Film noir is a cinematic genre characterized by stylish Hollywood dramas that deal with the big issues of sex, violence and money. The noir world is full of morally dubious crooks, corrupt cops, insurance scams, gambling, drinking, false accusations, fast talking broads, dangerously attractive femme fatales, and murder.
The movies were made by some of the most important movie makers of the 20th Century including Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles; it was also a genre that attracted some of the best talent in poster designers. Film noir posters mirrored the strong design aesthetic of the movies themselves.
This post brings together 36 classic designs, laid out in chronological order, from the 1940s and 50s, the golden era of film noir.
They Drive by Night (1940)
In They Drive by Night, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart play brothers struggling as independent truckers in the Great Depression. Ann Sheridan plays a waitress serving up truck-stop specials and cheeky banter, while Ida Lupino is an executive with a taste for business and murder. The high point of the film is a courtroom scene with Lupino’s femme fatale disintegrating into eye-popping madness.
Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel tells the tale of a naïve young woman marrying a wealthy widower and moving into his grand mansion. Her husband and his servants seem gripped by the memory of his dead wife. Hitchcock coaxed a convincingly uneasy performance from Joan Fontaine by persuading her that the entire cast and crew despised her.
Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)
Stranger on the Third Floor is a classic example of noir, with its unsettling urbanism, diagonal compositions, low-camera angles and multi-storey staircases; these elements are reflected in the film’s poster. The story follows an innocent protagonist falsely accused of murder and his desperate quest to clear his name.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
In this detective story, Humphrey Bogart plays a private eye involved with eccentric criminals and their search for a precious statue, the Maltese Falcon.
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman star in this noir romance, a film that frequently tops lists of the greatest movies of all time. An American expatriate living in Casablanca meets an old flame in the early days of World War Two, a meeting that leaves him torn between love and virtue.
The Glass Key (1942)
This noir thriller sees a crooked politician, Paul Madvig, trying to clean up his past in a bid for re-election. When his rival’s son is murdered Madvig is in the frame and forced to prove his innocence.
This Gun for Hire (1942)
Alan Ladd plays a contract killer with a conscience opposite Veronica Lake as a beautiful entertainer. Their relationship develops from murder and potential victim to an unlikely alliance against a common enemy.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Hitchcock’s crime thriller tells the story of a young woman discovering that her visiting ‘Uncle Charlie’ isn’t the man he appears to be.
Double Indemnity (1944)
In Billy Wilder’s noir drama, an insurance rep allows himself to become embroiled in a murder insurance scam. As to be expected, the scheme doesn’t go quite to plan.
The Lodger (1944)
The Lodger is a British noir about Jack the Ripper set in Victorian London.
The plot of Detour finds hitchhiker Al Roberts trapped by chance events and a spiralling mess of noir trouble.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Joan Crawford plays Mildred Pierce, the story of a hard-working and long-suffering mother and her spoilt, unloving daughter, a murder mystery told in flashback.
The Big Sleep (1946)
This classic noir follow events when a wealthy family hires Humphrey Bogart’s hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe. In the course of the case, Marlowe experiences murder, blackmail and a little bit of love.
The Killers (1946)
Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner star in Ernest Hemingway’s noir tale in which an insurance investigator uncovers a web of treachery and crime linked to the seductive, deadly femme fatale Kitty Collins.
Born to Kill (1947)
Set in Reno, Born to Kill follows a killer’s unhealthy involvement with his wife’s foster-sister.
Kiss of Death (1947)
This thriller follows an ex-convict and his family attempting to make a fresh start and a lead a crime-free life. A character from his criminal past has different ideas.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948)
‘Stage Mentalist’ John Triton is a nightclub fortune teller whose fake stage show suddenly becomes real when he starts seeing terrifying visions of the future.
Criss Cross (1949)
Obsessive, romantic Steve Thompson is drawn into the double-crossing underworld of LA gangsters in a dangerous bid to win back his ex-wife.
The Third Man (1949)
Written by Graham Greene, directed by Carol Reed and starring Orson Welles, The Third Man is an absolute classic of film noir, an atmospheric thriller set in post-war Vienna.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
The Asphalt Jungle is a crime caper about a gang of thieves planning a jewel robbery. The film featured an ensemble cast including a small part for a then-unknown Marilyn Monroe, whose name doesn’t appear on the film’s posters.
Panic in the Streets (1950)
This is a Spanish poster for Panic in the Streets, a noir tale of a policeman and a doctor who have 48 hours to track down a killer infected with the pneumonic plague. The film was shot entirely on location in the streets of New Orleans.
His Kind of Woman 1951)
Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell star in this drama about a deported gangster’s efforts to re-enter the USA. Mitchum’s ‘honest’ gambler Dan Milner is bribed into taking a trip to a Mexican resort to help the deportee’s return. Along the way he meets chanteuse Lenore Brent, who turns out to be his kind of woman.
The Man with My Face 1951)
The Man with My Face is a story of identity theft of a particularly horrific nature. The implausible yet absorbing action takes place in Puerto Rico.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
In Hitchcock’s thriller, a psychopathic socialite meets a tennis star on the train and proposes the idea that perfect strangers can commit perfect murders, an idea he intends to test in reality.
The Las Vegas Story (1952)
Wealthy investment broker Lloyd Rollins and his lounge singer wife Linda roll into Las Vegas for some high-stakes gambling. Their visit leads to murder, and the cop on this complex case turns out to be Linda’s old flame, police lieutenant Dave Andrews.
City That Never Sleeps (1953)
Unhappy at work and in his marriage, Chicago cop Johnny Kelly wants to run away with Angel Face, his stripper lover. During one crowded night, Kelly finds himself drawn into crime.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Two friends on a fishing trip perform an act of kindness when they pick up a hitchhiker. It quickly turns out to be a mistake, when the psychotic hitcher tells the pair of his intentions to kill them both at the end of the ride.
Naked Alibi (1954)
A police chief is sacked after he accuses a respected community man of the murder of fellow police officers. A deadly game of cat and mouse entails, the action ends with a rooftop chase scene.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Robert Mitchum stars as the religious fanatic who marries a naïve widow and starts asking questions about where the previous husband hid his stash of $10,000 taken in a robbery.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Private detective Mike Hammer is out on a late-night ride in LA when he nearly runs down a young woman. The woman, Christina, desperately begs for a lift, unlocking a series of tragic events.
While the City Sleeps (1956)
After the death of media magnate Amos Kyne, reporter Edward Mobley is left juggling an impossible set of problems. He must prevent the media empire from falling into the wrong hands, rescue his romantic relationship, and stop a serial killer who is preying on the women of New York.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Powerful New York columnist JJ Hunsecker is willing to use any means possible to prevent his sister from marrying jazz musician Steve Dallas. To this end, he secretly employs sleazy press agent Sidney Falco to break up the affair. The film, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, received indifferent reviews upon its release, but has since been recognized as an all-time classic.
Nightfall features a typically noir tale of a commercial artist on the run from police for a murder he didn’t commit, while simultaneously being pursued by criminals for cash he doesn’t have.
Touch of Evil (1958)
Orson Welles wrote, directed and co-starred in Touch of Evil, a dark tale of kidnap, murder and police corruption set in a Mexican border town.
This poster employs a simply sublime design aesthetic for Hitchcock’s psychological thriller exploring identity and dangerous obsession.
The Beat Generation (1959)
The Beat Generation is widely thought of as one of the last true film noirs. The story is set in a bohemian coffee house where members of the beatnik generation gather to recite poetry and sing songs, and follows the efforts of a police detective’s attempts to track down an arrogant and wealthy rapist. When the serial offender discovers that the cop is on his tail, he decides to target the law enforcer’s wife.
About The Author
Tom is a designer and writer who works with a specialist in Epson inks, paper and printing supplies based in Manchester, England. You can read more of his writing on their blog, CreativeCloud, where he blogs and modern art and print design.