The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time

Movies Lists
Share Tweet Submit Pin

90. Kiss of Death
Director: Henry Hathaway
Year: 1947

100NoirsKissOfDeath.jpg

Does any psychopath in film noir’s rogues gallery strike quite as much immediate, stomach-churning terror as Tommy Udo? The man’s got a leering, sunken visage only a mother could love, provided she keeps her eyes closed tightly and doesn’t give him reason to shove her down the stairs. Richard Widmark’s wolf grin might be the only thing about Kiss of Death that matters. Bereft of him, of course, Henry Hathaway’s film remains solid, but Widmark’s Oscar-nominated performance makes the entire enterprise feel vital. He’s a villain for the ages, perhaps robbed of his due by Hathaway’s need to architect a happy ending. Such is life working with production codes. —A.C.


89. The Usual Suspects
Director: Bryan Singer
Year: 1995

Usual Suspects.jpg

The movie is a cheat and a fraud. It’s as manipulative as it is dishonest, but unlike many other far lesser films worthy of the same description, all this flick’s shamelessness is on purpose. When it was released The Usual Suspects left viewers gob smacked, staring at screens with expressions matching Michael Caine and Steve Martin on the runway at the end of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: at first confused, then maybe a little angry, but then ultimately delighted by how fooled they’d just been. Perfectly paced, brilliantly scored by director Bryan Singer and editor/composer John Ottman—the film never lets the marks know they’re being conned by the irresistible ensemble or Christopher McQuarrie’s dark, mischievous script. And then like that … it’s gone… —Bennett Webber


88. Black Widow
Director: Bob Rafelson
Year: 1987

Black Widow.jpg

Taking the femme fatale conceit to literal extremes, director Bob Rafelson, whose credits include Five Easy Pieces and the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, delivers a modern noir elevated by two ace lead performances. Debra Winger does Debra Winger as an FBI agent, Alex, who grows obsessed with the perpetrator of a series of unsolved marriages-then-murders. Theresa Russell matches her note for note as gold-digging vixen Catharine, who’s as good at the long con as she is a cat-and-mouse game with Winger’s humdrum suit. Then there’s the staggering amount of research involved—Catharine on the passions of her soon-to-be victims, Alex on her suspect. It’s smart, with pointed gender commentary to boot. The plain-Jane Fed plays frenemies with the glamorous chameleon while cinematography great Conrad L. Hall (Cool Hand Luke, American Beauty) mines suspense in the shadows, all the better to spotlight Russell’s steely eyes and porcelain veneer—she’s bone-chilling. Bonus points for a droll cameo from Dennis Hopper as one of Catharine’s marks, and a lecherously long-nailed Diane Ladd as one of his relatives. —A.S.


87. Dark City
Director: Alex Proyas
Year: 1998

Dark City.jpg

Taking a cue from Blade Runner, Alex Proyas’ 1998 magnum opus serves up a cerebral sci-fi extravaganza as filtered through the visual tropes of film noir and German Expressionism. The result is a staggering achievement in imagination that, like Blade Runner, flopped at the box office only to be revived later as a beloved cult classic. The film casts Rufus Swell as an amnesiac who wakes up one night to discover that his city is (quite literally) being manipulated by a band of mysteriously pale men in jet-black trench coats and fedoras. Along for the ride is Kiefer Sutherland as a crazed scientist and Jennifer Connelly as our hero’s estranged wife (who, it must be noted, was born to play a noir femme fatale). —M.R.


86. Gaslight
Director: George Cukor
Year: 1944

gaslight new.jpg

Ingrid Bergman won her first Oscar for playing a vulnerable young woman slowly being driven insane by her charismatic husband in Gaslight. And while certainly well earned, Bergman’s award-winning portrayal is but one reason to catch this exceptional 1944 psychological thriller. For one, unlike other noirs, Gaslight is a period story, set in the Edwardian era, and reiterates the frightening notion that evil can emerge not just from the corrupt city setting inherent to the genre but from a domestic context, as well. As the film’s villain, Charles Boyer delivers a hypnotic, chilling performance that perfectly matches Bergman’s volatile characterization. If all that weren’t enough, Murder, She Wrote fans will be delighted at the feature film debut of an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury. —M.R.


85. Obsession
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Year: 1949

100NoirsObsession.jpg

Unlike so many of its peers on this listing, Edward Dmytryk’s Obsession doesn’t lean on violence in its plotting and scheming. But the film isn’t gentle by any stretch. In fact, Obsession is one of the more gruesome classic noirs, a slow-burning bit of nastiness that could give Breaking Bad a run for its money in the body disposal department. Dmytryk rides on the strength of great work by Robert Newton, here playing a psychiatrist who determines to kill his wife’s lover, an American diplomat played by Phil Brown. (Obviously, because everybody knows that all psychiatrists secretly harbor homicidal urges.) Newton’s a creepy hoot, and Dmytryk has such a good handle on his suspense that even the tonal dissonance of unwelcome comedy doesn’t break the film’s insidious spell. —A.C.


84. Se7en
Director:   David Fincher  
Year: 1995

Se7en.jpg

It’s hard to think of a movie that did more short-term damage to the length of your fingernails in the ’90s than David Fincher’s Se7en. The film follows detectives David Mills (Brad Pitt) and almost-retired William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) on the trail of John Doe, a murderer who plans his kills around the seven deadly sins. We see Somerset teach a still-naive Mills valuable life lessons around the case, which has morally charged outcomes aimed at victims that include a gluttonous man and a greedy attorney. But with all the disturbing crime scenes considered, Se7en’s never as unpredictable or emotionally draining as when Mills and Somerset make the final discovery of “what’s in the box” after capturing their man. —Tyler Kane


83. Tension
Director: John Berry
Year: 1949

100NoirsTension.jpg

One of film noir’s more under-loved minor works, Tension showcases great work by Audrey Totter while fiddling with gender roles and postwar disenchantment. There are few saps as sappy as Richard Basehart’s cuckolded Warren Quimby, and even in the realm of femme fatales, few are even half as downright mean as Claire Quimby (Phyllis Dietrichson, Lily Carver and Brigid O’Shaughnessy notwithstanding). Forget the fact she habitually cheats on poor borin’ Warren: Check the scene where he drives her to the house he scrimped and saved for, a gesture she can only respond to with contempt. Totter is such a hoot you almost forget to feel bad for Basehart, but even his gentle male ego can only endure so much abuse before he decides to remake himself in the image of Claire’s “type,” all the better to get even with her and her lover. Tension might not have the iconography of John Berry’s peers, but the film makes a worthy study of masculine American identity. —A.C.


82. King of New York
Director: Abel Ferrara
Year: 1990

King of New York.jpg

Abel Ferrara’s modern day take on Robin Hood transposes the crusader of the common man to the scum-infested streets of the Big Apple, where Christopher Walken’s formerly incarcerated drug lord Frank White returns to his old stomping ground. His strategy for social (and personal) reform: Eliminate competing kingpins and their rackets, and channel profits to the lower classes while funding a hospital in the South Bronx. A win/win, albeit a perverted one, right? Except that we know better. When the cops (David Caruso and Wesley Snipes among them) are just as morally flexible as the crooks (as Walken’s associate, “Larry” Fishburne is unhinged), none of these figures on the margins are going to wind up any closer to a fighting chance. As unapologetic judge and jury, Walken is never better, nor cooler: “I must’ve been away too long because my feelings are dead. I feel no remorse,” he states flatly. B-movie vet Ferrara (Ms. 45, China Girl) revels in the extremes in textures, juxtaposing the inner city guts and grime with the blinged-out glamour of White’s penthouse lifestyle—this gangster film wound up a gangsta touchstone for ’90s hip-hop. King of New York’s standing on this list could arguably be swapped with Ferrara’s even more corrosive follow-up two years later, Bad Lieutenant, another pitch-black fable about attempts at redemption gone spectacularly awry—it’s hardly surprising that, exceptional as Harvey Keitel was in the 1992 film, the lead role was originally intended for Walken. —A.S.


81. Oldboy
Director: Park Chan-wook
Year: 2003

100NoirsOldboy.jpg

Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy makes the smart choice most genre homages don’t: The film relegates reference to the soundtrack titles, some of which crop up elsewhere on this very list. It takes more than a few hat tips to Tourneur, Hawks and Ray to make a noir, but Oldboy boasts the lion’s share of noir’s best trappings in its story of long-term revenge and dirty family secrets. The film is probably best revered for a single fight scene, one of only a handful to occur throughout its two-hour running time. Admittedly, that hallway scrap is pretty glorious, but Park boils his protagonist hard, and spoken from beneath star Choi Min-sik’s grizzled mane, the film’s dialogue crackles with beefy, unhinged ennui. Years from now when the next big international neo-noir import arrives stateside, don’t be surprised if you see Oldboy’s moniker on its OST. —A.C.

Recently in Movies