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If you’re looking for film noir on Netflix, there are a few things you should know.
The literal translation of film noir, from the French, is “black film” or “dark film.” While a lot of the Hollywood classics that define the genre were quite dark in terms of lighting and cinematography, the meaning of film noir has more to do with mood and premise. The genre is broadly characterized by crime stories that often have untrustworthy characters and fatalistic endings. Although they were usually considered B movies in their golden era, film noir gives Hollywood movies a chance to explore more complex themes and subjects than what audiences are used to in mainstream cinema. All of the movies on this list of film noir on Netflix continue that tradition in one way or another, and they’re all available to stream right now.
The best film noir on Netflix
1) L.A. Confidential
Despite being an homage to classic film noir, L.A. Confidential is also classic ‘90s. From the violent, masculine themes to the cast of rising and established stars (some of whom are better left unmentioned), it’s an ideal time capsule of the decade. Even the movie’s loss to the lesser Titanic (sorry everybody!) at the Academy Awards feels like a piece of ‘90s history—though it’s worth mentioning that Kim Basinger did pick up Best Supporting Actress for her first-rate turn as a prostitute who’s a lookalike for Veronica Lake.
Heat would be significant only for putting movie legends Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together onscreen for the first time since The Godfather: Part II (and even that doesn’t really count). But it happens to also be a really great film on its own merits. Director Michael Mann has never been sharper than with this story about a group of bank robbers and the cops chasing them, crafting one intricate sequence after another. Heat is not a short watch, but somehow the movie whizzes by its nearly three-hour runtime.
Though not quite as flawless as David Fincher’s true-crime masterpiece Zodiac, Se7en is still a major work in the thriller genre from the closest thing this generation has to Hitchcock. The script, from Andrew Kevin Walker, is a perfect execution of a brilliant premise. As Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman attempt to track a killer who’s selecting his victims based on the seven deadly sins, Fincher tightens the screws more and more, before everything explodes in the movie’s unforgettable climax.
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4) Touch of Evil
Touch of Evil is Orson Welles’ great recovered masterpiece. Infamously butchered by the studio upon its initial release for being too dark, Welles’ film noir about about police corruption and murder in a Mexican bordertown was re-released in its original form in 1998. Since then, it’s gone on to earn the rightful reputation of one of the greatest movies ever made. There’s a lot to praise in Touch of Evil, from the tight script to the fantastic cast, which includes a strong supporting turn from Janet Leigh, memorable cameos from Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Cotton, Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor, and an iconic leading performance from Welles himself as Police Captain Hank Quinlan (pretty much everyone is great except Charlton Heston, unconvincingly playing Mexican.) But as always, it’s Welles’ direction that steals the show. The movie is worth watching for the opening crane shot alone.
5) The Third Man
Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles frequently worked together throughout their careers, but none of their collaborations is quite like this post-war noir from 1949. Cotten plays a novelist investigating the death of a friend (played by Welles) in Vienna. But the details surrounding that friend’s death only become more mysterious the deeper he looks. Directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene, The Third Man is especially enjoyable for Welles, who’s probably better here than in any other movie he didn’t helm himself.
6) The Stranger
Though he will always be best-known for Citizen Kane, serious cinephiles should also make an effort to check out Orson Welles’ less famous works. This film, from 1946, stars Edward G. Robinson as a war crimes investigator hunting down a former Nazi (Welles) living under an assumed identity in Connecticut. It’s fascinating to see Robinson, famous for portraying onscreen gangsters, ostensibly playing the good guy here. The Oscar-nominated script, which includes contributions from an uncredited John Huston, is also full of great dialogue.
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7) The Gift
Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut is a nasty thriller about a man who antagonizes a new couple in the neighborhood in increasing unsettling ways. The script is constructed on sturdy genre blueprints and builds something that is recognizable yet hard to predict. The lead trio of Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall as the married couple and Edgerton as the creeper is terrific. Edgerton is well-established as a leading man, and he brings the same vigor and terseness to his work behind the camera. The Gift delivers the goods and offers enough twists to throw you off its scent. —Eddie Strait
8) Shimmer Lake
Shimmer Lake is a twisty murder mystery told in reverse, Memento-style. While Shimmer Lake isn’t on par with Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, it’s still pretty fun. In this Netflix original movie, Rainn Wilson plays the anti-Dwight as Andy, a man caught up in both a murder mystery and bank heist gone wrong. The story unfolds over a week, and as the story moves back, the mystery deepens. Adam Pally, Benjamin Walker, Rob Corddry, and Ron Livingston co-star in this film from writer-director Oren Uziel. —E.S.
Ennui, violation, ham-fisted vengeance: It all comes together in Macon Blair’s directorial debut, starring Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood as two amateur detectives looking for justice in a world gone mad. —Audra Schroeder
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10) No Country for Old Men
We meet killer Anton Chigurh within the first two minutes of No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel. The first murder we witness sets off a domino effect across West Texas, as dirty money, small-town law enforcement, and a dead-eyed killer engage in a deadly dance. —A.S.
Looking for something more specific? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, rom-coms, LGBT movies, alien movies, gangster movies, Westerns, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, old movies when you need something classic, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.