From the early 1940s to the late 1950s, film noir became a hugely popular film trope in Hollywood, extensively comprising crime drama, high stake thrills, and innovative cinematography. The glitz and glamour of the Golden Age of Hollywood and the peak of early film stardom played the perfect foundation for dark and mysterious fun promised in each and every film noir released.
The lurking shadows of each visual image are just an ingredient for a perfect noir film. Even today, current noir films utilize the same basic elements and traits of the earlier classics. Without films like Otto Preminger's Angel Face, we wouldn't have modern classics like Chinatown or L.A. Confidential. Fun twists, like those found in Preminger's even more well-known Laura, made way for even crazier twists in films like Seven. Other modern classics that fit into the mold include films like Fargo, Blue Velvet, and even flicks like Blade Runner.
While "film noir" is somewhat of a relative term, encompassing plenty of films over the decades, a handful of early films have set the standard. And while that noir style we all know and love is actually based on German expressionism, these 10 pictures have established themselves as the faces of dark cities and meaty mysteries.
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1. DOUBLE INDEMNITY // 1944
Director Billy Wilder's masterfully crafted film was based on the 1935 novella of the same name by James M Cain. Since its release, it's become the modern blueprint for noir films as we know them. The contrasting lights and shadows. The story structure. The iconic performances. Double Indemnity is easily one of the most well-created motion pictures in film history. What made this picture fun was star Fred MacMurray's fierce turn as a hard-boiled, love-obsessed wreck of a man; his usual trope on screen was friendly and well-rounded. For audiences, it was a change of pace, just like the movie's structure in general. Add to that Barbara Stanwyck's thorny performance. Noir works when there's a hidden agenda and seedy characters trying to fit in with society. Double Indemnity wraps it in biting words and clever visuals.
Oscars Nominated: Best Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Sound (Recording), Music (Score)
Oscars Won: None
2. THE BIG SLEEP // 1946
Released just a couple of years after Double Indemnity, Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep could have been the best noir, had it actually come first. Inspired by some of Wilder's clever choices, Hawks holds his own as an auteur with a visionary tale of deception and femme fatales and murders. And, you can't beat the cast: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The film also sits still as a perfect example of a director using his resources at the time to make the story work. Situated right towards the beginning to the production code era, the violence and terror had to be tamed. Hawks' ingenuity lent itself to becoming the epitome of "less is more." The Big Sleep is completely captivating without relying on ultra-violence. Today's directors could take note.
Oscars Nominated: None
3. IN A LONELY PLACE // 1950
Humphrey Bogart could easily be referred to as the King of Noir. His gentleman status pairs well with the washed-up antics of the dark and shady noir set-ups. In Nicholas Ray's pivotal In a Lonely Place, Bogart plays, perhaps, his saddest character: a screenwriter who's fallen on hard times; a total sad sack. His short fuse paints the way for the ups and downs he meets while falling for his interesting new neighbor, played by Gloria Grahame. In a Lonely Place finds time around its murder mysteries and angsty nuances to play commentary on everything from masculinity to redemption. It's a steady picture that easily laid the framework for future dark character studies like Memento and Drive.
Oscars Nominated: None
4. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT // 1948
The plot hopes to prove that two wrongs do make a right, which of course is never going to work out. Nicholas Ray's first foray into film, and noir film, may be a silly set up, but the conventions Ray takes to share the story are nothing short of genius. He'll later exceed even his first showing of his talents with the #3 ranked In a Lonely Place, but They Live By Night is a testament to his natural born eye and skill. The most compelling piece of the film, and the bit that cements it as a noir standard, is the character study. With one hand in the exciting chase against evil and the other hand grasped firmly around the idea that even criminals deserve a voice, They Live By Night serves as a political/cultural study in the midst of Hollywood's early years. It's fun and vivacious, with plenty of heart and innocence.
Oscars Nominated: None
5. SUNSET BOULEVARD // 1950
Easily one of the best time capsules of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as well as one of the best movies about the movies, Sunset Boulevard is Billy Wilder's crown jewel. Gloria Swanson stars as Norma Desmond, a silent film actress who never quite recovers from falling slowly out of the limelight. Her crazed demeanor is attributed to her years as an oppressed, but praised, film star in the early studio system. With cameos by the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and a group of famous fellow silent film stars, Sunset Boulevard's greatest asset is its biting commentary on the state of Hollywood and glamour and show-business. It's a critique that is perfectly fitting for the era where "old" stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford begin struggling to find pertinent roles, though they're only in their 50's. The film follows the footsteps of noir film, too, with carefully crafted images (thanks to cinematographer John Seitz, who lensed Double Indemnity, as well) and a delicious script.
Oscars Nominated: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Writing (Story and Screenplay), Cinematography (Black-and-White), Music (Score of Drama or Comedy), Art Direction (Set Direction, Black-and-White), Film Editing
Oscars Won: Writing (Story and Screenplay), Art Direction (Set Direction, Black-and-White), Music (Score of Drama or Comedy)
6. THE THIRD MAN // 1949
Set in Vienna and beautifully shot by cinematographer Robert Krasker, The Third Man is a perfect example of expressionistic inspiration found in most noir films. It's rich. It's cinematic. It leaves the city and the story feeling perfectly disjointed. Joseph Cotten stars as Holly Martins, a writer who moves to Vienna after his friend Harry tells him about a job. After arriving, he learns Harry has died. The details around the death seem fishy, which raises Martins' concerns and ushers in the fight for justice and information amidst the dark shadows of a seedy town. If that isn't enough to intrigue you, a classic chase scene (that undoubtedly inspired many, if not most, that we know today) is pure genius and Orson Welles gives a fantastic performance; perhaps the best of his career.
Oscars Nominated: Director, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Film Editing
Oscars Won: Cinematography (Black-and-White)
7. MILDRED PIERCE // 1945
An Oscar-winning turn for its star, Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce is another atypical noir film that's disguised as a character drama but is unequivocally deranged and twisted. The black-and-white cinematography marks off most of the noir-ish tropes, without feeling overly dark. The story sets itself up as an endearing mother-daughter tale, that just so happens to have a murder involved. This care and attention to how each detail is shared is easily director Michael Curtiz's best trait. Follow that by Crawford undeniably engrossing performance and you not only have a great noir film, but a masterpiece of cinema in general.
Oscars Nominated: Picture, Actress, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actress, Writing (Screenplay), Cinematography (Black-and-White)
Oscars Won: Actress
8. THE MALTESE FALCON // 1941
Though Double Indemnity may best represent "noir," The Maltese Falcon may be the most well-known film from the era. Directed by the legendary John Huston, the film stars Humphrey Bogart and lends itself to being the imminent detective-noir set-up. (It also could be responsible for solidifying Bogart's indelible career.) The dialogue is fun and biting. The story is swift and fun, full of mystery and intrigue. The camerawork is some of the decade's best. And, though it was released during the Hays Code years, it's still edgy enough to be shocking and fun. The film became one of the first to be preserved by the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, and deservedly so. It's a classic and masterpiece wrapped into a delightful package.
Oscars Nominated: Picture, Supporting Actor, Writing (Screenplay)
9. LAURA // 1944
Otto Preminger's Laura is a surprise hit, with one of the 40's best twists. Following similar styles as The Maltese Falcon and other detective flicks, Laura is all about a detective who falls in love with the lady's whose murder he is trying to solve. The catch? She may not, in fact, be dead. The script is pristine and the performance are stellar, especially that of Gene Tierney, as the presumed dead young woman. There may be a few plot holes, but it doesn't matter when you're seeing things strung together by a great like Preminger.
10. THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE // 1946
The femme fatale pawn is a favorite of the noir film genre and in Tay Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice its used to perfection. Lana Turner plays the married woman who falls for a drifter (John Garfield) and the two hatch a plan to murder her much-older husband. Of course, things go awry. The film pulls from Double Indemnity and other noir films that came before it, but it does so in a respectful way, allowing for its own originality to stand true and shine. It's exciting and beautifully shot and, seeing Turner in her prime, is worth a viewing.