Film Feature: Best of American Film Noir, 1940-1959 — An International Poll

By Gerald Peary

The results of a Facebook contest for the Best of American Film Noir, 1940-1959

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity.

Eight Arts Fuse contributors were among 145 voters in 14 countries — including film critics, cinema historians, filmmakers, academics, and knowledgeable fans — participating in a Facebook contest for the Best of American Film Noir, 1940-1959.

The winner on 94 ballots was Billy Wilder’s masterful Double Indemnity, beating out two atmospheric cult classics, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (87 ballots) and Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (81). All power to the “B” movie: Detour 5th and Gun Crazy 9th. What happened to Hitchcock, with Shadow of a Doubt buried at 19th, Strangers on a Train at 21st?

The top 20: 1. Double Indemnity (94 votes) 2. Out of the Past (87) 3. Touch of Evil (81) 4. Kiss Me Deadly (61) 5. Detour (59) 6. In a Lonely Place (57) 7. The Big Heat (52) 8. The Big Sleep (50) 9. Gun Crazy (41) 10. The Killing (40) 11. The Maltese Falcon (39) 12. The Asphalt Jungle (34) 13. Pickup on South Street (33) 14. Scarlet Street and The Killers (26) 16. Force of Evil (25), 17. Sunset Boulevard (24) 18. Criss Cross (22) 19. Shadow of a Doubt and Lady from Shanghai (21).

Here are the Arts Fuse writer ballots:

Gerald PearyDouble Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Shadow of a Doubt, The Asphalt Jungle, The Big Heat, Strangers on a Train, Pitfall, Detour, In a Lonely Place

Evelyn RosenthalThe Postman Always Rings Twice, The Big Sleep, Laura, Body and Soul, Gaslight, Sunset Boulevard, High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Strangers on a Train

Tim JacksonThe Killing, Gun Crazy, Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly, Sunset Boulevard, Strangers on a Train, Touch of Evil, Nightmare Alley, Sudden Fear, White Heat

Jay AtkinsonLaura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Blue Dahlia, Out of the Past, The Set-Up, In a Lonely Place, The Big Sleep, On Dangerous Ground, The Glass Key, Crossfire

Matt HansonDouble Indemnity, Detour, Blast of Silence, Night of the Hunter, Pickup on South Street, The Big Sleep, Sunset Boulevard, Touch of Evil, Gun Crazy, The Hitch-Hiker

Peg AloiMildred Pierce, Touch of Evil, Key Largo, Sorry, Wrong Number, Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place, Dark Passage, Night of the Hunter, To Have and Have Not, The Maltese Falcon

Ezra Haber GlennDouble Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Naked City, Mildred Pierce, The Killing, The Big Sleep, Night of the Hunter, Pickup on South Street, Sunset Boulevard, The Sweet Smell of Success

Betsy ShermanDetour, Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil, In a Lonely Place, The Big Combo, Criss Cross, Born to Kill

Claude Rains and Joan Caulfield in The Unsuspected

Editor’s Note: Where in the hell is Hitchcock’s Notorious? My other addition — a personal favorite — would be Michael Curtiz’s The Unsuspected (1947), which stars Claude Rains as one of cinema’s suavest sociopaths, a popular “true crime” radio host who plots to do in Joan Caulfield.  — Bill Marx

What films would you choose? Add to the list. Please comment below.

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  1. Gerald Peary on August 4, 2021 at 8:51 pm

    Bill Marx is wondering why Hitchcock’s Notorious didn’t make the “Best of Noir” list. Probably because most people wouldn’t consider it a true “noir.” The criminals are Nazis and it’s a spy thriller rather than a domestic crime melodrama, the usual definition of “noir.” Alas, The Unsuspected only got one vote out of the 145 casting ballots.

    • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on August 5, 2021 at 9:08 am

      Sometimes a definition becomes a straitjacket. The Criterion Collection calls Notorious a “spy-noir.” Hitchcock’s style certainly fits the bill and more. As for the Nazis — they are part of the McGuffin. They talk and act like screenwriter Ben Hecht’s mobsters, with a touch more polish. Perhaps the problem is that — for once in a noir — a woman is at the center of the sadistic push and pull, not a man. It could be argued that Notorious is as close to a standard noir than either Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt.

      • Tom Connolly on August 5, 2021 at 12:04 pm

        I have to agree that Notorious is not a film noir. Yes, Hecht’s script does give the expat Nazis’ dialogue a gangster rhythm, but the Nazis were gangsters at heart. For the same reason that The Third Man is not a film noir, Notorious is in another category. Foreign intrigue takes these films into other realms. Not sure how Ingrid Bergman’s character is not more than a victim in Notorious. There are plenty of active female characters in these films. Ann Savage in Detour portrays a sadistic woman bordering on sociopathy; Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Jane Greer in Out of the Past, or Ella Raines in The Phantom Lady, are all trying to get themselves out of a situation.

        • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on August 5, 2021 at 7:18 pm

          Gangsters abound in the ’40s — Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mussolini’s — all thugs at heart. As for Bergman, she is the person in the middle of the noir pressure cooker, pinned between law and lawlessness, good and bad, clued-in and clued-out. A male is usually trapped in that hapless position, such as Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past or Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity.

          Bergman is a woman under pressure — in love with a cold hearted man rather than a conniving woman, per the standard plot machinery. Stanwyck and Greer are sirens in control. I can’t remember The Phantom Lady well enough to say that about Raines. Basing a genre category on a division between domestic intrigue (local thugs) and international intrigue (global thugs) feels like splitting hares to me.

          • Evelyn Rosenthal on August 7, 2021 at 12:30 am

            “Notorious” was on my list, as was “The Third Man,” and Gerry nixed them as “foreign intrigue.” 😉 I agree with you about the role reversal (here Cary Grant is the manipulator–as is Boyer in “Gaslight,” another of my picks). It was fun to think about these and come up with favorites!

            • Steve Feeney on August 11, 2021 at 7:14 am

              So glad you included “High Sierra.” Great film!

            • Gerald Peary on August 25, 2021 at 10:12 am

              I was kind to allow you Gaslight, as I asked for only films with a contemporary setting. But I already had nixed two of your choices, so I closed my eyes on a third.

      • Jason on August 5, 2021 at 6:22 pm

        I’m with you. Notorious and The Third Man may not be the most noir, but they’re the best noir.

        • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on August 5, 2021 at 7:19 pm

          Hi Jason:

          Thanks — I have never been a purist. Works of art that cross boundaries or mix-and-match have always been the most interesting to me.

          • Gerald Peary on August 25, 2021 at 10:14 am

            The poll was of American noirs. The Third Man, undeniably masterly, is a British film. It’s disqualification is that simple.

  2. Matt Hanson on August 5, 2021 at 9:40 pm

    Any idea where you can stream The Unsuspected?

  3. Tom Connolly on August 5, 2021 at 9:48 pm

    “Film Noir” is a category–not an indicator of quality. The original definition drew on the films inspired by “hard-boiled” fiction. Not be too much of a formalist, but if we expand the categories to fit the films we like because we want them to be classified it defeats of the purpose, doesn’t it? This does not take away from “The Third Man” or “Notorious.” Both of which are superior to “Double Indemnity” or any other “pure” film noir for many reasons.

    • Gerald Peary on August 25, 2021 at 10:17 am

      I agree, Tom, with all you say, including that using “Film noir” doesn’t make it a good film. And yet, more than any other genre, I find something of interest in even the worst noir. Something about the mood, the atmosphere, the low-life characters (and character actors) in even the most feeble “noir.” I bet the Surrealists would say, “All noir films are masterpieces..”

      • Tom Connolly on August 29, 2021 at 11:33 am

        I agree. I have spent the summer watching every noir I could find. There is that quality ineffable or disturbing about the films that makes even a poverty row noir compelling.

  4. Tony D'Ambra on August 6, 2021 at 5:21 am

    My top 25 films noir by year of release. Ranking them would be arbitrary as there is little if anything between them.

    Port of Shadows 1938 France
    Aka Le Quai des brumes. Fate a dank existential fog ensnares doomed lovers Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan after one night of happiness.

    The Maltese Falcon 1941 US
    Bogart as Sam Spade the quintessential noir protagonist. A loner on the edge of polite society, sorely tempted to transgress but declines and is neither saved nor redeemed.

    Double Indemnity 1944 US
    All the elements of the archetypal film noir are distilled into a gothic LA tale of greed, sex, and betrayal.

    Murder, My Sweet 1944 US
    (Aka Farewell, my Lovely) The most noir fun you will ever have. Raymond Chandler’s prose crackles with moody noir direction from Edward Dmytryk.

    The Big Sleep 1946 US
    Love’s Vengeance Lost. Darker than Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet. Bogart is tougher, more driven, and morally suspect.

    Ride the Pink Horse 1946 US
    Disillusioned WW2 vet arrives in a New Mexico town to blackmail a war racketeer. Imbued with a rare humanity.

    Body and Soul 1947 US
    A masterwork. Melodramatic expose of the fight game and a savage indictment of money capitalism. Garfield’s picture.

    Out of the Past 1947 US
    Quintessential film noir. Inspired direction, exquisite expressionist cinematography, and legendary Mitchum and Greer.

    The Lady From Shanghai 1947 US
    Orson Welles’ brilliant jigsaw noir with a femme-fatale to die for and a script so sharp you relish every scene.

    T-Men 1947 US
    Mann and Alton offer a visionary descent into a noir realm of dark tenements, nightclubs, mobsters, and hellish steam baths.

    Act of Violence 1948 US
    Long-shot and deep focus climax filmed night-for-night on a railway platform: the stuff noirs are made of.

    Force of Evil 1948 US
    Polonsky transcends noir in a tragic allegory on greed and family. Garfield adds signature honesty and gritty complexity .

    Raw Deal 1948 US
    Sublime noir from Anthony Mann and master cinematographer John Alton. Knockout cast in a strong story stunningly rendered as expressionist art.

    The Set-Up 1949 US
    Robert Ryan is great as washed-up boxer in Robert Wise’ sharp expose of the fight game. Brooding and intense noir classic.

    The Third Man 1949 UK
    Sublime. An engaging cavalcade of characters in a human comedy of love, friendship, and the imperatives of conscience.

    Night And the City 1950 US/UK
    Dassin’s stark existential journey played out in the dark dives of post-war London as a quintessential noir city.

    The Asphalt Jungle 1950 US
    Quintessential heist movie transcends melodrama and noir. A police siren wails: “Sounds like a soul in hell.”

    On Dangerous Ground 1951 US
    City cop battling inner demons is sent to ‘Siberia’. A film of dark beauty and haunting characterisations.

    The Prowler 1951 US
    Van Heflin is homme-fatale in Trumbo thriller. Director Losey is unforgiving. Each squalid act is suffocatingly framed.

    The Big Heat 1953 US
    Gloria Grahame as existential hero in Fritz Lang’s brooding socio-realist noir critique.

    Kiss Me Deadly 1955 US
    Anti-fascist Hollywood Dada. Aldrich’s surreal noir a totally weird yet compelling exploration of urban paranoia.

    Rififi 1955 France
    Dassin’s classic heist thriller culminating in the terrific final scenes of a car desperately careening through Paris streets.

    The Big Combo 1955 US
    “I live in a maze… a strange blind backward maze’. Obsessed cop hunts down a psychotic crime boss in the best noir of the50s.

    Sweet Smell of Success 1957 US
    DP James Wong Howe’s sharpest picture. As bracing as vinegar and cold as ice. Ambition stripped of all pretense.

    Odds Against Tomorrow 1959 US
    A work of art from Rober Wise. New York City and its industrial fringe are quasi-protagonists that harbor the angst and desperation of life outside the mainstream – sordid dreams of the last big heist that will fix everything

    For my full listing of essential films noir click here:

    • Gerald Peary on August 25, 2021 at 10:21 am

      Thanks, Tony. You are a man who knows his “noir.” An excellent list, and lots of fun for those who are just getting into it. And I still haven’t seen Act of Violence or Raw Deal. I just watched what seems among the earliest noirs, from Germany Joe May’s Asphalt (1929).

  5. Thomas Garvey on August 25, 2021 at 2:00 pm

    Notorious isn’t a noir for two reasons: sexually, it’s just too lush — it’s about as far from “hard-boiled” as you can get; and in moral terms we never doubt Ingrid Bergman. If she had coolly turned the tables and betrayed Cary Grant to save herself from Claude Rains, THEN perhaps you’d have a noir. Maybe.

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