It's Noirvember, the month when movie lovers celebrate film noir — that classic ‘40s and ‘50s Hollywood crime genre featuring trench coat toughs with fedoras led into temptation by deadly dames. Singin’ in the Rain it ain't. Get the party started with these 12 essential noirs you can stream at home now. Settle in for some hard-boiled patter and what detective Sam Spade calls “the stuff that dreams are made of.”
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
John Huston's adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's classic pulp mystery about a jewel-encrusted bird statue and the double-crossing men and women who will kill to get their hands on it is usually considered the first (arguably best) example of noir. Humphrey Bogart, in his first major good-guy star turn, plays Sam Spade, a cynical, jaded San Francisco private eye who gets sucked into hunting for the priceless treasure. Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and a scene-stealing Sydney Greenstreet round out the extraordinary cast of liars, cheats and shady hustlers trying to trip up our gruff hero — who refuses to be outfoxed.
Double Indemnity (1944)
In one of the great playing-against-type performances of the ‘40s, the normally milquetoast Fred MacMurray stars as Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who gladly goes crooked when he falls for the sultry young wife of a poor sap who's just taken out a very large life insurance policy. A platinum blonde (Barbara Stanwyck) shoots off white-hot sparks as Neff's obsession and accomplice. And Edward G. Robinson is first-rate as Neff's boss who lets friendship blind him to what's going on (until it's too late). Directed by Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity is a seamy, sordid thriller that crackles with deadly erotic heat.
The Big Sleep (1946)
Don't bother trying to follow every feint and turn in this masterpiece's overly twisty story line. Raymond Chandler wrote it and even he couldn't keep it straight. Instead, just sit back and luxuriate in the romantic chemistry between Bogie and Bacall. It's also a heck of a detective yarn. Bogart is Philip Marlowe, an L.A. private dick hired by a patriarch whose daughters (Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers) are caught up with some pretty dicey characters. While trying to make sense of it all (good luck with that), Marlowe proves to be as tough with his knuckles as he is with his tongue. For more top-notch Bogie noir, also check out 1947's Dark Passage and 1950's In a Lonely Place.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
From the first split-second that John Garfield sees Lana Turner in her racy white shorts, it's all but cinched that he will end up helping her kill her husband. It's no coincidence that the film opens with a shot of a sign that says “Man Wanted.” If that sounds like Double Indemnity, it's because it's written by the same deliciously twisted mind, James M. Cain. Garfield is perfect as a drifter who falls into a black widow's web, and Turner has never had as deadly a sting. Lust, murder, betrayal — this one has all the ingredients you want in a great noir.
Out of the Past (1947)
If any leading man was ever made specifically for the noir age, it was Robert Mitchum. With his sleepy, half-mast eyes and semi-resigned macho swagger, he oozes a low-key energy that gives off the unmistakable scent of doom. Mitchum plays the owner of a small-town gas station who used to have some sketchy pals back in New York. He thinks he's left that world behind, but he gets pulled back in when he's forced to do a favor for a crime boss (Kirk Douglas) that involves babysitting a very deadly dame (the darkly radiant Jane Greer) for whom he falls hard. Needless to say, this does not end well for him. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, who really knew what he was doing with light and shadow.
The Third Man (1949)
This is arguably the finest Orson Welles film that wasn't actually directed by Orson Welles. It just feels like it was. The actual director of record was Carol Reed. And you won't find a more atmospheric thriller from the postwar era. Joseph Cotten stars as an American out of his depth in Vienna, looking to claim the body of his friend Harry Lime (Welles) who, it turns out, isn't dead after all. Graham Greene wrote the knotty script, Welles delivers an indelible monologue about cuckoo clocks atop a Ferris wheel, and the zither score is so great it will take months to shake it out of your head. For more Welles noir, also check out 1946's The Stranger, 1957's The Lady From Shanghai and another film further down this list.
Talk about a race against the clock. In this delirious, pulse-pounding thriller, Edmond O'Brien plays a hapless and helpless man who's basically already dead. He's just been told that he's been poisoned and now he has only a few days to find out who killed him and why. From this terrific find-my-own-murderer setup comes one of the most breathless entries in the noir canon. Director Rudolph Maté keeps his protagonist desperately knocking on doors only to find that each one is, in fact, a trapdoor. This one definitely holds up. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the 1988 Dennis Quaid-Meg Ryan remake.
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Creepiness, thy name is Norma Desmond. Gloria Swanson gives us the heebie-jeebies as the aging and long-faded silent-film star who enlists a down-on-his-luck screenwriter (William Holden) as her reluctant lover and author of her delusional comeback bid. Directed with perverse black humor by Billy Wilder, Sunset Blvd. is one of the most twisted takes on fame and Tinseltown that has ever been put on celluloid. Which is only part of the reason why it's so great. A few of the others are a burial for a chimp, a story narrated by a dead man floating in a swimming pool, and the sight of the has-been walking down a long flight of stairs ready for her close-up at last.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Nearly a decade after kicking off the noir boom with The Maltese Falcon, John Huston returns for an encore that has the same deadly snap, crackle and pop. This is a lean and mean little film, but man does it pack a wallop. Basically a procedural about the aftermath of a heist gone wrong, The Asphalt Jungle is a character study of some pretty desperate characters. Chief among them is the always welcome Sterling Hayden, who bristles with sweaty menace. Huston delivers everything you want in a film like this except anyone with a soul. There's even Marilyn Monroe!
The Big Heat (1953)
Glenn Ford plays a straight-arrow cop who gets caught up in a case that leads to his wife's death. Which, of course, means that it's now payback time. Lifting the lid on a grimy underbelly of crooked cops, underhanded politicians and gangsters just doing what comes naturally, Ford is a man on a bender for vengeance who can't and won't be stopped. Directed by Fritz Lang, The Big Heat includes the famous scene of the fantastic Gloria Grahame getting scalded and scarred when Lee Marvin's hair-trigger hood throws hot coffee in her face. Like Ford, though, she ends up getting revenge.
Touch of Evil (1958)
If The Maltese Falcon marked the dawn of noir, Orson Welles’ seedy south-of-the-border thriller marked its dusk. Touch of Evil is most celebrated for its long, unbroken virtuoso opening sequence of a bomb being planted in the trunk of a car in Tijuana and detonating several, vise-tightening minutes later at the border. Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh are the nominal stars in this kinky Mexi-Cali mystery, but twilight turns from Welles (as a bloated, amoral police chief) and Marlene Dietrich (as a jaded fortune-teller) are the film's dark animating spirits. When it's over, you'll either want to rewatch the opening shot … or take a shower.
All movie genres go through boom-and-bust cycles. So it was only a matter of time before film noir would eventually make a comeback. There have been dozens of great neo-noirs, including Body Heat, Blood Simple, House of Games, The Last Seduction and Memento. But the greatest one of all is Roman Polanski's Chinatown. Jack Nicholson is hard-boiled private eye Jake Gittes, who, thanks to a gorgeous client (Faye Dunaway) stumbles down a rabbit hole of corruption, murder and incest. This is an epic film with the sweep of a Greek tragedy and Nicholson does a variation on Bogie that's almost as good as the real thing. A masterpiece no matter when it was made.