The 20 Best Film Noirs of All Time

     September 19, 2017

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L.A. Confidential arrived in theaters on this day in 1997. The 50s-set potboiler received almost unprecedented universal acclaim, and if you were of a certain age then, it very likely introduced you to film noir.

Film noir was a genre that, like the Western, used to be the most popular style of film for the early movie studios but fell out of favor by the 60s. Like Westerns, film noir was frequently considered a lower class of cinema in comparison to the sweeping adaptations of epic popular fiction. And the immense regard that many of the older films now have, most of that came later as film criticism grew to become more respected and international film embraced the shadowy works of detective fiction.

Jean-Luc Godard in 1960.

Jean-Luc Godard in 1960.

Film noir itself was an important genre for legitimizing cinema as an artform — the use of shadows for terror, the seductive placement of limbs, glances, and the way someone smoked a cigarette substituted for dialogue. The Hayes Production Code made it harder to convey sex, but film noir coded it by using characters that work just outside the respectability of the police force, but instead are hired in private to unravel mysteries that the people hiring would also like to keep private and out of the police dossiers and headlines. And that distance from societal order opened up narratives to include other perceived lessers: gamblers, alcoholics, burlesque dancers, prostitutes, and desperate men and women. As such, the femme fatale was born to counterpart the brooding and mysterious private detective. Acclaimed film director Jean-Luc Godard famously began his career as a film critic writing for France’s Cahiers du cinema, where he frequently championed this post-WWII cinematic movement for portraying a level of unease and disbelief that the rest of popular cinema was avoiding. Godard famously quipped that all you need to make a movie is a gun and a girl. And that’s partly what made noir so popular at movie studios: it was cheap to make and it could create a movie star out of an actor/actress who was on contract.

Film criticism also shifted in the 40s and 50s to include more artful analysis of movies (suggestion: read some of the early 1940s film criticism from novelist James Agee when he started at Time in 1942; Agee was hugely influential to our big American critics of the 60s onward—like the Cahiers writers, and Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert.) Agee himself was excited by noir and pulp films, and he often fought to include them in Time which boosted their profile in intellectual circles and was extremely formative for elevating many genres decades later, such as horror. Agee also later went on to write the seminal, noir-inspired Night of the Hunter script that attacked the potential for hypocrisy in religion. Attacking convention and the open embrace of the status quo is precisely what intrigued Agee. That and the camera angles and use of lighting that conveyed much more than good vs. evil in it’s heightened black and white status.

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