10 Underrated Film Noir Movies From the 1950s, Ranked

Estimated read time 10 min read

The film noir genre is an undoubtedly unique one, as it’s perhaps the only genre that has a specific period during which it existed: from the early 1940s until the end of the 1950s. There were movies before this period that led to what can be classified as film noir, and noir movies made after the 1950s were over are sometimes called neo-noir films. To be a classic/quintessential film noir movie, though, a movie needs to have been released in the ‘40s or ‘50s.



Film noir movies are classified by their morally dubious characters, moody atmospheres, sometimes complex plots, downbeat endings (more often than not), and certain visual aesthetics that are instantly recognizable. There were many film noir movies released during the genre’s reign, and some of the lesser-known ones tend to get overlooked. These overlooked movies include the following, which all came out in the 1950s and are undoubtedly worth watching for anyone who’s into film noir as a genre.

10 ‘Suddenly’ (1954)

Director: Lewis Allen

Suddenly - 1954 Image via United Artists

Just like many film noir movies made before – and a few made since – 1954’s Suddenly is no-nonsense, straight to the point, and wastes little time, on account of its 77-minute runtime. The plot revolves around an assassin taking a family hostage while using their home as a location from which he can potentially assassinate the U.S. President, who’s passing through the small town in which the film takes place.

Suddenly is the rare movie that can be watched on Wikipedia, of all places, on account of its copyright not being renewed. It’s worth watching for anyone who likes old-school thrillers and has 70-ish minutes to kill, and is also memorable for starring Frank Sinatra in one of the most interesting (and villainous/scary) roles he ever played.

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9 ‘Nightfall’ (1956)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Nightfall - 1956 Image via Columbia Pictures

Running for just one minute longer than the aforementioned Suddenly, Nightfall is another tightly-paced and engaging film noir movie that injects its thriller/crime story with a little romance for good measure. The plot centers on a man who’s been accused of crimes he didn’t commit, so he goes on the run, hoping to evade both the law and those who are actually responsible for the crimes he’s been blamed for.

It’s twisty in a way that might hit familiar beats for those who are savvy when it comes to film noir, yet may still surprise those who aren’t too familiar with the genre. Nightfall may not be a towering cinematic achievement or a masterpiece by any means, but it gets the job done and satisfies in exactly the ways a film of this kind should, and as such, it’s easy to recommend.

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8 ‘The Crimson Kimono’ (1959)

Director: Samuel Fuller

The Crimson Kimono - 1959 Image via Columbia Pictures

As mentioned before, noir-flavored movies released from 1960 onwards aren’t typically thought of as true “film noir movies,” making anything released at the very end of the 1950s definable as examples of very late film noir flicks. The Crimson Kimono is one of the best of these, and isn’t quite as well-known as something like 1958’s Touch of Evil, which is occasionally heralded as the final great film noir movie.

The Crimson Kimono is very bold considering it was released in 1959, with its narrative concerning two men trying to solve the murder of a stripper. It’s progressive for having a main character be a Japanese man without treating him like a comical sidekick, which is what sadly seemed to happen more often than not, if one goes back far enough in film history. The story itself is also brave, as are some of the themes it deals with, ensuring The Crimson Kimono holds up surprisingly well for a film of its age.

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7 ‘Armored Car Robbery’ (1950)

Director: Richard Fleischer

Armored Car Robbery Image via RKO Radio Pictures

While it might not qualify as a true action movie, Armored Car Robbery also isn’t too far off, being particularly fast-paced, explosive, and exciting by the standards of classic film noir. It also has the kind of wonderful title that more or less sums up exactly what to expect narratively from the film, as this 67-minute-long movie follows a tense robbery and its aftermath, showing various crooks attempting to get away with what they’ve taken.

It’s particularly short, even by the standards of the 1950s, but the brevity of Armored Car Robbery ends up being one of its best qualities. It’s hard to imagine anyone coming away from a movie like this feeling as though it wasted their time or was dishonest about the kind of movie it was; it gets in and gets out in near record time, and is very well-paced throughout.

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6 ‘The Big Combo’ (1955)

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

The Big Combo - 1955 Image via Allied Artists Pictures

The Big Combo is quintessentially film noir through and through, with some of the most striking shots and sequences of the entire genre/movement present in the film, and its title being perfectly noir, too. There’s something to be said about how great “The Adjective Noun” sorts of titles sound for this genre; see something as early as The Maltese Falcon, a key/quintessential film noir title, and itself one of the first true film noir movies.

As for The Big Combo, though, this engaging and consistently tense crime film revolves around a police lieutenant who’s trying to bring a gangster to justice while also finding himself falling for the same gangster’s girlfriend. It takes a film noir kind of premise and other genre conventions and dials them up maybe not quite to 11, but ultimately not far off… this makes it ideal for anyone who likes their film noir movies to be as bombastic and in your face as possible.

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5 ‘Kansas City Confidential’ (1952)

Director: Phil Karlson

Kansas City Confidential - 1952 Image via United Artists

1952 was a good year for movies, and Kansas City Confidential was one of the standout titles released during that year. Its plot combines the aftermath of a dramatic robbery with a main character who’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit – specifically, the robbery in question. As a result, he inevitably finds himself on a desperate quest to prove his innocence.

Consequences ensue just as they always seem to do in movies like this, but as is the case with most great film noir movies, the “predictability” of the plot in Kansas City Confidential isn’t really detrimental. In fact, “predictable” isn’t even that fair of a word to use, as it’s more of a crushing sense of inevitability; people forced into difficult situations where it’s unlikely for such individuals to emerge from whatever they’re stuck in unscathed.

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4 ‘Woman on the Run’ (1950)

Director: Norman Foster

Woman on the Run - 1950 Image via Universal Pictures

Joining the likes of Armored Car Robbery as a movie that tells you most of what you need to know from the title alone, a woman does indeed find herself on the run in 1950’s Woman on the Run. That being said, things kick off with the woman’s husband also being on the run after witnessing a murder, at which point his wife tries to locate him and finds herself in another kind of sticky situation.

In typical film noir fashion, things start relatively simple in Woman on the Run and find themselves snowballing to dramatic effect. It’s a movie that packs a great deal into a runtime of less than 80 minutes, meaning that as far as film noir movies go, Woman on the Run can count itself as one of the most thrilling and fast-paced.

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3 ‘House of Bamboo’ (1955)

Director: Samuel Fuller

House of Bamboo - 1955 Image via 20th Century Fox

While House of Bamboo is a crime movie that takes place in Japan, it can’t be counted as a yakuza movie necessarily, as its main characters are American gangsters conducting their business in Japan as well as authority figures who want to take them down. Things kick off with a murder, and then the introduction of a mysterious young man – the film’s protagonist – who runs into the gang members who likely had something to do with the initial murder.

House of Bamboo is the rare film noir movie that was shot in color and in wide-screen, and it really makes the most of both. The story is still dark, even while the colors are vibrant, and much of it looks amazingly well-shot and well-composed, even if it’s not quite as intimate or claustrophobic as some other film noir movies. It takes conventions and tropes and presents everything in a different way, making it one of the most unusual and distinctive of all classic film noir flicks.

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2 ‘Crime Wave’ (1953)

Director: André de Toth

Crime Wave - 1953 (1) Image via Warner Bros.

Amusingly featuring Charles Bronson in an early supporting role, Crime Wave is another film noir movie that unfolds both fast and with fury, with a runtime of just 73 minutes. Narratively, it concerns a man on parole who’s forced into a difficult situation when some old cellmates locate him and begin to pressure him into joining them on a robbery-related job.

It’s a simple premise, sure, but Crime Wave makes it work and finds a good deal of drama and suspense within it; certainly enough to sustain its overall brief runtime. Watching it, you can tell it’s a little on the low-budget side, but the way it all feels thrown together and a little rough around the edges also serves to make it feel more vibrant, authentic, and in the moment. Crime Wave turns a potential weakness into a strength, in a way.

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1 ‘Sudden Fear’ (1952)

Director: David Miller

Joan Crawford sitting on her bed in Sudden Fear Image via RKO Pictures

Unlike many of the aforementioned film noir movies, Sudden Fear ends up having a fairly beefy runtime, clocking in at just eight minutes shy of two hours. It uses this time to very gradually build tension, as while there isn’t a ton of excitement to be found in the film until its final act, the first two acts are still vital in getting the viewer there, and making them best appreciate those particularly dramatic final scenes.

Sudden Fear is a top-tier 1950s release, film noir or otherwise, and is considerably elevated from a great lead Joan Crawford performance, here playing a woman who suspects her new husband wants to kill her, and so plots to get the jump on him first. It’s outlandish in a way, but it overall makes its somewhat high-concept premise work, and remains a blast to watch 70+ years on from its release.

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