10. Sunset Boulevard
Director: Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder’s meta noir is a doozy, an unfailingly cynical critique of showbiz and a portrait of postwar alienation projected on the microcosm of Hollywood. It’s also wickedly funny in Sahara dry fashion, from the opening words of our dead narrator—floating facedown in his killer’s swimming pool—to Norma Desmond’s concluding descent down her staircase, and the rabbit hole. Gloria Swanson is magnificent and sad as Ms. Desmond, a fading beauty of the silent screen who manipulates broke, hackish screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) into becoming her boy toy. Theirs is a fated relationship from the get-go, she of the wordless era, he dependent on them for his very livelihood. They’re on the outs with their industry, and each other, yet coexist out of desperation. Wilder, who co-wrote with Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman Jr., layered the script with in-joke upon self-referential wink, perhaps the least of which is Desmond’s passion project, about that OG of femme fatales, Salome. There’s a parade of Hollywood cameos, namechecks, and behind-the-scenes instances of “art imitating life” (and vice versa); for example, Erich von Stroheim, who portrays Desmond’s former director/first husband-turned-still lovestruck butler Max, directed Swanson in 1929’s Queen Kelly (excerpted here) before she as the film’s producer fired him, much like her Sunset Blvd. character discards his. Many of these nods were in less-than-good fun, so it’s no shock that Sunset Boulevard met with local disdain, yet Wilder doesn’t flinch. Norma, Joe, Max … they’re all unwanted souls who, try as they might to live in the past, have succumbed to the present—in Joe’s case, most finally. The smoke and mirrors of Tinseltown, of life, don’t do the job anymore (though cinematographer John Seitz, who also lensed Double Indemnity, most certainly did, sprinkling dust into the air for the lights to catch). Desmond may be a seductress past her sell-by date, but Hollywood is the ultimate femme fatale, who chews suckers up and spits them out. Sunset Boulevard gives L.A. its close-up, alright. —A.S.
Director: Otto Preminger
Maybe falling in love with dead people is just an occupational hazard of being an investigative detective in New York City. Then again, maybe a shotgun blast to the face couldn’t keep anybody from developing a crush on Gene Tierney, which is pretty much how the plot of Otto Preminger’s Laura goes. The film tracks the trajectory of NYPD detective Mark McPherson’s growing obsession with the eponymous young lady as he cobbles together the bits and pieces of her life and death. Poring over her diary and her letters, he comes to moon over her, and why not? She’s every bit as delightful as Preminger’s movie. Laura doesn’t waste time and stacks contrivance on top of unlikelihood, but such is the strength of Preminger’s craft and the performances of his cast that the film’s convolution doesn’t matter. —A.C.
8. Kiss Me Deadly
Director: Robert Aldrich
Frequently cited as an example of when film noir, to appropriate a TV idiom, “jumped the shark,” Kiss Me Deadly long ago overcame its initial bad press to become one of the most beloved and influential examples of the subgenre and its ability to tell dark, controversial stories. In that regard, director Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly wears its insanity like a badge. Ralph Meeker stars as a hard-boiled private eye who ends up bearing witness to the brutal torture and murder of a young hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman in one her first film appearances). He decides to pursue her case, which results in the discovery of one of film’s all-time great MacGuffins—a mysterious piece of luggage that emits intense heat and a bright light when opened. (This visual went on to inspire the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction.) This all leads to one of the craziest, most jaw-dropping final sequences you’re likely to see in any American movie made during the Hays Code era. —M.R.
7. Out of the Past
Director: Jacques Tourneur
There’s no better way to describe Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past than “perfect.” For many, this is the epitome of all things noir, a sprawling, rambling examination of betrayal and seduction peppered with shrapnel-sharp dialogue. Out of the Past looks about as bleak as it feels. It’s savage and sexual, deeply unsettling in its nihilism and yet not utterly without hope; the final shot offers a respite of sorts from Tourneur’s otherwise unblinking sobriety. Out of the Past’s cheerlessness towers from the shoulders of its cast, a coterie of acting giants each at the top of their game. Robert Mitchum dominates, whether in his tête-à-têtes with Kirk Douglas or his simmering flirtations with Jane Greer. Together they pop, but no matter how brightly they might shine, Out of the Past remains a masterwork coated in darkness from page to screen. —A.C.
6. The Third Man
Director: Carol Reed
At this point, any person who calls themselves a cinephile yet has not seen Carol Reed’s phenomenal Third Man needs to stop reading this blurb immediately, carve out two hours and rectify this mistake. In all seriousness though, Vienna has rarely looked more richly cinematic than it does here, with Robert Krasker’s expressionistic camerawork capturing the feel of a city distorted. The plot centers on Joseph Cotten’s Western writer Holly Martins, who arrives in Vienna after hearing about a job from his friend, Harry. Holly is promptly shocked to discover that Harry was killed in a car accident but, suspicious of the shady details, begins to investigate his friend’s death. On the off chance anyone has remained unspoiled (or never watched Pinky and the Brain), I will leave it at that, adding only that the film boasts a brilliant performance from Orson Welles and a thrilling final-act foot chase. —M.R.
5. Touch of Evil
With its legendary opening, a single, crane-enabled shot just shy of three-and-a-half minutes in length, Orson Welles essentially closed the book on the classic noir era—and rewrote his own legacy in the process. Welles was 20 years into his career and a Hollywood has-been at 42 when he signed on to adapt Whit Masterson’s novel Badge of Evil for the screen. The result is a masterwork wrought by an auteur of monumental brass ones, even for Welles. The film opens at night, as a bomb is placed in the trunk of a convertible just before an unwitting couple take a drive through town. An echoing strain of horns and percussion situate us in an exotic, obviously dangerous locale, the natural sounds of the streets weaving in and out with the rock ’n’ roll playing on the car stereo. Cinematographer Russell Metty slowly pans away to refocus our attention on Mexican DEA agent Charlton Heston and his American bride Janet Leigh—a bit of breezy, expository chitchat fills us in on those details. They stroll through customs, across the border, into the U.S. on foot and share an embrace, just as the convertible explodes in front of them. In one extended take, we’re hurtled into this thriller with a minimum of screen time and maximum of suspense. Sure, Wells himself will soon command the frame as a fat, drunk, cane-toting corrupt cop, as will Marlene Dietrich as a brothel madam, and Dennis Weaver as a sketchy hotel night manager. The plot will double down with a manhunt, kidnapping, gang rape, drugs and more in a yarn as thick and filthy as Welles’ villain’s final resting place. But those first 3 minutes 20 seconds not only encapsulate a singular mastery of filmmaking—an immaculately orchestrated synergy of technical skill, storytelling, and style—they tick off practically every box on the noir checklist: gritty, maze-like streets; foreign vs. domestic threats; isolation and anxiety; the law and the lawless; the passions of a gorgeous gal and her hero; extremes of shadow and light, angles and composition; unsparing tension, and a palpable, inescapable sense of doom. Three. Unbroken. Minutes. —A.S.
Director: Roman Polanski
When you look at Jack Nicholson’s run of films in what I’ll call the “New Hollywood” era, starting with Easy Rider in 1969 and ending with The Shining in 1980, it’s truly astounding. There’s barely a dud on the list, so it’s really saying something that Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s crime classic, stands out among the best. The central mystery is bold for its complexity, revolving around water rights in 1930s Southern California—a plot that remains relevant today—and was undoubtedly an influence for the second season of True Detective. Like much of Polanski’s work, an ominous atmosphere works alongside the plot, shadowing every character in doubt and undermining the possibility of a clean conclusion. In Polanski’s world, the mere fact that a mystery is solved doesn’t mean there’s a happy ending, and his incredible powers of ambiguity have never been so strong as in Chinatown. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it won the Oscar for Robert Towne’s original screenplay. Add Nicholson at his most essential, along with a young Faye Dunaway and an aging John Huston, and this is truly one of the classics of American cinema. —S.R.
3. Double Indemnity
Director: Billy Wilder
Long before the Boomers came to know Fred MacMurray as the kindly father on My Three Sons, the actor essayed his best performance in Double Indemnity as the deplorable, hard-boiled Walter Neff, who falls for a married temptress (Barbara Stanwyck) who talks him into killing her husband. Whether in film or on television, MacMurray normally played the nice guy, but for Double Indemnity he turned his everyman decency into a mask—perfect for a character who can barely conceal what a lustful, conniving bastard he is. One of the great noirs, this early effort from Billy Wilder revealed the filmmaker’s talent for wonderfully thorny, unapologetically rotten characters—and it doubles as one of the definitive mid-century Los Angeles movies. —T.G.
2. The Big Sleep
Director: Howard Hawks
The great granddaddy of all convoluted noirs, The Big Sleep fully embodies every single identifying feature of Raymond Chandler’s writing: dialogue that sears itself into viewers’ brains, rough-cut men, seductive femme fatales, plenty of violence, a respectable body count, and enough plot curveballs to give even the most accomplished noirs twist envy. The film almost demands to be seen twice for the sheer volume of slants and revelations. Truthfully, you’ll want to watch it more than once for Howard Hawks’ direction, Sidney Hickox’ dread-inducing cinematography, and Chandler’s barbed exchanges, not to mention the raw chemistry and animal magnetism of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Production codes at the time of The Big Sleep’s release prohibited it from being as graphic as Chandler’s novel, but maybe thrillers of today can learn a valuable lesson from the restrictions: Less can so often mean much, much more. —A.C.
1. The Woman in the Window
Director: Fritz Lang
Only a master like Fritz Lang could take a trope as hackish as “it was all just a dream” and turn it into nightmare fuel. Then again, only a master like Lang could surreptitiously flip the board at censors by tacking a happy ending onto a tragedy. The Woman in the Window isn’t just one of Lang’s best films, it’s one of noir’s greatest gifts to cinema, a taut psychological mindscrew about the nature of taking life. When is it okay to take a life? When is it not? By the film’s own standards, Lang’s protagonist, Professor Wanley, kills the jealous lover of young Alice Reed in self-defense, which puts him in the clear from our standpoint. But Wanley winds up falling further and further into hot water, and we start to question the lesson he teaches his students at The Woman in the Window’s commencement. It’s such a juicy, complex film, made impeccably and with unshakable style, that there’s no need to wonder at its role in validating cinema as art and causing a sea change in film criticism as a discipline. —A.C.