The Gritty, Edgy Moodiness of Film Noir: 24 Classic Examples

nighthawks_by_edward_hopper_1942 Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

If she is rude to the waiter, she will be rude to you.

If your dog dislikes him, walk away.  Slowly.

There is always a price to be paid for crossing the line.

Listen to your intuition.

Navigating through life would be so much easier if one always followed simple rules.   Too frequently, emotion trumps the rational mind, but a diversion away from one’s true course can provide an opportunity to learn valuable lessons — if one should be fortunate enough to survive, that is.
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Cinematic exploration of the triumph of passion over common sense is the domain of Film Noir, an outgrowth of European Expressionism, which flourished in America from the early 1940s through the late 1950s.  The creators of Noir crafted their gripping stories by thrusting realistically flawed characters into morally challenging situations; then, rather than fashioning contrived outcomes, stood at a discreet distance and allowed human nature to take its course.
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Most Noir films are “B” movies, the shorter pictures produced as undercards to the marquee features.  Constrained by small budgets, Noir offers crisp and sharp dialogue and tight plotting.  Short running times permitted none of the directorial self-indulgence endemic in modern-day film.
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The genre’s archetypical black-and-white photography (budget-driven, once again) and the predominance of nighttime or half-lit daytime settings infuse atmospheric moodiness with menace.
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Invariably the setting of a Noir — whether an opulent, hilltop apartment building in San Francisco, an unlit New York warehouse, a lonely desert road, or a dingy block of flats in a bleak Los Angeles neighborhood — is as essential to the story as any character in the film.
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Because the contemporaneous Hays Code governed the messages and images films were permitted to convey, a fortuitous circumstance for lovers of the genre, in Noir films all crimes, all sins, and all errors of judgement are punished.
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Inasmuch as motion pictures were a 20th-century contribution to the age-old tradition of transmitting life lessons through storytelling, Noir offered mid-century movie audiences a chance to engage in thought experiments — What if I were to give in to temptation?  What if I succumbed to the lure of something for nothing?  What if I took the wrong path?  What might happen? — within the safe realm of fiction.
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There are hundreds of films in the Noir anthology.  Today I would like to recommend to you two dozen sparkling gems for your viewing enjoyment.  Accompanying each title you will find a list of stars, the name of the director, the setting, a brief description, and a theatrical trailer.
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Classics of the Genre

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The four films listed here number among not only the best Noir of all time but also the best films of all time.

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Director: John Huston
Setting: San Francisco
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For a newcomer to Film Noir, The Maltese Falcon is a must-see.  Boasting a tight, brilliant plot, impeccable dialogue, and several iconic and career-defining performances, gets better with each subsequent viewing.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: New York City
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A stylish, taut, and riveting drama.  As police detective Mark MacPherson (Andrews) gradually falls in love with the brunette (Tierney) whose murder he is called to investigate, he finds he is not alone in his obsession with the stunning Laura.
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Director: Billy Wilder
Setting: Los Angeles
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In this simple and compelling cautionary tale about the perils of passion, insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) finds the lure of illicit financial gain irresistible when his partner in crime is a knockout blonde (Stanwyck).
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Director: Tay Garnett
.Setting: the southern California coast
Drifter Frank Chambers (Garfield) succumbs to the charms of a blonde bombshell (Turner) after a chance stop at her husband’s gas station.  His motive for subsequent criminal acts — avarice, lust, or a desire to save a damsel in distress — becomes moot as a series of irreversible decisions dooms him and his paramour.
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The Element of Chance

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Some of Noir’s most compelling stories place characters in hazardous situations not entirely of their own making.  Three highly recommended masterpieces —

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Director: Rudolph Maté
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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To my mind, this film is a must-see.  It employs a brilliant and innovative premise: after discovering to his horror that he has been poisoned, a very ordinary accountant (O’Brien) devotes his few remaining hours on Earth to identifying his murderer.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: the central California coast
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Having run out of money to pay his fare, drifter Eric Stanton (Andrews) stumbles off a bus at an unfamiliar hamlet on the central California coast, where he finds himself drawn into the inhabitants’ rivalries, hatreds, and crimes.  Preminger’s trademark mastery of atmosphere keeps viewers transfixed through the denouement.
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Setting: Los Angeles
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As amnesic U.S. Marine (Hodiak) returning home after World War II finds himself mistaken for a wanted murderer.
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Unwillingness to See or Reluctance to Act

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“If only he had seen her as she really was.”

“If only she had recognized the danger before it was too late.”

“If only he had had the strength of character to take the difficult stand.”

Human frailty provides a treasure trove of source material for Film Noir.  Three to watch —

Impact (1949)

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Stars: Brian Donlevy, Helen Walker, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn
Director:Arthur Lubin
Settings: San Francisco and Sausalito, California; Larkspur, Idaho

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Businessman Walter Williams (Donlevy) pays dearly for idolizing his glamorous and much younger wife (Walker) and refusing to see her as she is.
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Director: Robert Siodmak
Setting: urban eastern U.S.
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Washed-up boxer Ole Andreson (Lancaster, in his film debut) rejects the offer of a police job and opts instead for a criminal path that ultimately costs him his life.
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Settings: Multiple, including Lake Tahoe, California; Acapulco, Mexico; and New York City
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When an unexpected visitor turns up at the gas station he owns, retired private investigator Jeff Markham (Mitchum) finds to his chagrin that he cannot escape the errors of his past.
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Consequences of a Single Decision

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The knife-edge, yes/no decisions made in a fog of emotion and without sufficient input from the cerebral cortex produce fascinating storylines for Film Noir.  At times a viewer wants to reach through the screen to shake sense into a self-destructive character.  Five of the best —

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Director: Andre De Toth
Setting: Los Angeles
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A classic Film Noir set-up: insurance investigator John Forbes (Powell) is bored with his job and suffocated by the financial responsibility of supporting his loving wife (Wyatt) and exemplary young son in post-War Los Angeles.  When in the course of his work Forbes meets a beautiful gangster’s moll (Scott), he sets his feet on a path sure to destroy his life.
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Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Settings: Reno, Nevada; rural Arizona; Los Angeles
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Embittered jazz pianist Al Roberts (Neal) makes a split-second decision to hide the body of a man he did not kill and thereby seals his own fate.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: Rural southern California; Baja California, Mexico.
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Two southern California pals (O’Brien and Lovejoy) tell their wives they are on a fishing trip when in fact they are bound for Mexico in search of extramarital excitement.  A stop to pick up a hitch-hiker upends their plans.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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Lonely San Francisco businessman Harry Graham (O’Brien) pursues a friendship with the attractive and intelligent Phyllis (Lupino) during his frequent work-related trips to Los Angeles.  A one-night tryst puts Phyllis and Harry into a bind that Harry resolves by breaking the law.
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Settings: Rural Wyoming; Los Angeles
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Two friends on a hunting trip (Ray and Albertson) stop to help two stranded motorists who turn out to be bank robbers on the lam.
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Capers and Action Films

Seabiscuit and John "Red" Pollard finally won the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940, defeating stablemate Kayak II. It was Seabiscuit's third attempt to win racing's biggest prize at the time. They had been beaten a nose by Rosemont in 1937 and a nose by Stagehand in 1938. Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

By virtue of its taut plotting and crisp dialogue, Noir produced numerous riveting and satisfying films centered upon action and well developed set-piece capers.  Six not to miss —
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Director: Stanley Kubrick
Setting: Los Angeles
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Career criminal Johnny Clay (Hayden) decides to undertake one last heist, a burglary of Santa Anita racetrack, before settling down to marry his girl (Coleen Gray).
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Director: Raoul Walsh
Setting: California, especially Los Angeles
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Brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini (Raft and Bogart) struggle with loan sharks, hitch-hikers, rough terrain, sleepless nights, and conniving women as they endeavor to scratch out a living in the trucking business.
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Director: Jules Dassin
Setting: California, especially San Francisco
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With the help of other drivers and a local prostitute, wildcat trucker Nick Garcos (Conte) wages war on an unscrupulous produce supplier (Cobb) in order to save his family’s business and preserve his father’s honor.
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Setting: Aboard a train from Chicago to Los Angeles
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A police seargent (McGraw) charged with escorting a gangster’s wife from Chicago to a Los Angeles courtroom, where she will testify against her husband, finds he is sharing the train with the hitmen she is trying to elude.
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Director: Don Siegel
Setting: San Francisco
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A San Francisco dope-smuggling ring that slips packets of drugs into tourists’ luggage is stymied when a drug shipment disappears from the custody of an innocent mother and her little girl.
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Director: Edward Dmytryk
Setting: San Francisco
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A mentally ill man terrorizes San Franciso by killing women with a sniper’s rifle, all the while penning desperate letters to the police in hopes that they will catch him.
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Relationships on the Edge

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The gritty realism of Film Noir produced some fascinating character studies focused on male/female relationships.  Three of the most engaging (and most chilling) —
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Director: Nicholas Ray
Setting: Los Angeles
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A budding romance between tempestuous screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart) and his new lady neighbor (Grahame) is badly strained when the police suspect Steele of murder.
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Director: Fritz Lang
Setting: Monterey, California
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Restless “black sheep” Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns to her family home after an ill-fated love affair.  She finds herself torn, with nearly disastrous consequences, between a level-headed man (Douglas) whom she finds boring and a difficult hothead (Ryan) whom she cannot resist.
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Director: David Miller
Settings: A cross-country train; San Francisco
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Successful playwright Myra Hudson (Crawford) falls deeply in love with and marries dashing actor Lester Blaine (Palance).  Her discovery that he plans to betray her transforms her passionate love into murderous hatred.
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