Dripping with atmosphere, suspense, and glamour, the film noir turns mystery into art. The genre was popularized in the 1940s and 50s, and still reverberates through Hollywood today. Typically featuring brooding heroes, dangerous femme fatales, and a cynical outlook, the subgenre has produced some absolute masterpieces. To avoid overloading with recommendations, I’m separating classic and neo noir, as recent decades have also provided some very worthy entries.
The Third Man tells the story of Holly (Joseph Cotton), an American expat newly arrived in post-war Vienna to work for his friend, Harry Lime, only to learn he recently died under suspicious circumstances. Holly, with the help of Lime’s lover Anna (Alida Valli), look into his death, only to face more mysteries surrounding the enigmatic man. When the central plot begins to drag at the last 30 minutes, a new character (played by Orson Welles) winks his way onto the screen to inject new life into the excellent movie in one of the best character introductions put to film.
“All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up.” While William Holden was the protagonist of Billy Wilder’s Hollywood masterpiece Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond owns the movie.
The film tells the story of a failed Hollywood screenwriter (Holden) who stumbles upon the mansion of faded silent film star Norma Desmond, who clings to her former fame, her delusions of continued relevance aided by her butler and ex-husband. Sex, betrayal, and murder coalesce in a haunting tale of ambition and fame. Also worth exploring is the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name, with Glenn Close as Norma.
Compulsion upends the traditional noir format by focusing on the villains in a twisty psychological dive into the minds of killers based on Leopold and Loeb. Teenaged college graduates Judd (Dean Stockwell) and Artie (Bradford Dillman) murder to commit the perfect crime. The brash Artie serves as a rare male version of the femme fatale, seducing Judd into the crime.
Like in Third Man, Welles makes an appearance for the final 30 minutes, but this time, rather than improving the movie, his inclusion becomes so tonally imbalanced it would be better to end right before his entrance as the boys’ lawyer. Alfred Hitchcock made his own take on the Leopold and Loeb story, in the one-take masterpiece Rope, which, while not a film noir, is an masterclass of suspense and tension.