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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

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