Some of the most popular films from Hollywood’s Golden Age have been dubbed “film noir” for their dark, gritty storylines.

But what exactly defines a film as “noir”?

Film noirs usually take place in urban settings and are characterized by the following features:

  • low-key lighting,
  • a cynical tone,
  • corrupt or criminal protagonist,
  • a labyrinthine plot involving betrayal, deceit, sexual infidelity, or murder.

The latter characteristic is especially true of many classic American crime dramas such as Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Touch of Evil (1958), and Chinatown (1974).

What Makes A Film Noir?

Film noir movies are dark, moody, and shadowy in nature.

They usually feature haunting or violent characters who inhabit seedy underworlds of crime and corruption.

Often the protagonist is hunted by a relentless detective or private eye who represents society itself.

Some other features of a film noir are chiaroscuro or deep focus cinematography (a technique where the background can be seen as well as the foreground).

The story will often have characters struggling with moral issues in an urban setting.

Film noirs were popular in Hollywood during the 1940s to 1960s but they still exist today!

The term was coined in French for black movies and can be translated to “black film”.

This style of filmmaking originated during the 1940s as filmmakers looked for ways to counter the violence from war-time propaganda with more realistic depictions of society.

Best Film Noir Movies

The best film noir movies are those that offer the most compelling and thought-provoking story.

They include a variety of genres, but all have an element of mystery or crime surrounding them.

From classic black-and-white films to hardboiled detectives and femme fatales, these films will keep you guessing until the final frame.

We all love a good film noir movie, but it’s hard to find the best of them. So we’ve done the work for you!

Here are some of our favorite films noirs that will give you an eerily awesome cinematic experience.

They Live by Night (1948)

They Live by Night is a 1948 American film noir directed by Nicholas Ray, in his directorial debut, and starring Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger.

Based on Edward Anderson’s Depression-era novel Thieves Like Us, the film follows a young convict on the run who falls in love with a woman and attempts to begin a life with her.

Although the film is considered by many to be the prototype for the “couple on the run” genre and is generally seen as the forerunner to the movie Bonnie and Clyde, the first telling of the story was actually the 1939 Persons in Hiding, based on the J. Edgar Hoover memoir of the same title.

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They Live By Night (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
  • Farley Granger, Cathy O Donnell (Actors)
  • Nicholas Ray (Director)
  • English (Subtitle)
  • Audience Rating: NR (Not Rated)

Kiss Me Deadly (1951)

In the 1951 film, Kiss Me Deadly, the audience watches as private detective Mike Hammer goes on a quest for vengeance against those who have committed crimes against his loved ones and friends.

He faces many obstacles along the way but always manages to come out on top at every turn.

The movie is about an American detective who gets mixed up with criminals after he investigates what seems to be radioactive material that has been stolen.

This film was released in 1955 and stars Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer, Cloris Leachman as Velda, and Maxine Cooper as Eva.

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Kiss Me Deadly (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
  • Factory sealed DVD
  • Ralph Meeker, Cloris Leachman, Gaby Rodgers (Actors)
  • Robert Aldrich (Director)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • Audience Rating: NR (Not Rated)

Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple is a 1984 film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. The film stars Frances McDormand as Abby, M. Emmet Walsh as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, Dan Hedaya as bar owner Julian Marty, and John Getz as hired hand Drew.

The movie tells a story about three small-town Texans who get mixed up with some big city folk from Texas City after they hire them to kill their boss for insurance money.

What starts out as an easy job soon gets complicated when these naïve men start suspecting one another of wanting more than just the agreed-upon sum of $40,000.

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Blood Simple (The Criterion Collection)
  • Frances McDormand, M. Emmet Walsh (Actors)
  • Ethan Coen (Director)
  • English (Subtitle)
  • Audience Rating: R (Restricted)

 

WHAT IS FILM NOIR

What Is Film Noir?

Film noir is a genre of film that emerged in the 1940s.

It was heavily influenced by German Expressionism and often includes moral ambiguity, sexual perversion, urban crime, and violence.

Film noir is characterized by low-key lighting and deep shadows, with an emphasis on people who feel trapped in their lives.

 

 

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

The French film, Elevator to the Gallows, is a 1958 crime thriller film directed by Louis Malle, starring Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as illicit lovers whose murder plot starts to unravel after one of them becomes trapped in an elevator.

The scenario was adapted from a 1956 novel of the same name by Noël Calef.

Florence (Jeanne Moreau) is married to the wealthy arms dealer Simon Carala (Jean Wall), but is carrying on a torrid affair with one of her husband’s employees, Julien (Maurice Ronet).

Julien daringly climbs into Simon’s office on a rope, kills him, and leaves unnoticed.

However, Julien accidentally leaves the rope at the crime scene and realizes he must retrieve it. On his way out, he becomes stuck in the building’s elevator. But he soon finds that his bad luck is just beginning.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) ( Ascenseur pour l'échafaud ) ( Elevator to the Scaffold ) [ Blu-Ray, Reg.A/B/C Import - France ]
  • Elevator to the Gallows (1958) ( Ascenseur pour l'échafaud ) ( Elevator to the Scaffold )
  • Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
  • Ascenseur pour l'échafaud
  • Elevator to the Scaffold
  • Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Jacqueline Staup (Actors)

The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man is a 1949 film directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene.

It stars Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard. The movie was filmed in Vienna’s city center including the famous Karlsplatz (now called “Charles Square” or “Karl-Marx-Platz”).

The movie follows protagonist Holly Martins who has been sent to Vienna to meet with his friend Harry Lime.

As he arrives on the night train from Switzerland, he learns that Lime has been killed in an automobile accident earlier that day.

What ensues is a twisting tale of betrayal as Martins tries to find out what really happened to Harry Lime.

The Third Man [Blu-ray] [1949]
  • Audience Rating: Unrated (Not Rated)

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past is a classic film noir about a detective who becomes entangled in a web of deceit and murder.

The story begins with Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) arriving at his old home town to investigate the death of his friend, Whit Sterling. He meets Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), an alluring but dangerous woman who knows more than she’s letting on.

The movie features Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey, who was originally an insurance investigator but has since turned to gambling and other illegal activities.

In the opening scene, he meets up with his ex-girlfriend Kathie Moffat (played by Jane Greer).

He thinks that she is there to ask him for help; however, she reveals that she tracked him down so they could have one last night together before he leaves town.

Out of the past is ranked as one of the best films ever made by many people because it’s so suspenseful and unpredictable in its storyline. This movie will keep you on your toes even after its ending!

Out of the Past
  • Out Of The Past - Blu-ray Used Like New
  • Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas (Actors)
  • Jacques Tourneur (Director)
  • English (Subtitle)
  • English (Publication Language)

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity is a 1944 film noir thriller that was directed by Billy Wilder and co-written by Raymond Chandler.

The plot centers on an insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who believes he can get away with murder after being seduced by Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck).

Double Indemnity explores the themes of adultery, greed, and betrayal. It is based on the James M Cain novel of the same name published in 1943.

The film received four Academy Awards nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor at the 19th Academy Awards held in 1945. It lost to “Anchors Aweigh”. In 2006, it was named

The film was based on the novel Double Indemnity by James M. Cain and explores how greed can lead to destruction.

The movie has been described as “a great example of how Hollywood movies have changed over time.”

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Double Indemnity [Blu-ray]
  • Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson (Actors)
  • Billy Wilder (Director) - Billy Wilder (Writer) - Joseph Sistrom (Producer)
  • French, Spanish (Subtitles)
  • Audience Rating: NR (Not Rated)

Touch of Evil (1958)

This 1958 thriller from director Orson Welles was pioneering for its time: it’s a Mexican noir film—a uniquely American experience filled with drugs and violence that is dripping in shadows and executed at breakneck speed.

The 1956 film, Touch of Evil is a landmark American noir-thriller directed, produced and written by Orson Welles.

It stars Charlton Heston in the lead role as an ambitious police officer investigating the murder of a prominent businessman with connections to both Mexican and American drug cartels, played by Janet Leigh.

The investigation takes Heston’s character across the border to Mexico where he meets his match in Marlene Dietrich’s German femme fatale who runs her own nightclub on wheels.

The film was shot entirely on location at night in California – without lights or sound equipment – after Hollywood executives had refused to finance it due to its unflattering portrayal of corruption within America’s small border towns and ineffective policing.

Touch of Evil (1958) (Masters of Cinema) [Blu-ray]
  • Touch of Evil - 2-Disc Set
  • Touch of Evil - 2-Disc Set
  • Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Akim Tamiroff (Actors)
  • Orson Welles (Director) - Touch of Evil - 2-Disc Set (Producer)
  • English (Subtitle)

Chinatown (1974)

In 1974, Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway took on the roles of Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown.

The film is set in Los Angeles and follows Gittes as he investigates a case that involves water rights, murder, incest, money laundering, corruption, all while uncovering a conspiracy to steal water from the city’s aqueducts.

This detective thriller will keep you guessing until the very end!

Considered a ‘modern’ (or neo) noir, it’s certainly up there at the top of the classic list of best film noir movies.

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Chinatown
  • Chinatown
  • Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, Perry Lopez (Actors)
  • Roman Polanski (Director) - Robert Evans (Producer)
  • Portuguese, Spanish, French, English (Subtitles)
  • Audience Rating: R (Restricted)

The Big Sleep (1946)

The 1946 film, The Big Sleep, is a masterpiece that has been widely praised for its cinematography and screenplay.

It was directed by Howard Hawks and starred Humphrey Bogart as detective Philip Marlowe.

Marlowe is hired to find General Sternwood’s daughter who ran away with her boyfriend.

In the process of solving this mystery, he uncovers many other secrets about the family members in question and becomes entangled in their web of deception.

This classic film noir features some of the best lines ever written for cinema.

The Big Sleep
  • Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely (Actors)
  • Howard Hawks (Director)
  • English (Subtitle)
  • English (Publication Language)

Why Is Film Noir So Popular?

Film noir is a style of filmmaking that emerged from Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s.

The term “film noir” means “dark film.” It is characterized by its dark, shadowy images which are dramatic and moody.

Film noirs often have an anti-hero protagonist who is usually on a path to self-destruction, yet somehow manages to be sympathetic or compelling enough for the audience to root for him/her.

What makes film noirs so popular? To answer this question, we need to first understand what it was like during World War II when these films were created.

Why was there such an interest in crime stories after WWII?

For one, audiences were eager for a respite from the horrors of war. Film noir was a way to show the good guys getting one over on the bad guys. After experiencing the horrors of war, people needed this escapism.

Films such as “The Maltese Falcon,” “Double Indemnity,” and “Laura” all fall under this category.

There are many reasons why film noir has become so popular. One being its stylishness, another being its incorporation of Freudian psychology into its narratives.

Film noir can often be seen as an artistic reaction to post-war anxiety, and its popularity continued up through the 1950s because it offered escapism that people were looking for during this time period.

Themes in these movies typically include crime, revenge, paranoia, or fear involving love or sexual relationships., betrayal and death are common plot points.

Film Noir films often have dramatic plots with strong moral messages about society such as corruption, greed, poverty, etc.

The Golden Age Of Film Noir

Film noir is a genre of film that reflects the mood and atmosphere of 1940s America. It thrives on themes such as corruption, criminality, violence, and social disillusionment.

The golden age of this genre was from the late ’40s to the early 50’s with directors like Alfred Hitchcock leading the way. In fact, he directed one of the most famous examples: Rear Window.

One could argue that Hitchcock perfected this style of filmmaking in his work with suspenseful plots and clever camera angles – think Psycho or Vertigo – that were designed to keep audiences guessing about what would happen next.

Film Noir has left an indelible mark on cinema history by influencing many other films that came in the decades after the 1950s (commonly seen as the peak of the film noir genre).

The term “film noir” was coined by French critic Nino Frank, meaning “black film.” It can draw from many different genres such as crime dramas and thrillers but it usually features a central character who finds himself or herself on a dangerous journey into the underworld with little hope for redemption.

During the 40s and 50s, film noir was at its height. The world had just come out of a brutal war and there was an atmosphere of fear in society.

These themes were reflected in some of the most iconic films from that era such as “Double Indemnity” or “The Big Sleep.”

Common Elements Of Film Noir

Film noir is a genre of film that often features crime, murder, and mystery.

While there are many elements found in most film noirs, they can be broken down into six main categories:

  • black-and-white cinematography,
  • voiceover narration,
  • hardboiled police detectives or private eye protagonists,
  • femme fatale characters,
  • plot twists,
  • heavy use of shadows or rain symbolism.

Film noir typically features tough, cynical heroes or heroines who are often private detectives and/or professional gamblers, dealing with issues such as betrayal, prejudice, social injustice, sexual promiscuity (especially involving women), infidelity.

Noir movies are characterized by their use of low-key lighting techniques on city streets at night so that every face casts a distorted shadow – a lighting technique known as chiaroscuro.

Film noir is typically characterized by dark and shadowy visuals, deep shadows, high-contrast cinematography with an off-center perspective, shots from low angles looking up at leading actors’ faces or silhouettes, and rain or snow scenes.

Noir films often have convoluted plots involving crime, murder but also human relationships such as adultery and betrayal.

Some other common elements found in most film noirs include:

  • dark and shadowy visuals,
  • an off-center perspective,
  • shots from low angles looking up at leading actor’s faces or silhouettes,
  • rain or snow,
  • violence and death,
  • alienated characters.

Film Noir And The Hard-Boiled Fiction Tradition

Hard-boiled fiction is a style of American detective and crime fiction that was most popular during the post-war era.

The genre was popularized by crime writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

The genre’s name originated from the gritty, hard-boiled dialogue found in these novels.

Film noir has a dark tone stemming from its film stock (black and white) as well as its themes such as anti-heroes, femme fatales, and moral ambiguity or corruption.

It often includes stories about crime scenes with corpses strewn around, shady characters living on society’s fringes who are usually not afraid to break the law whenever necessary, tough but honest cops or private eyes whose job it is to clean up after them because they have become too dangerous for anyone else to handle. All set against a gloomy urban backdrop.

The genre often features private detectives who attempt to solve a case while confronting cynicism and police hostility along the way.

The hard-boiled fiction tradition in literature also shares many similarities with film noir:

  • tough guys investigating crimes,
  • cops as antagonists,
  • female characters appearing but mostly in secondary roles,
  • dialogue consisting mainly of quips and provocative witticisms.

The film noir genre is a stylistic approach to filmmaking that evolved out of the hard-boiled fiction tradition, its dark tone and message first emerged from hard-boiled fiction, a genre with an atmosphere of disillusionment and cynicism.

Film Noir: Key Takeaways

As we’ve covered, film noir began to form as a genre with classic films like “The Maltese Falcon” and “Double Indemnity.”

It’s hard to define but can be loosely described as a crime thriller that focuses on dark themes such as romantic disillusionment, moral ambiguity, and social alienation.

This type of movie was popularized in the 40s due to post-WWII sentiments of anxiety and uncertainty among Americans.

Film Noir had its heyday from the mid-1940s through the late 1950s before declining in popularity during the Vietnam War era when audiences were looking for more escapist fare than anything else.

And there have been revivals of film noir with 1970s films like Chinatown and The Long Goodbye, as well as revisionist film noir movies.

Film Noir is characterized by stories about crime, violence, moral ambiguity, and social unrest.

Film Noir can be dark or light-hearted depending on the story being told. Characters are often morally ambiguous figures with criminal backgrounds who struggle with their identity and sense of belonging to society.

They often have tragic past lives that lead them into this kind of lifestyle which adds to the complexity of their character traits as they try to navigate complex underworld full of betrayal and injustice.

The film noir genre is one of the most popular and important genres in cinema history.

It has its roots in German Expressionism, although it really took off after World War II with many American films, which embraced a dark style that differed greatly from classical Hollywood.

The main features of these movies are their gloomy atmosphere, use of shadows and light to create suspenseful moments, heavy use of flashbacks to show characters’ backstories or dreams as they unfold on screen, and cynical attitudes about humanity.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to film noir and its most popular and classic films. What’s your favorite film noir movie? Let us know in the comments below.
 

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