Film noir takes you into a realm of stunning black and white cinematography, rapid-fire dialogue, conspicuously grim and cynical viewpoints, and plots that don’t just step over the censoring guidelines of the Hays Code so much as play jump rope with them.
It stole many of its signature bits from other stylistic traditions—call it film’s first mash-up genre. American gangster films of the Twenties and Thirties were reinterpreted by French film makers . . . and those were then imitated by a new crop of directors in the USA in the Forties.
Though there are fine examples of noir from around the world, it was most strongly shaped by the simmering discontent of post-World War II America. Many of the iconic creators of the style were established European directors who fled the war, others were American soldiers struggling to find their place in peacetime, and some were blacklisted great directors and writers forced to work under pseudonyms for little pay.
They told stories populated by desperate outlaws, misunderstood loners, and the wrongly accused—characters tormented by war, a cruelly impersonal society, and equally damaged authority figures who perpetuate the endless cycle of abuse. But amid that darkness, these flawed characters come across as far more human and sympathetic than the clean-cut paragons of the mainstream films of the day. I have never met a person so good as a Frank Capra hero, but every day, I meet people just like the conflicted, striving, questioning denizens of noir-land . . . though the banter is seldom so witty.
Here are a few of my favorites:
This Gun For Hire (1942) stars Veronica Lake as a nightclub singer and Alan Ladd as an angsty assassin, in his first big role. This movie is quite early but already showcases some of the hallmarks of the genre in the overtly psychologically damaged characters and sympathetic villains with Freudian excuses for their behavior—precursors to the antiheroes that populate many of today’s stories.
Detour (1945) is the quintessential low-budget noir. Flashbacks! Cheesy voice-over! A femme fatale! A man on the run! A seedy diner! The movie was shot in just a few weeks for a bare-bones budget and it shows. It is an exercise is minimalism: how to tell a story with just three sets, one song, and a runtime of just over an hour. A few years back, it fell into public domain, so you can watch it here for free.
Quai Des Orfèvres (1947) is one of the best films ever made. Every aspect of the film—writing, direction, acting, cinematography, editing, etc.—is exemplary. More of a murder mystery than a strictly “noir” film, I include it here nevertheless because it is marvelous, I love it, and you should watch it.
The Third Man (1949) was one of the first films of this type that I watched, and it is unforgettable. A wry, cynical, many-layered film, it is one of the greatest of all time. Many brilliant, temperamental creators came together to make The Third Man, and somehow they managed not to cause grievous bodily harm to one another, but to make a masterpiece. The ironically jaunty theme song also warrants notice; it became perhaps even more famous than the movie itself. There are over 400 different cover versions of the song!
White Heat (1949) is a fusion of gangster and noir genres and a great example of each. James Cagney gives his most memorable—and crazed—performance as a vile, hot-headed thug who loves money, his mother, and not much else. White Heat was directed by Raoul Walsh, who also did another great proto-noir in 1940, They Drive By Night. What a perfect noir title!
D.O.A. (1950) A man walks into a police station, goes to the homicide department, and says, “I’m here to report a murder.” “Who was killed?” asks the officer. “I was,” says the man. D.O.A. has been remade numerous times, but none manage to top the snappy, pulpy melodrama of the original.
Pickup On South Street (1953), by the inimitable Sam Fuller, is one of the greats of the genre. Many noir films, including this one and This Gun For Hire, include espionage-related plotlines, as fears of Communism and nuclear weapons increased. Many of the spy-thriller tropes actually began in noir, as the genre turned into the spy film.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) comes at the tail end of the golden age of noir. It is not a good movie, but it might be a great one. It is entirely sleazy, sordid, and seedy—nearly a parody. The lead character is dim private eye who is so violent and brutish that it is impossible to call him a hero. And yet … You have undoubtedly watched films that reference or were inspired by Kiss Me Deadly. The ending remains shocking—not one you will soon forget.
Noir is a genre that most people have heard of, but not many have actually sampled. Give some of these a try, and then come over to Twitter and tell me what you think!
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