13 Film Noir Movies You Need to SeeApril 3, 2021
If you’re just getting into film noir and you want to see some of the best films in the movement, this list will attempt to provide several excellent examples that film buffs should consider watching. As with anything artistic, what I consider the best may obviously differ from your own opinion, but I will include a few details about each film to explain why they are included.
Before we go any further, it will be important to understand what a film noir is and how it is defined for the purposes of this article. If you feel like you’ve already got a good grasp on what to expect from this type of movie, feel free to skip ahead to the top film noir list.
What is a Film Noir?
One of the most important things to understand about film noir is that it isn’t really a genre, it’s actually known as a “film movement.” This is a somewhat stuffy term used in film school, but it can be a somewhat important distinction to make. The basic idea is that a film movement represents a series of movies produced within a specific time period which all include very similar tropes and trends.
Yes, I know that sounds almost exactly like a genre, but there are a few key differences to note:
1. When was it made?
Many noir fans actually suggest that the cut off for the movement was the year 1950, and anything made after the 40’s was not really a film noir. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is true that many noir titles which came out of the 1950’s were far different from the films that clearly inspired them. I think the true cut-off for the movement is probably about 1956 or so, and that is largely because the movies fell out of favor and studios began to focus more on genres such as science fiction and musicals.
That said, there have been movies inspired by the film noir movement which were released outside of this era, with notable examples such as Chinatown and Brick standing out from the rest. These are neo noir films, as they were not a part of the original movement, and were in fact only inspired by film noir.
2. What’s the difference between a genre and a movement?
What are some of the first names that come to mind when you think of genres? If you think of horror films, you’re probably imagining a scary movie of some sort. If you think of a western, images of cowboys and the wild west will pop into your head. Science fiction? Aliens, outer space, UFOs and more. A genre doesn’t just follow a certain type of character, it tells a specific type of story in a specific setting with a specific and clear goal that viewers typically know about before even going to see the movie.
As a movement, film noir is not as easy to pin down, and it doesn’t have to tell any specific type of story. While you might expect to see certain types of characters and settings, there are film noirs which technically fit into the science fiction genre, and even one on this list which focuses on a specific sport. In other words, you can have a film noir that checks off all the boxes for the movement without specific settings or stories.
3. So what makes Film Noir what it is?
The details which make a film noir what it is have more to do with aesthetics. Here are a few key examples:
- A visual style inspired by the previous movement of German Expressionism.
- Stories inspired by the hard-boiled detective novel/pulp novels.
- A story told from the point of view of a main character who has already died.
- The inclusion of a character known as the femme fatale/woman in red.
There are many more factors which could make a movie part of the film noir movement, but the important takeaway here is that there’s nothing tied down which definitively makes something part of the movement. A film noir title could feature all of these details or just one of them. Genres are much easier to define by their focus, and they often use many different visual styles and tell many different tales which follow a basic outline; as a movement, film noir uses a specific visual style and uses specific types of characters to tell a variety of stories that are not limited to a specific outline.
This is just how I define the movement, but I figured it would be important to offer that definition if only to avoid any questions about my picks for the best film noir movies of them all. I’m sure some will still question this definition, but at least you know where I’m coming from now, right?
1. In a Lonely Place
This is probably my favorite movie in the movement, and I can’t deny that it’s mostly because the main character is a writer. I tend to enjoy movies about writers, because I usually relate to them quite a bit. The movie was directed by Nicholas Ray, who would go on to direct important films such as Rebel Without a Cause and inspire filmmakers like Terrence Malick, Robert Altman, Dennis Hopper, and Jim Jarmusch.
The best part about In a Lonely Place is its biting and harsh criticism of the Hollywood system, cleverly disguised at times as praise. Film lovers will appreciate the honesty of this movie, and the opportunity to take a trip back in time and see the perspective of filmmakers in the 1950’s and how they saw Hollywood at the time.
2. Double Indemnity
Widely considered to be one of the first film noir movies, and certainly one of the most influential in the movement, Double Indemnity is an absolute must watch. This movie pretty much has it all; the harsh lighting and angles, the shadows and fog, the femme fatale, the main character explaining how he died — it’s all there. Double Indemnity was written by Raymond Chandler, a former pulp novelist. Who better to tell a classic film noir story?
It was also directed by Billy Wilder, who was one of the finest filmmakers of his time. Wilder also directed yet another well-known and beloved film noir which we’ll discuss later on this list. If you want to get a good feel for what to expect from the film noir movement, this is a great place to start.
3. Sunset Boulevard
I’ve actually seen some people state unequivocally that this is not a film noir, but we call these people “mentally deranged.” Only a joke, but it is a strange conclusion to come to when this movie has many of the tropes you would expect from the movement. There is a femme fatale, a dead man tells us how he met his fate, there are sharp angles and harshly lit scenes throughout the film, what more could you ask for?
Sunset Boulevard was also directed by Billy Wilder, and it might actually be one of his most popular and famous movies. The ending is one of the most famous in all of film history, and you’ll probably be immediately familiar with it when you get to that point in the movie.
4. The Lady From Shanghai
This is one that actually shocked me, because it isn’t really talked about as much as others in the movement. Considering the movie was directed by none other than Orson Welles, it’s surprising that the film hasn’t really gotten much of a royal treatment. There’s a mystery involved, an investigation, a femme fatale, and other aesthetics which are common to film noir.
While it’s not as well known as Gloria Swanson’s performance in Sunset Boulevard, the ending of The Lady From Shanghai is quite memorable. The final players make their way into a hall of mirrors for a shootout, resulting in one of the most interesting pieces of cinematography in any movie of the film noir movement.
5. While The City Sleeps
This movie was directed by Fritz Lang, one of the original masters of German Expressionism during the silent era. By this point in time, it was clear that his view of the world and the people in it was much less positive. Although it’s not a traditional film noir, it does feature the harsh angles, an investigation, and a femme fatale of sorts. While The City Sleeps also features pulpy writing which feels like it came right out of a hard-boiled detective novel.
Starring Vincent Price and Ida Lupino, the movie follows the crimes of a serial killer and depicts the criminal more accurately than most of its era, which is especially impressive given that the term “serial killer” wasn’t even coined for another 15-20 years. Some scenes verge on depicting elements that would later be used in the proto-slasher genre.
6. The Big Heat
Yet another fantastic film noir from Fritz Lang. The film begins with a man dying, and although he does not tell us his story through voice overs, his actions do incite an investigation from a very pulpy detective. What’s more, Lang’s vision in this film may even be darker than in any of his previous works, with truly evil characters who commit terrible and legitimately shocking acts.
The way these acts of violence are depicted is by drawing the audience into a false sense of security only to pull the rug out from under them in the most brutal way possible. The writing is crisp and full of pulp, making the film even more enjoyable to watch. Do yourself a favor and check out The Big Heat.
7. Out Of The Past
Robert Mitchum was made for this type of movie, but he actually isn’t one of the biggest names in film noir. That said, this is probably one of his most significant contributions to the noir. Out of the Past is filled with many of the tropes you would expect such as dark cinematography with harsh lighting/angles, a femme fatale, an investigation into a crime and more.
Daniel Mainwaring was the screenwriter, and he had previously been known for a series of hard-boiled detective novels. He would later write the screenplay for the horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
8. The Set-Up
How could a movie about boxing possibly fit into the film noir movement? Well, being directed by the great Robert Wise doesn’t hurt. In this case, we follow the ghost of a boxer’s career as we discover how it was put to an end by a gangster who put the fix on his match. The dark, shadowy, and foggy city is on full display in this movie, as is the clear belief that humanity can be cruel — at times both redeemable and irredeemable.
Some will say it lacks enough of the feeling of a noir to be considered part of the group, but I think it shows just how versatile the film noir was and highlights the differences between a film movement and a genre. A boxing movie could be considered part of the sports genre, but it’s the setting, mood, and essence of the story which ensure that The Set-Up belongs on this list.
Released during the same year as Double Indemnity, this film also went on to influence many movies in the film noir movement. The story follows a detective investigating the murder of a woman named Laura, so you’ve got the trope of the hard-boiled detective and an important character whose story is told from beyond the grave. Directed by Otto Preminger and starring Vincent Price, this is definitely a must watch film noir.
One of the important contributions this movie makes to the film noir is the importance of a specific piece of evidence which the audience has seen. We don’t know the item is significant until later in the film, and that makes the audience feel like part of the investigation. Some would call it a macguffin, but the idea behind that type of plot device is that it only serves to move the plot forward and is otherwise unimportant. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s more to this plot device than meets the eye!
10. The Killers
Directed by German filmmaker Robert Siodmak, it’s pretty clear that he was at least inspired quite a lot by German Expressionism, and this inspiration shines through in other films he worked on such as The Spiral Staircase, and Criss Cross. As with many German filmmakers who worked in Hollywood at the time, Siodmak fled Germany amidst the rise of Nazism and went on to make a lot of films with a fairly dark view of humanity, and The Killers is an excellent example of that.
In addition to featuring some of the most disturbing lighting in the film noir movement, this movie is well known for an opening sequence which sets the tone for a dark and twisted story. With stars Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in the lead, both the cinematography and the acting is pure eye candy.
11. The Third Man
Although there are many aspects of this movie that do not feel like a film noir, the way it plays with light and shadows is absolutely inspired by the genre. The film was directed by Carol Reed and stars both Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, each of whom had previous experience with noir movies.
The story follows an author who travels to Vienna after WW2 to meet a friend, only to find they have been killed. He spends the rest of the film playing the role of a detective and trying to solve the crime. Twists, turns, and Dutch angles ensue. The Third Man is yet another film noir that breaks the mold, turning an author into a detective and changing the location from a nameless metropolitan city in the United States to the historic city of Vienna. This is widely regarded as one of the best films of all time — and that’s not just my opinion, it’s the official position of the British Film Institute!
12. Touch of Evil
Does it really surprise anyone that Orson Welles found himself directing this film noir as well? He was an oft familiar face throughout the era of the film noir movement. Welles also stars in the film alongside notable actors Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
This is another movie very well known for its opening sequence. In this case, the audience is following an item which they know to be important, but everyone coming into contact with that item is unaware of its significance. In addition to this incredible introduction to the film, Welles also makes excellent use of harsh lighting and the idea of the femme fatale. Touch of Evil is an absolute must watch for anyone introducing themselves to film noir.
13. The Maltese Falcon
This is another one of those movies that contributed a lot to the film noir, and it touches on almost every trope in the movement. The story follows a detective investigating a crime, and it includes one of the greatest femme fatales of them all played by Mary Astor. The Maltese Falcon was directed by filmmaking legend John Huston, and it features an all-star cast including Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre.
Released in 1941, this is widely regarded as one of the earliest examples of film noir. While Double Indemnity is often considered one of the most important early films in the movement, The Maltese Falcon predates it by 3 years and sets many of the tropes in place. The story was actually based on a hard-boiled detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, one of the best pulp authors of them all.
If there are any movies you would like to see added to this list, feel free to recommend them in the comments below.