The neo-noir genre is an updated version of classic film noir that blends elements of hard-boiled detective fiction, crime thrillers, and dark psychological drama. Over the years, the genre has given rise to some of the most stylish and thought-provoking movies in cinema history. At the same time, these movies were also able to show a grittier and unfiltered version of reality.
This article features a compilation of the best neo-noir films of all time, ranging from visually stunning achievements like Black Rain and Blow Out to psychological and political accomplishments like Cutter’s Way and Prince of the City. These movies will satisfy both seasoned cinephiles and casual moviegoers with their engaging stories and breathtaking shots.
10 Black Rain
Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis, Black Rain is a stylish accomplishment by the English filmmaker and a visual feast for the eyes while at the same time retaining the classic atmosphere of a neo-noir. Michael Douglas plays the role of Nick Conklin, an NYPD officer under investigation by Internal Affairs. While eating at a restaurant with his friend Charlie Vincent (Andy García), he arrests a Yakuza member called Sato (Yūsaku Matsuda). The troubles are just starting.
Black Rain features immense cinematography by Jan de Bont, who perfectly captures Osaka’s neon-lit urban environment perfectly. At the same time, Ridley Scott is always magnificent behind the camera, whether shooting action sequences or more slow-paced sequences. The ensemble cast is on point, with Douglas and García especially believable as friends and work buddies. Superb.
9 The Yakuza
Written by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne and produced and directed by Sydney Pollack, The Yakuza stars Robert Mitchum as Harry Kilmer, an ex-detective who goes to Japan to help his friend Tanner (Brian Keith) and his kidnaped daughter. In Tokyo, Kilmer will meet again with Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura), a yakuza with whom he has a history. The Yakuza flopped at the 1975 box office but has become, through the years, an excellent neo-noir opus.
The Yakuza is characterized by outstanding cinematography by Kozo Okazaki and Duke Callaghan, perfectly capturing Tokyo’s urban environment. At the same time, Mitchum and Tanaka portray the two main protagonists with character and skill. Lastly, the screenplay is complex, intelligent, and atmospheric enough to engage and completely capture the spectators. The Yakuza is a testament to the power of Pollack’s cinema.
8 American Gigolo
Written and directed by Paul Schrader and featuring an iconic performance by Richard Gere, American Gigolo is a tense and slick neo-noir and one of the best movies in Schrader’s filmography. Julian Kay (Gere) is a high-priced escort that has among his clientele some of the richest women in Beverly Hills. After being sent to Palm Springs as a replacement for a job, Kay will be implicated as the first suspect in a murder.
American Gigolo stands out for its tense and piercing screenplay, complex and multilayered, just like other great works from Schrader. At the same time, the technical aspect is curated to the finest details; the directing is essential and compact, while the locations researched for the movie always enrich the screenplay. To top it off, we find a spot-on soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder and Kay’s extremely stylish wardrobe provided by Giorgio Armani.
7 Eastern Promises
Eastern Promises was directed by David Cronenberg and written by Steven Knight. It stars Naomi Watts as Anna Ivanovna Khitrova, a midwife living in London. Her life completely changes when she finds a diary possessed by a young prostitute who died delivering her baby. Anna starts investigating on her own thanks to a calling card from a restaurant the deceased had. What she doesn’t know is that the restaurant is owned by the powerful Russian boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who sends Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) to warn her off.
Eastern Promises is masterfully built on tension and features a solid and fitting directing by Cronenberg, at ease here despite the thematic differences with his body horror masterpieces. At the same time, both Watts and Mortensen are just perfect in their parts, with a special mention for the latter, dangerously amazing. Outstanding.
6 Year of the Dragon
Year of the Dragon was written by Michael Cimino and Oliver Stone, who based it on the homonymous novel by Robert Daley. Directed by Cimino and featuring Mickey Rourke, Ariane Koizumi, John Lone, Raymond J. Barry, and Dennis Dun, this 1985 neo-noir is set in New York and tells the story of Capt. Stanley White (Rourke), tasked with investigating the criminal organizations operating in Chinatown.
Year of the Dragon is a classic feature from Cimino, one of the most esthetical directors the American film industry has produced. The cinematography by Alex Thomson matched with the great eye of the Italian-American filmmaker are a match made in heaven. At the same time, the story unfolds impeccably and is well-constructed in all its intricacies and tense moments. Furthermore, Rourke gifts us with one of his strongest performances. It must be rediscovered.
5 Bad Lieutenant
Written by Abel Ferrara and Zoë Lund, who also features in the movie, and directed by Ferrara, Bad Lieutenant is a caustic and nihilistic masterpiece featuring Harvey Keitel as a lieutenant of the NYPD who engages in strong drug use, violence, gambling, and more dramatic actions. The movie is an escalation of the lieutenant’s raw and unrestrained behavior. Deeply thought-provoking and powerful as Ferrara can be, Bad Lieutenant has become a cult over the years.
Bad Lieutenant is characterized by the great use of hand-held camera, to convey better the main character’s focus and the rawness of his behavior. At the same time, the sapient editing and structure of the movie, with its non-linear plot, make the whole experience dream-like or hallucinatory. Keitel is magistral and without compromise in his portrayal of the out-of-his-mind protagonist. Bad Lieutenant is not for the faint-hearted.
4 Cutter’s Way
Directed by Ivan Passer and based on the novel Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg, Cutter’s Way is a powerful neo-noir that features breathtaking shots and a fantastic moody soundtrack by Jack Nitzsche. The movie is set in Santa Barbara, California, and it features great performances by Jeff Bridges and John Heard, respectively, as Richard Bone and Alex Cutter. Moreover, Lisa Eichhorn plays the role of Maureen Cutter, Alex’s wife.
Cutter’s Way is beautifully shot by Passer, who is able to craft flawless and visually stunning frames in collaboration with cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth. The movie is also blessed by fantastic performances by the two main protagonists, and especially Heard as the disenchanted Vietnam veteran. It also features a pessimistic analysis of the aftermath of the counter-cultural movement in America. Cutter’s Way is a hidden gem and a classic neo-noir that should be seen more often.
3 Prince of the City
Prince of the City was co-written and directed by Sidney Lumet, and it is based on the homonymous novel by Robert Daley that fictionalized the true story behind this neo-noir gem. The movie stars Treat Williams as Daniel Ciello, an agent working with the New York Police Department’s Special Investigative Unit and combating narcotics in the city. This unit is characterized by high corruption and comes soon under the eyes of a federal investigation.
Prince of the City is an educational movie for every aspiring screenwriter. The story unfolds at a slow-paced, and it gives the possibility of exploring the psychological nature of the characters and their decision-making; at the same time, the tension keeps building and building. Moreover, Treat Williams and the rest of the ensemble cast are amazing and convincing until the end. Cherry on top, the perfect cinematography. Cult.
2 Blow Out
Written and directed by Brian De Palma and featuring impressive cinematography by the master Vilmos Zsigmond, Blow Out is an outright masterpiece. This 1981 movie features John Travolta’s best performance ever as Jack Terry, a sound engineer who witnesses a car accident while recording sounds at a park in Philadelphia. He is also able to rescue one passenger called Sally (Nancy Allen). After hearing his recordings, Jack discovers something that will change his life forever.
Blow Out‘s colors and immense style are difficult to forget. Zsigmond is amazing in lighting every scene, especially in his capacity to let the neon lights literally pop out of the screen. Travolta fits like a glove in his character, and he’s able to convey perfectly all the emotions that Jack feels. The political undertones mixed with the best neo-noir atmosphere make Blow Out also extremely engaging.
Written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski, Chinatown is one of the most stylish movies ever made and the quintessential neo-noir. Jack Nicholson stars as Jake Gittes, a private investigator tasked with tailing Hollis I. Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the husband of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), who suspects him of infidelity. Released almost 50 years ago, Chinatown is perfect in every single aspect and features one of the greatest interpretations by Jack Nicholson.
Chinatown is an atmospheric movie that shines for the amazing cinematography by John A. Alonzo and its breathless screenplay, full of plot twists and psychological undertones. Set in 1937, this neo-noir reconstructs flawlessly that decade with exquisite costumes and fitting locations. Moreover, Polanski knows every time where to position the camera and how to achieve the best shot in every frame. Chinatown is a classic and timeless neo-noir that best represents the genre.