The Perfect Beginner’s Guide to Film Noir

These hard-boiled tales take time to simmer, but they're more than worth the wait

Tired of the endless positive energy of our media?

Ready for something a bit more gritty and dark as your entertainment? Want a movie that matches your own cynicism about the current state of affairs? Sure you are, because, ya know, not everyone gets good things in life, chum.

That’s really the heart of the film noir movement, a style of tough, cynical crime film that had its heyday in the late 1940s and early 1950s but whose themes can still be seen in 21st century cinema.

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They were a reaction to the endless happy endings of earlier films, fueled by the experiences of World War II both by those who served and on the home front.

Film noir reminds us that not everyone gets their piece of the American dream. Some are stuck in a crummy situation while others have the wrong set of friends to fall back on. A few just take the wrong shortcut to get there without the work needed.

And then there are the femme fatales, the dangerous, alluring women that are a mainstay of film noir.

Just as not every man is going to find his happily ever after, there are women who are great at hooking the man of their choice, but aren’t able to help either of them actually find happiness. These classic movies are pretty sexist by today’s standards. In almost all of them it’s about a chump trying to improve his crummy luck while being sidetracked, or distracted, by a dame.

Stylistically, these films are either in black & white or have a minimal color palette. They are all characterized by low light, dramatic shadows and a perpetual existential (and often real) threat.

  • A couple arguing in a dark alley where you can barely see their faces?
  • A meeting at the bar where there are dark shadows across their faces?
  • Long shots of car chases down streets where a streetlight is an unusual feature?
  • A beach or park late at night where bushes look like mobsters and a trashcan might just hide a gunman?

All of those are hallmarks of a good noir. And one of the very best is 1944’s “Double Indemnity.”

It stars veteran actor Fred MacMurray as an insurance salesman who is smitten by femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck. The scene where she shows up in the film is an absolute gem and famous in cinema circles.

Problem is, the drop-dead gorgeous Stanwyck is married. So the two of them hatch a dirty little plan where MacMurray signs Stanwyck’s husband up for life insurance, then murders him so they can live happily ever after on the proceeds.

Double Indemnity Official Trailer #1 - Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck Movie (1944) HD

It’s the perfect murder and it’s ingenious. Except there ain’t no shortcuts on this journey, pal, and things fall apart in a most spectacular way. Helping figure it all out is the great Edward G. Robinson as the insurance agency’s lead investigator.

“Double Indemnity,” like so many noir films, takes a while to lay out its central plot. Once it does, you’ll be drawn right into the movie as you root for the underdogs to figure out how to circumvent the system and beat The Man. But if you’re like most viewers, you’ll also want to see justice done because cheating to win just ain’t fair.

It’s a great inner tension mirrored by the cat-and-mouse game that Stanwyck plays with MacMurray, even as they plan and execute a murder.

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If “Double Indemnity” strikes a chord within you there’s plenty more from which to choose.

Definitely check it out other classic noir films like “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “The Asphalt Jungle,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Laura” and “The Blue Dahlia,” among the many great noir films available.

Want something more modern? Try “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” “Sin City,” the great Chinese “Infernal Affairs,” “Memento” and “The Usual Suspects.”

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