Today, I came back from working on a Saturday to see the end of Warner Brothers’ High Sierra (1941) with Martine. There was Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, trapped on an Eastern Sierra cliff face and surrounded by police and reporters waiting to put an end to his career of crime. I had seen the film so many times that it was now in my blood. It was one of a handful of U.S. films that defined for me the whole American experience between the 1930s and the 1950s. I thought I would put together a list of the films in the genre that were my favorites.
Here are thirteen of them, arranged in alphabetic order:
- The Big Heat (1953), directed by Fritz Lang, with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame
- The Big Sleep (1946), directed by Howard Hawks, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall
- Criss Cross (1949), directed by Robert Siodmak, with Burt Lancaster, Dan Duryea, and Yvonne De Carlo
- Detour (1946), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, with Tom Neal and Ann Savage
- Double Indemnity (1944), directed by Billy Wilder, with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray
- Gun Crazy (1949), directed by Joseph H. Lewis, starring Peggy Cummins and John Dall
- High Sierra (1941), directed by Raoul Walsh, with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino
- The Maltese Falcon (1941), directed by John Huston, with Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet
- Out of the Past (1947), directed by Jacques Tourneur, with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas
- The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), directed by Tay Garnett, with Lana Turner and John Garfield
- They Live by Night (1949), directed by Nicholas Ray, with Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell
- Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), directed by Otto Preminger, with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney
- White Heat (1949), directed by Raoul Walsh, with James Cagney and Virginia Mayo
If this seems like a long list, please note that I could have stretched it to fifty or a hundred without too much difficulty. There were a lot of noir films made in Hollywood over a long period.
What are noir films? According to Alain Silver, James Ursini, and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir: The Encyclopedia (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2010):
Film noir is grounded neither in personal creation nor in translation of another tradition into cinematic terms. Rather it is a self-contained reflection of American cultural preoccupations in film form. In short, it is the unique example of a wholly American film style. “Film noir” is literally “black film,” not just in the sense of reflecting a dark mood in American society, but equally, almost empirically, as a black slate on which the culture could inscribe its ills and in the process produce a catharsis to help relieve them.
There is a whole galaxy of elements which, together or in unison, make up a film noir plot. They include crime, police, private detectives, “bad girls,” urban environments with “mean streets,” and both inner and outer darkness.