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Top Films Noir in Criterion by S. Evans

by Cinematic Cteve

Created 08/17/12

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Existential heroes. Psychotic villains. Fatalistic femme fatales.

Noir could be described as the wrong fork in the road taken by the desperate middle class. Their experience typically leaves them cynical, jaded and merciless, which is like life itself with the veneer of civility stripped away.

Here is a list of films in the Criterion Collection that drill to the soul of human greed, avarice and lusty desire in that brooding, deadly genre known as noir.

  • Years ahead of its time and a template for the French New Wave to follow. As Mickey Spillane's brutal detective Mike Hammer, Ralph Meeker sneers and snarls and bare-knuckle fights his way through L.A.'s corrupt underbelly of scum on his obsessive quest for what his mistress calls "The Great Whatsit." It's a MacGuffin with a hot bang; a plutonium punch in the gut for the Cold-War era. Savage. Ugly. Relentless. Directors are still trying to understand and duplicate the incredible effects of this Robert Aldrich masterpiece.

    Gets my vote for greatest film noir of all time.

  • Not a false note in this cynical tale of post-war Vienna. Mysterious, bleak, amoral. A hypnotic musical score composed for a stringed instrument known as a zither, which is simultaneously cheerful and vaguely sinister -- rather like the peculiar character Harry Lime, the titular "Third Man.".

    One of the greatest closing shots in film history; so good that Martin Scorsese riffed on it in The Departed.

  • The granddaddy of caper films. A famous silent sequence lasts the duration of the heist, tightening the suspense to unbearable levels. Enough fatalism for three films.

  • The film that put Kubrick on the radar of cineastes everywhere. A sordid tale of low-lifes robbing a racetrack. Career-defining performances from Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook Jr. and the compulsively watchable Timothy Carey, who would damn-near top himself the following year in Kubrick's seminal anti-war film Paths of Glory. The Killing's innovative non-linear structure has been endlessly imitated, notably by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs.

  • Effective minimalism on a budget as a brooding hitman wanders the city, contemplating his job. Great look at the grime and grit of New York City in the early 1960s. Filmed on a pittance; looks like a million bucks.

  • A vicious little noir by Sam Fuller, that master of the low-budget independents. Richard Widmark always came off half-crazy. Here he's full-blown and over the edge.

  • Director Louis Malle made a star of stunning Jeanne Moreau in this Parisian crime thriller in which the lover of a wealthy woman conspires to murder her husband. As with many great noirs, weird coincidences and a surplus of bad luck leads to inevitable doom. Great jazz score composed and performed by the incomparable Miles Davis.

  • Jean Renoir, the son of French Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, made this film noir before there was a name for the genre. Jean Gabin (Grand Illusion) stars as a train engineer prone to violent seizures. When the wife of the railyard owner tries to seduce the engineer, the film veers into the dark realm of two classic noir tropes: madness and murder.

  • A masterful exercise in breathless suspense and a direct inspiration on Hitchcock, who adapted another story by the screen writers of this film for what would become known as Vertigo. The final 15 minutes will drive you right up the wall.

    Diabolique was so terrifying in its time (and remains potent today) that it inspired Hitchcock to make Psycho just to see if he could do better. Call it a tie.

  • “There are eight million stories in the Naked City and this is one of them." So begins the voiceover of this classic and hugely influential noir -- the template for naturalism in modern crime films. I had to get director Dassin on this list one more time and this has to be the film to include. That Irish treasure Barry Fitzgerald plays the world-weary cop on the hunt for a woman killer. Shot entirely on location in the Big Apple, this odyssey will take Fitzgerald's homicide investigator from the dank sewers to the lofty spires of the highest skyscrapers in New York, the deadly Naked City.

  • Burt Lancaster redefines sociopathic villainy in this masterful tale of JJ Hunsecker, a Walter Winchell-like columnist who rules NYC and ruins reputations with poison-pen commentaries in his nationally-syndicated newspaper column. Co-star Tony Curtis was seldom better as a toadie press agent willing to stoop nearly as low as Lancaster's columnist in order to get publicity for his clients. In a venal quid pro quo relationship, they conspire to ruin the romance between Hunsecker's sister and a musician who Hunsecker decides is not good enough for her. Hunsecker has some seriously incestuous issues barely sublimated behind his steely resolve to destroy anyone he desires with the malicious twist of a phrase in late 1950s America, when newspapers still had that kind of power. Stunning cinematography offers a spot-on look at what Gotham was like in 1957. Co-written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, who later penned North By Northwest, my favorite film. That makes Sweet Smell of Success a worthy late addition to this list, even though it is missing a femme fatale. To all those who favorited my list: thank you. To those who clamored for the inclusion of Sweet Smell of Success, here you go.

32 comments

  • By Neil Hirsch
    August 28, 2012
    03:08 PM

    How can you possibly overlook "The Sweet Smell Of Success"? A late film noir, but one of the greatest films of the 1950s.
    Reply
  • By NAME
    August 28, 2012
    04:28 PM

    Out of the Past, if for no other reason than the dialogue.
    Reply
  • By Andrew
    August 28, 2012
    05:55 PM

    Great list. There are a few on this list I haven't seen and will seek out, but I doubt that they would be better than Double Indemnity, which I would place at the top spot, or close to it. Also Criss-Cross (1949) with Burt Lancaster, directed by Robert Siodmak, with a brutal ending hard to believe. (Does that count as a spoiler?) Regarding Neil Hirsch's post, I'm not sure SSOSuccess qualifies as noir -- does it? It completely depends on your definition.
    Reply
  • By Howard Phillips
    August 28, 2012
    06:44 PM

    Great choices, while some, well, peculiar ones..! : ) Robert Siodmack's 1946 "The Killers" as well as Rudolf Maté's 1950 D.O.A are in my view core to film noir. Agree 100% about 'Out of the Past'.
    Reply
  • By Cinematic Cteve
    August 28, 2012
    08:27 PM

    I wish there was a Criterion edition of Out of the Past. That was partly my challenge -- to pull together a list of favorite noirs that happen to be in the Criterion Collection. Sweet Smell of Success is undoubtedly a great film, and the co-screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, would go on to write one of my all-time favorite pictures, North By Northwest. But I do not consider Sweet Smell of Success to be a noir in the classic sense. It is more a critique of gossip columnist Walter Winchell, a treacherous and unethical journalist on whom Burt Lancaster's character is based. If we're talking noir as I define it, we need at least one murder and a femme fatale, preferably one adept at double-crosses. Cheers, Steve
    Reply
  • By KermitusX
    August 29, 2012
    10:23 AM

    I'm a huge fan of the noir genre, and I really enjoyed this list. My first inspiration to create a list of my own was noir, but since I couldn't include Double Indemnity or Maltese Falcon I decided to go in another direction.
    Reply
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    • By Cinematic Cteve
      August 29, 2012
      03:13 PM

      Hey, thank you! Warner Bros. owns so many of the great noirs from the Golden Age that Criterion may face unwieldy expenses in gaining the licensing rights to add them to the collection, which presupposes Criterion is even interested in that. You can bet I would snap up a Criterion edition of The Maltese Falcon.
  • By Chris Leggette
    September 04, 2012
    09:03 PM

    I ideal list -- my thanks and admiration for your selections (I sat through most of them in film houses along Telegraph Avenue too many years ago); I'd throw in Claude Chabrol's "This Man Must Die" and Dick Powell in "Murder, My Sweet" (he's 90 minutes of ornery). Cheers to you!
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    • By Cinematic Cteve
      September 05, 2012
      07:20 AM

      Thanks, Chris! Murder, My Sweet is a tough picture. I will seek out the Chabrol film to fill in the gaps in my noir education. Seeing a film anywhere between Oakland and Berkeley must have been a blast. Best regards, Steve.
  • By Daniel Dolgin
    September 14, 2012
    01:52 PM

    Diabolique is truly a great criterion.
    Reply
  • By silverscreen99
    September 29, 2012
    04:39 PM

    Hitchcock wanted to make "Diabolique", but was too late in getting the film rights, so the book authors wrote "Vertigo" for him to translate to a movie.
    Reply
  • By Cinematic Cteve
    October 01, 2012
    06:30 AM

    @ silverscreen99, A bit of clarification. Thomas Narcejac, one of the co-authors of D'entre les morts, the French novel from which Vertigo was adapted, specifically denied that he and writing partner Pierre Boileau wrote this 1954 book for Hitchcock to make into his 1958 film. In fact, Paramount Pictures optioned their book for Hitchcock after it was already published. Director Francois Truffaut once erroneously suggested that the book D'entre les morts was written specifically for Hitchcock to make Vertigo. This urban legend has persisted for decades..
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    • By silverscreen99
      October 02, 2012
      08:15 PM

      Thanks. I did not know that. It's kind of funny, but I got my information from a booklet that came with a VHS copy of "Vertigo".
  • By heliogabalus
    October 16, 2012
    07:55 PM

    Noir is an ill-defined—or to put it more generously—a flexible genre, but I take issue with the inclusion of Diabolique and The Third Man in the list. They're dark and cynical sure, but the classic noir genre demands more, a femme fatale, a convoluted plot with lots of red herrings and cul de sacs, sexual perversion of one kind or another usually features too. Definitely agree with Howard Phillips (above) that D.O.A. should be here, it's a one-of-a-kind picture.
    Reply
  • By Cinematic Cteve
    October 18, 2012
    05:46 PM

    D.O.A. is not a part of the Criterion Collection, which is the point of the list. As for noir, you say it is an ill-defined and flexible genre, then you immediately impose a strict set of criteria for what constitutes noir, in your opinion. Ironically, all of the criteria you mention are well defined elements in The Third Man and Diabolique.
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    • By heliogabalus
      October 18, 2012
      08:13 PM

      Well, thanks, "Cinematic Steve"!
  • By Cinematic Cteve
    October 19, 2012
    08:29 AM

    That's quite alright, "heliogabalus." Pointing out the contradictions in your post was no trouble at all.
    Reply
  • By Emma
    October 21, 2012
    04:40 AM

    I'd add The Night of the Hunter (my second favorite film noir) and Sweet Smell of Success (my third favorite) but otherwise it's a good list. I'd like to add Shadow of a Doubt, Sunset Blvd. and Out of the Past to round out my top five (numbers one, four and five, respectively), but sadly, they're not part of the Criterion collection.
    Reply
  • By Julian G.
    October 28, 2012
    08:57 PM

    Sweet Smell of Success is missing from the list, and this is jaw dropping film noir. This film has the atmosphere of Kiss Me Deadly but with better writing. Also, would you consider Melville's films? Not noir but neo noir, all the same, great films.
    Reply
  • By Maro Stavrou
    November 02, 2012
    06:51 PM

    There're all great movies BUT Jacques Tourneur, Fritz Lang and Bogie films are missing!
    Reply
  • By Cinematic Cteve
    November 03, 2012
    10:01 AM

    Are there any Bogie films in the Criterion Collection?
    Reply
  • By James
    August 02, 2013
    11:28 PM

    I am doing a study on Film Genre, out of a hat, chance gave me film noir, bugger, it's a tough one, for me anyways. So here I am looking for history, motivation, and characteristics on Film Noir, so I stumble upon this site, hopefully at least one of you can guide me to the most prominent writings on the subject. I also found some listing of movies from 1912 - 1939, one that peaked my interest was a 1912 silent film "The Musketeers Of Pig Alley", would this be classed as Film Noir?. Anything that will help me on my quest would be most welcome. Note: the only film I have ever watched in regards to film noir is Casablanca. Well and the other title mentioned in this post now. kind regards Jimmy
    Reply
  • By Gerry
    December 30, 2013
    11:29 AM

    The term 'film noir' was originated to refer to American films.Foreign films cannot qualify as film noir.
    Reply
  • By Cinematic Cteve
    January 07, 2014
    05:00 PM

    Gerry, thanks for the laugh.
    Reply

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