Film noir is a dying genre; and one that’s sadly fading into obscurity. Chances are, unless you’re studied in the art of cinema, you’ve probably never heard of it. They’re cynical crime-dramas, where happy endings are scarce and shadows are abundant. They’re also some of the greatest and most influential films ever made; and here are some of my favorites!
Double Indemnity (1944)
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is a murder mystery from the killer’s perspective. We know who, we know when and how, but we don’t know why. Even the killer (Fred MacMurray) doesn’t know the true motivation of his seductive partner (Barbara Stanwyck), and the entire film is him discovering the truth while trying to cover up the murder. This is an extremely original film, and one that surprisingly hasn’t been mimicked since. Maybe it’s because nobody can do it better than this film? It’s script is pitch-perfect, the acting is top-notch, and the cinematography is a definitive noir look.
The Third Man (1949)
Considered one of the best films ever made, Carol Reed’s The Third Man is a mystery that manages to be filled with surprises, even if you know the iconic twist. Everything that can be said about this movie probably has been said; it’s considered the greatest British film of all time (and for good reason), was one of Roger Ebert’s favorite movies ever, and is one of the top 4 highest rated films on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s on Netflix for all who are interested, and I highly recommend it for all interested.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
I love this movie. I love every single part of this movie. The film exposed many of the darker aspects of Hollywood, and did so in a way that was never tacky or cliched. It also contains one of the greatest performances in film history; Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. Norma is a star from the silent era who dove into pure insanity as the world seemed to forget her; and Swanson manages to make her be insane, threatening, tragic, and even pathetic on a constantly rotating basis. Look, this is a must-see movie. I seriously believe this is a film everyone must see at least once in their lives, and is in my top 20 ever made.
Night of the Hunter (1955)
This film is best described as a southern gothic, and definitely lives up to that description. The film follows two kids carrying a few thousand dollars, and a deranged murderous “priest” (Reverend Harry Powell, played with chilling perfection by Robert Mitchum) chasing them throughout the South. It’s a simple story compared to many of the others on this list, but still an effective one. The film’s strength comes from it’s characters and the actors who brought them to life: both of the kids can be considered to be some of the greatest child actors of all time, and Robert is a perfect antagonist in every sense of the word. He’s manipulative, cruel, and does it all claiming it’s “God’s will”. And he gets under your skin in the way only the greatest villains ever can. My only complaint with this movie is that the ending drags a little bit too long, but other than that this is a flawless film.
Is this cheating? Chinatown is often regarded as a post-modern noir, since it was made long after the era of film noir, and disregards many noir tropes (like heavy shadows), and replaces them with modern filmmaking techniques. But, it is a classic in its own right, and deserves a spot on this list. If you are looking for a feel-good movie, I recommend you look away. Chinatown blends detective fiction with harsh reality and disturbing implications. It also has maybe Jack Nicholson’s best performance yet (sorry Shining). It’s a masterpiece of its time, and no matter how hard Hollywood tries, they can’t replicate it. Just don’t look up the director.