My Top 10 Noirs

List making is a fun exercise; you have to assess and clarify your reasons for liking this film or person, this theme or style over that one, and sometimes it surprising how drastically your taste change with time and expansion of your knowledge of the genre and the world in general. I didn’t set out to be the contrarian (though I often am) and pick different films just to be different (that’s just being obnoxious), but I soon realized I was crossing off the usual essentials in favor of sentimental favorites that always hit the spot and would do for a desert island. Noir taken to its extremes can be so nihilistic, depressing, and self-consciously iconoclastic it falls apart and gives you nothing of lasting value (I’m looking at you, Kiss Me Deadly!) so my picks lean toward redemption and romance, heroism over nihilism, positivity over cynicism, “rewatchability” over critical acclaim, and I like to think they’re all just cool. In no particular order then,

The Postman Always Rings Twice. Sorry, Double Indemnity and Gilda, apologies Criss Cross and Blue Dahlia, you were all so very close, and even started out on this list, but Postman edged you all out in the best noir chemistry category. I dare say Lana Turner made the most devastating femme fatale ever (apparently in real life as well, since she and costar John Garfield were a rumored item during filming). Garfield is the ultimate hopeless sap who falls into a trap laid by a frustrated wife plotting to off her husband, and you know the rest.

Gun Crazy.  Rawest and cheapest (in a financial sense) noir in my book. Guns, young love and cars, this movie to me is the cinematic equivalent of rockabilly–do it yourself, sneering, low budget garage proto-punk, crackling and exploding with a life and action, where something similarly lowbrow like Detour leaves me cold. On paper it seems like this casting shouldn’t work, with refined Brit Peggy Cummins and lean, elegant almost fragile John Dall, meeting dangerous at a circus then embarking on a crime spree, yet Gun Crazy turned out to be the very best of the Bonnie and Clyde genre and influenced maverick filmmakers for decades.

Moonrise. Big quality, lyrical beauty and emotional impact from a low budget, a poverty row studio and “lesser” stars. Gail Russell was a radiant and tragic beauty, and Dane Clark an intense yet sensitive sparkplug, both fascinating, underrated and excellent. Clark plays a tortured baggage-laden, misunderstood and cornered young man who kills Lloyd Bridges during a fight. He wants Bridges’ fiancé Russell, and then he doesn’t know if it’s better to run or confess. It’s a rural noir on par with, and a touch more touching than, similarly themed Night of the Hunter, They Live by Night or On Dangerous Ground.

Nightmare Alley. There’s something about carnivals and magicians that I love—the setting is so cinematic, fantastic, creepy, and deceptive, a magnet for both the suckers who believe in, and the shamming scammers who capitalize on superstition and gullibility. In Nightmare, this setting is just the foundation for an amazing performance by Tyrone Power, who grinds his matinee idol persona into the dust with his searing turn as a craven trickster who’s brought all the way around the wheel of fortune and then gets run over by it. Add the excellent work by Helen Walker, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Mike Mazurki for one of the best, if bleakest, noirs ever, with a great closing line: “Mister, I was made for it.”

The Killing. The wittiest, sharpest script narrowly beats out The Asphalt Jungle for best doomed heist plot, and along with While the City Sleeps, boasts one of my favorite ensemble casts. The people are all little interlocking gears that have vital roles of various sizes, and all must fit together snugly and run smoothly for the machine to work properly. Marie Windsor is the wrench (and the wench) in the works. The death spiral of the once perfect plan is swift and dizzying, ending with such a ridiculous whimper that Sterling Hayden is too exhausted and defeated to even care anymore. After this one I find Kubrick way overrated.

D.O.A. “I want to report a murder.”/ “Who was murdered?”/”I was.” I submit that this is possibly the noiriest quote ever uttered. Try and suggest another that sets up a story and a man’s mission and his fate as succinctly, as intriguingly and as fatalistically. Edmond O’Brien, one of the greatest actors ever, is more than up to the task of bearing all the different roles this movie gives him. The accountant just looking for a good time gets “luminous poisoning” and has to investigate the reason for his impending death against the mother of all deadlines.

The Usual Suspects. I was determined to have one newer noir on my list and though there are a bunch good enough to stand up against the classics, such as Heat, The Last Seduction, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight and Pulp Fiction, for me Suspects tops them all with its mythic, epic quality, old-Hollywood gloss, a mysterious character that strikes fear in the heart, a great heist, super acting, a gripping interrogation and a twisty, juicy script with a clever surprise ending. “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) also states one of the most chilling truths known to mankind, in a quote that explains the deceptive talent and the advantage used by the greatest villains in story, history and everyday reality in the battle against good, and that’s “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

Naked City. I love it when the good guys win, when good police are portrayed as the good guys, and never tire of a well and realistically done police procedural. This is the granddaddy of them all, the movie that established the conventions of a genre, a “just the facts ma’am” telling of an investigation with just enough personal detail thrown in to give you a glimpse of the real people in the worn shoe leather. A great and necessary look at the hardworking heroic police whose unenviable job it is to mundanely chip away at a seemingly undefeatable and never-ending parade of criminals. I wrote more on it starting here

The Big Heat. Were I not brutal in my culling, a lot of my list would be Fritz Lang movies. I love Scarlet Street, Woman in the Window, While the City Sleeps, but for the sake of space and added mental challenge, I made myself pick just one Lang, so it has to be this always fresh and compelling mob drama. No moll had a heart as golden (under the mink) nor one as filled with regret and revenge as does Gloria Grahame, scarred and bandaged like something out of a horror movie. Few mobsters are as slick, sneering and misogynistic as Lee Marvin, but he’s no match for noir hero Glenn Ford, whose “Bannion” seethes with tightly contained rage and righteous anger, unstoppable until he gets his man.

Kansas City Confidential. I dropped This Gun for Hire from the list to make room for this movie, about the aftermath of a heist for which there must be payback, featuring one of the coolest male casts ever, with John Payne, Preston Foster, Jack Elam, Neville Brand, and Lee van Cleef. A masked group of robbers, torn playing cards, mistaken identity and a wrongly accused war vet out for justice; it’s all very fast and cool it’s little wonder it inspired Quentin Tarantino who echoed its elements in Reservoir Dogs.

Just missed the train: Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia, Mildred Pierce, Narrow Margin, T-men, The Maltese Falcon, The Hitch-Hiker, more Dan Duryea.

And like that… I’m gone.

a version of this article appeared in Dark Pages Magazine and my preamble refers to editor Karen Hannsberry’s top 10 noir list which can be found on her blog here.


6 thoughts on “My Top 10 Noirs”

  1. Thank you for your great list. I’ve seen The Killing and The Usual Suspects. I’ve only seen the Nicholson/Lange version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. I’ll be watching all your recommendations plus the near-misses.
    By the way, Double Indemnity. One of my all-time favourites!

  2. Great list! I haven’t caught Kansas City Confidential, but I know I have it recorded somewhere from a semi-recent TCM airing. Postman was one of those classics that slipped through the cracks for a long time for me but when I finally first caught it a few years ago I was blown away by how good Lana Turner was in it.

    1. hi Cliff, Thanks.. you’ll have to share your thoughts on Kansas when you see it, I’d be interested to see if you like it. and yes Turner & Garfield have super chemistry in Postman…

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