Despite being a big fan of film noir scores, I’ve never been a big watcher of film noir itself. It’s not quite so bad as my fondness for fantasy action scores like Conan the Barbarian, while pretty much being bored out my skull by the films themselves — I’ve seen the big names, like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, and the like. I’m also into more modern takes on the genre, such as Brick and Pokemon: Detective Pikachu (eff off, it’s film noir for kids).
That said, thanks to a healthy fondness for cocktail lounge and exotica music, combined with a love for film scores, I’ve dug deep over the years into the music associated with film noir. It’s cool, it’s hip, and it’s the exact sort of thing you always wish you’d hear when you walk into a bar instead of “Wagon Wheel” or “Sweet Caroline” for the nth time. This playlist is by no means a complete overview, but more an attempt to create a mood. Given the preponderance of Harry Mancini’s contributions to the genre, it could’ve been nothing but his music, but I chose to instead draw from a variety of sources.
Several cuts come from Capitol Records’ Ultra Lounge series, whose seventh volume — Crime Scene (Spies, Thighs & Private Eyes!) — is an indispensable primer on the music of the genre, along with volume 16, Mondo Hollywood (Movie Madness From Tinsel Town). Stag-O-Lee’s series, Slow Grind Fever, might be a little too much on the rock ‘n’ roll tip to really get much representation, but the music found within the now seven-volume collection ought to get your blood pumping. Rhino’s two volume set, Crime Jazz, is fairly self explanatory in its title, and while it shares quite a few cuts in common with the Ultra Lounge installments, is probably the definitive collection, although Not Now’s three CD comp, Jazz Noir is pretty solid, even if it’s a little too overloaded for its own good.
A quick note regarding the first and last tracks, as the rest should be pretty evident as to their inclusion. “Harlem Nocturne,” was written by Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers in 1939, and is basically the default film noir jazz track. If there’s a parody of noir you’ve seen, this is probably the piece which scored it., thanks to the fact that it became the theme song for the Mike Hammer TV series in the ’80s.
The last track, “The Admirals Game,” comes from the 2009 album, Succubus, by the Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation. Doom jazz is a relatively new genre, incorporating elements of noir and crime jazz, while also leaning into the ambient, moody rhythms of trip-hop artists like Portishead and Tricky. Not for nothing did Portishead’s “Sour Times” sample Lalo Schifrin’s “Danube Incident.”
So, grab yourself a Manhattan, light up a Lucky Strike, and lean back with these moody cuts.