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Top 10 Film Noir

By Ally Sinyard · November 22, 2011

The wonderful book “Film Noir” by Andrew Spicer defines “film noir” as a “cycle of films that share a similar iconographical, visual style, narrative strategies, subject matter and characterisation.” The iconography includes images of the city at night, rainy pavements, gaudy nightclubs and lavish apartments. The visual style normally involves high contrast lighting which creates the shadows that often come through blinds and creates sinister, shadowy figures on walls. Odd angles and wide-angle lenses are used habitually. The patterning of the highly-complex narratives is created by first-person voice-over, flashbacks, ellipses and inconclusive or ambiguous endings. The principle protagonists are often an alienated, male anti-hero and the deceitful femme fatale. Fear, paranoia and sexual desire run amok in the noir world. But of course…film noir fans will already be accustomed to these tropes.  For those of you who don’t, here is your chance to learn a bit more about this hugely influential and entertaining genre, and perhaps give you a place to start. Trench coats at the ready!

10. The Killers (1946)

The Killershas an opening scene that many noir fans will be familiar with, even if they haven’t seen the film. Two men invade a small town and kill Ole Anderson, aka The Swede (Burt Lancaster). Anderson puts up no resistance. Like so many other noir characters, Anderson is fully aware of his fate and accepts it like a man. Now, that’s a way to start a film! Noirs have a way like that of grabbing its audience’s attention. Based on the short story of the same name by Ernest Hemingway, the screenwriters relished the opportunity to expand on the story and explore the characters and their pasts. Accompanied by some great examples of noir tropes, such as the sultry and scheming femme fatale Kitty Collins Colfax (Ava Gardner), The Killers is a brutal and tragic film that all noir fans must see!

9. Detour  (1945)

Detouris somewhat of an exception on this list. It is a severely underrated noir that has escaped the attention of cinema fans, as it is not the usual lavish and stylistic affair. Running at just 68 minutes long and released by the Producers Releasing Corporation (one of the “poverty row” film studios of mid-twentieth century Hollywood), Detour was made on a budget of between $20,000-100,000. The camerawork is very straightforward and the very few set are often bare. However, this film is held in very high regard. The acting by strong leads Tom Neal and Ann Savage is solid and the story is simple yet very well told. Straight to the point, no frills.  Its simplicity makes it quite unusual to watch and somewhat eerie, which actually serves to give its “noir” quality a greater depth that is not found in other films of the genre. A “black, paranoid vision” comes from director Edgar G. Ulmer’s filmmaking, “untainted by glamour” and with its “shabby characters trapped in a spiral of irrational guilt” (Phillip Kemp, “Sight and Sound). We are not distracted by the glitz and snappy dialogue that we associate with Hollywood film noir; we are truly engaged with the story of two people on the run for their lives.

8. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Not only is this one of the best film noir of all time, but many fans and critics consider it to be one of the best Hollywood films ever made. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and winning 3, this classic film tells the story of the fleetingness of stardom, told using a beyond-the-grave voice-over from our protagonist Joe Gillis (William Holden). Film historian Tom Stempel writes that, what makes this film so unique is the way the cinematographer, John F. Seitz, blends the real with the fantasy and gothic through his use of light and dark, “with no seams showing.” Although Norma’s house may not be as shadowy as most noir interior sets, there is a sense of decay, disuse and disrepair that still conveys the doom and gloom and artificiality of the scenes that go on. To top it off, Gloria Swanson gives a wonderful, devastating performance as Norma Desmond, giving us a stunning critique of a system where men and women are worshipped and then simply forgotten.

7. Out of the Past (1947)

With its convoluted storyline, beautiful femme fatale and extreme low-key lighting, it is no surprise to hear such critics as Robert Ottoson hail Out of the Past as “the ne plus ultra of forties film noir.” There are plenty of double crosses and dead bodies and the charming lead, Jeff Bailey, played by noir icon Robert Mitchum, has the sad eyes and endless supply of cigarettes that befits a noir anti-hero. Out of the Past is the story of a man who tries to break away from his shady past and start over again; but as we all know, in noir, the past will always reach out and pull you back in. Watch out for a great performance from a young Kirk Douglas!

6. The Third Man (1949)

Hey, the Brits can do it too! Ranked by the BFI as the greatest British film of all time, it comes as no surprise that this is one of my favourites of film noir! It excels in all areas; from the adaptation of Graham Greene’s novella, to the oxymoronically picturesque setting of war-torn Vienna, to Anton Karas’ famous zither score. Then, there’s Orson Welles’ legendary and charismatic performance as Harry Lime, cementing Lime’s place in film history as one of its most beloved villains. It’s also outstanding in the way it transcends its narrative; Austria itself is confronting its own troubled past. A must-see for fans of British cinema and certainly film noir!

5. Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil is a wonderfully fitting conclusion to film noir’s classic period, which is from the early 1940s until the late 1950s. And it certainly pulls the audience in from the get go! Who could possibly forget that legendary opening tracking shot? You’ll find homages to it in many films, from Ed Wood to Phantom of the Paradise to In Bruges. Directed by, adapted by, and starring (of course) Orson Welles, he keeps the screen in almost total darkness, “creating a nightmarish atmosphere of impending violence” (Ian Johnston.) Themes of evil, corruption and moral ambiguity run rife in the film, and it works so well because these are themes customary of both film noir and Welles’ work. Touch of Evil is confident, bold and stylish…if you can allow yourself to look past the bizarre casting of a brown-faced Charlton Heston as a Mexican narcotics investigator!

4. The Big Sleep (1946)

Despite the plot being almost incomprehensible, The Big Sleep is still regarded a one of the best and most popular film noir. Luckily, Roger Ebert is on hand to remind that it’s not about solving the mystery, but more about showing us “the process of criminal investigation.” Well, my brain can cope with that! One of the film’s best aspects is the sizzling sexual chemistry between 22-year-old Lauren Bacall and 46-year-old Humphrey Bogart, seen previously together in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944.) These two are enough to keep you captivated, even if you don’t have a clue what is going on.  Take the scene in the club when they are discussing racehorses…or are they? You know the one I mean! Sexiness runs rife in this film more than any other on the list, and it does so whilst remaining effortlessly classy and cool. Just bare in mind, this film is best watched with Wikipedia open, in order to follow the plot as you go!

3. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Made in 1941, The Maltese Falcon is thought by many to be the very first film noir, as well as being John Huston’s directorial debut. Once again we join Humphrey Bogart as a private detective and his dealings with three shady characters who are all trying to obtain “The Maltese Falcon,” a jewel-encrusted statuette. Of course, this film also gave us the classic example of a MacGuffin (a plot devise that motivates the characters but otherwise has no relevance). What makes this film so powerful is the way it uses techniques to pull you into the film world. It is filmed almost entirely in interiors, giving it a claustrophobic feel.  Then, the narrative itself is made up mostly of talk, with very little action; but the performances are so flamboyant that we aren’t missing out, as the dialogue becomes the action. Like Bogie, we are trapped and, indeed, a little confused by the twisting and turning story! The style of The Maltese Falcon is also very impressive, earning it 3 Academy Award nominations, and its camerawork has been said to “recall Citizen Kane” (Nathanael Hood.) It is no wonder that this film is shown in Film History classes as a prototypical film noir.

2. Laura (1944)

Laura is my own personal favourite, a triumph in storytelling. It is of course typical for a film noir to twist and turn, but the way that the events unfold, leading to the shock twist around ¾ of the way through, means that the audience are not having their expectations satisfied, but are being brought back to the edges of their seats. The film’s pace is leisurely at first, with the audience being unaware of the suspense and build up. After all, a young woman has been killed; surely all that remains is to find her killer? Or so you think! Although the developments will come as a surprise, they are logical and this is what, for me, places this film above most. The music is also outstanding, contrasted with deep, unsettling silence that is “rarely used so dextrously” (Matthew Razak.) Not surprisingly, John LaShelle won the Academy Award for Best Black and White Cinematography and Preminger was nominated for Best Director. Nominations were also received for Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Black and White Art Direction and Interior Decoration. One of the most popular noirs to have come from the 1940s, this is a film that I would urge all to see! You will not be disappointed, even if you are not a fan of the old movies!

1. Double Indemnity  (1944)

“Double Indemnity” is the term used to refer to a clause in life insurance policies that doubles the payout in cases where the death is accidental. Cue the now very well-known trope of the sexy and dangerous femme fatale, who seduces a young man into killing her husband so that she can collect! Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, Double Indemnity set the standard for all film noir that followed. It is influential for its pioneering use of the femme fatale character archetype (Barbara Stanwyck as Phyliss Dietrichson is now an icon for the genre), and the way that it developed the style for strange angles, sharp-edged shadows and shots and “lonely Edward Hopper settings” (Roger Ebert.) If you are new to film noir, this is absolutely the first film you must see. John F. Seitz’s cinematography perfectly captures the decaying Los Angeles atmosphere that is so often seen in a Raymond Chandler novel, but the characters are simpler and more substantial than that of other noirs. He also shot Sunset Boulevard to similar affect; so if you enjoyed that, you will undoubtedly love this! Double Indemnity has inspired countless remakes, including Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), but none will ever succeed in emulating the atmosphere and style that Wilder created in this movie.