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25 CLASSIC FILM NOIRS
A glaring streetlight on a rain-soaked corner. Drastic shadows from a window blind. Thick cigarette smoke wafting through the air. A well-coifed detective in a dapper suit, and the femme fatale that ultimately spells his ruin. If any of these images sound familiar to you (or even if they don’t!), please read on.
Here are my Top 25 favorite film noir flicks. As with the alt-rock list, this is not an attempt to deliver critical recommendations to future filmmakers. These are just my personal faves; some are pure classics, others are guilty pleasures. And while there are plenty of excellent modern noir movies out there, I've pared this list down to only include films from the classic era (roughly 1944-1959).
Movie synopses are from imdb.com, with my own updates and comments where applicable. Be sure to visit the site for direct viewing links to many of these films. - BW
#25 - “The Hoodlum” (1951)
Director: Max Nosseck
Stars: Lawrence Tierney, Allene Roberts, Marjorie Riordan
Synopsis: A recently-paroled sociopath and career criminal betrays his family's trust when he masterminds a complex armored car robbery.
If you enjoy the modern noir of Reservoir Dogs, you'll love seeing a much younger Lawrence Tierney here at his all-time tough guy best.
#24 - "Raw Deal” (1948)
Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: Dennis O'Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt
Synopsis: A criminal escapes prison while taking the rap for a crime boss, who double-crosses him and intends to get rid of him.
#23 - “The Dark Corner” (1946)
Director: Henry Hathaway
Stars: Lucille Ball, Clifton Webb, William Bendix
Synopsis: A secretary tries to help her New York PI boss, who has been framed for murder.
Definitely off-the-radar as far as noirs go, but the excellent cinematography and solid acting performances make The Dark Corner well worth exploring.
#22 - “Kansas City Confidential” (1952)
Director: Phil Karlson
Stars: John Payne, Coleen Gray, Preston Foster
Synopsis: An ex-con trying to go straight is framed for a million dollar armored car robbery and must travel to Mexico in order to unmask the real culprits.
Quentin Tarantino has stated that Reservoir Dogs was inspired by this movie. Only four movies in and we have our second Reservoir Dogs reference!
#21 - “Night and the City” (1950)
Director: Jules Dassin
Stars: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers
Synopsis: A small-time London hustler takes advantage of some fortuitous circumstances and attempts to become a big-time wrestling promoter.
Film noir and pro wrestling, what could be better? The grappler Gregorious is indeed portrayed by a real-life professional wrestler named Stanislaus Zbyszko.
#20 - "Criss Cross" (1949)
Director: Robert Siodmak
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea
Synopsis: An armored truck driver and his ex-wife conspire with a gang to have his own truck robbed on the route.
#19 - “The Hitch-Hiker” (1953)
Director: Ida Lupino
Stars: Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman
Synopsis: Two fishermen pick up a psychotic escaped convict who tells them that he intends to murder them when the ride is over.
The Hitch-Hiker is one of several films listed here that are in the public domain, which means that you can view or download it for free from a variety of sources.
#18 - “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957)
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison
Synopsis: A powerful but unethical Broadway columnist coerces an unscrupulous press agent into breaking up his sister's romance with a jazz musician.
#17 - “Les Diaboliques" (1955)
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Stars: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse
Synopsis: The wife and mistress of a loathed school principal plan to murder him with what they believe is the perfect alibi.
Still one of the best movie endings ever. Like the message in the credits says, don't spoil it for your friends!
#16 - “The Woman in the Window” (1944)
Director: Fritz Lang
Stars: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey
Synopsis: A conservative middle-aged professor engages in a relationship with a femme fatale and is plunged into a nightmarish world of blackmail and murder.
#15 - "The Lineup" (1958)
Director: Don Siegel
Stars: Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Richard Jaeckel
Synopsis: An unhinged gangster and his mentor are sent to retrieve heroin packages carried overseas by unsuspecting travelers.
Eli Wallach is brilliant in his portrayal of a psychopathic gun-for-hire, evoking memories of a young Joe Pesci. But it's noir-era San Francisco that really steals the show.
#14 - "Impact" (1949)
Director: Arthur Lubin
Stars: Brian Donlevy, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn
Synopsis: A unfaithful wife plots with her lover to kill her husband, but the lover is accidentally killed instead. The husband stays in hiding and allows his wife to be charged with conspiracy.
#13 - "Detour" (1945)
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Stars: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake
Synopsis: A chance series of events trap a hitchhiking nightclub pianist in an ever-tightening net of death, deception and blackmail.
With a 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating and inclusion in both the Criterion Collection and the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, Detour is one of more highly-acclaimed noirs on this list. It is also in the public domain.
#12 - Scarlet Street" (1945)
Director: Fritz Lang
Stars: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea
Synopsis: An unassuming man in mid-life crisis befriends a young woman, whose fiancé persuades her to con him out of the fortune they mistakenly assume he possesses.
According to Ben Mankiewicz, when Scarlet Street was first released, local censor boards in New York, Milwaukee, and Atlanta banned this film for being "licentious, profane, obscure, and contrary to the good order of the community." Sounds like prime noir to me!
#11 - "Pickup on South Street" (1953)
Director: Samuel Fuller
Stars: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter
Synopsis: A pickpocket on a subway train unwittingly lifts a message destined for enemy agents and becomes the target of a Communist spy ring.
Protip: If you ever come across a film noir starring Richard Widmark as a two-bit thug, by all means watch it. You really have to wonder if he was the character inspiration for Frank Gorshin's Riddler from the Batman '66 TV series.
#10 - "Quicksand" (1950)
Director: Irving Pichel
Stars: Mickey Rooney, Jeanne Cagney, Barbara Bates
Synopsis: After borrowing 20 dollars from his employer's cash register to go on a date, an auto mechanic encounters increasingly disastrous circumstances which rapidly spiral out of control.
An incredibly entertaining noir with a baby-faced Mickey Rooney encountering a series of unfortunate twists and turns that are almost Twilight Zone-ish. Quicksand is another film that is in the public domain.
#9 - "City That Never Sleeps" (1953)
Director: John H. Auer
Stars: Gig Young, Mala Powers, William Talman
Synopsis: An officer—who plans on resigning from the police force and leaving his wife the next day—has a very eventful last night on duty.
Synopsis: A hoodlum assembles a five-man team to plan and execute a complicated and daring race-track robbery.
One of Stanley Kubrick's earliest and most memorable works. It's hard to believe that he was 28 when this film was released.
#4 - "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950)
Director: John Huston
Stars: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen
Synopsis: Several hoodlums devise a major heist that takes place underneath the city streets.
Despite being given top billing and featured prominently in the poster to your left, Marilyn Monroe appears sparingly throughout The Asphalt Jungle. Like The Killing and Rififi, the great ensemble cast and complicated plot heist are the main attractions.
#3 - "Double Indemnity" (1944)
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
Synopsis: An insurance representative is coerced by a seductive housewife into a murder scheme that arouses the suspicion of his insurance investigator friend.
This movie is Number One on quite a few noir lists, and for good reason. If you're new to the genre and are looking for a film to get started with, Double Indemnity is probably your best bet.
#2 - "He Walked By Night" (1948)
Directors: Alfred L. Werker, Anthony Mann
Stars: Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts
Synopsis: Los Angeles police detectives stage a city-wide manhunt for a resourceful and elusive criminal who is committing a series of violent burglaries, robberies and murders throughout the City of Angels.
This crime drama deviates from most noirs in that it features no romantic interest and no femme female. With its LA-driven police narrative, He Walked By Night feels very much like a precursor to the long-running TV series Dragnet. Not-so-coincidentally, this film happens to feature a young Jack Webb.
#1 - "The Third Man" (1949)
Director: Carol Reed
Stars: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli
Synopsis: An American pulp novelist travels to shadowy, post-war Vienna by the request of an old friend, only to find himself investigating his friend's mysterious death.
Of all the brilliant American film noirs listed here (as well as a few excellent foreign noirs!), it is an English film that captures the top spot. Not that any of this matters once you get caught up in this gripping tale of black market trafficking and political intrigue.