Ten of the Best – Noir Stars

Seeing as 2012 is drawing to a rapid close, this is likely going to be my last article of the year. It’s been the first full year blogging on the new site and I have to say it’s all turned out far better than I could have anticipated. I consider myself very fortunate to have built up a loyal little band of followers and the feedback that I’ve been consistently receiving is both gratifying and informative. My last entry, on western stars, offers ample evidence of that, turning out to be the most popular piece I’ve posted by some considerable margin. I’d mentioned that I was intending to do something similar on my other great cinematic passion, film noir, and so it’s time to make good on that. Again, I’ve deliberately restricted myself to ten stars who made an impact on cinema’s shadowlands. Film noir isn’t a genre like the western; it’s a more nebulous form where the convergence of melodrama, crime and fate all become bound up in the creation of a cinematic demimonde that defies definition yet is immediately recognizable. To be honest, I had a hard time deciding on only ten men and women who portrayed so many memorable cops and private eyes, grifters and chiselers, dames on the make and hoods. Anyway, here’s my selection.

Robert Mitchum


Mitchum’s omission from my western list sparked a good deal of comment. He started out playing cowboys, and there’s a case to be made that his western roles are by and large superior to his noir ones. A number of his noirs are weak or flawed productions, particularly those made when Howard Hughes was running the show. However, even when a film was less than successful, it would be difficult to single Mitchum’s performance out for criticism. Besides that, he took the lead in two of the finest noirs: as the classic dupe in Tourneur’s Out of the Past, and as the evil killer in the oneiric The Night of the Hunter.

Burt Lancaster


Lancaster made his debut in what I reckon is one of the top three film noirs, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers. This flashback reconstruction of what led one man to lie in a darkened room, calmly awaiting those who have come to murder him showed that Lancaster had the kind of soulfulness and sensitivity that can be used to such great effect in film noir. He would return to the dark cinema frequently, producing fine work in the likes of Criss Cross and Sweet Smell of Success.

Barbara Stanwyck


One of the best known features of film noir is the figure of the femme fatale. Not every picture has one, but if you asked the average film fan to list the characteristics of noir you’d likely hear the name. Barbara Stanwyck has the distinction of playing arguably the greatest deadly woman of them all in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. She did a lot of work in noir, and I’m very fond of her turn as the panicked and bedridden heiress in Sorry, Wrong Number, Anatole Litvak’s study in mounting paranoia.

Edward G Robinson


This mild and cultured man made his name in the early 1930s in Warner Brothers gangster pictures, most notably as Rico in Little Caesar. He worked successfully in a variety of genres throughout that decade but really hit his stride in the 40s with two films for Fritz Lang (The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) and one for Wilder (Double Indemnity). While those three roles are quite different, they do share one common feature – Robinson was playing men who, in one way or another, are trying to close off their minds to unpleasant realities, and all of them are ultimately tragic figures. This actor was among the best Hollywood ever produced, and his efforts in the world of noir are highly significant.

Robert Ryan


With some actors, it’s fairly easy to pick their best work. When it comes to Robert Ryan though, I find myself so spoiled for choice that it’s nearly impossible. His 40s and 50s output is peppered with excellent performances in noir pictures made for Dmytryk, Renoir, Wise and Ray. Even a piece of flummery like Beware, My Lovely benefits from Ryan’s intense presence. However, I’m going to single out Robert Wise’s tight and economical The Set-Up for attention. Ryan’s portrayal of a washed up fighter (he was once a boxer himself) determined to bow out with dignity, even if it kills him, gave him a break from playing the heavies he’s so often remembered for.

Gloria Grahame


Gloria Grahame has always been a favorite with noir fans, her unique brand of sexuality managing to blend quirkiness and vulnerability with a hint of inner steel. Perhaps her part as the good time girl deformed by an enraged Lee Marvin in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat sums up that aspect of the actress best. She also brought something special to her role in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, opposite a fiery and abusive Humphrey Bogart – I’ve heard it said that the relationship depicted had parallels with her marriage to Ray at the time.

Glenn Ford


Another guy who had strong claims for inclusion on my recent western list, Glenn Ford started out strong in film noir playing off Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Ford had that everyman quality and, as I’ve remarked when discussing some of his roles on other occasions, a vague sense of discomfort with himself that was ideal for noir pictures. I think Lang brought out the best in him in The Big Heat; his avenging cop is almost a force of nature and his barely contained rage is something to behold in a film that’s got a real mean streak running through it.

Dana Andrews


A little like Ford, Dana Andrews was another actor with whom you could almost see the wheels going round just below the surface. He too seemed to exude some of that inner dissatisfaction that translated into fatalism and disillusionment on the screen. His series of movies with Otto Preminger in the 1940s represent his noir work best. Laura may well be the best known, but Where the Sidewalk Ends offered him a meatier part and stretched him more as an actor. That movie, along with The Big Heat and On Dangerous Ground would make an interesting triple bill on violently unstable lawmen.

Marie Windsor


The queen of the B noirs, Marie Windsor had good roles in both Force of Evil and The Narrow Margin. She had a real knack for playing the cheap schemer better than anyone else I’ve seen, and her role in Kubrick’s The Killing was a perfect fit. As Sherry, the wife of everybody’s favorite sap and loser Elisha Cook Jr, her greed sees her trying to play everybody off against each other and is instrumental in bringing a tragic end to the heist.

Humphrey Bogart


And so I come to the last, but by no means the least, of this brief selection. After a long apprenticeship in supporting roles, High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon saw Bogart define the noir lead for the next decade and a half. Tough, chain-smoking and moody, he seemed to encapsulate all the weary cynicism that the war and its aftermath ushered in. His portrayal of Sam Spade was, and remains, hugely influential, and then he went one further and truly nailed the essence of the private detective in The Big Sleep. In fact, I find it impossible to read Chandler’s text now without hearing Bogart’s distinctive delivery in my mind.

So there we have it. When I made that western list I made the point that I wasn’t claiming it as any kind of definitive one. I’ll say the same again here – these are just the ten names that I feel offered something of worth and value to film noir over the short span of its classic period. In their different ways, I think these people helped sum up what noir was all about and shaped its development. I’ll admit I struggled to decide on ten actors for westerns, and this was actually tougher. The fact that I included both actors and actresses meant that my options were increased while the overall parameters remained the same. Of course I could easily have split this into two sections, or expanded it to twenty. However, in the end, I decided to stick to ten as it forced me to apply a more ruthless approach, and give it all a lot more consideration, than I might otherwise have done. Once again, all comments, arguments and protests are most welcome.

62 thoughts on “Ten of the Best – Noir Stars

    • True enough Jim. I did say that I’d forced myself to be ruthless, and that’s a good example of what I mean. I’d already listed Widmark among the western actors and that’s largely the reason he missed the cut here. Still and all, it wasn’t easy to leave out the guy who was in Kiss of Death, Night and the City, Road House, Panic in the Streets and Pickup on South Street.


  1. Ten of the best of anybody’s money – I wouldn’t want to do without any of these wonderful performers. Fantastic blog Colin, for which many thanks chum – see you in 2013 mate down those mean streets and in prairies ,,,


      • It’s all change next year for me as I’ll be looking for a new place to live, my brother and his family have shipped out to Australia and even my parents are moving back to London, so I won’t be posting as much I daresay – but I greatly look forward to reading all your reviews chum.


          • Cheers mate, I really hope you are right – I have no idea what I’m going to do with all my stuff … which reminds me, HYSTERIA (ahem) will be on its way very shortly – and thanks for that DVD, which arrived despite the Christmas onslaught.


            • No worries you’ve clearly got plenty on your plate at the moment.
              Anyway, think positively – making a fresh start can be exciting, and it’s a chance to ditch some of the clutter too.


              • Thanks chum. Incidentally, slightly off topic (surprise surprise), watched the French Blu-ray of 12 O’CLOCK HIGH over Christmas with my folks – it has all the US extra plus lots of additional language dubs and I really recommend it. not a perfect transfer (not in the class of ALL ABOUT EVE) as the elements are more worn but mostly excellent and with tons of really interesting supplements.


  2. Tremendous list, Colin. Lancaster and Mitchum are essential noir stars, while Ryan seethes with fatalism openly. Ford is a personal favourite… My list couldn’t improve on yours, although i’d expand it by necessity; I’d have a spot for Welles, with both Touch of Evil and Lady from Shanghai leading his résumé, while The Stranger and Othello (!?!) adding to his qualifications. Wildmark, Powell, Liz Scott, Holden… Yup, my list would be hard to keep to 14…


    • Oh Welles was certainly in the mix too. In the end, the fact that I was concentrating on actors just tipped the scales. I finally decided that his contribution to noir was greater as a director than as an actor – although that in itself is a debatable position to take.
      By the way, I’ll see your Othello and raise you Macbeth.


  3. McBeth may just trump Othello, with its Republic tinted roots and boilerplate bleakness. I’m surprised I didn’t open with perhaps the ‘high card’ — The Third Man… Happy New Year, Colin!


  4. Excellent list Colin, and I imagine incredibly tough to narrow it down to ten, though I was really pleased to see Mitchum head it as – some dodgy titles aside – he seemed to fit the genre like a laconic glove. Of course, everyone’s ‘ten’ would be different and I would no doubt have tried to shoehorn Kirk Douglas in there somewhere, but that’s the pleasure of the list, I guess.

    Have a happy New Year, Colin – I’m spending my fortnight off with some serious viewing of hoary old classics (the weather outside is frightful, what else to do?)… Cape Fear yesterday… Today I might go for Winchester ’73


    • Can’t fault those viewing choices Mike – sometimes rotten weather does have its compensations.

      Yes, poor old Kirk Douglas does seem to have been given short shrift by me, doesn’t he? It wasn’t an intended snub though and the likes of Ace in the Hole & Detective Story meant he very nearly crept in there.
      Happy New Year to you too.


  5. Great list, Colin. And again you provide us with so much to comment on.
    Glad you singled out Robt Ryan’s The Set – Up – a mesmorising film ,with a claustrophobic setting and the great combination of Ryan and Audrey Totter. Great writing and direction.
    As you have indicated before, it all comes down to personal choice, but Noir is something else. You hinted that it is not always possible to pin it down. I sometimes get fed up when I think about a film which might or not be regarded as noir, and I spend time wondering if I have got it right.
    Now I tend just to think of it as good black and white thrillers with great atmosphere and interesting ,intense characters.
    I love Rockfish’s comment, “Ryan seethes with fatalism!” I. Guess that statement encapsulates Noir.
    I would only take out Glenn Ford. I like him but can’t see him as a flawed noir lead.
    But, oh,so many to add!
    Audrey Totter,one of the best In Tension and Lady in the Lake and of course The Set-Up.

    Charles McGraw, not often the leading man but when he was – Armored Car Robbery, The Threat,
    The Narrow Margin, you couldn’t take your eyes off him.

    Ida Lupino, so good in On Dangerous Ground, Private Hell 36, Road House .

    Dick powell for Cry Danger, Murder My Sweet ,Pitfall and Johnny O’Clock.

    John Payne, if only for 99 River Street.

    Dan Duryea always so good – in Black Angel and Too Late For Tears and his two with Robinson and Bennett.

    Richard Conte – in anything! But especially The Big Combo.

    Ann Savage, the essence of femme fatale in Detour and Apology for Murder.

    Sterling Hayden, so good in The Killing, and Crime Wave.


    • Hi Vienna. You know, I’m coming round to your idea of just thinking in terms of atmospheric B&W thrillers; there are a lot of borderline noir pictures and it is a bit of a pain spending time seesawing back and forth over whether or not they fit the bill.

      I couldn’t argue with any of the alternatives you put forward – I think that Audrey Totter, along with the other ladies I mentioned, was one of the most important women in noir.
      And Dan Duryea was such a great presence in so many films, whether in support or the handful of occasions when he was handed the lead.


  6. Colin,
    Why does John Payne never figure on these Noir Greats lists.To me no-one has more great
    Noir credits.

    I am thinking titles like:

    also his Technicolor Noirs

    There is also his very Noirish Western

    I suppose a lot of people consider these films B movies and of no importance but they
    all had good directors and most played as main or co-features.
    Payne is so underrated and seemed to relish playing the anti-hero.
    Still another impressive list Colin and its great to see Dana Andrews and Marie Windsor
    make the final cut.


    • Well John, you’re now the second person to bring up John Payne so he hasn’t been totally forgotten. I especially like 99 River Street (which I hope to feature soon), The Crooked Way (far better than its close relation Somewhere in the Night), and Kansas City Confidential.
      You’re probably right that these films tend to be regarded as programmers and consequently draw less attention, but both the films and Payne are very good.


  7. Colin,

    While few would quibble over the excellent choices you have listed, I, personally, would include an extremely talented actor of both stage and screen who, because of his early demise at the age of 39 in 1952, appears to have been overlooked/forgotten in recent times. To include his name in my list, I am even prepared to exclude the excellent Marie Windsor.

    John Garfied contributed to the Flim Noir genre in no uncertain terms. His 1941 film “Out of the Fog” in which he appeared with the equally talented actress/director/writer, Ida Lupino, (whose own contribution to the genre needs recognition); “The Fallen Sparrow” (1943); “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) -the cast included Audry Totter, (yet another film noir notable); “Body and Soul” (1947) for which Garfield was Oscar nominated as Best Actor; “Force of Evil” (1948) with your nominee, Marie Windsor in the cast; and his final film “He Ran All the Way” (1951) with Shelley Winters, (whose appearance in “Night of the Hunter” cemented her place in the genre); these all, in my opinion, substantially added to the popular appeal of early Film Noir and helped pathe the way for the currently more recognised films of this genre.


    • Good call Rod. Garfield most certainly offered a lot to film noir, and his own life took a pretty dark turn too. I agree that all those movies you mentioned are first rate – I very much like He Ran All the Way. One that you didn’t list, and I think is excellent too is The Breaking Point – maybe the best adaptation of Hemingway’s story?


  8. Great list, Colin! Can’t argue with any of your choices although I would’ve loved to have seen Charles McGraw or Edmond O’Brien added to the list.

    I’m happy I found your blog and thanks for all the reviews. It’s provided me with plenty of new movie-viewing suggestions.


    • Hi Larry, glad you enjoyed your visit. I hope you’ll be back to share any thoughts in the future.
      O’Brien is a good pick; he was excellent in The Killers, 711 Ocean Drive, The Hitch-Hiker (directed by Ida Lupino) and D.O.A.


  9. Colin, I will look forward to your take on 99 RIVER STREET.
    I especially like Jay Adlers misogynist diamond fence who predicts that a woman
    appearing on the scene spells disaster.Hes right of course; but hey,we are in Film Noir Land.
    Another interesting Noir actor is the generally unheralded Mark Stevens. His masterpiece
    as actor and director is CRY VENGEANCE which Olive Films have listed as a future release.
    A more abrasive Film Noir you will never see!
    Again looking into the future I look forward to your take on this great unheralded Noir.
    Other Stevens Noir entries are THE DARK CORNER,STREET WITH NO NAME,BETWEEN
    I do hope someone releases his impressive Noir Western JACK SLADE a stunning portrait
    of a mans descent into booze fueled violence.


    • John, I really like Karlson’s films and hope to do something on 99 River Street in January or February.

      I quite like Mark Stevens too and I hope Olive do get round to releasing Cry Vengeance. I did a brief piece on The Dark Corner back when I originally started the blog.


  10. A great list, Colin – it must have been difficult to bring it down to ten. I would have included John Garfield in my own favourites and maybe Dan Duryea and Ida Lupino too. Glad to see Edward G Robinson and Bogart included here – their gangster contemporary Cagney did star in one of the greatest noirs (if you categorise it as a noir), ‘White Heat’, and another interesting one, ‘Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye’, but didn’t do so much in that field. I tend to prefer Barbara Stanwyck in her earlier/warmer roles where more personality comes across, but can see she was great as a femme fatale too.

    But anyway I need to see more noirs and hope to catch up on some of those which I haven’t seen starring the people you have chosen here. On another tack, I’ve just watched ‘Shane’ and thought you had reviewed it in the past, but can’t find your review – am I misremembering? I loved it, anyway, and am busy puzzling over the ending…


  11. Colin,

    It was certainly remiss of me to leave “The Breaking Point” out of my list – it is one of my favourite Garfield films, and yes, in my opinion, it is the best filmed adaptation of Hemmingway’s novel ” To Have And Have Not”. Although first released late in 1950, it did not arrive here, in Australia, until mid 1952, soon after he had passed away, and I well remember my parents were quite shocked by his demise. Garfield was the “James Dean” of his generation and his career ended far too soon.


  12. Pingback: A Close That’s a Beginning: Year of Bests – 2012 | It Rains… You Get Wet

  13. If I was to make a list of great Noir Stars, Edmond O’Brien & Robert Ryan would definitely start the list.

    One could also make a terrific list of “Noir Supporting Characters”: the legion of sidekicks, hit men, bodyguards, toadies, snivellers, chisellers, informers, pathetic girlfriends. People like Neville Brand, the Adler brothers, Elisha Cook, Hope Emerson, Jean Hagen, Lee van Cleef,
    There are so many layers of people to appreciate!


  14. What I always liked about Robert Ryan, is that he always, even in his early roles, had that “lived in” look about him. You would swear that what ever role he was playing he had personally experienced. One hell of an actor. Intensity personified!


    • Indeed, some actors grew into tougher or grittier roles – Dick Powell, John Payne – but Ryan appeared to have the look and attitude from the start, which does create the impression that he had lots of living behind him and thus added a layer of authenticity to so much of what he did.


  15. There is an early Ryan film i have that fans should dig up called, “Golden Gloves” 1940. It is an early example of what would become films such as CHAMPION, THE SET-UP and THE HARDER THEY FALL. Noir fingerprints all over it with Edward Dmytryk, Felix Feist. Henry Sharp, Maxwell Shane and Lewis R Foster involved in the production It was Ryan’s 3rd film and his first billed role. (my review on IMDB)


  16. Awesome stuff! As we dig, it indeed becomes open end. All responses add up to a nice concise encyclopedia of noir. My perspective says any list with Stanwyck, Grahame, and Windsor has to be stamped “valid”, and when you add the usually left out Andrews, Ford and Robinson to the regulars then it’s an absolute. Incredible fun.


    • Lists, generally, are fun anyway and film noir is so rich and varied that there are so many strong contenders to find places for. Chewing the fat over these things afterwards is even more enjoyable.


  17. I always thought Lawrence Tierney had the persona to be one of the Noir greats. Too bad we didn’t see more of him…..much to his own demise.


    • He started out in promising fashion but, as you suggest, he was his own worst enemy and did himself no favors. Mind you, while I recognize he had potential, I’ll have to admit I never managed to warm to him on screen.


      • I always felt Tierney could have been the second coming of George Raft and a bit of Bogart. His physical on screen presence and delivery was much the same. He really delivers with the snappy down and dirty dialogue in THE HOODLUM (1951).


        • I’ve never liked Raft, I feel he was too one-dimensional and limited; he made some good film but I reckon a lot of their strengths come from those around Raft – co-stars, directors & crew – rather than the man himself.
          Tierney was better than that, by some distance. I don’t think he had the depth of Bogart or the on screen appeal but he certainly handled himself convincingly in those early crime/noir films.


          • Just some thoughts. I do like most of Raft’s stuff. The two films I think he most excelled at were 1) THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940) where Raft got top billing with co-stars Ann Sheriden, Ida Lupino and Bogart in that order and 2) MANPOWER (1941) with top billed E. G. Robinson and co-stars Marlene Dietrich and Raft. In my opinion, the roles of Raft and Dietrich had the more powerful impact than Robinson’s. Of course is that era, Robinson always got top-billing as he and Cagney were the top dogs for Warner in this kind of genre.


            • Yes, Raft was top billed in at that stage and might have continued to be for longer had he not made a few poor choices and then shying away from more ambiguous roles just as audience tastes were changing and drifting towards those very parts.


          • Another thing that always caught my attention with a Tierney film……was they seem patterned after the the Warner gangster classics of the late 30’s and early 40’s. I always felt one could interchange Raft and Tierney in those roles because of their hard edge tough guy personas. Personally, I think those two actors, as a pair, personified those kind of tough guy roles more than any other two. Whereas, tough guy actors of the genre like Cagney, Bogart, Robinson, Garfield were more diversified and had continuing success when stepping out of the genre.


  18. Raft did shy away from top roles that turned out to be big movie hits as in HIGH SIERRA (1941), THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and CASABLANCA (1942). Consequently, one could say he inadvertently made Bogart a big star. Upon seeing the error of his ways and revive his box office appeal, Raft pushed and got Warner’s to pair him with Greenstreet and Lorre in BACKGROUND TO DANGER (1943). Unfortunately for Raft…..the damage was done.


    • There were still occasional interesting movies featuring Raft as the years wore on, but there was a lot of mediocrity too. I remember quite enjoying the Ted Tetzlaff directed Johnny Allegro, although it’s been years since I last saw it.


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