If you’re at all like me, you love a good crime-thriller: movies like Seven, Memento, Collateral, Zodiac. As all films do to some degree, today’s crime-thrillers owe a large debt to the crime films of yesteryear. Fortunately, some of the greatest films ever made rest within an often difficult-to-define genre known as film noir, or simply noir for short. When I say difficult-to-define, I mean “I’m not even gonna try,” except to say that these films generally involve crime, morality tales, corruptible characters, and highly moody settings and backdrops that serve to enhance the films’ involving, thrilling nature.
Since the genre’s inception some 80-odd years ago, plenty have come and gone, and just as many have followed in those earlier films’ footsteps as neo-noirs — more modern yet similarly styled films that use different story innovations and plot conventions but achieve an effect similar to their earlier, inkier (read: black and white) counterparts.
Without further ado, I present to you five noirs and neo-noirs worth seeking out, and one bonus noir-parody that flips the genre on its seedy little head. Let’s get started!
1. Chinatown (1974)
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez
Memorable Line: “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
Why to watch: By far the most acclaimed movie in the neo-noir genre and a film that would have won Best Picture had it not been for a little flick called The Godfather Part II, Chinatown features one of Jack Nicholson’s best performances and a plot that is so wonderfully complex you will want to watch it again and again and again.
2. Double Indemnity (1944)
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Byron Barr
Memorable Line: “Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money — and a woman — and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”
Why to watch: Hailed as one of the greatest film noirs of all-time, Double Indemnity is one that has earned its reputation. The film is filled to the brim with thrilling twists, winding turns, and a complex plot sure to grab a firm hold on your mind. And Barabara Stanwyck just might be the perfect femme fatale of her time, playing an ambitious woman of extremely questionable virtue dead set on getting her way.
3. The Killing (1956)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Colleen Gray, Vince Edwards
Memorable Line: “You like money. You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.”
Why to watch: One of Kubrick’s earliest films, The Killing has inspired plenty modern heist films, as well as being an obvious influence on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight — see the picture at left — and many of today’s time-shifting films, namely Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. The story is quite simple, but it’s so well told and ends in a way completely befitting the events preceding it.
4. L.A. Confidential (1997)
Directed by: Curtis Hanson
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Danny Devito, Kim Basinger
Memorable Line: “Oh, great. You get the girl, I get the coroner.”
Why to watch: Kevin Spacey is undoubtedly one of the finest actors out there, and this under-appreciated gem is easily one of the best films of the 1990s. Looking back, I can’t believe Titanic beat this out for so many awards. Kim Basinger’s Oscar-winning performance is a standout as well.
5. Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Directed by: Alexander Mackendrick
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison
Memorable Line: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”
Why to watch: Sweet Smell of Success contains a pretty unconventional story backdrop, specifically for a noir piece, and boasts amazing chemistry between its leads. You’d be hard-pressed to find finer acting complements than Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the fantastic jazz soundtrack.
BONUS: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Directed by: Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
Memorable Line: “Don’t worry, I saw Lord of the Rings. I’m not going to end this 17 times.”
Why to watch: Renowned director Jean-Luc Godard once said that all you needed to make a movie was a girl and a gun. Godard was right, and director Shane Black’s parody send-up of the crime/noir genres — titled Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, an obvious reference to Godard’s famous statement — proves exactly that. Add in Robert Downey Jr. and you’ve got yourself one heck of a hilarious noir parody.
And there you have it, six crime-focused, thrilling films for you to seek out and enjoy if you haven’t already. Surely there are hundreds if not thousands of other noir and neo-noir films out there, but these are some of my favorites and ones I really recommend you check out. Now start stepping!