Genres are fuzzily bounded. For me there are three essential criteria for a movie to count as “cinema noir”: filmed in black-and-white with city folk (they may wander out of the city setting) who are not heroes. My more elaborate list of descriptive features is:
(1) it was shot in black and white (a sine qua non for my conception of a noir),
(2) mostly nocturnally,
(3) set in seedy and/or industrial sections of a city (usually a port city) involving city folk (they may wander out of the city setting, especially to dispose of bodies or to take trains)
(4) amidst anomie, dread, and violence,
(5) with sinister forces (and fate?) dooming the tough protagonist (antihero, often a chump),
(6) has a femme fatale (a woman who proves fatal for the protagonist whether she loves him or double-crosses him-or does both (though I don’t consider this a criterial feature of noirs, only a frequent one), and
(7) a cowardly but plenty dangerous bully,
(8) features nightclubs and
(6-9 is recurrent but not defining features).
My list of best noirs is online here.
Color film stock does not provide the blackness for high contrast and the best shadows of black-and-white film stock. Films that are noirish in theme and characters shot in color are “neo noirs.” The boundaries of detective movies and gangster movies remain especially fuzzy. The hard-boiled narratives of classic noirs (generally stretching between John Huston’s 1941 “The Maltese Falcon” to Orson Welles’s1958 “Touch of Evil”) were compromised by the Hollywood Production Code in which crime could never pay, and miscreants had to be punished (if not necessarily for the crimes they committed, as in the grotesque death sentence pronounced on the John Garfield character in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” for murdering the Lana Turner character rather than the Cecil Kellaway one whom the two of them murdered).
The switchover from black-and-white to color occurred at the same time as the Production Code was increasingly challenged or ignored (notably by Otto Preminger). This is a good example of correlation not providing evidence of causation! But neo-noirs were free to have less simplistic “Crime never pays” endings and to show rather than suggest adultery, bullet trajectories, etc.- in color. I think there were some noirs both before and after the 1941-58 period. SInce noirs were low-budget pictures, they were not filmed in color, though I’ll suggest some pre-1958 neo-noirs, such as Sam Fuller’s “House of Bamboo” (1955), along with noirish westerns shot in color such as “Saddle the Wind” and “Man of the West.”
Drawing a border between the “paranoid thriller” (in which what is dismissed as “paranoia” is invariably emerging cognizance of a real conspiracy) and “neo noir” is also somewhere between difficult and impossible. Half of the top six on my list of the best neo-noirs could be considered “paranoid thrillers” instead or in addition. I have talked myself into classifying Robert Altman’s revisionist Raymond Chandler The Long Goodbye (1973) with Elliot Gould into being a detective story, though on other days I’d contend that it is the epitome of updated noir (more than the Robert Mitchum 1970s Philip Marlowe movies).
There are a few movies on the Sci-Fi/neo-noir border (Blade Runner, Dark Knight, and some noncontenders for any best list such as “Soylent Green,” “Logan’s Run,” “Mad Max,” “Gattaca,” “Twelve Monkeys,” “The Matrix,” “Minority Report,” set in dystoptian and in several cases post-nuclear-apocalyptic societies.
Both noirs (especially those of Fritz Lang) and neo-noirs may focus on new technologies. Memory impairment, ranging from temporary confusion to complete amnesia, occurs regularly. There is no shortage of blows to the head in noirs, neo-noirs, and detective movies!
As always in list-making, there is a tension between what I like (favorites) and an attempt to curb my enthusiasms for a more impersonal evaluation of quality (the best). Here is my list:
(1) Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock is a tale of obsession of an acrophobic San Francisco police detective (James Stewart) for an elegant, seemingly suicidal blonde socialite (Kim Novak) whom he reconstructs from a brunette (Kim Novak) after failing to save her. There is a conspiracy, and eventual fury from the chump at being used, which segues into tragic loss. (I’m not sure why no one seems to consider Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, also starring an obsessed James Stewart, “Rear Window,” a neo-noir. Or the remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), set in Tangiers and London (Doris Day is not the first actress one thinks of for noir or neo-noir movies, and is too perky herein, but see “Midnight Lace”). Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (1959) starts in Manhattan, and trains are accepted as urban extensions, though the most memorable scenes are a deserted rural junction and Washington’s face on Mount Rushmore…
(2) The Conversation (1974), written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, won the Palme d’Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a self-employed surveillance expert who starts mistrustful and ends completely paranoid, tearing up the floor of his rather bare apartment. I’d say that it was the aural equivalent of Antonioni’s great “Blow-Up,” but “Blow Out” is that.
(3) The Pledge (2001) directed by Sean Penn from the novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt features Jack Nicholson as Jerry Black, a detective about to retire from the Reno, Nevada police force who becomes obsessed with catching a serial child killer and melts down, not unlike Gene Hackman in “The Conversation,” except that Jerry black has relationships to lose, unlike Harry Caul. There is a twist of fate that is prototypically noirish.
(4) Blow Out (1981), written and directed by Brian De Palma. Jack Terry (John Travolta), a movie sound effects technician who, while recording sounds for a low-budget horror film, picks up audio evidence of a possible assassination. Like “The Pledge,” not everyone sees “Blow Out” as being as great as I think it is, and some who do would not consider it a neo-noir, though it is perhaps the most nocturnal of the “paranoid thrillers.”
(5) A History of Violence (2005) was directed by David Cronenberg, whom I have often thought overpraised, but this movie about the Philadelphia mob (William Hurt) reaching out (using Ed Harris) to disrupt the quiet small-town (Ohio) life Viggo Mortensen. Cronenberg wanted an Edward Hopper look that his recurrent cinematographer Peter Suschitzky brilliantly supplied.Cronenberg’s more urban (Toronto) followup, “Eastern Promises”also starring Viggo Mortensen (who, IMO, is even better in the second one) is also very impressive.
(6) Chinatown(1974), written by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski (who also has a memorable cameo role in it), is universally recognized as one of the great disenchanted movies of the 1970s. It has a retro look and a major femme fatale (Faye Dunaway) getting Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in way over his head. It also has a conspiracy headed by John Huston’s Noah Cross.
(7) Because it and its director Quentin Tarrantino are so overpraised IMO, I’ve decided to give the spot that I think that “Pulp Fiction” (1994) should have to the woefully undervalued “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995), directed by Carl Franklin from one of Walter Mosley’s “Easy” Rawlins novel. Not only does it have a conspiracy and Denzel Washington in a great role, it has one of the most entertaining (and often even engaging) psychopaths in cinema history in Don Cheadle’s “Mouse.”
(8) Which Stephen Frears movie to include? The multinational organ sales conspiracy in Dirty Pretty Things (2002). Lord knows it’s urban enough (London, as also in his 1985 “My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) which has some urban violence). I really like “The Hit” (1984) with Terence Stamp as a witness relocated to Spain and Tim Roth as an apprentice hitman, but the setting is mostly diurnal and not urban. So, I’ll go with “The Grifters” (1990), based on hard-boiled novelist Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me) book. Anjelica Huston and Annette Benning are not femmes fatales in the usual sense of sirens drawing men to their doom, but have more agency than John Cusack’s character, who is Huston’s son and Benning’s beau. Although the movie was much hailed on its release, it seems to have faded from discourse.
(9) Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978), directed by Karel Reisz from The Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, who adapted his novel (which won the 1975 National Book Award), would top my list of “home from Vietnam” movies. The movie is less clearly than the book about the decline of the counterculture. Both move from Vietnam to the heroin trade. Well, both focus on heroin trade through Vietnam during the American war on Vietnam. Nick Nolte is the basically honorable chump, Tuesday Weld is more eye candy than a femme fatale (she plays the wife of war correspondent turned heroin trafficker Michael Moriarty).
(10) There has to be a movie with Dennis Hopper on such a list. Jack Sommersby says “Red Rock West” (1993) is the best neo-noir. I think it is an entertaining preposterous movie, but have to go with David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986) instead. Both are probably too small-town fully to qualify, but “Blue Velvet” has particularly baroque psychotic in Hopper, plus Dean Stockwell and Isabelle Rosselini’s masochistic and/or abused femme.
Other contenders (some are dubiously urban; and this listing is more ordered by how well I like the movies rather than my attempts at critical objectivity about the quality of the movies):
Eastern Promises (2007)
After Dark, My Sweet (1990)
The Border (1982)
Night Moves (1975)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Body Heat (1981)
L.A. Confidential (1997)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
The Limey (1999)
Atlantic City (1981)
Sea of Love (1989) Harold Becker
At Close Range (1986)
The Limey (1999)
L. I. E. (2001)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Gran Torino (2008)
Ghost Dog (1999)
The Lookout (2007)
Lone Star (1996)
The Last Seduction (1994)
The Departed (2006)
The American Friend (1977)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Fight Club (1999)
Léon, the Professional (1994)
Red Rock West (1993)
Blood Simple (1984)
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009)
Internal Affairs (1990)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Black Widow (1987)
Mystic River (2003)
Play Misty for Me (1971)
Body Double (1984)
Black Rain (1989)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Ripley’s Game (2002)
Training Day (2001)
8 Million Ways to Die (1986)
Jackie Brown (1997)
The Detective (1968)
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The Drowning Pool (1975)
Dead Again (1991)