Akram's Top Ten Noir Films: An Attempt at a List Forever Changing

Film noir, film noir, film noir! The greatest thing old Hollywood gave birth to, one that never produced a bad film; the worst thing you could say about the worst film noir ever is that it was okay, and you’d find yourself at a loss for words if you ever wanted to say something bad about the best films this genre has to offer, and by God, are there great films, dozens of them. Ever since I saw my first noir film, years ago, I’ve gotten hooked and saw an ungodly amount of these pictures, from the big hits to the small unknown titles, and I loved them all, so an attempt to pick my top ten is as painful as it is hard, but I am somewhat satisfied by the results, and to the number of great noirs that I haven’t included, I promise I’ll write about you all someday.

10- Murder, My Sweet (1944, Edward Dmytryk)

This may just be my favorite adaptation of a Philip Marlowe story, the protagonist created by crime stories veteran Raymond Chandler, and the biggest reason for that is: Dick Powell. Many great actors have portrayed the hardboiled, one-of-a-kind private detective, from Humphrey Bogart to Robert Montgomery to Robert Mitchum, but Dick Powell’s performance will always be my favorite; he is juvenile, funny and very charismatic. Murder, My Sweet puts him in the shoes of this great private detective as he gets drawn in into a spiraling web of crime and trickery. The story starts as he is being hired by a man named Moose (played by the one and only Mike Mazurki) to find his ex-girlfriend, only to be hired again and again for numerous other jobs that vary from protection to locating a valuable jade necklace, until all of these subplots merge into one big conspiracy all woven by the incredibly alluring femme fatale Helen (played by Claire Trevor). Murder, My Sweet is one of the most perfect noir films ever, in the sense that it is a perfect execution of every trademark element of the genre: moody, shadowy cinematography, a great captivating score by Roy Webb, an abundance of cheesy, memorable one-liners and a story as enchanting as it is complex.

9- Rififi (1955, Jules Dassin)

Hollywood wasn’t the only source of great noir films, indeed after the genre emerged, many countries around the world jumped on the trend and made their contributions to the ever-growing canon, from Japan to Germany, a lot of masterpieces come from places other than the US. France perhaps gave birth to more noir films than any other place (besides America), and great directors like Jean-Pierre Melville, Francois Truffaut and Jules Dassin all made noir films that are still praised as some of the best the genre has to offer. The latter, Jules Dassin, was a Hollywood director, the man behind noirs like Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and Night and the City (1950), before he was blacklisted and went to work in France. There, he was asked to direct the film in discussion and did so on a small budget and with a cast of mostly unknowns. Rififi revolves around a big-league criminal, Tony “Le Stephanois”, who has just left prison after serving five years, and who decides to go for one big score before calling it quits. A team is gathered, a plan is devised, and details are taken care of, but of course, nothing ever goes right in these films and difficulties show up from every corner. What grants Rififi the praise it constantly receives is a 30 minute scene during the middle of the film depicting the crime in the most intricate, detailed way; mostly silent, no dialogue, no music, this scene has inspired many actual crimes around the world after the film’s release and is one of the most tense moments of cinematic history.

8- Elevator to the Gallows (1958, Louis Malle)

Yes, I wholeheartedly love French-made noir films, enough to include two of them in my top ten list. Elevator to the Gallows, directed by the one and only Louis Malle, and released in 1958, is half noir, half romance, and the result is as melancholically tender as you would expect it to be. It takes the mystery and suspense of film noir and turns it up to 11. Its plot is intricate, always full of surprises and never stale. It advances at an exhilaratingly fast pace, and even when it slows down to perfectly capture angst and fatalism, it is still as exciting as ever. Film noir is usually described as the cinema of paranoia, and Elevator to the Gallows is a perfect embodiment of that. It is basically the story of four star-crossed lovers who are set either for prison or the gallows. Death lurks at every corner, and this combination of extreme paranoia and deadly fatalism is captured masterfully in the film. The camera work by Henri Decaë, the incredible score by Miles Davis and also the surprising and generous use of silence in the film create a film of deep discomfort and foreboding. Elevator to the Gallows is a very emotional film and manages to implement two very human and touching story in the middle of a storm of crimes and misdemeanors. As Florence roams the streets of Paris searching for Julien, we are witnesses not only to her visible anguish and worry through the brilliant use of close-ups that remind one of Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962), but we are also treated to her thoughts through lengthy interior monologues that are reflective, poetic and emotional. The film’s fatalistic romanticism reaches a devastating climax with an attempt at a double suicide in hopes of escape and immortality. “They’ll tell our story, we’ll be famous.”

You can read my full review here.

7- In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray)

Yes, it is number seven on my list, but it would probably be my pick for THE quintessential film noir. Directed by the master Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar, They Live by Night, Rebel Without a Cause...) and starring perhaps the most iconic noir actor of all time, Humphrey Bogart, Bogie. Playing the role of Dix, a washed-up screenwriter with romantic tendencies, violent mannerisms and a slight alcohol addiction, Bogie delivers what is perhaps the best performance of his career. Opposite him is the one and only Gloria Grahame, whose performance goes toe to toe with one of the greatest actors of all time, and together, they bring life to a story that revolves around a man trying to clear himself of a murder he did not commit, suspected solely because of his violent nature. Underneath this captivating and melancholic tale is a deep exploration of identity and love, how love is displayed and its extreme boundaries, and a comment on celebrity downfalls and privacy. In a Lonely Place belongs to a special category of noir films, which includes stories that are more psychological in the way they treat their subject matter, and includes films like The Woman in the Window (1944, Fritz Lang), The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton) and Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock). In a Lonely Place torments its two protagonists as much as it does its audience, and tries to show that it is not a story of Dix attempting to survive false accusations, but rather one of his relationship with Laurel attempting to survive his brutal nature.

6- Ace in the Hole (1951, Billy Wilder)

Kirk Douglas is one of the biggest names in film noir, and Hollywood history in general, and this may just be his greatest performance. Written, directed and produced by the great Billy Wilder, Ace in the Hole puts Douglas in the shoes of Chuck Tatum, a journalist in decline, who will stoop to wickedness to get as much as he can out of an event to regain his status in the newspaper business. A man has become trapped in a mine after the cave collapsed, and Chuck attempts to manipulate the local police force, the newspapers, the public and everyone around him to keep the man trapped as long as possible as he takes advantage of the story and creates a big event that could’ve been solved easily. Ace in the Hole is one of the few film noirs that deal with crimes that go past a bunch of shooting and looting, and actually dives into the human psyche, dissecting its unquenchable thirst for more and its unending greed. While it does not exactly stun when it comes to the technical aspects of the film, cinematography and scoring, Ace in the Hole thrives in its script, performances and plot progression. As angsty as it is captivating, this film rewards those strong enough to get through it. Originally a critical and financial failure, this film’s status grew exponentially throughout the years and is now regarded as one of the best films Billy Wilder ever made, and one of the masterpieces the genre has to offer.

5- Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Alexander Mackendrick)

Sweet Smell of Success tells the story of Sidney Falco (played by Tony Curtis), a press agent under the complete power and control of columnist J. J. Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster), and as the former fails to complete a job for his boss, he becomes more and more indebted to him, surrendering more of his person to the ever-growing power and influence of J. J. The job is to interrupt a relationship between Hunsecker’s sister and a guitar player in a jazz band, something the boss wants to do stealthily and without his sister’s knowledge to retain her love and respect, and something he does through his subject, Sidney Falco. As the job gets more and more complicated, and as certain unwelcome parties enter the play, we are treated to a thorough character study of both men, who are in the end, more similar than different. J. J. Hunsecker is the most interesting and frightening villain in film noir, a man whose influence reaches over everything and anything, a cultivated gangster, and as director Alexander Mackendrick describes him “a scholarly brute.” Burt Lancaster, the actor who played him, is almost as fear-inspiring as he is, as all the actors and crew who worked alongside him in Sweet Smell of Success were very intimidated by him, and the director utilized that to emphasize the absolute power his character possesses, and went as far as painting the inside of his glasses with Vaseline, so his eyes were always not focused on one thing, giving him a blank gaze, and shooting his character from a low angle with the lights directly above him, so his glasses cast a shadow over his face. This effect works perfectly in portraying a man that is the very depiction of danger, to whom morality is nothing more than a tool to be used sparingly, and whose subjects are treated with animalistic brutality, leaving them no other choice but to bow and respect. 

You can read my full review here.

4- The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)

What is arguably the first film noir ever, John Huston’s directorial debut, was the first noir I ever saw and it still holds a special place in my heart, awarding it the number four spot. It tells the story of Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart), a private detective who rolls his own cigarettes and consumes massive amounts of whiskey on a daily basis, who accepts the job offer of a Mrs. Wonderly, a charming yet deceitful femme fatale who is later revealed to be part of a big corporation, one that Sam Spade suddenly finds himself in the midst of, looking out for himself and attempting to avenge his dead partner. You never know what to expect from Spade, and consequently, the story. His actions are impulsive, irrational and sometimes just flat-out insane, and he offers no explanation for that, he is, as his enemy in the story describes him, a “character”. The events he is forcefully pushed into, would have drove any other man nuts, but his character is just crazy enough to make sense of it all with almost no help from anyone. The movie is an almost perfect adaptation of the novella by veteran Dashiell Hammett, and its plot is what makes this work worth visiting eighty years later, while the cinematography, scoring and the topnotch performances complement the already perfect.

You can read my full review here.

3- Touch of Evil (1958, Orson Welles)

I fell in love with Touch of Evil in the first few minutes, and I still cite it as my favorite opening sequence of all time, for its cinematography is simply outstanding. It jumps from a handheld shot to a high angle to a tracking shot and a number of other techniques seamlessly and it feels like the work of someone who knows the camera better than himself. Directed by Orson Welles, the same man who gifted us Citizen Kane in 1941, and starring himself, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. Its plot revolves around Mexican cop by the name of Miguel Vargas, who after witnessing a car bombing on the American side of the border, begins an investigation that leads him to the conclusion that American police captain Hank Quinlan is planting evidence to frame an innocent man, a predicament that jeopardizes both himself and his new bride. I am often in conflict as to whether I prefer Orson Welles as an actor or as a director, and Touch of Evil puts my mind at ease; he is perfect as both. He directs this film with all of the control and perfectionism that he was known for, and his performance as Hank is one of the best of his acting career, vile, depraved and weary, the features of a most dangerous man.

2- Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)

Double Indemnity tells the story of Walter Neff and Barbara Dietrichson, played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, two strangers who fall in love and plot the murder of her husband for freedom and financial gain. Double Indemnity is both familiar and unexpectedly original, it contains everything that makes noir what it is, but at the same time, it has something of its own, a special ingredient that sets it apart from the rest of the bunch, and what that is exactly, I am not sure as I am sure nobody else is. The film’s method of narration perhaps is what defines it the most, most film noirs follow a strictly methodical linear pattern, the events of the story unfold as the story advances, in one way, no shortcuts, no turns, just straight-ahead, but for Double Indemnity, the story is told as a confession from the protagonist who had just come back from the film’s final and climatic point. This allows for the celebrated monologues of the genre to be both abundant and justified, and provides a different and refreshing take on the usually-fixed method of narration noir utilizes.

You can read my full review here.

1- The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)

Washed-up pulp author Holly Martins gets a job offer from his old friend Harry Lime in Vienna, but upon his arrival, he discovers that his old pal had just died in an accident. As the cops provide a certain story and the neighbors another, Martins’ suspicions rise, and he decides to play detective and try and get to the bottom of the story. “Death is at the bottom of everything Martins. Leave death to the professionals.” The Third Man is essentially an exploration of an expression we often hear but never contemplate, “kill or be killed.” Its mysterious third man takes advantage of the city’s hectic state and puts a major portion of its population in danger for personal benefit. He compares his victims to dots seen from the sky. Irrelevant, insignificant and inconsequential. The film does not attempt to correct him, it only punishes him. At the end of the whole ordeal, he does not repent, he does not change morally, but he is prey instead of predator. As his fingers reach for the hope of rescue and a twisted idea of light, justice brings him back down. Justice here is entirely one single character’s perspective, others have different notions of it, and the film has none.

You can read my full review here.


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