Perhaps the most misunderstood and miscategorised genre in all of cinema, film noir flourished within the golden age of Hollywood and has inspired filmmakers ever since.
What makes a true film noir is hard to define. Noir is unlike genres defined by the visceral way they make us feel, say comedy or horror. Nor is it defined by sequences, like action movies; visual style, like animations; or content, like political thrillers.
Translated from French meaning ‘black film’, noirs typically have themes about morality, justice and person vs. institution. They feature plots around wrongly accused heros, femme fatales, double-crossing, heists and bent policemen, and they use dark, monochromatic expressive visuals that set them apart from the thrillers and political dramas of the same era.
When it comes to noir, only one thing is certain: the 1940s to 1950s film noirs are the classics for the genre.
Here are the ten best from that period:
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The 10 best 1940s – 1950s film noirs
Double Indemnity (1944)
“You know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes?”
Kicking the list off with the film noir credited with setting the standard for the genre. Double Indemnity was famously nominated for seven Academy Awards without taking a single one home.
Named after the a life insurance policy where the payout is double for accidental death, the plot sees Fred MacMurry’s insurance salesman seduced by Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale into a deadly insurance fraud. Across its 90 minute runtime, the pace never eases as we watch the perfect plan slowly unravel to dial up the pressure and seal our protagonist’s fate.
Based on the novella by James M Cain, and seen as somewhat of a sister story to his other famous work The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Double Indemnity was almost never made due to the US film censor Joseph Breen criticising its “general low tone and sordid flavour”. But thank God it was, because it set the bar for all future noirs.
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Based on the novel She Who Was No More, director Henri Georges Clouzot famously pipped Hitchcock to secure the rights to make Les Diaboliques and momentarily replaced his contemporary as ‘master of suspense’ in the process. Hitchcock was allegedly so furious at missing out that it prompted him to create Psycho (1960).
Les Diaboliques is essentially the perfect plot. The weak-hearted headmistress of a boarding school teams up with her best friend (who’s also her husband’s mistress) to kill off her abusive, tyrannical husband.
The ladies execute the perfect murder, making it look like an accidental drowning in the school swimming pool after a drunken folly until the pool is drained and there’s no body to be found.
Cue a missing person report, a suspicious policeman hot on the murder trail, sightings of the deceased and two petrified women who try to keep it together while the truth relentlessly seeks to out them.
The true horror of Les Diaboliques is brought to life masterfully by the stylistic choices of director Clouzot. He weaves the motif of stagnant water throughout to remind us that even the liquid of life can be fatal, while setting the film in a crumbling, dilapidated boarding school makes no attempt to hide the misery running within its walls. Les Diaboliques is a stunning film and up there as a best ever noir.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
No list of the best film noirs could be complete without Sunset Boulevard, often touted as one of the greatest films ever made.
At the time of its release, Sunset Boulevard was nominated for 11 Oscars and won three of them. The film has since been inducted into the National Film Registry.
Sunset Boulevard sees ex-silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) attempt to restart her career in the “talkies” era by hiring failing screenwriter Joe Gills (William Holden) as her script doctor. Emotionally fragile, Desmond struggles to accept her stardom is over and becomes ever detached from reality as her illusions of grandeur propel her to make a deadly act.
The biting humour injected throughout the script by writer-director Billy Wilder is what makes Sunset Boulevard such a stand out. One moment you’re seething at the manipulative powers of Desmond, and the next, you’re cracking a smile at the fact this ex-star truly believes her own fantasies.
Noirs are always a fusion of genres, but rarely is comedy one of them, and knowing exactly when its audience needs a sweet relief is perhaps why Sunset Boulevard is rightfully so highly regarded.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Known as Hitchcock’s earliest masterpiece and said to be his personal career highlight, the director famously liked the story so much because he got to play with the idea of a terror ripping through a small town. In his own words, he puts the theme down to “love and good order is no defence against evil”, which is evident in Shadow of a Doubt’s complex characters.
The story sees teenager Charlie Newton bored of her slow-paced life in Santa Rosa, California and initially excited when her uncle Charles Oakley arrives for a visit. However, when she finds out that Oakley fits the description of a man wanted for the murder of a widow, Newton soon finds herself scrambling to uncover the truth before Oakley’s murderous ways catch up with her.
Shadow of a Doubt is often regarded as standing above Hitchcock’s other works due to its simplicity. There are no red herrings and no massive twists; instead, the story plays out in roughly the way you’d expect to a conclusion you hope will be realised by Newton. But the slow turning of the screw to ramp up the tension along the way leaves you constantly wondering how on earth she’s ever going to get there.
Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
French crime thriller Elevator to the Gallows is perhaps more well known for how influential its score and filmmaking techniques became than its plot. However, for the sheer fun of its premise, it more than deserves a place on this list.
The story sees a couple of illicit lovers kill the woman’s husband, an influential businessman, so they may finally be free to live together. They arrange the crime scene to look like suicide but get trapped in the elevator as they make their escape from the office building where it took place.
Thus commences a desperate struggle to outpace their crime catching up with them while everything that can go wrong does.
Elevator to the Gallows has since become considered groundbreaking due to its improvised soundtrack created by Miles Davies, which started a new way of using sound to build on the connection between visuals and emotion. The score is so good, it led jazz critic Phil Johnson to suggest the score far outstrips the film for artistic merit
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Perhaps one of the tensest films ever made due to the story being told from the point of view of children, The Night of the Hunter was derided by critics upon its release to the extent that director Charles Laughton never made another film.
However, recent years have been kinder, and in 2008 the film magazine Cahiers du cinéma chose The Night of the Hunter as the second-best film of all time.
The plot features an evil minister Harry Powell who tries to befriend a small town and win over and marry a widow, Willa Harper, who owns $10,000 stashed away by her executed ex-husband. The only person who stands in his way is Willa’s young son, John, who is also the only person who knows where the money is. Cue a serial killer on the warpath chasing down kids desperate to escape.
The Night of the Hunter stands unique among noirs of the era for its leaning towards silence over a film score and diegetic sound. Its most iconic moments come during Powell’s singing of a lullaby as he creeps through the night to track down the children.
Never has a song designed to soothe ever been fraught with so much terror.
Rope is easy to overlook in the canon of Hitchcock films because little fanfare exists around it – even the director himself was said to be less than impressed with the results. Nevertheless, the film was a technical marvel shot in real-time with long takes up to 10 minutes long, and the crew used some of the largest backdrops ever built that slid in and out of the shots.
More, however, should be made of Rope’s tight story. Two university students try to prove their intellectual superiority by killing their classmate. They then host a dinner party, featuring the murdered boy’s own parents, on the very chest containing his body. The death is graphic and the protagonists repulsive as we beckon someone, somehow, to unearth their horrific crime.
What makes Rope genuinely excellent is the juxtaposition between the smarmy, clean-cut and brilliant university students and their dastardly, morally repugnant and idiotic plan. The narrative cuts the “rich kids boys club” mentality down to size and shows that even the brainiest can be defeated by their own need to self congratulate.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
No list of the best classic film noir pictures could be complete without the one to start it all, The Maltese Falcon.
Directed by John Huston and released in 1941, the film is widely regarded as the first major film noir and marks the beginning of the genre’s “classic era”.
Set in San Francisco, the story follows private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), who struggles through his dealings with three criminals as they compete in a quest for a priceless statuette. His troubles only worsen when his partner is murdered during the investigation, and he develops feelings for one of the criminals, a true femme fatale.
Without a doubt, the relationship Huston enjoyed with his cast is what made The Maltese Falcon such a spectacle. Huston famously planned the film shot by shot and filmed it in sequence, requiring minimal editing. This method made it easier for the actors to understand where they were in the story to hit each scene with the perfect emotion.
Rusty Knife (1958)
Every now and then, a B-movie becomes so highly regarded that it breaks through to the collective consciousness, and Rusty Knife is one such film.
Created as part of the Nikkatsu Film Studio’s swing into Japanese film noirs, the picture was ‘designed’ to be popular at the Japanese box office to compete with the French and American films dominating during the period.
The story sees a newly released ex-convict trying to rebuild his life after his stint in prison. However, he struggles to forget the rape and suicide of his girlfriend and attempts to enact revenge on the gang who tormented her while trying not to murder again.
Rusty Knife speaks to the seedy underworld of organised crime that flourished at the time within Japan’s underbelly. The director, Toshio Masuda, wanted to create an action film that “said something about the state of the world”.
In Rusty Knife, the ‘state’ is very much that violence, blackmail and social rot is as alive and well as it’s ever been – it’s a genuinely unmissable noir.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
It’s a testament to the thriller writing chops of author James M. Cain that two movies based on his novellas should make a list of the top 10 film noirs. Directed by Tay Garnett, The Postman Always Rings Twice is considered another classic of the noir genre featuring an antihero, a femme fatale and a plot against her husband with a strong theme of traditional morality running throughout.
The story sees a restless drifter, Frank Chambers, fall in love with waitress Cora Smith and together plot to kill her business-owning husband, Nick. Yet when the plan goes awry, they both end up getting ever more stuck in a situation neither of them has a way to escape from.
Lana Tuner’s spell as Cora Smith is what makes The Postman Always Rings Twice so memorable because she embodies everything the perfect femme fatale should be. Turner is at once enticing, mysterious and wholly evil that you can’t help but be drawn in and root for her plan.
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Editor & Artwork: Richard Williams