Classic Movie Hub’s 10 Must-See Films for a Better Understanding of Film Noir.
The Original: The Maltese Falcon
Widely considered by critics and historians to be the first film noir, this 1941 classic set the standards for the genre. With this film, we were introduced to a seedy world full of moral ambiguity, femme fatales, high contrast photography and the realities of living in post World World II.
The Villain: The Night of the Hunter
In a world so full of moral ambiguity as film noir, it only makes sense that Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell would use the duality of love and hate, of black and white, of sinner and saint, to cover his own sins. The beauty of this villain is his subversion of the genre itself, the understanding that in a world so full of grey, a man can cover his blackest of sins under the disguise of a white knight.
The Look: The Third Man
Film noir is a collective reaction to World War II, the films being darker and more ambiguous. Filmed on location in post-WWII Vienna, the rut and rubble seen here on screen are real. This alone adds dimensions to the film not seen in other film noirs because, instead of seeing the symbolic distraction that mirrors the physical destruction of Europe, we actually see the destruction itself and in that destruction, we further see the collective psychology of Europe while filmed in beautiful chiaroscuro style.
The Femme Fatale: Gilda
Film noir ushered in a new type of leading lady: The Femme Fatale. Trending on the mysterious and seductive side, she typically used her irresistible charm to lure men into her web of ambition or desires. In Gilda, Rita Hayworth takes the archetype, and adds layers of ambiguity and vulnerability, to create the quintessential femme fatale.
The Corruption/The Doom: Sweet Smell of Success
To me, film noir is a doomed genre: by that I mean that someone, or perhaps everyone, in the film is doomed. In a world so full of dark grays, moralities of convenience, and downright corruption, it is inevitable. In this film, the very atmosphere itself stinks of corruption and power; you learn that all power is corrupt and, to gain power, you undoubtedly doom others or worse, doom yourself. The film is as fatalistic as the genre, which itself is meant to represent the world.
The Confusion: The Big Sleep
One thing about film noir is that it can get confusing. The plot builds as the number of characters grow, and as the number of characters grow, well, some of them die. Howard Hawke’s The Big Sleep is the epitome of viewer confusion. At one point the director didn’t even know who killed the chauffeur. However, with this film at least, none of that really matters as long you pay attention to the white-hot chemistry between Bogie and Bacall.
The Influence: Gun Crazy
Although when initially released this film didn’t receive much fanfare, much like film noir itself, it is in retrospect that the influence of this film is seen. Loosely based on the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde, this B-picture had a sense of rawness and urgency that had yet to be seen in the mainstream. Brash and lusty, the film perfectly demonstrates the disillusionment of a postwar generation, for not even innocent love exists without violence. It should come as no surprise that the writers of the 1967 version of Bonnie and Clyde cite Gun Crazy as a huge influence on their script.
The Quintessential: Double Indemnity
Morally ambiguous heroine? Check! Femme Fatale? Check? Ominous voice-over? Check! Corrupt atmosphere? Check! More double entendre than you can catch in one viewing? Check! If you want to understand film noir, its mechanics, its characters, its atmosphere and its morality, watch this film. It’s like it exists as a “how to film-noir,” while remaining one of the greatest films of all time.
The Warning: Kiss Me Deadly
Because film noir is a reactionary genre, as I’ve mentioned before, there is an underlining sense of doom. What is this doom, exactly? Well, if you watch Kiss Me Deadly, it’s Pandora’s box – all of the unthinkable evils that woman has the power to stop but instead, runs into headfirst. With the Cold War in full swing, many believe this story to be a caustic tale of the dangers of nuclear war. Yeah, pretty much as fatal as you can get.
The Final: Touch of Evil
I use the term “final” caustically. Sure, you have films like Cape Fear that show up later but this is the last of the Hollywood films that take the genre beyond its tropes. The film skillfully asks the question of whether the ends justify the means, of whether a good act can wash away a bad act, all without giving you an answer, and in the process, it sums up the confused desperation of the post-war generation.
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub