The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time

Movies Lists
Share Tweet Submit Pin

20. The Lady From Shanghai
Director:   Orson Welles  
Year: 1947


Orson Welles  could do just about anything except speak in a convincing Irish accent, but regardless of his flimsy brogue, The Lady From Shanghai is a masterpiece. Funny to think that American critics looked down their noses at the film at the time of its release. Maybe they took offense at the inescapable scent of Welles’ passion for Rita Hayworth, his wife at the time and his ex shortly after production wrapped. He captures her in close-up with a hungry, enraptured eye, the most coherent image in a film that’s built on logical incoherence. The Lady From Shanghai has enormous ambitions that belie its tight running time, the end result of odious studio interference that nonetheless fails to impede the viewing experience. Come for Hayworth and Welles, stay for the film’s dizzying hall of mirrors shootout. —A.C.

19. The Killers
Director: Robert Siodmak
Year: 1946

The Killers.jpg

If you’re of the impression that Quentin Tarantino invented the concept of a nonlinear crime story involving boxers and hitmen, Robert Siodmak’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s celebrated short story is a must-watch. The story commences with two assassins entering a small-town gas station and executing “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster), a former professional boxer. A life insurance investigator is subsequently sent to piece together the events that led to the Swede’s demise. From here, Siodmak and his screenwriters (which included future legendary directors John Huston and Richard Brooks) weave a fascinating story that, while not always the most inspired, more than picks up the slack with the help of dynamic performances and some tensely directed set pieces. According to Hemingway’s biography, The Killers marked one of the only times the author was legitimately impressed by an adaptation of his work. —M.R.

18. Thieves’ Highway
Director: Jules Dassin
Year: 1949


Jules Dassin’s impact on film noir is widely documented—if you need proof, just consider the fact a handful of his best contributions to the genre have landed on this very list—and among them, Thieves’ Highway is perhaps the most economical. At the same time, it’s superficially the least noirish: It’s a revenge movie, sure, but that revenge is sought by a good man driven to right wrongs done to his father. This is a movie built on a pure search for retribution, though of course it’s Dassin, so nothing is ever that simple, and in point of fact everything that can go wrong for Nick Garcos does. Who knew the world of fruit trucking could be so damn cutthroat? —A.C.

17. Raw Deal
Director: Anthony Mann
Year: 1948

Raw Deal.jpg

After the success of 1947’s T-Men, director Anthony Mann reteamed the following year with star Dennis O’Keefe, screenwriter John C. Higgins, and cinematographer John Alton for Raw Deal. The plot revolves around a prisoner who, after taking the fall for his boss, makes a break from the slammer with the help of his girlfriend. His boss, however, isn’t looking to reward his employee’s loyalty and sets about trying to have him killed. Much like T-Men, Raw Deal boasts some truly arresting images, courtesy of Alton, that worked to crystallize the standard noir look. And though some of the film’s story now comes across a bit rote, particularly the inclusion of a love triangle, there’s enough visual splendor and hard-hitting action to make it essential noir viewing. —M.R.

16. They Live By Night
Director: Nicholas Ray
Year: 1948


Nicholas Ray’s first picture boasts perhaps the dumbest wronged protagonist in film noir’s history. What kind of nitwit plots to clear his name in a wrongful conviction by committing a crime? Sure, fine, maybe knocking over a bank is less heinous than killing a man, but Farley Granger’s doomed hero, Bowie, doesn’t really connect the dots and realize that robbery is still a jailable offense. The intellectual merits of Bowie’s bright idea are irrelevant, though: They Live By Night cares deeply about the inescapable grasp of the law and the people who wind up caught in it. Some of them are genuinely scummy people, like Bowie’s fellow fugitives, One-Eye and T-Dub. Some of them are victims of the system, who lack the means to prove their uprightness. They Live By Night is a superlative example of an atypical noir domain—the film takes place largely on the road instead of in the city—but most of all, it’s a heartbreaking stunner about the decay of human innocence. —A.C.

15. Ace in the Hole
Director: Billy Wilder
Year: 1951


Ladies and gentlemen, meet Chuck Tatum, the forefather of Nightcrawler’s unhinged Louis Bloom. Billy Wilder’s film is a vicious, acerbic, and above all else misanthropic satire of America’s press core, but today we might be inclined to look at it as a scathing critique of American entrepreneurialism. Tatum is one enterprising man, alright, a ladder-climbing dirtbag who sees any opportunity as a golden opportunity, and he seizes them all with deceitful gusto. There’s no situation better left unexploited, if you ask him, and Wilder captures Tatum’s reckless quest of self-aggrandizement beneath New Mexico’s blistering sun. This is an outlaw America, an apathetic postwar America where rules of propriety come a very distant third to getting one over on the other guy and feeding the rushing addiction of sleaze entertainment. It’s an ugly vision that eerily predicted the direction of contemporary pop culture more than half a century ahead of its time. —A.C.

14. Elevator to the Gallows
Director: Louis Malle
Year: 1958


Prior to reinventing filmic language with their playful genre experiments, the members of France’s New Wave movement got their start as film critics. In fact, it was through their writings and discussions that the term “film noir” was first christened as a means of describing a certain breed of brooding postwar films. It’s not surprising then that Louis Malle—though not an official New Wave member—would settle on a film noir-influenced project as his first feature film. Acting both as an homage to noir as well as a subversion of its structure, Elevator to the Gallows stars Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as a pair of criminals whose plan to kill Moreau’s husband quickly falls apart when the Ronet character gets stuck in an elevator. This already absurd concept becomes all the more confounding when paired with the film’s unorthodox, experimental editing and somber, Miles Davis-performed jazz score. —M.R.

13. Gilda
Director: Charles Vidor
Year: 1946


Seven years before his powerhouse turn in The Big Heat, Glenn Ford played second fiddle to Rita Hayworth—how the hell could you not?—in Charles Vidor’s exotic thriller. From the moment Hayworth whips her sultry tresses into frame—to this day, a disarmingly forward, come-hither introduction made more so by her bare shoulders—we’re as gobsmacked as Ford’s drooling puppy dog. An American thug in Buenos Aires, our narrator Johnny Farrell (Ford) cheats, and then cheats some more: first at the casino of an older businessman involved in a Nazi cartel, and then with the businessman’s young new wife, his ex, Gilda (Hayworth). Johnny and Gilda hurl emotional and physical hostilities as they love-hate on each other, both felt in equal measure. But when the businessman—now Johnny’s boss—seems to meet an untimely end, the guilt-stricken employee is determined to cruelly punish both himself and Gilda for their deceit. (Sadomasochism much?) The Argentinean intrigue is marked by crackling dialogue and cast in lush shadows by cinematographer Rudolph Maté, but Vidor wisely recognizes the film belongs to Hayworth, a femme fatale of epic proportions. With a beauty for the ages as his star, Vidor doesn’t have to do much, and his static, voyeuristic direction shows in fact he didn’t. Gilda represents the oft-discussed male gaze of noir at its most blatant—she’s largely a fetishized object. But at times the framing makes Hayworth’s erotic physicality all the more charged, and dangerous. She’s not bound (at least briefly, repeatedly) to the mise en scène, a rebellious force keenly aware of her charms. She’s also more than a little desperate, as it turns out. Just watch the visual motif of that boudoir introduction recur in the “Put the Blame on Mame” musical number-turned-striptease. Gilda taunts Johnny throughout the film, goading him with her sex appeal, and for his part, Vidor teases us, too—“Gilda, are you decent?” Define decent. —A.S.

12. Night of the Hunter
Director: Charles Laughton
Year: 1955


Film noir or horror—which category does Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter belong in? Frankly, all such quibbles are needless. The film fits snugly beneath either appellation, for one thing: It’s a hybridized version of both. (Let’s call it “film noirror.”) For another, it’s a masterwork, so fie upon labels. Night of the Hunter lurks in shadows and revels in misogyny. Whether you’ve seen it or not, you probably have the image of Robert Mitchum’s tattooed knuckles imprinted upon your brain thanks to pop culture osmosis. Reverend Harry Powell is quite the villain, a man as quick to distort the truth with honey-coated lies as Laughton is to distort reality through oblique perspective, unnerving use of shadows and light, and a dizzying array of camera compositions that make small-town West Virginia feel altogether otherworldly. —A.C.

11. The Maltese Falcon
Director: John Huston
Year: 1941

The Maltese Falcon.jpg

Referred to by many as the first major noir (after the more obscure 1940 film Stranger on the Third Floor), this John Huston classic set the bar for the archetypal detective, the subgenre as a whole, and the rest of star Humphrey Bogart’s career. On the surface a murder mystery revolving around yet another archetype, that of the titular MacGuffin, The Maltese Falcon is in essence a character study, a definitive assurance of masculinity and the cool objectivity it entails, by way of one Sam Spade. Bogart’s antihero is a man of honor, as it suits him—he has no qualms about kissing his dead partner’s widow while the body’s still warm, or turning in the guilty woman he loves to the police. He’s nobody’s “sap.” Interestingly, Spade’s creator, Dashiell Hammett—who once worked as a P.I.—called the character “a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.” In Bogart’s brusque yet smooth hands, that sounds about right. Likewise, this is the adaptation to which vastly inferior attempts, including a 1931 version of the same name and 1936’s Satan Met a Lady, could only aspire. It is impeccable in every sense. Huston also penned the screenplay, on Howard Hawks’ advice, almost verbatim from Hammett’s hard-boiled novel. He painstakingly storyboarded the drama to include complex camerawork and lighting schemes, evocative POVs, and an uninterrupted seven-minute take whose logistics boggle the mind. The violent, stylized set pieces are as visceral as the verbal confrontations. Aside from Bogie’s legendary turn, the other performances are spot-on: among them, an already scandalized Mary Astor as the femme fatale; Sydney Greenstreet (Casablanca) as hulking baddie Kasper “Fat Man” Gutman—astonishingly, his film debut; and Peter Lorre as an obviously gay associate of Gutman’s whose homosexuality was muted for the folks at the Hays Code. One of the first titles to be preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, The Maltese Falcon is landmark filmmaking. —A.S.

Recently in Movies