The term “film noir” was first coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946. It translates to “black film” in French and was referring to Hollywood crime dramas made in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The term was not accepted immediately, with these types of films usually referred as melodramas and not classified in a distinct category of their own. The term was eventually accepted in the 1970’s.
It is very difficult to classify a film as part of a particular genre with many film noirs having many similarities with films from the gangster, mystery and thriller genres, many critics argue that Noir itself cannot be dubbed a genre.
Noirs were mostly low budgeted or B-movies often not starring a major star. Some common elements in Film Noirs are black and white shadowed lighting style, excessive cigarette smoking, white fog or smoke fills, frequent use of flashbacks, the influence of crime and detective stories from pulp magazines and the overall tone of the film, which was never an optimistic one, never giving an indication of a pleasant ending.
By overlooked, we include films which may have been nominated or won the biggest awards and even films which did well commercially but, for one reason or another are not as popular as they should be. Many films on this list have stood the test of time and still do not receive the recognition they deserve.
Note: The films on this list are ranked in chronological order.
1. They Drive by Night (1940)
Unlike most noirs, They Drive by Night doesn’t concentrate on one crime or an incident. It is more like two films initially about two brothers Joe (George Raft) and Paul Fabrini (Humphrey Bogart) as they try to start their own truck business and then the obstacles they face once they start running the business.
Many people who worked on the film, would later go on to become icons of the genre. This includes two of the greatest performers ever to appear in a noir, Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino; Writer A. I. Bezzerides, whose novels would be the basis of famous films including Kiss Me Deadly (1955), On Dangerous Ground (1951) and Thieves’ Highway (1949); and lastly director Raoul Walsh, who’s more famous for his gangster films than his noirs.
George Raft’s career started to decline after this film mainly due to him turning down the lead role in The Maltese Falcon and supposedly Casablanca, which gave way to Bogart and transformed him from a supporting actor (like his role in this film) to a leading man.
2. The Letter (1940)
A rare instance where a noir was nominated for the Best Picture, The Letter is about Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) who shoots a man dead and claims “he tried to make love to me”. However, a letter she had written may lead to her downfall.
The film starts with a beautiful opening scene as a tracking shot shows the beauty of a tropical Malayan plantation on a cloudy moonlit night with the workers sleeping in hammocks and playing music. The serenity of the scene is disrupted by a gunshot.
Bette Davis is excellent playing someone who, even after committing murder, struggles but tries to hold everything together for her husband’s sake. The supporting cast includes Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson.
Directed by William Wyler who is known for his classic and near-classic American films, The Letter is certainly the least seen Best Picture nominee directed by him. The film was based on the play The Letter by W. Somerset Maugham and was scripted by Howard E. Koch, famous for his Academy Award winning contributions to Casablanca (1942). The film was previously adapted as The Letter in 1929 and starred Herbert Marshall as the man Leslie kills.
3. This Gun for Hire (1942)
The film which made Alan Ladd a star and started his pairing with femme fatale regular Veronica Lake, the two would prove to be a popular duo in four films together.
Based on A Gun for Sale, one of writer Graham Greene’s espionage novels, Ladd plays Philip Raven, a ruthless contract killer who, after fulfilling his contract, gets paid off in marked bills. Raven then seeks revenge only for Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) to cross his path.
This Gun for Hire, with its antisocial protagonist who abides by a strict professional code and doesn’t let his morals affects his work, would go on to inspire future films, noticeably Jean-Pierre Melville masterpiece Le Samouraï.
The film is set in wartime San Francisco and touches on topics not often covered in the genre, including chemical weapons, loyalty to one’s country and patriotism during the war. The film script was written by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett and was directed by Frank Tuttle, a victim of blacklisting.
4. Ministry of Fear (1944)
Stephen Neale (Ray Milland), just released from Lembridge Asylum during the Blitz, inadvertently gets involved in a Nazi spy plot on his way to London.
Filled with some genuinely chilling scenes, Ministry of Fear is another noir based on a Graham Greene novel. Greene’s novel, however, is notable for having a much darker tone and a grimmer ending.
Directed by German master Fritz Lang during the American phase of his career (his first film once he started working in Hollywood, Fury (1936), also dealt with mistaken identity), it has many similarities to Lang’s German films, especially the long takes that last two to three minutes without any dialogue, memorably used in his masterpiece M (1931).
Lang left Germany in 1933 to escape the Nazi regime and during the second phase of his career, Lang would work mainly in the Noir genre, the most famous films being The Big Heat (1953) and Scarlet Street (1945). Lang, however, never got the recognition he deserved in his lifetime especially with his American films which were mainly classified as thrillers and suspense movies.
5. The House on 92nd Street (1945)
With the help of German born American Bill Dietrich (William Eythe), the FBI tries to stop German agents stationed in America from stealing the nation’s biggest secret.
In the opening credits, it is made clear that the film was made with the full co-operation with the FBI and that wherever possible, the actual place the original incident occurred was photographed with the exception of the leading players, all F.B.I. personnel in the picture are members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The film is directed by Henry Hathaway who is known for his fondness of semi-documentary style during the making of noirs and his use of voice over and non professional actors to add to the realism. However, it should be stated that even the film deals with the Germans trying to steal the things that “was crucial to the development of the atomic bomb.” Hathaway or any of the actors did not even know that the atomic bomb existed. This is evident as the film was released on September 10, 1945, only a month after the atomic bombs had been dropped.
Although the case can be made of the film being nothing more than a propaganda film for a nation which had just taken part in one of the biggest wars in history, it is still gripping and interesting with Charles G. Booth winning an Academy Award in 1946 for Best Writing, Original Story.
6. My Name Is Julia Ross (1945)
American Julia Ross (Nina Foch) lives in London, ill and desperately in need of money to pay her overdue rent, she accepts a job as a live-in personal secretary to mansion owning Mrs. Hughes (May Whitty) from a new employment agency she’d never heard of.
One day after she moves in, Julia awakes and realises it has been two days since she first moved in and finds herself in another house, not the one she fell asleep in.
Only 64 minutes long and made with a modest budget, it was based on The Woman in Red by Anthony Gilbert and was directed by Gun Crazy director Joseph H. Lewis.
7. The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Noir legend Raymond Chandler’s first original script written for the big screen, The Blue Dahlia is about Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) and two of his crewmates who return back home to Hollywood. Johnny then has to prove his innocence when he is suspected of killing his party loving and booze addicted wife.
With the third pairing of Ladd and Veronica Lake who gets considerably lesser screen time in this film, the film has everything a noir should have: dark shadows, talkative bartenders, constant smoking and an adulterous wife.
Weeks after Paramount had commissioned Chandler, he announced that he was suffering from writer’s block and the only way he could finish his screenplay was to get drunk. So, Chandler, who was a teetotaler and had previously agreed to work on the film as a favour to the producer, asked for a case of scotch for full payment. Several weeks later, he submitted the complete script.
In spite of Chandler’s second Oscar nomination for writing, the film will be remembered for William Bendix’s excellent performance as Buzz Wanchek, one of Johnny’s volatile crewmates who suffers from a head wound from fighting in the war. The film was directed by George Marshall whose most famous film credit was directing the famous buffalo stampede sequence in How the West Was Won (1962).
8. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
1946 was an excellent year for noirs with The Blue Dahlia, Notorious, The Dark Mirror, The Stranger and The Killers all being nominated for an Academy Award for writing. To add to that, four other noirs Crossfire, Boomerang!, Possessed and The Chase were all competing for the first prize at Cannes.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, however, was nominated for both. Probably most famous for being Kirk Douglas’ debut, the film tells the story of Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), who by chance stops in his hometown, the same place he ran away from 18 years ago. Once there, he decides to meet his childhood friend Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck), who is now married to Walter O’Neil (Kirk Douglas). The last time the three met was 18 years ago when Martha’s aunt suspiciously died in her house.
The ever dependable Barbra Stanwyck plays an emotionless, cold, domineering woman who, much like Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, will do anything necessary to get what she wants even if it involves murder.
Directed by Oscar nominee Lewis Milestone and adapted by future Oscar nominated director Robert Rossen. The film has since fallen into the Public Domain.
9. Nightmare Alley (1947)
Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power), an ambitious and self-centred man who works as an assistant in a side show, is determined to live a finer life and will harm anyone who gets in his way.
Power was the reason the film got made. Power, known for his romantic roles and one of the biggest box office draws of the time, wanted to diversify and to play a morally ambiguous character. Producers, however, feared that a dark role could harm his image and career. They eventually relented and produced the film.
Backed by a big studio, the set decoration is extremely well done with the producers building a working carnival on the 20th Century Fox back lot and hiring sideshow attractions and carnival people. Even with a major star and 20th Century Fox behind the film, the film does feel like a B-movie, mainly because of the subject matter it deals with.
Power is outstanding, showing his range as an actor in what should be considered his career best performance.
Considered too unusual for its day, the film performed very poorly and Power went back to making romantic comedies. Since its DVD release in 2005, its opinion has been re-evaluated and is now considered a very fine noir.
The film was based a novel of the same name, written by William Lindsay Gresham and was directed by Edmund Goulding.
10. Boomerang! (1947)
Being called a semi-documentary as the film was based on a true murder case, Boomerang tells the story of an ex-serviceman who is accused of murder, only to be proved innocent by the only man who believes his story, the prosecutor (Dana Andrews).
Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Richard Murphy who based it on a story from Reader’s Digest, the film boasts an excellent supporting cast, most notably Lee J. Cobb as the Police Chief and Jane Wyatt as Andrews’ wife.
The film also shows how the “system” works and proves that there is no way to escape from it. This is true in the highly competitive world of politics, even it involves the death of a man who has protected his nation for five years.
As stated previously, the film is based on an actual murder case from 1924 where state’s attorney Homer Cummings was convinced of the man’s innocence. Cummings would later go on to become Attorney General of the United States under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for writing in 1948 and competed in the Cannes Film Festival.