Murder, Cigarettes, and Dangerous Women: Top 7 Noir Detective Films

Maltese Falcon

The city is dark and gritty, the police just a little bit crooked. Murder, cigarettes, and red dressed women are around ever corner. Well, maybe not all those things around every corner, but you get the point. Film noir takes us back to a different time, fancy cars, suits, embittered detectives with dangerous and fast-paced love lives, and it’s a genre well worth a list post or two.

Noir was the opposite of what Hollywood had grown to expect and market [during that time],” said Josh Hartnett, author of The Black Dahlia, of the genre. “People were lusting for that darker side of life when they were living in such seeming isolation from that darkness,” he said, in an interview with In preparation for the dark side of the 40′s and 50′s, pop on your fedora, make yourself a stiff drink, and then let’s take a look at some of the best noir films out there.

1. The Maltese Falcon

As the trailer for the 1940s film will tell you, Sam Spade, the San Francisco private detective, “makes crime a career, and ladies a hobby!” not to mention “he’s as fast on the draw — as he is in the drawing room.” If that doesn’t pull you in, the dead partner, mysterious falcon statue, and (of course) eventual framing of Sam for crimes not committed should do the trick.

The film, a remake of Dashiell Hammett’s greatest novel, stars Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor as Samuel Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy, with Jerome Cowan playing Miles Archer, Spade’s partner in the Spade and Archer detective agency. Peter Lorre, who had a brief role in one of Bogart’s more famous films, Casablanca, plays Joel Cairo, one of the antagonists.


2. Chinatown

Prepare to look through the disillusioned eyes of the cynical Mr. J.J. Gittes, a Los Angeles private detective who’s pulled into a mess of a case when a young woman pretending to be someone she’s not hires him to look into her husband. Murder and the sordid sexual perversions of a powerful man and a woman he comes to love all get tangled up in the mystery.

The film also draws viewers to the mystery of his past dealings with Chinatown back when Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, was on the police force and surrounded by crooked cops. Everything from the way the scenes were shot, to the odd involvement of nursing home residents, to Faye Dunaway’s acting makes Chinatown a classic. By the time the last shot has rung out, you’ll be ready to give up on life and start chain smoking in a leather backed chair.

The Thin Man

3. The Thin Man

The Thin Man, while an excellent film on its own, has the advantage of being a long series, so the fun need not stop after the first 91 minutes. The film takes us to the big city — New York — where Nick Charles and his well-endowed rich wife Nora are returning after being gone for a number of years. After their arrival, Nick is drawn back into his old career as a detective, despite resisting at first, when his wife encourages him to take a case.

The film is both witty and suspenseful, and is based off of a book by the well-known detective writer, Dashiell Hammett — known best for the Maltese Falcon. W.S. Van Dyke directed with William Powell and Myrna Loy starring as Nick and Nora.


4. Vertigo

Vertigo: a feeling of dizziness … a swimming in the head … figuratively, a state in which all things seem to be engulfed in a whirlpool of terror.” Alfred Hitchcock’s detective movie puts a retired police detective with an extreme fear of heights on the case of a potentially suicidal woman who is haunted by strange fears.

He eventually becomes infatuated with her, but she is — of course — married to an old friend who hired him.What follows is a dramatic combination of conflicting fears and desires. James Stewart — star of Hitchcock’s Rear Window — plays John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, with Kim Novak playing his love interest, Madeleine.

The Big Sleep

5. The Big Sleep

Bogart and Bacall are back together again — and just as you’d expect, the results are impressive. The Big Sleep is one of those detective films that would be good with even mediocre actors, based off of Raymond Chandler’s famous detective novel, but with great actors, the film is elevated to a genre defining masterpiece.

Bogart is charming, if a bit of a rascal, and Bacall is commanding and beautiful as ever. Bacall plays the daughter of a client, Gernal Sternwood, who hires private detective Philip Marlowe to look a case for him, leading to their eventual infatuation.


6. L.A. Confidential

What’s better than one detective cliche? Three! The 1997 film L.A. Confidential takes us to Los Angeles in the 1950s, where three police officers, the honest and ambitious Ed Exley, the hell bent seeker of justice Bud White, and the profit driven Jack Vincennes, all work together to deal with a number of murders in their city.

Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce star with Kim Basinger playing the beautiful Lynn Bracken. Sure, the film doesn’t have the same feel to it that The Big Sleep is going to manage in terms of when it was made, but it still does an excellent job with the genre, and the fact that it still comes in VHS says something for it at least.


7. Alphaville

Alphaville is an admittedly bizarre twist on the genre, but it remains an excellent and worthwhile film. Made in 1965, the film is French, but set off this planet, and following an American secret agent who must find a missing person and save the dystopic future city.

Imagine if film noir cross ways with science fiction, and flew to France. Alphaville is about what you’d get. It was directed by Jean-Luc Godard, known for his unique style of film making, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint.

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