BFI's One Great Film Noir for Every Year (1940-59)

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Nobody knew what to call film noirs when they first started coming out of Hollywood in the early 1940s. Reviews of the time call them “tough melodramas”, “murder mysteries” or simply “crime dramas”.

The French had the solution. When movies such as Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder, My Sweet (all 1944) saw delayed release in Paris after the end of the Second World War, critics likened them to the ‘romans noirs’ of 1930s crime novelists such as Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett. The term ‘film noir’ stuck.

For most of the 1940s and 50s, this style of crime film was dominant. You can spot them by their shadowy visuals and shady morals. Hard-talking men fall for duplicitous dames, as cigarette smoke wreaths around them on dark street corners or in rooms with the slatted blinds pulled down.

Hot on the heels of the Great Depression and the traumatising violence of the war, film noir reflected a world-weary fatalism in the American mood (and in the many European émigré filmmakers who had fled to Hollywood). The movies borrowed angular lighting effects from 1920s German films and a poetic gloominess from 1930s French films, wrapping it all up in tantalising packages of grit, glamour and cynicism.

Here’s one key film from each of the influential cycle’s peak years. (Plus three more to "See Also")

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  1. 1 new

    Stranger on the Third Floor

    1940, in 2 top lists Check
  2. 2 new

    Johnny Apollo

    1940, in 0 top lists Check
  3. 3 new

    The Letter

    1940, in 6 top lists Check
  4. 4 new

    They Drive by Night

    1940, in 2 top lists Check
  5. 5 new

    The Maltese Falcon

    1941, in 24 top lists Check
  6. 6 new

    High Sierra

    1941, in 7 top lists Check
  7. 7 new

    I Wake Up Screaming

    1941, in 2 top lists Check
  8. 8 new

    The Shanghai Gesture

    1941, in 3 top lists Check
  9. 9 new

    This Gun for Hire

    1942, in 4 top lists Check
  10. 10 new

    The Glass Key

    1942, in 3 top lists Check
  11. 11 new

    Moontide

    1942, in 1 top list Check
  12. 12 new

    Street of Chance

    1942, in 1 top list Check
  13. 13 new

    Shadow of a Doubt

    1943, in 10 top lists Check
  14. 14 new

    The Fallen Sparrow

    1943, in 1 top list Check
  15. 15 new

    Journey Into Fear

    1943, in 2 top lists Check
  16. 16 new

    The Seventh Victim

    1943, in 6 top lists Check
  17. 17 new

    The Woman in the Window

    1944, in 8 top lists Check
  18. 18 new

    Double Indemnity

    1944, in 33 top lists Check
  19. 19 new

    Laura

    1944, in 19 top lists Check
  20. 20 new

    Phantom Lady

    1944, in 5 top lists Check
  21. 21 new

    Detour

    1945, in 16 top lists Check
  22. 22 new

    Fallen Angel

    1945, in 2 top lists Check
  23. 23 new

    Mildred Pierce

    1945, in 15 top lists Check
  24. 24 new

    Scarlet Street

    1945, in 10 top lists Check
  25. 25 new

    The Postman Always Rings Twice

    1946, in 9 top lists Check
  26. 26 new

    The Big Sleep

    1946, in 20 top lists Check
  27. 27 new

    Gilda

    1946, in 12 top lists Check
  28. 28 new

    The Killers

    1946, in 15 top lists Check
  29. 29 new

    Out of the Past

    1947, in 15 top lists Check
  30. 30 new

    Brute Force

    1947, in 3 top lists Check
  31. 31 new

    Kiss of Death

    1947, in 5 top lists Check
  32. 32 new

    The Lady from Shanghai

    1947, in 9 top lists Check
  33. 33 new

    Cry of the City

    1948, in 2 top lists Check
  34. 34 new

    Force of Evil

    1948, in 13 top lists Check
  35. 35 new

    Moonrise

    1948, in 5 top lists Check
  36. 36 new

    Raw Deal

    1948, in 5 top lists Check
  37. 37 new

    The Reckless Moment

    1949, in 7 top lists Check
  38. 38 new

    Caught

    1949, in 2 top lists Check
  39. 39 new

    Criss Cross

    1949, in 6 top lists Check
  40. 40 new

    White Heat

    1949, in 15 top lists Check
  41. 41 new

    In a Lonely Place

    1950, in 16 top lists Check
  42. 42 new

    The Asphalt Jungle

    1950, in 15 top lists Check
  43. 43 new

    Gun Crazy

    1950, in 16 top lists Check
  44. 44 new

    Sunset Blvd.

    1950 — a.k.a. Sunset Boulevard, in 33 top lists Check
  45. 45 new

    The Prowler

    1951, in 5 top lists Check
  46. 46 new

    M

    1951, in 2 top lists Check
  47. 47 new

    On Dangerous Ground

    1951, in 3 top lists Check
  48. 48 new

    Strangers on a Train

    1951, in 15 top lists Check
  49. 49 new

    The Narrow Margin

    1952, in 7 top lists Check
  50. 50 new

    Clash by Night

    1952, in 3 top lists Check
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Last updated on May 20, 2020 by Chilton; source