The Film Noir Holiday Gift Guide
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
By request (okay, so it was a request from only two people), I’m giving you an updated version of my Film Noir Holiday Gift Guide originally posted in 2016. I’ve arranged my gift guide in three categories: New to Noir, for folks who are just that, people exploring film noir for the first time, Been Around the Block a Few Times for noir fans ready to learn more, and Hardboiled for noir-heads who just can’t get enough. These categories are somewhat fluid; some items could go in more than one category.
Many of you will no doubt wonder why a certain movie, book, or other noir item isn’t on this list. If you have suggestions, please let me know. This is an ongoing post, and I knew that by the time I had a more complete list, the holidays would be over. So please send those suggestions.
Lots of great noir-related stuff has come out since my 2016 list, so I hope you’ll find something new and exciting here. Please note that I am limited my selections to North American releases, although you can probably find most or all of these items in European editions.
New to Noir?
If you (or someone on your holiday list) is new to film noir, let’s start with some good entry-level gifts.
Eddie Muller has said this many times (and I happen to agree with him) that the best starting point for anyone who has never seen a film noir is Double Indemnity (1944). This one has it all: murder, betrayal, tough talk, a femme fatale, deception, you name it. The film is available in a variety of formats, all reasonably priced on DVD and Blu-ray.
Next stop, Robert Mitchum in one of his finest. Out of the Past (1947) is essential viewing, a more complex film than Double Indemnity, but just as important in understanding the nuts and bolts of noir. The Warner Archive Blu-ray looks fantastic and the DVD is also impressive.
But if you think that someone on your holiday list might have more than a passing interest in noir, go ahead and spring for the Film Noir Collection from Warner Archive, which includes not only Out of the Past, but also Murder, My Sweet (1944), The Set-Up (1949), and Gun Crazy (1950), all essential viewing. Hand them this set and you might just create a monster.
Now you’re going to need just a couple of books to get started. If that special someone is just getting into noir, you don’t want to overload them, so let’s begin with some basics.
Into the Dark: The Hidden World of Film Noir, 1941-1950 by Mark A. Vieira gives you the basics, including some nifty facts on each film, the people who made them, and more. Sure, the text is limited, but the photography is what pulls you in and more importantly, makes you want to see more film noir titles.
Part of the fun of exploring film noir is getting caught up in the art of noir, specifically the art of film noir posters. Mark Fertig’s Film Noir 101: The 101 Best Film Noir Posters from the 1940s-1950s is a gorgeous coffee table book with all the classic film noir movie posters on glorious display. In the last section of the book, Fertig gives a brief explanation of why each film is important.
Been Around the Block a Few Times
Ready for the next step? Okay, you’re not a newbie anymore. No longer a casual film noir observer, you’ve been around the block a bit, and you’re ready to move up in the ranks.
If you haven’t already done so, you need to carve out some time to watch TCM’s Noir Alley on a regular basis. Not only do you get great film noir titles chosen by Eddie Muller himself, you also get Eddie’s intros and outros to each film. It’s like enrolling at Film Noir University.
You can go into many different directions from here, but if you're becoming a serious noir fan, you're going to want to own the films you love, which means investing in physical media. Trust me, this is a good thing. You're no longer at the mercy of streaming services. You buy (or are given) the movie on DVD or Blu-ray, and you own it. No one can take it away from you. (That is, of course, unless someone is fighting with you over that last out-of-print copy of the Criterion Blu-ray of The Third Man.)
I'm going to start off with films from two companies that both have lots of great noir titles. You can click on each title to find out more information about the movies, the extras on each disc, and more. Also note that these are not only personal favorites, but films I consider worth exploring at this "Been Around the Block" stage. I can't guarantee you'll love them all, but they are all worthwhile.
Criterion Collection - Yes, these are pricey, but they're worth it. Try to catch them on sale at the Criterion website or at one of the 50% off sales at Barnes & Noble.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
The Breaking Point (1950)
In a Lonely Place (1950)
The Killers (1946 and 1964)
The Killing (1956)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Pickup on South Street (1953) currently DVD only
Ace in the Hole (1951)
They Live by Night (1948)
Thieves’ Highway (1949) currently DVD only
Kino Lorber is another company doing some great work, especially in their Kino Lorber Studio Classics line, which includes several great film noir titles. Their discs typically do not have the same level of extras as Criterion, and that's also reflected in the lower price point of their discs. Kino frequently has good discount sales, so keep an eye out.
Although you will find many film noir box sets on their site, they are all something of a mixed bag. I would advise - at least for now - that you stick with individual titles. (Some of these titles are Blu-ray only. Click on the links to see which ones are also available on DVD.)
Road House (1948)
99 River Street (1953)
I Wake Up Screaming (1941)
The Stranger (1946)
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Cry of the City (1948)
Scarlet Street (1945)
Deadline U.S.A. (1952)
Big House, U.S.A. (1955)
He Ran All the Way (1951)
The Woman in the Window (1945)
Let’s talk about a few different book categories as you’re exploring the depths of the shadowy world of noir. You’ll need a couple of books that go beyond the surface, giving you not only names and movie titles, but also the history of noir, the backstories, the people responsible for making noir what it is.
The first book I read on film noir was The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir by Foster Hirsch. Hirsch goes into the origins and influences of noir, covering themes, motifs, actors, directors, source material, and more. The Dark Side of the Screen is essential reading.
Next, a book from the master himself, the Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller. If you’ve come this far, you’ve already encountered Muller, either from TCM’s Noir Alley, one of his DVD/Blu-ray commentaries, or maybe even from the recent Noir City International virtual film festival. Muller’s book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir is a great book for understanding and appreciating the world of film noir. Muller takes the reader through a journey through the city, stopping off to visit “The Precinct” (cop films), “Vixenville” to meet a femme fatale or two, and much more, all written in a hard-boiled style. Muller is a superb writer and the pages will turn quickly. This book brings both good news and bad news. The bad news is that Dark City is currently out of print and going for some pretty high prices. The good news? A revised expanded edition is planned for 2021. But I have more Muller for you:
The Art of Noir: The Posters and Graphics from the Classic Era of Film Noir is another book by Muller, this one focusing on the art of noir, particularly the posters. This volume differs from the Fertig book in that it covers how each studio handled the visual promotion of their movies through posters. Not only that, we also get a look at how different countries promoted these films through various styles, sizes and marketing methods. A fascinating book. (Plus the Fertig book is out-of-print and hard to find. It's certainly fine to jump straight to Muller's book.)
Now it’s time to discover some important works of fiction that were adapted into classic film noir. Read just about anything you can get your hands on from writers such as James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. You can find their works in various editions and collections.
Another great place to start is with the Library of America collections of crime novels from the 1930s and ‘40s as well as the 1950s. Two writers mentioned above, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett have their own Library of America volumes.
These volumes are also available as a box set, which you really should own. I’ll have more to say about other Library of America collections later.
Books are great, but you’re going to want some noir reading to come your way on a regular basis. One of the best gifts you can give anyone (even at the newbie level) is a subscription to Noir City: The Official Magazine of the Film Noir Foundation. With each issue you’re guaranteed two things: superb writing and knock-your-socks-off graphic design by Michael Kronenberg. A one-year subscription will get you an electronic version of the magazine four times and year and you’ll also be helping to support the Film Noir Foundation, dedicated to the preservation and restoration of film noir movies. You can also get back issues and print annuals. Highly recommended!
Want more? There’s also The Dark Pages: The Newsletter for Film Noir Lovers, edited by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, featuring a wide variety of writers (including yours truly). The Dark Pages is, as its website says, “the planet’s only hard copy newsletter devoted to the shadowy world of film noir.” This 8-page (sometimes longer) bi-monthly publication contains essays, reviews, profiles of noir actors and directors, and much more. A real treat!
Okay, you’re beyond hooked. You’re ready for the hard stuff. It’s time to get serious.
So you’ve watched many of the cornerstone film noir titles, you tune in regularly to Noir Alley, you’ve read a few books. How can seasoned film noirs fan step up their game?
Once this pandemic is a thing of the past, you’re going to want to attend a Noir City film festival (you know, with actual people watching actual movies together in an actual theater). That day is going to come, and if you can swing it, you should attend the flagship festival in San Francisco at least once. Although all the Noir City events are wonderful, there’s just something special about the San Francisco festival. Perhaps the best part of the festival is getting to meet people who have the same film noir passion you do. I explored some of this in a post from 2019.
In the meantime, let’s get a little more serious about physical media. As I mentioned early in this post, I’m limiting this discussion to North American Region A Blu-rays and Region 1 DVDs, but if you’re committed to getting and watching the best film noir out there from all over the world, you’ll need a region-free Blu-ray player, and it’s not as expensive as you might think.
Instead of getting an advertised region-free player, I recommend getting one that’s been modified by people who know what they’re doing. I bought this player from a company called 220 Electronics years ago and I’ve never regretted it. This particular player goes for $99, but you’ll need to check the Region A, B & C bullet, which will add $40 to the price. Again, it’s worth it because you can play Blu-rays and DVDs from anywhere in the world. Switching regions is super easy.
Now let’s take a look at some international noir titles:
As Eddie Muller recommended for the Noir City International virtual festival, you'll want to explore noir from all over the world. Again, I'm limiting myself to North American releases, but you'll often find greater availability when also searching for international discs. This is a very short list, just something to get you started.
The Wages of Fear (1953)
Almost anything directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Start with Bob le flambeur (1955)
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958)
Story of a Love Affair (1950)
The Facts of Murder (1959)
Obsessione (1943) - pricey right now. Let's hope for a new release soon!
Drunken Angel (1948)
Stray Dog (1949)
Pale Flower (1964)
Nikkatsu Noir Criterion Eclipse box set
The Third Man (1949)
Brighton Rock (1948)
It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
Night and the City (1950)
Again, this is a very brief look at international noir. I know that we'll see some forthcoming releases of noir from Argentina in 2021, and hopefully more from other countries as well. (You can follow my monthly New Releases column for more information.) Plus, having that region-free Blu-ray player will open you up to so many films you can't get in the U.S.
Let's shift gears a bit. We've talked about non-fiction film noir books and noir/crime fiction, but we haven't yet talked about comics and graphic novels. Even if you don't think you're a fan of comics/graphic novels, these are books you must at least try.
Criminal - Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips
This ongoing series of noir/crime stories is stellar. Brubaker (writer) and Phillips (artist) have created an entire noir universe with unforgettable characters moving in and out of story lines, sometimes getting their own story lines. You can pick these up digitally, in trade paperback, or in omnibus collections. Start with the first volume Coward. Note: You may find older editions of these titles with different covers. The publisher Image is also rereleasing the omnibus editions with new covers starting in early 2021.
Richard Stark's Parker graphic novels - Darwyn Cooke
The amazingly talented Darwyn Cooke struck gold with his adaptation of the Richard Parker (pen name for Donald Westlake) crime novels (which you should also read). Parker is a laconic loner who doesn't work unless he has to, but when he does, he has a certain way of operating, a way he won't allow anyone to interfere with. If they do, there are, let us say, severe consequences.
Like the Criminal series, you can purchase these books digitally, in individual titles (four volumes) or in two omnibus "Martini" editions. Cooke passed away in 2016, and I believe he planned to adapt a total five or six volumes of Parker novels, but at least we have four excellent books (or two omnibus editions). All of Cooke's work (including several superhero titles) is excellent, but you must try at least one Parker graphic novel.
While we're talking about noir fiction, let's continue with more prose fiction. Here are several other important writers of crime fiction you should check out. (Writers in bold are still living, producing excellent work.)
Dorothy B. Hughes
James Lee Burke
Unfortunately, several terrific women writers of crime fiction have either been largely forgotten or were never given their due in the first place. The Library of America's two-volume Women Crime Writers series, edited by Sarah Weinman, is a great way to correct this oversight. These two volumes include Laura (the basis for the 1944 film) by Vera Caspary, Mischief (filmed as Don't Bother to Knock) by Charlotte Armstrong, and one of my all-time favorite novels (adapted into one of my favorite film noir movies), In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes.
Like the two collections of crime novels from Library of America, these volumes are also available as a box set. Don't miss this set!
Now for some nonfiction:
In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City - Imogen Sara Smith
If you've read any of the Noir City eMagazines or annuals, you already know that Smith is one of the best (possibly the best) writer on films. This book is one of the finest you can get on how film noir developed in places other than city locations. A must-own.
The Film Noir Encyclopedia - Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini, Robert Porfirio
If you're a serious noir hound, you'll run across the names Alain Silver and James Ursini frequently. Everything they write is worth reading. (I don't know as much about Ward and Porfirio, but I'd check out their other work too.) This invaluable resource on many major film noir and neo-noir titles may be hard to find, but seek it out if you can.
A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide - John Grant
No true noir fan will want to be without this massive reference book. Grant gives brief overviews/reviews of worldwide film noir movies starting in the pre-noir era going all the way through to the book's publication date of 2013. I literally use this book every day and can't imagine life without it.
You can find hundreds of other books on film noir, far too many for me to list here. I hope I've given you a good starting point. Keep reading, keep exploring.
Just a few closing thoughts:
This isn't really a gift, per se, but if you're not already doing so, you should check out Ask Eddie, where Eddie Muller answers your questions about film noir! Talk about Film Noir University! Eddie is always joined by the wonderful Anne Hockens, and if you miss these programs, you're doing yourself a disservice. You can find out more at the Ask Eddie Facebook page and view previous episodes.
Finally, you can also investigate period clothing, hat wear, and other noir-type fashions, but those can run into some serious bucks. Plus, I don't know that much about those things, so I'll leave those for you to investigate.
But I will tell you where you can get some great noir accessories without spending a ton of money. Check out Kate Gabrielle's online shop, where she has some very cool film noir-related items.
Whew! That's a lot of stuff, but I hope it gets your noir shopping off to a good start. Happy Holidays, everyone!