‘Noir’ is a much used, and abused, term in film vocabulary today. It has long been debated whether film noir qualifies as a genre, some critics arguing that it holds together only superficial or surface elements of films that are actually quite different at their core. Nevertheless, some of the greatest and most influential films ever made can be found in the generally accepted film noir canon. Here is a list of ten essential film noirs that are also a great place to start exploring 1940s and 50s Hollywood, as well as the filmographies of the respective directors.
The Maltese Falcon | 1941 | dir. John Huston
Recognised widely as the first film noir, The Maltese Falcon set the template for all future film noirs – the convoluted plot, the colorful villains, the femme fatale, the tough anti-hero, the smart, cynical talk. Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man was made into a brilliantly funny mystery film in 1934, and in Maltese Falcon John Huston masterfully translated the hard-boiled grittiness of his novel onto the big screen, and in doing so made a film that has remained a cornerstone of great crime films.
Double Indemnity | 1944 | Billy Wilder
Double Indemnity stars Fred Macmurray and Barbara Stanwyk, perfectly cast as the conflicted protagonist and the twisted femme fatale plotting the perfect crime. The film was adapted from James M. Cain’s novel by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. While the screenplay retained the classic plot, it was Chandler and Wilder’s re-touching of the dialogue that gave the film its cynical, provocative edge. Aided by a haunting score and expressionistic cinematography, Double Indemnity is an oddly satisfying film and in many ways is the quintessential film noir.
The Big Sleep | 1946 | Howard Hawks
Adapted from Raymond Chandler’s seminal novel of the same name by Leigh Brackett, Jules Furtham and William Faulkner, and starring Humphrey Bogart as the wisecracking detective Sam Spade and Lauren Bacall as the dangerous and sexy Vivien Rutledge, The Big Sleep is a delicious noir at the centre of which is the sparkling chemistry between the two leads. The film combines the dark humor and complex, cerebral plot of the book with elements of screwball comedy to create a highly enjoyable noir that is now an uncontested classic.
The Lady from Shanghai | 1947 | Orson Welles
Orson Welles creates a poetic, stream-of-consciousness noir based on the novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King, which. Like most of Welles’ films, this too is a Shakespearean tragedy too. The gorgeous Rita Hayworth plays the perfect femme fatale at the centre of a web of deceit and murder, and Orson Welles and Everett Sloane are two men fatally attracted to her. The roller-coaster plot ends with a (literally) shattering climax that has been referenced in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery.
Out of the Past | 1947 | Jacques Tourneur
French director Jacques Tourneur weaves a seamless tale of doomed love in this film based on the novel Build My Gallows High by Daniel Mainwaring. Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas, Out of the Past is considered a perfect example of film noir due to its twisted plot, cynicism, and brooding voice-over narration by Robert Mitchum.
The Third Man | 1949 | Carol Reed
Written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, The Third Man is a rare feat in filmmaking that plays like a pitch-perfect opera. Robert Krasker’s cinematography of the wet streets and sewers of post-war Vienna set to Anton Karas’s melancholy zither score lends an atmosphere quality to the film. Orson Welles’s entry as Harry Lime into around two-third of the film is one of the most iconic in film history, and so is the lingering end.
Gun Crazy | 1950 | dir. Joseph H. Lewis
Joseph H. Lewis was a prolific director who had made numerous low-budget crime films, or “B-movies” in the 1940s, and Gun Crazy is his crowning achievement. The film tells the story of two lovers, played by John Dall and Peggy Cummings, who are passionately in love, and the dark path that passion leads to. Russell Harlan’s cinematography gives the film the feel of a dark fairy tale which grows ominous by the minute.
The Asphalt Jungle | 1950 | John Huston
A motley crew of shady characters get together for the perfect heist, and it goes all wrong. A premise we are all too familiar with, but no other film executes it nearly as perfectly as The Asphalt Jungle. Sterling Hayden is brilliant as the tough but endearing hoodlum who wants to start a normal life, Sam Jaffe is charming as the methodical, cultured career criminal, and Marilyn Monroe is delightful in her brief role as the beautiful blonde. A tale of crime and punishment, and redemption, set against the starkly photographed city, The Asphalt Jungle is film noir at it most existentialist.
The Big Heat | 1953 | Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang was one of the leading proponents of two major film genres/movements. One of them being silent German expressionist cinema, it is only fitting that Lang became one of the most prolific noir directors, a genre heavily influenced by German expressionism. The Big Heat is somewhat different from other film noirs in the respect that the protagonist is a legitimate good guy, the honest cop against a corrupt system, and is a classic police drama, the influence of which can be seen in numerous cop movies, including several Hindi films.
The Killing | 1956 | Stanley Kubrick
Sterling Hayden once again perfects the role of the existentialist noir hero in this early gem from Stanley Kubrick. The Killing is Kubrick at his flamboyant best, while also showing signs of the perfectionism for which he later became known. The film marked a significant modernist shift from the classicism of earlier film noirs, and has influenced films such as Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight.