Where To Start: Five Film Noir Essentials

Before I name a handful of film noir films, it is important to identify what film noir is. Generally film noir is associated with black and white, shadowy cinematography and the story includes a femme fatale. Femme fatale meaning a terrible woman who ruins the man by making him weak with love and lust and therefore he struggles with succeeding at his dreams or goals. More than likely the story involves a murder, an affair, a robbery, or some other scandalous incident that attracts both man and woman together for a passionate love affair. However, film noir can also be defined strictly by its cinematography. We could identify certain films as noir thrillers or noir mysteries, all because its shadowy, grainy look. Because this is a “Where To Start” list, I’d like to utilize the second definition of noir simply because it allows for a variety of films, in the hopes that you may find a niche with which you’d like to pursue. That being said, here is a short list of murderous, mysterious, thrilling, femme fatale noirs.

“The Night of the Hunter” (1955): Directed by Charles Laughton and based off of the true story of Harry Powers, a man who murdered two women and three children, this film a terrifying nightmare. Its focus is to play off of the fears of children, and it does that indeed. Robert Mitchum plays a murderous con man who pretends to be a lowly preacher in order to get closer to a pair of children who apparently know where their jailed father has hidden a great deal of cash after robbing a bank. This film separates itself from traditional thrillers with its use of German Expressionism, meaning its use of obscure shadows, surrealism, and non-traditional camera techniques. Although this movie isn’t as fast paced as we may expect, its manipulation, eerie singing, and disposal of bodies makes it one of the best films of its genre.

“The Lady Vanishes” (1938): Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, this film is one of his best black and white thrillers. Hitchcock has directed over 60 films, most of which have gained critical reception. “The Lady Vanishes” centers on the sanity of one woman, Iris, as she attempts to solve the disappearance of an old woman, Mrs. Froy, whom she befriended on the train and while passing through a long dark tunnel, has suddenly disappeared. The only person willing to help her find Mrs. Froy is Gilbert, an innocent man who happened to be on the train during this mishap. Unbeknownst to the two of them, everyone on the train is working for opposing governments and someone is holding the secret to a potential assassination. Only Gilbert and Iris can prove their memory correct and save Mrs. Froy.

“The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946): An adaptation put together by director Tay Garnett and centered on an affair gone disastrously wrong. When Frank Chambers stumbles into a roadside restaurant and car garage, he meets Cora Smith, played by Lana Turner. Cora is married to Nick, a larger and older man whom in the book they refer to as “The Greek.” The Greek is interested in purchasing a neon sign for his diner and fails to notice the attraction between Cora and Frank, which builds every time they’re alone, if you catch my drift. It’s Cora who suggests that the two murder her husband in order to flee the diner and pursue a life of loving happiness. Unfortunately too many things go wrong and more than one person dies as a result of their sinful actions. This film manages to hit every category of a film noir, making it a classic.

“Sunset Boulevard” (1950): Of all the Billy Wilder movies, “Sunset Boulevard” is a definite first. A story built upon the cinematic transition between silent to sound, “Sunset Boulevard” offers its audience a look into the crazed impact the shift had on its actors. Although the story is told through the perspective of Joe Gillis, the movie really begins when he encounters and takes shelter with Norma Desmond, a former silent film actress who has shut herself up in her mansion. If you managed to see Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” a year ago, and enjoyed it, the movie is right up your alley. Everyone enjoys a movie about mental instability.

“The Killers” (1946): Directed by Robert Siodmak, this particular film is an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers.” A more typical film noir, “The Killers” investigates a seemingly innocent mans murder, but through flashbacks and interviews, the story of the “The Swede” slowly unravels and we see the sort of business he was mixed up in prior to his death. The film was redone in the 80s with Reagan, but Reagan’s a terrible man and the original film is always better. Unless we’re talking about “The Wizard of Oz” or maybe even “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

Honorable Mentions (Meaning they’re on everyone’s top noir list so it’s nothing new): “Shadow of a Doubt” by Alfred Hitchcock, “Double Indemnity” by Billy Wilder, “The Killing” by Stanley Kubrick, “The Big Sleep” by Howard Hawks, and “The Maltese Falcon” by John Huston.

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