10 great American film noirs

With Orson Welles’s magnificent noir melodrama The Lady from Shanghai back in cinemas, we turn back the clock to the golden age of Hollywood to select the 10 best American film noirs.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

It’s “the weirdest great movie ever made”, in critic Dave Kehr’s words. The one in which Orson Welles plays a sailor with an overcooked Irish accent, and that ends with a shootout in a hall of mirrors.

Now rereleased in a digital restoration, The Lady from Shanghai was made when Welles was Hollywood’s fallen golden boy. It looked like he’d never again be trusted with the creative freedoms he was granted for Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); instead, he briefly turned his hand to a new kind of shadowy thriller that would become known as film noir.

First up was The Stranger (1946), and then this delirious oddity in which seaman Michael O’Hara (Welles) becomes a pawn in a convoluted murder plot after meeting the beautiful Elsa (Rita Hayworth) in New York and taking work on her wealthy husband’s yacht on a cruise to San Francisco via the Panama Canal.

It’s part sailor’s shaggy dog story, part a recriminatory enquiry into the alluring Hayworth. Elsa is one of film noir’s great fatal women, but she was then also Welles’ estranged wife, so the perversity coursing through this particular tale of duplicity and desire runs ocean deep.

To celebrate the film’s return to cinemas, where Welles’s extraordinary flair for sound and imagery are best enjoyed, we return to the golden age of American film noir to line up its finest achievements.

The style of film noir would cross the water to Britain and France and elsewhere in the world, just as it would return in the 1970s and 80s and the present day. But, at the very start, film noir meant a particular cycle of cynical American thrillers beginning around 1941 and continuing until about 1959. For two decades, acerbic dialogue, grids of shadow, twisty plots and twisted characters reigned supreme – the results remain a cinematic gold mine, but the following are 10 of the very best.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Director Billy Wilder

What is film noir? Watch Double Indemnity and you’ll know straight away. Billy Wilder’s classic was part of a wave of films in 1944 (see also: Laura; Murder, My Sweet; The Woman in the Window) that crystallised the emerging genre once and for all. It was these that admiring French critics saw after the end of the Second World War and first called ‘film noir’.

Most of this shady cycle featured treacherous women (‘femme fatales’) duping guileless men, and few of these were more alluring than Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who ensnares policy salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in her scheme to do away with her husband and claim the insurance payout. The sign in the still above says “STOP”, but – from his first glimpse of Dietrichson’s bare ankles at the top of the stairs in her hacienda-style villa – we know that Neff doesn’t know how to.

Told in flashback, as Neff tapes his confession for the benefit of his wily colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), this is one of film history’s slinkiest, most seductive pleasures. The novels of James M. Cain provided the basis for two more essential noirs: Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

Laura (1944)

Director Otto Preminger

The US release of Laura followed a month on from Double Indemnity, in the autumn of 1944 – gathering momentum, this delicious new taste in film thriller was here to stay. Where the Wilder film revels in sunlit SoCal treachery, Laura is all urbane east coast, and the tongues are, if anything, even sharper – particularly where the waspish columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) is concerned. Into Lydecker’s perfumed, drawing-room world comes police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) to investigate the brutal murder of the beautiful young Laura, whose portrait in oil still hangs alluringly over the fireplace.

The twisting, turning plot was adapted from a serialised novel by Vera Caspary, and while Laura works brilliantly as a mystery thriller, it’s the characters that stick in the mind: not just Laura and Lydecker, but Vincent Price’s Shelby Carpenter, a leaching playboy, and McPherson himself, a forerunner to James Stewart’s character in Vertigo (1958) in his yearning exaltation of a dead woman. Preminger was one of the best noir directors, so there are more like this: Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), Angel Face (1952).

The Big Sleep (1946)

Director Howard Hawks

Perhaps it might be considered lazy casting that Howard Hawks got Humphrey Bogart in to play private eye Philip Marlowe in this adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel. After all, Bogart had played that other great hard-boiled gumshoe, Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon (1941), one of film noir’s very first shots across the bow.

But The Big Sleep’s innovations came elsewhere. Hawks takes the by now established visual and thematic scenery of noir and uses it to create… a screwball romance. Sure, there are shadows, vice and guns enough in this story of blackmail, pornography and spoiled daughters  – “my, my, my” says Marlowe after another revolver is pulled on him, “so many guns around town, and so few brains”. Yet noir’s world-weary cynicism is only a game here, as meaningless as the plot that no one can follow – it’s all just movie backdrop to the whipcrack foreplay talk of Bogart and Lauren Bacall, real-life husband and wife to whom Hawks gives a movie to ping-pong innuendo at each other like a gloriously inclusive means of delaying gratification.

The director never made another film noir, probably because he wasn’t able to play the game: noir’s wallows in the gutter should be sceptical and disenchanted, but Hawks brings the ecstasy.

Gilda (1946)

Director Charles Vidor

It’s almost unforgivable that there’s nothing from either Fritz Lang or Robert Siodmak on this list: each of them made half a dozen of the very finest film noirs. Instead, this film from Charles Vidor. Vidor, too, was an émigré from Europe, but one whose career seems a good deal patchier in retrospect, with Gilda perhaps his one true claim on immortality.

It’s set in Buenos Aires, at a casino run by the warped tycoon Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Into this exotic setting comes drifter Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford); he’s new in town and accepts an offer from Ballin to become his protégé. But it turns out Ballin’s ravishing wife Gilda (Rita Hayworth) used to be Johnny’s lover and the stage is set for a maelstrom of erotic tensions and perverse powerplay. Hayworth had worked with Vidor on the musical Cover Girl (1944), but gets her best moment here as the exuberant femme fatale who generates so much sexual heat, flinging her hair back with abandon or seductively peeling off her long black gloves as she sings ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ in the film’s famous striptease sequence.

Gilda is a film to show to anyone who needs introducing to the joys of the old Hollywood studio system, when lustrous black-and-white photography and set design bordering on abstraction created pressure-cooker worlds of tortuous feeling.

Out of the Past (1947)

Director Jacques Tourneur

Out of the past comes a man in a dark suit. We’re in small-town California, and if garageman Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) thinks he can just settle down to a life of sweetness and light and leave the shadows behind him he’s got another thing coming. This stranger in town is here to remind him, and before long we’re headfirst into a flashback about a nefarious gambler (Kirk Douglas) and a duplicitous dame (Jane Greer). We scramble to keep track as we flit from Lake Tahoe to Acapulco, the twists turning and the darkness doubling.

Jacques Tourneur’s beguiling 1947 film, known as Build My Gallows High in the UK, is film noir served neat. All the hallmarks are here: the laconic anti-hero, the femme fatale, the trenchcoats, the theme of fate coming back to hit you like a boomerang, the tricksy non-chronological structure, the plumes of cigarette smoke wreathing through the gloom. As with The Big Sleep, it doesn’t matter if you can’t quite follow it all: the walk in the half light is sublime.

The Reckless Moment (1949)

Director Max Ophuls

The Reckless Moment begins with a well-dressed woman in horn-rimmed sunglasses, Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett), driving into Los Angeles. We know immediately that there’s something furtive about her mission; people just don’t wear sunglasses in 1940s cinema unless something shady is afoot. Sure enough, she has come to tell some local sleaze to stop seeing her daughter Bea; later, she’ll be left desperately trying to cover up his accidental death in order to keep Bea out of suspicion.

Based on a novel by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Max Ophuls’ film is actually a good deal less cynical and hard-boiled than most core film noir. Like Mildred Pierce and other films that are perched midway between noir and women’s melodrama, it doubles as a piercing account of a strong-willed woman fighting for her family, while also feeling the suffocation of domestic life.

Though he had not been in America long, the German director sketches a vivid portrait of life in a coastal Californian small town, in a way that makes it seem both idyllic and like a cushioned prison: Lucia’s every moment is plagued either by the habitualised pestering of her family or by the benign prying of her neighbours. Ophuls uses the shadows of noir like a cloak, but the depth of his feeling for the characters – not least James Mason’s lovestruck blackmailer – shows through the disguise.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Director Nicholas Ray

Film noir isn’t always as truly dark as it’s cracked up to be, but Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is one film where the desolation cuts to the bone. It’s set in Hollywood, which might have something to do with it, and stars Humphrey Bogart as Dix Steele, an embittered and washed-up screenwriter with a fiery temper. One night, he pays a hat-check girl to help out with a script read-through and when she’s found dead the next morning, Steele comes under suspicion. An actor neighbour, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), gives him an alibi, and later the pair begins to fall in love… but Dix’s tendency to lash out increasingly makes Laurel wonder.

The story of a woman slowly coming to suspect that her partner is a murderer harkens back to 40s melodramas such as Suspicion (1941) and Gaslight (1944), but the way the relationship is depicted here is much more nuanced and adult – more frightening in its barely contained violence. An aching sense of sadness attends the blackening mood as the happiness of a love affair runs against the rocks.

A couple of other Nick Ray films get called noir too, but – like In a Lonely Place – each is a good deal richer and stranger than most: They Live by Night (1948), On Dangerous Ground (1951).

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Director Samuel Fuller

We begin in the sticky heat of a New York subway train. Candy (Jean Peters), her bored face covered with a film of perspiration, is being eyed up by two men – we later find out they’re surveillance men, so their voyeurism is strictly professional. Then Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) shuffles toward her in the carriage, and his invasion is bolder still – maintaining an insolent stare as he fishes her purse from her handbag.

Sam Fuller’s in-your-face thriller finds the pickpocket becoming the unwitting spare part in a anti-communist sting; unbeknown to Candy, her purse contains microfilm that American intelligence hopes will lead them to a network of communists. It’s a test case in what can be done inside of 80 minutes if you’ve got enough intelligence, filmmaking verve and pulp energy to keep everything in check. Widmark is unforgettable as the snarling, self-interested hoodlum caught up in political manoeuvring that he neither knows nor cares about, while Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter) is one of film noir’s most tragic supporting characters, the professional stool pigeon who knows all the angles but is undone by a fatal sense of loyalty. 

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Director Robert Aldrich

The dead of night. A distressed woman, out of breath, running along a desert road. The broken lines in the middle of the asphalt flash by luminously like a premonition of Lynch. A speeding roadster is forced to a halt. “You almost wrecked my car,” the driver snarls, before letting her in. Nat King Cole comes in on the radio as the breathless woman settles into the passenger seat, and we’re off, into the night, as the opening credits roll perversely from top to bottom.

If the hairs aren’t prickling on the back of your neck after this minute of screen time, then film noir’s not for you. The man is Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), the most unpleasant gumshoe in the whole canon; the woman is Christina (Cloris Leachman), though she doesn’t last long. Why is she running at night, wearing nothing but a trenchcoat? It’s something to do with “the great whatsit” – a mysterious, glowing must-have that results in a trail of corpses. Like Pickup on South Street, Kiss Me Deadly is film noir in its Cold War phase, when the evil looms as big as a mushroom cloud and petulant protagonists are liable to get more than their fingers burned.

Touch of Evil (1958)

Director Orson Welles

Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil is usually considered one of the very last film noirs of the original period, and probably its last masterpiece. The genre would see a resurgence in the 1970s with films such as The Long Goodbye (1973) and Chinatown (1974), but by then it was starting to look and feel a little different – they were in colour for a start.

Welles hadn’t made a film in Hollywood for a decade (almost since The Lady from Shanghai) when B-movie producer Albert Zugsmith hired him for this sleazy tale set in a California-Mexico border town very like Tijuana. Everybody talks about the three-minute extended shot which opens the film, in which a bomb is placed in a car that then explodes after crossing the US border, but with good reason: has a movie ever thrown us into the thick atmosphere of a place with such flair and tension?

We’re in for a tale of marijuana, murder and police corruption and we’re already hooked. Charlton Heston is the Mexican border cop, Janet Leigh his imperilled wife, and Welles himself the gargantuan, cigar-chewing US detective Hank Quinlan who provides the genre with one of its best villains. This is pulp art writ large; noir at its baroque, sweaty, intoxicating best.

Your suggestions

  1. Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)
  2. The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)
  3. Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)
  4. Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944)
  5. The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)
  6. Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)
  7. White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)
  8. Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
  9. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)
  10. Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949)

A huge range of terrific suggestions came in on Facebook and Twitter when we asked you what you thought we’d missed from this list, proving just how rich and plentiful is the canon of classic American film noir. We’ve counted up the numbers and are particularly pleased to see two films each from directors Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmak make it into the top 10 – we’d felt particularly guilty about omitting those noir masters. Siodmak’s The Killers, especially, had a chorus of supporting voices. Nudging it out of the top spot, however, is that weird and wonderful tale of a down-on-his-luck screenwriter being taken under the wing of a washed-up silent-screen actress: Billy Wilder’s gothic-noir classic Sunset Blvd.

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