A few years ago I got on to one of my crazy movie obsessions, made a huge list, and set about to watch as many "film noir" movies as possible. I knew a little bit about how film noir worked: they were generally dark and somewhat contorted tales about the gray areas in morality where an unwelcome character gets embroiled in some dangerous affair. Also there was usually a murder and at least one sexy, dangerous woman involved. So I leaped into Netflix, friends' libraries and basic cable, and I watched a huge number of film noir titles in only a few short months.
On one hand the project was lot of fun, given that most of the noir-ish titles that we still remember today are, well, remembered for a reason. Plus it's great to see the studios re-release their "films noir" in multi-movie sets and all that jazz -- but one word of warning if you want to try my method: break up the movies with something light, colorful, or modern. I watched so many late-'40s films in one month that many of them now blur together in my mind. But not the following films. Here are six of my favorite examples of classic film noir, and if you need more than these (you will) check out Filmsite.org's noir section. For my own half-dozen recommendations I tried to avoid the established five-star classics, because those will pop up instantly on your first research trip. These are just some of my favorites.
Panic in the Streets (1950, Elia Kazan) -- Won the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Features a great lead performance by the eternally bad-ass Richard Widmark as a public health inspector who has 48 hours to track down a murderer (Jack Palance!) who has contracted a deadly (contagious!) virus from his most recent victim. Cool hook, eh? Stunned this one hasn't been remade yet. Director Elia Kazan probably liked this movie a lot; right after Panic in the Streets he went on to A Streetcar Named Desire, and eventually On the Waterfront, and East of Eden.
Strangers on a Train (1951, Alfred Hitchcock) -- Had to get at least one Hitchcock film on to this list, and this is one of his very best: smart, witty, slyly creepy, and quite simply a whole lot of fun to watch. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, it's about two guys on a train who come up with a perfect way to commit a double murder. The problem is that only one of the men is kidding, while the other is dead serious. This clever idea kick-starts a thriller that starts out simply enough, but quickly spirals into something well out of control. Brilliantly shot and masterfully adapted into one juicy screenplay, Strangers on a Train works not only as a great introduction to film noir, but to the magical work of Alfred Hitchcock as well.
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950, Otto Preminger) -- The stars of Laura (more on that one in a minute) reunite for one of Otto Preminger's tightest little matinee-style noir efforts. Dana Andrews plays a cop who is already on suspension for beating up crooks when he accidentally murders one of them! So he blames it on a local criminal and then goes crazy trying to keep the crime a secret. In typical noir fashion, we have a (very) flawed anti-hero who tries to fight against fate, and fails. The gorgeous Gene Tierney is also involved, as is the great Karl Malden.
Kiss of Death (1947, Henry Hathaway) -- The Nicolas Cage remake has its charms (mainly Nicolas Cage blowing mental gaskets every three scenes) but the original is undoubtedly one of the coolest examples of film noir you could ever come across. In a nutshell, this one is about a convicted criminal who rats on his old cronies, only to regret it (and how) a few years later. It'd be worth seeing for Richard Widmark's wonderfully despicable performance as Tommy Udo, but there's plenty of juicy stuff in this old classic.
D.O.A. (1950, Rudolph Maté) -- A man is poisoned and told he has less than two days to live, so he sets out to find out who killed him. Man, you just have to love cleverness that simple. A pure distillation of the central film noir conceit if ever there was one (a clueless and ill-fated man becomes embroiled in something way out of his league), D.O.A. boasts a great lead performance by Edmund O'Brien and a concept clever enough to be remade in 1988 with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. (Remember that one?)
Laura (1944, Otto Preminger) -- The film noir I saw and fell in love with before I even knew what the phrase "film noir" meant. It was either my mom or my grandmother who had me sit down to watch this film, and after "rediscovering" it every 10 years, I love it that much more. Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, a sweetly sedate Vincent Price, and a drop-dead awesome Clifton Webb star in this cleverly-constructed mystery about a detective who starts to fall in love, sorta, with a recently murdered woman, only to discover that everyone involved is lying about something. Including the victim. (There's a second-act spoiler I'm trying to avoid, OK?) An Oscar winner for Best Cinematography, one of the smoothest screenplays ever penned, and 90 of the quickest minutes you'll ever have with a movie.
Need a few more recommendations? Hit me up on the twitter.