I've seen a lot of classic film-noir movies over the years, and since so many are available on DVD these days, Im enjoying them more often. My choice of films doesnt necessarily reflect the popular wisdom on film-noir classics; instead, this is my personal, idiosyncratic list of favorites from the 1940s and 1950s.
1. "Double Indemnity" (1944)
Stylish direction, an excellent script, and memorable performances combine in this film to create a masterpiece of film noir. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) falls in lust with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), an unhappily married femme fatale. Soon Neff is enmeshed in a scam involving murder and an insurance policy paying double for accidental death.
2. "Maltese Falcon" (1941)In this superb example of early film noir, Humphrey Bogart is perfectly cast as Sam Spade, the quintessential hard-boiled detective. After his partner is killed, a beautiful femme fatale lures Spade into a web of deceit spun by ruthless characters searching for a valuable falcon statuette. I love this films dialogue, which crackles with the cynical wit of Hammetts novel.
3. "The Third Man" (1949)
I've seen "The Third Man" many times over the years, but I doubt that Ill ever tire of this unusual film noir. In this movie, story (Graham Greene), direction (Carol Reed), performances, cinematography, and music all come together to create an unforgettable film. Orson Welles is stunning as Harry Lime, one of the most deliciously memorable villains in all of film history.
4. "Sunset Boulevard" (1950)
I think that "Sunset Boulevard" is a complex film noir that goes beyond the genre's usual archetypes, and it has the bite of a tragedy about human frailties. Told in flashback, this movie tells the tale of a down-on-his-luck hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), who happens to knock on the door of the mansion of silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).
5. "The Big Sleep" (1946)This evocative, enigmatic film noir, adapted from Raymond Chandler's novel, is filled with sharp dialogue. Hard-boiled private investigator Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by a man who is being blackmailed. As Marlowe unravels an intricate web of murder and deception, he falls for his client's sultry daughter (Lauren Bacall).
6. "Laura" (1944)
In this stylish film-noir classic, a detective (Dana Andrews) becomes obsessed by an oil portrait of an enthrallingly beautiful murdered woman, falling in love with the dead victim as he attempts to unravel the mystery that led to her death. This film has many memorable characters, but my favorite is the poisonously cynical newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb).
7. "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957) In this superb film-noir tale of naked ambition and the corrupting influence of power, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a sycophantic press agent whose economic survival depends on keeping his clients names in the columns of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Im always impressed by this movies superb cinematography, sharp dialogue, and memorable performances.
8. "Scarlet Street" (1945)Edward G. Robinson plays a lonely, love-starved cashier and amateur painter who lets a gorgeous young woman believe that he is a wealthy artist. But she cruelly uses him, pretending that she created his paintings. Things go tragically awry when he discovers her with her con-man lover. Fritz Langs sharp direction and Robinsons moving performance make for a hard-hitting film noir.
9. "Mildred Pierce" (1945)I like the way that melodrama, film noir, and a memorable character come together in this movie. Told in flashback, after Mildred's second husband is murdered, the events leading to his death unfold. Mildred rises from waitress to restaurant-chain owner, only to have her daughter's selfishness create heartbreak. Joan Crawford won an Oscar for her performance in the title role.
10. "The Lady From Shanghai" (1948)In this evocative film noir, sailor Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) is lured into a scam by a beautiful woman (Rita Hayworth) and her lawyer husband. But nothing is what is seems, and O'Hara soon finds himself on trial for murder. One Wellesian touch that I find stunning is the sequence set in a fun-house hall of mirrors. To my mind, it is among the most dazzling on film.