My Top 10 Favorite Film Noir Movies

Film Noir, a genre characterized by its dark, cynical attitudes and sexual motivations, emerged in the early 1940s. Known for its shadowy cinematography, complex characters, and intricate plots, it has captivated audiences with its unique blend of suspense, drama, and visual artistry. This article dives into the heart of Film Noir, exploring some of the best films that define this iconic genre.

As much as I love film noir, I hate trying to define it for people. The problem is, noir isn’t a proper film genre like westerns or sci-fi. Set a movie anywhere between 1800 and 1915 and stick a guy on a horse in the middle of nowhere, and you’ve got a western. Make your movie about scientifically impossible technology that doesn’t yet exist, and you have sci-fi. Film noir, by contrast, is more a collection of elements, each contributing to the definition of a style of film rather than an outright genre.

In order to make your film a noir piece, you need the following elements.

First, a femme fatale. She’s the character who leads our leading man down a path of corruption, crime, and ultimately death. Your leading man has to be some average Joe, tired and fed up with his ordinary, everyday existence. The leading man has to be at a point in his life where he’s willing to risk the safety and security of his lawful existence for what the femme fatale has to offer him.

And what does the femme fatale have to offer him?

A shot at the brass ring, a chance to get out of his meaningless existence and have the life he always dreamed of. That brass ring comes in the form of criminal acts. Theft, murder, insurance fraud, whatever. Film noir always seems to have a bleak, gloomy tone to it, accentuating the despair felt by the main characters as they rail against their existence. Some or most of the movie takes place at night, which accentuates this tension.

There are also narrative devices that help identify film noir for us.

The voiceover narrative, for example. The main character tells us his story, reflecting on what he’s done, almost confessing his sins to us. Accompanying the voiceover will often be flashbacks. The movie will almost never have a happy ending.

Due to the characters’ tragic flaws, at least one of the main characters will die before the end of the film. And if the audience can be left with a few unanswered questions, so much the better. After all, film noir isn’t meant to be happy and life-affirming. Rather, they’re meant to be just the opposite.

1. Sunset Boulevard

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043014/
Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard introduces us to silent screen star Norma Desmond, now twenty years past her prime. Norma desperately believes she will achieve a great comeback in the form of a script she’s working on. Sharing her house and feeding her delusion is Norma’s butler, Max, who was once upon a time both Norma’s director and husband. Enter the pair’s decayed life down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis, who stumbles across the pair while trying to escape his creditors.

2. Double Indemnity

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036775/

Set in 1938, Fred MacMurray plays experienced insurance salesman Walter Neff. Neff meets the wife of one of his clients and shortly begins having an affair with her. During the course of their affair, the couple strikes upon the notion of using the husband’s insurance policy to murder him and fake his death as an accident. Even though the authorities are willing to accept the death as an accident, Neff’s boss continues to investigate, and the plan slowly unravels, leading to tragic results.

3. The Maltese Falcon

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0033870/

Sam Spade and his partner take on a suspicious case offered to them by an attractive woman calling herself Miss Wanderly. After Miles is shot in pursuit of the case, Wanderly reveals her real name is Brigitte O’Shaugnessy and claims some men are after her. Her fear revolves around the statue of a falcon reputed to be of great value. Sam takes the new case to find the bird while trying not to get embroiled in the intrigue and double crosses of the other parties also looking for the blackbird.

4. The Big Heat

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045555/

Glenn Ford plays Detective Lieutenant Dave Bannion, an honest cop in a town where gangsters have high-ranking police officials on their payrolls. While investigating the apparent suicide of another officer, Bannon receives a tip regarding the reason behind the cop’s death. When the source of the tip promptly turns up tortured and dead, Despite orders to stay off the case, Bannion follows the case until he brings down those responsible.

5. This Gun For Hire

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0035432/

In his first starring role, Alan Ladd plays hitman Philip Raven. After completing a job, his employer pays him off in hot money stolen from a company’s payroll. Gates’ intent was to get Raven arrested when he tried to spend his hot money and frame him for the payroll robbery. When Raven finds this out, he chases Gates to L.A., kidnapping Ellen Graham along the way. Ellen convinces Raven to help her expose the company’s dirty business practices to a senate subcommittee.

6. Chinatown

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071315/

Jack Nicholson plays private detective J. J. Gittes. He’s hired by a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray to follow her husband whom she suspects is cheating on her. A few days later the real Evelyn Mulwray enters the office claiming she had no such desire to hire Gittes and his associates. After Mr. Mulwray turns up dead, Gittes goes back on the case. What he finds starts out as simple political corruption regarding L.A.’s water supply and leads to even darker places.

7. Kiss Me Deadly

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048261/

Tough-as-nails private investigator Mike Hammer offers a frightened woman a ride after almost running her down. Hammer is run off the road, and the woman is tortured for information. The people responsible try to fake both their deaths only to leave Hammer alive but badly injured. Unable to forget about the girl, Mike investigates, trying to find out why the FBI is so interested in some poor, anonymous girl.

8. The Postman Always Rings Twice

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038854/

John Garfield plays drifter Frank Chambers, who hitchhikes his way into a job at a local roadside diner. While working for the diner’s middle-aged owner, he falls for the owner’s beautiful young bride, played by Lana Turner. Eventually, Cora falls for Frank, and the couple decides they can’t be without each other, plotting to kill Cora’s husband.

9. Blade Runner

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083658/

Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a cop who specializes in hunting down and killing androids created to look and behave humanly. Four such replicants steal a shuttle bound for Earth and land in Los Angeles in search of their creators. What ensues is a tense game of cat and mouse as Deckard tries to terminate the replicants before they can kill whoever they’re looking for.

10. The Third Man

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041959/

Joseph Cotton plays the author of Western novels, Holly Martins. Holly, down on his luck and out of work, has been invited to post-war Vienna by his old friend Harry Limes. Upon arriving at his friend’s apartment, Holly learns his friend died just days before, run down in the street. As he tries to find out what happened, Holly learns some ugly secrets about his friend Harry’s criminal enterprises.

Most of the films I’ve given you come from the classic period of noir (1945-1955). However, a couple of them come from much later in film history and are often referred to as neo-noir, which I won’t get into here as it would require an article of its own. By no means are these movies the only noir films worth watching. They’re just some of my favorites. When you watch them yourself, you’ll see why.

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