To celebrate the start of “Noirvember”, yours truly wanted to take some time to spotlight some of my personal favorites in the film noir movement. That’s right! It’s time for a listicle! Read on, fair and gentle readers.
For those who might not be familiar, the initial wave of film noir spanned roughly twenty years surrounding and immediately following World War II in movie industries not only in Hollywood, but around the world. Some notable (and legendary!) greatest hits of the movement are: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indeminity (1944), The Big Sleep (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958).
Film noir holds a place near and dear to my little old heart. I fell head over heels into the movies in high school when I discovered Richard Widmark and watched Kiss of Death (1947)– I know… a little weird. Anywhoo, my fascination continued well into my college days, and I still revel in the opportunity to find some good first time watches among the rich and varied film noir cannon.
That being said, I’ve found it is virtually impossible for me to narrow my favorites down to five, and I guarantee these have changed a bit over time. Some of these movies might not be the deepest cuts, but in a movement which spanned almost two decades in Hollywood history, there’s plenty of room for continued exploration.
5.) PHANTOM LADY (1944)
Phantom Lady is one of the later entries in my film noir pantheon. I only learned about the movie a few years ago while I was engaged in a particularly deep dive into the work of Franchot Tone. And that being said, it is probably one of the deeper cuts on this list. Though, if you’ve ever poked through any writing on film noir, you’ve undoubtedly seen screenshots. Phantom Lady is directed by the legendary Robert Siodmak and the cinematography by Elwood Bredell gels perfectly, crafting a truly stunning feature. It’s an absolute marvel. I mean, just look at some of these shots…
Phantom Lady is a work of art.
Meanwhile, Phantom Lady distinguishes itself from other works in the movement in its subversion of the standard gender norms common to not only film noir, but also the World War II era. Phantom Lady is a relatively rare example of a noir building a woman not as the femme fatale, or even the well-meaning girlfriend, but the main character. Actress Ella Raines shines in the role and gives a sharp, intelligent performance, making it all the more painful that this movie isn’t more well-known.
Phantom Lady is available to rent through a variety of streaming sources.
4.) MURDER MY SWEET (1944)
There’s an age old film noir question: who is your Philip Marlow? Humphrey Bogart? Is it Robert Montgomery? Perhaps even Elliot Gould? Now, I understand all these answers; however, I’ve always sided with a more unconventional dog in this fight. That’s right, Dick Powell in the 1944 feature, Murder My Sweet.
The lone wolf is a fascinating character archetype in film noir, and is deeply reminiscent of the cultural changes happening in the United States during the post-World War II era. The war forced the traditional gender roles of the period into a prolonged shift. For so many men, the trauma of fighting, compiled with widespread changes on the home front, resulted in a perceived sense of wounded and aimless masculinity throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
Dick Powell made a name for himself in the early 1930s as the crooning juvenile in popular the Busby Berkley musicals of the era like Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade. However, by the 1940s these musicals were seen as passe, leaving Powell floundering to redefine his own image. Murder My Sweet came at just the right time for the actor. Powell’s performance is so raw and gritty, with just the perfect mix of disillusionment as he grapples with the his place in this new and changing environment. All at once, he feels like the very personification of the changes happening to men during this tumultuous time in history.
Murder My Sweet is available as a rental through a variety of streaming sites.
3.) NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950)
I would be a complete and utter failure to high school me if I didn’t present a Richard Widmark movie on this list. The actor made his screen debut in film noir (in 1947s Kiss of Death, to be exact), and it is most certainly the genre with which his forty year career is most associated.
Coming in 1950, Night and the City rests solidly in the initial wave of the movement, as the film noir form evolving slightly at the start of the new decade. Things were even darker and rougher as storytellers began expanding beyond the private eye stories of the 1940s. The Jo Eisinger penned script stands even farther apart from the other features of the era in its sophisticated and gritty examination of the underground wrestling scene in post-war London.
At the same time, the film comes from director Jules Dassin, an absolute titan of noir, but a man whose career was far shorter than it should have been. The movie was actually Dassin’s last in Hollywood before his blacklisting by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dassin wouldn’t direct again until 1955 after relocating to Europe.
All in all, there is so much to like in Night and the City, from its talented cast to the brilliance behind the camera. It is a slightly deeper cut, but it is definitely worth checking out for fans of classic Hollywood.
At present, Night and the City is only available through YouTube and on DVD.
2.) SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)
Truth be told, I found my way to Sweet Smell of Success thanks to Martin Milner. My love for the actor knows no bounds– and yes, there will be lots more content spotlighting his varied career, coming soon.
For some, Sweet Smell of Success is a bit of a deeper cut. However, the Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis starring vehicle is a must-see for classic film fans, particularly fans of film noir. Both legendary actors are elevated by a screenplay penned by the legendary Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. The script’s examination of the night club scene in New York is a searing and biting character examination. When you combine it with the performances from these brilliant leads, this movie is hard to top.
Meanwhile, Sweet Smell of Success comes from director Alexander Mackendrick. While his filmography only boasts twelve feature films, the others are equally memorable: The Ladykillers, Don’t Make Waves and The Man in the White Suit. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Mackendrick is one of the greatest directors you might not have heard about.
Sweet Smell of Success is available through a variety of streaming sites as a rental.
1.) GILDA (1946)
Gilda continues to hold this top spot for me for oh-so-many reasons. While I was well-aware of the legendary movie (and the equally iconic Rita Hayworth performance), I didn’t actually watch it until college.
Gilda is a complex character examination largely remembered in popular culture thanks to Rita Hayworth’s complex take on the titualr character.
In fact, more than 70 years since the movie first came to screens, as a character, Gilda is still remembered largely as a sultry, seductive femme fatale. In reality, the Marion Parsonnet script builds Gilda not as a femme fatale; instead, in every sense of the word, she is the film’s lead. This is Gilda’s world and Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is just living in it. Just watch it. Is it a stretch to instead call Johnny the homme fatale?
In the more than half-century which has passed since Gilda hit marquees, the movie has rightly established itself as one of the most popular works of the movement, and is truly a gem of this iconic era in filmmaking. Make sure you add it to your list this “Noirvember”.
Gilda is available through a number of streaming sites to rent, as well as on physical media.
Well, that wraps up fangirling about my favorite works of film noir. We’ll be in Noirvember for another three weeks, so look for more content from me examining the names and faces of this landmark period in Hollywood. There’s so much to look at and examine, I can’t wait!
What are some of your favorite works of film noir? Shout them out to us in the comments!
Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!