Film noir has seen a resurgence in the past two decades, with many film-makers paying respect to iconic films of the past. Neo-noir films such as Sin City (2005), Nightcrawler (2014) and Christopher Nolan’s Memento are all influenced by this genre. Keep reading to find out about the dark and twisted world of film noir and the best movies to watch from the genre’s heyday in the 1940s.

What is film noir?

Film noir is a genre of film-making that became popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The style is characterised by cynicism, pessimism and fatalism influenced by the end of the Second World War.

However, the original roots of film noir emerged following the disastrous effects of the Great Depression. Menace was high on the agenda and film noir movies often depict fatally flawed men, gangsters and femme fatales. Film noir translates as ‘dark film’, a genre that tackled the disillusionment felt in society after the war.

Filmic techniques include extreme high-contrast lighting, the use of shadows, punchy and short dialogue, soft focus, and crumbling corrupt cities. Jazz thrived as the perfect accompaniment to smoke, shadows and downtown blues bars – the perfect playground for any gun-toting gangster.

Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Actor, Actress, Model
Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out Of The Past (1947). Image: Pixabay

Best film noir movies of the 1940s

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The grandfather of film noir. Private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) takes on a case brought to him by a beautiful and secretive woman (Mary Astor). As soon as she arrives things start to go horribly wrong, his partner is murdered and he is attacked.

 

The only thing he knows is he must find the one thing these men all want – the bejewelled Maltese falcon. This film is a classic depiction of intrigue, deception and lies and a good start if you’re looking to delve into the genre.

Brighton Rock (1948)

This is a very British take on film noir. The film is based on the Graham Greene novel of the same name. Follow Richard Attenborough’s anti-hero Pinky, a teenage gangster who marries a shy waitress (Carol Marsh) who could implicate his gang in a murder.

Meanwhile the police and rival gangs are closing in. Attenborough is unforgettable as the violent and dominant Pinky. This isn’t someone you’d want to meet in a dark alley.

Double Indemnity (1944)

The film’s protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) asks: “How could I have known murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” This film is pure entanglement. Neff is caught in the web of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who convinces him to help her murder her husband so they can live off the insurance money.

Cue high-stakes drama, murder and a savvy insurance investigator who begins to unravel the sinister plot. This is a classic film noir that’s as gripping today as it was 80 years ago. It’s highly regarded as one of the best film noir movies ever made.  

Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)

No classic movie list is complete without the most famous auteur of classic cinema, Alfred Hitchcock? Shadow Of A Doubt is rumoured to be one of Hitchcock’s favourite films and was based on the case of Earle Leonard Nelson, a US serial killer who was executed in the 1920s.

In the film, homicidal maniac Uncle Charlie intrudes in the life of a middle-class family in a small town. Hitchcock creates a story full of unease, exploring the dark products of American society. If you want a psychological thriller, Hitchcock’s your man. He wasn’t known as the master of suspense for nothing.

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