Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My 12 Favourite Film Noirs

"40's style with added robot"
The 70th anniversary of the release of the quintessential film noir, Double Indemnity (1944), is as good an excuse as any to watch a classic noir. But what exactly counts as film noir in the first place? It's a tricky definitional problem. Although the classic noir era is over it’s not easy to define what noir was or when the noir period definitively ended. If you're going to say that nothing after 1959 counts as a proper noir (which a lot of film historians do) then many of my favourites below aren't going to make it. But the following is my list and my rules so I'm going to say that the cut off date is August 1987 when John Huston died (director and actor in many of the greatest noirs) which allows me to cheat a little. Obviously these are idiosyncratic choices and apologies if your favourites (Night and the City, Pickup on South Street, DOA, Night of the Hunter, Out of the Past, Cutter’s Way etc.) didn’t quite fit into the top 12.

12. The Asphalt Jungle
Directed by John Huston (1950)
Sterling Hayden gets himself mixed up in a robbery, but the real fun is watching the gang unravel under the pressure of success. Crosses and double crosses, a cameo by a purring Marilyn Monroe, an impressive Sam Jaffe as Doc  Riedenschneider; this is one of the all time great heist-gone-wrong films.

11. The Killing
Directed by Stanley Kubrick (1956)
Sterling Hayden gets himself mixed up in another robbery and again everything goes wrong after it all goes right. Hayden’s  Johnny Clay is a pacing, muscular, cerebral criminal, but while lady luck is on his side at the track it isn’t at the airport.

10. The Third Man
Directed by Carol Reed (1949)
Orson Welles is dead, or is he? Orson Welles is a bad guy, or is he? Joseph Cotten tries to find out or does he? Sewers, a Ferris wheel, duffle coats, the cuckoo clock speech, oh and the greatest existential ending of a film ever...

9. The Postman Always Rings Twice
Directed by Tay Garnett (1946)
Huge rip off. There is no postman or doorbell. Lana Turner smoulders and John Garfield is sucked willingly into the gravitational pull of her platinum sun. The plan is to kill her old man and take the insurance money. They know it’s not going to work but they do it anyway. Brilliant.

8. The Big Steal
Directed by Don Siegel (1949)
Don Siegel began his career directing the montages for Casablanca and finished it directing various Clint Eastwood vehicles in the 70’s, which isn’t a bad career at all. Along the way he made this slice of noir about an army lieutenant wrongly accused of robbery who pursues the real crook through Mexico. Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer stand out in a terrific cast.

7. Strangers On A Train
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1951)
Two strangers meet on a train and realise that they both need someone bumped off.  Based on a slyly brilliant book by Patricia Highsmith with a script by Raymond Chandler and an uncredited Ben Hecht, Alfred Hitchcock entered his great 1950’s period with this perfect stomach churning noir. Robert Walker chews the scenery as Bruno, a charming psychopath who wants out from under the heel of his father. Farley Granger provides able support.

6. Rififi
Directed by Jules Dassin (1957)
Jules Dassin got his start directing Yiddish films in New York, then he moved into mainstream Hollywood movies (directing the great Night and the City), then he got blacklisted, moved to France and directed this noir classic, with a cynical, bitter Jean Servais as an excon with a plan for a robbery on a jewellery shop. The heist itself is the highpoint of the film with its famous 10 minute zero dialogue, zero music, coming-through-the-ceiling scene. Everything succeeds perfectly but this being a noir you know that somehow it isn’t all going to end with expensive plonk and cottages in the Dordogne.

5. The Maltese Falcon
Directed by John Huston (1941)
Humphrey Bogart is tough guy private eye Sam Spade who helps Mary Astor locate a missing relic from the Knights of Malta that might be knocking around the streets of San Francisco. Also after the “black bird” are a snivelling Peter Lorre and a lugubrious Sydney Greenstreet. The ending is a bit contrived (although faithful to the novel) and fits with the best traditions of downbeat, pessimistic noirdom.

4. The Big Sleep
Directed by Howard Hawks (1946)
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall star, William Faulkner wrote the screenplay, Raymond Chandler wrote the novel. I’ve seen this half a dozen times and I still don’t really get the plot: something about a missing Irish rebel, a pornographer and dodgy films, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s all about the chemistry between Bogie and Betty Bacall. Hawks runs a tight ship throughout but lets the future Mr and Mrs Bogart really rip in their scenes. Grainy, dirty, rainy and slick, this is probably the highpoint of Hawks’s impressive career.

3. Double Indemnity
Directed by Billy Wilder (1944)
Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck star in Billy Wilder’s adaptation of the James Cain novel. It’s another knock-off-the-hubbie-and-get-the-insurance scheme. Babs rocks the sunglasses and angora sweater look and poor Fred doesn’t stand a chance (neither does the husband of course). Raymond Chandler argued with Billy Wilder, drank like a fish and somehow wrote the screenplay. He has a brief cameo at 16 minutes in (his only appearance in a movie.)

2. Blade Runner
Directed by Ridley Scott (1982)
Some people are under the mistaken belief that this is only a science fiction movie but in fact it’s a classic noir. Filmed on The Maltese Falcon set on the Warner’s back lot, it’s the story of half a dozen people trying to make sense of life before they themselves die. Harrison Ford plays Deckard, a Blade Runner, whose speciality is hunting androids who have returned to a dystopic, ruined Earth. Along the way he falls for the beautiful replicant, Rachael, who’s so convincingly human that she doesn’t even know that she’s a machine. Based on Philip K Dick’s short novel of ideas: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, Ridley Scott has turned this material into a metaphysical detective story where the detective finds out not who done it, but how to be a good human being.

1. Chinatown
Directed by Roman Polanski (1973)
You know what happens to nosy fellows? They get their noses cut off. No, really, they do and it's not pretty. Robert Towne wrote this gloriously depressing tale of a 1930’s Private Eye (Jack Nicholson) who uncovers a plot to steal water from the city of Los Angeles and divert it to land in the San Fernando valley. The man who finds out the truth and his wife (Faye Dunaway), hires ex Chinatown cop, Nicholson, to find out who did him in. The villain of the piece is John Huston, playing Dunaway’s rapist father with gleeful malevolence. Roman Polanski’s direction is lush, romantic and old fashioned. His cameo as a knife wielding maniac is disturbing on all sorts of levels. But all the performances are pitch perfect (look out for James Hong who plays the butler in this and a genetic designer in Blade Runner). The ending of Chinatown is melodramatic and a little rushed, but it still works, and as in all the really best noirs the hero is thwarted and beaten. Noirs teach us that defeat lies ahead for us all; learning how to deal with this defeat and ultimately death itself is the only meaning of life we’re ever going to get in this world of tears.


Jim B said...

Solid list ... I have other films in (or near) the genre I love more but they may not be the Great Films most of these are: The Big Heat comes to mind, and The Stranger.

Alan said...

Adrian,Fine list witth much to think about .I would,like to add the original "Night Of The Hunter" as a contender.I keep visualizing that and atheist Ferris Wheel scene in the "Third Man" with that sordid philosophy of dehumanization which still keeps popping up all over the world.Hope Espana was a blast.Best Alan

seana graham said...

It would be nice to have a rainy afternoon to watch a couple of these, but that ain't happening any time soon. Maybe Chinatown would be appropriate. I haven't seen that one for a long time.

Dana King said...

I've seen enough of these to trust you on the rest of the list; CHINATOWN isn't just maybe the greatest noir ever, it's one of the handful of best movies ever.

A little surprised not to see SUNSET BOULEVARD mention, even as one of those we might argue about leaving off.

adrian mckinty said...


Ah yes, The Big Heat - LOVE that one.

adrian mckinty said...


That's a great scene. And famously a lot of it was improvised by Orson on the spot...

adrian mckinty said...


Chinatown works in the sunshine. Not many do but it does....

adrian mckinty said...


Esp since I'm a failed writer! Yeah love Sunset Bvd - not a foot wrong in that picture.

melhealy said...

A fine list and extra suggestions - I definitely would include "Blade Runner" in there too. What about "Touch of Evil" and a few more Robert Mitchums besides "Night of the Hunter"?

Joe Velisek said...

I would add Out of the Past and Laura and maybe The Blue Dahlia and The Killers - and the list goes on and on.

Here's a "question" - would anyone consider Bad Day at Black Rock, Miller's Crossing, The Usual Suspects & L.A. Confidential "noir"?

adrian mckinty said...


Pretty much EVERY Mitchum film of the period. Out of the Past, Night of the Hunter....Wow!

adrian mckinty said...


You just named 4 of my favourite films. Can you imagine a movie marathon with those 4? Maybe do it chronologically...

Joe Velisek said...

Adrian -

That would prove to be an interesting evening - starting with a coffee and chili.

Anonymous said...

Touch of Evil..Orson Welles

KIKAREN said...

'Noirs teach us that defeat lies ahead for all of us . . .'
Hells bells Adrian, is that what being brought up in Carrickfergus does to a man?

Brendan O'Leary said...

Some I haven't seen on that list, so that's good to know. I'd have Bad Day At Black Rock and the Manchurian Candidate but not sure if they'd fit the genre definition.

I think we can draw a line between contemporary 40s to 60s noirs and later "period" or tribute films, good as they were.

Tom McGraw said...

Oh so many, I like all on your list Adrian, I would add The Killers with Burt Lancaster and Edmund O'Brien, and as Anonymous said, Touch of Evil, fun reference to the later in Get Shorty. B&W can't be equalled for mood and atmosphere, you know someone is going to get it, see, and get it good.

Frederic Wright said...

Glad to see "Out of the Past" mentioned...for me it's the top Noir ever..."Baby,I don't care."...and I'm afraid that "Chinatown" is just pastiche...Great pastiche but...I always felt that Polanski was the wrong director for Towne's extraordinary script...I know mine is a minority opinion...

Frederic Wright said...

Glad to see "Out of the Past" mentioned...for me it's the top Noir ever..."Baby,I don't care."...and I'm afraid that "Chinatown" is just pastiche...Great pastiche but...I always felt that Polanski was the wrong director for Towne's extraordinary script...I know mine is a minority opinion...

Jim B said...

+1 Blue Dahlia.

adrian mckinty said...


Well its true isnt it?

adrian mckinty said...


Black Rock is a fantastic film.

adrian mckinty said...


Even back then they were pastiching themselves to some extent or pastiching earlier gangster films. In cowboy genre pictures the pastiche became more real than the reality didnt it?

adrian mckinty said...


I just showed my youngest the opening scene of touch of evil. She loved it. Thank God.

adrian mckinty said...

Jim B