I don’t know, but not fourteen.
Det. Frank Pembleton: When you find out, clue me in, awright? I’d like to know when any of this killing, at any age, from six to sixty, makes any sense. One time I want to hear about a murder that makes sense. Just one time. For any reason.