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Lucille Ball looks shocked in Lured Image: United Artists

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The best noir movies to watch this Noirvember

From all-time classics to neo-noirs breaking new ground

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For some reason — blame the encroaching winter, post-Halloween boredom, or simple copycat syndrome, you be the judge — November has become a big month for annual social-media-based collective challenges. From NaNoWriMo and NaPoWriMo to Movember and No-Shave November to, um, others, the extremely online crowd has focused on November as a month for group events and group discussion.

For cinephiles, the fun one of the batch is Noirvember, a collective urge to watch and compare noir movies. Unlike most of these other challenges, Noirvember doesn’t have an organizing website, a sponsor, a fundraising goal, or an established set of rules. (Though individual participants have certainly proposed some.) So for those participating — or for anyone looking for the best noir movies, or the best way to get into the classic genre for the first time — we’re offering a little help. Here are some of our favorites, for newbies and noir veterans alike.

The classics

Let’s start with a few seminal noirs, the basics you’ll want to hit to understand the genre and its conventions.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Humphrey Bogart wears a suit and a hat in The Maltese Falcon Image: Warner Bros.

Director: John Huston
Where to watch: Rentable on Amazon, Vudu, Apple, YouTube

Probably the most famous noir movie of all time, John Huston’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 crime movie covers the basics: There’s a hard-bitten detective, Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), on a case full of twists, turns, and double-crosses; a beautiful woman who lures him in and turns out to be full of lies; and a McGuffin everyone’s after that turns out to be more than it seems. A prime example of a noir that’s more about atmosphere, cinematography, and a complicated plot than about edge-of-the-seat thrills, The Maltese Falcon is a moody movie with a lot of great performances, but it’s also one of those films that’s been imitated and iterated on so much that it can feel a bit basic in comparison to its followers. Still, that also makes it one of those movies where watching it suddenly makes a thousand later cultural references and media in-jokes make sense. —Tasha Robinson

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Norma Desmond is ready for her close-up, Mr. Demille Image: Paramount Pictures

Director: Billy Wilder
Where to watch: Streaming on Paramount Plus, and free with a library card on Hoopla or Kanopy. Rentable on Amazon, Vudu, YouTube

Starting with one of the all-time great openings — has-been writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) wearily narrating over a shot of the police examining his floating corpse in a Los Angeles swimming pool — Sunset Boulevard is a stunner from start to finish. This one isn’t a crime procedural, like so many classic noirs; it’s about how Joe, out of work and fleeing the men trying to repossess his car, tries to find shelter with an aging movie star by promising to write her a comeback vehicle. He gets drawn into a drama he didn’t expect — a drama that’s exceptionally well acted and scripted. It’s dark stuff about Hollywood dreams and how they die, with Gloria Swanson at her most captivating and frightening. —TR

Double Indemnity (1944)

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. Image: Paramount Pictures

Director: Billy Wilder
Where to watch: Rentable on Amazon, Vudu, YouTube

Another Billy Wilder movie told in flashback, Double Indemnity is one of the great genre-defining femme fatale movies, with Barbara Stanwyck as the lovely lady leading hapless chump Fred MacMurray into an insurance fraud scheme that involves murdering her husband. It’s one of the great twist movies — everybody in this film is a potential double-crosser, and MacMurray as an insurance investigator is both tasked with solving the murder he committed and trying to cover it up at the same time. There’s enough going on here to keep anyone guessing up to the last minute. —TR

More in this category: Le Samouraï, Rififi, Laura, The Third Man, Touch of Evil, The Big Sleep, In a Lonely Place, Chinatown, Night of the Hunter

Next steps

Where to go after the basics? This is where noir fans’ mileage is going to vary most, based on which aspects of noir they like most. The mysteries? The fraught relationships? The twisty stories and unexpected reveals? Just the overall mood? Here are a few we’d recommend regardless of which subgenre you’re most into.

M (1931)

Inge Landgut as Elsie Beckmann peering up at a man silhouetted against a wanted poster in M. Image: Criterion Channel

Director: Fritz Lang
Where to watch: Streaming on Max, The Criterion Channel, free with ads on Plex, and free with a library card on Kanopy. Rentable on Amazon, Vudu, Apple

One of the most chilling crime dramas ever put to film, M has an unbeatable premise: When a child murderer starts haunting the streets of Berlin and the police can’t find him, the local crime bosses join forces to bring him down. Something like a proto version of The Wire, jumping back and forth from the police perspective to the criminals’ side of things and humanizing people on both sides, M is a procedural with several unusual turns, built around a particularly memorable Peter Lorre performance. It’s also absolutely packed with breathtaking shots and exceptional use of light and dark, and the final manhunt sequence is a classic all-timer. —TR

Notorious (1946)

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman make eyes at each other while sitting on a train in Notorious. Image: RKO Pictures

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Where to watch: Streaming free with ads on Tubi, IndieFlix, FlixFling

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca is a defining noir classic, but fans who haven’t dug past his topline roundup of classics shouldn’t miss the memorable Notorious, a thriller-romance featuring some of his most touching character work. Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a German war criminal, is asked to use that connection to seduce and spy on a prominent Nazi figure (Claude Rains) for the American government.

In the thinking of the time, this involves ruining herself for good men like her handler and love interest (Cary Grant) by having sex with another man. In modern eyes, this looks like the stuff anime romance dramas and fanfic are made of: Deferring her own desires for her country, Alicia willingly enters a love triangle and invites plenty of tsundere. Will duty win over love? Will she get any good spying done? Is Cary Grant the biggest self-righteous stuffed shirt imaginable in this movie? Bring on the feels. —TR

More in this category: Strangers on a Train, Ace in the Hole, Murder My Sweet, The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, The Set-Up, Scarlet Street

Digging deep

Follow anyone on social media who’s been at the Noirvember game for a while, and you’ll see plenty in this category: titles that lack a Billy Wilder or Humphrey Bogart to bring them into the cinematic limelight, but that have plenty of their own memorable charms. Here are a few we recommend for noir fans who’ve seen everything else.

Detour (1945)

Tom Neal looks very very concerned in Detour, wearing a hate with light shining on only the top half of his face. Image: Producers Releasing Corporation

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Where to watch: Streaming on Prime Video, Criterion Channel, free with ads on Pluto TV or Plex, and free with a library card on Kanopy

Edgar G. Ulmer was a prolific director in the Classic Hollywood era and directed the groundbreaking psychological thriller The Black Cat, the first movie to star horror legends Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. It was a huge hit for Universal. But Ulmer was blacklisted from most Hollywood studios shortly after, when his affair with the wife of Universal studio head Carl Laemmle’s nephew turned into a divorce and remarriage.

This is all necessary context for Detour, one of many micro-budget movies Ulmer made for Producers Releasing Corporation, the smallest of the Hollywood studios at the time. It’s also a standout example of film noir aesthetics and low-budget moviemaking.

Detour is about a down-on-his-luck young man hitchhiking from New York to Los Angeles to meet up with his love, who moved to Hollywood with the hopes of making it big. Along the way, he meets a mysterious stranger who upends everything.

Detour’s tiny budget gives the 66-minute film an odd aura, with sparse sets and back projection that is inconsistent at best. But the thing undoubtedly works — it’s a haunting movie about the unluckiest man in the universe, and Ulmer’s striking images (and an unforgettable performance by Ann Savage) through his evocative use of lighting paint a stark picture of an uncaring world. —Pete Volk

Sudden Fear (1952)

Joan Crawford holds her hands to her head and looks like she’s about to lose it in Sudden Fear Image: RKO Pictures

Director: David Miller
Where to watch: Streaming free with ads on Tubi, and free with a library card on Kanopy. Rentable on Amazon, Vudu, Apple

If you’ve never seen young Jack Palance and his startling cheekbones in a ’50s movie, this crime-and-seduction drama is worth it for that alone. But the real star of the show is Joan Crawford, in a particularly fantastic performance as a successful, wealthy playwright who winds up on both ends of a revenge scheme. When Myra Hudson (Crawford) boots handsome leading actor Lester Blaine (Palance) off her latest play because she doesn’t think he’s convincing as a romantic lead, and then he “just happens” to run into her, seduce her, and get her to fall for him, sharp viewers will think they know where this story is going. But that’ll only get them one twist down the magnificently curvy road in this movie. It’s another “everyone’s a potential double-crosser” story, directed with surprising style and a few winks at a noir-savvy audience. —TR

Born to Kill (1947)

A man and a woman glance towards each other in Born to Kill. The Woman wears a wedding dress Image: RKO Pictures

Director: Robert Wise
Where to watch: Rentable on Amazon, Vudu

An openly Hitchcockian drama that feels like a matchup for Suspicion, Born to Kill does some particularly terrific plotting around the idea that it’s always exciting when the audience knows a lot more than the characters. Helen and Sam (Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney) are involved in different ways with the same double murder, but don’t realize it. When they meet and are attracted to each other, viewers will see the threat looming ahead even when both characters are oblivious. More murder, blackmail, cover-ups, and a great deal of double-dealing follow, enough to require a scorecard to follow the action. It’s a terrifically tense story where there’s no mystery about who did the killing, just about what or who audiences should root for. Do these two crazy kids have a future together? Does either deserve a future at all? And how many innocent bystanders are they going to take down with them? —TR

Lured (1947)

Lucille Ball does a curtsy in Lured. Image: United Artists

Director: Douglas Sirk
Where to watch: Streaming free with a library card on Hoopla or Kanopy, and free with ads on Roku. Rentable on Amazon, Vudu, YouTube

For people only familiar with Lucille Ball as a comedian, this strange crime thriller is a particular blast. American in London Sandra Carpenter (Ball) is working as a taxi dancer when a friend of hers disappears, possibly the victim of a serial killer who’s sending odd little poems to the police with every murder. The police ask Sandra to act as bait for the killer, which sends her on a bizarre, sometimes darkly hilarious tour of seedy London, as she answers lonely hearts ads and goes out to meet a series of strangers with the expectation that every one might be a murderer.

Ball is touchingly open-hearted in this movie, as a civilian who decides early on that she’s a hard-bitten cop like so many other noir protagonists. But this isn’t a satire or comedy — it’s more in the mode of M than The Naked Gun, with the focus on the noose tightening around the killer, and the sense that anyone Sandra meets could be a harmless kook or a deadly predator. —TR

Murder by Contract (1958)

Vince Edwards stands in front of a police officer in an image with surprising depth in Murder by Contract. Image: Columbia Pictures

Director: Irving Lerner
Where to watch: Streaming free with ads on Tubi

Murder by Contract is a lean, mean noir that had a big influence on Martin Scorsese. The director has listed it as one of his guilty pleasure movies — calling it the film that influenced him the most, especially in Taxi Driver. “The film puts us all to shame with its economy of style,” he wrote. “Murder By Contract was a favorite of neighborhood guys who didn’t know anything about movies. They just liked the film because they recognized something unique about it.”

In Murder by Contract, Vince Edwards plays a methodical hitman who is asked to kill a witness in a high-profile case. When he finds out his target is a woman, he bucks — not on moral grounds, but because women are harder to kill, due to how “unpredictable” they are.

Irving Lerner directs the movie masterfully on a minimal budget: It’s a tight 81 minutes, aided by Edwards’ fantastic performance in the leading role and a great all-guitar score from Perry Botkin. Catch up with a movie that inspired some of the greats, and learn more about film history in the process — all while having a great time. —PV

More in this category: Force of Evil, Nocturne (1946), Female Jungle, Killer’s Kiss, Abandoned (1949), No Man of Her Own, Nightmare Alley (1947)

The neo-noirs

Search for “best neo-noirs” online, and you’ll get a thousand movies with dubious-at-best noir connections — practically all it takes to get a movie labeled as neo-noir is a voice-over, a procedural plot with a lot of night shots, or a downbeat ending. But there are plenty of movies that update the genre squarely and fairly, with an eye toward all the core conventions and the flavor that made noir such a memorable genre in the first place. Here are some of the best and most high-fidelity neos.

The Last Seduction (1994)

Linda Fiorentino smokes a cigarette seductively in The Last Seduction Image: October Films

Director: John Dahl
Where to watch: Streaming on Peacock or free with ads on Tubi, Vudu, Roku, FreeVee, and Plex. Rentable at Amazon, Vudu, Apple

One of the most gleefully cruel, shockingly dirty neo-noirs to ever claim the name, The Last Seduction is a series of surprises that feels all the more subversive because the femme fatale is the protagonist, and there is no hero worth the label. Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) schemes with her patsy husband, Clay (Bill Pullman), to get her hands on a pile of illicit cash. Then she runs off with it and leaves him behind to take the fall. But she winds up stranded in a small town with time to kill and a second patsy to play with. This one gets particularly ugly by the end — it’s a dark, dark story — but there’s still a gleeful joy in the tightness of this narrative, and in Bridget’s sociopathic skill at coming up with a manipulation for every situation. —TR

Blood Simple (1984)

Frances McDormand holds a gun and extends into a shadow in Blood Simple Image: Universal Pictures Home Video

Directors: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Where to watch: Streaming on Max and The Criterion Channel. Rentable at Amazon, Vudu, Alamo, YouTube

Frances McDormand’s screen debut and the Coen brothers’ first movie is a must-see for neo-noir fans — the kind of tightly plotted, intensely acted, strikingly stylish movie they’d continue to be known for in the decades that followed. It was a memorable debut for all concerned. A Texas woman (McDormand) cheats on her thuggish husband (Dan Hedaya), who sets out to kill her and her lover. But everyone involved seems to have a hidden agenda, and the threads get pretty tangled as they all come to the surface, with twist after twist making the action memorable. Blood Simple puts the visual darkness implied in “noir” to particularly good work: It’s the kind of movie where someone is always either lurking in deep shadow or forced off into a symbolic darkness that they might or might not come back from alive. —TR

Brick (2005)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, all bloodied, walks through a parking lot in Brick Image: Focus Features

Director: Rian Johnson
Where to watch: Rentable on Amazon, Vudu, Redbox

For fans: possibly the best ever neo-noir not made by the Coen brothers. For detractors: a weird “Is this serious or satire?” experience built around a mannered, oddball script that reduces noir to a literal high school teen drama. (Actually, the fans might agree with every part of that second description, and just mean it much more positively.)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the hard-bitten PI equivalent, a high school kid devoted to a girl who jilted him, then turned up dead. Johnson’s script (presaging his later, equally complex murder mysteries Knives Out and Glass Onion) treats high school drama like big-time drama, and puts Dashiell Hammett-style dialogue in the mouths of modern teenagers, for an effect that’s a wee bit comedic and a whole lot of fun. This one’s full of fun surprises, but it also respects the genre and plays fair by noir fans rather than subverting the classics. —TR

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

A shirtless Chris Hemsworth in Bad Times at the El Royale Image: 20th Century Fox

Director: Drew Goddard
Where to watch: Streaming free with ads on FreeVee. Rentable on Amazon, Vudu, YouTube

A star-studded, charisma-packed murder-thriller told out of order, in the kind of layered “and here’s what was going on with this other character at the same time” narrative that hangs plenty of Chekhovian guns on the wall for the final act, Bad Times at the El Royale is an underrated blast. Featuring Cynthia Erivo in a star-making role, Chris Hemsworth in a part that makes the most of his sex appeal, and plenty of other familiar names (Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Nick Offerman, Jeff Bridges) doing what they do, this one’s a powder keg of a movie that assembles a motley crew of unrelated guests (or are they?) at a seedy motel, then keeps revealing secrets in a deliriously dizzy way as it all comes together. —TR

Twilight (1998)

Susan Sarandon wears a robe and stares into the distance in Twilight (1998) Image: Paramount/Everett Collection

Director: Robert Benton
Where to watch: Streaming free with a library card on Hoopla. Rentable on Amazon, Vudu, YouTube

No, not that Twilight. There isn’t a sparkle-vampire in sight in this celebrity-crammed, steamy crime drama. But if you have a Noirvember buddy or viewing group, we recommend springing this on them at the last minute: “Hey, we’re watching Twilight tonight!” If they don’t break your neck and throw you under a train, Double Indemnity-style, they’ll probably thank you after watching this one, a surprisingly winning (and winningly surprising) crime drama starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, Reese Witherspoon, Stockard Channing, James Garner, Giancarlo Esposito, Liev Schreiber, Margo Martindale, M. Emmet Walsh… It’s the kind of movie where you can play “Oh wow, they’re in this movie too?” in almost every scene. —TR

More in this category: Bound, Fargo, Lost Highway, U-Turn, Body Heat, The Drowning Pool, Memento, Shutter Island, Blade Runner, Nightmare Alley (2021)

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