Top 50 greatest noir films
JEP film critic Tom Ogg selects his top 50 favourite noir films
ONLINE streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon UK have made it easier than ever to access thousands of films with the click of a few buttons.
And with some Covid-19 restrictions ongoing, and Cineworld Jersey temporarily closed (although hopefully due to reopen ASAP), there has never been a better time to indulge in watching films in the comfort of your own home.
As such, I’ve been running a series on the JEP's weekly film pages in which, every Saturday, I pick my top 50 must-see films from a particular genre – not necessarily the greatest ever made (although many of them certainly qualify as such), but the ones that I personally most recommend watching.
To date, I have covered crime, comedy, sci-fi, war, romance, horror, action/adventure, film noir, drama, westerns, children’s films, musicals and even so-bad-they're-good films, and you can read my Top 50 Film Noir list below.
For reasons more to do with OCD than anything else, I never allow the same film to appear in more than one list, thus ET is absent from my top 50 children's films list because it already appears in my top 50 sci-fi films list, and so on.
All films are listed in order of personal preference, and all feedback is welcome, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with my choices: email@example.com
TOP 50 NOIR FILMS
TIME now for some film noir (or neo-noir) so don your to finest dark glasses, pour yourself an ice-cold drink and let’s begin...
1. Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch)
HAS any filmmaker ever recreated the sensation of a nightmare on screen quite as vividly and often as David Lynch?
From the fractured time-hopping narrative of Mulholland Drive (2001) and the diminutive backwards-talking Man from Another Place in TV's Twin Peaks to the jarring tonal shifts of its big-screen spin-off, Fire Walk With Me (1992), and that bit in Eraserhead when... actually, just Eraserhead – period.
By comparison, Lynch’s 1986 film noir classic Blue Velvet feels almost akin to a conventional murder-mystery thriller, with a narrative that can be readily followed from beginning to end and with (mostly) identifiable characters.
After discovering a severed ear in an overgrown wasteland, wannabe teenage sleuth Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) tries to track down the amputated lughole’s unfortunate owner, a trail that leads him to mysterious nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini).
Unfortunately, it also leads him to Dorothy’s sadistic abuser Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), an oxygen mask-sporting rapist and one of cinema’s most disturbing villains.
For all its surface normality, there is plenty of unsettling imagery scattered throughout Blue Velvet, such as the skin-crawling close-up of insects writhing beneath the surface of a picturesque picket-fenced lawn, and the creepy-funny moment when a makeup-clad Dean Stockwell croons Roy Orbison’s In Dreams.
The dark and violent underbelly of suburban America is a theme Lynch has repeatedly explored throughout his career, but never with quite as much brilliance as here.
Blue Velvet is currently available on Netflix.
Film fact: Give or take the odd cameo appearance and offbeat directorial outing, Dennis Hopper’s career had been languishing in the doldrums for over a decade before Blue Velvet. Almost overnight, Lynch’s film revitalised his career, and memorable turns in the likes of Hoosiers (1986), True Romance (1993) and Speed (1994) followed.
2. Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)
3. The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
4. The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)
5. Sunset Boulevard (1950, Billy Wilder)
6. Brighton Rock (1947, John Boulting)
7. Touch of Evil (1958, Orson Welles)
8. Blood Simple (1984, Joel and Ethan Coen)
9. White Heat (1949, Raoul Walsh)
10. Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)
SPIELBERG aside, it’s hard to think of another filmmaker whose output inspires as much affection as that of Billy Wilder.
The Jewish writer-director had a tragic upbringing – his mother and other family members were murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War – and, not surprisingly, many of his film’s are tinged with a melancholic sadness or bitterness, or both.
Yet they are also among the most raucously entertaining films ever made, filled with lively performances and bitingly funny dialogue.
Think of the lovably dishevelled The Apartment (1960), a near-perfect comedy-drama with both Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine on career-best form; or the stunning Sunset Boulevard (1950), an ahead-of-its-time portrayal of Hollywood’s dark side, and a film that paved the way for similarly-themed tales of fallen starlets such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
And then there’s Double Indemnity, a gripping noir thriller based on James M. Cain’s novella of the same name and a film that is widely seen as among Wilder’s finest work, an assertion the director himself shared.
Released in 1944, the film stars Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, a suave insurance salesman who finds himself besotted with Barbara Stanwyck’s sultry housewife, Phyllis; so besotted in fact, that before long he has been manipulated by Phyllis into murdering her wealthy husband, with disastrous repercussions for all involved.
With its squalid themes of adultery and money-motivated murder, Double Indemnity was considerably darker than most other pictures of the time, while its then-innovative use of flashback offered further evidence of Wilder’s skills as a writer (he co-wrote the screenplay with mystery novelist Raymond Chandler).
Of the cast, Stanwyck is wonderfully alluring as the coolly calculating Phyllis; before Double Indemnity, the New York-born actress had appeared in films only as doting spouses or motherly nurses, and she clearly relishes the opportunity to play against type.
MacMurray was likewise more accustomed to playing goody two-shoes, and although he isn’t quite as striking as his female co-star, his character is nevertheless the polar opposite of the kind-hearted widower he would spend much of the rest of his career portraying in long-running TV sitcom My Three Sons.
Arguably cinema’s first ever film noir, Double Indemnity is where it all began.
Film fact: The film was based on a real-life murder. In 1927, Ruth Brown Snyder and her lover, corset salesman Henry Judd Gray, murdered Ruth’s husband, Albert, although not before first taking out a $100,000 life insurance policy on him. It didn’t end well.
11. Basic Instinct (1992, Paul Verhoeven)
PAUL Verhoeven’s neo-noir erotic-thriller is daft but quite ludicrously enjoyable, with a gloriously un-PC plot that seems almost custom-built to antagonise uptight PC puritans and with a career-defining turn by Sharon Stone that saw the actress launched to international fame simply by forgetting to wear her undies in public (if that were the only criteria needed for film stardom, my auntie Maureen would be on the Hollywood A-list).
Written by Joe Eszterhas, Basic Instinct centres on Catherine Tramell, a bisexual novelist who can’t be trusted with an ice pick and who enjoys regular bouts of horizontal refreshment with Michael Douglas’s grouchy detective, Nick Curran.
That we’re supposed to believe the impossibly sultry Ms Tramell would fall for Curran and his unappealing skin-tight V-neck sweater is but one of the film’s many outlandish story arcs, and it must be said that Douglas’s flabby buttocks rather hamper the eroticism of the infamously explicit sex scene. If anything, though, these far-fetched flaws only add to the sense of frivolous fun.
Always keen to pack his pictures full of sex and violence, Dutch-born Verhoeven tested the censors’ patience yet further with 1995’s Showgirls, a film also written by Eszterhas, and which featured graphic sex and nudity in almost every scene, yet somehow managed to be about as erotic as the aforementioned Douglas backside.
Film fact: The opening scene – in which a mysterious blonde (spoiler alert: it’s Sharon Stone) viciously stabs her lover to death midway through a spot of nooky – was so graphic that it gave Stone nightmares. ‘God! They had a paramedic with an oxygen mask there because I’d start to feel like I was going to pass out,’ she later recalled, albeit with possibly a smidgeon of embellishment.
12. The Manchurian Candidate (1962, John Frankenheimer)
13. Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Alexander Mackendrick)
14. Strangers on a Train (1951, Alfred Hitchcock)
15. The Woman in the Window (1944, Fritz Lang)
16. The Conversation (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
17. Miller’s Crossing (1990, Joel and Ethan Coen)
18. Cop (1988, James B Harris)
19. Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur)
20. The Spanish Prisoner (1997, David Mamet)
STAND-UP comedian. Film star. Screenwriter. Banjoist. Awkward interviewee.
Steve Martin is certainly a man of many and varied talents, but what few filmgoers realise is that the erstwhile ‘wild and crazy guy’ is also a gifted actor, as evidenced by his performance in David Mamet’s misleadingly titled The Spanish Prisoner (it isn’t set in Spain and none of the characters are in prison).
The film centres on Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), a naive corporate engineer who agrees to allow coolly confident businessman Jimmy Dell (Martin) to assist with his finances. Big mistake – or is it? No one is quite what they seem in this supremely underrated neo-noir gem, which is twisty-turny even by the twisty-turny standards of writer-director David Mamet.
When it comes to neo-noir, Mamet has serious form, and fans of the genre are advised to also seek out House of Games (see number 29) and 2001’s Heist, the latter of which features one of the best pay-off lines in cinema (‘Don’t you want to hear my last words?’ ‘I just did’ – BANG!).
Film fact: As anyone who has watched the expletive-ridden Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) will know, David Mamet is renowned for his swearword-filled screenplays. The Spanish Prisoner, however, contains not a single cuss word, making it a rare family-friendly Mamet film.
21. Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan)
22. Body Heat (1981, Lawrence Kasdan)
23. Cape Fear (1962, J Lee Thompson)
24. Midnight Express (1978, Alan Parker)
25. Angels with Dirty Faces (1938, Michael Curtiz)
26. Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock)
27. Blow Out (1981, Brian De Palma)
28. Only God Forgives (2013, Nicolas Winding Refn)
FEW directors divide opinion quite like Nicolas Winding Refn.
The Danish filmmaker favours ambience over action, with characters who are so passive they’re practically mute, and plotlines that are slow-paced to be the point of being glacial, so much so that watching his films is often akin to viewing a slideshow of beautifully composed still-life portraits – or at least until the sudden bursts of extreme violence jolt the viewer awake.
Personally, I absolutely love his entire oeuvre, from the near dialogue-free Valhalla Rising (2009) and 2011’s Drive (see number 36) to psychological horror The Neon Demon (2016), the latter of which is, frankly, borderline incomprehensible (but nevertheless brilliant).
For me, though, Refn’s finest film is Only God Forgives, a Bangkok-based crime-thriller in which Muay Thai boxer Julian (Ryan Gosling) seeks justice for the murder of his unpleasant older brother, Billy (Tom Burke). Well, I say ‘seeks revenge’, but in truth he just sort of stands around in moodily-lit corridors looking emotionally tortured, much to the chagrin of his combative mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas on fiery form).
Like all Refn’s films, Only God Forgives is not a movie to casually watch while half-engaged in something else; this is a film that demands complete and total absorption, otherwise you might as well not bother. Personally, that is precisely why I love it, but I readily acknowledge that not everyone will share my enthusiasm.
Upon release, the film garnered a divided response from audiences and critics alike, with the latter both booing and cheering the film during its debut at the Cannes Film Festival. But love it or hate it, Only God Forgives is a true one-of-a-kind, and unlike much of the bland mush that passes for cinema these days, it is at least guaranteed to generate a visceral response, be it positive or negative.
Film fact: The Exorcist director William Friedkin is among those who doesn’t much care for the film. In a hilariously outspoken interview with Refn, Friedkin mocks the filmmaker’s assertion that Only God Forgives is a ‘masterpiece’, remarking: ‘Is there a doctor in the house? We need to get a medic in here! If you think [Only God Forgives] is a masterpiece then what is Citizen Kane?’ When Refn responds by highlighting the small budget with which his film was made, Friedkin – displaying his customary tact and decorum – replies: ‘Who gives a s**t?’
29. House of Games (1987, David Mamet)
30. The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang)
31. Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch)
32. Jagged Edge (1985, Richard Marquand)
33. King of New York (1990, Abel Ferrara)
34. The Machinist (2004, Brad Anderson)
35. The Last Seduction (1994, John Dahl)
36. Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn)
37. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, Tay Garnett)
38. Klute (1971, Alan J Pakula)
39. Insomnia (1997, Erik Skjoldbjærg)
40. Cat People (1982, Paul Schrader)
41. Nightcrawler (2014, Dan Gilroy)
THE perils and pitfalls of working in the media are at the forefront of this dark directorial debut from screenwriter Dan Gilroy.
The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, an eccentric, increasingly amoral freelance crime journalist, whose relentless pursuit of securing each day’s leading news story earns him both adulation from the television networks and condemnation from the police.
As a lead character, Bloom’s actions are irredeemable and his manner skin-crawlingly creepy (perhaps ‘Skincrawler’ would have been a more apt title), yet his very lack of ethics and conventionality make him a fascinating protagonist.
In preparing for the role, Gyllenhaal deprived himself of sleep for weeks in order to achieve the desired sleep-deprived, haggard look. The results are unnerving, with the actor’s drawn face emphasising his already bulging eyes to an alarming degree – at times, they almost seem to be on the verge of popping out of his skull à la Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall.
As the film progresses, Bloom rapidly descends from bicycle thief to blackmailer to much, much worse. The most chilling scenes are the ones in which he calmly and coolly threatens rivals and colleagues, whether informing his reluctant assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) not to ‘assume I don’t hate people and that I won’t psychically hurt you’ or casually blackmailing Rene Russo’s vulnerable TV executive during a would-be romantic dinner.
For me, Nightcrawler recalls such real-life media madness as the News of the World’s infamous phone hacking of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and the likes of Paul ‘privacy is for paedos’ McMullan’s self-justifying unrepentance at the subsequent trial. Like McMullan, Bloom seems equally untroubled by the consequences of his actions.
Suffice to say, we’re all far more moral and upstanding here at the JEP...
Nightcrawler is currently available on Netflix.
Film fact: In addition to not sleeping for weeks, Gyllenhaal also deprived himself of food before and during the shoot, saying that he wanted Bloom to be akin to ‘a hungry coyote’: ‘They eat anything, they go for anything. Any scrap they can find, if they smell blood, they’ll move to it and that’s Lou, so I just tried to make myself into a coyote.’
42. Oldboy (2003, Park Chan-wook)
WHEN a lead actor eats a live octopus for real on-screen and it’s only the second-most memorable scene in the film, you know you’re watching something rather unique.
Away from the mollusc-munching, Park Chan-wook’s neo-noir action-thriller features a scene that ranks among the most dazzlingly conceived single-takes in cinema.
The three-minute-plus sequence sees the film’s long-suffering anti-hero Oh Dae-su (a dedicated turn from South Korean actor Choi Min-sik) making his way along a dimly-lit corridor while single-handedly fending off an army of stick-wielding bad guys with nothing but a rusty clawhammer.
Despite the extreme violence on display, the effect is almost comic, as the middle-aged Dae-su grows increasingly weary as the scene progresses, while the camera unblinkingly pans alongside the action as if it were a spectacularly brutal side-scrolling video game.
Elsewhere, Chan-wook's gleefully taboo-breaking film finds time for incest, suicide and even a spot of self-administered tongue severing. Family-friendly viewing it is not.
Film fact: Oldboy was remade by Spike Lee in 2013, with Josh Brolin in the lead role, but the result was little more than a pale imitation of Chan-wook's original.
43. Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich)
44. The Parallax View (1974, Alan J Pakula)
45. Cold in July (2014, Jim Mickle)
46. Red Rock West (1993, John Dahl)
47. The Grifters (1990, Stephen Frears)
48. The Cooler (2003, Wayne Kramer)
49. Body Double (1984, Brian De Palma)
50. Night Moves (1975, Arthur Penn)
* If you enjoyed this list, be sure to read my other top 50 film lists on the Features page of the Jersey Evening Post website
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