Film noir is a genre that has provided audiences with some of the best movies of all-time. Though a tricky genre to define, there are the usual tell-tale signs such as seduction, violence, and loose morals all revolving around a central mystery.
The versatile nature of the genre means it can cross into other genres while remaining a proper film noir. Dating back to the early days of Hollywood, film noir has birthed hundreds of films of varying quality. But when done well, a film noir can be an enthralling, complex, and thoughtful bit of filmmaking. Here are the very best film noir movies of all-time.
Before he was making controversial Star Wars films, Rian Johnson made his debut with this brilliant modern noir. What makes the film unique in the genre is the fact that it takes place in a high school and all the typical cheap noir characters are made up of teenagers.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a solid stand-in for the typical detective type as he plays a loner looking into the death of his ex-girlfriend. The film has a lot of fun with the unusual setting, but plays the noir elements completely straight-faced. An early indication of Johnson immense talents.
9 Blade Runner
Blade Runner remains one of the most influential science fiction films of all-time, but it is also a stellar entry in the film noir genre. A movie like this proves that any setting and world can work for a film noir.
Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard is a futuristic and isolated detective on the hunt for runaway replicants. Along his journey, he encounters a mysterious woman and forms a dangerous attraction to her. All these elements would feel right at home in a classic noir. The science fiction aspect gives the film an extra layer that helps it standout in the genre.
8 Touch Of Evil
It’s hard to imagine there was a time when Hollywood could get away with casting Charlton Heston in a movie as a Mexican man. It’s even harder to believe that the movie would actually be good.
The film follows Heston as a Mexican officer who crosses paths with a corrupt American detective, played with delicious villainy by Orson Welles. As the story goes, Welles was contractually obligated to do the film, which seemed like a B-movie, but turned it into the dark, simmering masterpiece. And Heston’s misguided casting is only slightly distracting.
7 The Maltese Falcon
The inspiration of many of the classic film noir features came from the crime novels at the time. One of the most prolific writers in this genre was Dashiell Hammett whose novel The Maltese Falcon spawned what many considered to be the first mainstream example of film noir.
In the film, Humphrey Bogart plays private investigator Sam Spade. He becomes involved with a case that seems right out of the film noir playbook. Seedy criminals, an alluring femme fatal, and an iconic MacGuffin. However, aspects of the film only seem familiar because of how many other pictures it influenced.
6 The Third Man
Though it certainly didn’t originate in America, film noir is often seen as an American film genre. The cynical detective in big cities seems to fit with the persona of Depression-era Americans. However, this British noir proved the genre can certainly work abroad just as well.
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The film, directed by Carol Reed, follows a man who travels to Vienna to accept a job from his old friend, Harry Lime. However, when he arrives, he learns Harry is dead under suspicious circumstances.
The atmospheric film is bolstered by an impressive cast, including Orson Welles who has one of the most memorable entrances in film history.
5 Blood Simple
The Coen Brothers have made a career inserting their dark humor and bizarre characters in just about any kind of film. They’ve tackled westerns, gangster films, and screwball comedies to name just a few. However, with their very first film, they managed to create a brilliant film noir.
The film centers around a man who hires an unhinged private detective to get proof his wife is having an affair. What unfolds is an enthralling, white-knuckle thriller that forecasted the Coens’ talent for creating unbearably tense moments.
There’s something about romance and murder that goes well together. Film noir leans into this strange pairing with many of the classic film revolving around a woman who is literally to die for.
Laura is a unique film in that the woman being pined after is already dead. The movie follows a detective looking into the murder of a woman and slowly falling in love with the memory of her. A film about obsession that has a surprisingly light feel to it overall. The suspense of the film sneaks up on the audience right up until the end.
3 The Big Sleep
Humphrey Bogart—film noir’s poster boy—took on another project where he would play a famous detective in a film based on the work of a famous crime writer. This time he plays Raymond Chandler’s infamous detective Phillip Marlowe in this story of a complex investigation.
Though the mystery at the center is hard to wrap your head around, the movie is more about the process of the investigation. Bogart is the usual epitome of a leading man. With the sensational Lauren Bacall as his female lead and Howard Hawks in the directors’ chair, it’s a must-see for the genre.
2 Double Indemnity
A good noir needs to be written in a way that respects the genre while offering new twists. Double Indemnity was a guaranteed success thanks to the two writers who collaborated on the screenplay.
Legendary screenwriter Billy Wilder teamed with Raymond Chandler himself to adapt the novel by James M. Cain. While the two legends didn’t get along during the process, the managed to create one of the most suspenseful noirs of all-time.
The story of an insurance salesman who gets wrapped up in a murder plot is filled with snappy dialogue, compelling performances and twists after twist.
One thing that makes film noir such an intriguing genre is its use of the anti-hero. Rarely does this genre have a noble hero at its center. Though not the first, Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes may be the best example of the character type.
Gittes is a creepy private eye who accidentally stumbles upon a massive conspiracy. Though made after the so-called “classic era” of film noir, Chinatown has become a cornerstone of the genre. The deeper into the investigation the film takes us, the more disturbing it becomes until it ends with one of the bleakest conclusion you’ll ever see.