Film noir can be defined by a range of vast elements, however, I believe true film noir should be stylised film-making usually dark and shadowy, mostly black and white, dark themes, antiheroes and pessimistic attitudes, and menacing environments. The dialogue is sharp and taut, there is a sense of heightened sexualisation, and there is usually crime involved – with a detective on the case.
With the peak years for film noir being 1940 to 1958, here are my top 10 picks for the genre:
The Third Man (1949)
Pretty much anything that Orson Welles touched is now a classic of its genre. In this case, The Third Man, based on the novella by Graham Greene, has all the best features of a film noir. It is atmospheric, has an enigmatic woman at its centre, has an array of crooked double-dealing characters, with the bonus of a haunting and memorable score by Anton Karas. Directed by Carol Reed, the film stars Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, and Alida Valli. The film was also responsible for making the Vienna sewers a tourist attraction for generations.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
This classic noir stars Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and the usual suspects – Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Directed by John Huston, it was based on the Dashiell Hammett novel about a detective on the trail of three eccentric criminals and their quest for a priceless statuette.
This may be a more unusual choice, but it’s one of my favourite films of any genre. It was directed by Otto Preminger. Laura (Gene Tierney) is a model and Dana Andrews is the detective who is investigating her murder. Even dead, she wins his affection. Clifton Webb is her mentor and Vincent Price her boyfriend. It’s glamorous, smart and sassy. One of my favourite scenes is Clifton Webb as a radio broadcaster preparing his script with a typewriter poised over his bathtub – my dream working environment.
Made a good 30 years after the film noir heyday, it certainly borrows more from the genre than just the fashion of the times. Jack Nicholson is the private detective in this case, hired to expose an adulterer but caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder by Faye Dunaway as the femme fatale. Directed by Roman Polanski.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Fred McMurray plays an insurance salesman who is seduced into a murder and insurance fraud scene by femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck. Directed by Billy Wilder and written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, this is a pacey film with Edward G. Robinson as the detective who suspects foul play. It’s clever and bright and Stanwyck is brilliant as the noir’s “cheap broad”. She won an Oscar nomination for this performance.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
While not overly typical of noir, this film still has the characteristics of the genre. Again, Billy Wilder directs and also has a writing credit. It’s the story of a screenwriter, Joe Gilles (William Holden), who is hired to rework a faded silent screen star’s (played by Gloria Swanson) script only to find himself in the middle of an obsessive relationship in a world he doesn’t fully understand. It’s told in flashback with Gilles as the narrator. Slickly done.
This cleverly written, morally ambiguous tale of intrigue and menage a trios was one of Columbia Studio’s biggest money earners of the time. Gilda (Rita Hayworth at her best) is stunning and sexy – the gown she wears to sing her famously sizzling “Put the Blame on Mame” number is iconic. Charles Vidor directed this one which also starred Glenn Ford and George Macready. It’s set in a casino in exotic Buenos Aires.
A Touch of Evil (1958)
Released at the end of the real film noir era, A Touch of Evil is another Orson Welles contribution to the genre. It is a perverse story of murder, kidnapping and police corruption in a Mexican border town. The film stars Welles, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. Welles cited The Big Sleep as a movie which influenced him to “infuriate the audience with the plot”. French directors Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut said this film was a great influence on starting their careers.
Farewell My Lovely (1944)
*(Remade with Charlotte Rampling in 1973)* Based on the Raymond Chandler novel, Philip Marlowe (musical star Dick Powell) is hired to find an ex-con’s former girlfriend, but the case becomes a complex web of mystery and deceit (this is the noir MO). Also starring Anne Shirley and Claire Trevor, and directed by Edward Dmytryk. It has the perfect noir language: “She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink if she had to knock you down to get the bottle”.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
*(Remade with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in 1981)* A married woman and a drifter fall in love then plot to murder her husband. Directed by Tay Garnett and starring John Garfield and Lana Turner, this movie really made Turner into the siren she is remembered as. Garfield is hired by roadside restaurant owner (played by Cecil Kellaway) as a handyman until he becomes a little too handy with his wife.