Noirvember – Top Five Film Noirs

Posted: November 29, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in Lists

A lot of film people consider this month “Noirvember”, and use the occasion to celebrate and watch Film Noir. I’m no noir expert, but I certainly have some favourites and that seemed like a perfect way to close out “Noirvember”. I should note that the rankings here are not just based on what films are better or worse, but rather, for the ways in which they embody what it means to be a Film Noir. Also, for the purposes of this list, I’m only considering classic noirs. Modern, neo, or revisionist noirs like Chinatown, Blade Runner, or Sin City don’t count.

5. Touch of Evil

touch-of-evil

Much of noir is dedicated to creating a world which feels bleak and hopeless. I can’t think of any noir that nails this quite like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. This isn’t just a world without hope, it’s a full on nightmare where seemingly every goodness in the world is compromised. The film pushes the twisted angles and dark shadows of noir to the extreme and the characters are often bitter and hateful. This is most emphasized in Welles’ Police Captain Quiplan, a hardened bastard who has been made bitter after years of living in a dangerous place. That might sound like clichéd material, but Welles presents the material in such a way that it feels fresh while also being very personal in a sense.

4. Sunset Boulevardsunset-boulevard-movie-poster-1950-1020142705

Sunset Boulevard is interesting in the way it totally embraces certain noir aspects while also not feeling like a traditional noir. The film has the witty narration, stylized visuals, cynical worldview, a weak man, and a femme fatale. There’s are all checks in the Film Noir playbook but the particulars of the story turn Sunset Boulevard into something else. The fact that the film is an exploration of Hollywood culture and is something of a meta work, but more than anything it’s the Norma Desmond character that really shakes things up. She certainly is a dangerous woman, but she’s a lot more theatrical and grandiose than comparative femme fatales in the genre. She’s a fascinating villain, both hilarious and also highly threatening. All told, the film is maybe a bit too off-beat from the typical noirs to be considered the ultimate example of the genre, but the film is a masterpiece all the same and has enough noir elements to be among the genre’s best.

3. The Maltese Falconmaltese-falcon

Is The Maltese Falcon the granddaddy of Film Noir? Possibly. I’m sure an argument could be made for some earlier films (there were even other adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s novel) bot for all intents and purposes this is the beginning of Film Noir. Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is the ultimate Noir protagonist; a hard-boiled detective with a cynical edge who none the less tries to seek justice. It’s the role that made Bogart a star and while I’d argue he’d go on to better performances, this is probably the one he’ll be remembered for. The supporting cast is also great. Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr., and the always awesome Peter Lorre make for a really strong collection of characters. The plot presents a fun mystery full of intrigue and implausible twists which builds to an appropriate ending. The film inhabits a world of deviance and betrayal which would set the tone for noirs moving forward.

2. The Third Manthe-third-man

Part of what makes The Third Man such an amazing work is it applies the cynicism of noir to greater world issues. Made shortly after World War Two, The Third Man depicts a war torn Vienna and the people who carry the horrors of war in their minds. The fact that the hero Holly is an American writer of pulp westerns who can’t wrap his head around more complex moralities is a stroke of genius and the relationships between Holly, the villain Harry Lime, and Line’s girlfriend Anna are extremely interesting. Lime in particular is an amazing character and Orson Welles gives one of his best performances. The film is perhaps most famous for Carol Reed’s amazing visuals. Not only is war torn Vienna an extremely rich visual, but Reed further emphasizes this through his use of Dutch angles and masterful use of lighting. These elements are indeed awesome and are classic noir, but it’s the films complex moralities that are what truly propel The Third Man to masterpiece status.

1. Double Indemnitydouble_indemnity

Double Indemnity is probably not the best film on this list (that spot is probably reserved for either The Third Man or Sunset Boulevard), but in the realm of Film Noir, this is perfect. You’ve got themes of adultery, a murder scheme, a weak man, stylized lighting, snappy dialogue, and perhaps the greatest femme fatale of all time. Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is a great character and Stanwyck plays the part perfectly. Also of note is Edward G. Robinson who has a great supporting performance and almost steals the show. The film is also an excellent exploration of flawed human beings. Much of the film deals with the planning of a murder, but it is the messy aftermath that is perhaps most interesting. It is here where the characters’ facades start to slip away and we see them for what they really are. The film culminates on amazingly dark note which is the perfect conclusion for this kind of story.

Comments
  1. Andrea S. Myllymaki says:

    Excellent choices, but I have to say, I was nuts about Sunset Blvd. I went out and bought a copy, at the same time, I bought Sling Blade, both very good movies.

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