Throughout history, the film noir genre has undergone various evolutions and transformation at the hands of different directors. While the term was mostly used to refer to the unique Hollywood works of the ’40s and ’50s, those ideas were used by filmmakers around the world to play around with the conventions of the genre and to create new ones.
The term itself is a retrospective one since Nino Frank’s initial categorisation wasn’t really adopted by the people during the ’40s. Although the legacy of film noir is endlessly extensive when talking about world cinema, this article will primarily focus on the iconic cinematic masterpieces that shaped American film noir.
Inspired by a wide variety of sources such as the visual style of German Expressionism as well as the literary qualities of hardboiled crime fiction, film noir became a manifestation of the American subconscious itself. Exploring subjects such as crime, sexual desire and violence among others, these films provide invaluable insights into the America’s identity as a nation.
A beginner’s guide to American film noir:
The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)
A seminal American masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon was John Huston’s spectacular directorial debut which starred the great Humphrey Bogart in one of the definitive roles of his career. This project is even recognised by some as the first major film noir ever.
Probably the most famous adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon features Bogart as a cynical private eye who enters a world of mystery and intrigue revolving around a jewel-encrusted falcon statuette. His client is played by Mary Astor who gives a highly influential performance as the femme fatale.
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
An indispensable classic by none other than Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity is one of the greatest examples of the unique aesthetic and narrative elements of the film noir genre. Co-written by Raymond Chandler, the film conducts a moral analysis of modern society through the lethal love affair between an insurance salesman and a disgruntled wife.
Wilder recalled: “The funny thing is, Chandler would come up with a good image, pictorial, and like I said I would come up with a Chandlerism, as it were. It’s very strange, you know, that’s the way it always happens. He was not a young man, when we worked together on Double Indemnity for ten or twelve weeks, so he never quite learned it…the craft.”
The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)
Howard Hawks’ 1946 gem is often called the most confusing film noir of all time but its timeless appeal doesn’t lie in the coherence of the narrative, it lies in the film’s irresistible charm and the phenomenal on-screen pairing of Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Many believe that Bogart’s rendition of Philip Marlowe hasn’t been surpassed since then and they might be onto something. Bogart is incredible as Marlowe, Chandler’s iconic private eye who has a penchant for finding trouble.
Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
Featuring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, Out of the Past cannot be left out of any conversation about the film noir genre. Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 work contains a grim narrative which is perfectly complemented by the equally dark aesthetic framework.
The film tells the story of a private detective who tries to put his past behind him by moving to a remote gas station in a relatively unknown place but his past manages to catch up to him anyway, leading to extremely dangerous consequences.
Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)
Among Aldrich’s most famous works, Kiss Me Deadly marks an important step in the evolution of the genre. It stars as Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer, a private eye who ends up entering a dark and deadly world after giving a lift to a hitchhiker.
Kiss Me Deadly has been recognised as a primary influence for the artistic sensibilities of the French New Wave, having inspired the works of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard among many others. With this work, Aldrich pushed the boundaries of the genre even further.
Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
While Citizen Kane continues to dominate the current conversations about Orson Welles, many film fans have started to point out that his later works have a lot more to offer. That is definitely the case with Touch of Evil, a film noir made by one of the greatest American auteurs.
Right from the start, Welles manages to capture the audience’s attention and he draws them into a world that is populated by nefarious forces who lurk behind every corner. The director also delivers a fantastic acting performance as one of the dirtiest cops in film history.