As any film aficionado will tell you, the world of film noir is a vast expanse that can be intimidating to dive into. There are so many films that are considered “classics” that it can be difficult to decide where to begin exploring the genre. Some films have been cemented in time as quintessential examples of the genre while others have been the subject of decades-long debates concerning their validity as film noir. When I wrote the predecessor to this list, the Top Ten Classic Era Film Noir, I tried to compose a list containing films that best represented the popular conceptions of the genre: hard boiled detectives, morally ambiguous gangsters, and wily femme fatales. But the universe of film noir is so much more diverse than those stereotypes would lead you to believe. Some are bizarre character portraits, taut thrillers, police procedurals, and tales of doomed romances. So with this list I have compiled ten more classics in chronological order that are a bit…different…than what we would consider mainstream film noir. It’s time to grab a stiff drink and a loose gal, ‘cause it’s time for Another Top Ten Film Noir Classics.
10. Mildred Pierce
Directed by Michael Curtiz, Released September 24, 1945
Based on the novel of the same name by infamous pulp novelist James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce is the rare film noir that features a woman as the main character instead of as a flimsy love interest or a simple femme fatale. In the role that won Hollywood legend Joan Crawford an Oscar for Best Actress, she plays the most unlikely of film noir heroes: a single mother. Mildred Pierce, a newly divorced mother of two, is forced to work as a waitress to support her family. After losing one of her girls to pneumonia, she decides to start over and open her own chain of restaurants. Her biggest challenges aren’t the male-dominated society in which she lives or even the backstabbing men that she has affairs with. Instead, it is her own daughter named Veda. Veda is a spoiled brat obsessed with money and social status who can never forgive her mother for doing such lowly work as waitressing. Veda fakes a pregnancy to steal $10,000 from a wealthy gentleman. With her greed for money and social status still unquenched, she enters into a plan with one of Mildred’s suitors to bankrupt her, destroying her hard gained restaurant chain in the process. All of this leads to one shocking betrayal and a sensational murder. Told largely in flashback after the murder (a common film noir technique) Mildred Pierce challenges both traditional film gender roles and ideas of linear storytelling. This isn’t a story about bad guys and private eyes. It is the story of a family violently imploding and the woman in the middle trying to save herself and her daughter from lives of corruption and subservience.
9. The Postman Always Rings Twice
Directed by Tay Garnett, released on May 2, 1946
Another film based off a novel by James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic tale of doomed love. In the beginning, we meet Frank Chambers, a drifter with a bad case of “itchy feet.” He wanders into a roadside diner one day only to end up under the employ of its owner, Nick Smith. Usually opposed to staying in one place for too long, he changes his ways when he meets Smith’s stunning wife Cora (played by the sultry Lana Turner). The two quickly fall in love. As per film noir tradition, they decide to bump Nick off so they can live together. What could have been a generic thriller evolves into something much better. The first time they try to kill Smith, they fail and have to play innocent when the police arrive. When they finally succeed they are immediately suspected by the local authorities who smelled trouble the first time that Smith was hurt. What follows is a tense standoff with the police and the justice system which tries to pit both of them against themselves. When they get off on a technicality, they go off to try and celebrate the start of a new life together. But tragedy strikes when Cora is killed in a car accident. Smith is sent to death row for allegedly taking part in Cora’s death even though it was genuinely an accident. Will he be able to free himself from being punished for a crime that he didn’t commit? A hypnotizing film, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a timeless classic of crime, justice, betrayal, and love.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, released August 15, 1946
Film critics have long debated whether or not many of Hitchcock’s films were simple thrillers or genuine film noir. But despite their arguments, there is one film that the master directed that everyone can agree is, in fact, a film noir: Notorious. In what would be one of Hitchcock’s most underappreciated masterpieces, Notorious delves into the life of Alicia Huberman (played by the luscious Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. Aghast at her father’s actions, she agrees to help infiltrate a group of German Nazis presiding in Brazil. Her contact, government agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant), tells her that she must seduce and marry Alex Sebastian, one of the head Nazis. She agrees and enters into a loveless marriage all for the sake of her country. There are only two problems. The first is that she falls in love with Devlin and must choose between her heart and her duty. The other is that Alex discovers Alicia’s true identity and conspires with his mother to kill her. While the plot may not seem too explicit by today’s standards, the film was incredibly controversial at the time of its release. The idea that Bergman would seduce (and therefore have sexual relations) with a man that she didn’t love at the orders of another man was scandalous. But those that condemned it on such grounds overlooked the fact that it is an incredibly well crafted film with Hitchcock’s signature meticulous attention to detail. Featuring one of Hitchcock’s most suspenseful endings, Notorious is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat.
7. The Third Man
Directed by Carol Reed, released September 2, 1949
Don’t think for a second that only Americans can create great film noir. In the exception that proves the rule, Carol Reed’s The Third Man is not only one of the greatest film noir of all time, it has been widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. Ranked the greatest British film of all time by the British Film Institute, The Third Man is a dazzling depiction of vice, treachery, and deception. Set in Vienna after the end of World War Two, American writer Holly Martins finds himself on the hunt for his old friend Harry Lime who had offered him a job. The only problem is that upon his arrival Martins discovers that Lime had supposedly just died in an automobile accident. I say “supposedly” because it isn’t long before it becomes apparent that all isn’t what it seems in the city of Vienna. To say anything more about the plot would be a crime. What you need to know is that what follows is one of the greatest games of cat-and-mouse in cinema history. Harry Lime has officially gone down as one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time, much in part to Orson Welles’ performance. Though he is only on screen for a few minutes, Welles steals the movie right out from everybody else’s feet. The shot of Welles standing in a partially lit alleyway has become one of the most iconic images in the history of cinema. But to only focus on Welles would overlook two of the film’s greatest characters: the war-torn city of Vienna itself and Anton Karas’ famous zither score. Simply put, The Third Man is one of those rare movies that come together on every single level. Don‘t miss the legendary classic.
6. Night and the City
Directed by Jules Dassin, released in April 1950
After being blacklisted by Hollywood in the midst of the McCarthy era, director Jules Dassin, the helmsman of many a fine film noir, turned to Europe for employment. While in England Dassin directed a scruffy looking film entitled Night and the City. A grim, dirty looking film, Night and the City would go down as a classic film noir. Our protagonist is Harry Fabian, a two-bit London hustler. Constantly down on his luck, Fabian gets no respect from his fellow denizens of London’s seedy underbelly. But he comes up with a plan to escape from the underworld. He attempts to gain control of London’s professional wrestling organization by conning promoter boss Kristo and his father, the legendary Greco-Roman wrestler Gregorius. But the city is tough and even more unforgiving. It isn’t long before he finds himself in too deep, especially when Gregorius suddenly dies. Blaming Fabian for his death, Kristo puts out a bounty on his head. But leaving London would mean abandoning the woman of his dreams. What is a two-bit con to do? The film was initially despised by the critics for its realistic portrayal of racketeers and criminals. It wasn’t until a decade later that critics realized that they had a work of genius on their hands. If you want to see this film (and you should) be sure to locate a copy of the American cut. It features Dassin’s original ending and film score. The British cut tacked on an extra five minutes that gave the film an out of place and artificial happy ending. Dassin himself came out in support of the American cut. If you ever find the American version of this film, prepare yourself for a dark and tragic masterpiece.
5. In a Lonely Place
Directed by Nicholas Ray. released May 17, 1950
Voted by the American Film Institute as the Greatest Male Star of All Time, Humphrey Bogart left behind a legacy as one of the cinema’s immortal icons. His career contained some of the greatest characters and performances in Hollywood’s history, like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Rick Blaine in Casablanca, and his Academy Award winning turn as Charlie Allnut in The African Queen. While Bogart made his name playing gangsters and wise guys, his greatest roles portrayed fragile, emotionally distraught men with tough exteriors who had given up on life. No movie came as close to capturing this side of the man himself as the Nicholas Ray masterpiece In a Lonely Place. Widely considered to be his greatest performance, Bogart pulled out all the stops as Dixon Steele, a hard boiled screenwriter with an uncontrollable temper prone to violent outbursts. When a girl is murdered shortly after spending time with him, Steele becomes the primary suspect. Only the help, and love, of neighbor Laurel Grey can save him. But can she save herself from Steele’s worst enemy: himself? A romantic tragedy that makes the ending of Casablanca look sunny, In a Lonely Place is both an infamous tale of love lost and a stirring indictment of the 1950s Hollywood system. And then there’s Bogie, sitting at a table drinking alone and dreaming of better days.
4. The Asphalt Jungle
Directed by John Huston, released on May 23, 1950
In 1941 director John Huston invented the film noir genre with his visionary The Maltese Falcon. Nine years later he would do it again by inventing the caper film in The Asphalt Jungle. In this legendary film noir (honored at the Oscars with four nominations), Huston invents all of the tropes that heist films would become famous for: the assembly of a eclectic, ragtag team of professionals, a tense sequence documenting the crime itself, and the beleaguered criminals desperately avoiding the law after the job is carried out. At the head of the group is “Doc” Riedenschneider, a German criminal fresh out of prison and aching for one last score. His coveted prize is the contents of an upscale jewelry store. As he goes about assembling his team, we meet each criminal. As each character is introduced and developed, we learn about their private lives and their own personal stakes going into the operation. These men are not stereotyped grunts. Instead, they are real characters with families, histories, and ambitions who have been brought together for one big score. While the crime itself is successful, it isn’t long before the cops catch up with them and start taking them out one by one. With some of the most beautiful black and white cinematography that the genre has to offer, The Asphalt Jungle is a feast for the eyes and a thrill for the viewer.
3. Sunset Boulevard
Directed by Billy Wilder, released August 4, 1950
Sunset Boulevard is not a film of tinsel-town dreams, but of Hollywood nightmares. It is a stunning critique of a city and system where men and women are worshipped and then forgotten overnight. It dares to ask what happens to those beloved icons of the silver screen after they are used up and thrown away by society. In this case, the fallen star is Norma Desmond. Once a legendary silent film actress, she has since devolved into a delusional recluse. We see her through the eyes of Joe Gillis, a greenhorn screenwriter who stumbles upon her mansion one day when his car gets a flat tire. Of course, that’s not the first time we see him. We initially meet Joe Gillis dead in Norma’s swimming pool with bullet holes in his back. As the police piece together his murder, Joe’s spirit narrates the story of how he became Norma’s lover and witness to her eventual insanity. Commonly cited as one of the greatest films ever made by critics and audiences, Sunset Boulevard is a chilling experience. Complete with some of the most famous lines in film history (“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeVille) and a devastating performance by Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard is a film that you won’t forget anytime soon.
2. The Night of the Hunter
Directed by Charles Laughton, released September 29, 1955
Forget Lugosi and Karloff, for an entire generation of film goers Robert Mitchum was the bogeyman. It’s easy to understand why after a viewing of director Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. Mitchum creates one of the cinema’s most sinister and enduring villains as Reverend Harry Powell, a serial killer and self-appointed “man of God” who marries and kills the wife of his former prison cell mate in an attempt to find the location of a cache of stolen money. The only problem is that the only people who actually know where the money is located are his ex-cell mate’s children. As they flee into the night, he follows them more closely than any bloodhound ever could. Finally finding sanctuary with an older woman named Rachel Cooper (played by legendary silent actress Lillian Gish) they must find a way to protect themselves and their newly adopted family from the ever-present evil of good preacher Powell. A box office bomb when first released, it has nevertheless gained in popularity and prestige. Named the second most beautiful film of all time by Cahiers du Cinema (trailing just behind Citizen Kane), The Night of the Hunter is breathtakingly beautiful and stirring to watch. Using techniques and motifs adopted from German Expressionism, Laughton excels at creating a dominating, claustrophobic atmosphere (even when the characters are outside!). But not even the perfect art direction and cinematography can dwarf the power of Mitchum’s performance. Be forewarned! Even though this film is over fifty years old, it still has the power to terrify and chill even the toughest of audiences.
1. Touch of Evil
Directed by Orson Welles, released May 21, 1958
Making his second appearance on this list, Orson Welles displays not only his significant acting chops but also his legendary directing acumen in the magnificent Touch of Evil. When a terrible murder strikes at the US/Mexico border, narcotics official Mike Vargas (played in brown-face by Charlton Heston) must unravel the mystery behind the violent killing. He quickly finds himself at odds with the local sheriff Hank Quinlan (played by a massively bloated Welles) who is not above planting evidence in order to get his perp. With time bearing down on him, Vargas must solve the murder mystery and expose the powerful Quinlan as a corrupted criminal. With one of the most famous opening shots in cinema history (a three minute, thirty second tracking shot), Welles hooks his audience in with the first frame. A fantastic film by its own merits, it is also a kind of swan song for the entire genre as it was one of the last true film noir to be released before the onslaught of the neo-noir movement. Welles puts in one of the finest performances of his entire career as Quinlan. Like many of Welles’ films, it wasn’t well received upon its initial release. But in the decades since its release it has come to be regarded as one of his finest films, even ranking with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.