10 Film Noir for Beginners


So what is film noir?

A French term literally translating to “black film,” historians will tell you film noir was an unofficial cycle of American films released in the 40s and 50s that usually centered around stories involving crime and anti-heroes. Industry professionals from the era will tell you they were just cheap B-movies: low-budget studio pictures meant to run at the bottom of a double feature. Stylists will tell you that it was an era of unparalleled aesthetic beauty among the classic Hollywood studio system, a time of dazzling chiaroscuro cinematography, trench coat-wearing leading men, shimmering dress-wearing leading women. But what is the truth of film noir? It can best be summarized as America’s long nervous breakdown. Frayed and neurotic from the strain of World War Two and the looming specter of Communism abroad, film noir saw America second-guessing its own cherished Dream, finding nothing but nihilism and existential extinction in the process. To know film noir is to know post-war America. Here are the ten films IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER OF THEIR FIRST RELEASE  that serve as the best entry points into one of the most storied and celebrated of movie genres.

10. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Dir. Boris Ingster

Stylistically, noir took most of its cues from German Expressionism—an artistic movement born of Germany’s own post-war neuroses following World War One. Rejecting realism in favor of bold objectivism, Expressionism reveled in super-stylized sets full of jagged, asymmetrical corners, high-contrast shadows (in some cases shadows were literally painted onto the sets), and dehumanizing environments. Stranger on the Third Floor, a 64-minute potboiler by RKO Radio Pictures, best demonstrates the direct link between noir and Expressionism, particularly during a surreal nightmare sequence where the protagonist dreams of being accused, tried, convicted, and executed for a crime he didn’t commit. The plot itself sees the first tentative steps towards disillusionment concerning American institutions like the Justice Department—the lead character is a reporter who serves as a key witness in a murder trial which sees a possibly innocent man sentenced to the electric chair. When he later discovers evidence that the real culprit may have killed again, the police arrest him. Some other proto-noir historians like to trot out include Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937). But while both regard white-picket fence Americana with sneering cynicism, neither had the stylistic panache that made Stranger on the Third Floor so extraordinary and atypical for its time.


9. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Dir. John Huston

Widely considered to be the first proper noir, The Maltese Falcon stands as the apotheosis of the genre. Nearly everything that became synonymous with noir—high-contrast cinematography, a private detective protagonist, a deadly femme fatale, a labyrinthine plot—can be found here. And at the center of it all is Humphrey Bogart as “private dick” Sam Spade. With this performance he defined an archetype: the hard-boiled, world-weary detective who despite it all has maintained his sense of right and wrong in a universe gone mad. Though Bogart would go on to star in a number of other classic film noir including his turn as another hard-boiled detective, the infamous Philip Marlowe, in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), The Maltese Falcon was his most influential film in the genre. Replete with a perfect cast full of essential character actors like Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook Jr., few films from its era are as compulsively watchable and as deliriously entertaining. The Maltese Falcon was also a rarity among the noir genre for being one of the only ones to be nominated for any major Academy Awards, receiving nods for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Greenstreet.


8. Double Indemnity (1944)

Dir. Billy Wilder

Few femme fatales came as alluring, dangerous, and downright vicious as Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of a wealthy businessman who convinces an insurance salesman named Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) to help her murder her husband in Double Indemnity. Beside her, almost every other femme fatale in noir seems an imitation. Though frequently overshadowed by post-war ennui and moral ambiguity, the raging battle between the sexes remained an essential part of the genre. The cookie-cutter romantic melodramas so prevalent in Hollywood would receive a new makeover in noir: instead of being an end, romance became a means for power plays and sexual dominance. Consider how Wilder, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay, re-contextualized Neff’s character from his original appearance in James M. Cain’s novel of the same name. In the novel, Neff uses Phyllis as a tool in his sociopathic game to pull a fast one on the insurance company he works for. There’s sexual attraction, but the love quickly curdles into hate. But in the film, Phyllis has Neff wrapped around her pinky finger from the very beginning. In some ways, noir allowed an outlet for female characters usually unheard of in Hollywood filmmaking. Femme Fatales were boldly sexual, powerful, and spat in the face of patriarchal structures. Perhaps that’s why Hollywood always demanded their ultimate destruction.


7. Detour (1945)

Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer

At best, Detour should have been unmemorable. At worst, it should have been unwatchable. Shot in six days on a budget of $100,000—which when adjusted for inflation comes to around $1.3 million—Detour was such a barebones production that they had to rely on fog-filled stages to stand in for city streets and flipping the negatives for hitchhiking scenes that they couldn’t reshoot. And yet, somehow, it ended up being one of the defining examples of noir. The film is one of the greatest accidental masterpieces in film history, a veritable text-book for wannabe filmmakers for how to stretch budgets and cut corners. It also doubles as one of the most nihilistic films to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system. Following a jazz musician hitch-hiking from New York to Hollywood and a vicious femme fatale he meets on the side of the road, the two protagonists get drawn into an accidental death which might get them arrested for murder…at least if they can’t figure out a way to con the dead man’s father first. Ironically, the Hollywood Production Code which specified that criminals must be punished for their crimes resulted in the film having one of the most startlingly down-beat endings imaginable. Who said good things never came out of censorship?

6. The Naked City (1948)

Dir. Jules Dassin

An important transformation occurred in the noir genre in the years following World War Two. Whereas originally noir were made primarily on sound stages and studio sets, producers began to transition towards location shooting. Not only that, noir started to move out of city locations in favor of the suburbs; small(er) town America became the new crucible of post-war anxieties. Though many of the best on-location noir were set in suburbia—Act of Violence (1948) and The Phenix City Story (1955) are both required viewing for genre aficionados—it’s ironic that perhaps the very best one embraced the urban milieu: Jules Dassin’s The Naked City. A meat-and-potatoes police procedural concerning the murder of an ex-model, the film is made essential thanks to William H. Daniels’ documentary-style cinematography that transforms New York City into a living, breathing character. Unlike some other noir from the era that interspersed the occasional on-location shot or scene as window dressing (looking at you, Kiss of Death [1947]), The Naked City could not exist without its setting. The climactic chase scene on the Williamsburg Bridge alone raised the film to near Olympian heights. Apparently the Library of Congress agreed—in 2007 the film was added to the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

5. The Third Man (1949)

Dir. Carol Reed

Though noir is considered an American phenomenon, some of the greatest examples of the genre were not made in the States. Several of the very best were made abroad in Europe, specifically in Great Britain and France. Some of them were made by American filmmakers who had been exiled, in particular Jules Dassin who, after being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, made the superlative Night and the City (1950) and Rififi (1955) in Britain and France respectively. But the best non-American noir was a British film made with British money by a British director: Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Set in Allied-occupied Vienna, the film sees a visiting American writer stumble into a murder mystery that leads into a sinister criminal conspiracy. The film boasts three of the best soundtracks, performances, and cinematography not just in British moviemaking but in world cinema: Anton Karas’ ironic, detached zither score; Orson Welles’ iconic, chilling turn as black marketer Harry Lime—a shot of him starring out of a partly lit alleyway has been rightfully immortalized as a key image in the Western cinematic canon; and Robert Krasker’s disturbing, monolithic photography transforming the city of Vienna into a necropolis as distorted and warped as anything from German Expressionism. The Third Man was a perfect confluence of talent and timing, creating one of the supreme masterpieces of British cinema.

4. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Dir. John Huston

Bertrand Tavernier once recounted how Jean-Pierre Melville, director of neo-noir classics Le Doulos (1963) and Le Samouraï (1967), once forced his entire crew to watch John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle in penance after sitting through Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). Though we can now laugh at this story—after all, Johnny Guitar is a classic in its own right—it underscores the importance of The Asphalt Jungle within the discourse of noir filmmaking. The film is one of, if not the, best heist films ever made. Following a group of rag-tag criminals orchestrating a doomed jewelry heist, it set the template for generations of caper films from The Killing (1956) to The Italian Job (1969) to Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Here we see many of the genre’s archetypes officially codified: a team of professionals, each member specializing in a specific skill like safe-cracking or getaway driving; an extended heist sequence where the plan finally comes together; and crucially, a nihilistic ending where a) the criminals are all captured or killed, and/or b) the loot gets lost. Just like in other noir films, the protagonists are doomed from the start. But that doesn’t stop them from trying.

3. Niagara (1953)

Dir. Henry Hathaway

Believe it or not, though black-and-white cinematography is synonymous with noir, there were a number of them that were shot in color. And not just regular color, either: we’re talking overbearing, glaring, three-strip Technicolor. The best of these is probably Henry Hathaway’s Niagara. Shot on location at Niagara Falls, the film sees a not-so-newly-wedded couple on a late honeymoon who become embroiled in their next-door-neighbor’s murder plot. Playing against type as a sultry femme fatale, Marilyn Monroe has never been more sinfully delicious as a voluptuous housewife who schemes to bump her man off. Even more so than any other noir, Niagara needs to be seen on a big screen. Only then can the true scope of Joseph MacDonald’s outdoor vistas and his claustrophobic interiors be appreciated. A bell-tower assassination filmed in a rigidly geometric bird’s-eye view ranks among the best scenes of director Henry Hathaway’s considerable career. But Niagara is more than just a visual experience: overflowing with sexuality, it’s one of the most uncomfortable examinations of domestic discomfort of its era. And I’m talking about the supposedly happily married couple, not Monroe. Note how unusually eager the husband is to speak for and over his wife; how eager he is to blow her off—on their honeymoon—and spend time fishing with a powerful businessman.

2. Pickup on South Street (1953)

Dir. Samuel Fuller

It would be a crime if we finished a list of noir without at least one entry from Samuel Fuller, the newspaper copyboy turned director who turned Hollywood on its head with a series of brutal, no-holds-barred genre flicks that still resonate with a raw kineticism and energy to this day. One of his nastiest noir exercises was Pickup on South Street, a film remarkable both for its punchy power and its political audacity. The “hero” is a pickpocket named Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) who accidentally snatches a microfilm containing top-secret government information from a Communist spy. But here’s the thing: even after discovering what he has, he’s not too keen to help the US government. When confronted with a federal agent who appeals to his patriotism, he sneers: “Are you waving the flag at me?” For a film made at the height of McCarthyism, this was one of the most audacious and shocking things imaginable. It was so heinous that it attracted the personal censure of none other than FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. But the film, much like Fuller himself, wasn’t particularly interested in black-and-white morality. He portrays a world of honor among thieves, corruption among officials, saints among informants, and heroes among the riff-raff.


1. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Dir. Robert Aldrich

Most critics and historians point towards Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) as the last official film noir—though a case could probably also be made for Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence (1961). Regardless, if you want to see the best send-off to the noir genre, look no further than Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, a film which ends figuratively and literally with an apocalyptic, world-ending bang. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), a Los Angeles private eye with a chip on his shoulder the size of a mountain, picks up a beautiful escaped mental patient one night while driving down a rural road. No sooner have they introduced themselves than they are abducted by violent thugs, throwing Hammer into a race to find one of the cinema’s greatest MacGuffins—a mysterious “great whatsit.” There are no happy endings here, just a barrage of torture, murder, traitors, and double-crosses. Hammer’s quest sees the culmination of nearly two decades of American war-time and post-war anxieties, paranoia, and nihilism. Faced with America’s loss in the Korean War and a new one brewing on the horizon with Vietnam, what other method of coping could a fatigued public expect but self-destruction? With one final bow, film noir solemnly complied.


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