Releases like Guillermo del Toro’s lush remake of Nightmare Alley and Adrian Lyne’s comeback after a 20-year absence, Deep Water, serve as reminders that film noir is very much alive. The most enduring images and memories of noir often evoke the 1940s and 1950s, fedoras, satin dresses, and neverending cigarette smoke clouds. However, the style (rather than “genre,” since it can not be that easily classified) has come a long way from there.
Letterboxd users have taken notice of this and the highest-scoring noir films on the site are a wide selection of must-sees, both classic and modern, pure noir or variations of it.
10 Memento (2000) – 4.1 / 5
Nominated for a Best Screenplay Golden Globe and two Oscars, Memento redefined noir for the new millennium, as it suggests that the process of the hero’s disintegration could go beyond the already exploited moral degradation in favor of a psychological decomposition. The film’s protagonist (played by Guy Pearce) has anterograde amnesia and must rely on photographs, notes, and tattoos all over his body to reconstruct his wife’s murder and carry out his revenge.
Director Christopher Nolan finds in the very substance of the story the grounds for a sophisticated narrative entanglement. Two parallel timelines, one that moves backward (in color) and the other forward (in black and white), force the audience to get extremely involved in the mystery since the first riddle to solve is the film’s premise itself.
9 In A Lonely Place (1950) – 4.1 / 5
This film offers a rare chance to see Humphrey Bogart step away from his usual heartless detective or tough-guy roles. Dixon Steele is a famous screenwriter with a bad temper that becomes suspect number one in a murder investigation. Although his neighbor speaks to clear his name, she slowly starts to question his innocence as she gets closer to him.
The best word to sum up In a Lonely Place is “suspense,” and it truly is one of the most suspenseful movies of its time. With a level of tension that rises slowly, the film manages to keep audiences at the edge of their seats as the plot twists and turns towards darker places. What ultimately keeps the experience together is Humphrey Bogart’s terrific, hair-raising performance as Steele.
8 Double Indemnity (1944) – 4.2 / 5
First-class names helmed this indisputable classic. Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder pen a screenplay based on a novel by James M. Cain, starring Fred MacMurray, who never falls into cliche land thanks to his comedic background, Barbara Stanwyck in the best role of her career, and Edward G. Robinson, who is flawless as usual. To top it off, an outstanding score by Miklos Rozsa.
The film came out in a crucial year for film noir, along with other classics such as Laura or The Woman in the Window. Its plot would be subject to multiple rehashes (a femme fatale convinces an unaware insurance salesman to kill her husband), and its long flashback structure is delightful. Its visuals, drawing from German Expressionism and the crude crime news of the time, helped shape a style.
7 The Departed (2006) – 4.2 / 5
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson, the film focuses on two parallel stories of undercover cops: on one hand, rookie trooper Billy (DiCaprio), who infiltrates the heart of the Irish Mob in Boston, under dangerous boss Frank Costello ( Nicholson); and on the other, Colin (Damon), a young spy inside the Massachusetts State Police … where he has been planted by Costello himself.
The film’s vibrant pace makes its two-and-a-half-hour runtime go by in the blink of an eye. Fifteen years after remaking Cape Fear and a decade before giving Chinmoku the same treatment with his SilenceMartin Scorsese imported from Hong Kong this 21st-century epic, featuring fast editing techniques and world-class performances, that ranks among Scorcese’s best gangster titles.
6 Vertigo (1958) – 4.2 / 5
James Stewart plays Scottie Fergusson, a San Francisco detective who suffers from a fear of heights. Gavin Elster (played by Tom Helmore), an old friend from school, hires him for an apparently simple case: to watch over his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), a beautiful woman who is obsessed with her past.
Despite less than favorable reviews and box office numbers upon release, this Hitchcock thriller still holds up today, due to its beauty, its mystery, and its obsessive attention to detail. The camera, like a fly on the wall, manages to capture the magic in James Stewart’s gestures, Kim Novak’s lips, and Barbara Bel Geddes’ tears. The result? A nail-biting philosophical exercise on love and self-deception. Everything is carefully calculated to convey an atmosphere of mystery and symbolism.
5 The Third Man (1949) – 4.2 / 5
The best of the Carol Reed / Graham Greene collaborations deserves to appear on this list due to its brilliant mise-en-scène. In 1947, a writer arrived in Vienna seeking his friend, but the latter has died hit by a car. According to the police, two men stepped in to help, but a witness speaks of a third one.
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Greene adapts his own novella and pulls the right strings to respect its spirit. The oppressive atmosphere of postwar Vienna, shot by Robert Krasker with great Expressionist influence, provides a surreal touch to the film. While less sordid than other noir masterpieces, the nihilistic tone, as well as themes of unresolved sexual tension and betrayal are present here. The icing on the cake is the excellent performances by Joseph Cotten and a supporting Orson Welles.
4 Chinatown (1974) – 4.2 / 5
The most representative neo-noir film ever made follows Jack Nicholson as a down on his luck detective investigating an extramarital affair for Faye Dunaway who, in turn, evokes the classic femme fatale archetype. Soon the case will get more twisted, with local political ramifications.
Without giving up the oppressive and brooding noir atmosphere, Chinatown cleverly plays the color card, trading shadowy alleys for semi-deserted spaces under a scorching sun, while maintaining the moral chiaroscuro from the early years. Chinatown is so big that, without losing its classic status, updates the period concerns: while the 40s and 50s noir reflected postwar tension, in the seventies Roman Polanski makes a film dripping with post-Vietnam and post-Watergate hopelessness, despite taking place in 1930s Los Angeles.
3 Fargo (1996) – 4.2 / 5
In this indisputable classic, Frances McDormand plays police chief Marge Gunderson, who must solve a crime derived from a staged kidnapping that did not go as planned. This instantly iconic character, seven months pregnant, follows a trail of violence across snowy Minnesota landscapes with charming joy and an offbeat sense of humor. However, what many people do not know is that much of that snow, which becomes a character itself, was artificial since outdoor shoots in the US and Canada suffered that winter from temperatures higher than usual.
McDormand won her first Best Actress Oscar for this role, which is without a doubt the most memorable of her career. That was only one of the seven Academy Awards the film was nominated for, also winning Best Screenplay for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen.
2 Rear Window (1954) – 4.3 / 5
Alfred Hitchcock directed what is considered the quintessential voyeur movie, and he does so with such a resourceful and swift narrative style only a genius could. Likewise, only James Stewart could have played Jeff, a professional photographer whose world comes down to watching the building across the street with a pair of binoculars while recovering from an accident. That is until he starts suspecting one of his neighbors, played by Raymond Burr, may have done something horrible.
Stewart is accompanied by Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter as his girlfriend and nurse, respectively. Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène relies heavily on Stewart’s facial expressions and reactions in an impeccable exercise in suspense. In fact, Hitchcock himself described Rear Window as his “most cinematic” movie since so much of the story was told visually. Pure cinema.
1 Sunset Boulevard (1950) – 4.4 / 5
Down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) narrates, following the classic flashback and voice-over structure, the events that led to his body appearing floating in a swimming pool. Death and oblivion are fundamental themes here. The inclusion of faces from the silent movie era such as Buster Keaton, Cecil B. de Mille, Hedda Hopper, Erich von Stroheim, and Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond), is a great way to remind audiences about the fleeting nature of fame.
Along with co-writers Charles Brackett and DM Marshman, Billy Wilder penned an Oscar-winning screenplay that redirects traditional film noir codes towards drama. This memorable hybrid both critiques and pays homage to the early days of Hollywood and its cruel treatment of aging stars.
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