The Best Film Noir Movies And How To Watch Them
These movies are "the stuff that dreams are made of."
A blend of smooth jazz music and tobacco smoke fills the air as the silhouette of a trench coat and fedora-clad bystander trudges down a dark city corridor, accompanied only by his shadow. A scene like this can only mean one thing: you are watching a noir film.
While these stylistic elements are common to classics like The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon, not all of the genre’s finest entries are so “black and white,” such as “Neo-noir” thrillers like Drive or Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Those are just a few esteemed favorites on our following list of the best film noir movies, starting with one of cinema’s greatest romantic tragedies.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Fred MacMurray plays an insurance executive seduced by a beautiful woman (Barbara Stanwyck) into killing her husband to receive his insurance benefits in Double Indemnity. Directed by the legendary Billy Wilder, the seven-time Oscar nominee is one of the most definitive noirs released during the genre’s prime for its breakneck suspense, compelling romance, and sharp dialogue from Wilder and co-writer Raymond Chandler’s script, which was adapted from James M. Cain’s novel.
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The Big Sleep (1946)
Director Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel following Phillip Marlowe (Academy Award winner Humphrey Bogart) on a deadly blackmailing case is one of Hollywood’s most influential detective stories. In fact, The Big Sleep (also starring Bogart’s frequent co-star Lauren Bacall) is a frequent source of comparison to The Big Lebowski - the 1998 stoner comedy/mystery thriller hybrid from Joel and Ethan Coen, who cite Chandler as an influence for the film.
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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
One of the more beloved comedy/mystery thriller hybrids in recent memory is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the stunning directorial debut of Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black, which he adapted from Brett Halliday’s novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them. The role of Harry Lockhart - a thief mistaken for an actor and paired with a Hollywood P.I. (Val Kilmer) to research a movie role - is considered to be Robert Downey’s Jr.’s first major comeback before hitting really big with the MCU.
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The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
The Coen Brothers would bring their noir-inspired style of storytelling to something a little more on the side of tradition with a film that has everything from blackmail, murder, a 1940s-setting, and beautiful, Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography by Roger Deakins. Billy Bob Thornton plays a barber whose plan to benefit from his wife’s (Frances McDormand) affair with her boss (James Gandolfini) backfires horribly in The Man Who Wasn’t There - a story that feels familiar in premise, but refreshing (and sometimes very bizarre) in execution.
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The Maltese Falcon (1941)
One of Humphrey Bogart’s most iconic film noir characters is Samuel Spade, the hero of Dashiell Hammett’s novel about the murder and deceit surrounding a statuette said to be worth a fortune. Written and directed by John Huston (whom Bogart would work with again on 1951’s The African Queen), The Maltese Falcon had such a lasting influence on the mystery genre for its killer twist and ending and heartbreaking final quote.
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Before he became known for making some of the best horror movies of all time, Alfred Hitchcock was a master of suspense of the noir variety and one of the legend’s most thrilling and technically inventive works in that regard is Rope. James Stewart stars in this adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s play about two men (John Dall and Farley Granger) throwing a dinner party just to prove they committed the perfect crime which is shot to appear as if filmed in one continuous take.
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The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
James Stewart plays an American doctor whose visit to Paris with his wife (Doris Day) is ruined when they witness a murder and only worsened by the kidnapping of their adolescent son (Christopher Olsen) in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Featuring a memorable performance by Day of the song “Que Sera Sera,” this thriller is further proof that by pairing Stewart with director Alfred Hitchcock is sure to deliver chills.
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The Third Man (1949)
Joseph Cotten plays an American pulp fiction writer whose visit to Vienna is ruined by the suspicious death of his friend and former classmate, which he decides to discover the truth behind when disparate witness accounts do not add up. The legendary Orson Welles plays the victim at the center of The Third Man - a stirring murder mystery from director Carol Reed, whose visual style was especially influential to the film noir genre.
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Touch Of Evil (1958)
While investigating a bombing on the U.S./Mexican border, a DEA agent (Charlton Heston) begins to suspect ill of an American police captain, which proves worrisome for him and his wife (Janet Leigh) as more secrets come to light. Orson Welles plays the corrupt cop at the center of Touch of Evil, which he also wrote and directed into a gripping, visually stunning adaptation of Whit Masterson’s novel Badge of Evil.
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Strangers On A Train (1951)
Farley Granger plays a married tennis star who would rather be with a U.S. senator’s daughter and Robert Walker plays a man who proposes he will kill the spouse if the athlete kills his father. This deadly bargain is the premise of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal psychological thriller Strangers on a Train - an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel written in part by Raymond Chandler.
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Can you imagine a murder mystery with all the same themes, archetypes, and language of a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett story taking place in modern day and with a cast of characters still in high school? Writer and director Rian Johnson of Knives Out fame did and turned it into his mesmerizing feature-length debut Brick, starring his frequent collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a loner infiltrating a criminal underworld of teens to solve his girlfriend’s death.
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Can you imagine a murder mystery told in reverse that still manages to be an incredibly fascinating and suspense-filled story throughout? Co-writer and director Christopher Nolan achieved just that with his brilliant, engrossing American debut Memento, starring Guy Pearce as a man trying solve his wife’s death despite a condition that makes him unable to remember anything that happened to him just a moment earlier.
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Sin City (2005)
Co-directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez capture the very essence of a comic book on film with their groundbreaking adaptation (a word that just barely describes how astonishingly well it brings the source material to life) of Miller’s own series of graphic novels collectively called Sin City. The masterful game-changer boasts a stellar all-star cast, a strikingly unique aesthetic, and dialogue that redefines the language of classic film noir more than it does pay homage to it.
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North By Northwest (1959)
A case of mistaken identity leads a New York City advertising executive (Cary Grant) to go on the run from International spies. Even those who have never seen the breathless thrill ride that is Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest can instantly recognize it from the iconic, heart-stopping scene in which Grant’s character just barely dodges a plane flying right at him.
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The best Neo-noir thrillers challenge the conventions of the originals while honoring and reflecting what made them so powerful to begin with. Director Nicolas Winding Refn absolutely nails that intent with his instant classic crime drama Drive, starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stuntman by day, getaway driver by night who puts himself in jeopardy trying to protect the woman of his dreams (Carey Mulligan) and her family.
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Movies do not get much darker than this - hence the name “film noir.” However, darkness shone so brightly than in these amazing titles.
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Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.