25 Greatest Film Noirs

The dark side of the silver screen...

DOA (1950)

The Noir
There’s a lot of debate about what makes a proper film noir (for the record, this list excludes any of the ‘neo-noirs’ like Blood Simple, Chinatown, Blade Runner and Se7en that would otherwise have made the cut), but there’s no question about Rudolph Maté’s classic. “I want to report a murder…” says Edmond O’Brien, staggering into a police station, “mine!” – with just a few hours to work out who poisoned him before he drops dead. Later remade into a rubbish Dennis Quaid/Meg Ryan movie (and sort of adapted for the Jason Statham actioner, Crank ...).

Coolest Moment
The opening was (and still is) pretty original – with O’Brien wobbling down a hallway during the credits before setting up the whole premise in one line. Every film noir protagonist is doomed to die, but not many of them are dead before the film even begins…

They Drive By Night (1940)

The Noir
Humphrey Bogart and George Raft are a couple of truck drivers in a film of two halves; the first, a low-key portrait of working life on the road; and the second, a seedy melodrama about crimes of passion.

Coolest Moment
Even the sexy cool of Ida Lupino’s bored seductress can’t top the down’n’dirty realism of the first 45 minutes – just Raft, Bogey and a truck.

The Naked City (1948)

The Noir
Jules Dassin shoots docu-style on the mean streets of New York – following a police investigation into the murder of a young model – to bring a slice of European neo-realism to the American market. The End Of Watch of its day.

Coolest Moment
The classic ending (the murderer climbs to the top of a building, trades a few bullets and falls to his death) and the classic line – “there are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them”.

Strangers On A Train (1951)

The Noir
What’s the best way of committing a murder? If you really want to know, just ask Alfred Hitchcock – adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel and answering that very question. The answer? Get someone else to do it for you – ‘swapping’ victims with another would-be murderer and doing each other’s dirty work. (Just like Horrible Bosses …)

Coolest Moment
Guy (Farley Granger) knows that he’s being stalked when he watches the crowd at a tennis match – every head turning left and right, following the ball, except for one… A classic Hitchcock set-piece.

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

The Noir
Less a film than a documentary about Orson Welles’ life at the time, obsessed with broken identities, Mexico and his wife, Rita Hayworth – here playing one point of a love triangle that somehow also involves a murder (legend has it that studio boss Harry Cohen offered a reward to anyone who could explain the plot…).

Coolest Moment
In one of Noir’s finest finales, Welles, Hayworth and Everett Sloane find themselves in a hall of mirrors – spectacular staged with Welles’ typical eye for artistry.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The Noir
The third of seven adaptations of James M Cain’s hard-boiled novella is the best – with John Garfield as the drifter who gets roped into killing his girlfriend’s (Lana Turner) husband.


Coolest Moment
Later adaps (particularly the Jack Nicholson/Jessica Lange remake) would go heavy on the raunchiness, but Tay Garnett’s original is still the sexiest – dripping lust during Frank and Cora’s first encounter.

The Big Heat (1953)

The Noir
The suicide of a bent cop kick-starts a grimy, brutal trawl through the corrupt corridors of power for the one honest detective left on the force (Glenn Ford). Fritz Lang (the German director of such Noir-influencing classics as Metropolis and M ) directs a searingly violent film that shows the Americans aping his style how it’s really done.


Coolest Moment
The opening scene is a master class in dialogue free exposition – A shot of a gun on a desk... A hand picks it up… An off-screen gunshot… dolly back to reveal a man slumped over his own police badge. Perfect.

Pickup On South Street (1953)

The Noir
A pickpocket (Richard Widmark) accidentally steals a wallet containing a top-secret government microfilm – landing himself right in the middle of an underground spy-ring.


Coolest Moment
Thelma Ritter’s stoolie Moe almost steals the show (until she gets her head blown off), but Sam Fuller’s dialogue is the real star – take Skip’s (Widmark) chat up line after kissing Candy (Jean Peters) for the first time: “sometimes when you look for oil, you hit a gusher…”

Criss Cross (1949)

The Noir
Steven Soderbergh remade Criss Cross as The Underneath in 1995 but the Richard Siodmak original is still the best – with Burt Lancaster as a man caught up in the web of his femme fatal ex-wife (Yvonne De Carlo). She tricks him into having an affair, just as he tricks her new mobster boyfriend into a set-up armed robbery. Everyone is a horrible person… it doesn’t get much better.


Coolest Moment
Spurned mobster Dan Duryea watches his gal dance with another man (a very young Tony Curtis, in his first role), pulling off one of cinema’s most menacing looks.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

The Noir
Marilyn Monroe’s first proper role was a moll in John Huston’s blistering heist movie – just six crooks sitting around planning a jewel robbery, not realising that they’re being double-crossed (or upstaged by the blonde in the background…)


Coolest Moment
There’s a lot to love in Huston’s smoky, underground classic – but it’s hard to take your eyes off Monroe in her first scene: opening the door to her career (and finding Barry Kelley’s hard-boiled detective on the other side).