50 Best Film Noir Films
Welcome back to Tilt Magazine’s super Noirvember ranking of the top 50 entries in the classic film noir movement. The previous instalment listed films from 50 through to 26. It was an opportunity to include some unmissable classics as well as shed light on a few unfamiliar but no less impressive titles.
While we’re on the topic of film noir for one last time, readers can check out this special page editor-in-chief Ricky D made when the Friday Noir column went into retirement. The majority of the original entries are still available to read, now presented with the Tilt Magazine packaging. Very nice.
Now, with the ranking of 25 through 1 upon us, there’s no time to dilly-dally with underseen gems. The heavy hitters come out to play. But which pictures will make it into the top 20 and the elusive top 10? Which film noir will claim the top spot overall? Read on!
#25: In a Lonely Place
1950, Nicholas Ray
Equal parts Steele’s and Laurel’s story, Ray’s film is a fascinating venture into an unhealthy relationship, especially one that starts as brightly as it does in In a Lonely Place. The film intelligently builds tension on two fronts. For one, the more time Laurel spends with Steele, the more she comes to understand his violent temperament, therefore fears for her own safety. Second, the mystery persists surrounding Steele’s innocence about the hatcheck girl’s death. Both plots go hand in hand organically, feeding off one another, ultimately landing one of the film noir’s most poignant, bittersweet endings ever.
#24 The Hitch-Hiker
1953, Ida Lupino
Where the film finds its strength is in the situational drama and tension Ida Lupino constructs, like a series of brief misadventures in the eyes of the audiences and more like tests of psychological, physical, and emotional strength for the ill-fated Gilbert and Roy. She contextualizes these short endurance tests expertly, taking full advantage of the setting she thrusts her trio of characters in: the dry, deserted region of northern Mexico. Emmett, for example, is an easily annoyed and excitable hoodlum who demands, as all perfect movie villains should, that everything goes his way. The few people they cross, on the dusty roads or in small independent provision stores, all speak Spanish, or ‘Mexican’ as Emmett describes it with a venomous sneer. Gilbert understands the language, which annoys Emmett greatly seeing as how his hostages could easily sound the alarms without him knowing it.
#23 The Set-Up
1949, directed by Robert Wise
Director Wise was, in many ways, the Steven Soderbergh of his day. He could navigate virtually any film genre and produce a terrific final movie, one that understands the nooks and crannies of said genre’s tropes whilst clearly putting incredibly artistic stamps on them. Drama, crime thriller, sport (as in the case of the present film), science fiction, action, he could do it all, and do it with panache, deft and sensitivity. The Set-Up is among the earlier films that grace his extended filmography as a full-on director, a career that spanned no less than five decades. While some might assume that, due to his relative youth as a filmmaker, The Set-Up might lack some of the qualities an established and confident director could sport, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the film is nothing short of a masterclass of storytelling.
1950, directed by Jules Dassin
Most crucial to the entire story is how so many of the characters, be they leading or supporting, have a bad bone in them. In some cases, the weakness is pride, such as with Gregorius and his up-and-coming wrestler son who agree to partner with Harry for the sake of preserving and showcasing what they perceive as true wrestling, unlike the antics advertised by their nemesis The Strangler (Mike Mazurki). In other cases, as with Harry and Phil, actions are taken strictly for selfish or downright vile means. One of the main criticisms against the film, when it opened in 1950, was that there really isn’t a single character deserving of the viewer’s empathy. There is no one with whom an audience member can comfortably align him or herself unless they have some serious issues to work out. This is very true and ends up being one of the more morbidly fascinating aspects of Dassin’s picture. One character convinces another to perform action X, action X is executed which puts said character in hot water rather than the individual who persuaded them to do thy bidding. It becomes a game of scheme and counter-scheme, culminating in a terribly brutal ending, even by film noir standards.
#21 Ace in the Hole
1951, directed by Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder, in his scathing 1951 social-noir Ace in Hole, takes the notion of the media circus and all the artificial hoopla that surrounds it to an embarrassing extreme. However, said embarrassment is not aimed at Wilder or anybody that worked on the picture. Nay, it concerns the aforementioned anti-social socialites that gather around a tragic event because that’s where the action is, that is where they can be seen and, if everything operates in their favour, give off the impression that they care about the victim’s ordeal. Some genuinely do, but it is no secret that many do not, at least not really. The film stars the legendary Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-luck newspaper writer who arrives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Once a prominent role player for the large newspapers, Tatum, a man with no shortage of ego and personal problems, now scrapes by with whatever he can find. In this case, it’s a temporary spot as a reporter for the local newspaper, under the auspices of Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall).
#20 Sunset Boulevard
1950, directed by Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder’s film is frequently lumped into the category of noir despite that the general plot outline does not correspond very directly with what one typically understands as film noir. That much is true. In fact, for some rather obvious story-related reasons, Sunset Boulevard is more interested in the business of movie-making and the effects it has on people operating within it, both on emotional and psychological levels. Nevertheless, there are some very familiar character story beats that harken to the traditions of noir, most notably a protagonist scheming to find the light in his life after a dark passage, only to discover that despite his best tactical maneuvers, there is no escaping inevitability, in this case being his own doom. The more he tries to make something of himself and flee hard times, the more the variables seem stacked against him. The ‘past’ is also a common theme in noir, usually because it comes back to haunt a character hoping to escape it. In the case of Joe Gillis, he is lured into helping someone continue living her past, quite an interesting twist on the genre.
1953, directed by Henry Hathaway
A key element that makes Niagara an outlier noir is that it looks almost nothing like one. Instead of being shot in black in white, Hathaway and his cinematographer Joseph MacDonald presented the film in sumptuous Technicolor. With Monroe’s star power as well as the beauty and grandeur of the Falls, one can assume any number of reasons why it was decided to make Niagara with colours that brilliantly pop. But few would argue that the effort does not pay off. The play of light against shadow is understandably different here than would have been the case had the filmmakers adopted the more traditional route. Niagara is a beauty that practically has to be seen to be believed. More interesting still is that the presence of lively colours nevertheless conveys the sordid, gritty, morally ambiguous tones of the great thrillers that helped make the genre what it is. The filmmakers showcase the world in living colour while staying true to the cinematographic flourishes noir popularized, the standout example being when George finally confronts Rose once and for all in the top floor of an administrative building. Bravura cinematography, editing, acting, and pacing all converge to produce the movie’s most gripping and violent scene.
1955, directed by Jules Dassin
One feeling that creeps in while taking in Jules Dassin’s seminal heist film is its palpable tension. There is something about its tone, the acting, the pacing the setting, that produce an unnerving feeling that something bad will happen, irrespective of how much preparation the newly formed group of thieves invests into the project. Rififi is one of the most fatalistic heist films to grace the screen. The story is set in Paris, popularly regarded as one of if not the most romantic city in the world, yet looks and feels dreary, with only a few moments of sexuality interspersed throughout, primarily whenever the delightful Viviane (Magali Noel) graces the stage of the L’Âge D’Or nightclub with her memorable rendition of a song that speaks directly to the film’s title and its plot. Originally known as Du rififi chez les hommes in France, Viviane’s song, and thus the film as a whole, is the insatiable danger and violence that erupts within men.
#17 Phantom Lady
1944, directed by Robert Siodmak
The Phantom Lady is one of the best examples of a story in which an innocent individual steps into the city’s seedy underbelly. It’s one thing when a seasoned fellow like Philip Marlowe does it, but when an inexperienced, good-natured character like Carol takes up the mantle, especially for altruistic reasons, it changes the pace and tone considerably. Ella Raines embodies everything wholesome there can be about a protagonist: she’s courageous, honest, smart, and steadfast in her mission. It also helps that Raines has plenty of charm to boot, making her one of film noir’s more easily engaging heroes. The atmosphere is awash in inky cinematography from the director of photography Woody Bredel, offering viewers some deliciously moody interiors and exteriors, several locations representing exactly what people tend to conjure up first in their minds when asked to describe what film noir looks like.
#16 The Stranger
1946, directed by Orson Welles
The Stranger, released in 1946, was an opportunity for Welles, a visionary, single-minded, and strongly opinionated individual, to demonstrate that he could make a film within the allotted time span, without spending more than the provided budget and that could earn a profit. Welles moved from starring as a man (Kane) who was believed by others and by himself to be as grand, smart, and cunning as the best of them to a story of a man (Franz Kindler) clinging to the ideals of the Nazi ethos he sees as grand whilst hiding in a sleepy Northeastern American town in the immediate aftermath of World War II. He poses as a college professor on the verge of wedding his beautiful lover Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young). Still, things take a decidedly shaky turn when United Nations Commission investigator Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) arrives in town, tasked with bringing Kindler, known to everything as Charles Rankin, to swift justice.
#15 Nightmare Alley
1947, directed by Edmund Goulding
Nightmare Alley features one of the least amiable protagonists ever, a man whose rise to stardom and fall into the abyss is entirely of his own doing. He is an individual who, unlike in some other films that tread similar narrative patterns, is ultimately undone less by poor luck or external forces beyond his control and far more by his own obsession of wanting to pull off grander performances, incurring increasing risks at every turn until he barks up the wrong tree. To argue that Stanton is of poor moral standing would be putting it mildly. His determination to con as many people as he can, preying on other’s sensitivities makes him downright risible. Few, if any, will cheer the character on as he plays a countless number of people for fools, occasionally when trying to state his case as to why he does it to people who have already been duped into believing he loves them. In truth, Stanton never expresses genuine love for anyone in the entire film and instead taps into their weak points for further gain. People like Zeena, Molly and psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) are no more than pawns to be selfishly used and abused.
1945, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Detour is a defining example of several brilliant film staples, some directly related to the sub-genre of noir, others pertaining more generally to principles of good old-fashioned storytelling. Chief among its plentiful positives is the fact that so much drama and devilish tension is extracted from the simplest of premises. As far as plotting is concerned, the film purely deals with how one person struggles to arrive at the desired destination. The fun, so to speak, is in witnessing the hurdles tossed his way that make the aforementioned goal all the more difficult to achieve than originally foreseen. Director Ulmer and editor George McGuire keep the movie brisk, the final product clocking in at a ‘blink and you miss it’ 67 minutes. Regardless of how brief a film’s running time is, creative, intelligent filmmakers will never fail to land all necessary dramatic beats with aplomb. Cursory research on the film’s production reveals that the original shooting script was longer, but several dialogue sequences were cut from the final print. Talk about doing away with any fat whatsoever for the benefit of the final film.
1946, directed by Charles Vidor
It would be interesting to test the film with younger, astute audiences that would obviously take in the film with a modern perspective. Does the Gilda witnessed in the latter stages represent a weaker personality because of her suffering at Johnny’s hands, especially when contrasted against her bold, Machiavellian machinations from earlier in the film? There may be a case to build, yet such a case would be excluding the fact that in the final third Gilda is actually a much more human, more nuanced individual than originally thought. Furthermore, her emotional breakdown near the climax in many ways makes everything she did before seem all the more brazen and daredevil-worthy, precisely because she had to muster the courage to go through with such a plan.
1944, directed by Otto Preminger
It might feel somewhat odd to include this Preminger effort in the noir category. On the whole, the movie masquerades as a romance story stuck in a murder mystery. It is indeed both of those things, unmistakably so even. That said, noir has a funny way of continuously shape-shifting itself to conform with other genre staples. Sometimes one stumbles onto a noir without even knowing it, the familiar traits seeping their way into the fabric of a picture like black ink sinks into a white dress. Romance, in the case of Laura, enables the picture to take on an altogether different identity than originally anticipated, playing into the hands of noir’s more gloomy aspects. Whereas by and large antagonists make their presence known quite clearly in films of this nature, here the villains are, in many ways, decent folk at their core, compelled to act out against their better instincts for love’s sake.
#11 The Third Man
1949, directed by Carol Reed
Carol Reed’s The Third Man is film noir of a different breed. Many of the genre’s recognizable hallmarks are there for viewers to appreciate, yet the director and his cast give the film an altogether different life and set it apart from the majority of other entries. Here is a film in which all of the socially and politically discomforting feelings which oozed their way into the psyche of Americans following World War II are present in some surprising ways, only that this story is set across the Atlantic where the majority of combat occurred. It is as though Reed, clearly fascinated by the familiar noir characteristics, decided to put his own stamp onto the genre by taking Americans (the two in the film and the audience) to the region understood to be where all their post-war anxieties originated.
1946, directed by Tay Garnett
Frank, the drifter, adopts a very ‘happy-go-lucky’ attitude towards whatever the world tosses his way. He habitually hops from one place to another across the United States, switching jobs and friends as easily as he switches clothes. There is no job too demanding, too strenuous to defeat his optimism. Cora’s point of origin in the movie is much different, yet no less honest in its intentions. She is young, beautiful, intelligent, decent, ambitious…and tied down in a marriage to an older man who brings nothing new in her life. He seems pleasant enough, despite that he only begrudgingly heeds any advice from others as to the management of their Two Oaks restaurant. Frank’s arrival creates a spark, which sounds obvious enough given the type of film Postman is, although there is something quite special building between the two.
1949, directed by Nicholas Ray
Looking back at Nicholas Ray’s oeuvre, especially within the film noir movement, one gets the sense that the filmmaker had predilections for touching stories. Not saccharine sweet, but films that paid keen attention to who the dire in straights were. Look no further than his directorial debut, They Live by Night. There are cronies, there are people who get gunned down, and there is 1940s “fast talk”, but there is also a complicated love story between the characters played by Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. They’re young and good-looking, but troubled because of who they are, who they live with, and where they’re from. Where many entries in film noir revel in sadism and corruption (not that we’re complaining about that), They Live by Night is a romantic tragedy and very much plays out as such.
1958, directed by Orson Welles
Where to being with Touch of Evil? For one, it is an excellent piece of filmmaking. There is a host of things fans of this movie and fans of film, in general, can dissect with glee. First and foremost is the story, which by the end feels like a twisted morality tale. Characters, good and bad, either choose or are forced in some way to commit acts and adopt certain strategies that might go against what they stand for and believe in, even though they know full well that those very strategies will assist them in obtaining what they want or, more importantly, doing what is right. The ends justifying the means, so to speak. This pressure is felt most by none other than Vargas, who it is safe to presume is a straightforward and, for the most part, honest man. His demeanour, both while on the job and when spending time with his wife, suggests this. When push comes to shove, and when a possibly innocent young man’s freedom hangs in the balance, even a man such as Vargas is willing to go against the grain, as well as his better instincts. For someone such as Inspector Quinlan, the mindset is entirely different, for he has a reputation that must be preserved, regardless of the methods.
1944, Edward Dmytryk
Inspired by Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely (the movie’s title is far superior for delivering a frisson effect), this Dmytryk-directed private dick tail is a beautiful candidate for top Philip Marlowe lark. If only there wasn’t another film that ranks higher, even at this late stage! Dick Powell shuns the good-guy casting persona that earned him success in the 1930s and early 1940s for this violent, viciously funny spiral into the underworld of jealousy and vice. Some may argue that another brilliant American actor played Chandler’s literary protagonist even better, and more power to those people. But Powell is a strong, very strong second-place finish. Neck and neck, photo finish, really.
1950, directed by John Huston
The top-ranked heist film on our list, The Asphalt Jungle represents pretty much everything any cinephile thinks about when this entertaining sub-genre is brought up. Putting this ahead of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is by no means an intentional sign of disrespect to the great master, but John Huston’s take is a veritable blueprint for how heist films operate. A collection of widely different characters with their own quirks, the middle-aged, powerful and rich gentleman providing the financing, and a perfect plan that goes south. Why? Because they always do. By the film’s conclusion, one gets a sense that The Asphalt Jungle, a film in which the objective was to rob jewelry, is a prime example that crime doesn’t pay.
1951, directed by Nicholas Ray
Nicholas Ray’s picture is a testament to how great traditional noir can be. While On Dangerous Ground does follow many tropes of the genre rather faithfully, it does so in a manner that results in a movie that feels different, perhaps because it is so much better than most. Part of the film’s success rests with its willingness to venture into certain extremes. Rather than just have a hard-boiled cop, we are given a cop with dangerously violent tendencies and manic obsessions. The voluptuous women in the early stages are all replaced with a woman who is beautiful, amazingly strong in character, but equally vulnerable. The wet and unwelcoming streets of the big city morph into the frigid snow plains and mountains of the open countryside that feels awkward and lonely at times. The convergence of Jim’s and Mary’s emotional and thematic arcs is compelling in how two people who could not be more different are inexorably drawn together.
#4 Gun Crazy
1950, directed by Joseph H. Lewis
On a technical level, director Lewis brings an impressive skill to the table which serves to both further the plot and help create ideas about characters in specific moments. This idea that Bart knows there might be something wrong with his obsession is played on throughout. There is an early moment in the courtroom scene when the camera has Bart older sister, who is speaking to the judge in defence of her brother, as the dominant figure in the foreground, while the young version of Bart sits with his head bowed in the background. He knows he has done wrong, but he cannot help it. He is not crazy, but there is something wrong with him. There are people who know he is, in many ways, good (his sister continues to believe this later on when things really get hectic), but rather than merely spell it out via dialogue, the director and his cinematographer find ways to literally show it to us.
1947, directed by Jacques Tourneur
So much has been written about stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in this film that there truthfully remains very little analysis that would add to the conversation. Each is undeniably iconic in their respective roles, with Mitchum exuding all the qualities of world-weariness, sarcasm, and uncertainty about what the future has in store. There is something deeply magnetic about his performance in which he perfectly communicates the sense that his character is well aware that the odds are stacked too highly against him yet goes through with his new assignment anyways, as if languidly accepting his fate. It is a bittersweet way to play the part and fits like a glove within the noir canon. Greer brilliantly plays Kathie, a woman of many faces, whose allegiance, viewers learn, should never be trusted. Because her character’s personality continuously morphs depending on the circumstances, Greer not only equals Mitchum but surpasses him.
1941, directed by John Huston
The Maltese Falcon is simply one of those movies for which all the ingredients fall perfectly into place. The director, John Huston, whisks the viewer from one dialogue-heavy scene to another, wherein plenty of questions are asked and plenty of additional information is provided, most of which is debunked later on as hogwash. The quality of the acting, the dialogue, and the pacing gives the film its heart and its energy. The film is never boring or too slow despite there being little to no action. Quite the contrary, it is rather thrilling. At one point, the viewer might not even care anymore about what the sought-after Maltese falcon is, yet still care very much to learn what fate has in store for the characters, which is a sign that everything is working like clockwork.
1944, directed by Billy Wilder
The number 1 spot in Tilt Magazine ranking of film noir of the classic era goes to this Billy Wilder gem. Adapted from a James M. Cain novel and, interestingly, co-adapted for the screen by fellow iconic author Raymond Chandler, the movie enraptures viewers in a blanket of deception, tension, greed, pithy dialogue, with a whiff of the elicit and boudoir for good measure. Starring Hollywood superstars Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck with a significant supporting role from Edward G. Robinson. MacMurray is an insurance salesperson who is caught in a web by the frustrated wife (Stanwyck) of a rich elite. Together they plot the husband’s death in order to snag a “double indemnity” on the departed’s life insurance. Like so many thick-headed plots of this ilk, it all goes awry.
For anyone doubting the majesty of this picture’s film noir status, consider the protagonist’s confession of the crime into the dictaphone at the start of the picture (which relays the info via flashbacks). He claims to have done it for money and for a woman, but he neither got the money or the woman.
Pretty, ain’t it?