Melodramas featuring hard-boiled detectives, dangerous dames, and pulpy mysteries with artistic roots captivated audiences from 1941 through 1959. It is that style of the filming of such contrasting elements that comprise the film noir. Numerous films from the classic film noir era influenced filmmaking for decades. As a result, we have prepared a list of the top film noir movies of all time, not only in terms of critical acclaim but also in terms of their influence on the genre and cinema that has since followed.
10. Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – A classic film noir movie
Kiss Me Deadly has long been touted as an example of when film noir “jumped the shark”. But it has since overcome its initial negative criticism to become one of the most beloved and influential examples of the film noir genre. In this sense, Kiss Me Deadly, directed by Robert Aldrich, wears its insanity like a badge of honor.
Ralph Meeker plays a hard-boiled private detective who becomes the witness to a young hitchhiker’s horrible torture and murder. He decides to investigate her case, which leads to the discovery of one of cinema’s greatest MacGuffins – a mystery piece of baggage that when opened releases strong heat and blinding light. All of this culminates in one of the strangest, most jaw-dropping closing sequences you’ll ever witness.
9. Laura (1944)
Perhaps falling in love with the dead is merely a side effect of working as an investigative detective in New York City. However, a shotgun blast to the face probably wouldn’t stop someone from having a crush on Gene Tierney, as the plot of Otto Preminger’s Laura goes.
The film follows NYPD investigator Mark McPherson’s developing obsession with the titular young girl as he pieces together the details of her life and death. He comes to moon over her while looking over her diaries and letters, and why not? She’s every bit as entertaining as Preminger’s film. Laura doesn’t waste time, piling contrivance on top of improbability. The power of Preminger’s skill and the performances of his actors, make the film’s convolutions irrelevant.
8. Sunset Boulevard (1950) – A film noir movie not regarded as one by many
Sunset Boulevard is one of director Billy Wilder’s best films, but it is not usually considered film noir by purists. This is a self-aware film that represents an early stage in the formation of the genre’s sensibility. This is evidenced by the fact that it isn’t based on any book or novel. All in all, it’s classic film noir, and one of the best noir movies of all time.
Wilder employs a variety of techniques, such as high contrast lighting and ominous interiors, to juxtapose the glitz and grit of Hollywood. Unlike “In a Lonely Place“, which depicts Los Angeles’ actual darkness, this film satirizes both the city and the genre, attaining the best of both worlds.
7. Out of the Past (1947)
“Perfect” is the only way to define Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past. This film is considered by many to be the pinnacle of noir, a long, wandering examination of betrayal and seduction punctuated with shrapnel-sharp dialogue. Out of the Past appears to be as depressing as it feels. It’s brutal and sexual, very unpleasant in its pessimism but not completely hopeless. The final shot provides a welcome break from Tourneur’s otherwise unflinching seriousness.
The cast of Out of the Past, a group of acting giants each at the top of their game, bears the brunt of the film’s gloom. Robert Mitchum rules the screen, whether he’s clashing with Kirk Douglas or flirting with Jane Greer. Together, they shine brightly. But no matter how brightly they shine, Out of the Past remains a masterwork cloaked in darkness from paper to screen.
6. The Third Man (1949) – Another classic film noir movie
At a pivotal moment in history, the end of World War II, film noir flooded theaters. The best film noir films tend to rely on this. But because The Third Man takes place in the United Kingdom rather than America, it provides a unique perspective on the period. This change in perspective is clearly visible in the film’s use of Dutch angles, to create a tense mood. It’s evocative of the era, which hovered between World War II and the Cold War.
With Robert Krasker’s expressive camerawork conveying the mood of the city, Vienna has rarely looked more vividly dramatic than it does here. The story revolves around Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotten, a Western writer who arrives in Vienna after hearing about a job opportunity from his friend Harry. When Holly learns that Harry was murdered in a vehicle accident, he is shocked. Skeptical of the shady details, he conducts an investigation into his friend’s death.
5. Touch of Evil (1958)
According to purists, true film noir ended in 1959, making Touch of Evil one of the genre’s final chapters. Is it really surprising that Orson Welles is also directing this noir? Throughout the era of the film noir phenomenon, he was a well-known figure. In addition to Welles, the film features Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
The film is set on the Mexican-American border and follows a narcotics officer who is investigating the case of a Mexican car bomb that was detonated on American land. Welles makes really good use of harsh lighting and the idea of the femme fatale, in addition to an incredible opening sequence. Touch of Evil is a must-see for anyone new to film noir movies.
4. In a Lonely Place (1951)
With so many noir film movies set in Los Angeles, there had to be one about Hollywood’s inner workings, right? In a Lonely Place, one of the greatest noirs and feel-bad films of all time is about the darkness that may befall creatives when they become desperate.
Nicholas Ray creates a hauntingly gloomy study of masculinity, set against the rising suspense of a murder mystery yarn, intertwined with an ill-fated relationship. Film lovers will appreciate the film’s honesty as well as the ability to travel back in time and observe how filmmakers in the 1950s perceived Hollywood.
3. The Big Sleep (1946) – One of the best film noir movies
The Big Sleep, the OG of all complex noirs, completely encompasses every single defining feature of Raymond Chandler’s writing: speech that burns itself into viewers’ heads, tough men, attractive femme Fatales, enough violence, a fair death count, and enough plot curveballs to make even the most competent noirs’ twist jealous.
Because of the sheer volume of twists and reveals, the film nearly begs to be watched twice. The sheer chemistry and magnetism of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, not to mention Howard Hawks’ direction, Sidney Hickox’s dread-inducing photography, and Chandler’s stinging dialogues, will make you want to watch it more than once.
2. Chinatown (1974)
All film genres experience booms and busts. As a result, it was only a matter of time until film noir made a return. Body Heat, Blood Simple, House of Games, The Last Seduction, and Memento are just a few of the excellent neo-noirs. But Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is the best of them all.
Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, is a hard-boiled private detective who falls down a rabbit hole of corruption, murder, and incest thanks to a gorgeous client (Faye Dunaway). This is an epic film with the scope of a Greek tragedy, and Nicholson gives a Bogart impersonation that is almost as brilliant as the original. Regardless of when it was made, it is a masterpiece.
1. Double Indemnity (1944) – The best film noir movie of all time
Almost unavoidably, Double Indemnity is the poster child of film noir. Directed by Billy Wilder and co-written by Raymond Chandler, it epitomizes the genre from the ground up. Despite the fact that it occurred a few years later in the timeline, it set the tone for its successors. The somber visual aspects of German Expressionism were brought to life by cinematographer John F. Seitz.
The narrative, in which Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, and Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck, conspire to assassinate her husband in order to collect a payout, pushed the boundaries of a Hollywood narrative. Such explorations into criminal immorality were unprecedented, and the Hays Code imposed numerous prohibitions. The backlash forced the project to take a detour to completion, but the end outcome was a game changer for Hollywood. From the inside out, Double Indemnity is the epitome of film noir movies.