Like Nerd God Rob Gordon from High Fidelity, I have a sad affinity for arranging my tastes into pretentious and definitive lists. But lists are good as they cause anger and disgust and outrage along the lines of posts like "Only a man-child would leave out blank" or "How could you possibly think blank is number ten while the piece of shit blank is number three?" I welcome your passion, be it negative or positive, with open arms.
Here, in chronological order, limiting myself to only one film per director, is the list of THE TOP TEN GREATEST FILM NOIRS:
1. Double Indemnity (1944) - Billy Wilder
Featuring Fred MacMurray (yes, the Mr. My Three Sons himself) as an insurance investigator helping lover Barbara Stanwyck knock off her wealthy husband for his hefty "double indemnity" life insurance policy, this film set a high standard for the great films that would follow it like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Body Heat. The dialogue is both ridiculously witty and exceptionally cool, especially MacMurray's badass voice-over narration.
2. The Big Sleep (1946) - Howard Hawks
Though many will argue that John Huston's adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's labrynthine book The Maltese Falcon is better than than Hawks' adaptation of Raymond Chandler's debut novel, this one is simply more fun. Bogart's Marlowe is much more the hard man than his Sam Spade (note that at the end of the film that Marlowe allows his dick to get in the way of his decision to let Bacall get away as opposed to his sense of honor at the end of Falcon when he sends Mary Astor to the gallows, making Marlowe a much more noir-ish, complicated hero) and the dialogue and characters are so smart and funny that you forgive the occasionally confusing plot (even Chandler himself didn't know he killed one of the characters!).
3. Out of the Past (1947) - Jacques Tourneur
With great performances from Robert Mitchum and a very young Kirk Douglas, this exceptionally dark film is one of the unsung gold standards of the genre. With too many classic lines to count, beautiful black and white cinematography, and an unforgiving "cold around the heart" plot, Out of the Past is a noir-lover's wet dream.
4. The Asphalt Jungle (1950) - John Huston
One of the first heist films, this classic beat out The Maltese Falcon as my John Huston film for the list. Huston was one of the masters of muscular storytelling and this film is one of his best. Sterling Hayden is at his most hardcore, that is at least until the release of...
5. The Killing (1956) - Stanley Kubrick
For my money, the best Kubrick's pre-Dr. Strangelove films, this film is what B-moviemaking can be. Ahead of its time in terms of on-screen violence, its strange time-shifting structure and the intensity of its action scenes, this film shows that even if the great Stanley K. had been stuck in the B-movie gallows his whole career, he still would have been a legend. Great noir author Jim Thompson paved the way for modern classics like Reservoir Dogs when he penned this extremely tight script.
6. Touch of Evil (1958) - Orson Welles
I will say it and say it proudly: Touch of Evil was the greatest of all Welles' works. It has such a amazing mix of low (Charlton Heston as a MEXICAN!) and high art (the unsurpassed cinematography) that it is impossibly endearing to even the most discriminating viewer. Fuck those who can only talk about its camera work: this movie is has great characters and a strong, pulpy plot, and no pretentious douchebag can take that away from it!
7. Chinatown (1974) - Roman Polanski
The greatest film ever made. I wish I could leave it at that but I won't. For me, not only is this a great film noir but the perfect example of "The Great American Movie." It has one of the most involving and entertaining plots ever conceived thanks to screenwriting legend Robert Towne, full of the genre expectations and delights that any moviegoer can appreciate; while offering the viewer an uncompromising ending and intriguing and challenging themes to chew on long after the film has ended. Chinatown is quite simply the masterpiece.
8. Blood Simple (1984) - Joel Coen
The Coens are obviously huge fans of noir and in their slightly off-beat way, Fargo and No Country For Old Men also qualify as two of the greatest film noirs. But Blood Simple is their most direct example of the genre and therefore the one that goes on this very straightforward list. Made on a tiny budget, this film has a storyline that is both extremely labrynthine and very simple at the same time. The real marvel of the film is that the Coens didn't completely blow their load the first time out with this wildly inventive, hilariously dark thriller.
9. The Grifters (1990) - Stephen Frears
Stephen Frears is sort of the jack of all trades of genre pictures today, he can do anything and do it well. But this adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel is far and away my favorite film. Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Benning all brought their A-game to this twisted, sick little movie about con artists, mob bosses, horsetracks, betrayal and...incest.
10. L.A. Confidential (1997) - Curtis Hanson
James Ellroy's classic novel is brilliantly stripped down to manageable size by Brian Helgeland for this film that is almost a mix-tape of everything I ever wanted to see in a film noir: old Hollywood, high-price call-girls, corrupt cops, drug deals, double-crosses, shotgun battles, tabloid journalism, and a juggernaut of a plot able to encompass all of that shit! Mainly remembered today as the film that introduced Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce to the masses, it should be remembered for what it is: what big studios can do with a smart script and a big budget if the execs have a pair of brass ones.