Top 10 Film Noir Movies

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What is film noir?  Are they films about hard boiled detectives and seductive femme fatales?  Are they about troubled heroes with soiled pasts that keep catching up with them?  Are they all about black and white chiaroscuro lighting, dark offices with light shining in through the blinds, and cigarette smoke that takes on a life of its own?  Maybe.

And maybe not. What we do know is that the great film noirs were originally created as pulp B-movies that usually concerned private eyes, cops, and criminals.  One of the defining characteristics of the genre is that the characters all inhabited a grey area of morality.  But is that enough to qualify a movie as a film noir?  For decades, film critics have debated about which movies count as film noir and some films have fallen in and out of favor for various reasons. However, there has always been a short list of films that are universally agreed to be definitive examples of the genre.

Here, I have gathered ten classic era film noir movies for your consideration.  They are listed chronologically from the time that they first premiered. So grab a fedora, a cigarette, and a bottle of whiskey, for these are the top ten classic era film noir.

10. The Maltese Falcon

Directed by John Huston

Released on October 3, 1941

Considered by many to be the very first film noir, John Huston’s directorial debut would go down in history as one of the great detective movies.  The film is based on Dashiell Hammett’s book (also called The Maltese Falcon) and star Humphrey Bogart in one of his best roles as private eye Sam Spade. The story starts with the murder of Spade’s partner Miles Archer. Although he never really liked him, Spade is honor bound by his personal code of ethics to track down his killers.  Along the way he will get involved with the sultry Miss Wanderly and a group of criminals who seek a gold-encrusted falcon sculpture known as the Maltese Falcon.  As Spade gets closer and closer to discovering the identity of his partner’s killer, he gets more and more involved with the search for the priceless statue.  Is the death of his partner linked with the statue?  Why are so many people so desperate to find it?  And how is the mysterious Miss Wanderly involved?  Complete with evocative cinematography and camera angles that recall Citizen Kane (released the same year), The Maltese Falcon is both a technical and thematic milestone for film noir- the characters and filming techniques continue to be emulated today.

Best Hardboiled Line

When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s – it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere.

9. Double Indemnity

Directed by Billy Wilder

Released on September 6, 1944

Late one night, successful insurance salesman Walter Neff breaks into his office building in Los Angeles.  Bleeding and in pain, he begins to recite his story into a Dictaphone for his colleague Barton Keyes to find the next morning.  His story is one of deception and betrayal.  So begins Billy Wilder’s gritty masterpiece, based on the book by James M Cain.  As we sit and watch, we learn how Walter began an affair with the captivating Phyllis Dietrichson, played by the ultimate femme fatale actress, Barbara Stanwyck.  It isn’t long before she convinces him to help her murder her husband, Mr. Dietrichson, in order to collect his life insurance money.  The trouble is, the murder must look like an accident in order for them to collect on his insurance’s double indemnity clause.  The murder is done sloppily and it isn’t long before the authorities are on his trail.  Is it possible that he was betrayed?  As more details come to light, it becomes evident that Phyllis isn’t who she claims she is.  Double Indemnity is one of the most influential film noirs ever made for its pioneering use of the femme fatale character archetype.  With one of the cinema’s greatest plot twists and a performance by Stanwyck that would make Phyllis Dietrichson one of the greatest villains of all time, Double Indemnity has inspired countless imitators and remakes, including the superb 1981 neo-noir Body Heat.

Best Hardboiled Line

How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?

8. Laura

Directed by Otto Preminger

Released on October 11, 1944

There are some who would argue that film noir is the genre of obsession.  If that is true, then Laura is the shining jewel in the genre’s crown.  It follows detective Mark McPherson as he investigates the death of famous advertising executive Laura Hunt.  Suspects include the venomous newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker, the man who promoted Laura at the start of her career, her fiancé Shelby Carpenter, her rich aunt Ann Treadwell, and her housekeeper Bessie Clary.  As he begins to interview them, he begins to realize that every one of them was in love with Laura.  Even stranger, he discovers that he is beginning to fall in love with her as well, at least until Laura shows up alive one night at her front door.  Featuring a notoriously labyrinthine plot, Laura is a devastating murder mystery.  It develops a powerful intensity as the characters delve further and further into their own neuroses and motivations.  Universally praised when it first debuted, Laura has gained a powerful following as one of the great early film noirs.  With sumptuous cinematography that earned it an Academy Award, Laura is a fabulously beautiful film.  But you will be too obsessed with the plot to care.  Who killed Laura?  And more importantly, who is Laura?

Best Hardboiled Line

I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York… I had just begun Laura’s story when another of those detectives came to see me. I had him wait.

7. Detour

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

Released on November 30, 1945

Detour may take the prize as the purest distillation of film noir ever committed to film.  Made on a pitifully small budget with limited resources in six days, Detour features all the great noir clichés: a down and out protagonist running from his past, a foul-tempered femme fatale, stylized dialogue, and a moody, bleak voiceover.  It deals with a hitchhiker played by Tom Neal.  He hitches a ride with a businessman one night who complains about his previous passenger, a crazy woman who scratched him.  Much to the hitchhiker’s dismay, the businessman dies.  He panics and throws his body into the desert and drives off.  Too bad his next passenger is a fiery redhead who asks him where the real driver of the car is.  She threatens to blackmail him because she knows that he has stolen the car.  In that moment, their destinies become linked and they plunge towards a tragic outcome that they cannot escape.  A filthy, messy production, Detour’s flaws become its greatest strength.  It achieves a kind of transcendent power by wallowing in the filth of its story and creation.  It is a dim, weary, claustrophobic masterpiece that will haunt you for the rest of your life.  Just remember, be careful who you pick up by the side of the road at night…

Best Hardboiled Line

That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.

6. The Big Sleep

Directed by Howard Hawks

Released on August 23, 1946

To sum up the plot of The Big Sleep in one paragraph is almost impossible.  It has what could very well be the most complicated plot in film noir history.  Even Raymond Chandler, the author of the book that it was based on, once famously admitted that he didn’t know the answer to all of the plot twists and holes.  But despite the nearly incomprehensible plot, The Big Sleep is universally regarded as one of the definitive masterpieces of the genre.  This time Humphrey Bogart plays the famous hardboiled detective character (this time the famous Philip Marlowe). He finds himself in the employ of the sick and dying General Sternwood, who asks him to keep an eye on his daughter Carmen who has fallen in with a bad group of people.  Too bad he is distracted by her beautiful older sister Mrs. Vivian Rutledge (played by the amazing Lauren Bacall).  Things begin to get out of control as people start dying all around Marlowe and he gets involved with powerful criminals, an underground pornography ring, and several nasty cases of blackmail.  With some of the greatest sexual chemistry ever captured on screen with Bogart and Bacall, The Big Sleep is an intoxicating affair that will keep you fascinated long after the story has stopped making sense.

Best Hardboiled Lines

Vivian: (speaking of horses) I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they’re front runners or come from behind, find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

5. The Killers

Directed by Robert Siodmak

Released on August 28, 1946

Based on the famous short story by Ernest Hemingway, The Killers is a tragically brutal film that leaves an impression that lasts long after it has ended.  It starts with one of the most famous opening scenes in film noir history where two hit men invade a small town and kill Ole Anderson (aka The Swede) who puts up no resistance.  The original short story was fairly short, so The Killers takes great pleasure in extrapolating the story and exploring the characters and their pasts.  We learn that the Swede (played by Burt Lancaster) used to be a member of a gang of thieves whom he was pushed into betraying by femme fatale Kitty Collins Colfax (played by Ava Gardner).  Like so many film noir characters, the Swede is fully aware of his transgressions and knows that he cannot escape his fate.  And so he greets his punishment like a man instead of trying to escape from it, as so many other film noir characters would.  We then follow an investigator and a police detective as they struggle to track down his killers and bring them to justice.  The Killers is a powerful story that fully deserves it reputation as a classic film noir.

Best Hardboiled Lines

Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into Hell.

and

If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it’s a double-crossing dame.

4. Out of the Past

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

Released on November 13, 1947

A perennial favorite by film critics and directors alike, Out of the Past is universally regarded as one of the definitive examples of film noir.  It has all of the bells and whistles of great noir: stunning chiaroscuro cinematography, a beautiful femme fatale, and an intricate storyline.  But key to its charm is the lead, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), who like the title indicates, is running from a past that he cannot escape from.  At the start of the film, we find Bailey as the operator of a small town gas station.  But one day, he is forced to meet with a gambler named Whit Sterling.  On the way to the meeting, he confesses his past to his girlfriend.  It turns out that he was once a private eye who was hired by Sterling to find his mistress Kathie after she shot him and stole $40,000 from him.  Bailey managed to track her down to Acapulco.  Too bad he ended up falling in love with her.  But one murder and terrible discovery later, he decided to leave her.  Now, his past has caught up with him as he travels to meet the man that he betrayed.  The only problem is that when he confronts Sterling, Kathie is there.  What do they want?  Why is she there?  Have Sterling and Kathie gotten back together after she shot and betrayed him?  And what do they want with Bailey?  Just as questions beget more questions, one man’s past will lead him to an uncertain future.  It is up for the audience to make the final judgment concerning the sad, strange case of Jeff Bailey.

Best Hardboiled Line

My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them.

3. Pickup on South Street

Directed by Samuel Fuller

Released on June 17, 1953

On a crowded subway in New York City, a small time pickpocket named Skip McCoy steals a wallet.  To him, it’s no big deal.  After all, it’s just another job for him.  Unbeknownst to him is the fact that the woman he robbed was carrying a microfilm of stolen top-secret government information that was destined for a group of Communists.  With the incredibly vital information in the hands of a common thief, both the police and the Communists start to track him down.  Too bad Mr. McCoy doesn’t care about the welfare of his country or his civic duty.  To him, it is an opportunity to make a bundle from the highest bidder.  As he slips away from the police and the Communists, it is up to Candy, the woman he robbed, to find him and get the microfilm back.  To many, this plot may seem too political to justify it as film noir.  But politics are not the focus of this film.  Instead, it is the conflicts and motivations of the characters that make it a genuine film noir.  One of the distinguishing characteristics of film noir are characters who have murky morals or who don’t play by the rules set by their profession, such as corrupt cops or noble criminals.  Here in Pickup on South Street, we have a thief who cares more about money than his country, a prostitute (Candy), as a love interest, and a snitch named Moe (played by the delightful Thelma Ritter) as a noble martyr who dearly loves, and dies for, the people that she sells out to the cops.  Filmed during the height of McCarthyism, the idea of a protagonist who would willingly sell out his country to the Reds was unheard of. Yet we come to love and sympathize with him and the other dregs of society who inhabit his seedy world of crime and vice.  It is the characters who make Pickup on South Street as genuine a film noir as the other entries on this list.

Best Hardboiled Line

Are you waving the flag at me?

2. The Big Heat

Directed by Fritz Lang

Released on October 14, 1953

The Big Heat is a brutally violent and intense film, yet most of the violence and death takes place off screen.  That doesn’t stop it from being one of the most intense noir films ever made.  It all starts with the death of a police sergeant.  The detective assigned to the case, Dave Bannion, thinks that foul play may be involved.  Bannion has reason to believe that a powerful gang of criminals has infiltrated the police force and bumped the sergeant off.  But the department’s higher ups force the case closed and one of the only witnesses willing to provide information is murdered.  Enraged, he insults the suspected mob boss only to have his wife killed with a car bomb as a result.  This puts him on a war path of furious vengeance as he swears to take the culprits down.  Using every method at his disposal and the help of the gangster’s girlfriend Debbie, he cuts a path of violence and anger through all the obstacles in his way.  Notorious for its violence, including a scene where a pot of boiling coffee is splashed onto a woman’s face, The Big Heat was daring for its time and still shocking for those who watch it now.

Best Hardboiled Line

Prisons are bulging with dummies who wonder how they got there.

1. Sweet Smell of Success

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick

Released on June 27, 1957

In the city of New York, your reputation is everything.  If you are not careful, it could easily be destroyed overnight.  Or it could be protected, for the right price.  Such is the world of Sweet Smell of Success, the gritty, grimy noir from famous screenwriter Ernest Lehman (he also wrote the screenplays for Sound of Music and North by Northwest).  Director Alexander Mackendrick, who had made his name doing comedies for England’s Ealing Studios, transforms New York City into a dystopia soaked with jazz, smoke, and criminals.  We follow Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent without the burdens of morality.  He is hired by J.J. Hunsecker, New York’s premier newspaper columnist, to stop his sister from marrying Steve Dallas, a fresh, young jazz guitarist.  So, Sidney plants some reefer on him and spreads rumors that he is a Communist.  Things work at first and the relationship is destroyed.

But that isn’t the end for Sidney- he is summoned to Hunsecker’s penthouse only to find the sister attempting suicide. Hunsecker walks in on Sidney saving her and accuses him of rape.  From there, fates are decided and lives are destroyed as the truth comes out.  In this powerful film, nobody is innocent.  Featuring one of the most unequivocally quotable and memorable screenplays ever written, you will be quoting its lines and remembering its characters for the rest of your life.

Best Hardboiled Line

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24 Comments

  1. I 'm so glad you picked this topic. This is absolutely my favorite film genre. I haven't seen all the films on this list, so you've given me some new titles to put on my netflix queue–thank you 🙂

  2. Great list.

    Would 'Night of the Hunter' and 'Touch of Evil' be considered film noir? Those two are some of my favorites.

  3. TriviaFan:

    Yes, according to both imdb and netflix, both of the movies you asked about are film noir. They're also highly rated, so you've given me a couple more to add to my queue.

  4. Terry Bigham on

    There are many more noirs to add to the list. Some examples: Jules Dassin's exemplary adaptation of Gerald Kersh's "Night and the City" (filmed in London when Dassin left America in the early days of the HUAC witch hunts) and his gritty prison drama "Brute Force" (penned by Richard Brooks), Edward Dmytryk's "Murder My Sweet" (the first filming of Chandler's "Farewell, My Lovely", and far more noir than Huston's "Falcon") and Anti-Semitism drama "Crossfire" (from a novel by Brooks), Robert Siodmak's "Criss Cross", Kubrick's early noir "The Killing", and Robert Aldrich's cult version of Spillane's "Kiss Me, Deadly".

  5. Awesome list! My knee-jerk reaction would have been to have The Maltese Falcon higher (mostly because I love the film so much), but while it is possibly the first film noir it is not the grittiest or most intense and compared to some utter bastards shown in the genre Sam Spade is almost a saint. So I think your ranking was fair.

    I haven't seen half these movies, now I desperately want to.

    • Well actually, I think I forgot to mention that these films are listed in chronological order from when they were released. That's why "The Maltese Falcon" was the first on the list. It wasn't because it was inferior in any way. It's just that it came out first.

      I'm glad that you all seem to like this list. I would be happy to do a follow up of "Another Top Ten Film Noir" if you want.

      Leave a comment if you do.

      • Ah, I hadn't noticed that was how the list was structured.

        I just saw Out of The Past. My library had it and I checked it out, and it is a stunning film. In a big way it is superior to The Big Sleep in that you can actually follow the plot. 🙂

  6. No Casablanca, The Third Man, or Chinatown? Are you writing about your "favorites" from film noir, or the "Top 10" because those, it seems, are two very different things.

    • Casablanca is really up for debate on whether or not it is a true film noir.

      Chinatown is a neo-noir. The purpose of this list was to examine classic noir.

      And The Third Man…

      Well, I was saving that for another list…

      • Being a huge film noir fan myself (I nearly watch nothing else). I have to say that this list is exceptionally good. I have seen no better one at the whole internet. Ranking them in chronological order is the only right choice. Making a top ten after preference is nearly impossible. I tried it once. I got a top 15 or something like that and in chronological order, too ;-).

        The only weaknesses I see are #3 and #1. I think that there are film noirs, that are far superior than those two. The build-up of Pickup is perfect, that's true. But then it gets very, very weak. The ending must be one of the worst in the history of film noir ever. I can not say much to Sweet Smell, because I hardly remember it, which is not a good sign at all. Maybe I'll give it another chance one day.

        • Thank you for the compliments. I worked really hard on this list. But I would like to address your complaints about numbers 1 and 3.

          By the way, the below contains spoilers.

          I think that the ending of "Pickup on South Street" is a perfect film noir ending. Yes, it is a happy one, but the way that he achieved it was classic film noir. He didn't defeat the bad guys because he wanted to do the right thing. He did it because the bad guys hurt people that he loved and cared for. They killed Moe and beat up his lover. That was why he turned them into the cops. He was operating according to his own personal code, not society's expectations. Not to mention that he was motivated by wishes of revenge, not goodness. And the end clearly signifies that he hasn't given up his criminal ways. I know that a happy ending at the end of a film noir seems unusual. But the fact remains that the only thing that changed about the main character was that he decided to open his heart to the prostitute.

          As for "The Sweet Smell of Success," I don't know what to say. It is universally beloved as one of the essential film noir. Everything about it from the characters to the cinematography to the plot is quintessential film noir. Not to mention that it has one of the greatest screenplays ever written.

          But thank you again for your compliments. I'm going to write a sequel list at some point and I would love it if you would tell me what you think about it.

          By the way, I would love to hear what you think about my film blog. I have reviewed a couple of film noir that weren't on this list on it. The link is:

          http://forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.com

          Thanks again!

  7. The movie "The Third Man" should make number one on the list imo. (I am aware its british but film noir is not realy us movies only and the term is more of a concept)

    besides this the list is cool 🙂

  8. My faves –
    The Postman Always Rings Twice”
    The original (1946) starring Lana Turner and John Garfield was the best. The remake (1981) with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson was good, too.

    “Body Heat” (1982) Kathleen Turner, William Hurt, Richard Crenna

  9. This is a great list but probably the best noir film ever made isn’t on this list and that is The Asphalt Jungle. The movie is almost the text book definition of noir and quite possibly the greatest heist picture ever made.

  10. I can’t believe that no one has mentioned Sunset Boulevard. I’ve always considered it a noir juggernaut.

  11. ‘The Third Man’ is without question the best noir movie of all time. I know ‘Chinatown’ is neo but I really hate seeing any list of great noir that doesn’t include it (though I understand why you didn’t). Excellent list with some amazing films — for noir fans, ALL of these are must-see. Again though, I’d seriously consider adding ‘Third Man.’ Amazing stuff.

  12. good list , although I would haesubbedv #1 and #3 for Sunset Blvd. and Lady from Shanghai myself. Long live film noir!

  13. Thanks, Nathanael!
    My quest is over – finally, I’ve seen all the films from this list as well as from “Another top ten film noir movies”. I DO need another 10 noirs to watch! Please, help!

  14. Gerry Kachmarski on

    One problem with creating a short list like this is that you have to decide whether a film is interesting because it features what are considered to be a typical noir style and noir themes or because it does so in an especially compelling way. Is it somehow representative of the genre or is it good? I could never include Detour on an abbreviated list like this or recommend it to a friend as a must-see although it is absolutely distilled essence of noir. But I certainly would include (as some of the other commentators would) Asphalt Jungle and The Third Man because of their excellence.

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