The golden age of cinema is surprisingly dark. From 1941 to 1959, American audiences were captivated by melodramas about hard-boiled detectives, dangerous dames, and pulpy mysteries with literary origins. It’s a style that would later be known as film noir. Many of the movies in that classic film noir era-inspired cinema for decades to come. In recognition of that, we’ve compiled a list of the best film noir movies of all time — not only from a critical perspective but also by their influence on the genre and beyond.
FILM NOIR DEFINITION
What is film noir?
Film noir is a style or genre of films made in Hollywood in the '40s and '50s that have stylistic and thematic similarities. Specifically, tales of crime and moral ambiguity shot in black & white with high contrast lighting (bright lights and deep black shadows).
Film noir translates from French as “black film,” but that’s misleading because these aren't French films. The term was, however, coined by French critics.
It’s actually German cinematographers and directors like John F. Seitz and Fritz Lang that deserve the most credit for shaping the style. They applied the fundamentals of expressionism to the gritty American crime story, inverting the internal turmoil and anguish of private eyes and volatile gangsters so they’re visible on the surface.
No wonder critics started calling them “black films.”
Common Motifs of Classic Film Noir Films
- Narrative Monologuing
- Femme Fatales
- Paranoia and Betrayal
- Jazz Music
- Chiaroscuro Lighting
- Mysterious Histories and Flashbacks
CLASSIC FILM NOIR DEGLAMORIZES CRIMINALITY
15. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Comparison between two heist films
We know that Hollywood glamorizes criminality with thrilling capers and daring masterminds. Asphalt Jungle is… not that. Sam Jaffe and Sterling Hayden lead the cast as Doc and Dix in the story of a host gone awry (Marilyn Monroe, early in her career, also features).Where many of the best film noir movies take the perspective of the hardened law enforcer, this one shows the flip-side of the coin. In doing so, it rocks all the same “fun and games” as Ocean’s Eleven — the freed jailbird coming back for another job, the assembly of a team — but it gets bleak. Director John Huston captures it all with long shots that play deep into the y-axis.
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE
TOP NOIR FILMS GO TO THE CIRCUS
14. Nightmare Alley (1947)
Mind reading scene from Nightmare Alley
Nightmare Alley is circus noir. Edmund Goulding’s 1947 classic extracts the themes of morality from its urban peers and refocuses them into this bizarre setting. That’s probably why it didn’t fare well when it first released, but has since persevered as a standout in the film noir list.
Tyrone Power is Stan, a carnival barker-turned-swindler who takes his act to the city after a series of unfortunate events. The storyline is less centered around the mystery of a murder and more about its aftermath, driving Stan’s Icarian arc. Guillermo del Toro is currently working on a remake, which is too perfect a mashup for words.
INFLUENTIAL FILM NOIR TITLES
13. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Kiss Me Deadly’s box opening scene
Releasing in the latter years of the film noir era and the height of the Red Scare, Kiss Me Deadly channels all the paranoia and nihilism of its time. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is a private eye, out for revenge after the murder of a mysterious woman he picked up on the side of the road.It’s a tried-and-true formula, but adds a memorable MacGuffin: a suitcase that contains an all-encompassing light. At the time, that light could be read as an analogue to the dangers of nuclear arms, but nowadays we can recognize it for the influence it had on Pulp Fiction and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
KISS ME DEADLY
FAMOUS NOIR FILMS
12. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The New York Times on The Maltese Falcon
Though the visual staples of film noir wouldn’t be solidified until 1944 (see: Double Indemnity), The Maltese Falcon set critical groundwork. It’s another John Huston film, so it includes his typical directorial flourishes, including a painstaking seven-minute long scene of complex camera moves.
Huston’s work received praise for fusing the intellect of a mystery novel with the grit of '40s Hollywood. It’s a standard-bearer for a film noir list.
We also get an early taste of the character archetypes. Humphrey Bogart stars as Sam Spade, the hard-boiled gumshoe ripped from Dashiell Hammett’s novel, while Mary Astor establishes the femme fatale model as Brigid O’Shaughnessy.
THE ULTIMATE FEMME FATALE
11. Gilda (1946)
Women in film noir
Where Brigid is the alpha femme fatale, Gilda is the omega. She’s well-remembered for her introductory hair flip, further immortalized in The Shawshank Redemption. In a modern day rewatch though, the classic film noir plays differently.
Rita Hayworth was nothing like her on-screen persona, once musing that “men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with me.” So, while the camera focuses on her sexual magnetism, we have to wonder what effect sleazy men like Mundson (George Macready) and Farrell (Glenn Ford) had on her in the first place.
All we see is that their love triangle, with each vertex toxic, ought to be catastrophic but is inexplicably saccharine by the end.
TOP 10 FILM NOIR MOVIES
10. The Big Sleep (1946)
Film Noirchives on The Big Sleep
Up to the top 10 film noir movies of all time now. Humphrey Bogart takes the spotlight once again, this time in an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel. Like Hammett, Chandler is a recurring scribe for the blueprints of film noir, responsible for the creation of one of it’s most acclaimed characters: Philip Marlowe.So that’s iconic enough, but The Big Sleep embodies another notorious noir trope, which is that it’s complicated as all hell. If you’re someone who likes to solve the mystery alongside the detective, take a pass. But if you can excuse the incoherent direction, then you can find more than enough chemistry and charm to enjoy this ride.
THE BIG SLEEP
WHITE COLLAR CORRUPTION
9. Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
The New York Times on Sweet Smell of Success
In a list of film noir movies set in Los Angeles, at last we’ve got one that’s patently New York! Sweet Smell of Success shows us that not all villains are jewel-robbing lowlives; white collar corruption can be just as treacherous. That’s particularly true when the media gets involved.
In this film, the media is J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). He leverages his influence to force Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to break up his sister and her jazz guitarist beau.Let’s also talk about the sweet sound of success. Classic film noir features jazz music to evoke the sexuality and complexity of the genre. So, when this movie integrates a jazz club as a key location for deceit and temptation, it hits all the right notes.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
GREATEST FILM NOIR DIRECTORS
8. The Big Heat (1953)
German expressionism explained
As mentioned earlier, German Expressionism was a significant building block of film noir. German Expressionist filmmaker Fritz Lang came and made his mark too. Known for Metropolis and M, Lang’s eye for high-concept productions darkened when he got involved in Hollywood.The Big Heat, starring Glenn Ford as a detective who stands up to a corrupt mob, demonstrates that departure. Of particular note is a scene in which mafioso Vince (Lee Marvin) disfigures girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame) by splashing scalding hot coffee in her face.
THE BIG HEAT
PORTRAIT OF A FILM NOIR CRIMINAL
7. White Heat (1949)
Video essay on the American gangster
Now to complete the trifecta of Big Sleep, Big Heat, and White Heat. Film noir loves its naming conventions.Like Asphalt Jungle, which this film predates, White Heat is a portrait of criminality. It stars James Cagney as the manic gangster Cody Jarrett. His depiction of the character — increasingly unstable with loosely defined mental illness and a hell of an Oedipal complex — is akin to the multilayered performances we see in future crime films.
TOP FILM NOIR MOVIES
6. Out of the Past (1947)
Film Noirchives on Out of the Past
We're reaching the creme de la creme of top noir films now.In a genre immortalized by cookie-cutter formulas and tropes, Out of the Past is quite simply one of the best executions. Director Jacques Tourneur utilizes all of it, every archetype, the haunted histories, a femme fatale, canned narration, and dark shadows as weapons.
OUT OF THE PAST
THE LATEST AND GREATEST FILM NOIR
5. Touch of Evil (1958)
Scene breakdowns in Touch of Evil
Purists say that classic film noir concluded in 1959, making Touch of Evil one of the last installments of the genre. Set at the border of Mexico and the United States, the film follows a narcotics officer who is investigating the case of a Mexican car bomb detonated on American soil.Universal Pictures famously seized the edit from writer/director Orson Welles, reshot some scenes, then distributed the movie as the b-side of another film. Fortunately, Welles' vision has since been restored, and it's a good one.
TOUCH OF EVIL
FAMOUS NOIR FILMS IN LOS ANGELES
4. In a Lonely Place (1950)
Video essay on In a Lonely Place
With all the film noir set in Los Angeles, there had to be one about the inner workings of Hollywood, right? In a Lonely Place is all about the darkness that can befall creatives when they become desperate.
Here, it's screenwriter Dix (a name you've heard before) played by Humphrey Bogart (another name you've heard before). With such clear patterns and connections to Hollywood, it was inevitable that the codified genre would turn to meta-commentary.The ending is suitably tragic but not gratuitously violent, and director Nicholas Ray paves the way for setting-oriented neo-noir films like L.A. Confidential, which flaunt the sandbox of Hollywood.
IN A LONELY PLACE
CLASSIC FILM NOIR FROM OVERSEAS
3. The Third Man (1949)
Insider Information on The Third Man
Film noir populated theaters at a significant time in history: the end of World War II. The best film noir movies tend to draw on that, but The Third Man has a noteworthy lens on that era since it was made in the UK rather than America.
That altered perspective can be seen literally: the film uses Dutch angles to create an atmosphere of uneasiness. It’s fitting of the time period, a limbo between world war and cold war.
Creatively speaking, this genre complements the high contrast lighting with rain, adding a reflective quality to the visuals. For this film, director Carol Reed goes a step further, descending into the sewers and wetting the cobblestone walls so that, even in darkness, the picture shimmers.
THE THIRD MAN
EVOLUTION OF FILM NOIR TITLES
2. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
The Take’s video essay on Sunset Boulevard
Though Sunset Boulevard is among director Billy Wilder's best films, purists don't always consider it film noir. If you check out the 30 Best Neo-Noir Films, you'll see that one line between the parent and child genres is self-awareness.
Sunset Boulevard is deeply self-aware, marking an early evolution of the genre's sensibilities. You can even glean this from the fact that it's not based on any book or novella. All that said, its proper film noir, and among the best film noir movies of all time.Wilder recycles many of the techniques used in Double Indemnity, like the high contrast lighting and murky interiors, stylistically juxtaposing the glamor and grit of Hollywood.
LIST OF FILM NOIR MOVIES
Before we reveal the best film noir movie of all time (it’s no surprise), here’s a shout-out to some other movies that didn’t make the list.
For more Philip Marlowe, check out Murder My Sweet (1944). You can follow up In a Lonely Place with Ride the Pink Horse (1947), another Dorothy B. Hughes adaptation, and follow up Kiss Me Deadly with Pickup on South Street (1953) for more 'communist fun.'Adapted from the Ernest Hemingway short story, there’s The Killers (1946), then see Burt Lancaster and Robert Siodmak’s other great collaboration, Criss Cross (1949). In the Gene Tierney filmography, there’s Night and the City (1950) and Laura (1944).
GREATEST FILM NOIR
1. Double Indemnity (1944)
Video essay on Double Indemnity
Double Indemnity is the poster child of film noir, almost inevitably so. Directed by Billy Wilder and with a script co-penned by Raymond Chandler, it epitomizes the genre from the foundation up.
Though it fell a few years later into the timeline, it defined the mise-en-scene for its successors. That’s courtesy of cinematographer John F. Seitz, who brought the dark visual elements of German Expressionism.
He originated the visual techniques of black shadows cast by venetian blinds, metaphorically trapping the characters behind bars.
The plot, which sees Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) conspiring to murder her husband to collect the payout, pushed the boundaries of a Hollywood story. Such explorations of criminal morality were unprecedented and met with loads of restrictions from the Hays Code.
The pushback set the production down a complex road to development, but the result was a game changer for Hollywood. Double Indemnity is the total embodiment of noir from the inside out.
Top 30 Best Neo-Noir Films
Film noir may have lived and died in just two decades, but its legacy endured. “Neo-noir” films carried on the style and motifs of the genre, while also subverting and heightening its standards. They persist to this day, changing to reflect the times. Check out our list of the 30 best neo-noir movies that emerged from film noir’s ashes.
Up Next: Best Neo-Noir Films →
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