During World War II, Hollywood made a lot of pictures that celebrated patriotism and American values. These wholesome, morale-raising movies had little in common with the dark, violent, and often pessimistic crime dramas that would come to be known as film noir.
The genre can trace its roots to the hardboiled detective fiction of the 1930s, the influence of German Expressionist filmmakers who fled Europe for America, and the shifting morality of the wartime era. There are few happily-ever-afters in film noir–thanks, in part, to the Hays Code, which required characters to be punished for their misdeeds onscreen. Visually, the genre is defined by stark black-and-white cinematography with stylized or even surreal touches.
Swirling smoke and shadows, femmes fatales and jaded gumshoes–film noir isn’t a world I’d like to live in, but it’s a fascinating place to visit.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Dashiell Hammett was one of the titans of hardboiled detective stories, and it was only natural that Hollywood would adapt his work for the silver screen. The Maltese Falcon stars Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, a detective who gets mixed up in a web of murder and intrigue. The film begins when Ruth Wonderly–played by Mary Astor, best known to audiences at the time for warm, motherly characters–strolls into Spade’s office with a pack of lies.
The plot keeps twisting and turning until the last moments of the film. The Maltese Falcon was one of the earliest noirs and set the standard for the movies that followed it. In particular, the callous, world-weary performance from Bogart would become one of the hallmarks of the genre.
The first of several Alfred Hitchcock pictures on this list, Spellbound is criminally underrated. It stars a pre-To Kill a Mockingbird Gregory Peck as a charming, outgoing head of a mental hospital and Ingrid Bergman as the doctor who falls in love with him. Bergman’s character soon notices that something is not right about her new beau, and the deeper she digs, the more disturbing truths she uncovers.
One of the highlights of the film is the dream sequence created by Salvador Dali. It recalls the experimental French surrealist films of twenty years earlier, such as Un Chien Andalou, and would later inspire a similar sequence in The Big Lebowski. The more you know!
Few stars of the 1940s have as much enduring appeal as Rita Hayworth. Born Margarita Cansino to a Romani-Spanish father and an Irish-American mother, she struggled to find work in Hollywood other than bit parts as “exotic” temptresses. That changed when Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn encouraged Rita to go by her mother’s maiden name, dye her dark hair red, and undergo painful electrolysis to raise her hairline.
After dancing with Fred Astaire in two pictures, Hayworth was a bona fide star–but she wouldn’t get a chance to sink her teeth into a dramatic role until 1944. Gilda is a steamy picture, especially by the standards of the era. It’s also unusual for allowing the femme fatale and the leading man to enjoy a happy ending.
Playing against type, Cary Grant is a sinister figure in this 1941 noir thriller. Joan Fontaine would become the only actor to win an Oscar in an Alfred Hitchcock film. Fontaine is Lina, a wealthy but mousy young woman who falls in love with the charming Johnny Aysgarth (Grant) and impulsively elopes with him. After their marriage, she finds out that Johnny isn’t what he seems. And worse than that–he might be trying to kill Lina for her money.
One of the most iconic scenes in film noir shows Johnny carrying a glass of milk on a tray toward his wife’s room. The glass glows from within, taking on a sinister otherworldly quality. Is it poisoned, or is Johnny just trying to do something nice for his wife?
Double Indemnity (1944)
Before Double Indemnity premiered, Fred MacMurray was best known for his roles in romantic comedies, where he usually played the hero who’d eventually get the girl. That made it even more fascinating to see him as Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who is drawn into a web of lies, betrayal, and murder by Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck).
Phyllis is the ultimate femme fatale, a ruthless woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Based on a novel by James M. Cain and with a script written by Raymond Chandler and director William Wilder, Double Indemnity is a tightly paced film that many critics feel is the best noir picture ever made.
The Big Sleep (1946)
If I had to choose between Bogart as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, I actually prefer him as Spade in The Maltese Falcon. That doesn’t mean The Big Sleep is anything less than a classic. Bogart stars opposite his real-life wife, Lauren Bacall, and their chemistry sizzles.
William Faulkner wrote the script for The Big Sleep during his stint in Hollywood, but it was retooled to feature more scenes with Bogie and Bacall. One of my favorite stories about the making of this film is when the producers couldn’t figure out who had killed the chauffeur in Chandler’s novel. They sent him a telegram for clarification, and the author realized that he didn’t know either.
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Murder, My Sweet is an adaption of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Dick Powell was the first actor to play Philip Marlowe on screen–and I think he was also the best. At the time, Dick Powell had been typecast as the boyish hero in a series of romantic comedies and musicals. Audiences were shocked to see him as the hardboiled detective. To me, Powell captures the almost whimsical melancholy behind Marlowe’s tough exterior. Not everyone agrees with me, including Raymond Chandler. He ultimately preferred Bogart in the role.
Powell stars opposite the hard-eyed blonde Clare Trevor and Hollywood sweetheart Anne Shirley. As with most of the films on this list, the plot is less important than the style, so don’t stress too much about solving the mystery. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Laura stars Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and the legendary Vincent Price. The film begins with Laura’s murder–or does it? Gene Tierney delivers a beguiling performance as the title character, a successful career woman with three different men wrapped around her finger.
After her supposed murder, she racks up another conquest in the police detective assigned to her case. As McPherson (Dana Andrews) falls under Laura’s spell, he becomes obsessed with figuring out who killed her. When she turns out to be alive after all, McPherson can’t decide if she’s an innocent victim or a manipulative femme fatale.
The Third Man (1949)
Controversial opinion incoming! I think The Third Man is a better Orson Welles film than Citizen Kane. This picture, directed by Carol Reed, draws heavily on the disorienting cinematography of German Expressionism to turn post-war Vienna into a sinister funhouse.
Joseph Cotten is Holly Martins, a writer traveling to Vienna to visit his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Except once he gets there, Martins is told that Harry Lime has died. Martins tries to understand what happened but quickly realizes that things aren’t adding up. It’s a dark, disturbing tale that asks how well we can ever know anyone.
By now, you’ve no doubt heard the term “gaslighting” to describe the manipulative tactic of making a person question their reality, often as a pattern of abusive behavior. This 1944 film is the origin of that term. Ingrid Bergman stars as Paula, the niece of a famous opera singer who was murdered years before the film begins. She is swept off her feet by a handsome, charming man(Charles Boyer) who is hiding a dark secret.
As Paula gets closer to the truth, her husband amps up his campaign of psychological manipulation until she believes herself to be going mad. Unlike many of the darker films on this list, Gaslight has something close to a happy ending. The climactic scene is some of Bergman’s best work and a triumphant moment for anyone who has ever been gaslit by a loved one.
Brighton Rock (1947)
This underrated British noir is based on a novel by Graham Greene. It stars Richard Attenborough–yes, the sweet old man from Jurassic Park–as a sociopathic gangster named Pinkie. His baby-faced menace is fascinating to watch as he romances a naive waitress to prevent her from testifying against him. Once he finally convinces Rose to marry him, his about-face is shockingly horrific.
There are far too many twists and turns in this gangster picture to cover here–and I wouldn’t want to spoil it, anyway. Let’s just say that it gets dark. Even darker than Spicer’s “accident” in the clip above.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
And here we are, my favorite film noir–and one of my top five most beloved movies of all time. Teresa Wright stars as Charlie, a teenage girl named after her beloved uncle. She grew up on stories of her wonderful Uncle Charlie, but when he arrives in town, she quickly realizes that he’s nothing like she expected.
Joseph Cotten played the hero in Gaslight and a sympathetic character in The Third Man, but here, he is pure menace. The game of cat-and-mouse between the two stars is riveting to watch. Teresa Wright, who had already earned three Oscar nominations by the age of 25, remains one of Hitchcock’s most empowered heroines.