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7 Film Noir Classics

Dark Themes, Fall Guys and Femme Fatales


Film noir (literally, “black film”), may bear a French name, but there’s no argument that the great film noir classics came out of the United States immediately after World War II and into the Cold War. Marked by dark themes of crime and betrayal, featuring hard-boiled dialog among femme fatales and fall guys and shot in foreboding shadows, film noir is among the most durable of classic movie styles.  Here are seven classics that exemplify film noir.

1. The Maltese Falcon - 1941

The Maltese Falcon
Warner Brothers

Many film buffs consider John Huston’s Maltese Falcon to be the first fully realized film noir, with Humphrey Bogart as cynical private eye Sam Spade and Mary Astor as the scheming femme fatale who’ll do anything - anything, people - to get her hands on a fabled treasure. The complex plot, doomed characters and stylishly seedy settings set a standard that was much imitated in the film noir that followed.

2. The Big Sleep - 1946

The Big Sleep
Warner Brothers

Phillip Marlowe is the hard-boiled detective in this twisted story of murder, drugs sex and depravity set in the City of Angels. The Big Sleep showcases real life-couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s smokin‘ chemistry, and allows Bogart to show his acting chops as the morally ambiguous private dick, tracking down the truth. Pay attention - the maze-like plot from Raymond Chandler’s book can be hard to follow.

3. Double Indemnity - 1944

Double Indemnity

This time the fall guy is an insurance investigator: Fred MacMurray in his darkest role. He’s drawn into a plot by ice-blonde femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck to off her hubby in an “accident” and run off with the cash from the life insurance. Hell, these two don’t even seem to like each other -- but they’re pulled helplessly together in a downward spiral of greed and lust. Good stuff.  Directed by Billy Wilder, Edward G. Robinson plays against type as Fred’s upstanding boss.     

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4. The Third Man - 1949

The Third Man
London Film Productions

Here’s a British entry into the genre, but starring Americans Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. Just after WWII in Vienna, luckless pulp western author Holly Martins (Cotten) comes to take a job with his old friend Harry Lime (Welles), only to discover that he’s just been killed in an accident. Holly decides to investigate, falls in love with Harry’s girl and uncovers some unsavory facts about his friend and the black market. From Graham Greene’s novel, The Third Man has dazzling cinematography and a score played on a zither (really) that became an international hit

5. DOA - 1950

United Artists

Accountant Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) stumbles into a police station to report a murder - his own.  Now, that’s just cool. Turns out he’s been poisoned with a “luminous toxin” (cool again) and has a week to find his own killer before he dies. Forget the regrettable 1988 remake with Dennis Quaid. DOA is a noir classic with a decidedly B-movie feel.

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6. Sunset Boulevard - 1950

Sunset Boulevard

Hollywood turns the black light on itself in Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s brilliant, biting look at a faded star going mad in her decaying mansion. No question of a happy ending here -- William Holden, failed screen writer and doomed gigolo, starts the movie face down in her swimming pool, already dead. It only gets worse in the flashbacks. With Gloria Swanson, an aging silent movie goddess, indelibly playing aging film goddess Norma Desmond. Don’t miss Erich von Stroheim as the butler.

7. Touch of Evil - 1958

Touch of Evil
Universal International

Viewed by some as the last made-in-America film noir classic, Touch of Evil is the bizarre tale of a Mexican narc with integrity (Charlton Heston in brown-face) battling a corrupt American police captain (a truly sleazy Orson Welles, who also directed).  Meanwhile, the narc’s wife (Janet Leigh) is brutalized in a hotel room.  Ugh. I vacillate between thinking it’s genius and just plain weird.

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