5 Sunset Boulevard (1950)
“Sunset Boulevard” is another remarkable film, a strange combination of Gothic and psychological thriller. Norma Desmond is an aging star obsessed with recreating the past. “Sunset Boulevard” is a tragic story because of Desmond’s inability to let go of the past and recognize the good things she has in her life at the moment. Despite her creepiness, there’s something also lovable and vulnerable about her. Thanks to the actors in this film, “Sunset Boulevard” demonstrates more sympathy for humanity—and aging women—than one might expect.
4 The Third Man (1949)
“The Third Man” is one of the few noir films that was directed by a woman, Carol Reed. Set in World War II Vienna, the movie is about a naive American pulp fiction writer who discovers one of his friends is a rather cynical and unsavory character. “The Third Man” is unique, from the zither soundtrack to the Ferris wheel scene— followed by the cuckoo clock speech—to the dark and intense sewer chase at the end. The camera angles are often tilted and unsettling, and as with many noir films the resolution is more disturbing than satisfying. Whether one finds it enjoyable to not, “The Third Man” is definitely a masterpiece.
3 Notorious (1946)
One of Alfred Hitchcock‘s most popular films, “Notorious,” is a spy story that defines why Hitchcock was called the Master of Suspense, and is one of the most elegant expressions of his visual style. Ingrid Bergman is gorgeous as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a Nazi sympathizer and a loose playgirl. Cary Grant is excellent in an unusual role for him: CIA agent T. R. Devlin, who seems cold, even cruel. The tracking shot to the key Alicia holds at a party is an iconic use of Hitchcock building suspense visually. Hitchcock was also famous for making his audience relate to his villains: in “Notorious,” there are no “good guys,” but we still root for Alicia to be rescued.
2 Laura (1944)
Arguably the most famous film noir today, “Laura” cleverly addresses themes of wanting what you can never have and sowing the seeds of your own destruction — all in a delightfully twisting plot. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is its use of art to reflect the psychology of its characters—a common motif in film noir at which “Laura” succeeds more than any other movie of its time. The down-to-earth Detective McPherson falls in love with a woman while investigating her death. The moment when he wakes up after falling asleep in front of her portrait to discover she’s still alive is one of the great moments of magic and ambiguity in cinema, not to mention an astute play on the phrase “femme fatale.”
1 The Maltese Falcon (1941)
“The Maltese Falcon” was the first film noir, and set the style of film for the next decade. Really, the film is almost all style: an attempt to capture the cynicism of Dashiell Hammett’s novels to the screen. In Sam Spade we meet a hero who is morally ambiguous—sleeping with his best friend’s wife, working against the police, demonstrating emotional coldness and occasional flashes of cruelty. Humphrey Bogart nailed the character of Sam Spade so well that it defined the rest of his career. Although the plot is nearly unexplainable, “The Maltese Falcon” builds suspense though series of long conversations, visual hints, and brief moments of violence.