2. "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957): Alexander Mackendrick's vicious flaying of show biz culture sings with invective prose, smarmy double-crossers and B&W visuals to die for. Burt Lancaster gives one of his best performances as a seasoned Broadway columnist with a flimsy code of ethics, and a poison wit as his sword. Which is what one needs to survive in the wings of the stage, with all its glittery ersatz. Beyond the curtain lies seedy world of sycophants and saboteurs where reputations die quicker than the applause. The screenplay, from Ernest Lehman's book, sizzles like no other.
3. "High and Low" (1963): Akira Kurosawa's deliriously cinematic police procedural traverses the highs and lows of mid-century Japanese class calamity, setting its story -- but never its camera, as seen in the film's kinetic, jittery train car sequences -- around an affluent business exec whose driver's son is kidnapped and held for ransom by cunning criminals. Played by the great Toshiro Mufine, the man sells shoes of all things, and they become an essential pawn in this film whose Japanese title literally translates to "Heaven and Hell." And hell is where Kurosawa goes, an urban underworld of drugs, sex and crimes that don't pay. But somebody has to.
4. "House by the River" (1950): Often left out of the annals of noir, Fritz Lang's English-language, late-career thriller starring Louis Hayward plants the genre's shadowy tropes and figures in the soil of a hardboiled Southern Gothic. Hayward stars as Stephen Byrne, a dissolute novelist whose casual crime and sloppy attempts to keep it below surface level wash ashore. Literally, the soggy corpse of his maid, who Byrne snuffs out in ice-cold blood after she rejects his sozzled come-ons, bobs down the river. But like any crafty creative type, he spins his fatal mistake into the stuff of art, hoping to cash in on the killing with a new novel. Bad idea, Byrne. This is classic nihilist noir.
5. "Out of the Past" (1947): Dripping with style for days and an unflagging thrum of dread, Jacques Tourneur's canon classic pivots on the chemistry between Robert Mitchum as private investigator Jeff Bailey and Jane Greer as his zaftig bounty. Black as night, the story unfolds through dense flashbacks, darkly lensed by Nicholas Musuraca, as Bailey runs from his past and into a dour present with a new flame (Virginia Huston) and a hit on his head. The film works elegantly as both a lurid picture of '40s California, a la Raymond Chandler, and a compendium of all noir has to offer: visual splendor, dashing men, Freudian anxieties and trouble around every hairpin turn.
See trailers below.