Before the comic book movie boom, the rise of Westerns in the ’60s, or the Rom-com craze of the ’90s, film noir reigned supreme. Unlike most genres, this gritty crime genre was known not only for its unique storytelling style but its visual aesthetic as well. One key component that also made this genre differentiate itself from others is it foregoes the typical Hollywood happy ending for a darker conclusion to its stories.
Whether it’s the classical 40s film noirs or the more modern neo-noir, there’s a consistent theme that life doesn’t work out how you want it to. Sometimes, they even go so far as to imply that the bad guys usually get away with it, and good people suffer the consequences. That’s why it’s always a pleasant surprise when films like Gaslight and Gilda have a happy ending. While these films may stray from the genre’s roots, sometimes filmgoers need to know there’s hope in an unjust world and that the good guys can come out on top.
10 ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ (2019)
Directed by Edward Norton
Edward Norton’s passion project based on the novel with the same is about a detective with OCD and turrets who tries to discover who murdered his boss (Bruce Willis) and ends up undercovering a plot by a crooked politician, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), to scam low-income residents out of their homes. It’s interesting to note that, besides being directed and written by Norton, it’s also Willis’s last theatrically wide release.
While the original book took place in present-day New York, Norton’s film is set in the 50s, mimicking the long-coat, hat-wearing detective disillusioned by the crooked establishment trope.
Motherless Brooklyn tackles the controversial topic of the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods. Lionel discovers the housing authority is not only behind his boss’s murder but is demolishing homes and forcing out black residents under the guise of urban renewal. The community in the film feels helpless to stop the renewal, similar to real communities going through gentrification, leaving audiences with something to think about. Unlike real life, this film ends happily with Lionel exposing Moses with the help of Moses’s secret daughter and the two moving in together.
- Release Date
- October 31, 2019
- Edward Norton
- Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe
Rent on Amazon Prime
9 ‘The Nice Guys’ (2016)
Directed by Shane Black
Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black directs this comedy noir about a private eye in the 70s (Ryan Gosling) who is in search of Amelia, who has information about the whereabouts of a porn star who is supposed to be deceased. When Amelia goes missing, he teams up with her paid enforcer to solve the case.
Black’s film takes place in the Nixon era when corruption was widespread in America, as shown when this odd couple kicks over a hornet’s nest of crooked politicians and mobsters searching for Amelia. Russell Crowe is in rare form, known chiefly for serious roles until this movie, which is why Gosling agreed to do the film. Gosling and Crow’s comedic timing calls back to great cop duos like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, something fans rarely see in Noirs. In the end, the bad guys win, and Amelia is killed flagging down a car. However, the two loners learn the importance of relying on others, hinting at starting an agency together, capping off this dark comedy on a bright note.
The Nice Guys
- Release Date
- May 15, 2016
- Shane Black
- Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matthew Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta
Watch on Netflix
8 ‘Minority Report’ (2002)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Originally written as the sequel to Total Recall for Arnold Swartzaneger, Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi noir is about Detective Anderton (Tom Cruise), whose department uses a clairvoyant named Agatha and her two siblings to catch murders before they can strike. However, when she names Anderton as a killer, he becomes a fugitive in hopes of proving his innocence.
Spielberg’s futuristic world-building gives audiences that classic Spielberg awe-inspiring feeling. However, some miss the philosophical questions the film has that make this movie so nuanced. As Norton steals Agatha to find his future victim, the movie asks if it is ethical for Norton to arrest people who have not committed crimes yet. As Anderton is faced with his potential victim, who he believes killed his son, he makes the choice not to kill him. This raises the question: If people’s futures are set, do they still have free will to make their own decisions? Most noirs would have ended after Anderson is caught and imprisoned. However, Spielberg delivers a crowd-pleasing ending with Anderton’s ex-wife freeing him, exposing his boss as the murderer destroying the Precrime program. Now Agatha is free to live without seeing crimes, and Anderton and his wife pick up where they left off by having a new child.
- Release Date
- June 20, 2002
- Steven Spielberg
- Tom Cruise, Max Von Sydow, Steve Harris, Neal McDonough, Patrick Kilpatrick, Jessica Capshaw
Watch on Paramount+
7 ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988)
Directed by Rovert Zemeckis
After the famous cartoon Roger Rabit is framed for murder, Detective Eddy Valiant (Bob Hopkins) combats Toontown’s underbelly and Roger’s beautiful but suspicious wife to try and prove his innocence. This critically acclaimed film was the 8th highest-grossing film of 1988.
This film’s claim to fame is blending live action with animation as Hopkins convincingly interacts with cartoons as Valiant widdles down his list of suspects. The fact that audiences left the film feeling the sexual chemistry between Valiant and the animated Lola Rabbit speaks to the greatness of this film. The movie’s message that people need each other, as seen when Roger teaches the depressed Valiant to laugh again and when Valiant catches the real murderer clearing Roger’s name, shows this film is more than just a gimmick.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
- Release Date
- June 21, 1988
- Robert Zemeckis
- Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy, Charles Fleischer, Stubby Kaye, Alan Tilvern
Watch on Disney+
6 ‘Gaslight’ (1944)
Directed by George Cukor
Ingrid Bergman won best actress in this remake about a timid homemaker who moves into her murdered aunt’s home and starts to believe she’s going insane until a detective from the past suspect’s foul play. Also, for better or worse, it’s infamously responsible for giving us the term Gaslighting.
This psychological thriller feels claustrophobic and paranoid as Alice notices missing items, phantom noises, and gaslights dimming and brightening after being isolated at home by her husband. Gaslight comments on 40s housewives stuck at home, taking what should be a sense of comfort and turning it into a prison. It also tackles the subject of domestic abuse as Alice discovers her husband’s been trying to drive her crazy, so he can commit her to an institution. Luckily for Alice, she and Detective Cameron stop her husband just as she begins questioning her sanity.
Rent on Amazon Prime
5 ‘Inception’ (2011)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s heist film that beat out Angelina Jolie’s Salt, released the same weekend, is about criminals who infiltrate the dreams of a business tycoon’s son, Fisher (Cillian Murphy), misleading him into dissolving his father’s business. Inception’s ending is surprisingly optimistic, depending on how audiences view it.
This neo-noir film’s plot is complex but is held together by a heartfelt story of two characters whose traumatic pasts threaten to keep them from making a better future. Fisher reconciles his relationship with his father in his dream by deciding to make a business of his own. However, the controversial ending seems ambiguous as to whether criminal mastermind Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) lived happily ever after with his children after getting stuck in limbo. That said, it makes no difference because, in Nolan’s own words, « Cobbs no longer cares. » Whether it’s a dream or real, Cobb is content to believe he’s found his silver lining. Inception shows its audience that happiness and fulfillment are just a state of mind, and what people tell themselves becomes their reality.
- Release Date
- July 15, 2010
- Christopher Nolan
- Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Elliot Page, Tom Hardy
Rent on Amazon Prime
4 ‘Leave Her To Heaven’ (1945)
Directed by John M. Stahl
Before Gone Girl, there was this cult noir film about a violently possessive wife that’s not only in the Library of Congress and Fox’s highest-grossing movie that year but also one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite films. This psychological crime thriller distinguishes itself from most 40s noir films because it’s shot in technicolor and has beautiful bright country vistas. The film’s first thirty minutes are deceptively sweet as Ellen and Rich meet and fall in love. However, viewers slowly see Ellen become overly possessive of her new husband. Gene Tierney gives an unforgettable performance gradually, switching from charismatic to genuinely unnerving, killing everyone close to her husband, including the unforgettably haunting drowning of his little brother.
It may be shocking for modern fans to see how dark this black-and-white thriller gets, with Ellen even finding her unborn child to threaten her relationship with Rich. This film’s cinematography, editing, non-hokey dialogue, and grounded acting stand out among other 40s films because it feels modern and raw. Despite its sadistic story, this movie delivers one of the most crowd-pleasing endings in the genre with its happily-ever-after romantic conclusion. After being imprisoned for lying in court when Ellen frames Rich for murder, Rich is released from prison and marries his true love, leaving the audience to sigh a breath of relief.
Watch on Hoopla
3 ‘Gilda’ (1944)
Directed by Charles Vidor
John (Glenn Ford), a casino henchman, is tasked with watching his cartel boss’s wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth), who happens to be his ex. The jilted lovers begin to repeatedly try to hurt each other emotionally, all under the nose of John’s boss. This classic noir film was met with mixed reviews but has become beloved by film purists and inducted into the Library of Congress.
Gilda is about how love can quickly turn into hate. Its mysterious story and characters take their time to unravel. Rita Hayworth steals the show, captivating the audiences with her mystique and glamor as John and the viewers try to figure her out. In fact, Hayworth came to hate this allure, stating, « Men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me. » Glenn Ford and Hayworth’s hilariously sexy and combative back-and-forth almost makes the film. However, the audience is blindsided when their character’s relationship goes from titillating to destructive after John takes over his boss’s estate and tries to imprison Rita in her home. It takes their friends to call out their toxic behavior to finally admit their feelings for one another, giving this dark film a jarringly light storybook ending.
Rent on Amazon
2 ‘Blade Runner’ (1982)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Ridley, Scott’s atmospheric masterpiece about a detective hunting for three murderous cyborgs looking for a way to extend their lives, tanked at the box office but is now Iconic. Blade Runner‘s Decker (Harrison Ford) ponders what it means to be alive thanks to his relationship with female replicant Rachael. Meanwhile, the replicant Roy loses his humanity in the search to extend his battery life. By the time Decker finally finds Roy, they both realize the value of life. Despite murdering the whole film as Roy’s life is slipping away, he decides to conserve Decker’s own during their fight. Roy learns life is precious and worth saving, even if he can’t save himself.
Similarly, Decker starts to see Rachael as a human and decides to run away with her rather than let another Bladerunner kill her. Decker and Rachael get a happy ending to appease the studio, escaping with a tacked-on optimistic voiceover and footage, ironically from the Shining. However, Ridley’s infamous unicorn sequence inside the director’s cut’s ending feels ominous and more faithful to the dark nature of the story.
- Release Date
- June 25, 1982
- Ridley Scott
- Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah
- 117 minutes
Rent on Amazon
1 ‘Laura’ (1944)
Directed by Otto Preminger
This crime film about detective Mcpherson (Dana Andrews), who becomes obsessed with the victim of a murder case killed by a shotgun to the face, was named one of the best mystery films of all time by AFI and won Best Black And White Cinematography at the Oscars. This Oscar-winning film is legendary for constantly pulling the rug from under its viewers. The movie continuously misdirects the audience, making them think they know what’s happening, only to pull the rug from under them again. Mcpherson starts out investigating Laura’s (Gene Tierney) death, only to strangely start falling in love with the memory of someone he’s never met, bewildering viewers.
The film then ups the ante when Laura shows up halfway through the film after being thought dead for half the movie. Gene Tierney does a magnificent performance, seeming sweet in every character’s idealist memory of her but coming off more abrasive and cunning once Mcpherson meets the real Laura. All the male characters look at her through rose-colored glasses when Laura is imperfect, just like the rest of them. Every character, including Laura and Mcpherson, has intentions that at times seem nefarious thanks to this ensemble cast subtle performances. The fact that a mystery film over fifty years old can still keep viewers guessing is a testament to the movie. This ever-evolving mystery doesn’t seem like it will end well for these characters, but Laura falls for Mcpherson, and he catches the killer seconds before he can strike again.
Watch on Criterion
NEXT:13 Greatest Bittersweet Endings Of All Time