BBC Culture

Eight of the greatest film noirs

  • The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

    “The streets were dark with something more than night.” Raymond Chandler’s line in The Simple Art of Murder gives a hint at what lies in the shadows of “the black film”. Yet film noir escapes definition. In his foreword to Film Noir: 100 All-time Favourites by Taschen, Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader suggests it is not even a genre. Instead of adhering to fixed conventions, it is defined by tone and mood, and is a product of a set of conditions in the 1940s. Schrader claims that “like its protagonists, film noir is more interested in style than theme”; he lists some recurring techniques, beginning with “the majority of scenes are lit for night”. He argues: “One always has the suspicion that if the lights were all suddenly flipped on the characters would shriek and shrink from the scene like Count Dracula at noontime”. In this scene from John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, criminal mastermind Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) outlines the upcoming job to his crew of accomplices: a character actor, Jaffe avoided the larger-than-life portrayals that characterised 1930s gangster movies. (Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy)

  • The Maltese Falcon (1941)

    Schrader calls The Maltese Falcon “the boundary line in a cycle of movies that stretches … to Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil in 1958”. John Huston’s 1941 directorial debut shines a murky half-light on Humphrey Bogart’s hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade (pictured) as he hunts down an elusive black statuette, establishing the archetypal noir detective hero. Transforming the Hollywood detective film from one in which amateur sleuths like Sherlock Holmes solved crimes as a hobby, The Maltese Falcon presented an alienated, morally ambiguous protagonist with a fatalistic view of the world. The jaded outsider in a fedora is a role that has proved enduring: Bogart would go on to play Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946), and Jack Nicholson gave one of his best performances as PI Jake Gittes in 1974’s Chinatown. (First National Pictures Inc, Warner Bros / TASCHEN)

  • The Big Combo (1955)

    Legendary cinematographer John Alton was able to bring a mastery of expressionist lighting to the more realistic settings of post-war noirs. According to Schrader, the Hungarian “could relight Times Square at noon if necessary”, and his black-and-white photography “equals that of such German expressionist masters as Fritz Wagner and Karl Freund”. His frames of shadow and mist culminate with the concluding scene for The Big Combo, in which the lead characters Susan (Jean Wallace) and Detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) walk out of an airplane hangar into the fog. Alton wrote in his book Painting with Light that “fog photographs lighter than it looks to the eye. Actors are dressed in dark wardrobe, so that they stand out against the black haze… with a remarkable third-dimensional feeling.” (Allied Artists / TASCHEN)

  • Double Indemnity (1944)

    Where common themes do emerge – like the black widow, killers on the run or doppelgangers – there is an overarching mood. As Schrader argues, “the upwardly mobile forces of the ‘30s have halted; frontierism has turned to paranoia and claustrophobia. The small-time gangster has now made it big and sits in the mayor’s chair; the private eye has quit the police force in disgust, and the young heroine, sick of going along for the ride, is taking others for a ride.” Barbara Stanwyck set the bar for femme fatales with her performance in Billy Wilder’s blisteringly cynical Double Indemnity, which was called “the darkest noir of them all” by Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. In the unlikely setting of a supermarket, she schemes with Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) to murder her husband: the thriller – co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler – was scandalous because its underworld consisted of a housewife and an insurance salesman seeking to escape middle-class malaise. (Photos 12 / Alamy)

  • The Big Sleep (1946)

    Regularly topping lists of the greatest film noirs of all time, The Big Sleep brought together Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall for the second time: the dream team had met making the 1944 film To Have and Have Not and married the following year. The tension between them is the central draw for a film directed by Howard Hawks and with a script co-written by William Faulkner based on a novel by Raymond Chandler. With a plot so convoluted that even Chandler couldn’t confirm how one of the characters had died, it veers away from classic whodunit into the terrain of screwball comedy. As Philip Marlowe, Bogart evolves the screen detective from The Maltese Falcon, shedding some of Sam Spade’s cynicism and engaging in witty exchanges with a sequence of beauties; according to Film Noir: 100 All-time Favourites, his double entendre-filled conversation with Bacall about horseracing was as close to explicit sex as it was possible to get in 1940s Hollywood. (Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy)

  • Laura (1944)

    With David Raksin’s musical score lending a haunting, nostalgic quality and a flashback narration steeped in loss, Laura displays several noir characteristics. According to Schrader: “In such films as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Laura, Double Indemnity, The Lady From Shanghai, Out of the Past and Sunset Boulevard the narration creates a mood of temps perdu: an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness.” With arbitrary plot twists typical of noir, detailing an investigation into a murder in which the detective falls in love with the victim, Laura is not so much a crime film as a study of obsession. Veteran Broadway star Clifton Webb gives a standout performance as narrator Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger’s directorial breakthrough: Preminger was assigned as producer by 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F Zanuck, but stepped in to direct after Rouben Mamoulian was removed from the set a month into filming. (20th Century Fox / TASCHEN)

  • Touch of Evil (1958)

    Orson Welles’s first Hollywood movie after a decade in Europe, and the last he would make in the US, Touch of Evil represents the end of the classic film noirs of the 1940s and 50s. Using noir techniques in new ways, it redefined the detective hero and the femme fatale and created a worldview darker than what had come before. According to Film Noir: 100 All-time Favourites, “all of these movies had shared a fundamental doubt about modern man’s capacity to understand the world he inhabits. Here, Welles brought this scepticism to a head … extreme camera angles and a distorting wide-angle lens reinforced the eccentric impression made by the film’s characters, who seem like parodies at times.” Welles plays Hank Quinlan, the ultimate corrupt cop out of a line-up ranging from 1946’s Nocturne to 1992’s Bad Lieutenant that has been dubbed ‘cop noir’. (Photos 12 / Alamy)

  • Drive (2011)

    The final entry in Taschen’s collection reveals how far the noir has come. Ryan Gosling has described his character in Drive as “psychotic”, and “lost in the mythology of Hollywood”; writing in Film Noir: 100 All-time Favourites, Douglas Keesey claims that “contemporary film noir, or neo-noir, is a highly self-conscious genre, keenly aware of the plot conventions, character types, and common techniques associated with past film noirs”. The lead character in the 2002 film Femme Fatale models her behaviour on Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity; in Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone tells Michael Douglas’s detective that her book is about “a detective. He falls for the wrong woman. She kills him.” Yet the film-makers responsible for the movies of the 1940s and 50s were not aware they were working within a distinct genre, their titles given a range of labels from “suspense pictures” to “psychological thrillers” – the term ‘film noir’ was only popularised in 1955. Now, neo-noirs often feature female characters meeting their doppelgangers (as in Mulholland Drive, Don’t Look Back and Black Swan) – or are inspired by comic books and graphic novels. (Bold Films, Oddlot Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions, Motel Movies / TASCHEN)