As a genre, film noir is difficult to define. However, films that will usually be allocated this title will share certain characteristics. Although the majority that fit this category were released between 1941 and 1955, it is important to note that this is not exclusive, and that really, like a classic, what makes a noir is simply in the eye of the beholder.
The list below is by no means definitive, and instead of drawing on just what you could consider the more popular titles, these are films that stand out for different reasons. Perhaps they are underrated, or perhaps they happen to have that unique quality that allows you to watch them over and over again. Yet, inherently they stand the test of time, and although they are, indeed, listed in order of preference, it is just the preference of one and not all.
What is so wonderful about this genre, is that each example is so diverse and unusual, even within this confined noir classification.
10. The Dark Mirror (1946)
With the somewhat heady cocktail of identical twins, murder, and mystery, The Dark Mirror is a taut psychological noir tale, rife with a sort of bizarre horror. With the talented Olivia de Havilland playing dual roles as both sisters, the cinematography is top notch, and the split screen effects exceptional for a 1940s film.
Despite the vintage Freudian psychological clichés, this good twin/evil twin plot is interesting and generally quite original. A man is murdered, and witnesses place Ruth Collins as being at the scene of the crime. The mystery deepens when it turns out that Ruth has a twin sister, Terry. A tad suspicious, a detective calls in a psychiatrist to determine whether one could have committed the murder, who does so by convincing the pair that they are simply taking part in a scientific experiment. He soon concludes that one is perfectly lovely, yet the other is capable of cold blooded murder…but which one is which?
The story thickens with the viewer watching as one sister tries to destroy the other, all the way up to the final scene. Good performances also come from the strong supporting cast.
9. The Big Sleep (1946)
Bogey and Bacall star in this complex who-dunnit, featuring Raymond Chandler’s quintessential private directive, Philip Marlowe. It’s the noir that ticks all the boxes, with a plot that defies logic, a touch of action, a flurry of wise cracks, the smoldering femme fatale, shady henchmen, and sharp, often sexually charged, dialogue.
Marlowe, Humphrey Bogart, is hired by a wealthy general to investigate a blackmail attempt on his promiscuous daughter Carmen, but soon finds the perpetrator dead at his home. The convoluted plot leads the detective to meet the girl’s sister, played by Lauren Bacall, which sees the start of an affair between her and the sleuth that brings a whole new dimension to the already confusing story. Flow charts and repeated viewings are essential.
Dark and intriguing, it is directed by the genius that is Howard Hawks, scripted by a Nobel laureate, and includes a score by Max Steiner. It’s no wonder that The Big Sleep is one of the most atmospheric and well respected film noirs of its era.
8. Whirlpool (1949)
When a wealthy kleptomaniac, played by an elegant Gene Tierney, employs the help of a smooth talking but cold hypnotherapist rather than her psychoanalyst husband, she finds herself being drawn and implicated in a murder.
The story progresses intriguingly to its brilliant end, and despite the plot being somewhat peculiar, the cinematography is excellent, and the acting brings a level of calm to what could have been an interpretation full of hysteria and over dramatics.
Instead we get a tale of murder and distrust, amidst a theme of the rich, yet repressed, falling off their sophisticated seats (a theme very popular during this era of film noir).
Otto Preminger directs this suspenseful piece in a stark and cold manner, with a superb cast including Richard Conte as the faithful yet flawed husband, and José Ferrer as the manipulative hypnotherapist.
7. Gilda (1946)
Rita Hayworth will always be immortalized for her iconic part in Gilda, forever identified by ‘that’ hair flick, and the performance of Put The Blame On Mame. She notably once stated, “They go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me,” when asked what effect the role had had on her personal life. (After years of randomly thinking the lyric ‘Mame’ was simply ‘me’ but pronounced funny, I discovered that Mame is actually a name. Evidently, created to rhyme with blame. Fascinating stuff this…)
The chemistry between her and co-star Glenn Ford is superb, shining whilst the director builds a plot full of deceit and passion around his characters, just before he steps back to watch them attempt to claw their way out.
Ford plays Johnny, a down on his luck gambler, rescued and brought into work at a casino. Torn between his loyalty to his new boss, and the boss’ wife Gilda (the temptress he has known and loved in the past), he finds himself caught in some kind of love/hate relationship of doom with the vampish Hayworth.
A film emblazoned with the noir-ish matters of love, masculinity, and righteousness, and full of snappy, innuendo ridden dialogue.
6. Mildred Pierce (1945)
Poor Joan Crawford. After watching some of her later cinematic ‘delights’ such as Trog and Berserk, at least I can think back to the hard working actress’ Oscar winning performance in this classic piece of cinema history. Adapted from the bleak novel by James M Cain, this is a truly expertly put together film. From the lighting, camera angles, to the sets, it is visually masterful.
Crawford plays Mildred, a woman set on independence after a failed marriage, she begins work as a waitress to provide for her family, much to the dismay of her snobbish daughter Veda. Embarking on creating her own chain of diners to satisfy the expensive tastes she feels Veda deserves, she consumes herself with work and falling for a cad called Monte. Cue rather a lot of drama, quite a bit of tragedy, and some well thought out character development.
Undisputedly absorbing, yet undeniably emotional, Mildred Pierce pulled what essentially was a ‘melodrama’, straight into the noir category.
5. Notorious (1946)
What? You didn’t expect me to leave Hitchcock out, did you? The master of suspense creates this deeply atmospheric tale, jam packed full of espionage, and some truly magnificent performances from Hollywood’s finest. There is an intense depth that is created by the oddly amazing camera angles so typical of the director’s voyeuristic style, combined with his complexities of lighting.
Alicia, played by Ingrid Bergman, is an alcoholic party girl recruited by agent Cary Grant, who, despite having his usual smooth persona about him, actually interweaves it with hints of cold determinism and a sardonic attitude. Her aim is to infiltrate a Nazi cell by marrying its leader Sebastian (despite the obvious love between the courageous woman and agent).
You get drawn into the misunderstandings that bounce between the two of them. She wants him to beg her not to go through with it, and he wants her to say she’d rather not do it,.but he won’t tell her not to, and she won’t refuse unless he does. So, yes,they are just a tad stubborn, and alas, off Alicia goes to face the enemy.
The tension that mounts in the film is brilliantly created, as imminent disaster lies in wait around a rather substantial MacGuffin. You are simply captivated to the very end.
4. Double Indemnity (1944)
Despite the enormous list of film noirs to choose from, it’s not really surprising that some of them have things in common. Double Indemnity is not only derived from a novella by James M Cain (Mildred Pierce), but also scripted by director Billy Wilder and author Raymond Chandler (creator of Philip Marlowe).
Barbara Stanwyck plays cold-blooded Phyllis, and using her golden locks and that infamous anklet, she entices insurance sales-man Fred MacMurray in what is definitely a predatory fashion. Convincing him to murder her husband in order to claim the insurance money with a double indemnity clause, Fred starts to get that sinking feeling when he realizes the extent of her deceitfulness. Edward G Robinson, taking a break from his usual gangster brief, is excellent as the clever and intuitive claims detective.
It employs the voiceover technique to deliver a sense of reflection, alongside the bleak, gritty cinematography, which encapsulates the ‘venetian blind’ look of noir. Wilder creates an atmosphere and style that has not been adequately emulated, despite numerous attempts that pay homage to the film.
3. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Sam Spade, the down-but-not-out private detective, with his tough guy wit, and general rectitude. Who else would they cast but good ol’ Bogie? But Humphrey was not always so lucky. It was screenwriter/director John Huston who saved him from the multitude of spineless villain parts he was getting, and in return he gave performances that developed not only his own credentials, but enabled Huston’s work to shine.
Here we see Spade tracking down the murderer of his colleague, and while doing so he stumbles upon an entangled plot wrapped around a menagerie of brilliantly drawn characters. This includes Peter Lorre and Mary Astor, who, although famous, are perhaps underrated actors.
All are recklessly attempting to claim the Maltese Falcon for themselves, the statue standing to be the very emblem of what covetous and imprudent beings these people are.
Its sharply defined and striking photography collaborates with the dark, cynical themes the film projects. A stark perspective on some of the lowest of human weaknesses.
2. Laura (1944)
Another Otto Preminger/Gene Tierney combo, in this fantastically executed film, with its elegant wit and shadowy directing.
When the body of Laura Hunt is found in her apartment, detective Mark McPherson begins his rounds talking to all the potential suspects. Waldo Lydecker, a blunt and supercilious art critic, narrates the story of Laura in the form of flashbacks chartering his discovery of her, and her gradual rise to success.
Tierney’s portrayal of Laura, shows her to be a gentle and compassionate individual, her haunting portrait hangs on the wall, captivating the detective, and thus including him into the circle of men who love, admire and obsess over her.
Laura is seen to Waldo as the embodiment of his skewed ideals of beauty, regardless of her personal admirable attributes. Whereas McPherson literally falls in love with BOTH the ‘portrait’ of her, in an almost literal way, and the way Waldo verbally ‘paints’ her.
Shelby Carpenter, played by a young Vincent Price, is also included in the picture as the unworthy fiancé, and alongside Laura’s aunt, the suspect list grows. However, the case seems no closer to getting solved.
The tale continues in a thoughtful, mysterious way til the very end. By a massive twist appearing, not in the finale (although the unravelling end is, of course, satisfying), but, indeed, around three quarters of the way through, the viewer is left by no means bored, but instead spellbound by this enchanting, thrilling mystery.
1. Vertigo (1958)
Without going into definitions of film noir, the argument over whether this techni-colour masterpiece fits into the category is a vast and convoluted one. Quite simply, you could bypass this debate, by referring to a small checklist:
Heroes and heroines with moral ambiguity? Check.
Some sort of detective work? Check.
A nihilistic outlook? Check.
Possible femme fatale? Check.
Thus, I conclude, that not only is Vertigo a spectacular film, but it is also the most spectacular film noir. Hitchcock never fails to deliver, and with Vertigo, we see the unfolding of what is a slowly paced, yet contrastingly visual overload.
The streets of San Francisco pull you into the world of Scottie and Madeleine, and Hitchcock draws the very essence of acting from James Stewart, and, indeed, from Kim Novak in what is arguably the best performance of her career.
The long sequences require patience, and the complexities of the story beg for repeated viewings, and perhaps this is why, occasionally, it is relatively dismissed.
After a phone call from an old school friend Gavin Elster, Scottie, a detective with an acute fear of heights, finds himself trailing the compelling Madeleine. Elster (her husband) says she believes she is possessed by the spirit of her ancestor, yet regardless, Scottie finds himself infatuated by the elegant woman, and the dysfunctional pair head onwards to what are disastrous occurrences embroiled with mystery and murder.
With breathtaking photography, subtle hints, contrasted bold, imaginative surrealist moments, it is a film that leaves you feeling not just entertained, but enriched.
Other film noir to look out for:Sunset BoulevardThe Third ManStrangers On A TrainThe Asphalt Jungle5 FingersIn A Lonely PlaceThe Letter