Film noir is perhaps the bleakest of all of the film genres. Films classified here are often dark, with the characters hidden under visual shadows that match those plaguing their own souls. However, despite their black nature, these are also some of the coolest and most beloved films of all time. This is a list of some of the best, and I highly recommend that you see at least one of them in your lifetime:
The Third Man (1949)
And if you only watch one, this is the one I would most highly recommend. Sure the storyline is unique and unexpected, but this film has a lot more to offer than just a great story. Joseph Cotten gives a superb performance as always as an author seeking out the truth about the death of his old friend, and Orson Welles, well, you can’t even describe how great the few scenes he graces are. Actress Alida Valli is pure perfection as the gorgeous love interest that seems as though she could explode at any moment trying to contain all the dark secrets she knows and her sorrow at losing her only love, and the cinematography is breathtaking. However, what I most love about this film is the upbeat and beautiful score, which you would never think would fit with such a film. But somehow it works perfectly, and I’ve never heard better.
This dark, early film noir work by legendary director Fritz Lang features the acting talents of seemingly spooky and strange actor Peter Lorre (If you saw and heard him, you would immediately recognize him). The film tackles a subject way ahead of its time: a child serial killer. Lorre’s performance as a man who just really can’t seem to help himself is heart wrenching and emotional, and it’s hard to believe that you will find yourself feeling pity for someone who commits such horrid crimes. The ending isn’t exactly perfect, but it’s a difficult film to appropriately end.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
The dialogue is this fun film noir flick is absolutely delightful. It’s definitely the best of the many, many films based on fictional private dick Mike Hammer. The film has a storyline that definitely pulls you in, with a mysterious briefcase that everyone seems to be after. A young Cloris Leachman makes an appearance in the film, and the references to sex are way, way ahead of their time (it’s hard to believe this film was made before ‘Psycho’). The ending says a lot about the time period it was made in, and you might remember a film or two from more recent years that reference this classic crime drama.
Touch of Evil (1958)
‘The Third Man’ and this film definitely are at the top of the many film noir movies that have been made, and this one, too, stars Orson Welles. In this film, he plays an extremely crooked, extremely obese cop. Charlton Heston plays the “good guy” (he’s supposed to be Mexican, which is pretty hilarious), and actress Janet Leigh plays his wife, who ends up being held captive in a hotel that might remind you a lot of another infamous hotel Leigh would later spend an unfortunate night in. The film contains the best uncut opening shot of all time (three minutes and thirty seconds long), an appearance by Marlene Dietrich, and cinematography that could definitely compete with that in ‘The Third Man’. Welles actually directed this film, however, and it was rumored that he was given the worst script out of a stack of terrible ones and told to make a masterpiece out of it, so he did. Of course it was later cut and reshot until little of the original masterpiece remained, but using Welles notes, the film was pieced back together as best it could be in the 80’s, and this is the version that is so beloved by cinephiles today.
Double Indemnity (1944)
This film noir classic has one of the best femme fatales in Barbara Stanwyck’s character, Phyllis, a woman who wants to take out a life insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge and have him suffer an unfortunate “accident” from which he doesn’t survive. As it turns out, this isn’t the only time she’s been involved in foul play. The film has incredible acting and a great storyline, even if it does seem a little familiar today. But this is only because it has been so influential on so many movies to come.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Humphrey Bogart really started his career as a film noir leading man playing detective Sam Spade in this film adaptation of the popular novel. I love the fact that the object being sought by so many in this film isn’t a suitcase of money or jewels, but a mysterious artifact with an interesting back-story. Peter Lorre also makes an appearance in this film, as does lovely leading lady Mary Astor, the perfect pattern for many future femme fatales. Perhaps no film noir movie has had a greater impact on those to follow than this one, and you will definitely see everything done in this film that now defines the genre.
To Have and Have Not (1944)
Many consider ‘The Big Sleep’ the essential Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall film, but I really prefer this one, where Lauren Bacall’s sexuality really shines. It’s also based on a Hemingway novel, which I really like, and it has a pretty unique and interesting storyline, with Bacall as a beautiful pickpocket and Bogart as a fishing boat captain forced to smuggle people to aid the French Resistance when he ends up broke. This film is notable for being the first Bogie/Bacall flick, and kindling a legendary Hollywood romance.
Pickup on South Street (1953)
This is a very intimate film noir flick, and another with perfectly punchy dialogue. A pickpocket inadvertently ends up with a very valuable role of microfilm, and must choose between patriotism and a big payout (the film was made during the big anticommunist movement). The cinematography in this film is very unique, with some in-your-face (or, rather, in the actors’ and actresses’ faces) shots. This film is a great example of an artistic masterpiece that managed to get created despite having to change many elements of the script and reshooting a few scenes to please the insatiable censors.
Out of the Past (1947)
This is one of the greatest stories about someone running away from their past, and is perhaps Robert Mitchum’s greatest role. He plays an average Joe: a gas station owner in love with a sweet girl living a very quiet life. That is, until a stranger passing through town recognizes him. The past then comes back to haunt the former PI, and he finds himself a part of his previous life once again. Jane Greer is stunning as the femme fatale that causes his life to end up in shambles, and the film actually has a very good ending (they’re pretty hard to come by during this time period).
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis give unforgettable performances in this film about the rotten side of the newspaper biz. It’s full of sex, false accusations, corrupt cops, drugs and even a touch of incest. It’s a smoldering look at the sleazy side of the business of celebrity, and there is little good to be found in any of the darkly colorful characters.
So if you’re in the mood for some mystery, intrigue, and sexuality, I would definitely recommend one of these films. For although many modern movies have tried to capture the essence of the film noir genre, they just can’t do it better than these early film noir flicks, the stuff that dreams are made of.