[In celebration of the forthcoming release of L.A. Noire, Flixist has teamed up with its sister sites Japanator and Destructoid to give a bit of background on what noir (we’re spelling it that way) is all about. Throughout the next week and leading up to L.A. Noire’s release, we’ll be reviewing/analyzing classic noirs set in L.A., explaining exactly what noir is and a few more awesome things.]
We’ve been tearing through noir movies all week and I can tell you right now that if we hear one more detective narrating about a dame walking into his office, or see one more set of venetian blinds, we’re out of here. Truthfully, we’d be happy if noir week was every week, but all good things must come to an end and the best things come to an end with a top ten list.
The Flixist editors have gathered together and formulated our ten favorite film noir movies that you should see. We’ve also come to the conclusion that noir is not dead, and some of its best times are with us in this modern era. In fact, this might be one of the few top ten lists that has the same amount of noir films in color than it does black and white. We’re crazy like that here.
Jump on in and fire up your Netflix queue.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
This is what happens when good actors, a wickedly smart screenplay and a respect for a genre collide together and turn into a movie. From the opening of the film to its final twisting close, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which also happens to be what James Bond is called in Japan) is noir throughout and yet a comedy as well. It’s a very rare film that takes a genre and makes it funny without being a parody, but Kiss Kiss Bang Bang does this all while being smarter than almost any movie you’ve seen in a long while. It’s pretty obvious why we are literally in love with it.
If we were actually ranking these movies from best to bestest, Double Indeminity would be even better. If you ever want to point to a single movie to explain what classic noir is then this is it. Forget the Maltese Falcon and screw The Third Man, Double Indeminity is where it is at. From the moment Barbara Stanwyck comes down the stairs in one of the most iconic entrances in film history you know you’re in for one of the greatest noirs ever made. If you skip every other film on this list, do not skip this one.
Despite my gripes with the end of this film I’m not sure that any modern piece of cinema has truly been able to do what L.A. Confidential did. The movie was literally a film noir made long after the era of noir film, which some would argue is actually not possible. While other films from the past two decades may be influenced by noir or be neo-noirs L.A. Confidential is somehow a full on noir made decades after the genre’s hey day. To truly appreciate this, you have to realize that noir wasn’t even a genre until after the French noticed the trend in American cinema once WWII ended, meaning that noir wasn’t simply a conscious decision for a director to say he wanted to make, but actually a piece of the time period as well. L.A. Confidential is in some ways the most successful form of time travel ever created.
If L.A. Confidential is the modern movie that somehow captured the essence of noir, then Chinatown is the (relatively) modern movie that defined the genre. Because of noir’s unique position of becoming a genre after its “height” there was (and still is) a lot of trouble defining what the hell a noir movie is. That’s when you turn to Chinatown. If Jack Nicholson’s performance isn’t enough to convince you of what a noir detective is and Polanki’s direction isn’t enough to tell you how a noir should be filmed, then there’s no hope for you to ever understand the genre. Unsurprisingly the final words of this film are actually all that need to be said about Chinatown: “It’s Chinatown.”
The Maltese Falcon
Even if you haven’t seen The Maltese Falcon in years — hell, even if you’ve never seen it — the chances are some scene from it is etched permanently into your mind. That’s because almost no noir film out there is as visually striking or memorable as this one. From Bogart to the great Peter Lorre, everything about this film pops and pops like only a noir film can. The dark shadows, classic narration and plain old badassness are all easy indicators of why whenever the word noir comes up, the words Maltese and falcon are sure to follow. There may be other films that people will praise over this one, but there’s a reason The Maltese Falcon is the one everyone always talks about: it’s completely unforgettable.
Alphaville combines a dystopian science fiction storyline with noir visual tendencies. Although set believably in the future and on a distant planet, there are no special effects or elaborate sets; instead, the film was shot in real locations in Paris. Eddie Constantine plays Lemmy Caution, a trenchcoat-wearing secret agent who is on a mission to kill the inventor of a fascist, omniscient, omnipotent computer: Alpha 60. In Alphaville, director Jean-Luc Godard takes Caution from his usual twentieth century setting, and places him in the technocratic dictatorship of Alphaville. Anna Karina plays Natasha Von Braun a programmer of Alpha 60 and Caution’s love interest. Alphaville is a bit more out-there than some of the other films on our list, but it employs all the tropes of noir, was created by some of the most iconic names of the noir scene, and really pushes it all into farther and different directions than your typical crime-noir film. Despite being lesser known than most other noir movies, Alphaville is totally worth the effort.
Otto Preminger’s delicate, tense Laura (1944) is an impeccable example of the noir genre. Dana Andrews plays Detective Mark McPherson, an agent assigned to investigate the brutal murder of a beautiful young woman. From there, it gets nuts. Memorable performances by the three stars (Clifton Webb in particular) elevate this film to new heights, and its shocking first act break will stay with you always. Impeccable music and deep, unsettling silence are rarely used so dexterously (think No Country), and each scene plays out like the most dramatic scene in the film. If you like noir, you can’t afford to miss this one.
Blade Runner, what some would call Ridley Scott’s crowning achievement, has one of the strongest meldings of science fiction and film noir trappings you can find in a film. It’s very much a noir movie at heart, combining all the greatest elements of noir filmmaking into an incredibly creative, universally relevant science fiction movie. It’s never about Deckard killing robots and solving their mystery. It’s about why Deckard finds himself going down the path of violence again and again and the toll that takes. Blade Runner is one of the best examples of neo-noir you can find, and one of the best movies you can watch
They said color film would hurt the appreciation of noir. Brick is a great modern example that breaks a lot of rules but shows the genre is stronger than once thought. It’s not about a different time era, it only uses noir lighting in moderation and in modern ways, and it takes place in a high school. For many people, it was great enough to put Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the map of names to remember long before the likes of Inception. While The Assassination of a High School President is more complex, it’s not nearly as emotional and serious in the way that all noir films should be. To date it’s still one of my favorite Sundance Films — possibly second only to SLC Punk! — and its memorable characters and dialogue are something everyone would enjoy regardless of what genres they prefer.
Key Largo is on this list for two reasons. The first is because any list of the best noir films needs Humphry Bogart on it twice. The second is because it is absolutely one of the best noirs ever made. Somehow, the film turns the tropical location of Key Largo into a dark typhoon of tension. This might also be one of Bogart’s finest performances, as it shows a restrained warrior, someone who knows when violence isn’t the wisest option. Also, Lauren Bacall might be the most beautiful femme fatale ever.