50. Le Samourai
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Flip a coin to decide whether Le Samourai or Le Doulos is the coolest Melville film of them all; odds are, it’ll land upright, because that’s an impossible distinction to make. Melville films pulse with ineffable cool. In the case of Le Samourai, proof of Melville’s dedication to brewing substance from style lies in the film’s enormous influence: Everybody from Jim Jarmusch to Madonna recognizes Melville’s flair, and they’ve been imitating it, or mixing it with their own trademarks, for years. There are hitmen movies, and there are hitmen movies, and standing head and shoulders above most of them there’s Le Samourai, a movie that makes the lethal discipline of knocking people off into fine art. It’s as much a study of human isolation as it is a paean to the magnetic pull of a sleek aesthetic. —A.C.
49. One False Move
Director: Carl Franklin
Carl Franklin’s excellent early ’90s neo-noir walks a razor-thin tightrope of suspense: You get the sense from one minute to the next that any step out of place could send the entire narrative into violent anarchy. Franklin’s film has great aspirations, delving into the complexities of modern American race relations just a few years after Spike Lee wrote the cinematic book on them with Do the Right Thing. He packages those socially aware goals alongside a tale of drugs, money, spectacularly brutal violence, and familial reconciliation. One False Move never goes quite where you expect it to, and that sense of unpredictability, combined with Franklin’s knack for speaking authentically to experiences from every angle of racial division, make it a sterling gem. —A.C.
48. Journey Into Fear
Orson Welles, Norman Foster
The story goes that Orson Welles was set to direct this spy thriller but other commitments precluded him from doing so, thus Norman Foster (Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, the Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan series, Woman on the Run) was brought on the production. And though documentary footage has Welles insisting he had no directorial hand whatsoever in the finished product, his touch is all over it—the least of which is the cast, including Mercury Theatre Players Joseph Cotten, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead and Everett Sloane. Stylistically speaking, the screen adaptation of Eric Ambler’s tail of Nazi-era espionage and double-crosses on the high seas—co-scripted by Cotten and, admittedly in this aspect, Welles, who also produced, co-starred, designed and storyboarded (really, Orson?!)—trades in Welles’ signature angles, lighting schemes, and mise en scène. The noir tells are all there, too: characters of universally suspect motives; subconscious themes and dream states; and moody flourishes like the foreboding refrain of a scratched phonograph record. Then there’s that Citizen Kane-esque pre-credits opening, which Welles did in fact cop to creating, and the climactic, ledge-top showdown (which he did not). Hacked to barely over an hour in length by RKO, Journey Into Fear is a fascinating if flawed preview of genre masterworks like Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai (not to mention The Third Man) to come. —A.S.
47. Sorry, Wrong Number
Director: Anatole Litvak
A story of unintended connections and one woman’s spiraling descent into paranoia and terror, Sorry, Wrong Number gets sort of a bum rap next to Double Indemnity in Barbara Stanwyck’s catalogue of awesome performances. The film alternates between flashbacks and the present, and so too does Stanwyck’s spoiled, shiftless heiress to a drug-store empire go from lethargy to hysteria. Turns out she’s the center of a murder plot, though she doesn’t quite realize it at first and must piece together the architecture of her own demise as she lies bedridden and alone in her opulent Manhattan digs. Stanwyck gives Sorry, Wrong Number a pulse, while Anatole Litvak’s direction soaks her growing terror in shadows so deep, the intruder sneaking through her house can’t help but bump into the furniture. —A.C.
46. The Blue Dahlia
Director: George Marshall
George Marshall (Destry Rides Again, How the West Was Won) directed Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in this Raymond Chandler labyrinth, which gained added notoriety with the real-life “Black Dahlia” murder of Elizabeth Short the year after the film’s premiere. Also of note is Chandler’s Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay; Blue Dahlia marks the only one he ever penned specifically for the screen, his other scripts having been adapted from novels of others and, oddly enough, other film adaptations of his own novels written by other screenwriters. Trivia aside, Ladd is stoic swagger as our hard-boiled protag Johnny, a recently discharged bomber pilot who, upon his return stateside to Hollywood, is accused of his cheating wife’s murder. On the lam to clear his name, he runs across a host of sketchy characters, among them his wife’s lover—the owner of the film’s namesake Sunset Strip nightclub—and, it turns out, said lover’s estranged spouse (Lake). It’s all very sordid—a little too complicated for its own good, really—but a bracing watch, typified by the genre’s tropes and slang-riddled dialogue. One more fun fact, and a minor spoiler alert: Chandler’s original (vastly more satisfying) ending had one of the Navy men as the killer, but given the film’s release came so close to the end of WWII, the U.S. military asked that a veteran not be shown in such a negative light. Thus the ending was rewritten—and with that, folks, you’ve got one of noir’s corrective conceits in a nutshell. —A.S.
45. The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers
Director: Lewis Milestone
Noir matriarch Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas—in his film debut—star in this knotty melodrama, set in motion with the rash murder by teenaged Martha Ivers of her rich bitch of an aunt. Walter, the son of Martha’s tutor, saw it go down but doesn’t say anything, and the two blame the incident on an intruder, who is convicted and hanged (whoops). Stanwyck and Douglas assume the roles of adult Martha and Walter, the latter a drunken, corrupt D.A. who married the now miserable heiress and business mogul. His love for her is entirely one-sided, so the return of Martha’s childhood friend Sam (Heflin) to town stirs up old secrets and older feelings—of jealousy for Walter, of guilt, regret, and tellingly, fear for Martha, who believes Sam also witnessed the murder. Working from a short story by John Patrick, director Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front, Two Arabian Nights) takes his time with the backstory and creates a well-crafted web of noir staples: blackmail and betrayal; gambling drifters and conniving dames; the psychological consequences of past sins; seedy and grandiose settings; um, lots of rain; and a morally compromised center that leaves little hope for anyone. There’s also a curiously refreshing gender play in the presence of Sam’s lady friend, Toni (Lizabeth Scott), a fellow former street kid and parolee. Yet while she wants to move on, Sam gets sucked back into Martha’s world. It’s an interesting characterization, as is Douglas’, a broken shell of a man who self-medicates under the weight of one lie upon another. It bears repeating this is his first screen role. He’s as heartbreaking as Stanwyck is heartless—and yet her performance, one in a fine cast of them, still manages sympathy at the film’s tragic end. —A.S.
44. Body Heat
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Lawrence Kasdan’s directorial debut remains, to this day, one of the sexiest movies ever to grace the big screen—not to mention, the rare occasion where the phrase “erotic thriller” can be appropriately uttered without the slightest hint of a snicker. Boasting a star-making performance by Kathleen Turner, the film takes the standard Double Indemnity/The Postman Always Rings Twice premise (femme fatale hires lover to kill husband) and grafts it onto the humid nightmare that is Florida in the midst of a heat wave. Memorable sex scenes aside, however, the film is also a master class in how to build suspense and escalate tension. —M.R.
43. Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver was Scorsese’s breakthrough: a seething condemnation of alienation—not to mention New York’s descent in the 1970s into a crime-ridden hellscape—delivered with such clinical coldness that when Scorsese’s star (and longtime collaborator) Robert De Niro finally explodes, it’s unspeakably upsetting. If Taxi Driver now feels slightly overrated, it’s only because the movie’s DNA has crept into so many subsequent filmmakers’ efforts. Scorsese grew up loving Westerns, and Taxi Driver could just as easily be his version of The Searchers—except his man-out-of-time finds no redemption. —T.G.
42. The Hitch-Hiker
Director: Ida Lupino
Who can say no to Ida Lupino? (Not Doc Sportello, that’s for sure.) As a woman-helmed production, The Hitch-Hiker was a rarity in its heyday, though if you didn’t know Lupino held the reins, you might not guess the film was directed with a feminine touch. The Hitch-Hiker was as much an anomaly in Hollywood as it was a change of pace for Lupino, who, after directing four features that each revolved around the struggles and victimization of women, decided to try her hand with decidedly more masculine fare. Decades later, her film is still generally considered the first noir directed by a woman, but it should really be thought of first as a slim, unsparing, suspenseful slice of true crime. She puts her foot on the gas and doesn’t let up until the very end. —A.C.
41. White Heat
Director: Raoul Walsh
The oedipal and criminal collide yet again with James Cagney’s psychopathic mama’s boy Arthur “Cody” Jarrett, whose deadly train-robbing exploits ultimately land him in jail. While there he befriends an undercover fed (Edmond O’Brien, whose other noirs include The Hitch-Hiker) bent on nailing him for greater crimes. After Jarrett’s plottingly protective ma (Margaret Wycherly) get killed—by his equally scheming wife (Virginia Mayo), though she convinces him his right-hand man did the deed—he stages a break, and his next heist. In one of his darkest roles, 50-year-old Cagney is at his unhinged best, a powder keg of neuroses and sadistic impulses who can feign insanity—as he does in the prison infirmary—for only so long before his delusions overtake him completely. Prone to throbbing headaches, he’s a dangerously troubled tough guy who still retreats to his mother’s lap, and declares “Made it, Ma! Top of the World!” as the bottom falls out from under him. This postwar psychic landscape is subversive as hell—and suburban too, no longer confined to metro limits. On that note, the damage is no longer rooted in his environment; Jarrett’s a disaster from the inside out, dysfunctional in his very wiring (thanks, ma!). Director Raoul Walsh, reuniting here with Cagney after The Roaring Twenties and The Strawberry Blonde, echoes the off-the-rails energy of his leading man, infusing the film with an incendiary nihilism and amorality. The bookending set pieces, shot on location in industrial California, pulse with realism. The cumulative effect represents a primal deviation—make that devolution—from social conformity and civilization. So, yeah, of course he’s gotta get blown up, noir-comeuppance style. Still, Cagney is mesmerizing to watch self-destruct. —A.S.