Film Noir

Film Noir isn't exactly a genre, like how most of these are crime pictures, but rather a more specific descriptor of the mood and look of the type of movie it describes. Britannica defines it as a: "style of filmmaking characterized by such elements as cynical heroes, stark lighting effects, frequent use of flashbacks, intricate plots, and an underlying existentialist philosophy...mostly found in American crime dramas of the post-World War II era."
It's not an easily defined thing (because there are degrees of exceptions, especially if you include neo-noir), but it's kind of like 'you-know-it-when-you-see-it'. And if you don't know what to look for, well, check out some of this assortment of essential and personal favorite titles to find out. If you are interested in streaming choices, please check out Kanopy and Hoopla.

Compiled by:
Brandon R.
The Big Sleep (1946)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Big

"Private detective Philip Marlowe's hired by a rich family. Before the complex case is over, he's seen murder, blackmail, and what might be love."
Here Bogart plays that other iconic private detective (previously depicted by Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet, a few years earlier), from the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name. The joke goes that no one can really follow the plot of this film, because how it all plays out technically makes no sense, but that doesn't keep us from enjoying the journey. Director Howard Hawks infuses some screwball romance into the mix with, the real-life wife of the star, Lauren Bacall, but he would never make another noir after this one. For more Bogie & Bacall noir see: Dark Passage. The 1978 version, with Robert Mitchum, is also currently available on Hoopla.

Double Indemnity (1944)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Dou

"Walter Neff is a smooth talking insurance salesman who meets the very attractive Phyllis Dietrichson when he calls to renew her husband's automobile policy. The couple are immediately drawn to each other, have an affair, and scheme to murder Phyllis' husband for life insurance money with a double indemnity clause."
Based on the James M. Cain novel (see also: The Postman Always Rings Twice) and curmudgeonly co-scripted by Raymond Chandler, this movie is as sleazy and morally corrupt as they come (for WWII-era homefront movies anyway); the ending was changed to placate the Hays Office who called it a "blueprint for the perfect murder". Regardless, it has influenced countless noirs since. If anything, this is where I learned that Fred McMurary isn't just the Dad from My Three Sons.

Gun Crazy (1949)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Gun

"A well meaning crack shot husband is pressured by his beautiful marksman wife to go on an interstate robbery spree, where he finds out just how depraved and deadly she really is."
Loosely inspired by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, this features a remarkably well-shot, one-take bank robbery sequence. It was revealed much later that this noir classic was mostly written by then blacklisted Dalton Trumbo.

Kiss of Death (1947)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Kis

"Nick Bianco is a small-time crook who gets caught during a jewel heist. When he rats out his partners, one seeks revenge."
Richard Widmark's psychopathic supporting performance here, in his screen debut, is beyond descripition. See Widmark also playing a racist psychopath, forced to be treated by a doctor played by Sidney Poitier, in the slightly noir-ish No Way Out.

Kiss Me Deadly
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Kis

"A doomed female hitchhiker pulls Mike Hammer into a deadly whirlpool of intrigue, revolving around a mysterious "great whatsit".
Cold War-era noir, not-so-faithfully based on the Mickey Spillane novel (the author  famously hated the movie). It opens strong and has "perhaps the darkest anti-hero private detective in film noir". 'The great whatsit' would later be stolen from this for later films like Repo Man and Pulp Fiction. And I guarantee David Lynch has watched this movie more than once.

Laura (1944)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Lar

"A Police detective falls in love with the woman whose murder he is investigating."
Based on the Vera Caspary novel, this film is a mystery; it's a descent into dream logic; it's, in a way, a precursor to a masterpiece like Vertigo that similarly and (not-so) subtly explores male fantasy. Director Otto Preminger would later make several other noirs like: Whirpool (also with Gene Tierney), Where the Sidewalk Ends, even Daisy Kenyon has some of that famous lighting.

Leave Her to Heaven
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Lea

"A writer falls in love with a young socialite and they're soon married. But her obsessive love for him threatens to be the undoing of them both, and everyone else around them."
One of the first noirs shot in color, this features Gene Tierney as one of the most uncompromising femme fatale's for the ages (who lost her only Oscar nomination here to Joan Crawford in the noir-tinged melodrama Mildred Pierce).

Adult Audiovisual DVD - M

"When a serial killer is stalking the children of the city, everyone, including the criminal underworld, wants to see him brought down. The story is based on the Düsseldorf child murders of 1929."
The look of black-and-white noir films are heavily influenced by German Expressionism. One of Fritz Lang's last in Germany before he escaped to Hollywood, this masterpiece showcases a 'dramatically shadowed lighting style and a psychologically expressive approach to visual composition' for its crime-centered plot. And the sound editing is amazing for it only having been invented a few years earlier. A key proto-noir at least? Fritz Lang would make several classic noirs over the course of his career. My favorite is probably The Big Heat.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Mal

"A private detective takes on a case that involves him with three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous woman, and their quest for a priceless statuette."
Widely regarded as the first major noir film, this fairly faithful adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel is the directorial debut of screenwriter/actor John Huston (who would go on to direct a few other classic noirs like Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle). This film is also responsible for advancing Humphrey Bogart's career from B-pictures (playing a lot of villains) to leading man 'good guy'.

Out of the Past (1947)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Out

"A private eye escapes his past to run a gas station in a small town, but his past catches up with him. Now he must return to the big city world of danger, corruption, double crosses and duplicitous dames."
"Superb example of film noir due to its complex, fatalistic storyline, dark cinematography, and classic femme fatale". Robert Mitchum would make several decent noirs, Jane Greer is one of the most iconic noir femme fatales of all-time, and Kirk Douglas appears in one of his earliest roles (after a bit in the noir-like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers).

Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Sun

"A screenwriter develops a dangerous relationship with a faded film star determined to make a triumphant return."
Not the usual noir storyline, but this very insider Hollywood story has a very noir-like, infamous narration and plenty of shadows and mood. Director Billy Wilder said: "At first, you know, this was supposed to be a comedy." Photographed by John Seitz,  the same cinematographer Wilder previously used for Double Indemnity.
See also: Ace in the Hole (another Wilder film that uses noir tropes to tell a cynical tale of the media in a time when almost no one was doing that).

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Swe

"Powerful but unethical Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker coerces unscrupulous press agent Sidney Falco into breaking up his sister's romance with a jazz musician."
The mood of noir oozes out of this film where Burt Lancaster's Hunsecker (reportedly based on the real-life actions of Walter Winchell) and Tony Curtis' Falco are just plain, horrible people. But the dialogue is to die for: "You're dead, son. Get yourself buried." See Lancaster in other noirs like: Criss Cross and The Killers.

This Gun For Hire (1942)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Thi

While seeking revenge on his treasonous employer, assassin Philip Raven meets entertainer Ellen Graham, a policeman's girlfriend, investigating the same man."
Based on the early novel by Graham Greene, this is the first of seven team ups of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (They were apparently initially matched for both being a short 5'6" and 4'11" respectively). Personally, I believe this is the first noir I remember watching. Did I mention this has Alan Ladd AND Veronica Lake in it?

Touch of Evil (1958)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Tou

"A stark, perverse story of murder, kidnapping and police corruption in a Mexican border town"
Orson Welles displays features of noir in films like Citizen Kane and The Lady of Shanghai, but this is considered by many to be the end of the original 'classic' period of noir films. Like most of Welles' pictures, studio meddling resulted in multiple versions of the film. One way to tell which you are watching: The famous opening sequence tracking shot originally had the credits running over it. The 1998 alternative version (re-cut from extensive notes made by Welles after shooting) puts these credits at the end, as intended, so that it doesn't distract from the amazing camerawork (IU Professor and noted Welles Scholar James Naremore helped with the reconstruction; participates in a commentary track on this anniversary DVD release).

The Wrong Man (1956)
Adult Audiovisual DVD - Wro

"In 1953, an innocent man named Christopher Emmanuel "Manny" Balestrero is arrested after being mistaken for an armed robber."
A personal favorite Hitchcock; the only film of his to be based-on-a-true story, plays with noir imagery to heighten the story of a man accused, well, wrongly. Interesting bit of trivia from IMDB: "The scene where Manny (Henry Fonda) is taken to prison was filmed in a real prison. As he is led to his cell , you can hear one of the inmates yell out "What'd they get ya for, Henry?", and a bunch of other prisoners laughing."
See also: one of Hitchcock's own favorites: Shadow of a Doubt.