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The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time

Then and now, the best examples of this genre continue to evoke humanity’s eternal fear of social disruption.

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100 Best Film Noirs of All Time
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Purists will argue that film noir was born in 1941 with the release of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and died in 1958 with Marlene Dietrich traipsing down a long, dark, lonely road at the end of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. And while this period contains the quintessence of what Italian-born French film critic Nino Frank originally characterized as film noir, the genre has always been in a constant state of flux, adapting to the different times and cultures out of which these films emerged.

Noir came into its own alongside the ravages of World War II, with the gangster and detective films of the era drastically transforming into something altogether new as the aesthetics of German Expressionism took hold in America, and in large part due to the influx of German expatriates like Fritz Lang. These already dark, hardboiled films suddenly gained a newfound viciousness and sense of ambiguity, their dangers and existential inquiries directed at audiences through canted camera angles and a shroud of smoke and shadows.

As the war reached its end stage, soldiers came home to find a once-unquestioned era of male authority put in the crosshairs of changing cultural norms. And in lockstep, the protagonists of many a noir began to feel as if they were living in a newly vulnerable world, taking cover beneath trench coats and fedoras, adopting cynical, wise-cracking personae, and packing heat at all times while remaining hyper-aware of the feminine dangers that surrounded them. Jean-Luc Godard once said that “all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” and in noir, the latter was often the most dangerous. Indeed, Barbara Stanwyck’s anklet in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Ann Savage’s icy stare in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour are as deadly as any bullet.

Our list acknowledges the classics of the genre, the big-budget studio noirs and the cheapest of B noirs made on the fringes of the Hollywood studio system. But we’ve also taken a more expansive view of noir, allowing room for supreme examples of the proto-noirs that anticipated the genre and the neo-noirs that resulted from the genre being rebooted in the midst of the Cold War, seemingly absorbing the world’s darkest and deepest fears. Then and now, the best examples of this genre continue to evoke—shrewdly and with the irrepressible passion of the dispossessed—humanity’s eternal fear of social disruption. Derek Smith


House of Bamboo

100. House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller, 1955)

House of Bamboo wants to be a lush, romantic CinemaScope thriller and a Samuel Fuller movie at once. The director’s admirers will recognize those aims as almost genetically contradictory, as Fuller thrives on bold, often vitally threadbare aesthetics that suggest the visual embodiment of a tabloid headline. Indeed, Fuller’s best films don’t have much use for studio polish, instead courting the pathos of the immediate and the guttural, though the cross-pollination between the various forms and sensibilities at play in House of Bamboo is fascinating and often intensely beautiful. Fuller could play the studio’s game when he wanted to: The Scope compositions he devised with cinematographer Joseph Macdonald are some of the liveliest and most resonant of any in Hollywood history, subtly wedding Japanese theater and film tradition with American pulp, quietly refuting the notion that an epically sized screen must be statically embalmed in awards-courting “importance.” It suggests a for-hire film that’s been polished with flourishes so great they cumulatively transcend their potentialities as formal window dressing: They’re the film’s pulse, the work of a masterfully intuitive director whose artistic sensibility appears to be governed by an unusually large portion of id. Chuck Bowen


Stolen Death

99. Stolen Death (Nyrki Tapiovaara, 1938)

Echoes of German Expressionism abound in Nyrki Tapiovaara’s tough-minded, class-conscious Stolen Death, an early Nordic noir about gun-smuggling Finnish revolutionaries opposing the Russians occupying their country in the early 20th century. Tapiovaara’s unique blend of off-kilter compositions, unconventional camera angles, foreboding high-contrast lighting, and sparse yet creative sound design transforms the tumultuous journey of the resistance fighters into a nightmarish battle against both the Russian Tzar and the bourgeois Finns unwilling to risk their comfortable position in society. Despite the untraditional subject matter for noir, Stolen Death is steeped in the genre’s overwhelming sense of fatalism, its anxieties over a disrupted status quo, and, in the case of the jilted lover who refuses to let his ex-flame go free and fight for her cause, its doomed romanticism and fear of female empowerment. As the film builds to its tense, tragic, and darkly comical finale, Tapiovaara—who, in a cruel twist of fate, was killed while fighting the Russians only two years after this film was released—stresses both the futility and necessity of confronting oppression against all odds. Derek Smith


Brighton Rock

98. Brighton Rock (John Boulting, 1948)

One of the more terrifyingly amoral, sociopathic villains in all of noir, Richard Attenborough’s Pinky is at 17 already a slave to his nihilism. Consumed by a seemingly bottomless abyss of anger, paranoia, and, in typical Graham Greene fashion, Catholic guilt, Pinky hides behind a mostly stoic visage, teasing out a smile only when he’s trying to win over young Rose (Carol Marsh), whom he needs to keep mum about evidence she has that could get him convicted of murder. While he sees himself as a criminal mastermind, Pinky can’t quite shake the frumpy music hall singer who’s determined to give the hood his much-deserved comeuppance. But it’s Pinky’s implacable ruthlessness rather than his smarts that make him so palpably threatening, willing as he is to snuff out strangers and friends alike without a second thought. Playing out in the “dark alleyways and festering slums” of pre-war Brighton, John Boulting’s Brighton Rock peels back the idyllic façade of a touristy beach town to reveal the ugliness that can lurk beneath even the most gorgeous of locales. Smith


One False Move

97. One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992)

Released days after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, One False Move offers a particularly prescient reflection of regional division and segregation still powerfully evident in Donald Trump’s America. It sees violence as the common denominator between blue and red states, a casual fact of life that cannot be stopped no matter your ethnicity or background. In the film’s opening act, mixed-race outlaw Lila Walker’s (Cynda Williams) southern-fried psycho of a boyfriend, Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), and his sadistic spectacled accomplice, Pluto (Michael Beach), murder six Angelinos to get their hands on a large stash of cocaine. Franklin’s smooth camera movements build unwavering suspense, illuminating the brutal seamlessness of these characters’ actions. For one of these perps, suffocating a woman with a plastic bag yields a fleeting pleasure. Another stabs his victims repeatedly while happy home videos, recorded minutes earlier, play in the background. The film is more noir than western, cynical of our ability to process trauma and resolved to the cold hard truth that good people are often punished for no discernable reason. It seems to comprehend that trusting someone is the fastest way to the grave, and that denial is something almost hereditary. Glenn Heath Jr.


Caught

96. Caught (Max Ophüls, 1949)

Max Ophüls’s Caught offers an intense corrective to the clichés of the American noir, particularly the perception of a woman as a predatory other who pulls all the strings, leading men downward toward a doom for which they often bear implicatively little personal responsibility. Right out of the gate, Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) is understood to be trapped, even before she catches the eye of Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), a psychotic thug who’s also a brilliant businessman as well as a filthy-rich parody of Howard Hughes. A model trading in illusions of heightened female subservience that remain essentially taken for granted to this day, Leonora is essentially stuck between two modes of prostitution: literally posing at the department store that pays her practically nothing, or figuratively posing at Smith’s mansion for luxury beyond her imagination. The premise indulges a blunt reduction of sexual politics, in the tradition of most memorable noirs, and the extent of the film’s impact resides in Ophüls’s refusal to shy away from concentrated, pointedly symbolic outrage. In one of the boldest and riskiest touches, Ophüls elides Leonora and Smith’s courtship entirely, understanding that it’s meaningless—a series of prescribed rituals designed to superficially ease the placing of all the participants into socially preordained positions. Bowen


While the City Sleeps

95. While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956)

From his Weimar films all the way through his Hollywood productions, Fritz Lang evinced a deep suspicion of any and all institutions of authority. Alongside Ace in the Hole and Sweet Smell of Success, While the City Sleeps is the most cynical and piercing of noirs to place journalism in its crosshairs. The film’s killer is a by-the-numbers figure whose sexual repression feeds his murderous rage, but the true focus here is on a media empire divided by a mogul among three subordinates who war with each other for a top position at the paper. As each journo tries to find the killer, the company loses sight of its civic responsibility and embraces seedy sensationalism, stoking rumor and paranoia in order to sell papers. Executives are even willing to dangle their own employees as bait for the killer, and the film ratchets as much tension out of office politicking as the actual murders. One of Lang’s most stripped-down features, the film, which owes much to Shakespeare’s King Lear, nonetheless communicates a lot with its spartan views of the newsroom, a place of open-office planning that suggests a transparency that’s subsequently drowned out by the roar of printing presses and typewriters that symbolize the faceless, expansionist scale of large-scale media. Jake Cole


The American Friend

94. The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1977)

Loosely based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, The American Friend wears its love of the United States and its cinematic lineage on its sleeve. From its engagement with genre tropes (particularly noir), to its tangibly grimy urban backdrops, to its archetypal hero/villain dramatic dichotomy, there’s no mistaking the film’s American influence. Dennis Hopper stars as the novel’s namesake charlatan, though in a sage bit of imagination from the actor, not as Highsmith’s methodically devious characterization of Tom Ripley, but as an unhinged, impulsive personification of the character’s amorality run amok. Wenders stages the otherwise routine underworld dealings with an impressive stylistic and meta-cinematic gusto, coupling exaggerated fluorescent lighting schemes (courtesy of longtime cinematographer Robby Müller) with a gritty realism reminiscent of both concurrent American crime films and post-war noir. Which is to say nothing of Ripley’s signature cowboy hat—an unmistakable symbol of bygone Americana, as well as a call back to another beloved Hollywood genre—and the rollcall of then under-appreciated directors who fill out the supporting cast, most notably Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, but also Jean Eustache and Gérard Blain. Jordan Cronk


The Postman Always Rings Twice

93. The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a simple, deliciously depraved film. Based on the James M. Cain novel, the story concerns a feckless drifter (John Garfield) who at a roadside inn crosses paths with the owner’s beautiful and dissatisfied wife (Lana Turner), a woman his match in both sexual appetite and sociopathy. United in lust and a general disdain for everyone who’s not themselves, the two murder her husband (Cecil Kellaway) and manage to avoid legal punishment, only to be punished in a more cosmic sense. (“The postman always rings twice” is the film’s gritty, baroque metaphor for fatalistic moral reckoning.) Turner’s character, Cora, is a dark vision of the femme fatale, absolutely empty of any human qualities but raw sexuality, a lust for murder, and a veneer of exaggerated femininity. Her entry into the film is iconic: Garfield’s Frank is meant to be watching a hamburger on the griddle, but he’s distracted when a lipstick pen rolls across the floor to him. Following its path, the camera tracks up Turner’s legs, and then cuts to a wide shot: There’s Turner posing in the doorway wearing a shockingly white, vaguely marine, midriff-bearing get-up, and a strange, round, wrap-style hat. Distracted by this vision, Frank has let the hamburger patty burn, the film signifying with evident relish his overheated desire. The overt sexism of Turner’s introduction as tempting sexual object is offset somewhat today by the camp: This is a woman, a whole film, in drag. Pat Brown


The Asphalt Jungle

92. The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)

The Asphalt Jungle could be understood as a hardening of John Huston’s directorial vision, breaking away from Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and any greater conquest of cool for pathetic men whose minds have gone rotten from being left on the slab for too long. Dix (Sterling Hayden) is first seen woozily stumbling into a diner, which is apt given that his entire life rests upon the wobbly premise that he can go home again, back to the farm where his childhood colt might be resurrected, if only in his mind. He’s known around town as a “hooligan,” and is solicited for a jewel heist by Doc (Sam Jaffe), who’s fresh out of prison. Alonzo (Louis Calhern) backs their operation, though his finances turn out to be more than slightly dubious. Huston often frames these men in obtuse ways, from an unusually low angle or with their faces obscured in darkness for long periods of time, which makes The Asphalt Jungle, in terms of visual style, a somewhat conventional noir for its time period. Yet there’s nothing remotely commonplace about Huston’s handling of space between and within scenes, with objects consistently marking three or even four planes of action. Accordingly, the relative flatness of the characters is given counterpoint through their surroundings, which becomes the film’s actual line of inquiry, and renders the jewel heist more of a structuring plot than an end in itself. Clayton Dillard


The Killers

91. The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers” is a marvel of implication and showing rather than telling. Robert Siodmak’s adaptation opens with a beat-for-beat adaptation of the story that neatly functions as a self-contained short, elegantly alluding to the oppression that’s evident in the nooks and crannies of a lunch counter’s interiors, which suggest a figurative diner of America’s collective imagination more than any singular restaurant. (It’s difficult, for instance, to watch this film and not think of Edward Hopper’s iconic Nighthawks.) The dialogue is delivered with a perfectly blunt staccato that’s ideal for the story, particularly the lines uttered by the killers (superbly played by William Conrad and Charles McGraw), and Siodmak’s leisurely, unpretentiously modern, prismatic long takes connote a sense of evil that’s gathering in claustrophobic real time. The Killers is a svelte, vividly directed film, with a remarkable grasp of physicality, both human and locational (particularly displayed in a breathtaking heist scene that’s staged in one long master shot), though the fancy plot gymnastics do needlessly clutter up Hemingway’s original, evocatively streamlined setup. Bowen


Elevator to the Gallows

90. Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958)

In Elevator to the Gallows, Julien’s (Maurice Ronet) entrapment inside an elevator is a Hitchcockian flourish, a delicious twist of fate that essentially cuts the man, a French veteran of the Indochina and Algerian wars who’s working for an influential arms dealer (Jean Wall’s Simon Carala), out of his own story while giving him a symbolic preview of the prison sentence his murder has earned him. Some of the film’s most evocative images see Julien sitting in the elevator smoking cigarette after cigarette while trying to concoct an escape plan. Louis Malle lingers on physical details with a painstaking intimacy that recalls the films of Robert Bresson. Nowadays, it’s impossible to watch Véronique (Yori Bertin) and Louis’s (Georges Poujouly) doomed rebellion and not think of Breathless. Godard fetishized youthful self-intoxication as a rebuttal to the self-absorption of a government wracked by upheaval—refining a more self-conscious (and marketable) form of hypocrisy in the process. By contrast, Malle prefers Julien and Simon’s young wife, Florence (Jeanne Moreau), to Louis and Véronique, as the former have at least earned their disenchantment—and, implicitly, even their immoral trespasses—via actual life experience, while the younger couple is frequently made sport of, leading to violence that’s shocking and as wasteful of human life as anything Louis thinks he’s protesting. This commendably unfashionable perspective offers a glimpse of the challenging empathy that would guide Malle’s career. Bowen


Odds Against Tomorrow

89. Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959)

Odds Against Tomorrow centers on the racial tension between Earle Slater (Robert Ryan) and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), and pivots around the idea that regardless of the context, people will always screw each other out of what they’ve earned because of arbitrary differences. The bulk of Robert Wise’s film is spent building up the characters so that they can be knocked down later: Ryan’s war vet is over the hill and struggling to keep his girl with him, while Belafonte’s xylophonist is in heavy debt to a club owner. Nobody wants to say it because it’s largely understood, but Earle and Johnny can’t get along, not even toward a common goal based on self-interest. In that way, the bank job in Odds Against Tomorrow is especially tense. It’s not just a question of whether they can pull it off, but how long they can hold themselves together as a unit with their handler, Ed Begley’s ever-sympathetic Dave Burke, keeping everything together before everything falls apart in one fell swoop. The tense moments before the trio forcibly opens the bank’s locked back door are mesmerizing. In these seconds, it seems like the only thing holding the job together is the sweat coating Belafonte’s face, even visible through his shades, and Ryan’s defining grimace. Simon Abrams


Pépé le Moko

88. Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937)

Pépé le Moko is often cited by critics as an example of poetic realism. Its lush, heady portrait of Algiers’s criminal underworld on the cusp of WWII anticipates the seedy, smoke-filled rooms of Golden Age Hollywood noirs in the proceeding decades. The Casbah, where the action takes place, is depicted as a surreal and beautiful nightmare, a hallucinatory haze of phantasmagoric backgrounds and starkly lit faces. It’s a labyrinth of squalid streets, a cacophony of languages and music, and a cauldron of greed, lust, and deceit. Figures move in and out of focus like half-forgotten memories, chased by cops that pass through the Casbah like shadows in a dream. And then there’s Pepe (Jean Gabin), the embodiment of honor among thieves, respected by friends, enemies, and strangers alike. A true criminal connoisseur, he appreciates the craftsmanship that goes into the objects he steals and the women he seduces. He might rob you, but he would never betray you. There’s a lot of Pepe in Casablanca’s Rick Blaine and the stoic antiheroes in the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Michael Mann. Rarely has crime looked so honorable and intoxicating. Ivanov


The Hitch-Hiker

87. The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953)

If noir could be distilled into a binary evaluation, it would be split between the films that use huge backdrops to illustrate the intimate interiors of characters and those that project outward from characters to connote a vast unease. The Hitch-Hiker belongs to the latter category, set predominantly in and around a car where two fishing buddies, Roy (Edmond O’Brien) and Gil (Frank Lovejoy), find themselves held captive by a hitchhiker, Emmett Myersis (William Talman), who reveals himself to be a killer looking to scratch his psychotic itch. Ida Lupino makes the most of the film’s cramped setting, using the dance of light and shadow through the car interior as the characters pass buildings and other cars to constantly shift and re-emphasize the glint of wild fury in Talman’s murderer. The compression of the narrative and setting makes even Roy and Gil’s minor deviations from normal behaviors all the more thrilling to behold; Lupino milks maximum suspense from scenes of the protagonists sabotaging their car or dropping personal items with practiced casualness in order to leave some kind of breadcrumb trail for police to follow. The film also boasts an incredible ending that almost certainly had an influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, of the menacing, smug villain abruptly exposed as a weakling and a coward the second the tables fully turn on him. Cole


The Breaking Point

86. The Breaking Point (Michael Curtiz, 1950)

A central crime usually lends a noir its purpose, suggesting that the hero’s life is leading to one pivotal moment, inevitably glorifying his senses of destiny and self-pity. The Breaking Point’s stop-and-start structure casually detonates that sort of grandeur, affirming Harry Morgan’s (John Garfield) escalating sense of futility. Of course, Harry treads the same nowhere road over and over, hoping it will miraculously lead him away from his static life, eventually allowing himself to be drawn into human smuggling. At a certain point, one might wonder why Harry’s so eager to avoid managing a field of lettuce for his beautiful wife’s father, as there are certainly worse fates for a rigid postwar American male. The Breaking Point is a wry and elegant ode to the disappointment that creeps up on people as they approach middle age and realize that life has a time limit. As a filmmaker, Michael Curtiz is drawn to self-contained vignettes that suggest the boozy, sexy, comic, violent, racial, and sociological ebb and flow of day-to-day existence, which was the primary appeal of his Casablanca. Each moment in Curtiz’s best films represents a new beginning, a new set of possibilities as vivid character actors enter and exit the frame. Bowen


Inherent Vice

85. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)

The ‘70-set Los Angeles of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice toes a fine, very Andersonian line between fantasy and reality, between the L.A. of many noirs and the one pockmarked by hopelessness, poverty, racism, and alienation. Despite the film’s finely honed sense of casualness, Anderson has a lot on his plate here, as he’s competing with multiple legends: Thomas Pynchon, who wrote the source novel; Robert Altman, who directed the seminal counterculture noir, The Long Goodbye; and Stanley Kubrick, whose chilly, specific, yet modernist approach to period settings is a clear and under-acknowledged influence on Anderson’s work. Reverence inevitably bogs Anderson down, and Joaquin Phoenix, as a heartbroken, perpetually stoned P.I., crawls a mite too far up his own ass, essentially doing a one-man routine off in the figurative corner of the room. (By contrast, Elliott Gould proffered a weirdly entrancing, oxymoronic form of connected alienation in The Long Goodbye.) Yet, Anderson viscerally captures Pynchon’s notion of a past that never existed—a viscous illusion that pollutes the sensibility of a counterculture that’s scattered among the streets, undiscernible from the advertisements and graffiti. The supporting cast is flawless, the erotically despairing atmosphere is terrifying and hilarious, and a brilliant sex scene centers on a woman who wields power by feigning powerlessness, which is conjured from her own very real past of violation. Bowen


Ministry of Fear

84. Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)

Fantastical moments abound in Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear, but there’s no superhuman mechanism lurking behind them. Murders are committed for the sake of a cake; a mentalist transforms from a withered hag to a svelte femme fatale; a dusty leather satchel full of books explodes, reducing a hotel room to rubble; and perhaps best of all, Dan Duryea’s Mr. Cost dies twice, with ample time to sneeringly dial a rotary telephone with a pair of gargantuan scissors in between his deathly appointments. Yet all this would-be sorcery—which is furthermore offered the visual texture of black magic through Henry Sharp’s Gothic-tinged photography—turns out to have a logical explanation, albeit a sinisterly logical one. Avoiding The Testament of Dr. Mabuse’s ultimately apologetic metaphor for mankind’s twisted nature, Ministry of Fear’s larger-than-life elements instead form a damning playbook of coded perversity, single-served; Lang’s signature mob, here a Nazi spy ring that’s turned London into a minefield of deadly tricks, is gradually atomized into individual agents who are each held responsible for their specific wickedness. And what is film noir but a sensational trail of events leading from the gothic and ghostly to the cunningly criminal? Joseph Jon Lanthier


Crimson Kimono

83. Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller, 1959)

Manny Farber wrote, “The reason movies are bad lies is this audience’s failure to appreciate, much less fight for, films like the unspectacular, unpolished ‘B,’ worked out by a few people with belief and skill in their art, who capture the unworked-over immediacy of life before it has been cooled by ‘Art.’” Samuel Fuller was one of those people and The Crimson Kimono was one of those films. The opening is a triumph of grungy lyricism achieved through snaky cutting and blunt compositions: Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall), a blond and bodacious stripper, is shot to death in the middle of a Los Angeles street after witnessing a murder inside her dressing room. The tenor of the film oscillates between tight-fisted noir and chamber drama, but the theme remains constant: cultural and romantic unrest. Two detectives, Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta), travel to the Japanese quarter of the city to break the thorny case but fall in love with Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw). Harry Sukman’s score courts condescension whenever the action shifts to Little Tokyo, but it’s the film’s only slip. Fuller’s feat is giving the film’s nonstop interrogations, meetings and confrontations a timely political resonance that’s at once blunt and poetic. Ed Gonzalez


Le Deuxime Souffle

82. Le Deuxieme Souffle (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1966)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s exacting cinematic worlds typically operate according to the hard rules of fate and are populated by men driven by an obsessive professionalism that’s informed by unbreakable codes of honor and conduct. In Le Deuxième Souffle, one of the director’s most ascetic works, it’s ex-con Gu (Lino Ventura) who finds himself in the crosshairs of both Melville’s unsentimental vision and that of the ruthlessly cunning and equally seasoned Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse), who’s hot on Gu’s tail soon after the gangster busts out of the pen. Melville is concerned less with the suspense of the cat-and-mouse dueling that quickly heightens between Blot and Gu than with a meticulous detailing of the plans and strategies of both men, homing in on the exhaustive and exhausting processes of cop and crook alike. The inspector says of Gu that “he’s doomed and he knows it,” but Gu is unaware of his fate, finding meaning and purpose in nothing but applying intricacies of his craft. Even as a free man, the world-weary Gu is but a prisoner to his own criminal expertise. Smith


La Nuit du Carrefour

81. La Nuit du Carrefour (Jean Renoir, 1932)

Redolent of the airfield in Only Angels Have Wings, the rural crossroads of Jean Renoir’s La Nuit du Carrefour seem to exist outside of physical space and geographic context. The roar of car engines and sweeping illuminations of headlights that pass through the area form an ambient field of light and sound that only deepens the sense of the nearby town being an impermanent place. The omnipresent mist and darkness obliterate any grasp of time, its passage only truly communicated in one sequence where police hold a man for questioning so long that we see morning editions of a paper replaced by the evening ones, a copy of which ends up waterlogged in a ditch before the local is released. (The film is believed to have been left unfinished, with even the most complete version missing a reel of footage, but its sense of time and place, and its narrative cohesion, is so slippery that it’s nearly impossible to spot where the story suddenly leaps over 10 minutes of possible exposition.) Like Murder on the Orient Express, everyone is implicated by the film’s crime, and through it all, Renoir’s trademark grasp of complex social and psychological behavior is already plainly evident. His satiric edge comes out in his depiction of police officers’ reflexive xenophobia when investigating the crime, while the empathetic final scenes point the way to the director’s humanist masterpieces. Cole


The Sound of Fury

80. The Sound of Fury (Cy Endfield, 1950)

After his wife asks her unemployed husband, Howard (Frank Lovejoy), why they moved to California if they couldn’t even afford to pay for their groceries there, the frustrated, down-on-his-luck family man snaps back: “Can I help if a million other guys had the same idea?” In Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury, the American dream is a temptress as deadly as any femme fatale and scarcity and despondence breed criminality even quicker than a dame in a low-cut dress and a sultry voice to match. Howard’s just another faceless schmuck with a wife and kid, and a mortgage he can’t afford—an easy target for the slick, fast-talking shyster Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), who instantly plunges his new lackey deeper into the criminal underworld than he imagined was possible. But desperation for survival takes a hold on the other side of law too in the form of a local paper who thoughtlessly whips their readers into a frenzy over Howard and Jerry’s crime spree. Endfield spotlights nearly all of America’s post-war sins from greed and consumerism to yellow journalism and McCarthyism, the last of which left the director himself as but a chalk outline in Hollywood just one year later. Smith


The Big Knife

79. The Big Knife (Robert Aldrich, 1955)

Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), a famous actor, has the usual trappings of stratospheric success, including a house in Bel Air, a beautiful wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), adoring groupies, a blossoming sense of refinement with which he’s clearly uncomfortable, and the ability, should he exercise it, to do whatever he pleases so long as he honors the Man. The Big Knife’s plot has no shock value for a 21st-century American. Total chaos and disbelief in everything are the new breeding grounds for complacency, and so Charlie’s secret would now barely be enough to drive a middling episode of Ray Donovan. But the film’s formal intensity hasn’t aged an iota, and renders most contemporary melodramas chaste and skittish by comparison. Aldrich assembles a wonderful cast of actors, among them Wendell Corey, Jean Hagen, Everett Sloane, Ilka Chase, and Shelley Winters, and lionizes their faces in riveting close-ups that physicalize the purple emotion of Clifford Odets’s dialogue. These close-ups, cast in stark noir-ish shadows, are contrasted with sleek and sinuous tracking shots that render Charlie’s home a microcosm of Hollywood. Though it’s essentially a one-set film, The Big Knife nevertheless teems with every filmmaking caste, including the casting-couch serfs, the trainers and assistants, the wives, the producers, and the henchmen who secretly tend to the carnage on which this world operates. Bowen


Where the Sidewalk Ends

78. Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger, 1950)

As with many noirs, Where the Sidewalk Ends is concerned with neurotic males who express their torment and uncertainty through violence, which only intensifies their self-loathing. The New York City of the film is the city of most American noirs: an expressionist painting of neon lights, harshly bright, rain- and blood-splattered streets and alleyways, and ominously vertical buildings that the canted angles deliberately make to resemble cages. And this New York City is really the Any City of our movie-nourished nightmares, and it’s always watching Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews). And us. Director Otto Preminger and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle often tellingly linger on visual details that suggest incarceration, such as, most literally, the bars over the windows of a prison, or, more suggestively, the beams of street railings or the panes of apartment windows that reveal the busy city to be ever-present even within people’s homes. This crackling thriller/procedural abounds in screenwriter Ben Hecht’s characteristically punchy dialogue and Preminger’s viscerally, velvety, elegantly intricate long takes, though there’s also, as in all of Preminger’s noirs, a subtextual undertow. The filmmakers fashion a poetic study of loneliness, weaving together a series of sharp episodes with characters who reveal a wealth of longing to us, often in just a few minutes’ worth of running time. Bowen


The Big Lebowski

77. The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)

Down these mean streets the Dude must go, at least if he ever hopes to get his rug replaced. (It really tied the room together, didn’t it?) You can usually find him down at the bowling alley, driving around, gripped by the occasional acid flashback. He might not immediately make you think of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, but like those fellow shamuses, Jeff Bridges’s Dude abides by a code of honor all his own. He knows what makes a man. It’s in being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost. Well, that and a pair of testicles. The Coen brothers’ slacker homage to classic Hollywood detective yarns—and Busby Berkeley musicals—simultaneously follows and skewers noir tropes. Bunny (Tara Reid) is the blond femme fatale who might not be as innocent (or dumb) as she looks; Mr. Lebowski (David Huddleston) is the duplicitous millionaire playing the gumshoe for a patsy; and the Dude is the sleuth who enters a world of pain on their behalf, a modern knight looking for redemption in the mansions, parking lots, and bowling alleys of early-’90s Los Angeles. Other films have parodied noir, but few of them hold up so well as an example of the genre itself. Well, that’s just, like, our opinion, man. Oleg Ivanov


White Heat

76. White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)

James Cagney was simultaneously the first great American symbol of noir and the genre’s first revisionist. The embodiment of mafioso swagger and unhinged violence, Cagney also had a charming, boyish look that made his characters’ rage seem like overcompensation. It’s fitting, then, that his finest role should cast him as a mama’s boy, a nightmarish gang leader who only seems happy when speaking with his mother (Margaret Wycherly). Like so many great Cagney characters, Jarrett is a small fish who thinks himself a megalodon, and Walsh composes large, immaculately blocked yet uncluttered, open shots with the express purpose of letting Cagney project Jarrett into every square inch of negative space. The scene of Jarrett having a psychotic episode in a prison mess hall is perhaps the greatest feat of actorly physicality since the end of the silent comedy; Cagney moves like an adrenalized rhino just hit with a tranquilizer dart, increasingly sluggish but still deadly as he careens, flops, and crawls around in a fit of anguish. And in the long history of noir’s bleak, unreconciled conclusions, few films attain the sheer nihilistic abandon of White Heat’s finale, with Cagney wreathed by a blazing oil fire as he ecstatically screams “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” before blowing himself to hell. Cole


L.A. Confidential

75. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

L.A. Confidential would seem to have a lot working against it, as it’s another naval-gazing movie about the “real” Hollywood, and has an undeniably masculinist bent despite its critical take on noir heroism. Also, its bright color photography and avoidance of visual abstractions distance it from the rich tradition of noir aesthetics. But one of its strengths comes precisely from the way its hyper-bright aesthetic clashes with its depiction of the endemic misogyny and racism of the 1950s, taken from the hard-boiled, confrontational prose of James Ellroy’s novel. The film takes noir’s archetypical subterranean web of conspiracy and turns it into a narrative principle, deftly weaving together the stories of three detectives confronting their own demons as they uncover the corruption and perversion that underlies Los Angeles, and by extension American, society. A rather pat shoot-‘em-up conclusion hardly undermines the stylistic verve and interweaved intrigue of the rest of the film. Brown


The Fallen Idol

74. The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed, 1948)

“It’s things like that give secrets away,” Baines (Ralph Richardson) tells eight-year-old Phillipe (Bobby Henrey) after he’s caught having tea and holding hands with a young woman the boy concludes is the man’s niece. Baines, the family butler, has long been filling the kid’s head with secrets and lies, of tall tales of his many adventures in Africa. It was all in good fun, but this latest secret, unbeknownst to the boy, takes on truly dire consequences after Baines’s shockingly cruel, henpecking wife (Sonia Dresdel) ends up dead at the bottom of the long, winding staircase in the embassy where they all live. Playing out primarily through the curious gaze of young Phillipe, Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol conveys the potentially lethal repercussions of secrets as a rapidly expanding web of lies aggressively perverts a child’s mind. After seeing a horrific act he doesn’t understand, Phillipe runs from his posh, secure home into the rain-soaked streets of a shadowy nighttime London, only to be confronted by a world that’s much more terrifying and sinister than he’s ever seen before. Smith


Mauvais Sang

73. Mauvais Sang (Leos Carax, 1986)

Mauvais Sang, a playfully Godardian toying with film-noir tropes, concerns a rebellious teen, Alex (Denis Lavant), teaming up with his deceased father’s associates in Paris to steal a cure to an AIDS-like virus called STBO. Leos Carax’s use of close-ups and elliptical montage tends to sideline the story in favor of more personal moments that also employ experimental touches to communicate an idea or a feeling, like the scene in which, through a zoom and sped-up camera, it appears as if Juliette Binoche’s Anna is flying as she flaps her arms and runs down an airstrip. Although Carax treats his story unseriously, it’s perhaps the lyrically depicted romance between Alex and Anna, his partner-in-crime’s (Michel Piccoli) girlfriend, that he feels most strongly about. This is a film beyond story, one characterized by an infatuation with the medium itself: the edit, the close-up, the camera angle, movement, colors. Carax uses these tools to vivaciously celebrate cinema, as well as Lavant and Binoche (who he was romantically involved with at the time), and his love for both is infectious. For the filmmaker, love is the reason for life: He even has the STBO virus explained to Alex as transmissible between people who have sex without love. Kalvin Henely


You and Me

72. You and Me (Fritz Lang, 1938)

Fritz Lang’s Germanic formalism is at its most rampant in You and Me, a very odd mallard of a film that lacerates capitalism, spikes the champagne of romantic comedy with the menace of the gangster genre, and, boasting songs by Kurt Weill, is more Brechtian than Brecht himself. Something like a popular front anti-musical, it contains a scene that conveys the fragility of happiness as sharply as any in Lang’s oeuvre: George Raft and Sylvia Sidney touching hands for a fleeting, furtive moment while riding on separate ways in an escalator, a moment made all the more powerful by an earlier, radically different image of hands as a hood sadistically grinds his heel into the palm of the hero’s sidekick. The film’s failure damaged the director’s momentum in Hollywood, and its experimental indulgences may have been instrumental to the stylistic rigor that progressively characterized his films as he entered the 1940s. More and more, the imagistic flamboyance of the German silents would give way to a severity as concentrated as Dreyer’s. Beneath the Americanized naturalistic surface, the original nightmares still boil: Siegfried, Kriemhild, and the Dragon from the Die Nibelungen saga still materialize in the American films, only here they’re cops, molls, and kingpins. Fernando F. Croce


La Bête Humaine

71. La Bête Humaine (Jean Renoir, 1938)

Jean Renoir is the conductor of the propulsive locomotive of a film that is 1938’s La Bête Humaine, whose oft-repeated images of moving train tracks suggest film rolling through a projector. Of a piece with his later triumphs of poetic realism, this vibrant proto-noir also displays many of the technical and narrative tenets of noir that would come to define the genre. La Bête Humaine, though, noticeably lacks the typical noir film’s distinctly cynical outlook on human nature, though its storyline—Jean Gabin’s train engineer becomes embroiled in violence and murder with Simone Simon’s femme fatale and her criminal husband—is a decidedly dark one. Renoir’s concern lies in articulating the complexities of people’s lives, which augments the tragedy behind the characters’ dubious actions. Perhaps this is best captured in the justifiably famous sequence where an old French romance song plays over the crosscutting of dancers at a party and someone murdering a loved one: Rather than focus solely on the brutality of this act, Renoir expresses the killer’s nostalgic yearning for the simple joys in life that break up a dreary existence. Wes Greene


Raw Deal

70. Raw Deal (Anthony Mann, 1948)

Blessed with D.P. John Alton’s Wellesian deep focus and chiaroscuro lighting, which create a fraught tension between foreground and background planes, Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal is the apex of noir style, offering up electric visions of sin, salvation, and sexual mania. The aching urgency and fervor of Alton’s breathtaking work is regularly counterbalanced by star Dennis O’Keefe’s lumbering blankness, but typically wooden acting (for a Mann crime pic) can’t alter the fact that this story of a hood who busts out of prison seeking romance and revenge with a pair of dames—one his obsessed girlfriend, the other his semi-willing hostage—is the director’s bleakest and most neurotic. A messy jumble of carnal desires, naïve dreams, and soul-crushing pessimism, the film derives its lusty perversity from Claire Trevor’s narrating moll, and its viciousness from Raymond Burr’s flaming desert-hurling mobster. Nick Schager


The Stranger

69. The Stranger (Orson Welles, 1946)

Blossoming cinephiles who get around to The Stranger later in life may be startled by the film they actually see after potentially hearing of its mediocrity as a reflection of director Orson Welles’s desire to achieve a functional worker-for-hire anonymity following the brilliant but unprofitable one-two punch of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. No, The Stranger isn’t exhilarating in the same fashion as those earlier films, or the later Falstaff or Touch of Evil; its technical virtuosity isn’t as playful, and its theme is (deceptively) more intimate and less ambitious, but these qualities are revealed as virtues. Cloaking his formal wit in surprisingly earnest despair, Welles made a film of implied perversity that retroactively asserts itself as a kissing cousin of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Both films helped to forge the path for the paranoid Americana of 1950s cinema in their portrayals of small towns as deceptive mouse traps hidden among bright green shrubbery and love-thy-neighbor platitude. Bowen


Quai des Orfèvres

68. Quai des Orfèvres (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1947)

The world of Quai des Orfèvres is a licentious cesspool driven primarily by panic, greed, and jealousy. The rain-soaked streets of Paris, filled with liars and crooks and painted in deep, angular shadows, have never looked less inviting. The corpse at the center of the film’s story is that of a humpbacked smut peddler whom no one will miss, which is one explanation for why Henri-Georges Clouzot is focused less on the whodunnit surrounding the murder than in the psychological interplay between the two morally dubious sides inextricably intertwined by the case. On one side is the seedy but sensual world of the music hall, embodied by a sexy, sassy song bird, Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair), who’s perpetually adorned in lingerie and black stockings or draped in fur, and her cuckold husband, Maurice (Bernard Blier), a musician who’s “a real softie.” And on the other side is the lumbering Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet), with his harsh, jagged facial features and dour manner, leaning on the piercing exactitude of facts and enacting the law with a brutal, unfeeling severity. The men are world-weary, the women conniving, yet Clouzot mines this fallen world for humor as well as horror, perhaps even mocking his audience when a character says, “His parents were bourgeoisie. He sees vice everywhere.” Smith


Crime Wave

67. Crime Wave (André De Toth, 1954)

Something like a god looks down over Los Angeles by night, and though he breathes out so much authority there’s not enough wind left to raise his voice, he’s also betrayed by the pack of toothpicks he smokes every shift. Ink-eyed and unflappable Detective Lieutenant Sims (Sterling Hayden) is that god in André De Toth’s Crime Wave, a relentlessly unforced potboiler that gazes at noir through the looking glass. (Or should that be through the glass ceiling?) Sims’s crime-fighting battle plan consists largely of targeting casual miscreants, those most likely to be extorted by bigger, burlier criminals. To track a trio of jailbreak hooligans, Sims puts the squeeze on a newlywed ex-con who, as luck would have it, actually is being blackmailed by the escaped convicts. De Toth showcases the magnitude of Sims’s pool of potential stoolies in one showstopping traveling shot down a line of interrogation desks, each one a passion play in miniature. Not that Sims, in his hot pursuit, takes note. If the maxim “crime doesn’t pay” is noir’s given, then Crime Wave spins it to answer “but virtue barely scrapes up a living wage.” Eric Henderson


The Phenix City Story

66. The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson, 1955)

A modern Pompeii (or Southern-fried Sodom and Gomorrah—take your pick), Phenix City, Alabama is a den of iniquity ruled by gangsters who murder enemies with impunity, whether they be women, children, or a noble lawyer (John McIntire) and his former G.I. son (Richard Kiley). Based on real events, Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story opens with journalistic interviews of actual locals, a misleading intro given the hysterical fictionalization that ensues, punctuated by swaggering camerawork, performances both inflated (from the professional cast) and stilted (from townsfolk amateurs), and a finale in which malevolent mob terror is countered not by vigilantism—as in Karlson’s unofficial remake Walking Tall—but by military martial law. Its borderline-obscene wallop, however, is derived from its brusque brutality, as in a startlingly cavalier depiction of a murdered African-American girl being unceremoniously tossed from a speeding car. Schager


The Tall Target

65. The Tall Target (Anthony Mann, 1951)

As in Reign of Terror, Anthony Mann fashions a noir mini-masterpiece out of incongruous period reconstruction. The hook is the Baltimore Plot, a conspiracy which in 1861 attempted to kill Abraham Lincoln (the “tall target”) during the inaugurating train ride of the Ohio & Baltimore Railway. Dick Powell, flashing the tough-guy persona from Murder, My Sweet like a badge, stars as John Kennedy, who protects Abe from the assassins hidden in the shadows, making creative, gruesome use of locomotive steam in the progress. The train’s cramped spaces offer Mann a challenge, and the director rises to it via sinewy camera movement, elegantly modulated rhythms, and arresting paranoia, not to mention the blueprint for the following year’s The Narrow Margin. Croce


Ossessione

64. Ossessione (Luchino Visconti, 1943)

Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione is the harmonious meeting of noir and neorealism, two styles that consistently revolve around downtrodden individuals on the fringes of society. Adapted from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Visconti’s first feature film presents a critique of the Italian social order circa 1943 and benefits from its startling sensuality. Massimo Girotti’s drifter and Clara Calamai’s oppressed housewife, victims of broken societal structures and consumed by their dubiously obsessive love affair, decide to bump off her husband, and the world subsequently falls apart around them. In Visconti’s hands, the film brings operatic fervor to the characters’ passions. Not only do the two lead actors convincingly convey a palpable sexual passion, but this passion is also framed by Visconti first as a means of survival to escape everyday existence, then as a force of destruction. No wonder the Italian fascists’ heads were spinning at the time of Ossessione’s release. Greene


Fargo

63. Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996)

Minnesota’s quintessentially Scandinavian character doesn’t exhibit overt pride, but instead a taciturn, emotionally avoidant stoicism. And what better opportunity to pimp out your stiff upper lip than to undergo a little bad-natured ribbing? And Fargo opens with a pretty strong roundhouse slap: a title card indicating that the (totally fabricated) plot of the film was based on true crimes, implying that Minnesota is such a remote and irrelevant cultural environment that a half-dozen people could get slaughtered in one weekend and even the locals wouldn’t be quite sure if they remember that actually happening. (Some did, others didn’t.) Fargo, more than any of the Coen brothers’ other work, is a study in contrast, namely in the sense that it’s made by two people who were clearly at one time insiders but who have now taken the opportunity to see the Midwestern template from the outside. As such, every interaction in the film registers as a direct reflection of incongruous elements and repressed tensions. The plot itself is a contradiction. It’s on the surface a neo-noir crime drama, but the story isn’t spiked with twists, and the law seems firmly in command of the situation. What’s more, as represented by McDormand’s doughtily pregnant, perpetually parka-covered police detective Marge Gunderson, the law is the film’s most empathetic presence. Henderson


Kansas City Confidential

62. Kansas City Confidential (Phil Karlson, 1952)

Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential falls into that rarefied early-1950s cycle of noir, which benefited from B directors who’d learned how to quickly dispense with genre conventions and deliver brutal action and lurid innuendos. There was no time for the mannered wisecracks of guys like ex-singer/dancer Dick Powell, who always seemed like their minds were on the next manicure. The new generation had its own ex-singer/dancer leading man, but John Payne had a tougher mug and a terser delivery. His is the kind of face that’s hard to trust, and embittered ex-cop Tim Foster (Preston Foster) counts on that when he frames Payne’s Joe Rolfe for an armed holdup. The real culprits, in a proto-Tarantino flourish that’s as surreal as it is functional, are a suited trio wearing identical felt masks with slits for eyes, mouths, and ears. Only Foster, who’s assembled them, knows each of their identities, and as in Reservoir Dogs, they never learn each others’ names. But, as with Rolfe, it’s the faces that count, and this is a rogue’s gallery for the ages. These charged visages meet up in Borrados, Mexico, where there are so many different layers of unspoken identity confusion that the film comes to take on the dimensions of a screwball comedy. Sean Howe


Vertigo

61. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

“The gentleman seems to know what he wants,” deadpans a saleswoman in the final act of Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s rich and strange masterwork, as she observes James Stewart’s round-the-bend retired detective monomaniacally outfitting his shopgirl squeeze (Kim Novak) in high-end threads identical to those of a lost woman—the young lady’s spitting image—whose love and life slipped away from him. While the scene, echoing the Orpheus myth (plus a hint of Frankenstein) in its imagery of a man trying to revivify the dead, helps to qualify this morbid romance as perhaps the classiest fetish movie produced in Hollywood, Vertigo is greater than even the sum of Bernard Herrmann’s versatile, indispensable score, its evocative use of San Francisco locations, and Stewart’s earnest, anguished performance as the increasingly unhinged John “Scottie” Ferguson. Perverse, poetic, steeped in emotional desolation and destructive obsession, it delivers a fearlessly dolorous view of longing and betrayal in the guise of an acrophobia thriller, making through its classical ambitions (referenced by Herrmann’s swelling variations on Wagner’s “Liebestod”) and enduring fascinations a splendid case for Hitchcock as a grand experimental artist who labored in commercial genre cinema. Bill Weber


Panique

60. Panique (Julien Duvivier, 1947)

Julien Duvivier’s Panique informs small-town life with rich menace, suggesting a correlation can exist between vicious gossip and physical violence, as people seek to assert dominion over the reputations of their neighbors out of boredom and resentment. Throughout the film, a doubling motif links classism with atrocity, and rumor-mongering with the tragedy it incites—such as linked images of two funerals, one of the murder victim that drives the film’s plot, the other of a person framed for the murder, essentially for being an eccentric outcast. As in many a film noir, Panique has, at its center, the structural rigidness of a mathematical equation, which it fleshes out with macabre comedy, piercing pathos, and a mad blend of realism and rococo expressionism. A beautiful and merciless film, Panique has been read as an allegory for Vichy France’s complicity with Nazis, which is apparent in the way the conspiring villagers are shown to unify against a diseased cause that’s been engineered by a third party. And such an association is complicated further by the controversy of Duvivier leaving his country for Hollywood during WWII. But humankind has so often betrayed itself—honoring its irrational base instincts above issues of morality or common sense—that the film now operates as a free-floating nightmare of persecution, one which offers a vividly haunting victim. As Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon) ascends a building to his doom, fleeing his vengeful neighbors, one may think of Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, only in this case there’s no mythical creature to offer one the distancing assurance of the fantastic. Bowen


The Prowler

59. The Prowler (Joseph Losey, 1951)

Joseph Losey’s The Prowler is obsessively abundant in symbolism. Throughout the film, the air is thick with stagnant, thwarted desire. Every scene has a touch that’s ineffably “off,” such as a motel vacancy sign that blinks in and out, casting the lovers in shades of seamy ominousness, or the vast, hallucinatory emptiness of the ghost town that figures in the last act, which finally opens the film up at a time when the screws are contrastingly tightening on the characters. Silence hangs over many scenes, while long, unbroken shots emphasize hallways that appear to embody the unreachable, desolate portals of the protagonists’ minds. There’s also Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, two under-sung actors who plumb desperation with a degree of unvarnished vitality that’s unusual even for classic noirs. The film earns the scary loneliness of its title, which is tellingly never literalized by the appearance of the stranger who kicks the story off into motion. By the end, it’s understood that Webb (Heflin) and Susan (Keyes) are both prowlers, as all of us might be: people wandering, out of understandable need, into realms best left unperturbed. Bowen


Cutter’s Way

58. Cutter’s Way (Ivan Passer, 1981)

Like many of the neo-noirs of the 1970s and ’80s, Cutter’s Way is a shaggy-dog story propelled by a combination of paranoia and justifiable fear, yet where other films of its ilk derive their tension from unseen omnipotent forces, director Ivan Passer’s opus stems directly from the lingering trauma of veterans and civilians alike. The film begins with the discovery of a corpse in a dumpster, and from there it spirals into the fevered imaginations of its protagonists, who don’t seek the perpetrator so much as someone to blame for their own miserable lives. In the absence of an overriding, unseen force to commit evil against the characters, the film leaves in plain sight the implication that everyday people are as responsible for the state of things as events beyond their control. The question of J.J. Cord’s (Stephen Elliott) guilt is ultimately incidental, as the evidence for and against his culpability collapses against Alex Cutter’s (John Heard) single-minded desire for revenge against anyone who made it out of the ’70s in better shape than when they went in. If Cord is evil, and the finale approaches that subject ambiguously, it’s of a type both more outlandish and more quotidian than murder, and the response it provokes is as desperate as it is futile. Jake Cole


The Big Combo

57. The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955)

Shadows and lies are the stars of The Big Combo, a spellbinding black-and-white chiaroscuro with the segmented textures of a spider’s web. Caught in the center of this sticky, elastic clutter of light and shadow is Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), the girlfriend of a mobster with information about a mysterious woman named Alicia who may be of interest to police lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Wallace’s real-life hubby Cornel Wilde). John Alton’s lush camerawork is so commanding here that you wouldn’t know Joseph H. Lewis was also behind the camera. The story doesn’t have any of the he-she psychosexual politicking that juices the director’s Gun Crazy, but that’s no loss given this film’s richer returns. The set pieces are ferocious, as is the Casablanca tweak of the last shot, and Wallace’s performance—a sad spectacle of a hurting creature caught between light and dark, good and evil—is one of noir’s great unheralded triumphs. Gonzalez


Basic Instinct

56. Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992)

Difficult though it might be to push aside the film’s legacy, which was cemented with a crotch shot that was lit like a Technicolor movie musical and treated like The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat, Basic Instinct has a firm place in Verhoeven’s vision of Grand Guignol feminism. And it’s not so strange as a mile-marker of contemporary film noir; like many of its progenitors, it’s about a guy who makes the lethal error of trying to solve a mystery by thinking with his dick, and a woman who blinds him using nothing more or less than his own gaze as her weapon of choice. It’s another Verhoeven film about female objectification, but he’s got a female character in the pilot’s seat. The director’s strategy can be described here as “just enough too-muchness,” an almost demure deployment of highly stylized lighting, music, and camerawork to complement, enliven, and occasionally countermand the kick-to-the-nuts bassline that is Joe Esterhaz’s cornfed, pheromone-drenched screenplay. Jaime N. Christley


The Naked Kiss

55. The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964)

Postwar cinema was plenty country, and more than enough rock ‘n’ roll. But whether we’re talking The Egg and I or High School Confidential, the drive-in era’s depiction of the effects of urban hangover upon idyllic small-town Americana invariably revealed a wounded but upright oasis of morality, if only because you couldn’t expect the Big City’s fashionable crime to trickle down for at least a decade. Speaking of being ahead of the curve, noir films stood out among their dated contemporaries like pure hip-hop. And Samuel Fuller’s fizzy, wigged-out masterpiece The Naked Kiss drops it from frame one, with Constance Towers purse-smacking a P.O.V. shot, brandishing a seltzer bottle and upbraiding her pimp, essentially demanding, “What, you slipped? Fell? Landed on her dick?” Fuller’s fierce prologue is only an appetizer for the depths the film sinks to when Towers’s reformed prostitute tries to hoist up her stockings and reach for anonymity in the rural wild. The Naked Kiss grows positively feral as Towers uncovers the town’s perverse, thriving criminal underbelly and comes to the conclusion that even being a two-bit, big-city tramp is more noble than living anywhere that has a Main Street. It’s Sirk-on-a-shoestring, and twice as cynical. Henderson


Side Street

54. Side Street (Anthony Mann, 1950)

Cineastes have embraced Anthony Mann’s great westerns but his equally exceptional noirs still await discovery. Like Reign of Terror and The Tall Target, Side Street is a triumph of visual savvy and moral exactitude—a spectacular, ever-scurrying dog-cat-and-mouse game throughout the streets of New York City. The Big Apple comes alive via a nervy mix of photojournalistic shots of people on the move and hieratic compositions that give the squeeze to Farley Granger’s Joe Norton, a poor mail carrier who steals $30,000 somewhat accidentally, loses it, and spends the duration of the film trying to retrieve it while avoiding murder charges. The film’s title is a reference to its entwined physical and moral frameworks: Through the venomous-winding city streets of the city plays out a clammy morality tale about a man living on the fringes of society who succumbs easily and understandably to weakness only to struggle with great difficulty to atone for his indiscretion. In a city so big, will anyone care? Gonzalez


Mildred Pierce

53. Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)

American crime films and pulp writing aren’t normally considered as paragons of feminism, as they often see women as figures of asexualized competency or as femme fatales, those murderous succubae who use sex to socially empower themselves (though the potential necessity of that gambit in a world rigged against women is often under-considered). Distinguishing Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce from many noirs, then, is its disarmingly and modernly casual sense of the reliable humiliation of life as a woman in a man’s world, particularly a woman determined to carve out her own niche in the work sector. Surrounded by ineffectual or conceited men, Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) gets a job as a waitress, masters the trade, and sets about opening a restaurant, all while beset by the usual condescension and ogling, which is often dressed up as looking out for Mildred’s best interests. The film is adapted from a novel by the famed and influential crime writer James M. Cain, and while the film strikingly deviates from the source material’s narrative, it retains the most important element: Cain’s pragmatic grasp of detail, which the author uses to subtly convey a character’s inner and outer world. One reads Cain’s crisp, sober descriptions of the quotidian of the restaurant business and discerns the stakes of Mildred’s drama, as well as the poignant, well-earned pride she derives from enjoying the sort of actualization that’s normally reserved for men who know the right people. Bowen


Blood Simple

52. Blood Simple (Joel and Ethan Cohen, 1984)

If Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil is generally understood to be the end of Hollywood’s initial noir cycle, then Blood Simple, financed and produced independently, announces a resurrection of the style under a different order of operations, one linking the production methods of the ’80s slasher cycle and other low-budget horror films to the possibility of a neo-noir cycle that could manifest through similar means. James Naremore says Blood Simple contains “hyper-Wellesian tracking shots,” but the movements seem more approximate to the Steadicam as used by John Carpenter, so that whenever characters move through space, the camera emphasizes the space’s enclosure, not its widening. Moreover, Ray (John Getz) and Abby’s (Frances McDormand) chat inside a car seems plucked straight from Halloween’s post-prologue scene, with the rainy night creating a chiaroscuro effect of blacks and blues. If Blood Simple is understood to be in dialogue with its horror contemporaries, analysis can shift from noir’s focus on psychological and existential fears to both that of the body in trauma and the body of genre cinema itself as a meaningful form for contemporary thought. Lest the Coens be lumped in with the pastiche hacks of the world, Blood Simple comprehensively thematizes miscommunication, rendering nearly every scene a meditation on some form of mixed signals. Dillard


Gun Crazy

51. Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1949)

It’s a good thing Joseph H. Lewis, proud member of Andrew Sarris’s clan of “Expressive Esoterica,” had as exciting a visual flair and as much a taste for zero-flab pacing as he did. Otherwise, Gun Crazy would be an hour and a half of two lovers on the lam stroking their own Phallic symbols. The film, like many noirs, flirts with misogyny, and unlike any number of Raymond Chandler knock-offs of the era, its dialogue sort of rolls over and dies in the mouths of Dall and Cummings, who frequently sounds like a morose, tanked-up Judy Garland. But it’s easy to see why auteurists like Sarris insist even today (when psychosexual interpretations of gunplay come off as a punchline rather than serious foreplay) in holding up the film as a model of directorial expression. Lewis, through sheer force of will, turns the script’s easy ways out (“I told you I’m a bad girl, didn’t I?”) into the essence of blunt, adolescent sexual flowering. Wild, wham-bam pacing eventually matures into the film’s most memorable sequence: a one-take robbery sequence taken from the back seat of the getaway car, a stunning tour de force that’s Lewis’s cinematographic slow fuck. Henderson


Act of Violence

50. Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann, 1949)

Fred Zinnemann’s lean, mean Act of Violence opens at night on a man hurriedly limping into a rundown building and up a dimly lit stairway. He fumbles through some clothes in a drawer for a few seconds before pulling out a pistol and cocking it with a look of both anguish and excitement on his face. The man, Joe (Robert Ryan), hops on a bus to California to pay a visit to a fellow POW, Frank (Van Heflin), who now enjoys his newfound status of war hero in his little slice of suburban heaven. Frank may be done with the past, but Joe isn’t coming there to trade war stories. He’s got a bullet with Frank’s name on it, a special delivery for a cowardly act of betrayal that everyone but Joe has forgotten about; he’s still got that limp to remind him every step he takes. The men are two sides of the same coin, the fractured identity of the post-war American male: the id, driven by a thirst for justice and revenge, and the superego, willfully repressing the horrific violence of the recent past, trying to blend seamlessly into America’s post-war makeover. But a new war is about to start and a white picket fence isn’t much of a defense. Smith


Feme Fatale

49. Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma, 2002)

In Femme Fatale, Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) packs a gun and a one-liner or two, challenging the way men perceive women and using that awareness to devour and spit out her men. Brian De Palma performs a triple whammy when he superimposes Romijn-Stamos’s face over that of the film’s many women (Barbara Stanwyck during the film’s opening shot and John Everett Millais’s Ophelia when Laure chit chats with Anonio Banderas’s Nicolas Bardo over cold espresso): He acknowledges the character’s split self, reinforces the dreamlike impulsion of the narrative, and provides the sexist noir tropes of the past with another affront. De Palma’s formal fixation with dualities is so pervasive that the film takes on the texture of something to be deciphered—like a puzzle. (Always there’s a sense of the past looking forward into the present, and that any given move can forever change the shape of all things.) Even the dash that separates “East” from “West” in the title of Regis Wargnier’s hideous East/West, the film enjoying its gala premiere during Femme Fatale’s Cannes Film Festival-set opening sequence, suggests a crisis, one between two very different worlds of thinking—and making movies. Gonzalez


Force of Evil

48. Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)

The climax in many a John Garfield-starring noir hinges upon a violent realization, as opposed to simply hinging upon violence. This crescendo arrives in Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil when Joe Morse (Garfield), a reptilian lawyer who tries to gain control of New York City’s numbers racket, discovers that his phone’s been tapped. He picks up the handle with slowness, to compensate for his overactive mind, and hears the dial tone’s smoothness disrupted with a nonchalant click—the wire-tapper’s residue. The screen cuts to Morse’s sweaty eyes in close-up; terror has emptied them not only of all emotion, but all thought. The film manages reversals in tone almost entirely through photographic rather than textual or aural means; its rather clever use of clicks in the sound design notwithstanding, the moral cadence is purely visual, as with superlative crime movies from the silent era. Consider, for example, the dark-washed final set piece, which occurs in lightless offices that have up until then been professionally sunny, despite the shadowy law-bending that took place within them. And the epilogue, wherein Morse hunts for a crucial piece of evidence under the Washington Bridge, exposes him, finally, to the pellucid and unconquerable immensity of New York City’s skyline (unseen since the main titles). This shakes loose the chamber film mustiness from Force of Evil while subjecting Morse’s ambitions to one last dwarfing. Morse loses, but New York wins. Lanthier


Point Blank

47. Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)

Influenced by the French New Wave’s radical formal innovations, the ennui of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, and the genre revisionism of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, John Boorman set out to make a thriller that looked and felt like nothing else before it, using widescreen Panavision cinematography, explosive colors, and a multi-layered soundtrack to re-envision the noir picture as highbrow Euro-art film. Whereas noirs generally boast a shadowy, expressionistic interplay between light and dark, Boorman casts most of his film in brilliant daylight and summery colors. Where noir creates a visual and thematic atmosphere of constriction and imprisonment, Boorman shoots everything in expansive widescreen that posits characters in oppressively open spaces and, when more than one person is on screen, at opposite ends of the frame. And instead of noir’s typically convoluted narratives involving plenty of unnecessary exposition, Point Blank is a model of silent visual storytelling that broke new ground in non-linear cinematic narrative construction. Schager


Moonrise

46. Moonrise (Frank Borzage, 1948)

Frank Borzage’s Moonrise is a sensual scrutiny of a man’s free will. In the film’s striking opening moments, a dazzling spectacle of black-and-white chiaroscuro conveys the throbbing sense of madness that’s cattle-branded into the imagination of Danny Hawkins, who’s terrorized by bullies from childhood to adulthood because of his father’s execution. When Danny (Dane Clark) kills one of his tormentors, he must struggle with the terrible push-pull effect of the past and the memory of his father on his psyche. Borzage magnificently frames the film along very severe, richly layered diagonal angles, catching nervous hands and faces from odd positions and giving startling visual expression to Danny’s loose grip on his moral compass. A shot might begin with Danny towering above a character, only to end with him cowering beneath the same person, and in a tour-de-force sequence at a town fair, Borzage’s camera moves in heady and terrifying tandem with the stop-go movements of a Ferris wheel. The director plays with shifting perspectives to convey the disorientation of a man struggling to stay on top even as he’s drowning. Gonzalez


The Narrow Margin

45. The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952)

As lean and muscular as its portly train passenger is obese (“Nobody loves a fat man except his grocer and tailor”), Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin delivers crisp crime drama interested in challenging assumptions about identity. Charles McGraw’s Det. Sgt. Walter Brown escorts a mobster’s wife, Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), to L.A. via locomotive so she can testify. Evading on-board killers and coping with sunshiny Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White) and her pesky kid, however, is nothing compared to the cop’s confounding attempts to decipher who’s who. Poised shifts in focus, disorienting cuts, and animated lighting bestow the surprise-filled story with concussive vigor, while Windsor’s pitiless broad gives it its dark sensuality. Schager


The Killing

44. The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)

Stanley Kubrick’s masterful manipulation of chronology brings an excruciating sense of doom to The Killing, a classical noir about a carefully threaded heist unraveled by the scheming of a fiendish femme. Having already emasculated her lapdog husband, Marie Windsor’s psychosexual dominatrix Sherry Peatty gets covetous upon catching wind of granite-faced Johnny Clay’s (Sterling Hayden) race-track robbery plot, which requires an eclectic assortment of participants (insane rifleman, wimpy clerk, crooked cop, kind bartender, chess-playing wrestler) and which is orchestrated—save for Windsor’s anomalously hot-blooded scenes—with the icy auteur’s trademark precision and attention to detail. Proficiently splicing and reshuffling the action until it seems that only fate (or the ever-godlike director) is fully in control of Hayden and his crew’s destinies, Kubrick generates portentous suspense via discordant staging and methodical camera calisthenics until, faced with inescapable failure, Hayden’s thug can barely muster the energy to utter, “Eh, what’s the difference.” Schager


Murder by Contract

43. Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner, 1958)

Limpid, compact low-budget ingenuity. Emotionless hepcat Claude (Vince Edwards) insinuates himself as a contract killer for an unseen Mr. Big and, after proving his efficiency with a couple of clean rubouts, gets handed a major assignment—offing a mob witness holed up behind a wall of feds. Closer to Paul Schrader’s narcissistic loners than to Jean-Pierre Melville’s spiritual sangfroid, Edward’s chilly sheen is stuffed with pocketbook fatalism, but Murder by Contract’s cunning oddness levels its pretensions. Irving Lerner’s camera records Claude’s moral emptiness with a sharpshooter’s calm—all the better to place his blankness against the jitters of Herschel Bernardi’s George and Phillip Pine’s Marc, the Mutt n’ Jeff hoods chaperoning him. Croce


High and Low

42. High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

Akira Kurosawa’s classic ronin heroes brandished samurai swords and long bows to achieve victory over their evil foes. The conflicted modern-day professionals populating his masterful crime drama High and Low don’t have the luxury of such black-and-white confrontations. These men live in a complex world ripe with ideological contradiction and corporate greed, a suffocating post-war landscape split apart by social unease. Whether it’s the tortured businessman Gondo (Toshirô Mifune), the focused Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) and his squadron of dedicated police, or the brutal kidnapper (Tsutomu Yamazaki) hounding them both, each finds absolution in the way of the pen, paper, or gun. In turn, investigatory process and rational thought become Kurosawa’s new duels for supremacy, stretching what initially seems like a straightforward procedural to the level of Shakespearean tragedy. Heath


Taxi Driver

41. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

In the same way that World War II is the unspoken backdrop to the hypermasculine, existential angst of the original noir cycle, so is the Vietnam War the repressed original trauma of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), the brainchild of screenwriter Paul Schrader. Bickle takes it upon himself to fix what he sees as a corrupt, fallen society, avenging the lost innocence embodied in an underage prostitute played by a young Jodie Foster. The ambivalence of Taxi Driver’s politics comes from the uncertainty of its emphasis: Is it on the notion of a morally sick modernity as embodied in Foster’s character, or on the cycle of violence perpetuated by the modern fascist who adopts the mantle of traditionalism? Much in the film points toward the latter, but the confessional mode of Martin Scorsese’s storytelling colors the story with the director’s fraught and rather conservative concern about the impossibility of a traditional moral order in the modern world. Brown


Underworld U.S.A.

40. Underworld U.S.A. (Samuel Fuller, 1961)

Samuel Fuller had a way of injecting, like steroids, a fatalistic energy into his films. The technical storytelling techniques employed in Underworld U.S.A. are some of the most unorthodox in classic American film; we repeatedly cross-cut between very different sets without any establishing shots to cushion the transition, and the camera nimbly trucks, crablike, across rooms to reveal major plot points without fanfare. The effect is disorienting—nearly inebriating—but it also in a way explains, or perhaps prepares us for, the odd, platonic betrayals that Fuller is obsessed with depicting. Every time we zoom into the pitch-black belly of a safe cracked open by the delinquent Tolly (Cliff Robertson), we’re enveloped by the dark interpretation of patriarchal loyalty the man must uphold by avenging his father’s death at the hands of powerful mobsters. Intentions—rather than actions, or Darwinian will—rule Fuller’s world, which might also be why his espirit remains an acquired taste: Intentions aren’t visceral enough to be instantly accessible. It’s not the editor’s violence that dooms him in Scandal Sheet but his hubris, and his aggrandizing desire to become the headline while eluding the unforgiving judgment of the printed page. And it’s Tolly’s cloud of feigned ignorance over the particulars of his daddy’s death in Underworld U.S.A. that allow his self-destructive intentions to flower so splendiferously—and to keep us violently cycling reactions of repudiation and identification toward the screen. Lanthier


Mulholland Drive

39. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

“Startlingly vulnerable” is Mulholland Drive in a nutshell. It suggests that Lynch got a little high on the un-ironic emotionalism of his wonderful The Straight Story, fusing it with a narrative that refines the malleable identity/reality crises that fueled Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Lost Highway. All of Mulholland Drive’s digressions are proven to narratively matter; a high degree of control is revealed to exist underneath a misleading aura of chaos. Adam Kesher’s temporary downfall, Camilla Rhodes’s career ascension, the pointed introduction of a Winkie’s waitress, Diane—these are major details disguised as minor ones. The “major” thread, a Sirkian amnesia mystery investigated by junior sleuths Rita (Laura Elena Harring) and Betty (Naomi Watts), is proven to be a form of distraction, a fantasy born from a death rattle. Winkie’s is haunted by a monster because something terrible and pitifully simple was brokered there. Betty’s potential stardom is really Camilla’s, though it takes us a while to meet the real Camilla. But, like the film’s other realities, she’s been right in front of us all along. Bowen


You Only Live Once

38. You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937)

“Oh kid, the bottom’s dropped out of everything,” says three-time loser Eddie (Henry Fonda) to his devoted wife, Joan (Sylvia Sidney), after realizing he’s been framed for murder. Eddie’s tried to fly the straight and narrow since his last trip to the clink, but everyone besides Joan sees only a two-bit crook. The world in Fritz Lang’s mesmerizingly bleak You Only Live Once is a cold and unforgiving place for an ex-con. Indeed, Eddie can’t catch a break, as he’s booted from a hotel in the middle of the night and then canned from his job, all because it’s impossible for him to shake the stink of having been inside prison. Now he’s stuck with a bill that can only be paid by the electric chair. When the truth is finally revealed, by a priest shrouded in shadow, it’s dimmed by so much hysteria. For Eddie, freedom exists only once he hits the open road, an outlaw on the run from the very system that put him in a vice grip and forced him back into the criminal world. Smith


Breathless

37. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

With its too-cool-for-school bevy of film and literary references, Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece both foresaw and helped to launch the now-dominant notion of pop-culture obsession as badge of honor. We may smile at Jean-Paul Belmondo’s rapt idolization of Humphrey Bogart, for instance, but it’s more knowing grin than disconnected smirk. Then there’s the ooh-la-la chic of Raoul Cotard’s black-and-white cinematography; the simmering yet self-aware dance of seduction enacted with such arch grace by Belmondo and Jean Seberg; the casual fatalism that never seems to go out of style, especially when spoken in French and accompanied by swirls of cigarette smoke. What remains most striking, and most moving, about Breathless is its sophisticated yet largely guileless faith in the filmic medium, a cinephilia untainted by smugness or cynicism. Of course, such affection did not stop Godard from throwing out a slew of established filmmaking rules, from the continuity editing system to the notion that a film had to be inhabited by psychologically-consistent “characters” acting out a linear, cause-and-effect “plot.” But watching Breathless, one never gets the sense that Godard breaks these conventions out of anger or disgust—at least not yet. It comes from a place of jittery excitement and possibility, the double vision of appreciating so deeply the riches of cinema’s past and seeing so vividly what shape its future could take. Matthew Connolly


Lost Highway

36. Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)

In Lost Highway, the anxious justification of a Hollywood Hills homeowner to a police investigator when asked why he prefers not to keep personal records—“I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them, not necessarily the way they happened”—might as well be David Lynch’s artistic mission statement as far as his relationship to noir is concerned. Structured as two discrete Los Angeles narratives sutured together at the film’s midpoint by sheer force of will, Lynch’s most sinister moebius strip spills the genre’s bare ingredients from its maker’s id in disconnected fashion, leaving the audience to sort through distorted archetypes, mystifying red herrings, and suggestive doublings without any of the usual causalities and linearities we expect from narrative filmmaking. First hypnotizing us with the story of Fred and Renee Madison (Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette), a married couple haunted by a series of inexplicably invasive videotapes left on their doorstep, the film then leaps to an alternate timeline (or is it dimension?) after a traumatizing act of violence occurs. Suddenly, we’re following newly released death-row inmate Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) as he readjusts to his suburban life and auto-mechanic gig while finding himself unable to escape the odd pull of a mobster friend’s blond bombshell of a mistress (also played by Arquette). Often analyzed as an experiential depiction of the rare phenomenon of psychogenic fugue, the film is best appreciated as an ever-unfurling nightmare in which the only thing worse than the stygian terrors on screen is the numbing reality one has to wake up to. Carson Lund


Odd Man Out

35. Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947)

Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out is a character study wrapped in the guise of a sociopolitical thriller, and a work which accordingly plays better when accentuating the moral and personal complexities of the former through the aesthetic prism of the latter, shedding the weight of topical investment even as the shadows of its influence hang literally and figuratively on the film’s dramatic landscape. As in The Third Man, which was also rooted in the feel of poetic realism and the look of German Expressionism, much of Odd Man Out is given over to conversations about an off-screen character—in this case Johnny (James Mason), a radical insurgent on the lam in Belfast—who nonetheless propels the action through his own non-action. In lieu of a traditional protagonist, supporting characters are tasked with preserving the story’s intrigue. These include a sympathetic priest (W.G. Fay), a steely eyed police officer (Denis O’Dea), a down-on-his-luck local (F.J. McCormick), and an opportunistic artist (Robert Newton)—idiosyncratic figures granted individual episodes with narrative consequence ranging from purely functional to genuinely stirring. The film’s through line, however, is Johnny and Kathleen’s (Kathleen Ryan) doomed romance, wrested from their grip only to be reclaimed and, ultimately, sealed by their own hands. It’s a bleak, suitably intimate conclusion to a film which from its opening proclamation portends something expressly visceral. Cronk


Ace in the Hole

34. Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)

In Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), Ace in the Hole synonymizes interpersonal nastiness with an American’s ultimate right to do whatever the hell he or she wants, because whatever most anyone wants will almost certainly be bad for themselves and everyone else. That’s the great American riddle of freedom that Wilder’s unpacking. Wilder thrusts you headfirst into a frenzy of parasitic activity. You wait for a respite from the debauchery, for a character who testifies just a little to life’s potential for decency or at least mercy, and Wilder, aware that you’re awaiting such reassurance, toys with you again and again. Even the film’s sacrificial lamb, Leo Mimosa (Richard Benedict), is morally tainted, as he’s stuck in a mine cave-in because he was looting Native American artifacts. That’s not illegal, it’s Richard’s family’s land, but this action only reaffirms Wilder’s worldview of society as a series of negotiations pertaining to gradations of violation, whether personal or business. In several gorgeous and despairing master shots taken from Tatum’s point of view as he surveys his kingdom from atop a mountain perch, the carnival, with its corrupt law officials, firemen, lonely wives, school children, and even a restaurant, suggests a boom town at the dawn of the gold rush. In this extremis, the country’s political and social machinations are peeled of elaborations and subtleties to reveal one gloriously intricate long con that started with our fleecing of the Native Americans’ land (a recurring subtext) and pushes on with our fooling ourselves with a media system that we use primarily to sate our greed and ghoulish curiosities. Bowen


Night and the City

33. Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950)

In Jules Dassin’s unorthodox noir Night and the City, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) is a snipe without a career plan, an “artist without an art,” as one character states early on, whose hustling of tourists and quick-cash schemes result in widespread disdain at even a mention of the character’s name, most notably among his former business partner (Francis L. Sullivan) and sometime lover (Gene Tierney). Dassin is interested in Fabian as an idea, as a point of contention for contemplating the stakes of business ethics. After all, Fabian isn’t a boy, but not yet a man, who’s likely to be reviled by those too quick to pass judgment, neglecting to see that Fabian’s struggle is real and one derived from his refusal to accept the terms of a law-abiding cash flow. He’s a crook, to be sure, but determining what kind of crook is the driving force behind the film, which is fraught with perilous tensions regarding personal wealth and communal well-being and ultimately serves as a companion piece to the equally irreverent Thieves’ Highway. Dassin affords Fabian the space to witness his own crashing and burning, which lends Night and the City a sweetly noxious air, where failings of desire lead to an inevitable end of violent restitution, carving out the cancerous, societal cell. That’s what everyone comes to view Fabian as: a worm, a lesion, a spot to be removed. Nevertheless, one would be wholly remiss to categorize Dassin’s film as taking the same stance, since there’s a perpetual empathy afforded to Fabian, often in close-up, with Widmark’s trademark grin and eyes, reeking of freshly minted desperation, caked upon years of slimy, two-bit behavior. Dillard


Daisy Kenyon

32. Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947)

Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon is a troubling and ambiguous portrayal of three real, unknowable characters (and actors) in constant flux, which means constant danger, both emotional and physical. “There’s nothing like a crisis to show what’s really inside people,” says Daisy (Joan Crawford), a tense, willful woman unhappily involved in an affair with a married man, attorney Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews). Actually, Preminger’s film proves through patient, almost medical analysis that people are even more difficult to figure out when they get pushed to their limits. Preminger delights in scrutinizing the often inscrutable masks of his three lead actors, gliding his camera like a panther in and out of their lonely, studio-set darkened spaces. The film, which was generally dismissed as a slick triangle melodrama, has emerged as one of the most adult of all post-war noirs, filled to the brim with subsidiary characters who seem to have their own life and cares. If you want to see what a major director can do with standard material, just watch the way Preminger handles a late restaurant confrontation between the participants of his queasy love triangle, alternating close-ups and off-kilter framing until the tension reaches such a boil that it starts to burn away everything but the salient, courtroom-like facts of the matter. Soap opera is distilled to its real-life essence, until what’s left is nothing less than the ultimate mystery of art. Dan Callahan


The Reckless Moment

31. The Reckless Moment (Max Ophüls, 1949)

Between her collaborations with Fritz Lang and role in Max Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment, Joan Bennett is surely the grande dame of noir. In Ophüls’s film, though, Bennet doesn’t play the role of the femme fatale, but a strong-willed mother struggling to maintain the seeming normalcy of her middle-class existence. Blackmail, murder, and dangerous gangsters all rear their ugly heads after Bennett’s Lucia, taking her role as protector of the family to irrational heights, disposes the body of her teenage daughter’s criminal lover. And yet despite the potential terror and violence bearing down on her, Lucia still manages to pay the bills and make it home in time for dinner. Existential dread is exhausting business, however, as is apparent in the brilliant sequence of Lucia lugging a corpse through a beach and onto a boat in order subsequently dump the body in the water. Throughout, Bennett imbues Lucia with a chilling stoicism within Ophüls’s shadowy long takes, making this most demanding of roles seem almost easy. Greene


They Live By Night

30. They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1949)

Nicolas Ray’s They Live By Night is a genre flick featuring only the bare minimum of generic trappings. It favors the quiet dramas of decision-making and one-on-one commiseration to the louder spectacles that occur, often unseen, to push the plot along. The dismal conditions surrounding Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie’s (Cathy O’Donnell) affair, while exposing the flaws in the institution of marriage, never impede the prospect of love, and Ray dedicates much screen time to episodes of whispery tenderness at the expense of any titillating criminal subplots. Indeed, often the only reminders of the parties trailing our hero are oblique in nature, as in the scene when the rumble of a passing train outside gets mistaken by Bowie as the sound of encroaching authorities. Paranoia briefly sets in, but Ray takes an unexpected route by inching his camera closer and closer to his characters’ faces as their affections strengthen in the face of sure disaster. (The film, then, isn’t a traditional, moralistic noir that fixates on the deterioration of a romance as a result of criminal associations.) The ostensible conflict dissipates to reveal the existential condition underneath: Sustained happiness is an impossibility in a world determined to commodify everyone and everything. Lund


Gilda

29. Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946)

Charles Vidor’s Gilda places its eponymous bombshell between two men—both sexually frustrated, both concealing their impotence through deviant business practice—and has them not actually care too much about her beyond her value as a trophy to shield their perpetually fractured egos. The film questions the honesty of each character’s intentions by consistently revealing their interests to be wholly self-serving. Gilda is best appreciated as an intelligent back and forth on the fantasy of possessing another. Perhaps the film’s perspective on the battle of the sexes can be best summarized by Detective Maurice Obregon (Joseph Calleia), who introduces himself by commenting that “women can be extremely annoying.” Much later, when offering advice to Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) following an arrest, he ponders: “How dumb can a man be?” It’s the contingency of these statements that fascinates, because the film rightly recognizes that every character is capable of numerous actions that would qualify as “annoying” or “dumb,” but also that annoyance, on Gilda’s (Rita Hayworth) part, lies in the eye of the beholder. In the world of Gilda, and the greater spectrum of noir, it’s always about who’s watching. Dillard


The Woman in the Window

28. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944)

In both his German and American productions, Lang’s characters wrestle with impulses that are at odds with prevailing social standards. Similarly, Lang, an architect of film noir, had to learn how to tame his massive and politically dangerous visions for America, which isn’t as uncomfortable with anti-fascist sentiments as it should be. Lang understands the suppression that’s casual in American life, even for the privileged men who’ve benefitted most from the American contract, such as Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson), the protagonist of Lang’s gripping and subtly devastating The Woman in the Window. Notions of suppression and control serve as the film’s text, rather than as subtext. In the first scene, Wanley lectures a class on how the law has variously interpreted murder so as to represent the ambiguity of an act that can be committed for many reasons. Pointedly, Wanley notes that killing for gain and out of self-defense are markedly different, inadvertently foreshadowing the predicament that he will soon face. The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street share many fascinating similarities, operating as parallels as well as inverses of one another, but Robinson’s respective performances are subtly differentiated. Wanley’s bitterness is laundered, passed off by the man as a kind of dignified resignation, which Robinson plays with a poignant musicality. He’s integral to the success of the film as an early and intricate deconstruction of the biases driving film noir. Bowen


The Wrong Man

27. The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)

The Wrong Man finds Alfred Hitchcock far enough removed from his P.T. Barnum impulses that one could be forgiven for thinking its somber gravity represented his first stab at docudrama. In any case, it’s a woefully underrated and truly harrowing study of the psychological cost of misguided suspicion and mistaken identity. Hitchcock’s shadowy mise-en-scène is given a greater sense of veracity through his use of actual NYC locations and simple, almost workmanlike camera compositions (at its most effective, the film plays like the best episodes the Master of Suspence directed for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, only in excruciatingly brutal slow motion), and the narrative structure gains considerable urgency through the decision to begin the storyline almost immediately preceding Manny Balestrero’s (Henry Fonda) arrest. The audience is kept at a slight distance from the protagonist and, like his wife Rose (Vera Miles), is forced to take innocence at his word. And when Rose’s mind begins to unravel under the pressure of her own culpability in his alleged crimes (unlike many other Hitchcock characters, the real-life figure of Rose shoulders the guilt without any qualm), the sense of moral responsibility in Hitchcock’s films may have never felt more imperative and succinct. Henderson


Blade Runner

26. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

The dying Earth of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? reeks of pathos, dust, and decay, but it seems functional—beset by entropy, but functional all the same. The grunge and rot of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, by contrast, owes a sizable debt to the legacies of film noir and steampunk: a future defined by overdevelopment, under-regulation, hubris, and greed. The film is fueled by iconography: icons that don’t always need to point outside the text, but half a self-sustaining power of their own. That’s why Roy (Rutger Hauer) is the titanic antihero, whose sheer magnitude as a synthetic being embarrasses the ineffectual Deckard (Harrison Ford), the ex-flatfoot whose character arc is a slender thread of fuck-ups and accidental victories. Nearly a minor character in the book, almost on the level of some expendable Dragnet hoodlum, Roy is transformed into the film’s evil superhuman, a universal adaptor capable of being fixed with any major philosophical lens (Nietzsche, Kant, Descartes, etc.). I tear up when I read certain passages in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; I can’t say the same for Blade Runner. Then again, no one mourns in the film, except in a stolen moment (when Roy discovers Daryl Hannah’s defeated Pris), and Scott uses a reliable surrogate for tears to pay respects, on our behalf, when Roy’s spirit finally takes flight. Tears in the rain, indeed. Christley


Night Moves

25. Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975)

Watergate-era paranoid thrillers are defined by their sense of overwhelming despair at confronting the caprice of institutional power, with an emphasis on their protagonists’ total helplessness when they rock the boat, only to discover just how many career- and life-crushing resources their foes have at their disposal. Night Moves is an outlier in this respect, defined by the weary depression of the cynic whose worst predictions have been confirmed. It stresses the indignity of learning how small one really is, and one can scarcely blame Gene Hackman’s Moseby for emotionally sealing himself from the world. As the film’s mystery gradually unfurls and becomes increasingly grotesque, however, Moseby is shaken from his detachment, increasingly invested in revealing the truth even as his dedication only seems to open him up to be battered by the system’s cruelties. It all culminates in one of the bleakest finales of a genre renowned for its grim, disturbingly open-ended conclusions. Moseby, left to impotently watch a man die, finally reintegrates into the land of the living, only to be ejected from it with greater force than ever through sheer trauma. Cole


The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

24. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976)

The ever-widening moral and societal implications of the seemingly simple conceits that John Cassavetes’s narratives rotate on are hardwired into the physical and conversational liberation of his performers. The tremendous emotions summoned are rarely confronted directly, but are elicited through the wild-eyed, strikingly instinctive imagery. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, there’s a great cut between Cosmo (Ben Gazzara) being approached by gangsters and the planning of the titular crime in a corner booth. We don’t see the criminals him-haw around their demands, because the John Cassavetes skips over the oft-obligatory lead-ins to discussions of murder. What we get is a clear sense of the filmmaker’s distaste for killers who play coy to mask their monstrous intentions, but also a keen avoidance of reiterating what has led Cosmo to this fate. Cassavetes respects these criminals as characters, but he doesn’t wish to luxuriate in their company any more than he has to. Chris Cabin


Blue Velvet

23. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)

Cut and dried, Blue Velvet rolls together David Lynch’s two diametrically opposed, but indivisible, views of American life: One is the “white picket fences” façade, the other its grimy, badly infected underbelly. None approach his film in terms of tone and control, the fusion of unlike halves mastered with a kind of honest-faced plainness that was, in some ways, the one truly unprecedented part of Lynch’s personality, up to that point expressed most freely in the organic perversions of Eraserhead and the claustrophobic industrial cityscapes of The Elephant Man. A conventionally appealing quality of Blue Velvet is the way its “plunge” into dark territories from unambiguously bright ones (played out twice, once in montage, then more gradually in narrative) is hitched to a character (played by Kyle MacLachlan) by two classic dramatic hooks: the plucky young detective trying to solve a mystery and the good-faced young boy who’s trying to win the heart of the town’s prettiest girl. But these things, in fact the whole dramatic trajectory, seem incidental to the way the images of Lumberton and its various inner zones are a lot like Lynch’s work sculpture and painting, ever infused with the inner life of nightmares, with an exploded chicken here and a baby-doll head there. Christley


Le Samouraï

22. Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s films celebrate code of conduct as a self-justifying reward—a notion that enjoys less currency in our self-absorbed present day. And so Le Samouraï is driven by the subterranean merger between Jef Costello (Alain Delon) and Melville’s working credos. Jef derives satisfaction from his sense of style, which fuses dandy poetry with a working man’s enjoyment of the quotidian. As played, or more accurately inhabited, by one of the most beautiful men in cinema, Jef wears his fedora, trench coat, and white gloves with the precision of a model, adjusting his hat with a dancer’s grace, its brim seemingly ready to slice through metal. But Jef also steals cars and barters with middlemen of the criminal underworld, revealing the grit and the teeth that reside underneath his neat and nearly androgynous presence. Jef fingers a ring of keys, used for stealing cars, with a grace that weds white- and blue-collar modes of sexuality. He’s dancer, mechanic, killer, and high-stakes thief all in one, an antihero for people of all classes, who’re governed by all erotic hungers. Bowen


Shoot the Piano Player

21. Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960)

Shoot the Piano Player gives the film noir a peculiar, self-reflexive spin. François Truffaut’s film reiterates the genre’s multifold sins against women—its stylization of them as alluring objects, its fear of their sexual agency, and its almost ritualistic sacrifice of them—but with both self-consciousness and a bad conscience. Almost every male character expresses an unsolicited opinion about women, often at comically dissonant moments, as when Charlie and Léna’s (Charles Aznavour and Marie Dubois) kidnappers strike up a conversation about gender relations while they hold the pair at gunpoint in the car. Charlie, rather than the brusquely masculine noir hero of yore, is insecure (he has to buy self-help books on conquering shyness) and broken up about the suicide of his wife—which, in his former life as famed concert pianist Edouard Saroyan, he helped cause with his jealousy. In the end, it’s not the femme fatale who’s punished, but the innocent woman, doomed by the perverse hypermasculinity of Charlie’s gangster brothers. Truffaut’s ironic, breezy film is not not sexist, but it also is not unaware of its genre’s guilt. Brown


Laura

20. Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)

Laura (Gene Tierney) isn’t a real character for two-thirds of Otto Preminger’s film, only talked about, remembered, eroticized and gazed upon as an image of unfathomable beauty. She’s an illusion, a reflection of what every wants to see in her. Yet even when she reappears, she still isn’t treated as a real character in her first few minutes of screen time. Before McPherson wakes up, Preminger’s camera, which glides upon the dozing detective within the completely static apartment, gives the impression that he’s possibly entering a dream state. When Laura walks into her apartment and detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) does a double take, it’s equally difficult for the viewer to accept her corporeal presence. This moment is beautifully climactic of a truth the film has been hinting at, through the considerate, yearning score that swells as the hardboiled McPherson searches her apartment, reads her private letters, smells her clothes, and tries to “know” the missing Laura: He’s fallen in love with a dead woman. Newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker’s (Clifton Webb) derision is spot on: “You’d better watch out, McPherson, or you’ll finish up in a psychiatric ward. I doubt they’ve ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.” The premise is prematurely Hitchcockian, and in Preminger’s hands such obsessive love is simply, irrefutably tragic, a result of failed patriarchal domination. Tina Hassania


The Night of the Hunter

19. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)

The Night of the Hunter is so loaded with neurotic symbology that it can accommodate nearly any meaning any generation wishes to assign to it, and that’s the source of its uneasy, primordial power. The film is a nightmare coming-of-age story that concerns a child who learns that adults (and, by extension, their rules) aren’t only fallible, but given to pronounced malevolence. The imagery heightens our impression of John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his little sister Pearl’s (Sally Jane Bruce) feelings of exclusion from society following the boy’s rude social awakening. Nearly every shot communicates a sense that the actors are pointedly divorced from their surroundings. Robert Mitchum doesn’t exactly play Reverend Harry Powell as an evil deity, but as a self-entitled child who feels that he should have whatever he wants because he makes a pretense of being in the “god business” with the reverend shtick. Mitchum lets you see Harry’s absurdity, and thus his humanity, which only allows him to grow larger in your thoughts as a figure of terror, an agent of unquantifiable reckoning who reveals that faith is only as noble, or as diseased, as its practitioner. Bowen


The Lady from Shanghai

18. The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)

The Lady from Shanghai plays as a rough draft for Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, as it similarly operates as the audio-visual equivalent of a draftsman’s sketchbook, with the nearly incoherent plot serving as a springboard for a variety of self-contained vignettes, ostentatiously symbolic shots, motifs, and probable ideas for future projects. There’s the long commanding scene where Michael (Welles) and Arthur (Everett Sloane) discuss the benefits and perils of money that ends, in true Welles fashion, with the villain making the most sense. There’s the tranquil, baked-in sexual evil of the entire boat-trip sequence, which culminates in a ravishingly suggestive horizontal shot of a two-piece-clad Elsa (Rita Hayworth), and which appears to have later informed the tone of Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water. There’s the great absurd courtroom scene that climaxes with Arthur cross-examining himself, and, of course, there’s the legendary hall-of-mirrors shoot-out, which is known by people who haven’t even seen the film. The cherry on top of this huge melting sundae is the dialogue at large, which is almost entirely composed of quotable only-in-the-movies luxury super-star bon mots: “You need more than luck in Shanghai”; “You’ve been traveling the world too much to find out anything about it”; “Everybody is somebody’s fool”; and so forth. Bowen


Sunset Boulevard

17. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

The savage creature that is aging screen legend Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard sees the cinema as a once-miraculous fountain of youth, diluted and muddied by technology and what she sees as false ambition. The character’s fury is aimed at the advent of talkies and the new talent that it requires, but said talent merely serves as the perfect patsy to distract from the actress’s own limitations and her stalling indulgence in the comforts of fame and praise. in an exquisite early scene, Desmond and her devoted house servant, Max (Erich von Stroheim), run Queen Kelly, von Stroheim’s masterful late silent, which starred Swanson, for Gillis in a private screening room, and the screen comes to glowing life as a young Swanson makes a prayer with candles. The beauty of the subject and the beauty of how the subject is framed are inseparable in Queen Kelly, as in most great films. Beauty may become a more subjective term in the face of Sunset Boulevard, but it’s no less a masterpiece than von Stroheim’s film, and when Wilder catches Olson at just the right angle, and just the right light, the two films share a common beauty. More importantly, it becomes clear that those artists with propensities for great beauty and greater insight see beyond both technical innovations and limitations, and are never in need of a close-up to validate their abilities. Cabin


On Dangerous Ground

16. On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952)

Perched between late-’40s noir and mid-’50s crime drama, On Dangerous Ground is one of the great, forgotten works of the genre. Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a time-bomb of a New York cop, tormented by the urban squalor he sees around him; after roughing up one too many crooks, he’s assigned to track down a killer in wintry upstate, where he falls for Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), the main suspect’s blind sister. Easily mushy, the material achieves a nearly transcendental beauty in the hands of Nicholas Ray, a poet of anguished expression: The urban harshness of the city is contrasted with the austere snowy countryside for some of the most disconcertingly moving effects in all film noir. Despite the violence and the steady intensity, this is a remarkably pure film. Croce


Sweet Smell of Success

15. Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

Contorting words, loyalties, perspectives, and truths is second nature for a high-powered New York City columnist, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), and his publicist lackey, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). There are no heroes in Sweet Smell of Success, just victimizers and victims. Often, key characters inhabit both roles simultaneously, with the sleek and sly Sidney fitting this mold perfectly. One second Sidney’s a sweet talker, the next he’s gutting your character from the inside out, and it’s this type of back and forth that makes the film so enthralling. Alexander Mackendrick’s visuals are ever-bustling as they survey the city, but they take on a balmy thousand-yard stare during interiors, planting next to characters in almost devotional static shots as they berate each other to a bloody pulp. And its that almost elemental focus on how people poison each other’s that makes the film such a virtuosic, damning, and, above all else, intoxicating portrait of American power lust. Heath


The Maltese Falcon

14. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

John Huston was one of those directors who seemed to arrive on the scene fully formed. His iconically hard-boiled first film, The Maltese Falcon, made small-time gangster actor Humphrey Bogart into Humphrey Bogart, the world-weary, sarcastic, small but tough, crass but romantic persona he’d inhabit for much of his career. The plot of the film, in which the falcon-statuette MacGuffin isn’t even mentioned until well into the second act, is almost beside the point; the interactions between Bogart’s Sam Spade and the cast of eccentric characters that parade through his office is what makes the film. Spade exhibits an almost inscrutable obstinacy regarding anyone’s interests but his own, defying and mocking the police with the same casual disdain as he does the nefarious gangster Kasper “The Fat Man” Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). Considering how much of The Maltese Falcon takes place in Spade’s office, it’s a credit to the direct snappiness of Huston’s script and direction—akin to the pared-down modernism of Ernest Hemingway (or Dashiell Hammett)—that the film remains one of the most riveting and downright fun noir films. Brown


Scarlet Street

13. Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)

Against the grain of what we might assume about put-upon little guys in movies and the way they eventually lash out, Fritz Lang actually only dwells on the tableaux of Chris Cross’s (Edgar G. Robinson) eunuchized doldrums to make one almost invisible moment work—when, over a pair of Rum Collinses with Kitty March (Joan Bennett), the man doesn’t really correct her when she makes the fateful assumption that he’s some kind of big-shot famous painter. Jean Renoir and Lang shared an interest in watching the human animal in his or her natural habitat, while underlining, whenever possible, the elaborate mechanics that governed their interactions, their movement through society, and the changes they underwent across epochal time. There are essential differences, however. Renoir, during his first celebrated period of the early and middle 1930s, was quite comfortable with the jovial profanity of Michel Simon’s layabouts, as well as the pre-Method fury of Jean Gabin’s crumpled heroes. On the other hand, Lang’s photographic precision indicated that he was more concerned with pivotal dramatic moments, the lightning crashes that, even if they might be forgotten (as Cross’s first run-in with Dan Duryea’s rangy pimp Johnny Prince is quickly put out of the film’s mind), tend to signal a sea change in the lives of all concerned. Christley


Pickup on South Street

12. Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953)

The world of Pickup on South Street is familiar to admirers of Samuel Fuller’s other films, abounding in a lurid cavalcade of unforgettable oddballs who collectively show America to be a place of cracked schemers and dreamers working for their own interests. Like many crime-film directors, Fuller regards his crooks fondly as the people who’re willing to see America for what it is and play by the real rules accordingly, while the cops are hypocrites who hide their prudish self-righteousness behind their badges. There’s a weird, fascinating conflict of politics in Fuller’s vision, as it glorifies both an informal socialism as well as an ethos that’s most typically described as survival of the fittest. The criminals sell each other out, particularly in a wonderful running gag with professional stoolie Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter), but warn each other about said sell-outs, holding no grudges, while eventually dying to protect others. On top of this contradiction, Fuller grooves on a definitively masculine urge to behave as a metaphorical alley cat, doing whatever the hell you like, precisely for the hell of it. Bowen


Double Indemnity

11. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

This is the blueprint for a certain kind of film noir, where the perfect crime comes undone by the protagonists’ greed and paranoia. Its dialogue is the perfect mix of hard-boiled poetry and acidic wit: “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” So asks insurance salesman Walter Neff (“Two f’s, like in Philadelphia, if you know the story”) just before meeting his irresistible soon-to-be accomplice, Phyllis Dietrichson, who happens to be unhappily married to a rich, older man. Played by Barbara Stanwyck, Phyllis is the textbook femme fatale, all cold calculation beneath an exterior that promises untold delights to the man who can win her. No one in Billy Wilder’s film, based on the novel by James M. Cain and co-written by Raymond Chandler, is as smart as they think they are, but everyone is weaker and more dishonest than they appear. Released in 1944, during the height of WWII, Wilder’s pitch-black vision of human treachery and moral failure is only lightened by the film’s surrogate family relationships. Walter tries to be a good father figure to Phyllis’s orphaned stepdaughter and a good son to his boss (Edward G. Robinson). If our relationships have doomed us to this catastrophe, Wilder implies, maybe the ones we salvage from the wreckage of the war can save us all. Ivanov


Detour

10. Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)

There’s a fragility to Detour that only strengthens its spell. Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film is an inventively sparse mixture of docudrama and DIY expressionism: There are no lush sets and camera pirouettes on display here, as Ulmer makes do with found settings, isolated props, and abbreviated, shaky tracking shots that are rich in authentic and incidental textures. There is tension between edits that cobble sometimes mismatched takes together, meaning that one can almost feel the work that’s necessary here to sustaining an illusion with limited means. Detour has a fly-by-night intensity, then, that’s derived by the thinning of the distance between the film’s collaborators and the audience, suggesting the fluid quality of live art, particularly theater and musical concerts, with the gutter vitality of pulp fiction at its most wrenchingly subjective. Bowen


The Long Goodbye

9. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)

Simultaneously an act of revisionism as well as a parody of then-revitalizing neo-noir, Robert Altman’s adaptation of pulp legend Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye is perhaps the director’s most audacious act of genre deconstruction in a career filled with contenders, most of which are accompanied by ampersands: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, O.C. & Stiggs, and Vincent & Theo. There’s no “and” to pair off with Elliot Gould’s interpretation of Philip Marlowe. Though the film opens on a note of camaraderie and trust between Marlowe and his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), who appears to be in a major pinch but who Marlowe whisks to Tijuana no questions asked, the rest of the film punctuates the complete dislocation of traditional noir masculinity from the cultural snooze button that was post-1960s California. In Chandler’s books, Marlowe’s composure in rat-a-tat-tat surroundings was cool and disarming. In Altman’s Los Angeles of Hemingway knock-offs, thousand-dollar-a-day psychiatric playground retreats, Barbara Stanwyck-impersonating parking attendants, cats with gourmet tastes, and topless Yoga bimbos with a penchant for pot brownies, Marlowe’s persona is not only a relic, it’s nearly uncool. Henderson


The Big Heat

8. The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)

The Big Heat is a feast of resonant terseness, and its subject is ultimately what’s pointedly missing from it until the heartbreaking ending: sullied, qualified compassion, in a prosperous world with a foundation deeply eaten up by hypocrisy and corruption. Lang doesn’t make a pretense of decrying vengeance, and he doesn’t valorize it either, offering it up matter-of-factly as shit that happens. Every character in the film shares Lang’s frankness, his forwardness, which refuses to apologize for human will. This bracing maturity might also be linked to the artist’s real experience with fascism: He accepts chaos as inherent, and he has no patience for children’s piety. The Big Heat is truly a hard-boiled film, and its nastiness cleanses the noir of the masculine self-pity that often lards the genre. These men aren’t victims or patsies, particularly of women, who are endlessly destroyed in this film; they’re vicious movers and shakers who go to war purposefully, for their own reasons. Bowen


Chinatown

7. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

With Chinatown, director Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne fashioned a multifaceted morality play that spoke both to a specific (and enduring) history of violence and corruption in the City of Angels and, more broadly, to the disenchanted orphans of the Summer of Love: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” If this terse ode to futility came to be recognized as one of the great final lines in film history, it’s because few others so succinctly addressed the tenor of their times—in this case, the downbeat mood exuded like a malign miasma by New Hollywood cinema in the mid-1970s, a world-weary shrug of resignation. Despite the film’s forgivably literal ending, Chinatown was never meant as an actual destination, so much as a state of mind, a country of vague terrain where the customs are alien, motivations always suspect, and the only thing you can depend on is that no good deed will go unpunished. Hence this exchange: “What did you do there?” “As little as possible.” Budd Wilkins


Touch of Evil

6. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

Retrospectively, The Lady from Shanghai plays as a rough draft for Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, as it similarly operates as the audio-visual equivalent of a draftsman’s sketchbook, with the nearly incoherent plot serving as a springboard for a variety of self-contained vignettes, ostentatiously symbolic shots, motifs, and probable ideas for future projects. But if The Lady from Shanghai coasts, Touch of Evil soars, as it’s charged by a bracing sense of autobiographical grandeur. In short: Welles’s desperation as an artist at the mercy of a hypocritical studio regime merges here with the desperation of his socially entrapped characters. Bowen


Kiss Me Deadly

5. Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)

Calling Kiss Me Deadly one of the darkest detective thrillers ever made, or the ultimate film noir, doesn’t do it justice. Robert Aldrich’s adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s novel doesn’t merely exemplify those two genres and identify the places where they overlap. It defines the difference between cynicism and nihilism, then throws down with the nihilists, if for no other reason than to show you what it means to live in a world where nothing matters. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) has a suit and car, plus the power of speech, but that’s about all that separates him from any other randy carnivore that ever walked the earth. Aldrich’s high-contrast, super-dark images and crazy Dutch angles push noir conventions to cartoon extremes; in earlier noirs, these visual affectations implied moral instability, but here their exaggeration signifies a moral vacuum bereft of ethical and spiritual moorings. The exact nature and purpose of the “great whatsit” is never satisfactorily explained, but its eventual appearance—accompanied by one of the greatest and most lovingly imitated Pandora’s Box images in film history—makes for a perfect ending. Matt Zoller Seitz


The Third Man

4. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

Carol Reed’s The Third Man, like many of the era’s seminal noirs, examines a modern post-war environment where people’s lives are treated as nothing more than a means to financial success (see also Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, the murder plot of which literally boils a man’s life down to a dollar amount). By utilizing the German-inspired visual techniques of wide shots, canted angles, jagged architecture, and expressionistic chiaroscuro lighting, directors like Reed and Wilder created an environment of spatial and moral confusion in which their pulpy narratives could take on the ethical weight of a biblical proverb. As Harry Lime (Orson Welles) attempts to escape from the police in the sewers of Vienna, he grasps helplessly up through a sewer grate at a light he can’t reach, and the effect is that of the wicked being denied entrance into heaven. And in The Third Man, such an image isn’t even remotely silly; it’s pure, devastating and vital, just as much now as it was then. Matt Noller


The Big Sleep

3. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)

The squalid, damp well from which Kiss Me Deadly, The Long Goodbye, and Inherent Vice emerge, Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep is the apotheosis of the Los Angeles-set crime film, the movie to cement the city’s upper-crust neighborhoods as convoluted webs of corruption and murder. Set in foggy, depopulated west-side backroads and suspiciously spotless mansions, the story never leaves the swaggering company of Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart), a devastatingly cool private eye who’s been promised good money to settle a potential blackmail case weighing over the head of beautiful heiress Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall). As crooked gamblers, shady dames, and moneyed crime leaders pile up, each pointing to a new set of possible culprits, Marlowe finds himself inexorably pulled into Vivian’s radiant orbit even as every other dazzling woman he encounters throws herself at him. This being a Hawks film, the chemistry between the two characters never flourishes into full-blown romance and often resembles something much more platonic or even familial, and yet it’s all the more spellbinding because of that unfulfilled potential. The Big Sleep is a film that tantalizingly grooves around the edges of things—sex, knowledge, L.A.’s polite society, the very meaning behind the big network of clues and red herrings—and leaves you content to wallow in the murk. Lund


Out of the Past

2. Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

It makes sense that one of the darkest and truly existentialist noir films was directed by Jacques Tourneur, a director otherwise known best for brooding horror films like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, and who, a native of France, shared a homeland with existentialism. As played by Robert Mitchum, protagonist Jeff Bailey projects a coolness that shades into a passive acceptance of fate. When an unexpected and obviously threatening figure from his secret past appears in the small Nevada town he’s been hiding out in, Jeff shows almost no reaction, as if he always expected his sins to catch up with him. Thrust back into a world he had played a key role in shaping—one lorded over by the gangster Whit (Kirk Douglas in one of cinema’s juiciest villain roles)—Jeff makes an effort to escape again, but Mitchum’s characteristic heavy eyelids and laconic performance make it seem as if the man’s just sleepwalking through the motions. Jeff represents the existentialist hero par excellence, the man who defies fate, paradoxically, by accepting it, staring it impassively in the face. Brown


In a Lonely Place

1. In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

Throughout In a Lonely Place, Nicholas Ray complements Humphrey Bogart’s performance with an atmosphere of closed-off stagnation that would prove greatly influential to such self-conscious, meta-textual noirs as The Long Goodbye, L.A. Confidential, and Mulholland Drive. Ray exhibits a matter-of-fact mastery of tone that would become a trademark in his work. In a Lonely Place is a tricky thriller that’s understated in its exploration of the theme of dream versus reality that governs most Hollywood-set mysteries. Like all insecure, domineering control freaks, Dixon (Bogart) must be the big fish of his own pond. It’s a pond that can house no other fish, and he chafes at the stifling limitations of this prison while feeling incapable of reaching beyond it. His one attempt to escape it, pulling Laurel (Gloria Grahame) into his own hell, proves unsuccessful, and we’re as grateful for her as we are heartbroken for him. And it’s this double awareness that informs In a Lonely Place with the irresolvable heft of tragedy. Bowen

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