Film Noir Detectives

I grew up with film noir movies in glorious black and white with most of the greatest Hollywood icons. I love the retro vibe, Jazz Noir aesthetic and style, 1940s pulp fiction dialogue, suspense, intrigue, often erotic; the incredible cinematography, fashion, décor, nightclubs, street scenes, cars, and music; and the dark complex and twisted plots.

Some of the best American movies ever made are film noir. The top leading actors and actresses of the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s starred in film noir movies. Film noir was the dominant crime, murder, thriller style in the 1940s and 1950s to the mid-1960s. Afterward it became Neo-Noir.

It is a true American art form with stylized black and white aesthetic cinematography, using artistic lighting and shadows with music, usually jazz, setting a tone. The films are crime stories most often told from the criminal’s point of view. Usually highly intense, very dramatic, and with top level acting. They cast a cynical, fatalistic view common in the 1940s and ‘50s, characters are trapped, becoming paranoid. Many film noirs are psychological thrillers, such as Psycho.

The film noir detective is a hard-nosed ‘gumshoe’ who is cynical about life, society, and people. He is an anti-hero figure fighting the evils of the world. He is a flawed individual obsessed with his life’s mistakes and inner demons. Often a heavy drinker and chain smoker. The film noir detective profile was developed by pulp fiction novelists such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, and others.

The Maltese Falcon

The iconic The Maltese Falcon is acclaimed as one of the best films of all time and considered the first film of the noir genre. A good story and an excellent cast. The film establishes noir character types – the cynical private eye, the femme fatale, the hard-nosed police detective, the ruthless criminals, and the male patsy. Characters trapped in a fatalistic world, tortured by paranoia, with no hope of escape.

Private detective Sam Spade played by Humphrey Bogart is hired by a ‘femme fatale’ played by Mary Astor to find a missing person who turns up murdered along with Spade’s partner. She then lures Spade to work for unscrupulous treasure hunters to find the Maltese Falcon gold statue of 1539 Knight Templars legend. Spade must keep one step ahead of the police who suspect him of the murders. Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre play the criminals.

Details: The Maltese Falcon, 1941, Warner Bros., director John Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Gladys George, Elisha Cook Jr. Selected by the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute.

The Big Sleep


The model for dizzying twisted plots in the complex and stylish film noir classic. Humphrey Bogart plays private detective Philip Marlowe who is hired to save the reputation of two women caught up in murder, gambling, and blackmail. Lauren Bacall plays the femme fatale tempting Marlowe into danger.

Details: The Big Sleep, 1946, Warner Bros., director Howard Hawks, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. Screenplay by William Faulkner. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, John Ridgely, Elisha Cook Jr. Selected by the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute.

The Big Heat, 1953

The Big Heat' and 'Walking Tall' Are Out on DVD - The New York Times

A classic film noir – tough, tense, forceful, violent, stylistic, and realistic. Police Sgt. Dave Bannion played by Glenn Ford investigates the murder of a fellow police officer and uncovers police corruption tied to local organized crime. His wife is murdered to stop him, witnesses are brutalized, and he is driven out of the police force but he continues against powerful forces.

Details: The Big Heat, 1953, Columbia, director Fritz Lang, based on the novel by William P. McGiven. Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Lee Marvin. Selected by the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute.

Out of the Past, 1947


Critics claim that Out of the Past is the best film noir ever made. It has it all – noir stylish aesthetic, noir cinematography, dark, complex, mystery, cynical private eye, femme fatale, brutal crime boss, desperate and trapped characters, betrayal, fatalistic, violence, and plot twists.

Private eye Jeff Baily played by Robert Mitchum tries to break from his torrid past but is seduced by a femme fatale played by Jane Greer. She draws him into a chaotic whirlwind of betrayal, murder, and blackmail. Baily finds himself being hunted down by the police and organized crime.

Details: Out of the Past, 1947, RKO, director Jacques Tourneur, based on the novel by Geoffrey Holmes. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming. Selected by the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute.

Laura, 1944

Otto Preminger's 'Laura,' the film noir classic, and the analogies among  love, police-work and film - POLITICO

A haunting erotic psychological thriller taken to this limit in this noir classic, very dark and complex. Considered one of the best mystery films ever made –stylish, betrayal, revenge, murder, obsession, intrigue, and suspense.

Police detective Mark McPherson, played by Dana Andrews, investigates the disappearance of beautiful socialite played by Gene Tierney. He falls in love of the portrait of the women in her apartment. She turns up alive but is in danger of being murdered.

Details: Laura, 1944, 20th Century Fox, director Otto Preminger, based on the novel by Vera Caspary. Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson. 5 Oscar nominations. Selected by the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute.

Touch of Evil, 1958


A very dark, complex, and stylish film noir with innovative cinematography and a top heavy cast. Set in a Mexican-U.S. border town, police detective Miguel Vargas, played by Charlton Heston, investigates a murder. He runs into trouble with the corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan played by Orson Welles.

Details: Touch of Evil, 1958, Universal, director Orson Welles. Cast: Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Calleia, Akim Ramoraoff, Zsa Zsa Gabor. Selected by the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute.

Murder My Sweet, 1944

Murder, My Sweet (1944) - IMDb

This taut film noir mystery is considered the best portrayal of Raymond Chandler’s work. Very dark, tough, cynical, and complex. Private detective Philip Marlowe, played by Dick Powell, is hired by an ex-con to find his girlfriend and gets caught up into murder, blackmail, robbery, drugs, and prostitution,

Details: Murder My Sweet, 1944, RKO, director Edward Dmytrk, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. Cast: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Mike Mazurki.

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955

Noirvember: Kiss Me Deadly (1955) - Blog - The Film Experience

A very dark and complex mystery full of cynicism and paranoia. Tough private detective Mike Hammer, played by Ralph Meeker, is almost killed. He tracks down the murderers and gets caught up with a gang of thieves trying to find stolen plutonium.

Details: Kiss Me Deadly, 1955, United Artists, director Robert Aldrich, based on the novel by Mickey Spillane. Cast: Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Wesley Addy. Selected by the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute.


Bruce J. Wood
Bruce J. Wood
Bruce J. Wood, founder of AOIDE Bruce J. Wood has worked on Wall Street in business finance and strategy, and has written hundreds of finance business plans, strategic plans, economic feasibility studies, and economic impact studies. Bruce has lectured on creativity and strategic thinking, as well as worked on the development of numerous publishing, film, television, and performing arts projects, along with downtown revitalizations, using the arts as an economic catalyst. As an aficionado of music, art, and dance, Bruce is also a writer and an outdoor enthusiast. He has written poetry, blogs, articles, and many creative project concepts. He lives in the Metro Detroit area and enjoys writing poetry, backpacking, and ballroom dancing.

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