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Mystery and Murder: A Look at Film Noir


By Geoffrey Huchel

Hollywood’s stylish crime drama known as film noir has always been a style of filmmaking that has intrigued me, with its low-key lighting, story structure, element of crime, and a cast of mysterious and interesting characters, all tied together to tell an intricate story. The film noir period was very prominent from the early 1940s to the late 1950s; however, the genre is still as popular in movies of today, although it is now known by the updated term neo-noir. Neo-noir is a style often seen in modern motion pictures that prominently uses elements of film noir. The genre has specific stylized characteristics including an oppressive atmosphere of menace, pessimism, anxiety, suspicion that anything can go wrong, futility, fatalism and defeat and entrapment.

Characters depicted in film noir generally have something to hide or have a shady past. They’ll take extreme measures to ensure their secret or their duplicity is kept under wraps, going as far as murder and blackmail. Typical characters in film noir include a private investigator, a plainclothes policeman, the femme fatale, the anti-hero, the girl-next-door, the chanteuse, the corrupt politician and the mafia.

I put together a collection of some of the most popular noir and neo-noir films throughout film history. Narrowing down the list was an extremely difficult task, but I did my best to include the ones I felt made an impact on the genre.

THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) Running Time 1 hr 41 min
Directed by: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart
Plot: A private detective takes on a case that involves him with three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous liar, and their quest for a priceless statuette.

HIGH SIERRA (1941) Running time 1 hr 40 min
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Starring: Humphrey Bogart
Ida Lupino
Plot: After being released from prison, notorious thief Roy Earle is hired by his old boss to help a group of inexperienced criminals plan and carry out the robbery of a California resort.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) Running Time: 1 hr 47 min
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Starring: Fred MacMurray
Barabara Stanwyck
Plot: An insurance representative lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme that arouses the suspicion of an insurance investigator.

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944) running Time 1 hr 47 min
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Starring: Edward G. Robinson
Joan Bennett
Plot: When a conservative middle-aged professor engages in a minor dalliance with a femme fatale, he is plunged into a nightmarish quicksand of blackmail and murder.

MILDRED PIERCE (1945) Running Time 1 hr 51 min
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Joan Crawford
Jack Carson
Eve Arden
Plot: A hard-working mother inches towards disaster as divorces her husband and starts a successful restaurant business to support her spoiled daughter.

THE BIG SLEEP (1946) Running Time 1 hr 54 min
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Starring: Humphrey Bogart
Lauren Bacall
Plot: Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by a rich family. Before the complex case is over, he’s seen murder, blackmail and what might be love.

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946) running Time 1 hr 53 min
Directed by: Tay Garnett
Starring: Lana Turner
John Garfield
Hume Cronyn
Plot: A married woman and a drifter fall in love, then plot to murder her husband.

DARK PASSAGE (1947) Running Time 1 hr 46 min
Directed by: Delmer Daves
Starring: Humphrey Bogart
Lauren Bacall
Agnes Moorehead
Plot: A man convicted of murdering his wife escapes from prison and works with a woman to try and prove his innocence.

WHITE HEAT (1949) running Time 1 hr 54 min
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Starring: James Cagney
Virginia Mayo
Plot; A psychopathic criminal with a mother complex makes a daring break from prison and leads his old gang on a chemical plant payroll heist. Shortly after the plan takes place, events take a crazy turn.

SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) Running Time 1 hr 50 min
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Starring: William Holden
Gloria Swanson
Plot: A screenwriter is hired to rework a faded silent film star’s script, only to find himself developing a dangerous relationship.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995) Running Time 1 hr 46 min
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Kevin Spacey
Gabriel Byrne
Benicio Del Toro
Plot: A sole survivor tells of the twisty events leading up to a horrific gun battle on a boat, which began when five criminals met at a seemingly random police lineup.

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997) Running Time 2 hr 18 min
Directed by: Curtis Hanson
Starring: Kevin Spacey
Russell Crowe
Kim Basinger
Plot: As corruption grows in 1950s LA, three policeman-one straight-laced, one brutal and one sleazy, investigate a series of murders with their own brand of justice.

SEVEN (1995) Running Time 2 hr 7 min
Directed by: David Fincher
Starring: Morgan Freeman
Brad Pitt
Kevin Spacey
Gwyneth Paltrow
Plot: Two detectives, a rookie and a veteran, hunt a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his motives.

FARGO (1996) Running Time 1 hr 38 min
Directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring: William H. Macy
Frances McDormand
Steve Buscemi
Plot: Jerry Lundegaard’s inept crime falls apart due to his and his henchmen’s bungling and the persistent police work of the quite pregnant Marge Gunderson.

MEMENTO (2000) Running Time 1 hr 53 min
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Guy Pierce
Carrie-Ann Moss
Plot: A man with short-term memory loss attempts to track down his wife’s murderer.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) Running Time 2 hr 27 min
Directed by: David Lynch
Starring: Naomi Watts
Laura Harring
Justin Theroux
Plot: After a car wreck on the winding Mulholland Drive renders a woman amnesiac, she and a perky Hollywood-hopeful search for clues and answers across Los Angeles in a twisting venture beyond dreams and reality.

SIN CITY (2005) Running time 2 hr 4 min
Directed by: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Mickey Rourke
Clive Owen
Bruce Willis
Jessica Alba
Plot: A film that explores the dark and miserable town, Basin City, and tells the story of three different people, all caught up in violent corruption.

KISS KISS BANG BANG (2005) Running Time 1 hr 43 min
Directed by: Shane Block
Starring: Robert Downey, JR.
Val Kilmer
Michelle Monaghan
Plot: A murder mystery brings together a private eye, a struggling actress, and a thief masquerading as an actor.

GONE BABY GONE (2007) Running Time 1 hr 54 min
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Starring: Casey Affleck
Morgan Freeman
Ed Harris
Michelle Monaghan
Plot: Two Boston area detectives investigate a little girl’s kidnapping, which ultimately turns into a crisis both professionally and personally.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) Running Time 2hr 2 min
Directed by: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones
Javier Bardem
Josh Brolin
Woody Harrelson
Plot: Violence and mayhem ensue after a hunter stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong and more than two million dollars in cash near the Rio Grande.

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