Whether you're looking to learn more about classic films or searching for the perfect gift for classic film lovers, this list of the best Film Noir movies is your guide into the dark, twisted world of noir. I created this guide to the dark underbelly of film to help others appreciate what's become our favorite genre of Classic Movies. Over the past few years, we've done extensive research and watched countless noir movies to learn more about the genre. Use this guide to Film Noir to begin your journey into darkness.
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We Love Classic Movies
Like most couples, we watch plenty of movies and television. But, unlike most couples, many of the films and television series we watch are classics. For example, I'm probably the youngest person to get super excited about Netflix releasing the entire series of Cheers, the best television show in the history of T.V.
When it comes to movies, we rely on Turner Classic Movies to stay entertained. Our favorite Classic Movie genre has to be Film Noir, a style of moviemaking that emerged in the 1940s in response to a perceived decay and decline of morals in society. These films were a stark contrast to the popular movie musicals and love stories made famous by actors such as Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, and other stars of the era.
So, What Is Film Noir Anyway?
Classic Film Noir themes centered around morally ambiguous figures, dangerous characters, crime, drama, and stories of loss and longing. The imagery and cinematic styles employed by directors were often stylistically dark. Long shadows, high contrast, and unusual camera angles evoke mystery and suspense.
Viewers are encouraged to feel sympathy for the protagonist, usually men with shady pasts, who are suckered by the beautiful femme fatale, often a lust-worthy starlet with unsavory personality characteristics and questionable motives. On occassion, the roles are reversed, and we meet an homme fatale and a bamboozled beauty.
Initially, Film Noir wasn't popular with the big studios of the day. As a result, many of the early noir movies are low-budget B-films. As the genre grew in popularity, the studios caught on, and prominent actors began taking on roles involving distasteful situations with loathsome characters.
The Ultimate Film Noir Guide
If you're planning to use this post as a gift guide, might we suggest you consider purchasing this Film Noir encyclopedia for your classic movie lover? It's full of cool film history, gorgeous photos, and detailed analysis of the best Film Noir movies of all time. We use it almost daily!
The Best Film Noir Movies
Noir directors, actors, and cinematographers would eventually make some of the best films of all time, including the 10 Best Film Noir Movies listed in this post. The films listed here are our favorite noir classics to help othes get started in Film Noir. Use this list of classic films to dip your toe in the dark waters or as a fantastic gift guide for Classic Movie lovers.
The Lady from Shanghai
The first film that comes to mind when I think of Film Noir will always be The Lady from Shanghai. Everything about this magnificent movie screams noir. The fantastic plot twists, beautiful cast, on-site location footage, and dramatic cinematography make this an unforgettable film.
The Lady from Shanghai stars Rita Hayworth, who's arguably at her best as the exotic Elsa Bannister. She wraps quiet Michael O'Hara (played by Orson Welles) around her finger from the moment they meet in Central Park.
He follows her (and her husband) on an ill-fated journey of intrigue and suspense that ends in a dramatic series of events in San Francisco. If you watch no other movie on this list, make sure you see this gem. Written and directed by Orson Welles.
By far one of the most famous Film Noirs, Double Indemnity solidifies the role of the femme fatale and the career of Barbara Stanwyck as a bonafide bombshell. Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, an unhappy housewife determined to rid herself of her husband.
She seduces an insurance salesman, Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurry), when he visits her home on a routine insurance sales stop. Neff knows something's odd when she asks him about accidental death policies for her husband. Yet, Neff falls hard for the vixen and eventually agrees to help her murder her man and stage his death to appear like an accident so they can claim double indemnity (essentially doubling the insurance payout).
But the perfect murder plot is less than ideal, giving claims adjuster, Barton Keyes (played by the always fabulous Edward G Robinson), a reason to suspect foul play. The first-person narration as told by Neff guides the audience through a twisted and sinister tale of betrayal, sex, and murder. Directed by Billy Wilder, written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.
Kiss Me Deadly
Los Angeles can be a scary place, at least that's what Kiss Me Deadly wants you to believe. Fast cars, murder, and abduction set the tone for this classic Film Noir. The audience follows private investigator, Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) as he tries to find out who killed, Christina (played by Cloris Leachman), the bewildered young woman he found running frantically in the dark trying to escape unnamed villains.
His investigation takes him down a dark, twisted path through Los Angeles as he looks for clues but finds nothing but trouble. But it all becomes quite clear when Mike heeds Christina's dying wish to "Remember Me." He discovers a clue that unlocks the mystery and leads to destruction on the Malibu shores. Directed by Robert Aldrich and written by A.I. Bezzerides.
Not unlike the other Film Noirs listed here, High Sierra is a criminal tale of murder and money that ends in total disaster. But, unlike the other noir films, High Sierra relies solely on the power of the character actor to tell the dark, tangled tale.
Shadowy this movie is not. Wide-open California landscapes fill the screen while foreboding looms behind the lens. Roy Earle (played by Humphrey Bogart) has escaped prison with the help of his old associates, who now want his help robbing a resort. The audience follows Roy as he makes his way West to meet his fated end.
Along the way, he meets the angelic Velma (played by Joan Leslie) and the melancholic Marie (played by Ida Lupino), and he soon falls for both. But the police are hot on his trail, leading him straight into the High Sierras, where escape is unlikely. Directed by Raoul Walsh and written by John Huston and W. R. Bumett.
Touch of Evil
While it may not be the most politically correct, Touch of Evil is one of the most beautiful Film Noirs. We first meet Mike Vargas (played by Charlton Heston) and his beautiful new bride, Susan (played by Janet Leigh), as they stroll through the streets of a Mexican border town. The exquisite camera work and direction of the opening scene signals to viewers they're about to see something special.
Vargas, a Mexican narcotics officer, soon finds himself face to face with a burly American detective Hank Quinlan (played by Orson Welles) known for always getting his man. The story that unfolds leads audiences across borders, around moral signposts, and through drug-induced stupors as we learn that not all cops are good cops.
Don't miss the always brilliant Marlene Dietrich in a role that plays to her charm and wit. Directed and written by Orson Welles.
Out of the Past
Stories of sorrow and corruption are central to the Film Noir genre, and Out of the Past wields a wonderfully tangled tale of moral decay that evokes sympathy for the protagonist like no other. The audience first meets Jeff Bailey (played by Robert Mitchum) leading a quiet life in the countryside. There he's surrounded by honest folks who know nothing about him.
But we soon learn that Jeff's small-town life is an escape from a murky past muddied by murder and money. For once he knew and loved Kathie Moffett (played by Jane Greer) and worked for Whit Sterling (played masterfully by Kirk Douglas), her jilted lover.
Jeff tells his story to his new love, Ann (played by Virginia Huston), as he's dragged back into his old life. He's now morally upstanding, making it hard to believe that he'd get suckered again by Kathie or Sterling. But the plot reveals the central theme of every good film noir: good guys never win, especially when they love wicked women. Directed by Jacques Tourneur and written by Geoffrey Homes, Frank Fenton, and James M. Cain.
We all know that guns and crazy don't mix well, and Gun Crazy is no exception. Reform school graduate, Bart Tare (played by John Dall) has a thing for guns, and he falls head over heels for traveling showgirl, Annie Starr (played by Peggy Cummins), after seeing her sharpshooter performance in a carnival show.
The two set off on a whirlwind adventure filled with guns (duh), robbery, and murder. Although the imagery isn't as beautiful as some of the other films on this list, the moral struggle that ensues when Bart learns the truth about Annie (and himself) is what Film Noir is all about.
You'll find yourself, even if just for a minute, gunning for the couple as they hold up banks and payroll offices in search of happiness. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis and written by Dalton Trumbo and MacKinlay Kantor.
Some men will do anything for love, especially men who live on Scarlet Street. And when it comes to love, poor Christopher Cross (played by Edward G. Robinson) is most unlucky. After getting laid off, he meets Kitty March (played by Joan Bennett) and falls madly in love. Little does he know, Kitty has plans for Chris, believing him to be rich.
Unfortunately, Chris has no money, so he must adopt a life of crime to support his new affair with Kitty. But his life of crime soon weaves a sticky web that envelopes his wife, her deceased husband, and Kitty's bad-boy beau, Johnny Price (played by Dan Duryea).
Murder, forgery, embezzlement, and extortion give this Film Noir enough teeth to bite viewers, who find themselves feeling sorry for the protagonist despite his criminal behavior. Directed by Fritz Lang and written by Dudley Nichols.
Born to Kill
There's no better Film Noir vixen than Claire Trevor, who probably starred in more noirs than any other actresses. And Born to Kill is one of her best, giving her free reign to create tension with her sultry, yet sensitive portrayal of Helen Brent, a newly divorced San Francisco socialite who finds herself tangled in a murder mystery.
Brent is temporarily living in Reno while she finalizes her divorce. It's there that Helen stumbles on the bodies of two young lovers. Unwilling to get involved, she sets off the next day for San Francisco via train, where she meets strongman, Sam Wilde (played by Lawrence Tierney).
Helen's instantly attracted to Sam's masculinity, yet she tries to keep her distance from the homme fatale. But when he shows up at the home of her sister, Georgia Staples (played by Audrey Long), sparks fly. When Sam later marries Georgia, Helen's desire for him grows stronger.
When she discovers the horrible truth about Sam, she's too in love to let him go. Filled with excellent character actors, on-location shots, and striking cinematography, Born to Kill is filled with classic Film Noir white-knuckle suspense. Directed by Robert Wise and written by Eve Green and Richard Macaulay.
The Third Man
Orson Welles makes the list yet again with this incredibly beautiful thriller filmed on location in Vienna, Austria. Starring Joseph Cotten as fiction writer Holly Martins, The Third Man is perhaps one of the most surprising Film Noirs.
The plot twists come when least expected, leaving the audience wanting more. Holly arrives in post-war Vienna after receiving an invitation from his oldest friend, Harry Lime. But when he arrives, he's told of Lime's untimely death in a traffic accident.
Determined to prove that Lime's death was no accident, Holly befriends the locals in search of the truth. In the end, he learns more than he bargained on, leaving him disgruntled and discouraged. The imagery in this noir is second to none, and the opening sequence is one of the most famous in film.
Try as you might, you'll never forget the catchy tune by Anton Karas. Directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene.
Want More of the Best Film Noir Movies?
If you aren't intrigued by Film Noir after reading this post, then I don't know what else to tell you. But, if you want more suggestions of the best Film Noir movies, then check out the list of runner's up below!
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