Film Noir is a style of film making that is arguably one of the most artistic and critically scrutinized in cinema history. Extreme shadows, cities where danger and cynicism lurk around every corner, hard-boiled detectives willing to cross legal and moral boundaries to get the job done, femme fatales that can drive a man to murder merely by smoking a cigarette or tossing off a smoldering look.
Many associate noir with films (primarily crime films and thrillers) of the 1940s and 1950s. The dress-code included fedoras, trench-coats and evening dresses that are tight in just all the right places, the locale usually an urban center like New York or Los Angeles.
Thanks to books by author Raymond Chandler and later James Ellroy, the city of angels has taken on a fantastic noir persona. In a city of sunlight and celebrity lurk con-artists, rotten cops and every other sort of character you wouldn't want to be around for too long or else you'll end up sucked into their world, framed for something you didn't do, or even worse...a corpse.
Murder is always part of the noir game. Corpses seem to pop up in the most random of places, and the women...well...stay away from them because these femmes will often drive a man to murder. A typical noir plot involves a man killing for lust of a lady who almost always is just using her sexual power to get what she wants. I don't know about you, but I don't think I've met a woman who I'd literally kill for - although Rita Hayworth in GILDA would probably get me thinking about it very seriously. Or perhaps you end up in a small town, you're sure to find some sex-pot married to a schlub who would do anything for his wife - but she wouldn't think twice if that husband were to end up dead by nefarious means.
Noir made great use of black-and-white photography which brought out the sleaze and grime of the morally ambiguous world in all it's glory. Not to say that noir didn't make it into color films as well. Films like HOUSE OF BAMBOO or BLACK WIDOW made great use of color, and there are even better examples in my list below.
And don't think that noir hasn't made it into the modern age of cinema. A particular movie that has all the elements of a classic nor (with a hard R rating) in the 1990s (the title of which I don't want to reveal until you see it in my list) sparked a whole sub-genre of erotic thrillers that the decade became known for. And of course there is CHINATOWN (1974), one of the best noirs ever made.
Film noir has always been a style that has fascinated me. With the AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE holding its annual Film Noir festival recently, and with Rockstar games' upcoming L.A. NOIRE for PS3 and X-Box 360 coming on May 17th, I felt the time was right to rundown my favorite noir films. The great thing about the CINEMATHEQUE festival is that they try to show many films that are not yet available on DVD or even VHS. It is definitely worth checking out.
There are some significant titles that are absent from my list that I am sure will get the usual "where is it" criticism - like LAURA or THE BIG SLEEP. Don't get me wrong, I love those films but this list represents my true top picks. While the list is in no particular order, the films are somewhat ranked according to my admiration. Some films have comments, some do not. So without further adieu...
THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947; Dir: Orson Welles)
This film has a lot of the key elements that makes Film Noir so great - a very convoluted plot, a guy in way over his head (because of a woman of course) and a classic finale in a hall of mirrors which is one of the greatest scenes in cinema history. Woody Allen paid homage to it in MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY. Throw all that in with the fact that THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI was directed by and starred Orson Welles, and it is a truly a brilliant film.
THE SET-UP (1950; Dir: Robert Wise)
Robert Wise may have directed THE SOUND OF MUSIC, but the hills here are alleyways and a boxing ring, and the only music being played is of a double cross. Robert Ryan plays a down-and-out boxer who hasn't won a match for ages. His manager has made a deal with a gangster by promising that the fix is in on Ryan's latest match - but because of Ryan's losing ways, nobody bothers to tell Ryan about it. True suspense, some great cut aways of spectators at the boxing match, and a fantastic swish pan moment in an alleyway (can't say why, is a spoiler) mixed with a great Jazz score, this is a film that not many may know about, but thankfully is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.
FORCE OF EVIL (1948; Dir: Abraham Polonsky)
A spellbinding film directed by a man who was later blacklisted for having supposed communist ties.
OUT OF THE PAST (1947; Dir: Jacques Tourneur)
Another convoluted story that the more confusing the plot gets, the more compelling the film becomes. Robert Mitchum's tough guy persona made him an ideal noir figure.
GUN CRAZY - a.k.a. DEADLY IS THE FEMALE (1950; Dir: Joseph H. Lewis)
This is a B-movie that is well worth a look at. Before BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) there was this. Also available from Warner Home Video.
GILDA (1946; Dir: Charles Vidor)
Rita Hayworth as Gilda is a woman that would drive men to the edge. Associated with a dangerous gangster, and caught in a bizarre lover triangle that is destined for disaster. And who can argue with that black dress she wears during a key musical number. This film and the still above played a major role in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) as well as the Stephen King's novella it was based on.
NO WAY OUT (1950; Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Outright racism comes to film noir. Not to be confused with the 1987 NO WAY OUT with Kevin Costner (which is another film I regard highly), noir favorite Richard Widmark is a racist thug who ends up in a hospital and under the care of doctor Sidney Poitier. Great movie and on DVD as part of the Fox Film Noir collection - another great series of DVDs which are must haves for any cinema lover.
CHINATOWN (1974; Dir: Roman Polanski)
THE quintessential modern noir. Can you see Hollywood in this day and age have an actor of Jack Nicholson's stature spend the majority of a movie with a huge bandage over his nose? They can barely stand to have superhero movies where the main hero wears a mask (see SPIDER-MAN 2 and count how many times Tobey MaGuire's mask comes off or is ripped up so you can see his face). Not only one of my top noirs, but also on my top 10 film list of all-time.
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955; Dir: Charles Laughton)
This is a different kind of noir, with a creepy Robert Mitchum as a killer preacher chasing after a couple of kids. A must see, and also available in a great Blu-Ray edition from the Criterion Collection.
CRISS CROSS (1949; Dir: Robert Siodmak)
Burt Lancaster (who shows up in a few titles on this list) is an ex-con driven back into the crime game by who else...a woman (Yvonne DeCarlo). A movie that makes great use of downtown Los Angeles as a location.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957; Alexander MacKendrick)
Another unique noir also with Burt Lancaster about a columnist who kills with a pen rather than a gun, and the publicist who becomes his puppet (Tony Curtis) in a quest for power. Some of the greatest cinematic black-and-white photography by renowned cinematographer James Wong Howe. Also available on Blu-Ray from Criterion in a fantastic edition.
THE MALTESE FALCON (1941; Dir: John Huston)
Based on the novel by Dasheill Hammett, a crime writer in the vein of Raymond Chandler, this is what people come to know as a noir - a hard-boiled detective skirting the line of the law in a dark and intriguing plot. I always can't help but feel bad for poor Elisha Cook in this. Thankfully he gets a better rap in the STAR TREK episode COURT MARTIAL where he defends Captain Kirk who is charged for murder (like how I snuck a Trek reference in there?)
MILDRED PIERCE (1945; Dir: Michael Curtiz)
Recently remade as a mini-series for pay TV.
BRUTE FORCE (1947; Dir: Jules Dassin)
Burt Lancaster again in the list in prison, and at the mercy of Hume Cronyn, a brutal guard that will make you look at one of the harmless senior citizens in COCOON (1985) in a whole new light.
THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946; Dir: George Marshall)
Another typical noir feature is of returning vets coming home to a new dark and dangerous world. At least on the battlefield, they knew who the enemy was.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944; Dir: Billy Wilder)
This is the movie that best defines what I describe above where a woman drives a good man utilizing her sexual power over him, to commit a murder.
ACE IN THE HOLE a.k.a. THE BIG CARNIVAL (1951; Dir: Billy Wilder)
Not a movie one always would associate with noir, but fits the category nonetheless. The characters are all out for themselves, and a human life - treated with almost no respect - is their ticket to fame and fortune. Not to mention another example of a restless hot wife married to a good-natured schlubb who is pretty much doomed from the moment they said "I do".
THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946; Dir: Tay Garnett)
Remade in 1981 with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.
BASIC INSTINCT (1992; Dir: Paul Verhoeven)
Here it is, the movie I eluded to earlier - the movie that launched a myriad of erotic thrillers in the 1990s. This has all the key elements of a good noir - a cop on the edge with a dark history, a femme fatale with sexual power that no man can resist, atmospheric lighting and a great noir score by Jerry Goldsmith (who also scored the other 2 modern entries on this list - L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and CHINATOWN).
CROSSFIRE (1947; Dir: Edward Dmytryk)
THE STRANGER (1946; Dir: Orson Welles)
DAISY KENYON (1947; Dir: Otto Preminger)
FOURTEEN HOURS (1951; Dir: Henry Hathaway)
An entire movie with a guy on the verge of doing a nose-dive of a high rise. You'd think the premise would wear thin fast, but it does not. Fox Film Noir Collection.
CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948; Dir: Henry Hathway)
THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951; Dir: Robert Wise)
FALLEN ANGEL (1945; Dir: Otto Preminger)
THE DARK CORNER (1946; Dir: Henry Hathaway)
NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947; Dir: Edmund Goulding)
THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942; Dir: Frank Tuttle)
MURDER MY SWEET (1945; Dir: Edward Dmytryk)
SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT (1946; Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
WHIRLPOOL (1949; Dir: Otto Preminger)
I re-visited this movie and liked it so much, I watched it twice in a week. The plot is kind of preposterous, but man is it great. Also a Fox Film Noir Collection entry.
KISS OF DEATH (1947; Dir: Henry Hathaway)
Remade in the 1990s with Nicolas Cage and David Caruso.
HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949; Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997; Dir: Curtis Hanson)
You think it's a coincidence that Kim Basinger is a prostitute made up to look like noir fatale Veronica Lake? I think not!
THIEVES HIGHWAY (1949; Dir: Jules Dassin)
I just discovered this movie recently, and it is a gem.
BORN TO KILL (1947; Dir: Robert Wise)
THE KILLERS (1946; Dir: Robert Siodmak)
The Ernest Hemingway short story is the launching point for a great noir where the hero of the story (Burt Lancaster) dies in the opening scene.
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950; Dir: John Huston)
Yes that is Marilyn Monroe, and easily one of the best heist films ever made. Sam Jaffe is truly creepy and another noir favorite - Sterling Hayden - is fantastic.
D.O.A. (1950; Dir: Rudolph Mate)
Remade in 1987 with Dennis Quaid.
THE NARROW MARGIN (1952; Dir: Richard Fleischer)
Takes place entirely in the confined environment of a train - a cop is trying to get a murder witness to trial, but of course the gangsters on the train have a different agenda.
A pretty competent remake came out in 1990 starring Gene Hackman and Anne Archer.
THE LETTER (1940; Dir: William Wyler)
The opening scene of this is one of my favorites. How can you go wrong with Bette Davis charging out of a house unloading her full complement of bullets into a guy's back. You're sucked in from the moment the film starts.
WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950; Dir: Otto Preminger)
SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950; Dir: Billy Wilder)
She's ready for her close-up Mr. DeMille, and Billy Wilder's 3rd film on my list.
KISS ME DEADLY (1955; Dir: Robert Aldrich)
Coming soon on Blu-Ray from Criterion, KISS ME DEADLY is one of those noirs that makes all of the best-of lists. Quentin Tarantino pays homage to it in PULP FICTION.
THE BIG CLOCK (1948; Dir: John Farrow)
Funny how above I mention the 1987 NO WAY OUT which borrows it's plot from this ticking clock thriller.
KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952; Dir: Phil Karlson)