We’re deep in the muddy heart of Noirvember, so you should already be brooding over a swirling snifter of bourbon and gritting your teeth through life’s mountain of regrets with a pile of dirty cigarettes at your feet, knowing but not caring that your failures will eventually overwhelm you.
But if you haven’t started celebrating yet, it’s time to get in the game with a few movies that will ease you into the pit of despair.
Despite usually focusing on detectives and dead bodies, a movie really only needs a pessimistic sense of despair to earn the “Film Noir” label. Doom has to hang over the characters’ heads and, almost always, come crashing down on them. Time to grab your umbrella.
The Third Man (1949)
Not just one of the finest films noir ever made, one of the finest films of any genre ever made, The Third Man is a stunningly gorgeous danger trip through Allied-controlled Vienna. The sardonic writer Graham Greene and director Sir Carol Reed absolutely nail this one to the floor. Joseph Cotten plays an American pulp western author visiting the Austrian capitol at the invitation of his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to find that Lime has recently been struck by a car and killed. From that launch pad, the movie refuses to go where you think it will, and it turns everything on the screen — from Ferris wheels to mobs to medicine — into a weapon.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
No other movie uses characters riding off into the sunset as a middle finger like L.A. Confidential does. This modern noir classic (which inexplicably didn’t win Best Picture) is a masterwork of bruised egos, deadly alliances, and a plot thicker than concrete shoes. In true genre fashion, Detective Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) and Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe) start with a small investigation that spirals further and further out until it encompasses their personal lives as well as everything between the city limit signs. The kicker is that writer/director Curtis Hanson and co-writer Brian Helgeland build on the tropes to give us rich, intricate characters inside the revenge-fueled, communication-lacking madness.
One of the best gateway drugs, Otto Preminger’s shotgun blast of a detective story features a cop who falls in love with the woman whose murder he’s trying to solve. Then again, everyone falls in love with Laura. This film is largely about the danger of obsession and the illusion of desperate power that can lead someone to destroy someone they love so that no one else can have her. Nevermind that she’s her own woman. Dana Andrews is sure-footed as Detective McPherson, Gene Tierney is absolutely magnetic in flashbacks as Laura Hunt, and the entire story is rendered with the moody assurance of a mystery waiting for its biggest clue to drop.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
A fascist dirtbag cop, a trench coated woman running for her life down a highway, and a briefcase that could destroy the whole world — Kiss Me Deadly is an angry little movie. This ever-twisting plot is what must happen when you inhale asbestos for a decade and then finally exhale. Coming at the end of the first, post-War boom of film noir, you could argue that everything was ratcheted up to 11 in order to inject new life into the diminishing popularity of the genre, but you’ve gotta hand it to this incarnation of Mickey Spillane’s classic Mike Hammer character for embodying the abject fear and fatalism of the entire Cold War era. If you really want to watch the world burn, find a copy with the original ending.
Le Samourai (1967)
Drive, The American, Ghost Dog and even Se7en have borrowed more than a bit from Jean-Pierre Melville’s monastic assassin story. Frequent collaborator Alain Delon plays Jef Costello, a contract killer with soul-scorching eyes who is caught between a witness to his crime and a double-crossing employer. More than most, Le Samourai has a musical rhythm about it, the repetition of its sequences lining up almost like a poem’s rhyme scheme. It matches its methodical main character and the jazz pouring out of the nightclub he keeps going back to. More than simple loneliness, this meditation on living by the sword reflects the steely bliss of dying by it.
Rian Johnson is now living in a galaxy far, far away, but once upon a time he was cramming classic hardboiled situations into the modern mouths of high school students. A beloved cult film from almost the first minute it emerged from Sundance, Brick proved that you could update a dusty wardrobe without getting too cheeky about it — Johnson imbues a great love of genre into a sunny, dingy, California suburb, playing off the novelty of young people acting like tough adults without ever flinching toward cuteness. The tale of Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) digging for the truth of a stolen brick of heroin takes its ancestors seriously and relishes playing its role as Veronica Mars‘ evil twin.
More difficult to watch by the day, this remake of a movie based on a Patrick Hamilton play features a woman (Ingrid Bergman) driven mad by her husband’s (Charles Boyer) insistence that she can’t trust her own eyes or mind. From the attic where they’ve stored her murdered aunt’s belongings, Bergman’s character hears footsteps, watches the gaslights dim and brighten, and personal belongings seem to go missing, but her husband continually questions her version of the odd occurrences until she’s not quite sure what’s going on. Big surprise: what’s actually going on is heinous.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Denzel Washington is rough and ready in this swampy slog through the Los Angeles underworld of 1948. Largely following the template for despairing mysteries, the Carl Franklin-directed film turns convention on its head by concerning itself more with people’s motives than a spotlit reveal of the answers. Devil in a Blue Dress bakes racial tensions and biases — both overt and invisible — into its characters’ motivations, leaving any sense of fairness and justice at the lobby door. The performances are mostly knockouts (especially Don Cheadle’s scene-slaying Mouse), and it echoes the enduring skin-deep ethical problems from 70 years and just a few minutes ago.
Required viewing and the pinnacle of the neo-noir movement, Roman Polanski’s exploration of exploitation and greed embodies the Leonard Cohen lyrics from Everybody Knows that everybody’s been sharing since his death: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed / Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.” In the film, private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a fundamentally bad guy with a good heart, driven by his disbelief in what everybody already knows.
Touch of Evil (1958)
Out to prove that darkness doesn’t only live in the big city, Touch of Evil opens with a bang when a car bomb kills two people in a U.S.-Mexico border town. With a cast boasting Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, and Marlene Dietrich, this is writer/director Orson Welles at his meanest. Welles also co-stars as a cholesterol-laden detective charged with solving the murder even as drug enforcement cop Miguel Vargas (Heston) is investigating him. It’s a brutal, exquisitely shot movie that should make you want to take a shower after watching it.
Think this list is too short? You’re right. The good news is that there’s insanely long list of great noir films to dig into. Which are your favorites?
Images: London Films, 20th Century Fox, United Artists, Warner Bros., S.N. Prodis, Focus Features, MGM, TriStar Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures