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10 Black and White Noir Films That Will Have You on the Edge of Your Seat


Film noir is a French term meaning “black film.” The word ‘black’ here doesn’t just refer to the low-key lighting technique that these motion pictures are known for. Nefarious characters tend to be the focus while the general mood is that of menace, fatalism, and pessimism. The most common elements found in most film noirs are an antihero detective (or citizen) looking to solve a major problem, a femme fatale, disillusionment, thought-provoking dialogue, and crisp cinematography. The creation of the genre was inspired by harsh times brought about by the Great Depression and World War II.

Today, there are hundreds of film noirs and neo-noirs in existence, some even incorporating color, but there’s no doubt that the black and white classics have remained the favorites. Among them, the following are guaranteed to keep audiences on the edge of their seats because of their wild plots and strong performances by the cast.


10 The Big Combo (1955)

PBS

In The Big Combo, Lieutenant Leonard Diamond’s goal is simple. He intends to bring down the guileful crime boss, Mr. Brown, to lower the city’s crime statistics. After all, most junior hoodlums work for the man. He is doing it as a matter of duty, but he gets even greater motivation after falling for Mr. Brown’s mistress, Susan Lowell. Fully aware that putting Mr. Brown behind bars will increase his odds of bedding Susan, he gets to work.

The film is extremely violent, even by today’s standards, and it’s a mystery how the director didn’t get in trouble for violating Hollywood’s production code, which was being thoroughly enforced at the time. The brutality isn’t necessarily a turn-off. It only triggers more curiosity, making one eager to find out what will happen next. There is a scene where a character gets tortured using a hearing aid and another where a hair tonic gets poured down someone’s throat.

The performances are great all around too, and fans will be happy to see some familiar faces, notably Lee Van Cleef, whose resume is mostly full of roles in some of the greatest Westerns of all time.

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9 The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon

Release Date
October 18, 1941

Director
John Huston

Cast
Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick

Runtime
101

Main Genre
Crime

The Maltese Falcon not only made Humphrey Bogart a household name but also gave director John Huston a seat among Hollywood’s royalty. In it, private detective Sam Spade attempts to figure out why three sinister adventurers are all after a jewel-encrusted falcon statuette. At the same time, he does his best to investigate the death of his partner, who was murdered shortly after a new case was brought to them.

It’s not by luck or mere talent that the story is so compelling. Dashiell Hammett — who authored the book that the film noir is based on — served as a private detective before grabbing the pen. He thus had a perfect idea of how complex cases like these played out.

There is plenty to love about The Maltese Falcon, but Bogart’s character Spade remains the magnet that keeps eyeballs glued to the screen. He is Bond-like, yet he is still a complex person. At first, he seems to have a great moral compass, only for it to be revealed that he was sleeping with his partner’s wife. He is also happy to keep the femme fatale, Miss O’Shaughnessy, fully aware that she is poison.

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8 Double Indemnity (1944)

Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity
Paramount Pictures

Insurance fraud is the main topic in Double Indemnity. The chaos begins when insurance salesman Walter Neff falls for the pretty Phyllis Dietrichson. Soon after the commencement of their torrid affair, the two hatch a plot to kill her husband so that they can benefit from the “double indemnity” clause — a policy that requires the insurance company to pay twice the amount stated in the policy limit in the event that a death is accidental. Just before the assessor Barton Keys makes the payment, he realizes something isn’t right.

RELATED: The 10 Most Underrated Neo-Noir Movies of All Time

Will he, or won’t he? Such is the kind of question that keeps audiences focused on the story. On many occasions, it seems like Neff will develop a conscience and stop whatever he is planning to do, yet he still goes ahead and does it. It’s the rare kind of film where the protagonist is a supporting character while the villain and antihero are the main ones. Still, the most credit goes to Neff, who always has something new to shock audiences with. At one point, he seduces the victim’s daughter when she begins suspecting her mother for the crime.

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7 The Big Sleep (1946)

Detective Philip Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge
Warner Bros.

There are numerous movies where Private Detective Philip Marlowe is the main character and The Big Sleep is the second among the series. Here, he is hired by a General to investigate the true motives of a man who is harassing his daughter over gambling debts. What’s meant to be a simple investigation becomes complicated when the General’s other daughter suggests to Marlowe that her father might be hiding something.

The Big Sleep succeeds on so many levels. Whether it’s Max Steiner’s score or clever camera angles, there is never a deficiency of nutrients that genre fans adore. Like every other noir main-man, Marlowe has his flaws, but it’s hard not to admire his set of principles. He hates guns and even makes a point to scold an enemy for owning one. “You’re the second guy I’ve met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail,” he tells him.

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6 Sunset Boulevard (1950)

William Holden as Joe Gillis and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, Gillis's lover.
Paramount Pictures

Sunset Boulevard isn’t plagued by the narrative incomprehensibility that often affects most noirs. It opens with a dead man in a pool, giving a clear picture of how the rest of the proceedings are going to be. The man is Joe Gillis, and strangely enough, he narrates what happened to him. He was once a penniless screenwriter, then he met an aging actress who housed him and fell in love with him. When he began seeing someone else while still living in her mansion, things turned ugly.

Years after it was made Sunset Boulevard remains one of the most accurate films about Hollywood. It’s a reminder of the harsh reality that it any given moment, new stars are born while others sink into obscurity. The actress, specifically, is aware of her fall from grace, but she chooses not to see it that way. When Gillis meets her for the first time, he tries to find out what happened to her, because she “used to be big.” Well, she gives a delusional yet perfect response, stating, “I am still big. It’s the motion pictures that got small.” Apart from the smooth-flowing plots and conversations, director Billy Wilder makes heavy use of voiceovers, hence the film stays captivating all through.

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5 Out of the Past (1947)

Robert Mitchum drives in Out of the Past
RKO Radio Pictures

Out of the Past is adapted from Daniel Mainwaring’s novel Build My Gallows High (a far much better title) and it follows a gas station owner who is forced to return to his old life of being a private detective after being approached by a former client who once asked him to track the girlfriend. Jeff, the P.I., did indeed track the woman, but he fell in love with her. Surprisingly, she went back to her former lover and now Jeff is caught in two minds regarding whether to accept the job.

This is but the surface of the plot. There are dozens of twists and things get extremely convoluted at times, so Out of the Past is the kind of film that’s better understood if it’s watched two or three times.

However, the fact that it forces one to think and concentrate hard doesn’t take away from its awesomeness. The visuals are dreamy, and the characters are good-looking, so most people are likely to just keep watching and figure it all out later.

Stream it on Max

4 The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Sterling Hayden in The Asphalt Jungle
Loews Cineplex Entertainment

It’s quite ironic that prisons are called correctional facilities, yet the majority of convicts tend to be even more eager to participate in crime when they come out. The Asphalt Jungle’s Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider is an example of a character who jumps right back into the action when he gets released. He assembles a team for a $500,000 jewel heist, but things turn ugly when one of his associates attempts to double-cross him.

The presence of a young Marylin Monroe, portraying the double-crosser’s mistress, was enough to fill cinemas then and even though the actress was often accused of only taking easy ‘blonde’ roles, she gives a convincing performance here. Additionally, The Asphalt Jungle avoids jumping straight into the action like many critically acclaimed caper movies do. All characters are given proper backstories, making it easier for viewers to understand why they have chosen a life of crime.

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3 Criss Cross (1949)

Burt Lancaster in Criss Cross
Universal-International

Some men have a harder time moving on than others. Well, being a slave of love costs armored truck driver Steve Thompson dearly in Criss Cross. He makes the risky decision to start an affair with his ex-wife, who is now married to crime boss, Slim Dundee. To distract Dundee, he offers to help him rob the same truck he drives. Unfortunately for him, things don’t end so well.

As misguided as Thompson’s actions are, it’s hard not to root for him. He desperately wants to live happily ever after with the woman of his dreams, who is now the woman who got away. For most of its running time, there is some hope that he might end up on top, but that doesn’t happen. Even his detective buddy feels sad for him, telling him, “I should have been a better friend. I shoulda stopped you. I shoulda grabbed you by the neck, I shoulda kicked your teeth in. I’m sorry Steve.“

For viewers who aren’t so fond of black and white movies, there is a 1995 color remake directed by Steven Soderbergh, titled Underneath. Regrettably, it is many leagues below the original, simply because Burt Lancaster cannot be replaced.

Rent it on Apple TV+

2 Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Sweet Smell of Success
Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions

There are no gangsters or guns in Sweet Smell of Success. No one gets killed either. It’s all scheming, and while the problems might appear minor to those watching, the characters take them very seriously. Events revolve around New York City newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker who has built a reputation for swaying public opinion. The only person he cannot seem to control is his sister who he has warned against marrying a jazz singer. Not willing to let her have her way, he tries to come up with strategies to break her marriage.

RELATED: The Best French Noir Films of All Time

Though there is no violence, the film makes use of all film noir elements such as low-key lighting, an overall sense of pessimism as well as nefarious characters. Besides that, Sweet Smell of Success left a very strong legacy and many other directors or showrunners have either referenced it or tried to replicate it. The Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode “Contract” is a reimagination of the movie whereas the Breaking Bad episodes, “Cat’s in the Bag…” and “…And the Bag’s in the River” are direct quotes from the film noir.

Stream it on Hoopla

1 Touch of Evil (1958)

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil
Universal International Pictures

Touch of Evil was Orson Welles’ penultimate movie, and it sees him play an officer who likes quick convictions. If he is convinced that someone is guilty, he will plant evidence to ensure they go to jail quickly. So, when the car of a DEA agent gets blown up, Welles’ character Captain Quillan quickly claims he found dynamite in the suspect’s house. A Mexican prosecutor doesn’t believe him, so he begins looking into Quillan’s past.

The film noir hooks audiences right from the opening second, thanks to a tense three-minute opening sequence where the car with the bomb is tracked via a crane shot, only for it to explode. Overall, the camera angles are bewildering. There are plenty of unnerving close-ups and magnifying views of little details such as the creases on suits. Thanks to the attention to detail, every scene remains stuck in the mind, long after the credits roll.

Rent it on Apple TV+



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