When noir films were introduced to audiences in the early 1940s, they were captivated by cynical tales of cities rife with steady corruption, easy violence, and willing deceit. It's been generations since those black-and-white stories were first told, but people still find the style alluring. Maybe it's because noir films tap into our sinister impulses. Or perhaps it's because these movies usually involve a fair share of memorable lines and plot points. Whatever it may be, this is a genre with staying power because it unapologetically displays personalities that aren't afraid of danger.
If you're in the mood to sit in the dark with films that are equally shady, we've put together a list of the 20 top noir movies to watch. These picks span early classics, like The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Boulevard, and also include recent classics like The Dark Knight and Gone Baby Gone. While we wouldn't necessarily recommend emulating these characters, we don't mind advising you to watch them from a distance.
The beauty of noir is that you can participate in the danger without any of the consequences. Start scrolling for our favorite noir movies, and where to watch them.
In an attempt to break through writer's block, Jack Manfred (played by a fresh faced Clive Owen) takes a gig as a croupier. Despite his efforts to remain professional, the vices of the London gambling world begin to lure him under.
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L.A. Confidential (1997)
Known as neo-noir, or a film that was made after the genre's midcentury heyday, L.A. Confidential is a classic in its own right for reimagining this style for modern audiences. It's set in 1953 Los Angeles and follows a group of police officers who instigate corruption, seek fame, and welcome violence.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Famous for the classic line, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," Sunset Boulevard is noir at its best. It centers on a screenwriter who stumbles upon the crumbling mansion of a silent film star. She doesn't believe that her fame has ended, and he first tries to convince her otherwise. But the longer he stays, the more he realizes that he's a part of the fantasy, too.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
This is another famous noir film, starring one of Old Hollywood's most famous actors, Humphrey Bogart. It closely follows the setting described by its namesake novel by Dashiell Hammett, about a private detective named Sam Spade in San Francisco. At first, Spade agrees to work with a client who claims that her sister is missing. But he's soon involved with trying to find a jewel-encrusted statue of a bird before the people following him do.
Black Widow (1954)
A young, aspiring writer captivates a married Broadway producer, and invites her into his home while his wife is away. But before he can break off their affair, she winds up dead, and he's the main suspect. Now, he's on the case to find the real killer to clear his name.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
This neo-noir mystery film unfolds with help from a common narrative device in this genre, the flashback, which starts with five con men in a police lineup. At first, it seems like they met there, but they didn't. Instead, they were all involved in a shootout on a boat in the Port of Los Angeles, where dozens were murdered.
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
After a little girl named Amanda goes missing, two Boston detectives (partners in and out of uniform) are tasked with finding her—and they uncover that her mother and her boyfriend are involved with drug trafficking. The plot gets more complicated as the detectives uncover more sinister details, which test their training and relationship in the process.
See Lucille Ball in a darker light in Lured. In it, Ball plays an American dancer who agrees to help London police catch a serial killer, who finds victims by placing ads in the personal column of newspapers. Ball, working with Scotland Yard, is the bait.
The Dark Knight (2008)
This brooding Christopher Nolan film introduces the Joker to the franchise in a role that won Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar. When Joker turns Gotham City into the unwilling setting of his chaotic and dangerous games, Batman has to save innocent people—but the opportunities to do so question his morality.
A retiring police detective and his partner—a man who has recently moved to the city with his wife—take on the case of a series of murders that are inspired by the seven deadly sins. Once they uncover who the killer is, John Doe, they set out to find him. As more violence takes place, John Doe tests the veteran skills of the retiring detective and the idealism of his young partner.
Set It Off (1996)
In Set It Off, four longtime friends (played by Vivica A. Fox, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Kimberly Elise) turn to bank robbery to lift them from circumstance. Filmed and set in Los Angeles in the '90s, four years following the Rodney King trial, Set It Off adds biting cultural context and tales of female survival to an otherwise typical heist movie.
Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway ride for criminals. He meets his neighbor, a woman with a young son and a husband who was recently released from prison. The husband hires him to take part in a multi-million dollar heist, which Driver does to try and protect neighbor and child. But things go wrong—and Driver winds up more involved than he planned.
This is yet another classic neo-noir film starring Jack Nicholson as a private investigator who is hired by a woman posing as the wife of the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The investigator thinks that this is a case of infidelity, but when he realizes the true identity of the chief engineer's wife, played by Faye Dunaway, he gets involved in a mess of family secrets and citywide lies.
Nurse Coffy, used to seeing the devastating effects of drugs, takes justice into her own hands when her younger sister deteriorates from a heroin addiction. Played by Pam Grier, Coffy is both empowering and objectified femme fatale flick.
Sin City (2005)
Neo-noir storytelling meets comic book styling in this film, which spans intertwining tales of corruption, violence, deceit, and lust in a fictional place called Basin City. Most of the movie takes place in black and white and uses splashes of color—namely, red—to highlight plot twists and characters.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Often considered Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece, this film follows two philosophical mob hitmen—played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta—as well as the stories of their boss and his actress wife, the hijinks of two armed robbers, a down-and-out boxer, and a fixer. As the different plot lines come together with violence, style, and plenty of one-liners, a distinct crime scene in Los Angeles unfolds.
One False Move (1992)
On the run, an eclectic band of criminals make their way to Star City, Arkansas from Los Angeles. A parallel storyline emerges as small-town Arkansas cop joins two LA police officers in an effort to apprehend the violent offenders. Adding to the intrigue, One False Move gradually reveals secrets from characters's pasts that raise the stakes for the fugitives's arrival in Star City.
Like other films in this genre, Memento starts with one shot and moves backward. The flashback focuses on protagonist Leonard, who has anterograde amnesia and can't hold on to recent memories. As the audience is introduced to his world, which is shown in alternating black-and-white and color sequences, it learns how his condition can be a deceptive form of narration, a challenging obstacle as he searches for the person who killed his wife.
Winter's Bone (2010)
Jennifer Lawrence plays teenager Ree Dolly in this mystery film set in rural Missouri, as she sets out to find her missing father to save her family. Ree is the sole caretaker of her mentally ill mother and siblings, and if her father does not appear for his court date, their home will be repossessed. As she searches for him, she crosses paths with a crime boss and his dangerous family.
The eponymous 1980s British series is reimagined with actress Viola Davis as Veronica Rawlings, in mourning following the death of her criminal husband. He had one last job to do before going legit, and joins forces with characters played by Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki—widows of criminal partners themselves—to complete it. The setting is modern-day Chicago, and its shadowy mix of race, politics, and gentrification are at play.