Since its coining in 1946 by French critic Nino Frank, who observed from afar something dark, quite literally, going on at the American cinema, the term “film noir” has been debated and debated and debated some more. Is it a genre? A subgenre? A movement? A trend? A commentary? A style? For the purposes of this introduction, let’s call it a response.
Noir was nothing if not a reaction, a reflection of a nation reeling from despicable evil overseas and revolutionary upheaval on the domestic front. It started matter-of-factly enough. The men—including the screenwriters—had gone off to fight, and as the women stepped up, into the public sector and newfound independence, studio chiefs turned to the fast-and-cheap pulp mysteries of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain for their next productions. International directors like Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, and Robert Siodmak, who’d honed the dramatic visuals of German Expressionism, fled their war-torn homes for the plentiful opportunities in Tinseltown.
But things get complicated here, and fast. See, noir didn’t play by any rules, not really. We think of noirs as urban stories, but that’s not always the case—for every L.A. and N.Y.C.-set saga, there’s a small, heartland tragedy. We think of a never-ending, rain-soaked night—sunlight replaced with neon and nocturnal reflections, the optical trickery of mirrors and shadows—but in contrast, the days of noir scorched its characters. We admire its heavily stylized approach—exaggerated camera angles, tension-crafting mise-en-scène, flashbacks, deep focus and trademark shadows—but also its neo-realist and documentary-like experiments. We talk about noir plotting and tropes, but in fact it drew liberally from the gangster pics of the Depression/Prohibition era, crime procedurals, heist movies, horror films (again, the German Expressionist influence), romantic melodrama, Gothic thrillers, tawdry B-movies, and that other quintessentially American breed, the Western. Though its blueprints were everywhere, noir forged its own language, its own playbook, its own universe.
Some define noir as or by a tone, and it’s very much a mood, a sensibility. Noir is a state of mind, of subconscious, a fever dream, an existential crisis. Life had grown profoundly strange for its first-generation audience … off-balance, alienating, lonely. Think about it: As the classic period of noir, generally regarded as 1940-58, wore on, more jaded and pessimistic, shell-shocked soldiers were returning to a forever changed urban and suburban landscape. Homes they didn’t recognize, communities that had gone on in their absence, workplaces that no longer needed them, and wives who weren’t dependent on them anymore. The roles were reversed, the world was upside down. Things didn’t make sense. All that paranoia and pathos, before the second Red Scare.
Enter the private detective and his antihero ilk—a scarred, brooding fella who for his considerable flaws was sympathetic. You couldn’t say the same for the ladies, what with that Madonna-whore complex running rampant through noir’s icky Freudian gender dynamics. Unless they were a good, subservient girl, women were brazen, sexual bitches, more often than not smarter, and more powerful, than the guys—at least at the outset. Extrapolated to the off-screen world, the logic was, solve the crime, solve the problem. Put the femme fatale in her place, show the girl—the world—who’s boss. Take it all back. The nightmare was made wish-fulfillment. It’s not overreaching to read all of this from the 300 or so titles generally considered the classic noir canon. Remember: The folks at the Hollywood Production Code couldn’t handle it either, mandating changes in service of propriety, i.e., social conformity. (Had Will Hays, Joseph Breen, and their censoring kind not been around, noir would’ve been an even more nihilistic realm.) In any case, the M.O. was linear: Talk it out, trace the clues, tell us about it with a voiceover.
Except it wasn’t that easy. Like the ink on those yellow hard-boiled pages, film noir was a smeared affair from the start—hard to define and harder to reconcile. Its characters were dirty, displaced, disillusioned, distrustful, just plain dumb. Everyone was running some kind of scam, even the cops—especially the cops. Everyone was out for themselves, phonies subject to their basest fears and vices. The attraction was as ugly as the repulsion. When he wasn’t a truth-seeker, our protag was often a criminal, at the very least someone of ambivalent moral code or weakness, a fall-guy running out of time, and hope for redemption. The world was a cruel and perilous place, be it the crowded streets or open road, the inner city or a rural outpost. There was no escape, no forgiveness. In fact, perhaps the only clear-cut element of noir was the razor-sharp, imminently quotable dialogue, and its venomous sense of humor.
And so noir cast its misfits—gun-toting, hard-drinking, lipstick and stiletto-wearing human chimneys of neuroses—into a seductive, violent postwar labyrinth, in which the terror was internal and external. Fear of the next world conflict, fear of each other, fear of never getting back to a pure time, the fear in realizing there never really was one. A study in extremes that dealt in innuendo (thanks again, censors!) as it departed from accepted cultural norms and, sometimes, basic humanity—film doesn’t get more perverse, or more unapologetic about it, than the noir environment.
Was noir a conscious “response”? It’s pretty tough, given the very deliberation of filmmaking, to think noir was just a happenstance bunch of flicks that expressed the same anxieties and subverted the same sociopolitical conventions—at least after the first few years, when World War II had ended. And while by the time of 1958’s Touch of Evil noir was a shrewdly self-aware conceit, it’s worth going back to who coined the term just 12 years earlier.
An outsider called it. A bystander observing a uniquely American phenomenon. And, for decades, a largely unacknowledged bystander at that.
However (un)conscious a reaction, noir resonates to this day, with several neo-noir cycles beginning with the Cold War era through Gen X and the millennials. And while a healthy share of neo-noirs make our list, the classic period remains the most telling—context is critical. Then there are the sub-classifications within the subgenre: proto-noirs, foreign noirs (like the British “Spiv” cycle), neon noirs, and, of course, neo-noirs.
Maybe that’s what makes a list like this so problematic—Raging Bull has strong noir elements, as do Hardcore, Klute, To Live and Die in L.A., Reservoir Dogs, Payback, and Collateral. The first Sin City is a terrific pastiche, as is Carl Reiner’s more sincere homage, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. The original Insomnia was a brilliant reverse noir, exchanging the claustrophobia of night for Nordic midnight sun. John Woo’s classic actioner Hard Boiled is self-explanatory. And in the tradition of Blade Runner (No. 29), modern sci-fi films from Gattaca to this year’s Ex Machina possess inarguably noir traits. So how do you draw a line in an ambiguous-by-nature whatever it is?
We’ll start with the following 100 titles. Some 70 years after the term “film noir” was first uttered, take a trip through the screwed-up terrain of the mid-century psyche, with all its sex, lies, and crime scene tape. Let’s get going—don’t say we didn’t warn you.—Amanda Schurr