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Masterpieces of Film Noir

Updated on January 11, 2015


Although the borders of film noir genre are hard to set and this issue is a reason for endless debates with films being included and excluded from the list by different critics, I will nevertheless try to define the most typical features of the genre and offer the readers my own list of favorite films. They are truly one of the best film noir productions, but I am sure somebody may find other films as interesting as the once I listed, and they will still more or less fit into the genre.

I did not include Citizen Kane (1941) by Orson Welles, which is considered by many as the first film noir ever, because for me this bigger-than-life drama about a bigger-than-life person is far more than a typical film noir. It is a masterpiece which deserves a separate article to be written someday.

History and Definition of Film Noir

Film noir is a type of crime dramas that were filmed in Hollywood during 1940s until late 1950s. Many films of the genre were adapted from crime fiction novels that were popular in the United Stated during the Great Depression. It is believed by many critics that the genre started with Citizen Kane and ended with Touch of Evil, both films directed by Orson Welles. However, film noir never died: it was a strong movement in the history of cinema and many later directors continued to use the most specific features of the genre in their works. The current article includes only the films of black and white era, while there are some later film noir productions shot in color.

Once again, speaking about the borders of the genre, I would say that they are defined by the presence of antagonist with often cynical attitude towards the world and a so called femme fatale, who usually falls in love with the hero, but later brings him only troubles. The hero can be a private detective, a policeman or just a hard-boiled guy who becomes a victim of circumstances, but his way of dealing with things usually makes him cross the line and become and outlaw. If we speak about the visual style of film noir, then unbalanced compositions, extreme camera angles and contrast of light and shadow come to mind. There is a lot of cigarette and cigar smoke in many of the films, which creates an additional dreamy feeling to the stories told on the screen.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon" (1941)
Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) | Source

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

"In 1539 the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels—but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day."

Private investigator Sam Spade is hired to find the notorious figure of the bird...

Double Indemnity (1944)

Insurance company representer Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), wife of a wealthy oil company worker, feel instantly attracted to each other when Neff visits their home in order to extend the car insurance contracts of Mr. Dietrichson. Neff reveals Phyllis' secret plan to get rid of Mr. Dietrichson and get the husband's money, but very easily gets involved in the crime. They meet secretly with Phyllis and Walter assures her that he knows how to cheat the insurance company, but eventually the perfectly planned crime goes wrong: Walter finds out that Dietrichson's wife used him.

The Big Sleep (1946)

A rich blackmailed family hires a private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) to investigate the case of blackmailing, but with every move he makes, the case becomes more and more complicated, including murders. Despite having a complex script, the film first of all attracts viewers' attention with the detailed description of the process of investigation.

Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Starring Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, Lady from Shanghai is a movie about an idle sailor who gets involved in a complicated murder plot. While walking through a park in the evening, Michael O'Hara (played by Orson Welles) sees a beautiful young lady in a cab. They have a short conversation and they ways part, but the intricate story only begins here: several minutes later he saves her from bandits and drives her home. In turn, Elsa Bannister offers Michael a job on her husband's yacht. While on board, Michael meets a friend and partner of Arthur Bannister, George Grisby. The tricky man has been preparing his own fake murder to get hold of their company's money, but when everything is done, Michael finds out that Grisby is murdered indeed.

Rita Hayworth in "Lady from Shanghai"
Rita Hayworth in "Lady from Shanghai" | Source

The Third Man (1949)

Famous for its unique soundtrack performed on zither, The Third Man is a British film noir classic starring Orson Welles. Fiction writer Holly Martins (Orson Welles) arrives to war deserted and Allied-occupied Vienna to meet his friend, Harry Lime. Upon arrival, Martins discovers that Lime was killed by a speeding car and attends his funeral. However, trying to discover the circumstances of the accident, he discovers that Harry Lime was not in the coffin.

The Rules of Film Noir

Gun Crazy (1950)

This film reminds me of Bonnie and Clyde story. Upon arrival from the army, a gun addict Barton Tare meets a young woman working as a gun shooter in the circus who's shooting abilities are equal to his. They fall in love and enter the path of outlaws by robbing banks. Tracked down by the police, they meet their end on a foggy swamp when they both are shot dead.


The Big Combo (1955)

A complicated story of murder and treason in a case investigated by police lt. Leonard Diamond. Diamond's goal is to bring down a notorious, powerful and elusive gangster Mr. Brown. As the story unfolds, Diamond finds himself at danger of being killed, but the gangster's men kill his wife instead. Diamond meets the gangster's girlfriend and falls in love with her.

Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil is probably one of the most well known films of film noir genre and it is believed to be closing the period of classical film noir. An intricate story of a ruthless murder on the border between Mexico and the United States, a case of international importance, where not only criminals, but also police detective are found guilty. Considered to be one of the best films ever made with its cinematography and storytelling techniques being far ahead of its time, Touch of Evil is a must see for every film lover.


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    • Qmarpat profile image

      Qmarpat 3 years ago from Northern,California

      Nice-love old movies!