When someone asks you what your favorite genre of movies is, it’s always a difficult question to answer, because on any given day you could be in the mood for something different, and there is so much inter genre blending. But if you held a gun to my head and made me answer truthfully, the genre that would stand tall as my favorite is certainly: Film Noir.
The term ‘Film Noir’ was created around the 1940’s and describes a specific style of crime drama film that became popular around that period and remained so all the way through the 1940’s and 1950’s. A Film Noir movie is highly stylistic, and covers themes of crime filled with cynical anti-heroes, twisting plots, moral ambiguity and sexual tensions. Visually they were generally black and white and full of dark shadows and foggy surroundings.
The characters that inhabited these noir worlds consisted of Private Eyes, mysterious seductive women, hard nosed criminals, hustlers and down on their luck losers. The private eye, in particular, was a common theme in Noir films, and attracted some of the era’s finest actors such as Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum to fill the roles. The complex plots came largely from some of the source material, including classic hard-boiled detective novels from writers like Billy Wilder and my personal favorite Raymond Chandler, who wrote the Philip Marlowe series, which led to a number of films, most notably ‘The Big Sleep’ with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the leads.
But after a hiatus in the 1960’s the Film Noir movie style began to regain some steam, with some modern takes on the genre, that became known as ‘Neo-Noir’ and still are now. Films like ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Blade Runner’ were Film Noir in style but with modern themes and updated visual styles, bringing fresh flavor to to the genre. So with that being said, let’s take a trip through my favorite Film Noir movies over the years, starting with…
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
One of my all time favorites and arguably the first big name Film Noir movie, The Maltese Falcon stars Humphrey Bogart as a private eye called Sam Spade, who gets himself tangled up in a web of deceit when a woman comes to him for help, and his partner is killed. The plot continues to twist and turn from here as characters come in and out, and change allegiance, leaving Spade in the center of it all. Featuring a wonderful plot and one of my favorite long speeches by Bogart ever, this is a must see.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Some people argue that this film is actually the ultimate noir, and it’s hard to argue with a classic plot involving an insurance agent who is coaxed into murdering to collect big bucks by a hot femme fatale. A classic dark noir tale that is filled with amazing one liners and seedy plot points, this is another key film in the early noir movement.
The Big Sleep (1946)
The film that introduced me to Raymond Chandler’s famous Private Detective Phillip Marlowe, ‘The Big Sleep’ brought together classic Hollywood couple Bogart and Bacall for a film with an incredibly complex plot that twists and turns so much that it’s basically blink and you miss it. But despite this, it is one of the most satisfying films on this list and one of my favorite Film Noir movies of all time.
Out of the Past (1947)
Robert Mitchum was always going to fit the genre perfectly, with his dark and creepy style, and he doesn’t disappoint here in this film about a gas station owner (Mitchum) with a past that he would like to forget. As a former private eye, through classic noir style voice overs and flashbacks we learn the story of his search for yet another femme fatale and the films dreary mood makes us sure that things aren’t going to end well.
The Third Man (1949)
Starring Orson Welles, this Film Noir classic is actually a spy movie set during the cold war, where a writer heads to Vienna to find an old friend. However, it turns out the man (Welles) has died and his funeral will be coming up soon. However, our hero begins to learn that he didn’t know his friend as well as he thought, and more importantly, that he might not be dead after all. With some of the most iconic noir camera shots you’ll see, this is a must see technical and storytelling masterpiece.
White Heat (1949)
James Cagney is known for his gangster movies, and with this one he delved into the world of Noir as a psychotic criminal who has managed to evade the law despite his constant criminal activities. Throughout the film he continues to portray his insanity incredibly, and evade the feds in order to pull off his ultimate crime. This film has some incredibly inventive scenes and some truly bad characters, and is a bit different to many other Noir movies, making it a must see.
In A Lonely Place (1950)
Bogie took on a slightly more sinister little role in this Noir classic, one of many great films in the year of 1950. Here he stars as a man with an alcohol problem who is accused of murder. However, his beautiful neighbor gives him an alibi, helping him beat the charge, and they two eventually begin to fall in love. However, as they begin to learn more about each other, it becomes unclear whether she may have saved a guilty man, and whether she herself might be in danger. Chilling stuff!
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
This all time classic is a little different to most Noir films in terms of it’s plot, but is certainly no less incredible. The film starts with classic noir narration as a man lays dead in a swimming pool. We then see a story unfold involving a writer who is hired by an aging former Hollywood star who is mentally unstable. As the film goes on her state gets worse, and after a series of disturbing and strange encounters, as well as some incredible iconic scenes and quotes, we reach the end, which may or may not surprise you but will certainly leave it’s mark.
Touch of Evil (1958)
With an incredible cast, including Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and writer/director and star Orson Welles, this is one of my favorite Noir plots. A cop (Heston) on his honeymoon makes the dreadful mistake of helping on an investigation of a bad explosion, and in doing so encounters the wrath of the corrupt police Captain Quinlan (Welles). What follows is a great plot full of deep characters with their own motives and influences. One of Orson Welles’ best works and in my opinion, the last of the great ‘Classic American Noir’ movies.
Probably the first of the great modern Neo Noir films, is Roman Polanski’s classic Private Detective story, Chinatown, which stars Jack Nicholson as a seedy detective who thinks he’s investigating adultery, but in the end gets caught up in a Political scheme involving the city’s water supply. What comes after this I will leave to the viewer to enjoy, but it involves all the classics from seductive women, crooked cops and one of the darkest and most influential endings ever filmed. An all time classic if you ask me.
Blade Runner (1982)
The first of a group of great Sci-Fi noir movies, which combined two genres that were actually, and perhaps surprisingly perfect for one another. This particular film stars Harrison Ford as a ‘Blade Runner’ who hunts and kills ‘Replicas’ which are basically human clones, that have been exiled to a different planet. His attempts to track down a particularly murderous group lead him into a web of moral questions and mystery, that was so complex it led to director Ridley Scott making more than 3 versions of the film.
Blood Simple (1984)
This was the film that brought the incredible Coen Brothers into light as a pair of film makers to watch, and it was something to behold. The plot again involves a private eye, one of questionable morals, but here the stakes are a little higher as he is hired not to solve a crime, but to commit one: Murder. However, each member of the plot has their own agenda and things don’t go quite as planned. The Coen’s first film is a masterpiece.
LA Confidential (1997)
This is basically the Neo Noir film that made me begin to gain interest in the genre in the first place, and it was an incredible ode to it, as well as a remarkable movie in it’s own right. With an absolutely remarkable cast, this story of corrupt cops, infidelity, betrayal and justice is a masterclass of storytelling, and full of some absolutely incredible plot twists. You really never feel like you know what is going to happen in this one until the very end.
Dark City (1998)
Another classic but often unknown little Sci-Fi Noir film, this one is perhaps the one that is genuinely creepy and the type to leave you with a nightmare or too. A man wakes up with amnesia, and a missing wife and wanted for murder and begins to encounter the iconic and incredibly creepy looking ‘Strangers’ who pursue him relentlessly. As he searches for answers he unfolds a plot that is complex, confusing but memorable in every way.
Another favorite of mine, this one directed by Christopher Nolan stars Guy Pierce as a man with absolutely no short term memory, who must use a variety of inventive techniques to discover the truth behind the murder of his wife. With a plot that is told in perhaps the most unique way ever filmed, a timeline that travels backwards and overlaps scenes on top of each other, this one is modern noir at it’s finest.
One of the least known great films of the new millennium is this gem starring Joseph Gordon Levitt as a cynical and smart mouthed teen who is determined to figure out the truth behind his ex-girlfriend’s murder. Basically a classic Film Noir movie set against the backdrop of a modern high school, this was a genus little take on the genre, and is a joy to watch, especially for young filmmakers.
Perhaps not pure Noir, this little gem certainly ticks a lot of the boxes, with a quiet, mysterious anti-hero caught up in a doomed plot with a taken woman. Gosling is brilliant as the quiet ‘Driver’ and the film has some great Noir type twists and turns, but adds some incredibly gratuitous violence to the mix to modernize the proceedings. The music, plot and incredible camera work made this Neo Noir one of the best films of 2011.
Well folks, that’s my trip down memory lane through a genre that I adore. Let me know which one’s you think I’ve missed, or which are your favorite Film Noir movies of all time?