Best Film Noir Movies

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley ranks the best film noir movies of all time in the gallery below.

Not seeing your favorite movie? It’s probably in a different genre! Check out the full list here.

30. ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ (1946) – Tay Garnett

A drifter (John Garfield) convinces a married woman (Lana Turner) to murder her husband, but it winds up being harder than either of them anticipated in this adaptation of the hardboiled novel by James M. Cain.

29. ‘Murder, My Sweet’ (1944) – Edward Dmytryck

Originally titled “Farewell, My Lovely,” this Raymond Chandler adaptation was cinema’s first proper depiction of Detective Philip Marlowe, as Dick Powell became lost in a web of deceit with hypnotic imagery that influenced “Spellbound” and “Get Out.”

28. ‘Point Blank’ (1967) – John Boorman

Lee Marvin’s mysterious protagonist Walker wanders through a maze of mystery seeking his stolen money back in this neo-noir staple with an unexpected cameo by Archie Bunker.

27. ‘Detour’ (1945) – Edgar G. Ulmer

This film noir touchstone stars Tom Neal as a hitchhiker named Al Roberts who becomes more and more in trouble the further he gets down the road.

26. ‘D.O.A.’ (1949) – Rudolph Maté

This noir has one of cinema’s best openings, as a poisoned man walks into a police station. “I’d like to report a murder.” “Who was murdered?” “I was.”

25. ‘The Killers’ (1946) – Robert Siodmark

The fractured narrative of flashbacks rules the day in this puzzle of a gritty boxer (Burt Lancaster) who is killed by hit men, leaving an investigator (Edmond O’Brien) to connect the dots of his dangerous romance with the sultry Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner).

24. ‘The Letter’ (1940) – William Wyler

Bette Davis delivered one of her finest performances as a woman who shoots a man in the opening scene claiming self defense, but a letter could prove her undoing.

23. ‘Gaslight’ (1944) – George Cukor

The term “gaslighting” was popularized by this play-to-film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman. She plays a wife whose new husband tries to convince her she’s insane.

22. ‘Gilda’ (1946) – Charles Vidor

Glenn Ford is hired to work at a Buenos Aires casino, only to realize his boss’ wife is his former lover, played by Rita Hayworth as an iconic femme fatale shown flipping her hair in “The Shawshank Redemption.”

21. ‘In a Lonely Place’ (1950) – Nicholas Ray

Humphrey Bogart’s alcoholic screenwriter becomes a murder suspect, while his flirtatious next-door neighbor (Gloria Grahame) seeks to clears his name, only to have reasonable doubts about his innocence.

20. ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ (1947) – Orson Welles

Orson Welles directs himself as a seaman who boards a yacht with the tempting Rita Hayworth and gets caught in a complex murder plot that leads to an amusement park fun house with an iconic Hall of Mirrors climax.

19. ‘The Long Goodbye’ (1973) – Robert Altman

Elliot Gould takes a turn as Detective Philip Marlowe investigating a friend who is accused of murdering his wife in this neo-noir presented with fascinating compositions and window reflections by director Robert Altman.

18. ‘Gun Crazy’ (1950) – Joseph H. Lewis

Expert marksmen John Dall and Peggy Cummins went on an interstate robbery spree in this early lovers-on-the-run tale that inspired future gangster flicks like “Badlands,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Queen & Slim” but with one difference — this one is presented in true film-noir style.

17. ‘They Live By Night’ (1948) – Nicholas Ray

Nicholas Ray’s directorial debut is a shadowy exploration of an escaped convict (Farley Granger) who falls in love with a woman (Cathy O’Donnell) who nurses him back to health in a fatalistic relationship that is doomed to never become domestic.

16. ‘Pickup on South Street’ (1953) – Samuel Fuller

Martin Scorsese said that you can’t love rock ‘n’ roll without the Rolling Stones, just as you can’t love the movies without Sam Fuller, whose gritty masterpiece slowly pans away from a doomed Thelma Ritter as the record player begins to skip.

15. ‘The Killing’ (1956) – Stanley Kubrick

Kubrick’s first masterpiece was a gripping, fast-moving tale of crooks executing the perfect race-track robbery and horse sniping plot, presented with the out-of-order flashbacks and matter-of-fact narration of film noir.

14. ‘The Big Heat’ (1953) – Fritz Lang

From the opening image of a suicide in slow disclosure, Fritz Lang is in total control of this moody masterpiece about a tough cop (Glenn Ford) taking on a crime syndicate boss (Lee Marvin), who throws scalding coffee in the face of his girlfriend (Gloria Grahame).

13. ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946) – Howard Hawks

Forget the overly complicated plot by William Faulkner adapting Raymond Chandler’s novel; the best stuff comes in the little moments, such as Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe being seduced by Dorothy Malone inside a rainy bookshop in this perplexing puzzle of a noir co-starring Lauren Bacall.

12. ‘Mildred Pierce’ (1945) – Michael Curtiz

Joan Crawford was never better than her Oscar-winning role as a hard-working mother who divorces her husband and launches a successful restaurant business to support her spoiled daughter, who marches the film toward its tragic conclusion.

11. ‘Body Heat’ (1981) – Lawrence Kasdan

Kathleen Turner crafted one of the great femme fatales, seducing William Hurt in this erotic neo-noir by writer/director Lawrence Kasdan (“Empire Strikes Back,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), who was clearly inspired by the plot of “Double Indemnity.”

10. ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ (1988) – Robert Zemeckis

Don’t let the rabbit fool ya, this live-action/animation hybrid remains one of the best neo-noirs ever made with its “Chinatown” plot and femme-fatale in Jessica Rabbit, who insists: “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

9. ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ (1957) – Alexander Mackendrick

It’s nearly impossible to find black-and-white photography as slick and dialogue as snappy as “Sweet Smell of Success,” as columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) spit quotable lines: “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.”

8. ‘Out of the Past’ (1947) – Jacques Tourneur

This essential noir casts Robert Mitchum as the ill-fated hero, as femme-fatale Jane Greer enters in the glow of the Acapulco sun before luring her prey into the symbolic dark beach nets of Kirk Douglas’ shark-grin baddie.

7. ‘L.A. Confidential’ (1997) – Curtis Hanson

Not since “Chinatown” has a neo-noir so gloriously exposed corruption in Los Angeles, as an Oscar-winning Kim Basinger was caught between three policemen — the strait-laced Guy Pierce, the hot-head Russell Crowe and the sleazy Kevin Spacey — investigating a series of murders “on the Q.T. and very hush hush.”

6. ‘Laura’ (1944) – Otto Preminger

Preminger’s masterpiece fits together like clockwork, as detective Dana Andrews falls in love with a murder victim by staring at her portrait. The deceased is played brilliantly in flashbacks by Gene Tierney with killer support by Clifton Webb and David Raskin’s title theme.

5. ‘Touch of Evil’ (1958) – Orson Welles

Forget the odd casting of Charlton Heston as a mustached Latino; Orson Welles’ noir masterpiece is absolutely brilliant from the opening long single take revealing a bomb in a car, to the final image of Marlene Dietrich walking away to a tune of lost love.

4. ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941) – John Huston

If “Touch of Evil” wrapped the primary noir period, “The Maltese Falcon” started it as Humphrey Bogart’s Detective Sam Spade investigated his partner’s murder, which is mysteriously connected to Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and a statue that’s “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

3. ‘The Third Man’ (1949) – Carol Reed

From its memorable ferris-wheel speech to its powerful sewer-chase finale, few films are more wonderfully thrilling than this tale of Joseph Cotten investigating the death of his friend (Orson Welles) in shady postwar Vienna set to an unforgettable zither score.

2. ‘Chinatown’ (1974) – Roman Polanski

Robert Towne’s neo-noir script is screenwriting perfection, as Jack Nicholson’s private eye Jake Gittes loses his nose investigating an L.A. water-and-power scandal that features a shocking Faye Dunaway twist, disturbing John Huston finale and an intoxicating Jerry Goldsmith score.

1. ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944) – Billy Wilder

“Chinatown” may be neo-noir perfection, but if you need one film to explain original film noir, check out Billy Wilder’s archetypal masterpiece as ill-fated insurance salesman Fred MacMurray and femme-fatale Barbara Stanwyck plot to kill her husband, only for everything to unravel at the hands of a never-better Edward G. Robinson.

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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