50 Best Film Noir Films
Welcome to Tilt Magazine’s Noirvember countdown of our top 50 film noir movies. There hasn’t been a brand-new article published about film noir in quite some time on the website. About a decade ago we started a Friday Noir column that lasted several years. Updated weekly, the column reviewed and analyzed a film, contextualized it into the movement that is film noir, and highlighted its individual quirks. But we’re temporarily back with a vengeance.
For the uninitiated, the classic “noir period” is generally deemed by film scholars and historians to have taken place in American cinema from 1941 to 1958. Granted, there are certainly films released prior to ’41 that carry with them qualities that mirror noir, as there have been for decades following ’58, hence the popularized term “neo-noir.” At its essence, however, and as brilliantly explained in “Film Noir” by authors Alain Silver and James Ursini, the term was coined by French film critics shortly after WWII. For obvious reasons the country had been deprived of US films for many years and when imports were screened, the astute cinephiles noticed a darker edge and tone to many of the stories. Movies featured hard-boiled detectives, grifters, treachery, gangsters with existential crises, a sense of malaise, of fatalism, and duplicitous characters, many of them of the fairer sex (“femme fatale”).
There was a whiff of the elicit, a sense of real danger, and psychological darkness about these movies that portrayed the protagonists, often Americans, as less than shining examples of right and virtue. The war, the Depression of the 1930s, the popularizing of psychoanalysis, or whatever was in the air at the time had maybe taken its toll. It helped that many of the celebrated filmmakers who partook in its birthing and lifespan were European émigrés. Film noir is rich and varied, its many guises (caper, gangster film, detective story, doomed romance, etc) are linked even though they often feel quite different.
But enough preamble. There are 50 films to tackle. Perhaps one day we’ll concoct a list of the best neo-noir, but for now, this two-part column will be limited to the aforementioned classic era of 1941 to 1958. Today we begin with numbers 50 through 26.
1944, Anthony Mann
What Mann, his cast and crew do so well, is provide the film with a brilliantly haunting mood. Even from the outset, there is a sense that the film is destined to be a tragedy. William Terry, who is not even the best actor of the bunch, is terrific in his first few scenes when still resting at a military hospital overseas, lamenting that he still does not know what Rosemary looks like. There is a brief lighthearted interlude on a train where he makes Leslie Ross’ acquaintance, yet even that is cut short dramatically when the shuttle skids off the tracks in a horrific accident. While director Mann does not have such epic surprises awaiting in the shadows at every corner, save at the very end, it does help implant in an audience’s mind that the world of this particular film is really bleak. There is a tragedy, sadness, and death everywhere, so much so that it becomes inescapable. This is accentuated by the visual style exercised once Johnny arrives at Hilda’s mansion in Monteflores, from its very location at the very edge of a hill overlooking the ocean (there are even warning signs along the path discouraging drivers from parking their cars too close to the edge, further pointing to the danger that literally and figuratively envelops the house) to the cinematography used in various instances of great dramatic turmoil between the trio of people whom the audience follows within its walls: Johnny, Hilda and the latter’s housemaid Ivy
1946, directed by Lewis Milestone
The manner in which the story has the past affects the present is unlike what is experienced in many noir movies. Whereas in most examples the past is a force the protagonists wish to flee as they seek refuge and comfort in a future they may very well never attain, in Milestone’s picture the past is what seduces the main players, the lone exception being Lizabeth Scott’s Antonia Marachek by the mere fact that she has no past attachments to Sam, Martha or Walter, but more on her in a moment. When Sam opts to spend some of his unanticipated visits back to his hometown by saying hello to Martha and Walter, it sparks something incredible in the now-powerful businesswoman. Sam is hard-pressed not to admit that the encounter sparks a little something in him as well even though he is making do nicely with Antonia, or Toni, as he calls her, whom he met by happenstance on his first night in town. The only one of the three shaken by the re-emergence of the past is Walter, who fears that Sam knows more than he is willing to admit about the night Martha murdered her aunt, which eventually led to the execution of a man completely unrelated to the event. As for Sam and Martha, they are inexorably attracted to one another for better or worse (most viewers can probably guess which one), and while they, especially Sam, may try to deny it, there is unquestionably a magnetism between the two, even after all these years. The slight twist on the film noir trope is appreciated because it allows for a change in the expected dynamics.
1942, directed by Frank Tuttle
Frank Tuttle’s energetic, briskly paced This Gun for Hire is a fantastic example of a film utilizing what the great Alfred Hitchcock coined as a ‘Maguffin,’ something, usually a physical product, which sends the characters in motion throughout the story but in actuality means little in the grander scheme of what the movie itself wants to accomplish. Here, it is a highly coveted piece of paper upon which has been printed an incredibly complicated chemical formula. The document is referenced now and again throughout the picture for it is feared that the duplicitous, cowardly Willard Gates shall sell it to ‘foreign agents.’ In truth, the real fun to be had with This Gun for Hire is in the at times amusing, and at times effectively suspenseful interactions between an entire host of people, some of them major players, others only appearing for a few moments.
1953, directed by Samuel Fuller
On a world-building level, Pickup on South Street makes for a compelling portrait of how the lives of various personalities from many walks of life converge with one another in episodes of great tension. During the period in which the films’ story is set, the Cold War had already been a significant element dictating geopolitical relations between the United States and the Soviet Union for some years. It was also a period of great spy stories, both fictional and in real life, with revelations of sleeper agents and betrayals making newspaper headlines. Even though a certain paranoia could and did set itself in, the reality of the situation was that authorities in the United States did genuinely have to contend with spies. Pickup elaborates on how that was much easier said than done. Contacts, informants, allies, and antagonists were not as readily identifiable or as easy to either ensnare or work alongside with as some might have wanted to imagine, the success ratio is often the result of circumstance or even chance, less so the intentional planning of the players involved.
#46 Scarlet Street
1945, directed by Fritz Lang
Scarlet Street is about a lot of things, but where it hits home in the most vicious way is the idea of manipulation in all its facets. Why people manipulate others, the extent to which they do it, and what sort of victims the perpetrators prey on. From this angle, the film studies how vile people can be towards one another and how pitiful the conned are. Nice people are, alas, the perfect target for risible wretches like Katherine and Johnny. The more open nice folk are to believing the pleas of others in need or who play with their heartstrings, the more likely it is they will be sucked into an inescapable vortex of lies, deceit, and broken hearts. In essence, Lang lays out a story that unforgivably shows how nice guys finish last sometimes and in the worst possible way. In an extremely cynical view of the world, Scarlet Street argues that being too kind and too accepting is bad, stupid even.
#45 The Blue Dahlia
1946, directed by George Marshall
A film can almost assuredly start on the right foot when it sports talents like Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake among its leading cast. Ladd is quite good at playing the part of a quietly confident yet wronged veteran seeking justice for a crime that, paradoxically, has liberated him from a dismal marriage even though he’s wrongfully accused as the prime suspect. Ladd is no Bogart (no one is), but in his own way, he can tap into the same toolshed insofar as his ability to hint at a fire burning underneath the cool exterior without ever unleashing entirely. Whilst the film plays out Johnny’s earlier scenes as if he might be the murderer, viewers can clue in rather quickly that the guilty party is someone else entirely. Ladd has an easygoing, affable personality that translates well to this part, as a protagonist who stays levelheaded for the better part of the picture, while being forced to skulk in the dark corners, away from authorities. Lake, no stranger to film noir, is equally up to the task, stuck between a new man in whom she recognizes good, but still chained to Eddie Harwood, to whom she’s married. Lake can bring sass and sweetness to her roles in ways that few of her peers are capable of. She and Ladd share some grin-inducing character development scenes in which chemistry buds. Along with a bit of sex appeal mixed with curiosity and a dash of playfulness, making them an easy and pleasing pair to root for.
#44 Mystery Street
1950, directed by John Sturges
There is little doubt that the research the doctors and detectives put into their work has evolved, especially with respect to the technological tools at their disposal. It is nevertheless surprisingly enthralling to listen to a back the back and forth between Morales and Dr. MacAdoo in the latter’s research laboratory as they arrive at spot-on conclusions about who the bones belonged to, how old she was and even what line of duty she might have enrolled in. In addition to being a police story, Mystery Street ends up being something of a biology crash course. Equally arresting are later scenes when the bone structure of the victim’s skull is contrasted against blown-up photographs of recently declared missing women, or when Morales and Dr. MacAdoo inspect the car Vivian stole that fateful night and discover a bullet lodged at on the passenger side. Such scenes essentially consist of two professionals passionately doing what they love, earning a sense of satisfaction once the shroud of mystery is lifted with each new detail pertaining to the case.
#43 High Sierra
1941, directed by Raoul Walsh
If The Petrified Forest (1936, Archie Mayo) is understood as being the film that properly introduced Humphrey Bogart to the movie-going public, High Sierra is the vehicle that allowed Bogart to exercise some far more impressive acting muscles with a part that, not unlike the one Cagney would portray for director Walsh later in the same decade (White Heat), called upon the charismatic thespian to balance starkly different characteristics, many of which intend to either show the viewer how convincingly the protagonist means business as a gangster and others indicative of Roy’s more humane side. That said, whereas Cagney’s Cody Jarret was more of a loose cannon with some human weaknesses, Bogart’s Roy Earle is a man genuinely struggling with the ever-titanic contest opposing right and wrong.
#42 The Woman in the Window
1944, directed by Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang is a director who can send his characters into a blender of trouble like no other. Lang keeps things moving along briskly, providing new little twists and turns along the way to keep the pressure mounting onto Richard and Alice. The plot almost becomes a game at one point, with the two protagonists as participants who must counter-maneuver whenever law enforcement or any other party crawls closer to discovering their dark secret. The film’s most excruciating and amusing scene is when Frank invites Richard as an observer to the location where the body was found, also known as the place where Richard foolishly dumped the corpse. Whether due to inexperience or his inability with handling so much pressure, Richard constantly says or performs small things that suggest he knows more than he probably should. His friend thinks nothing of it at the time, but the viewer’s resistance to tension is tested more than once.
#41 The Big Sleep
1946, directed by Howard Hawks
With the exception of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, few noirs are as good as The Big Sleep at showcasing how crime and the often insatiable desire to gain the upper hand on fellow human beings for one’s personal benefit extends beyond the regular classes people are prone to associate with such depraved behaviour. By the film’s conclusion, characters from just about every class and social stratum have played a part in making life for the Sternwood’s a living hell. From the upper-class socialites, high-roller gamblers, and ordinary but desperate men trying to get ahead to real low-level scum, no one particular class is made to look any better or worse than another. Just as the more impoverished act out of despair and malice, the well-off either make poor judgments because they do not know any better, what with all the money available to protect them, or out of a general lack of concern for the consequences, a behaviour which can be squarely aimed at young Carmen Sternwood, a brimming example of a ‘too rich for her own good’ youth who goes about her business in true devil may care fashion.
1948, directed by John Juston
The story of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre will sound familiar to many, even those who haven’t seen the film. It has been adapted and parodied numerous times, whether in cartoons or other films. Paul Thomas Anderson watched Huston’s film every night before working on the screenplay for There Will Be Blood, and continued to watch it throughout that film’s production. But unlike There Will Be Blood, Treasure of the Sierra Madre is more interested in examining greed on a micro-scale. Huston doesn’t completely ignore the big picture, as evidenced by his heartless wealthy American and the contractor who stiffs Dobbs and Curtin on weeks of construction pay, yet rather than castigate society at large, he focuses on a single man, Dobbs, who is transformed into a creature of base desires by a lust for riches.
1949, directed by Brian Haskin
For decades no studio saw fit to lend Bryan Haskin’s endeavor a proper cleanup for either theatrical or home video presentation. True enough, the film was and still is in the public domain, but other films, such as Orson Welles’ The Stranger, have benefited from top quality standard and high-definition disc releases despite no person or company directly owning distribution rights. It was only in January of 2014 that the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Noir Foundation presented a clean 35 print of the picture to the public, proof that its qualities were familiar to those who had seen the film. Too Late for Tears encompasses many of the quintessential elements of film noir whilst peppering some fresh elements into the mix that help it distinguish it a little bit from the fray. Much of the film falls directly in line with what ardent fans have come to expect from the genre, but not only does it offer few noticeably clever angles, it handles the familiar with enviable vim and verve to captivate and entertain.
#38 The Big Heat
1953, directed by Fritz Lang
Police corruption is not a new topic although it may take on a multitude of forms. Nefarious alliances between police and rich crime lords who can keep the former in their pocket is a favourite starting point for a number of police thrillers. The Big Heat employs the same idea and marries it to a couple of tangential realities that can sprout from it. First, is the suffering inflicted on the family of a cop who remains steadfast as David in the face of Goliath. Second is the risk incurred by pawns in the system the leaders deem to no longer be of any use or who choose to rebel. By having each aspect bleed into one another, director Lang and screenwriter Boehm weave a tale that can actually have its cake and eat it too. It is partly a revenge film, partly a scathing commentary on the weak backbone of those who bend in the face of blackmail, and partly an unforgiving look at treachery within the underworld itself. Lang’s film has a much more organically multifaceted personality than a myriad of other movies that fall under the same umbrella.
#37 No Way Out
1950, Joseph L. Mackievicz
No Way Out has a lot to juggle. It’s a drama, a thriller, a noir, a social statement, and an action movie in one particular sequence. Perhaps everything does not come together as smoothly as one would hope, which is often the case with films of such ambition. Juggling so many calling cards is immeasurably difficult. A few scenes could have been exempt from the final cut and the movie would have been better for it. That said, the climax, which features an escaped but very tired, very sickly Ray holding Brooks and Edie hostage at gunpoint at Dr. Wharton’s home is horrifying insofar as it encapsulates the plight of a bigot if ‘plight’ is a word that may be borrowed in such an instance. Ray’s mind is totally corrupted, he went off to the deep end a long time ago with nary a hope of ever finding his way back. He cries out, tears in his eyes and a quivering voice, that nobody cares about him and that he has been left out.
#36 My Cousin Rachel
1952, directed by Henry Koster
Irrespective of what some might conclude at first glance, there is a lot of noir in My Cousin Rachel, despite the absence of any American characters, the lack of a labyrinthine city, or private eyes. As previously stated, the film’s cinematography consistently leaves one in awe for its bold, painterly depictions of the Ashley estate, both in and around the house, awash in stark black and white, where the brightness is often the only ray of hope in a home that feels condemned to witness the downfall of its tenants. The shadows are as dark as night, inky like few other movies can accomplish, so much so that several scenes would feel just as much at home in a gothic horror yarn as a romantic drama. As such, director Koster’s film certainly looks a lot like noir.
1949, directed by Rudolph Matt
The concept that sets everything in motion in Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. is highly captivating: follow a man who knows he is doomed to expire within a matter of a few days and yet, because he knows that his damnation is the product of another’s attack, is driven to leave no stone unturned in a quest to bring the culprit to justice. The film smartly and effectively depicts the protagonist’s changed allure when desperation calls, this after the viewer has had a taste of his persona before the crushing blow dooms him. With the always riveting O’Brien depicting the character, Bigelow becomes more than just a construct and an audience surrogate. He is a living, breathing individual who comes to realize a thing or two, guided in no small part by a completely new objective in life, no pun intended.
#34 Lady in the Lake
1947, directed by Robert Montgomery
The film’s posters proudly proclaim that ‘You and Robert Montgomery solve a murder mystery together!’, which is only partly true. There is no doubt that the audience will spend every moment of the running time with private dick Marlowe. When he gets too nosy for someone’s comfort and receives a fist to the face as a reward for his efforts, so do we, with the screen slowly fading to black. When he enjoys a cigarette, so do we, as a thick line of smoke rises from the bottom to the top of the frame. These are but the visual cues by which ‘You and Robert Montgomery solve a murder mystery together!’ It is in essence the most literal way a filmmaker can effectively bring to a movie what novels succeed at when narration is done in the first person. On that level, Lady in the Lake is a decent success. Certain camera angles are neatly prepared to reveal the actor Montgomery when the reflection of Marlowe should appear in a mirror. Other times the camera will rise up or slope down if the character is getting to his feet or falling. There is even one rather fun sequence involving a car chase in which Marlowe, and consequently the viewer, is driving his car and either looking back over his seat or in the rearview mirror to glance at his pursuer.
#33 The Killers
1946, directed by Robert Siodmak
To get the obvious out of the way, The Killers is a beautifully shot and edited film. It is efforts like this one that reminds viewers how special that period of Hollywood was. At a time when films could only be produced in black and white, directors, the great directors at the very least, found inventive ways to express emotions and tone through a visual style and colour palette few contemporary filmmakers dare approach. As previously stated, it is in this respect that director Siodmak, naturally with the great help of his cinematographer (Elwood Bredell in the case of The Killers) truly made a name for himself. The mere visual cue of two shadowy figures walking into frame from behind a building in a bright ray of light in the film’s opening credit sequence, a simple concept truth be told, instantly has the viewer recognize and feel the impending danger. In mere seconds the movie has explained that the town is asleep, it is a quiet night, but two threatening forces have entered the picture carrying the immeasurable potential of destruction and fear. The movie performs similar feats time and time again all throughout the story, be it for high or low angles heightening the disequilibrium between characters, a funeral scene shot as though it were occurring in a dream rather than real life, or a prison cell scene that feels as serene and beautiful as a stroll in the park at night. From an aesthetic point of view, The Killers is a masterclass in filmmaking.
#32 The Big Combo
1955, directed by Joseph H. Lewis
To argue that The Big Combo is a perfect film, a flawless example of the police procedural genre and an endlessly captivating mystery would be going too far. Superior and, frankly, more original police stories were made both before and after its 1955 release. However, there is something to be said about director Joseph H. Lewis’ notable efforts in bringing vibrant life to such a tiny picture. There are plenty of examples that demonstrate how small The Big Combo is, the most evident being the sets, all of which feel incredibly small and intimate. Another hint would be that however many times the protagonist, Lt. Diamond, harps on the point about Brown being a criminal mastermind, leader of a terrifically seedy organization, all the viewer ever sees of this dastardly conglomerate is Richard Conte, Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman, and Brian Donlevy, who plays a seemingly washed up, near-deaf hoodlum who lost his spotlight on the team long ago. Limitations they may be, they do not prevent the film from being not only an intelligent mystery but also a compelling character piece, even though not all the characters will win the viewer’s undivided interest.
1950, Elia Kazan
Elia Kazan’s second entry in the noir genre proves a taut, suspenseful thriller that clicks along nicely under the director’s guidance. Save a couple of elements that are shortchanged to an extent, Panic in the Streets is an example of a filmmaker impressively branching the noir genre in a slightly different direction than is usually the case all the while respecting its overall themes and style. The movie is easy to recommend for how it ratchets up the tension from scene to scene and for the many stellar performances. Despite the familiarity derived from operating within the parameters of what we now recognize as film noir, the filmmakers nevertheless succeed in putting their own stamp on the film.
1950, directed by John Farrow
What catches the viewer off guard from the very get-go is of course that Mitchum plays a doctor instead of a cop, a private eye, or any sort of ‘man for hire’ operating under the orders of an employer whose ulterior motives are ethically dubious at best. The opening scene has Cameron narrate the tale of an elephant trying to cross a flooded river to a young girl lying on a hospital bed. It plays out as a curious way to introduce the character. On the one hand, he seems comfortable with children, while on the other hand, the tale is harrowing and almost nerve-wracking for a little child, Nevertheless, it gets her to calm down and fall asleep. Already the viewer is given some indication as to what sort of character Mitchum plays: filled with dualities.
#29 Kiss Me Deadly
1955, directed by Robert Aldrich
This being a movie from the mid-1950s, its adaptation from book to screen, courtesy of screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, finds inspiration in the many issues which concerned the Western world, namely, the ever-looming Communist threat and, more importantly, the underlying fear that the atom bomb was now a reality. After the stunning results of the Hiroshima bombing in the late stages of World War II, no one was second-guessing how the potency of such a weapon, clearly the most effectively destructive ever devised by man. There are no communist spies in Aldrich’s film, but their replacement is nearly as effective. Ironically enough, said effectiveness stems less from their nature (country of origin, religious beliefs or whatnot) and much more for their formidable presence. The enemies are the Maguffin, if that makes any sense. While the movie does eventually elaborate, somewhat, on just who is responsible for this messy escapade, what it highlights in even more convincing fashion is their ominous, constant, threatening presence.
#28 The Killing
1956, directed by Stanley Kubrick
A surface-level evaluation of The Killing may have one conclude that Kubrick’s film evolves, in terms of its narrative, very much like the majority of heist films. To draw such a conclusion is to not be very far off, although, in truth, even at this relatively early stage in his illustrious career, Kubrick had begun to manipulate his films in ways that made them far more rewarding than on initial viewing. Whereas many of his other films need to be re-watched in order to make heads or tales of them (A Space Odyssey, Clockwork Orange, and The Shining being but three examples), The Killing merits multiple viewings in order to understand how delicately produced the story and characterizations are. Yes, on face value everything seems simple, but Kubrick, in true Kubrickian fashion, constructs an exciting little potboiler if mainly for the relationships between the individuals involved in the plot and the structure of the overall story, the most recognizable instruments being the voice-over narration and the somewhat mixed timeline in which the events are presented by the director.
1947, directed by Orson Welles
It’s clear right away that someone in the film is working an angle … or they all are. “Here’s to crime,” toasts George Grisby (Glenn Anders), a little too merrily. Soon he reveals the reason for his joy: he has an ingenious moneymaking scheme. He wants Michael O’Hara (Welles) to say that he killed him. Grisby will then be able to disappear and leave his supposed stolid life behind, and without there being a body, O’Hara won’t be convicted. The only thing is though, is he telling the truth? Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) and her husband (and Grisby’s law partner), Arthur (Everett Sloane), have their own goals, none of which seem to jibe with one another. Who is really supposed to die, and who stands to benefit the most? Maybe it’s all a little convoluted at times, and it certainly bewilders O’Hara, but it holds up sure enough to make for a fascinating thriller befitting of film noir.
#26 Key Largo
1948, directed by John Huston
Apart from being an all-around accomplished filmmaker irrespective of genre, John Huston is synonymous with film noir. One need only skim the man’s legendary filmography and stumble upon titles such as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The Asphalt Jungle to understand just how impactful he was during a time when noir was burgeoning. Key Largo, whilst still fondly remembered by some, is not cited as frequently as the aforementioned trio of classics when discussions of Huston’s career arise. One of four collaborations between Bogart and Bacall (who were also husband and wife), Key Largo is a smartly told story of individuals operating on either misguided ideas of grandeur or the sort of quiet heroism that can be mistaken for cowardice. Two starkly opposing approaches to challenges log heads throughout the picture in brilliant fashion, providing Huston’s film with the sort of heft rarely found in thrillers, be they of the classic noir era or even today.
1950, directed by Otto Preminger
Dana Andrews is no Robert Ryan (no one ever was or will be, for that matter) yet he possesses a different sort of bite. There is undeniably a temper to his Dixon, one that simmers just underneath the surface. This is all the more impressive given that Andrews is also terrific at playing more level-headed, somewhat friendlier, and humanistic roles as well, such as in Elia Kazan’s Boomerang!. In Sidewalk, he projects a steeliness that might not unnerve just any crook, but the potential for an outburst is ever-present, making him all the more dangerous in that sense, for antagonists do not know exactly when he shall lash out.
Don’t forget to check out Part 2 of the countdown!