Nobody knew what to call film noirs when they first started coming out of Hollywood in the early 1940s. Reviews of the time call them “tough melodramas”, “murder mysteries” or simply “crime dramas”.
The French had the solution. When movies such as Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder, My Sweet (all 1944) saw delayed release in Paris after the end of the Second World War, critics likened them to the ‘romans noirs’ of 1930s crime novelists such as Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett. The term ‘film noir’ stuck.
For most of the 1940s and 50s, this style of crime film was dominant. You can spot them by their shadowy visuals and shady morals. Hard-talking men fall for duplicitous dames, as cigarette smoke wreaths around them on dark street corners or in rooms with the slatted blinds pulled down.
Hot on the heels of the Great Depression and the traumatising violence of the war, film noir reflected a world-weary fatalism in the American mood (and in the many European émigré filmmakers who had fled to Hollywood). The movies borrowed angular lighting effects from 1920s German films and a poetic gloominess from 1930s French films, wrapping it all up in tantalising packages of grit, glamour and cynicism.
Here’s one key film from each of the influential cycle’s peak years.
Stranger on the Third Floor
Director Boris Ingster
Latvian-born Boris Ingster only ever directed three films (he later became a TV producer on shows such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), but the first of these is an acorn from which the great oak of film noir would grow. Starring Peter Lorre as the ‘stranger’ of the title, it’s a short, cheap B-movie in which many of the hallmarks of the emerging style are brought together: an urban setting, slanted shadows, voice-over narration and the story of a wrong man falsely accused. Critics called its stylised lighting pretentious, but this heady combination was here to stay.
See also: Johnny Apollo (Henry Hathaway), The Letter (William Wyler), They Drive by Night (Raoul Walsh)
The Maltese Falcon
Director John Huston
Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 detective novel had already been adapted not once but twice since its publication, but screenwriter-turned-debut director John Huston’s 1941 version proved third time lucky. Humphrey Bogart (previously known for playing hoodlums) was cast against type as private eye Sam Spade, who becomes embroiled in the hunt for a precious statuette alongside such colourful ne’er-do-wells as Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and – in an early example of film noir’s preoccupation with treacherous women – Mary Astor.
See also: High Sierra (Raoul Walsh), I Wake Up Screaming (H. Bruce Humberstone), The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg)
This Gun for Hire
Director Frank Tuttle
Graham Greene’s work inspired several classic noirs, including the British variants Brighton Rock (1947) and The Third Man (1949). But this Paramount production was first out of the door, featuring Alan Ladd in a star-making role as a taciturn killer-for-hire who gets in up to the neck after recovering a stolen chemical formula. Veronica Lake positively smoulders as nightclub singer Ellen Graham, and the studio wasted no time in reteaming this iconic duo – they were back in cinemas within six months in the Dashiell Hammett adaptation The Glass Key.
See also: The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler), Moontide (Archie Mayo), Street of Chance (Jack Hively)
Shadow of a Doubt
Director Alfred Hitchcock
Although it forsakes a gritty urban setting in favour of the sunlit California town of Santa Rosa, Shadow of a Doubt is one of Hitchcock’s most noirish thrillers, presenting a shady protagonist who seems infected with the world-weary pessimism and misanthropy that came to define noir. As serial widow murderer Charlie, who comes west to hide out with his sister’s unsuspecting family, Joseph Cotten oozes contempt, calling the world “a foul sty”. “The world is a hell,” he says, “what does it matter what happens in it?”
See also: The Fallen Sparrow (Richard Wallace), Journey into Fear (Norman Foster), The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson)
The Woman in the Window
Director Fritz Lang
1944 was the year the levee broke, and the noir style with its glamorous cynicism began to permeate a larger number of releases. Among the bumper 1944 crop, none were more bitter than Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window, which far outpaces the pessimism of even Double Indemnity in its story of a lonely professor (Edward G. Robinson) whose affections are preyed upon by a deceitful Joan Bennett.
See also: Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder), Laura (Otto Preminger), Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak)
Director Edgar G. Ulmer
More polished examples of noir exist than this ‘poverty row’ production from the B-movie pumphouse Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), but here – in 68 minutes and shot in six days – is a perfect distillation of the genre’s essence. Pulp fiction told with great economy and imagination, it hinges on a down-on-his-luck pianist hitch-hiking across America to rejoin his girlfriend in California. As so often in noir’s pessimistic universe, fate sticks out a foot to trip him up en route – this time in the shape of dangerous siren Ann Savage.
See also: Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger), Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz), Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang)
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Director Tay Garnett
There were French and Italian adaptations of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel before Hollywood dared bait the censor with its own version of this scandalous story of adultery and murder. Like Detour, and several other noirs besides, this 1946 version begins with a drifter (John Garfield) in a diner. He finds work there, and then sex with the proprietor’s seductive wife (Lana Turner). Together they scheme to murder her husband.
See also: The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks), Gilda (Charles Vidor), The Killers (Robert Siodmak)
Out of the Past
Director Jacques Tourneur
French émigré director Jacques Tourneur was a master of shadowy gothic horror, but his first true noir might be the ultimate example of the cycle, ticking off all its hallmarks – from flashbacks to femme fatales – into a concoction that’s nothing short of intoxicating. Robert Mitchum is the garage-man whose past comes back to bite him, Jane Greer the alluring temptress, and the labyrinthine plot moves between small-town California, Lake Tahoe and Acapulco, daring you to keep up.
See also: Brute Force (Jules Dassin), Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway), The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles)
Cry of the City
Director Robert Siodmak
By the late 1940s, film noir was pulling in two ways – towards stylised abstraction on the one hand, and towards a new street-level realism on the other. 1948 brought a tranche of New York noirs, such as The Naked City and Force of Evil, in which tough stories were shot on location and with a more naturalistic sense of teeming modern life. One of the best was noir master Robert Siodmak’s Scorsese-inspiring Cry of the City, starring Victor Mature as a cop who finds himself on the opposite side of the law from hardened childhood friend Richard Conte.
See also: Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky), Moonrise (Frank Borzage), Raw Deal (Anthony Mann)
The Reckless Moment
Director Max Ophuls
Joan Bennett had played femme fatales for Fritz Lang, but turned in a heroine of rare mettle in this Max Ophuls masterpiece. She plays a small-town mother attempting to protect her family from blackmail after the accidental death of her daughter’s suitor. Based on a novel by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, this is a noir of rare tenderness, with James Mason superb as the doleful blackmailer slowly falling for his prey.
See also: Caught (Max Ophuls), Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak), White Heat (Raoul Walsh)
In a Lonely Place
Director Nicholas Ray
In the same year as Sunset Blvd. came another disillusioned, noir tale of Hollywood, with a career-best turn from Humphrey Bogart as the dark-tempered screenwriter whose new wife (Gloria Grahame) comes to suspect his violent tendencies. Grahame was married to director Nicholas Ray at the time, and their own disintegrating relationship no doubt played into the intensity of what is one of the great American films.
See also: The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston), Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis), Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder)
Director Joseph Losey
Before fleeing Hollywood for Britain during the McCarthy witch-hunt era, Joseph Losey made a string of distinctive film noirs – three in 1951 alone. Of these, The Prowler stars Van Heflin as a cop called to investigate a peeping tom who then falls for the woman he’s helping. In a twist on the Double Indemnity plot, he convinces her into a scheme to murder her husband for the insurance money, using the prowler as a scapegoat.
See also: M (Joseph Losey), On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray), Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock)
The Narrow Margin
Director Richard Fleischer
This taut thriller takes place on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles, as an LAPD detective (Charles McGraw) escorts a mob boss’s widow to court to testify before a grand jury. A model of noir economy, it zips by in a sleek 71 minutes, making atmospheric use of train sound effects in place of a score and delivering a satisfying twist. It was remade in 1990, with Gene Hackman as the detective.
See also: Clash by Night (Fritz Lang), Kansas City Confidential (Phil Karlson), Sudden Fear (David Miller)
Director Otto Preminger
Robert Mitchum plays an ambulance driver who becomes infatuated with the devious daughter (Jean Simmons) of a well-to-do Beverly Hills family in this superb entry in the noir cycle by Austrian-born Otto Preminger. You’ll see Preminger’s name on several of the best noirs, from Laura (1944) to Whirpool (1950), lending his coolly dispassionate gaze to stories of murder and delirium. This Freudian melodrama – a big favourite of Jean-Luc Godard – finds him at full tilt.
See also: The Big Heat (Fritz Lang), The Hitch-hiker (Ida Lupino), Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller)
Director Fritz Lang
The doomy atmospherics and fatalism of noir have their roots in a moody cycle of 1930s French dramas, so it makes sense that one of that era’s finest films – Jean Renoir’s La Bête humaine (1938) – should be remade in America, and by no less a director than Fritz Lang. Itself based on an Emile Zola novel, Renoir’s film is a coal-caked tale of lust, adultery and murder set among railway workers. Human Desire transposes the action to America, casting Glenn Ford as the war veteran train engineer who begins a dangerous affair with a colleague’s scheming wife (Gloria Grahame).
See also: Crime Wave (André De Toth), Riot in Cell Block 11 (Don Siegel), Suddenly (Lewis Allen)
Kiss Me Deadly
Director Robert Aldrich
Jet-fuelled by director Robert Aldrich’s disdain for Mickey Spillane’s tawdry pulp fiction detective Mike Hammer, Kiss Me Deadly is film noir at its most cynical and apocalyptic. Ralph Meeker is our unpleasant private eye hero, on the hunt for the “great whatsit” through 1950s Los Angeles as bodies pile up and Cold War paranoia thickens. Once seen never forgotten, it’s a lurid, nihilistic treat, from its feverish opening on the road at night to its explosive finale.
See also: The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis), The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton), The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson)
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Director Fritz Lang
The last film Fritz Lang made in America – at the end of a string of about a dozen peerless noirs – was this deliciously well-constructed thriller in which a newspaper publisher talks his daughter’s fiancé (Dana Andrews) into planting circumstantial evidence that will incriminate him in the murder of a nightclub dancer. It’s all part of a fiendish ruse to expose an incompetent district attorney, though things don’t exactly go as planned.
See also: The Killing (Stanley Kubrick), While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang), The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock)
Director Jacques Tourneur
A couple of friends on a fishing trip in Wyoming make the mistake of stopping to help at a car accident in this undervalued latter-day noir. As with the same director’s Out of the Past, Nightfall employs a flashback structure to unravel how the past catches up with artist James Vanning (Aldo Ray). Two bank robbers and an insurance investigator all take up his trail, pursuing him into the snowy wilderness.
See also: Baby Face Nelson (Don Siegel), The Garment Jungle (Vincent Sherman), Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick)
Touch of Evil
Director Orson Welles
Leave it to Orson Welles to create the last cast-iron masterpiece of the original film noir era. This baroque tale of bombs, drugs and debauchery in a California-Mexico border town stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh as newlyweds who come up against the corruption of corpulent police chief Hank Quinlan (Welles himself). It all kicks off with one of the most famous opening shots in film history: a three-minute tracking shot that ends with a bang.
See also: The Lineup (Don Siegel), Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner), Thunder Road (Arthur Ripley)
Odds against Tomorrow
Director Robert Wise
Driven by star and producer Harry Belafonte, Odds against Tomorrow is a rare film noir with a black star at its centre, also tackling the theme of racism as a side order to its story of a heist gone wrong. Robert Ryan plays the prejudiced ex-con who is reluctantly teamed with Belafonte’s jazz musician on a bank job, with Gloria Grahame also turning up as a sexually frustrated neighbour.
What happened next?
Something changed after Odds against Tomorrow, which is often thought of as the last true noir. In 1960, the release of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and François Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist, which lovingly parodied and reinvented old crime movie tropes, heralded a new self-awareness about genre that slowly bled back across the Atlantic to Hollywood. With colour productions such as The Killers (1964) – a remake of the 1946 classic – and Point Blank (1967), noir began its evolution into a more knowing style that was steeped in its own myth and legacy. Neo-noir was born.