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.
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?
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.
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.
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
It’s a dirty job, but I pay clean money for it.
By Nathanael Hood
Learn more about under-appreciated films at the author’s blog at forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.