5. Double Indemnity (1944)
This classic noir follows Walter Neff, an insurance salesmen who gets caught up in love with a blonde bombshell who has a husband. The obvious next step is to hatch a plan to get the husband out of the picture, but it all goes terribly wrong. Written by the master Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity is filled with that classic pulp fiction dialogue like “How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle” and other rapid-fire exchanges. It still stands as one of the best from the genre’s heyday.
4. High and Low (1963)
Akira Kurosawa takes on noir with his adaptation of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct Mystery “King’s Ransom.” It’s a police procedural about a kidnapping gone awry. The great Toshiro Mifune plays a rich business man trying to make a move to control the shoe company he’s been working for all his life. Kidnappers try to nab his son, but instead grab his chauffeur’s son by mistake. The kidnappers still demand that Mifune’s character pays the ransom, putting the wealthy business man in a tough position. The movie is part psychological thriller, part police drama, also starring Tatsuya Nakadai as the lead detective on the case.
It’s nice to see Kurosawa stepping away from his samurai movies to take a chance on one like this, and as far as adaptations go, it’s pretty strong.
3. Le Samourai (1967)
Alain Delon stars as a talented assassin. He’s a perfectionist who takes his time and plans his hits to the last detail. But of course, something goes wrong after he is seen making a hit. Things spiral out of control as he is driven into a corner.
This one is low on the dialogue (no one speaks for the first 20 minutes of the film), high on atmosphere, and heavy on just straight-up coolness. Writer/director Jean Pierre Melville is known for making some fantastic noir films, and this is one of the top among them.
2. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Moving into the subcategory of neo-noir, The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing is probably one of the best of its kind. Partially inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, the movie stars Gabriel Byrne as Tom Reagan, a man trying to keep the peace between warring gangs in the prohibition era. The Coens obviously love the genre themselves, as the script and overall style of the film harkens back to the noir films of the past. The movie swirls with suspicion and double crosses, and also features one of John Turturro’s strongest roles.
The Coens have gone on to try other things since this early genre film, but it still shines as one of their strongest films.
1. Brick (2006)
This is a movie I try to get everyone to watch with me. Director Rian Johnson’s debut film stars Joseph Gordon Levitt as a high school detective trying to figure out how his ex-girlfriend ended up dead. It’s a classic noir, even down to the 1940s slang that all the students use (“Throw one at me if you want, hash-heads, but I got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you.”) Apparently heavily influenced by Hammett as well as Miller’s Crossing, this movie comes off as a love letter to noir, but also as an intriguing and dizzying mystery film in its own right.
This is the film that launched my love affair with Mr. Gordon Levitt and with Johnson himself. Since Brick, Johnson has only made one other movie, but the time-traveling thriller Looper, that comes out this year, may finally put this talented guy on the map.