Essential Film Noir

10 Essential Noirvember Double Bills

If you’re having trouble switching over from spooky season to this sudden festive cheer enveloping us, we have the perfect antidote for you.

For fans of film noir, November is actually Noirvember, a time to dive into the lives of shady characters and their seedy surroundings. Noir centres on an anti-hero and is typically populated with hardboiled criminals or people living on the edges of society. Quite often it involves those who are simply down on their luck. Cops and detectives sometimes straddle these categories as well as the desperate women and femme fatales who get caught up in all sorts of trouble. Revenge, paranoia, and all our darkest instincts typically drive the narrative.

They aren’t folks we necessarily want to know but we do recognize a realism (however heightened) in their stories. In some respects, this is scarier than anything our imaginations conjured during Halloween. Film noir can be oddly enticing in this regard.

Depending on who you ask, film noir is a style, a genre, or a movement⁠—let the academics argue that one out. The crucial point is that filmmakers have been engaging with its gloomy aesthetic and grim motifs in a variety of innovative ways since its inception.

Noir tropes are the alluring elements that draw us in. With its low-key lighting, off-kilter and/or unbalanced framing, and reliance on shadows, the genre pushes us towards an abyss, a place to confront the bleak side of human nature. Film noir features violence (or the threat), forays into the underworld, obsession as opposed to love or romance, and it is much sexier than its Hollywood counterparts.

The term film noir was applied retrospectively by critics and historians. It was coined by a French critic, Nino Frank, while he was studying American genres and attempting to define the characteristic properties of each. Film noir literally translates as ‘black film’. It is said that Frank was motivated by the French literary publishing imprint Série noire, founded in 1945. This aligns with the origins of many of the earliest noirs. Their stories and adaptations derived from American potboilers and crime drama literature.

With roots in German Expressionism (particularly its cinematography), noir emerged in the United States as a response to the Great Depression and the Second World War. The Classic period also occurred during the beginning of Cold War tensions in the 1940s and ’50s.

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is recognized by some as the first ‘true’ film noir but a more popular reference is John Huston’s debut as a director, The Maltese Falcon (1941). Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) is considered the final film of the Classic period.

After that we get neo-noirs, a more global phenomenon that incorporates any number of sub-genres. There are noir Westerns for example, tech noirs like Blade Runner, and even neon noirs. Filmmakers began consciously referencing Classic noir features and manipulating them. Since there were no hard and fast rules even in the earliest films, film artists were able to get strikingly inventive with their references and variations. Happily, filmmakers continue to experiment with this genre and its stylings.

No matter which era or variation on film noir, the films are thrilling, suspenseful, and chillingly full of menace. There’s an unshakeable sense of unease and you can cut the existential dread with a knife. But as nasty as some of the characters can get there is a moral code: these folks are made to pay for their transgressions. The tough edge slips away, revealing an unnerving vulnerable side.

A group of us here at That Shelf put our heads together to assemble a rousing celebration of Noirvember. These are our must sees, organized into fun double bills, culled from both classic noir and neo-noirs titles. Take your pick and dive in. – Barbara Goslawski

Sunset Boulevard and In a Lonely Place stills

Hollywood Babylon: Sunset Boulevard (1950) and In a Lonely Place (1950)

Technically film noirs can take place anywhere a guy or dame can get into trouble, but is there any setting more suited to the jaded genre than the Hollywood of 1950? It’s where lies are literally an art form and where dreams go to die and lessons are learned in the hardest of ways. If noirs are to be believed, the factory behind the silver screen is truly tarnished and many of its workers amoral, cynical or crooked beyond redemption.

That’s what makes this particular double bill so juicy. Because who better to take us inside the shadowy black and white beast than two movie scribes struggling to succeed though the odds are stacked against them? Sunset Boulevard’s Joe Gillis (William Holden) and In a Lonely Place’s Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) are at different points on the same journey. Gillis is attempting to make his name for the first time, any way he can and pride be damned, while Steele has already tasted success and is desperate to feast on it once again. It remains to be seen if either man can retain their sense of self and self-worth in a place tailor-made to strip it from them. After all, “there’s no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality.”

Directors Billy Wilder and Nicholas Ray seem to relish exposing Tinseltown’s seedy underbelly and its hypocrisy frame by frame. Under their capable direction, each and every element of these two films build to an impressive whole, achieving not just greatness as examples of fine film noir, but as truly great films full stop. But as giants of the genre, both films also give us another true noir essential–strong female characters portrayed by actresses at the top of their game. Perhaps its the fact the corrupt Hollywood factory is run by powerful men and the dreams most often crushed by it are women’s but there’s something incredibly gratifying about watching both Gloria Swanson and Gloria Grahame steal every scene they’re in from their more-than-capable male co-stars. So treat yourself to this classic noir double bill that serves both as a celebration of the genre and a master class on mid-twentieth century Hollywood, a place truly ripe for danger, deception and dishonesty. – Emma Badame


Third Man and Notorious

Trust Issues: The Third Man (1949) and Notorious (1946)

At first look, The Third Man appears to be the story of a paperback writer, Holly Martin (Joseph Cotten), who investigates the death of his friend Harry Lime. Once the film kicks into gear, however, it’s clear that Carol Reed’s film has much more to say about the darkness in the hearts of men. Set in Vienna after the Second World War, shooting on location lends a verisimilitude to the film that wouldn’t have been possible on-set, creating an atmosphere of dread and intrigue. Cotten never got a better part than this. And, oh man, that Ferris wheel scene. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, rent/stream/borrow The Third Man right now!

Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock made North by Northwest, Suspicion, and To Catch a Thief together, but out of Hitch’s renowned filmography, Notorious stands out. Ingrid Bergman stars as Alicia, the daughter of a German traitor. Alicia loves drinking and tall, handsome men. When a romantic tryst reveals himself as a government agent (Cary Grant) asking her to spy on her father’s Nazi friends in Rio de Janeiro, Alicia doesn’t know who to trust. Especially when Devlin starts pushing her into the arms of Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a closet Nazi with many ties to U.S. business. Hitchcock was working at the height of his powers with a star-studded cast he could rarely get access to. Roger Ebert loved Notorious so much that he put it on his top ten films of all-time list. – Colin Biggs


Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Big Lebowski

Post Modern Neo-noir: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and The Big Lebowski (1998)

Brimming with enough tongue-in-cheek references to fill a rug-sized fedora, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Big Lebowski are darkly funny neo-noirs that take Halliday, Hammett, and Chandler, and funnel their smoky nihilism through a decidedly postmodern lens. Irony is abundant; fourth walls are broken; dream sequences reveal psychology, fear and desire; and self-referentiality reigns supreme. Set in L.A. (and clearly a nod to a city which backgrounds many of the genre’s finest examples), both films skewer the art, film, and music worlds, presenting them as vapid, oblivious, self-indulgent, and corrupt. It’s a city where a boardroom is just as seedy as any den of iniquity, one that’ll chew ya up and spit ya out, kid, so watch yourself!

The wise cracking “detectives” (Robert Downey Jr./Val Kilmer, and Jeff Bridges/John Goodman, respectively) are more indebted to Elmore Leonard’s bumbling antiheroes and Altman’s rumpled Marlowe than the cynical, damaged dicks of classic noir. These guys get high, lose digits, fight with henchmen and each other, are neurotic and filled with anxieties, and generally screw up⁠—a lot. They’re perennial losers, albeit with purpose and heart: they actually seem to care about something other than the rewards. Bogey this ain’t, but that’s not so bad. Hardboiled? More like over easy. And lemme get two! – Marko Djurdjic


Scarlett Street and Rope

Underrated Works By Esteemed Noir Directors: Scarlet Street (1945) and Rope (1948)

Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang have directed some of the most well-known noir films in the history of the genre. Lang laid the groundwork with M, featuring noir mainstay Peter Lorre in his breakout role, while Hitchcock perfected the formula with iconic thrillers like Notorious, Vertigo, and Strangers on a Train. However, in the weeds of their respective filmographies lies a beautiful diamond in the rough.

For Lang, this is Scarlet Street. Chris Cross, a pushover cashier and aspiring painter, falls in love with broke actress Kitty March. When her and her gambler husband, Johnny, discover that Chris’ paintings are worth something, Kitty seduces Chris to let her take credit for them. In his second film pitting Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett as romantic leads, Lang ensnares his characters in the tragic ties that bind: romance, greed, and manipulation. It may not reach the gun-toting heights of other noir classics, but it descends to the most heart-aching depths.

Hitchcock has numerous looked-over masterworks, but Rope may be the most unacceptably slept-on. Two students (John Dall, Farley Granger) attempt to host a dinner party after murdering a fellow student in an act of intellectual superiority, but it all naturally comes crashing down. Featuring Jimmy Stewart in a supporting role that takes the reins in the third act, Rope’s ensemble cast provide a perfect character web of passion and deceit. Shot over ten long takes stitched together (eat your heart out Sam Mendes) to maintain the pace of a single night, Rope is expertly plotted from its first frame up until its emotionally heated finale. Sounds like a great night of Noirvember to me. – Larry Fried


Touch of Evil and Fargo

Sinister Oddballs: Touch of Evil (1958) and Fargo (1996)

Touch of Evil has this luxurious yet demented grandeur that only Orson Welles could conjure. It’s like a compendium of elemental noir components pushed to a Baroque extreme. The film opens with the famous (and superb) three and a half minute opening crane shot that ends with a dramatic car bomb explosion.

The quintessential battle between good and evil is epitomized by the central struggle between Miguel Vargas, a Mexican drug enforcement agent (Charlton Heston) and crooked cop, American police captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles).

Using his trademark deep focus style, Welles makes sure that his own portrayal is considered in the most wicked way possible with off kilter camera angles trained mostly on himself. But his character is achingly unforgettable: by the end of the film, we are drawn to his vulnerability even though he’s despicable. We see him through his friend Tanya’s eyes (Marlene Dietrich), a strong world-weary woman who is the infinitely wise outsider in a world full of misfits.

Fargo pairs up with Touch of Evil so well because of its cast of eccentric characters and stronger than normal female lead. Frances McDormand is at her best as the Police Chief of a small town. It’s captivating to watch her toy with our perceptions, at times seeming to be the shrewdest cop around and at others leaving us to doubt her competence⁠—but just for a split second.

It’s like the Coen brothers took Welles’ Classic noir and flipped it inside out into a black comedy neo-noir. The film is unusual in that it’s not an urban setting. It may be a seemingly wholesome rural setting but it’s no less sinister in its look at greed. William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless wannabe criminal, and the completely incompetent goons he hires to kidnap his wife for ransom (played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) are just plain hysterical. – BG


The Postman Always Rings Twice and Elevator to the Gallows

Murderous Love Affairs: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows, 1958)

When it comes to torrid love affairs, the 1946 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice is one of the steamiest. It’s so sultry that not even a hint of nudity was needed. And surprisingly for its time, the film elicits sympathy for its murderous lovers (unlike Double Indemnity, for example).

John Garfield plays Frank Chambers, a drifter who wanders into the lives of Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), and his much younger wife, Cora (Lana Turner). As Frank and Cora fall into each other’s arms and dream of starting a new life together, you know Nick’s a goner. But through a series of complications and machinations, it’s not so easy for the pair to run off with Nick’s assets in tow. And as we all know, happy endings aren’t meant to be for wicked people. Noirs were after all, morality tales in the end.

I think Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) would be a fascinating pairing: I would love to watch how the two films inform each other. Louis Malle’s debut feature (and the film credited with launching the French New Wave) adds another layer to the best laid plans gone awry motif as he uses the cinematic tools at his disposal to create a poetic noir that is still tinged with an unshakeable menace.

Jeanne Moreau is transcendent in the lead as our femme fatale, Florence Carala. She convinces her lover, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), to murder her wealthy husband, Simon (Jean Wall), in his office and make it appear like a suicide. They have great plans for a future together. But Julien gets trapped in the elevator after the deed—for the entire weekend—leaving Florence hopelessly wandering the streets and worrying not just about him but about herself.

There’s an unforgettable helplessness in her face, heightened by the now famous (and highly evocative) improvised soundtrack by Miles Davis. This is noir at its most emotional and disquieting. – BG


Cat People and Decoy

Classic Noir With A Twist:  Cat People (1942) & Decoy (1946)

We typically associate the classic era of film noir with dark alleyways and ominous lamp posts bending over streets, but on occasion some noir movies went beyond the hard-boiled detective, borrowing elements from other genres. Two films that are noted as being of the first ones to do this are Cat People and Decoy. The latter is known for its unyielding violence and Jean Gillie’s stunning performance as Margo Shelby, one of the genre’s best femme fatales. Directed by Jack Bernhard, Decoy included a mad scientist who resurrects a gangster blending the sci-fi and film noir genres seamlessly.

Cat People is arguably more supernatural horror than film noir, but it’s how the two elements compliment one another so perfectly that makes the movie memorable. A jilted lover spurns her partner and his new lady that eventually manifests into her transformation as a black panther, as she had claimed she would given her bewitching ancestry. Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People treads the mixed waters of film noir aesthetics and tropes with pure horror turns creating a visceral film for the time period. A dose of film history, these two films embody early representations of mixing genres and how to do it organically without losing the edge of any one aspect. – Rachel Ho


Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly

The Noirs of Philip K. Dick: Minority Report (2002) & A Scanner Darkly (2006)

One of the pre-eminent authors of the science-fiction genre, Philip K. Dick’s works continue to be thought-provoking and relevant. He often explored philosophical questions and was well-known for his alternative histories, including his breakthrough novel, The Man in the High Castle. Unfortunately, Dick struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues that distorted his perception of reality and caused hallucinations, which he wrote about in A Scanner Darkly. Semi-autobiographical in nature, the 1977 novel was adapted into a film directed by Richard Linklater in 2006, starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder. Linklater used rotoscoping to add to the cinematic acid trip of the film that has a distinct neo-noir energy playing to the paranoid nature of Dick’s work.

Similarly, Dick’s novella, The Minority Report, reflected the author’s anxieties towards authoritarianism and autonomy. His investigation of free will was adapted into Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report starring Tom Cruise as the commanding officer of Precrime, an agency that uses clairvoyants to stop premeditated murders before the assailant even knows what they’re going to do.

Although a pure science-fiction writer, many of Dick’s novels and short stories incorporate noir themes mirroring the author’s troubled darkness and constant investigation into life’s mysteries. Thankfully for us, the likes of Linklater and Spielberg have translated his influential words into compelling cinema with grace and ease. – RH


One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress

Carl Franklin’s ‘90’s Noirs: One False Move (1992) and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Those in the mood for an entertaining noir double bill look no further than Carl Franklin’s ’90s films One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress. One of the modern masters of the genre, Franklin’s major breakthrough as a director came with his 1992 neo-noir film One False Move which centred around a small-town sheriff (Bill Paxton) in Arkansas who attempts to arrest a trio of criminals (Cynda Williams, Michael Beach, and Billy Bob Thornton, who co-wrote the script with Tom Epperson) headed to his town.  Anchored by a brilliant femme fatal by Williams, whose character is carrying a few secrets of her own, the film is a thrilling nail-biter that gets better with each viewing.

Franklin’s 1994 film Devil in a Blue Dress features another great femme fatal performance by a Black actress, that is equally worth your time.  Adapting Walter Mosley’s 1990 novel of the same name, the film revolves around a machinist, Easy Rowlins (Denzel Washington), looking for work who gets involved in the search for a missing woman (Jennifer Beals). Following a more traditional noir structure, Easy must navigate a world of crooked politicians and racist cops, the film uses classic tropes to address issues of race and class in fascinating ways. – Courtney Small


Laura and Brick

Obsession and a Woman Named Laura: Laura (1944) and Brick (2005)

Otto Preminger’s noir Laura is a classic for a reason. Sumptuously filmed (and an Oscar winner for Best Cinematography, Black and White), the moody mystery centres on police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) who falls in love with Laura (Gene Tierney), the woman whose murder he is investigating. A truly great mystery, the film offers something more atypical than traditional noir.  Less of a hard-boiled detective than Sam Spade, McPherson shows a more sentimental side of the character fixture and without an obvious femme fatale in sight. Modern audiences will be more inclined to view Vincent Price as playing against type as high society playboy Shelby Carpenter, but in the period Laura was filmed, this role was very much in his wheelhouse before he cemented himself as a horror icon. Laura also can’t be discussed without touching on the haunting score by David Raksin. Composed over a weekend and based on a “Dear John” letter he received from his wife that same weekend, the “Laura” theme is as much a presence as the murder victim. The song would go on to become a jazz standard, covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Charlie Parker.

Laura pairs perfectly with Rian Johnson’s neo-noir, Brick. Taking the detective elements of noir, Johnson sets his story in a Southern California high school with teen Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) taking on the investigation of the disappearance of his former girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin).  Using the trappings synonymous with the noir genre, Brendan comes up against his share of typical noir characters as he uncovers a seedy underworld of a high school crime ring complete with a kingpin (Lukas Hass), a principal echoing a by-the-books police captain, and a femme fatale named—what else—Laura (Nora Zehetner).  A Sundance Special Jury prize winner for “originality of vision”, Brick is not only a great watch for its noir elements, but serves as a fascinating career debut for the future Star Wars and blockbuster director. – Rachel West


What would your perfect Noirvember double bill be? Tell us in the comments!