Though its conception is still argued and debated, there was no denying the strange phenomenon happening in American cinema around the turn of the early 1940s. The term, originally coined by French critic Nino Frank, was the outsider who observed what had been unraveling on the big screen. To define noir by its atmosphere and the list of clichés would be a disservice to the masterpieces that fit into its description, but, it's a good place to start. The films often have a cast of misfits, desperate people, low-level criminals, hard-boiled detectives, the hard-drinking man caught in over his head, and the femme fatale. The noir film had its ingredients but what was present was the use of hard shadows and a sense of melancholy to elevate the pulpy material.
Noir was not without its doubts about the American empire and all of its trappings. Noir, for the most part, was inhabited by the sunken faces of Humphrey Bogart, Joseph Cotten, and countless others to match the moody material. Also heralded by a new class of filmmakers, often international, like Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang who bought a sense of German expressionism when they came to America. But, what stands with noir, is its modern storytelling, hard-boiled dialogue, and sense of mystery that makes the film genre still relevant and watchable today.
Updated on August 11th, 2023, by Rafa Boladeras: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
15 Nightmare Alley (1947)
Nightmare Alley is the circus noir movie that inspired the recent Guillermo Del Toro film of the same name. Tyrone Power stars as Stan, a con man who is part of a circus and wants to learn from Mademoiselle Zeena’s "mental powers". After killing her husband (maybe involuntarily), Stan leaves with his lover and goes to Chicago to start his own schemes.
The movie has as many twists and turns as a carnival dancer, and its ending is pretty bleak and dark, but that’s what happens when you try to con every person you meet. Originally, the film wasn’t that much of a success, but in the last twenty years has earned much more recognition, even before Del Toro and Bradley Cooper did their own version of the story.
14 Kiss Me, Deadly (1955)
A tough private eye named Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picks up an almost naked mysterious hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman in one of her first roles ever). When she ends up dead, and he ends up in the hospital after some bad guys get to them, Hammer decides to solve the mystery. That’s the start of Kiss Me, Deadly, one of the weirdest noir movies as what everyone is looking for is a mysterious box with some kind of glowing substance that could be worth millions.
The movie is as violent as they come, and the ending is one of the darkest and most surprising ever in a film of this genre, so much so, that when it was released it was deemed too much. With the passing of time, many great directors like Francois Truffaut or Quentin Tarantino (the briefcase glowing visual in Pulp Fiction is an homage to the weird box here that does the same) have shown how it was an influence on them, making it a later classic.
13 Out of the Past (1947)
Out of the Past is as exemplary noir film as they come. Robert Mitchum plays the tough detective, that drinks too much and gives voice-over exposition and whose past comes to get him one last time.
Kirk Douglas plays the mobster who knows all his secrets and makes him get dirtier, and Jane Greer plays the femme fatale. The movie is dark, sad, violent, nihilistic, and bleak with incredible dialogue; the movie is one of the best noirs ever made and a must-watch in the genre.
12 Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Taking the realm of noir and moving it to the world of journalism to show how the game can be played by dirty, seedy men without morals was a fascinating ride. With a towering Burt Lancaster performance as the man behind the curtain, calling the shots, and a desperate Tony Curtis battling it out to move up in the world, The Sweet Smell of Success is a jazzy masterclass.
The film has a quick-witted, sharp script, loaded with quotable dialogue directed with a wry, cynic edge from Alexander McKendrick that elevates the material to an indelible piece of pulp. Sweet Smell of Success is simply one of the best.
11 The Big Sleep (1946)
The Big Sleep is one of the best Raymond Chandler books and one of his best adaptations, as Humphrey Bogart becomes Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall is the femme fatale. As with many Chandler stories, the mystery resolution is the least important part.
Howard Hawkes’ direction, the incredible Chandler dialogue, and the absolutely incredible chemistry between Bogart and Bacall (this is the movie where they met and fell in love) all helped make The Big Sleep a hit. If you’re looking for some noir film, this is the perfect example of what the genre was about; tough guys, violence, mystery, surprising twists and turns, and women who know how to use men for their advantage.
10 Touch of Evil (1958)
Touch of Evil was one of the last classical film noirs ever made as the genre concluded in 1959. It was also one the best possible ways to end the genre as the film has all the characteristics of a great noir film with some modern touches by director Orson Welles.
The film is still known as one of the best movie beginnings ever, with a unique three-minute tracking shot when those were much rarer and difficult to execute. Charlton Heston (playing a Mexican, one of the elements of the film that has aged poorly) and Janet Leigh are the stars of the movie as a recently married couple, in a corruption story in a border town near Mexico where Welles himself plays a drunk police officer. An absolute classic.
9 Double Indemnity (1944)
One of Billy Wilder’s strongest assets as a director is his ability to find bursts of comic joy and playfulness amidst films ripe with cynicism. Double Indemnity isn’t just a mysterious noir with a multilayered plot scheme that at times confuses its audience.
It's also an anti-capitalist dig and the dangers of getting lost in your work. With a stacked cast and a sultry Barbara Stanwyck performance carrying the story's nasty ride into desperation, Billy Wilder crafted another film that is an absolute staple of noir.
8 The Night of The Hunter (1955)
The multi-faceted, layered, and haunting noir from Charles Laughton was much maligned by critics upon its release but, in recent years it has come back to retain its status as a seminal work from the longtime actor whose only chance to direct was The Night of The Hunter. Dark for its subject matter at the time, Robert Mitchum plays the killer preacher man to devilish delight.
With “Love and Hate” tattooed on his fists, the religious allegory becomes physical, manifesting in the duality of a priest who relishes in hell. Mitchum tails two kids that he dreams of murdering, Laughton’s film is a dark horror in a genre not known for pulling any punches.
7 The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The reliable cool of Humphrey Bogart is itself, a staple of noir. In John Huston’s powerful debut as a filmmaker, he directed one of the greatest noir mysteries of all time, The Maltese Falcon. Packed with eloquently hard-boiled dialogue where no line is spared, slowly moving the tightly wound and mysterious plot with double-crosses and murders abound.
Huston never loses the dark punch while framing Bogart perfectly in its center. Playing a man whose seen it all, never wavering among the schemes but also plays it with a hot temper when he has to get what he wants. The final reveal at the end still stands to be one of the greats.
6 The Killing (1956)
The lone noir in Stanley Kubrick’s historic filmography is a slaughterhouse of nihilism where every player is liable to kill or be killed. With a steely Sterling Hayden in the center, he rallies a troop of desperate criminals to perform a daring heist at the horse track.
Kubrick opts for an approach only he would take, by focusing on the build-up by tracing the lives of each heist member before the big job. The Killing is a heartbreaking noir with its pulse on betrayal and brutality.
5 The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Straddling the thin line between pulp and melodrama, which the best noir films can do, The Asphalt Jungle is a cold, economical crime caper set in the streets of the Midwest. With a seedy and crooked criminal defendant funding a job, even though the lawyer is in massive debt, the heist is just as thrilling as what's to come because of his cold and desperate nature.
Featuring a spree of murders and an electric Sterling Hayden performance at its center. The film sets itself apart because of John Huston’s direction of dirty characters and how no character is safe. The film also has an incredible Marilyn Monroe performance though she only appears in a few scenes Monroe's name was used to sell the film when originally released.
4 Sunset Boulevard (1950)
From one of the greats, Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard is as good as noir gets. Clouding a psychological horror story about fading fame, Hollywood, and deceit in the atmosphere of noir was a genius idea.
With the reverie of being swept in this fantastical world of the gloriously over-the-top Gloria Swanson as the once-famous silent movie star fighting for relevance as one of the great femme fatale performances of all time. The film is not only mysterious but its final, illuminating scene, ties the surreal world Wilder created altogether to create one of the most enduring and intriguing noirs ever made. “I am big: it's the pictures that got small.” is Swanson’s final, iconic cry.
3 In A Lonely Place (1950)
The sunken face of legend Humphrey Bogart was the perfect muse for auteur Nicolas Ray in his classic drunken tale of loneliness, romance, murder, and Hollywood as the soul-killing machine. In A Lonely Place, Ray proved that you can mix melodrama and romance in noir with devastating effects without sacrificing the mystery of the murder.
In Ray’s film, the revelations that occur increase the suspense and bring no relief. As Bogart instead goes down a road of self-destruction that ends with characters in a state that does the title of the film justice without sacrificing narrative excess.
2 The Big Heat (1953)
The German master Fritz Lang's dark aesthetic made its impact on film noir with 1953’s The Big Heat. Extremely violent as a film can be at this time, Lang used noir as a vessel to show how morally corrupt the world of politics is and just how violent criminals act to protect their interests in the underworld.
With a biting sense of cynicism and hopelessness about American politics lingering outside the frames, Lang’s one-man vs. the system noir is dangerously unsettling and relevant. Features a young Lee Marvin as a henchman who knows no bounds for how low he will steep, Lang's The Big Heat is noir at its bleakest.
1 The Third Man (1949)
One of the great screenplays ever written, coupled with Carol Reed’s flawless direction in which his design of shadows and dark corridors emphasize the twisty underworld of an occupied Vienna are the ingredients that make The Third Man a classic.
Using the power of cinema and persuasion to throw an audience off and mess with their minds is the power of noir. With Orson Welles's legendary entrance, his presence haunts the whole film. It is one of the hallmarks of an iconoclast who is no stranger to the realms of noir and why the film still holds up today as a modern piece of classic storytelling.