10 best film noirs of all time, ranked

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade looking at the Maltese Falcon statuette.
Image via Warner Bros.

Film noir is among the most instantly recognizable genres in cinematic history. Defined as a heavily stylized take on a classic crime story, film noir is characterized by its striking black-and-white cinematography and complex, morally ambiguous stories about troubled men, whether they be detectives, investigators, boxers, or everyday citizens. At its core, film noir is about how easy it is to fall victim to tragic circumstances.

The genre enjoyed its height during the 1940s and ’50s. Since then, film noir has fallen out of fashion, and while modern neo-noir movies exploring similar themes are common, they aren’t anywhere near as influential as they once were. Still, at its height, film noir produced some of the all-time best classics ever seen in American cinema. From classic tales of revenge and power to tragic melodramas about fallen heroes, these are the best film noirs.

10. The Killers (1946)

Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner embracing in a promo still for 1946's The Killers.
Image via Universal Pictures

Oscar-winner Burt Lancaster made his film debut in 1946’s The Killers opposite Ava Gardner. Intercutting between the past and present, the film centers on a detective investigating the death of a boxer known only as The Swede, who was in love with a beautiful, but dangerous woman, Kitty Collins. As the truth becomes clearer, the detective learns Kitty might have lured The Swede into an ambitious heist orchestrated by an unknown party.

The Killers has everything a great film noir should. Striking cinematography? Check. A morally dubious protagonist who dies in the film’s opening scene, launching an investigation into his troubled past? Check. One hell of a femme fatale, played by one of classic Hollywood’s most beautiful and alluring women? Check! The Killers is a near-perfect film noir, embodying everything the genre has come to be known for and perfecting some of its most well-known tropes.

The Killers is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

9. Mildred Pierce (1945)

Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce looking at Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce on the phone in Mildred Pierce.
Image via Warner Bros,

The legendary Joan Crawford stars in the 1945 film Mildred Pierce, and it’s quite possibly the film that features the best balance between noir sensibilities and outright Hollywood melodrama. It tells the story of the titular character, who becomes a successful businesswoman after her husband leaves her and their children. As time passes, Mildred must deal with the increasing contempt of her oldest daughter, Veda, and an ongoing investigation into her second husband’s murder.

Mildred Pierce is noir perfection. It looks beautiful, with lush shades of gray and contrasting shadows exalting the exterior beauty of the characters that’s juxtaposed with the ugliness within. This is Crawford’s movie, though, and the actress rises to the challenge, delivering a career-defining performance that won her the Oscar for Best Actress. Crawford had a face for the big screen and the temper and disposition for film noir, and she helps make Mildred Pierce a triumph on nearly every level.

Mildred Pierce is available for rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

8. The Big Sleep (1946)

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall as Philip Marlowe and Vivien Sternwood Rutledge sitting next to each other in The Big Sleep.
Image via Warner Bros.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were one of classic Hollywood’s most beloved partnerships, a power couple before the term was even created. They collaborated in a few film noirs, none more enduring or acclaimed than 1946’s The Big Sleep. Bogart plays Phillip Marlowe, a private eye hired to settle the gambling debts of a rich man’s younger daughter. With the help of the man’s eldest daughter, Vivian, Marlowe discovers there’s more to the story than he previously believed.

The Big Sleep offers an intriguing take on the hard-boiled subgenre of crime. Ever the stern, yet engaging leading man, Bogart shines as Marlowe, delivering an all-time great take on a character many have played, but few have truly mastered. As proven in To Have and Have Not, Bacall is the perfect companion for Bogart, personifying the style, poise, and distant allure that made ’40s noir so distinctive and addictive. The Big Sleep is unique, a noir more concerned with the investigation itself rather than with providing a satisfying conclusion to the mystery. What’s more noir than that?

The Big Sleep is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

7. The Third Man (1949)

Orson Welles as Harry Lime smirking in The Third Man.
Image via Selznick Releasing Organization

Orson Welles gives what is arguably the finest turn of his career in the 1949 noir The Third Man. The plot centers on Holly Martins (the ever-underrated Joseph Cotten), who arrives in Vienna to accept a job with his longtime friend, Harry Lime (Welles). When he discovers Lime is dead, Martins decides to stay in Vienna and look further into the crime.

By now, few people remain unaware of the twist in The Third Man‘s much-referenced plot. Without spoiling anything, the movie possesses one of American cinema’s most riveting and twisting narratives, and is a master class in buildup and suspense that makes the best out of noir’s classic elements. Cotten, an actor who never quite received the recognition he deserved, is at his best here, accompanied by a truly spectacular Welles. Further enhanced by director Carol Reed’s unusual directorial choices, The Third Man is nothing short of a cinematic triumph, a film noir that remains influential 75 years after its release.

The Third Man is available to stream on Tubi.

6. Laura (1944)

Dana Andrews as Mark McPherson looking at a portrait of Laura in 1946's Laura.
Image via 20th Century Studios

Otto Preminger’s 1944 film Laura is what many instantly think about when they hear the term “film noir.” Long before prunes gave him the runes, Dana Andrews starred as Mark McPherson, a Manhattan detective investigating the death of Madison Avenue executive Laura Hunt. As he ventures deeper into the case, Mark begins to fall in love with the dead woman.

Unlike other genres, noir is less about the screenplay and more about the execution. However, Laura has one of the finest screenplays in ’40s cinema, overflowing with brilliant dialogue that comes to life through excellent delivery from a top-notch cast. Andrews shines as McPherson, a noir leading man if ever there was one, and the film’s unexpected villain is both shocking and unnerving. However, it’s Gene Tierney as the titular, phantasmagorical Laura that dominates the movie, both metaphorically and literally. Laura is an outstanding mystery movie, a deceptive, yet irresistible ride that has only gotten better with age.

Laura is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

5. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Robert Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell showing his hand with the word "LOVE" tattoed on his fingers in The Night of the Hunter.
Image via MGM

Robert Mitchum stars opposite Shelley Winters and Lilian Gish in Charles Laughton’s 1955 noir The Night of the Hunter. The Oscar nominee (for 1945’s The Story of G.I. Joe) plays serial killer Harry Powell, who poses as a preacher to get close to two children and recover the $10,000 their late father hid.

The Night of the Hunter has something few other noir films have: it’s genuinely scary, largely thanks to Mitchum’s unnerving performance as the ruthless Powell. Everything in this film works in harmony to create a truly disturbing experience, from Laughton’s precise filmmaking to Stanley Cortez’s enveloping, atmospheric cinematography to Walter Schumann’s haunting score to Mitchum’s central performance. The Night of the Hunter is a bona fide classic and one of noir’s most unsettling takes on the classic conflict of good versus evil.

The Night of the Hunter is available to stream on Tubi.

4. Notorious (1946)

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in 'Notorious.'
RKO Pictures / Image via RKO Pictures

Alfred Hitchcock is among the most influential directors in cinematic history. The Master of Suspense made many films throughout his career, experimenting with multiple genres, from psychological thriller to straight-up horror to classic film noir. In the latter, none of his efforts is better than 1946’s Notorious. Cary Grant stars as T.R. Devlin, a U.S. government agent who enlists the help of Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German war criminal played by three-time Oscar winner Ingrid Bergman. Her task of seducing a Nazi hiding in Brazil is complicated by her ongoing involvement with Devlin.

Hitchcock is at the top of his game in Notorious. The film expertly balances elements of romance, thriller, and the spy genre in service of a classic noir story of betrayal, danger, and deception. Grant and Bergman are perfect together and deliver one of the spy genre’s all-time best romances. They are perfectly antagonized by a never-better Claude Rains. Hitchcock made many great movies, but few are as thrilling, mesmerizing, and outright rewatchable as Notorious.

Notorious is available to stream on Tubi.

3. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The cast of The Maltese Falcon looking at the titular statue.
Image via Warner Bros.

One of the earliest film noirs, The Maltese Falcon also happens to be a true masterpiece of American cinema. Directed by the legendary John Huston, The Maltese Falcon stars noir mainstay and Oscar-winner Humphrey Bogart as San Francisco detective Sam Spade, who deals with several interested parties pursuing the titular statuette, a falcon encrusted with jewels.

The titular Maltese Falcon is among cinema’s best MacGuffins, and the film makes the best out of its vague, yet alluring nature. The film further rises on the strength of Bogart’s performance; the seasoned actor was perfect for the genre, embodying the requisite stern, yet oddly relatable essence a noir leading man needed. However, it’s Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy who steals the show. One of cinema’s best femme fatales, Brigid is a duplicitous and mercurial figure, remaining at the center of the story and changing allegiances, stories, and demeanor depending on the situation.

The Maltese Falcon is available to stream on Tubi.

2. Double Indemnity (1944)

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson looking at something off-camera in the film Double Indemnity.
Image via Paramount Pictures

Double Indemnity is a seminal film from the ‘190s and arguably the best of the purely noir films produced during this defining decade. The iconic Barbara Stanwyck stars as the flawless femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, who manipulates hapless insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into murdering her husband so she can claim the insurance.

Phyllis Dietrichson is cinema’s best femme fatale and one of the all-time-best movie villains. The actress delivers a career-defining performance as the cold and manipulative housewife, embodying everything a great femme fatale should be and defining the archetype for decades to come. Every future version of the trope, from Jessica Rabbit to Bridget Gregory, owes everything to Stanwyck’s Phyllis. If Double Indemnity soars as highly as it does and endures to this day, it’s because of Stanwyck, who gives the film purpose, drive, and enough bite to leave a lasting impression.

1. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.
Paramount Pictures

The ultimate film noir also serves as a potent melodrama and a biting Hollywood satire. Sunset Boulevard stars future Oscar winner William Holden as Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who unwittingly enters the world of former silent star Norma Desmond, played by Oscar-nominee Gloria Swanson in a timeless performance. As Joe goes deeper into Norma’s world, he begins to realize the true extent of her delusion.

Excelling as a critique of the fame machine of classic Hollywood and a wickedly funny satire of show business, Sunset Boulevard is a perfect noir story about broken dreams, moral compromise, and the inescapable nature of aging. The film is an essential entry not only in film noir, but in American cinema as a whole, defining a very specific time and place and acting as a prophetic study in the ever-changing landscape of arts and entertainment. Movies don’t get any better than Sunset Boulevard, a cinematic triumph that keeps getting better with age.

Sunset Boulevard is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

Editors’ Recommendations