The femme fatale. The private eye. The double-cross. These classic film noir movies aren’t just dark and thrilling flicks–they’re some of the best films ever made. With career-making performances from the likes of Humphrey Bogart and legendary directors like Orson Welles and John Huston, these classic film noir movies serve as the inspiration for many modern day thrillers.
The Maltese Falcon
It doesn’t get more classic than this 1941 noir. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon has it all: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and the directorial debut of legendary film director John Huston. Like all great noir movies, The Maltese Falcon begins with a femme fatale who sends Sam Spade (Bogart)’s partner on a mission that gets him killed. Shortly afterwards, Joel Cairo (Lorre) shows up at Spade’s office and pulls a gun on him demanding to know the location of a black bird statue. Are these strange events related? Most definitely. Unraveling the link between them is what makes this movie a classic.
Out of the Past
Considered by many film scholars to be a first-rate, classic example of noir, 1947’s Out of the Past stars Robert Mitchum as Jeff Markham, the private eye whose run-in with a femme fatale ended his career in detective work. Jeff is sent to Mexico in search of a woman on the run–her former lover claims that she shot him and took off with his money. Once there, though, Jeff falls in love with her. Is she guilty of the crimes she’s been accused of? Does she really love Jeff, or is she just using him to evade the cold grasp of justice?
The Third Man
Widely considered to be not only one of the best examples of noir cinema but also one of the best movies of all time, The Third Man was released in 1949, written by novelist Graham Greene and starred Orson Welles. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in postwar Vienna eager to spend some time with his childhood friend Harry Lime (Welles) but is in for a horrific surprise when he learns Harry was killed–hit by a truck. Working under suspicion that there was a “third man” present at the time of Harry’s death and that it was not an accident, Holly will stop at nothing to uncover the truth about his friend’s murder, even if it means comforting his grief-stricken girlfriend who may know more than she lets on.
This classic 1944 noir thriller features the infamous double-cross of the femme fatale and has gone on to inspire a number of modern neo-noir classics like 1981’s Body Heat. Walter Neff, an insurance salesman, goes to let Phyllis’s husband know that his car insurance has lapsed. But Phyllis, played by the impeccable Barbara Stanwyck, has other ideas, and the two eventually embark on a murder plan that will invoke the “double indemnity” clause–resulting in a doubled insurance payout. You might think Neff would know not to trust a woman who wants her husband dead, but … think again.
Touch of Evil
This 1958 noir written, directed, and starring Orson Welles has a rather contentious past. Welles claimed the studio’s edit of the film botched its true essence and wrote a 58-page memo explaining exactly what had been mucked up. Many of Welles’s most beautiful shots were replaced with close-ups shot by another director, which also muddled the plot of the film. As a result, when the movie was released, it was panned and largely ignored by audiences. But time has been kind to Touch of Evil. In 1998, using Welles’s memo to the studio, the movie, which stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh as newlyweds who become embroiled in a Mexican/American drug framing scheme, was re-released as the auteur originally imagined it. Touch of Evil is now considered to be some of his best work.
The eponymous figure and supposed star of this noir by Otto Preminger, Laura, barely appears in her own movie. That’s because she’s dead–murdered–and the prime suspects are her best friend Waldo and her fiancé, Shelby (Vincent Price). As the detective assigned to the case learns more about Laura from the two men in her life, though, he finds himself falling in love with her, too. Perhaps it’s easier to fall in love with the memory of someone.
Put together a struggling screenwriter and an aging actress desperate for the limelight: What do you get? Pure genius. Billy Wilder’s masterpiece stars the epic Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, who hasn’t managed to regain her foothold in the business after the advent of talkies. William Holden stars as Joe Gillis, the screenwriter who jumps at the chance to be a kept man who promises a major comeback to Desmond. But as we know from the very first scene of the film Gillis’s plan didn’t exactly work out, the film opens on his corpse, floating in Norma’s pool.
In a Lonely Place
Like Sunset Boulevard, this noir movie adapted from Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel explores the dangers of Hollywood ambition. Dix (Humphrey Bogart, in one of his best performances) is a struggling screenwriter who falls in love with his neighbor, an aspiring actress, all the while under the suspicion of murder. While the fledgling relationship struggles to gain traction, Dix begins to wonder if the figments of his imagination might not be figments at all. This noir goes truly dark–you may not want to watch it alone.
The Big Sleep
Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep capitalizes on the chemistry of its two stars: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who had married in the interim between the movie’s filming and release. Phillip Marlowe (Bogart) is hired by a man to look into the gambling debts of his wild young daughter. But it’s the older daughter, played by Bacall, who lets on that the case is more complicated. After Bogie and Bacall became the subject of celebrity obsession, several scenes of the movie were reshot to enhance their time onscreen together.
Rita Hayworth shines as the eponymous femme fatale in this 1946 film noir. Johnny, a regular gambler, gets in over his head when he attempts to cheat at an elite, high stakes casino. The owner, a man named Mundson, is charmed by Johnny and hires him to work at the casino. But when Mundson shows up with a new wife, Gilda, Johnny is less than thrilled. It’s obvious that Johnny and Gilda have a history even though they deny it: The sexual tension is palpable. When Gilda’s husband fakes his own death, the two shack up. Are they still gambling, or playing for keeps?
Kiss Me Deadly
Decades before Jules and Vincent chased after a shimmering MacGuffin briefcase in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, detective Mike Hammer pursued a glowing “great whatsit” valise in Robert Aldrich’s 1955 nihilistic noir of the nuclear age. Detective Hammer (Ralph Meeker) stumbles upon the trail of a mysterious, highly valuable case. The contents of the case are positively radioactive—and spell certain doom to all those who dare open it up.
Based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name, this atmospheric 1946 film noir is directed by genre master Robert Siodmak and stars Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, and Burt Lancaster in his debut. The film’s outstanding opening sequence follows two hit men as they prowl the New Jersey night in search of a gas station attendant nicknamed the Swede (Lancaster). Yet there’s far more to their target than meets the eye. As an insurance investigator (O’Brien) pieces together the Swede’s life and strange death, he uncovers an intricate mystery that involves a beautiful former lover (Gardner), a successful robbery, and a missing bundle of cash.
The Big Heat
You’ll find little light seeping through this grim 1953 film noir from auteur filmmaker Fritz Lang. Hard-hitting homicide detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) investigates the presumed suicide of a fellow police officer. His search for the truth reveals a web of corruption and criminality that consumes the city and spans the police department as well as the mob. The Big Heat is known for its infamous disfigurement scene wherein Mafioso thug Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) scalds his girlfriend Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) with a pot of boiling coffee.
Buckle up for this raw cult classic noir from 1945, viewed by some critics as one of the best B-movies of all time. Directed by B-movie maestro Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage, Detour clocks in at a frenetic 68 minutes. It follows piano player Al Roberts (Neal) as he hitchhikes his way to Hollywood. Al accepts a ride from a bookie, only for the bookie to perish en route to the west coast. What’s a down-on-his-luck hitchhiker to do? Dump the body and assume the dead man’s identity, of course. Big mistake, piano player.
A young Stanley Kubrick teamed up with crime fiction author Jim Thompson to craft this 1956 noir, based on Lionel White’s racetrack heist thriller Clean Break. Sterling Hayden plays Johnny Clay, a seasoned criminal who assembles a crack team of gunmen, heavies, crooked cops, and inside men to steal millions from a racetrack. Clay sees the score as the final job of his criminal career before he settles down and marries his fiancé Fay (Coleen Gray). What’s the worst that could happen?
Robert Siodmak and Burt Lancaster reunite in this 1949 film noir that also stars Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea. Lancaster plays Steve Thompson, an armored truck driver ensnared in a love triangle and robbery gone wrong with his ex-wife Anna (De Carlo) and Anna’s new husband, mobster Slim Dundee (Duryea). As its title implies, dramatic double-crosses ensue.
This 1945 noir, also directed by Fritz Lang, stars Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, and silver screen gangster icon Edward G. Robinson. Robison plays Christopher Cross, a starving artist who gets caught up with Kitty March (Bennett) and Kitty’s two-bit hustler beau Johnny Prince (Duryea). After realizing Cross’s paintings fetch a pretty penny, Johnny and Kitty hatch a scheme: Kitty will feign interest in Chris and convince the artist to hand over his work to her. Smitten, Chris agrees; Kitty becomes a smash hit of the art world. But the ruse is doomed for death.
Murder, My Sweet
Based on Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely, this 1944 noir is the first to feature Chandler’s hard-boiled P.I. Philip Marlowe and is a foundational entry in the film noir genre. Dick Powell plays Marlowe, who’s hired by ex-con Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to track down his former flame Velma Valento (Claire Trevor). At the same time, playboy Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) taps the gumshoe to serve as his bodyguard during a midnight exchange of stolen jewels. Naturally the deal goes south, and it soon becomes clear that the two cases are connected.
Night and the City
Directed by blacklisted filmmaker of the McCarthy era Jules Dassin and dismissed as irredeemably bleak upon its release, this pitch-black 1950 noir is now considered a classic of the genre. Richard Widmark plays Harry Fabian, a hungry hustler in London in search of his next big score. Harry’s schemes keep going wrong, but he’s convinced he’s found his winning ticket in the form of an aging Greek wrestler. Harry intends to make a name for himself in the wrestling circuit. But when his wrestler turns up dead, Harry’s scheme soon spirals out of control. Night and the City was remade in 1992, starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange.
Featured still from "The Third Man" via London Film Productions