Top Ten Film Noirs

By Thomas Sweterlitsch

Film Noir is one of the most significant American art forms and, consciously or not, all mystery and thriller writers still work under its influence.  For writers who haven’t yet delved into noir, it’s an easy genre to sink into.  The movies are intense, plot-driven, psychologically powerful and full of romance and eroticism.  And so many of them are good—it was easy for me to make a list of top 25 films, but narrowing it down to the top 10 was difficult (though, if you were only going to watch a couple, try a double feature of The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity).  

Determining when Film Noir begins is a matter of some debate, but generally speaking the movement was born in the early 1930s as European filmmakers fled growing fascism in Germany, bringing the German Expressionist film aesthetic to the Hollywood crime drama (a related movement was happening at the same time with the Universal horror movies, which share many aesthetic hallmarks of the Film Noir thriller).  There are proto-noirs in the later 1930s, but most movies now thought of as ‘Noir’ were made in the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s. 

Many more people seem to agree on the end of the classic film noir period, with Orson Welles’ 1958 Touch of Evil being the last true Noir.

One note: Alfred Hitchcock made many of his greatest thrillers during this period, and some are undoubtedly noir, but I left him off this list, thinking of Hitchcock as a category unto himself.

10. Kiss Me Deadly (1955, director Robert Aldrich)

An adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s novel featuring detective Mike Hammer and blending nihilism, a science-fictional doomsday, and brutal justice, Kiss Me Deadly is a personal favorite. The plot launches when Hammer picks up a beautiful hitchhiker who has recently escaped from a mental asylum and ends with a nuclear meltdown that might signal the end of the world.  Fans of the glowing gold suitcase in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction will find its predecessor here.

9. Scarlet Street (1945, director: Fritz Lang)

An especially difficult film for writers and artists to watch, Scarlet Street’s hen-pecked middle-aged amateur painter Christopher Cross is scammed by a fast-talking sleazebag and his scheming girlfriend.  As a final knife twist to the heart, Cross’s paintings receive critical praise only after he can no longer claim to have painted them.  The three leads are exceptional, with Edward G. Robinson as the painter, Joan Bennett as the younger woman Kitty, and Dan Duryea as the con artist. 

8. Brute Force (1947, director Jules Dassin)

One of director Jules Dassin’s noir masterpieces, Brute Force is a pitch-black story of a sadistic prison officer and the desperate convicts’ attempt to escape.  Hume Cronyn plays the vile Captain Munsey, and Burt Lancaster is the prisoner Joe Collins who wants to be at his wife’s side during her cancer operation.  This film does not have a happy ending.   

7. Killer’s Kiss (1955, director Stanley Kubrick)

Stanley Kubrick’s second feature (he was 26), Killer’s Kiss tells of a down on his luck boxer, Davey Gordon, who falls for the woman living in the apartment across from his own, a dancer named Gloria Price.  Their relationship runs afoul of Gloria’s boss Vincent Rapallo and his gang of goons.  Kubrick brings a photographer’s eye to the film’s composition, and stacks the famous climax with Freudian import as the leads attack each other with axes and mannequins.  

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

Much of this movie’s first half pacing is too slow for my taste, so I don’t watch it as often as some other films.  So why list it as number six on my list?  Because it’s iconic, an adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel about a young wife who convinces a drifter into killing her husband.  Lana Turner’s entrance, in all white, is one of the most famous shots in cinema.  The movie’s excitement picks up in the second half, with Hume Cronyn providing a jolt of energy as a scheming lawyer as the lethal lovers careen towards doom.

5. The Killing (1956, director Stanley Kubrick)

Kubrick’s third feature, co-written with pulp genius Jim Thompson, The Killing is a classic heist movie.  Sterling Hayden stars as Johnny Clay, a crook gathering a team of criminals to pull off an unthinkable robbery of a high-stakes horseracing track. 

4. Double Indemnity (1944, director Billy Wilder)

While Double Indemnity is not my personal favorite, if you were only going to watch a single movie on this list, this is probably the one to watch. An insurance scam, a femme fatale, a man seduced into committing murder, this film is the quintessential film noir.   

3. The Killers (1946, director Robert Siodmak)

An expansion of one of Ernest Hemmingway’s Nick Adams stories, The Killers is a twisting story of seduction, crime and revenge that kicks off when two hit-men track down a rural gas station clerk and shoot him dead.  Burt Lancaster stars as “the Swede,” a boxer whose life is knotted and torn apart when he becomes involved with Ava Gardner’s Lily, a deadly femme fatale. 

2. The Big Sleep (1946, director Howard Hawks)

Bogart, Bacall.  Easily my favorite depiction of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep finds Marlowe investigating a blackmail case involving a wealthy man’s daughter and her protective older sister.  Sure, the plot is famously convoluted, but knowing William Faulkner worked on the screenplay is a thrill, and the story’s not incomprehensible.  Besides, the main reason to watch this film is for the perfection of Bogie and Bacall.  This film is one of the greatest of all time, the perfect movie to watch on a rainy afternoon.

And 1. Night and the City (1950, director Jules Dassin)

Richard Widmark stars as Harry Fabian, a hustler and con man who hatches a plot to control the professional wrestling business in London by convincing legendary brawler Gregorius to become his star attraction.  But this deal doesn’t sit well with Gregorius’s son, the gangster Kristo.  After a brutal, heart wrenching battle between Gregorius and his son’s champion, The Strangler, Harry Fabian becomes a marked man, desperate for his very survival.    

Tom Sweterlitsch is the author of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and the forthcoming novel, The Gone World.  He lives in Pittsburgh.

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