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The 25 Best Film Noirs Every Classic Movie Fan Needs to See

These tales of private detectives, femme fatales, and murder plots have stood the test of time.

Coined by the French film critic Nino Frank in 1946, the term "film noir" refers to a contemporary wave of Hollywood films that shared similar themes and story beats: criminals, world-weary detectives, dangerous women, and lives undone by crime. While critics are divided on whether film noir constitutes a genre in and of itself or simply refers to a collection of narrative and filmmaking tropes, its influence stretches far beyond classic Hollywood to encompass world cinema and contemporary filmmakers alike—as evidenced by this decades-spanning list of 25 of the best film noirs every film fan should watch. Read on to learn more, but keep in mind that some of the trailers below include adult content!

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The 25 Best Classic Film Noirs in Movie History

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

It's hard to pinpoint the very first film noir, but 1941's The Maltese Falcon was one of the first major films to embody all of the features that would come to exemplify the genre: a jaded detective in Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade, a dangerous femme fatale (Mary Astor), a sniveling villain (Peter Lorre), and a labyrinthian plot built around a classic "MacGuffin" (in this case, the titular statue).

Double Indemnity (1944)

With direction from Billy Wilder and a screenplay co-written by Wilder and crime novelist Raymond Chandler, this story of a crooked insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) who teams with a scheming temptress (Barbara Stanwyck) to bump off her husband and collect the payout is said to have set the standard for all film noirs to follow.

Laura (1944)

Notable for its clever plotting and a huge mid-film twist, Laura is one of the most celebrated of all film noirs, telling the story of an ambitious ad executive's (Gene Tierney) murder through the conflicting stories of her friends and lovers, as well as through the eyes of the police detective who finds himself falling for the dead woman. It was nominated for five Oscars, including for Otto Preminger's direction.

The Big Sleep (1946)

The first mystery to pair future married couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, The Big Sleep is also notable for its famously convoluted screenplay, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. Penned by Leigh Brackett (who would later work on The Empire Strikes Back), Jules Furthman, and no less august a personage than novelist William Faulkner, it includes a plot hole that not even Chandler himself could explain away.

Gilda (1946)

When originally released, this thriller about a small-time crook who discovers his new boss's wife is his former lover earned mixed reviews and was recognized mostly as a means to sell its sexy star, Rita Hayworth. However, in the years since, it has been reappraised for making Hayworth's femme fatale a far more complex character than the dangerous women in many other examples of the form.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The third adaptation of James M. Cain's novel—which would be adapted several more times over the years, including in 1981 with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange—is the one for the ages. Lana Turner plays Cora Smith, who falls in love with Frank (John Garfield), a wanderer who passes through the diner owned by her small-minded husband. Cora and Frank plot to kill the husband so she can inherit the diner, but things, of course, go spectacularly wrong.

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past perfectly captures a noir staple: the idea that you can never outrun your bad deeds. Robert Mitchum stars as an anonymous gas station owner who must reckon with his past as a corrupt big city private eye after he is recognized by a criminal passing through town and pulled back into the criminal world. In addition to praising its screenplay and cast, film critic Roger Ebert lauded the smoky, shadowy cinematography, calling the film "the greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all time."

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, this Alfred Hitchcock classic has a killer setup—literally: The titular strangers, the sadistic Bruno (Robert Walker) and the timid Guy (Farley Granger) encounter one another on a train, and Bruno concocts a plan to trade killings: Bruno will murder Guy's cheating wife, and Guy will kill Bruno's father. Guy refuses, but when Bruno tries to carry out the plan anyway, he must act quickly to avoid being implicated himself. It's a classic "wrong man" plot, and Hitchcock keeps the suspense on track for the entire trip.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Bringing the sensibilities of noir to a less overtly criminal setting, this under-seen Billy Wilder gem focuses on disgraced newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), who is eager to recapture his former glory, whatever it takes. When he lucks into a sensational story about a man trapped in a collapsed cave, Tatum schemes with the man's estranged wife to use it to catapult himself back into the big leagues. Shot through with cynicism about the mass media and the allure of fame, you might call it a newspaper noir.

The Third Man (1949)

Joseph Cotten plays Holly Martins, an American crime novelist who moves to Vienna to take a job with an old friend, only to learn the man has died. Martins decides to stay in the country to investigate, and winds up falling into a complex affair involving stolen medicine, a clever con man, and early Cold War-era politics. Without spoiling anything, director Carol Reed gives Orson Welles the best entrance of his career.

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Killer's Kiss (1955)

While in many ways a pretty typical noir, this story of a down-on-his-luck boxer who becomes embroiled in the affairs of his dancer neighbor who is being abused by her cruel boss is worth catching for at least one reason: It's an early effort from Stanley Kubrick, who wasn't yet 30 when he co-wrote and directed it. He is credited with bringing naturalism and verisimilitude to the genre story, in contrast with his exacting, artfully constructed work on later films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

This grim thriller, featuring crime novelist Mickey Spillane's anti-hero P.I. Mike Hammer, finds the gumshoe picking up the wrong hitchhiker and getting embroiled in a case involving murder, gangsters, a military conspiracy, and a mysterious sealed box that everyone wants. Shot through with paranoia and nihilism, the film has been recognized as an early example of Cold War-era unease, and is a favorite of director Quentin Tarantino, who drops a reference to it in Pulp Fiction in the form of a much sought-after glowing briefcase.

They Live by Night (1948)

Set in the Depression-era South, They Live by Night tells the tale of doomed young lovers Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell) who fall in love after he escapes from prison and robs a bank. The debut of future Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray, the film charts their love on the run and their inevitable downfall, as their dreams of a happy life together are crushed, in noir fashion, by the weight of their crimes.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

John Huston earned Oscar nominations for directing and co-writing this uncompromising crime drama focused on the planning, execution, and fallout of a jewel theft in an unnamed Midwestern city, a cross between a heist picture and a hard-bitten noir. It's got everything: charismatic ne'er-do-wells, sex, murder, desperation, double-crosses, and just desserts. Few films are as committed to illustrating the idea that crime doesn't pay.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Like Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, Sweet Smell of Success is a pitch-black satire about the dark side of the media and the corrupting power of influence. Burt Lancaster plays J.J. Hunsecker, a ruthless newspaper columnist who wields his words like a cudgel, and Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a scheming press agent who is willing to ingratiate himself to Hunsecker any way that he can if it will bring attention to his clients and himself—even if it means ruining lives (and breaking the law).

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Le Samouraï (1967)

French New Wave pioneer Jean-Pierre Melville directs this loose, experimental crime drama starring Alain Delon as a professional killer who finds he has become the target, and the police officer on his case. Dripping with style yet effortlessly chic, it retains a real edge in its exploration of the psyche of a criminal while trading on classic noir tropes.

High and Low (1963)

Adapting a police procedural by American novelist Ed McBain, Japanese film master Akira Kurosawa plays with familiar noir themes in his telling of the story of a business executive who goes into debt as part of a scheme to take control over the company he works for, but faces a test of his morality when an employee needs to borrow money to save the life of his kidnapped child. Spike Lee is currently planning a remake starring Denzel Washington.

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Directed by Robert Altman and based on a Raymond Chandler novel, The Long Goodbye provides a stylish and introspective take on the classic detective genre. Elliott Gould stars as the iconic Chandler gumshoe Philip Marlowe—transported to '70s Los Angeles—as he tries to help a friend in a pinch and ends up embroiled in a nightmare of murder, infidelity, and betrayal.

Chinatown (1974)

Modernizing the noir for the auteur filmmaking era of the '70s, Roman Polanski's acclaimed masterpiece stars Jack Nicholson as '30s private investigator Jake Gittes. After a woman (an alluring Faye Dunaway) hires him to investigate a routine case of adultery, he soon finds himself caught in a web of lies, corruption, and murder involving Los Angeles water rights worth millions. Its famous final line perfectly captures the genre's cynical streak.

Body Heat (1981)

A conscious effort to recreate the feel of a classic Hollywood noir while making explicit all of the sex and violence those older films had to disguise with inference and innuendo, Body Heat plays like a grown-up, sweat-soaked version of Double Indemnity. William Hurt plays a crooked Florida lawyer who falls for the bombshell wife (Kathleen Turner) of one of his clients. He concocts a scheme for the two to murder the client and run away together, but soon finds he's in way over his head.

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Blade Runner (1982)

A film noir by way of science fiction, Ridley Scott's landmark 1982 thriller stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a private detective who specializes in tracking down and "decommissioning" rogue synthetic humans (known as replicants). Initially a box office flop but subsequently hailed as one of the most stylish films ever made, Blade Runner is drenched in noir tropes, from the neon-tinged cinematography, to the complex morality of the characters (why don't the replicants deserve to live free?), to the jaded hero. In the original version, Ford even provided stilted voiceover narration a la a classic Hollywood detective film, but Scott hated it and trimmed it from his director's cut.

Body Double (1984)

A sordid neo-noir about movie-making and murder, Brian de Palma's erotic thriller Body Double follows a newly homeless film actor whose claustrophobia is ruining his career. He shares his troubles with a man he meets in a bar and is offered a place to stay until he's back on his feet. What follows is a conscious homage to classic suspense films such as Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window and Vertigo, steeped in noir tropes and with the sensuality cranked up to 10.

Blood Simple (1984)

This 1984 debut from Joel and Ethan Coen is a gripping thriller set in a small Texas town. When a sleazy bar owner (Dan Hedaya) hires a private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his unfaithful wife (Frances McDormand, in her feature film debut) and her bartender lover (John Getz), everything that can go wrong, does—occasionally absurdly so. With its atmospheric cinematography and taut narrative, Blood Simple shows the Coen brothers' skill at juggling suspense and dark humor was with them from the very beginning.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut redefined the heist genre with its brutal tale of a botched jewelry robbery and the tense aftermath among a small group of criminals who suspect an undercover cop lurks among them. With standout performances from Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Steve Buscemi, the film is a masterclass in sharp dialogue, nonlinear storytelling, and suspense.

Lost Highway (1997)

This late '90s neo-noir from director David Lynch stars Bill Pullman as a jazz saxophonist whose life spirals into a surreal nightmare after he is accused of his wife's murder. The first film in Lynch's L.A. Trilogy (with Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire to follow), the film features mystery, disorienting twists, and a standout score boasting tracks from David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, and Lou Reed, among others.

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more