It’s all about the shadows, I think. Often literally, but always figuratively. That play of light and dark, in which the dark always succeeds, at least in part. And that’s how you know it’s noir.
As a specific genre of movie, film noir has been around since the 1940s when dames walked into private investigators’ offices desperate for help locating something or someone. And while a perfectly framed silhouette in black and white is the quickest way to evoke film noir, these mystery crime stories are also marked by the dark lingering in the characters’ souls as well. Which is why the spirit of noir can pop up in the most brightly lit movies and in mystery novels, classic and contemporary.
This month, Kanopy is celebrating Noirvember, featuring classic noir films, as well as neo-noir and international noir favorites. I’ve matched up some of these great films with books you can enjoy on the Libby app to keep the play of light and dark going all month.
🍿 Sunset Boulevard featuring Erich von Stroheim, Gloria Swanson & Cecil B. DeMille
There are classic movies, and there are classic movies, and Sunset Boulevard is unquestionably the second. Billy Wilder’s film is a visually gorgeous example of what makes noir so appealing—all the shadows and tension, and hey, it opens with the narrator floating face down in a pool. How did Joe Gillis end up there? Buckle in for the wild ride that is Joe’s relationship with aging actress Norma Desmond, and see why this one picked up 3 Academy Awards.
📚 The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
Old Hollywood has also proven fascinating to numerous crime and mystery writers, including James Ellroy. His L.A. Quartet, which opens with The Black Dahlia, follows cops, stars and criminals through richly detailed stories of love and murder. Set in the 1940s and 50s, this series (which also includes L.A. Confidential) is chockful of perfect noir atmosphere, complex plots and unforgettable characters.
📚 Blood Grove by Walter Mosley
One of the most successful L.A. detectives in literature is Easy Rawlins, main character of Walter Mosley’s wildly popular series that begins with Devil in a Blue Dress. Easy is a WWII vet living in Watts, who starts his life as a PI in the 1940s, but by the time we meet up with him in the most recent novel, Blood Grove, it’s 1969. Now Easy is helping a Vietnam vet sort out the mystery of a seemingly random attack and a murder, all in the midst of social turmoil.
🍿 Witness for the Prosecution featuring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich & Tyrone Power
Is it too much to include another Billy Wilder film? Honestly, I don’t think so, especially when it’s a film as good as Witness for the Prosecution and the cast has Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton in one of the best courtroom dramas ever made. Because, this isn’t just a whodunit, but a twisty mystery of identity and revenge that could have only come from the mind of Agatha Christie.
📚 The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories by Agatha Christie
And that’s the challenge of recommending something as good as a Christie novel, since no one else did it quite like her. To see what I mean, you are definitely going to want to check out her original “Witness for the Prosecution” short story, and the other classic tales in this collection.
📚 Dolphin Junction by Mick Herron
Once you’ve read all those great stories, I would suggest your next stop be Dolphin Junction by Mick Herron. Clever and exciting, longtime fans will enjoy seeing favorite characters from Herron’s novels, including Jackson Lamb from the Slough House series, and Sarah Tucker and Zoë Boehm from The Oxford Investigations. But all these stories stand on their own and serve as a great introduction to one of the great crime authors writing today.
🍿 Purple Noon featuring Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet & Marie Laforêt
Kanopy also offers some fabulous international noir, such as Purple Noon, proving that film noir doesn’t have to just be shot in the shadows, but can also be soaked in the sunlight of Italy. An ambitious but poor young man decides he wants the life of his rich friend, so he hatches a plan to make that life his own. The film succeeds in large part due to the charismatic performance of the swoon-inducing Alain Delon.
📚 The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
And if that plot sounds familiar, it’s because Purple Noon is based on the Patricia Highsmith novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. All book adaptations have their differences, but there are some particularly interesting ones in this case, so if you like Purple Noon, you will definitely want to see what Highsmith did differently.
📚 A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen
Another title to check out is this mystery that also has a beautiful Italian setting, but this time following a grifter couple—Nick and Clay—as they try to make their fortunes by tricking an art-collecting millionaire into buying their forgeries. Will they succeed? And will they still love each other if they do?
🍿 Pusher featuring Kim Bodnia, Mads Mikkelsen, Zlatko Burić & Laura Drasbæk
Pusher is a fascinating trilogy opener that launched the careers of director Nicolas Winding Refn and actor Mads Mikkelsen, who I will watch in pretty much anything. The series focuses on criminals and the drug world of Copenhagen, their addictions, families and brutal lives. And thanks to Kanopy, you can watch all 3 movies that took the Toronto Film Festival by storm 20 years ago.
📚 Snare by Lilja Sigurdardóttir, translation by Quentin Bates
Since the Pusher Trilogy is Danish neo-noir, the perfect read-alikes for people who enjoy the movies are nordic noir novels by some of Scandinavia’s best crime writers. One novel I’d suggest checking out is Snare, the launch of the Reykjavik Noir Trilogy. It tells the story of a recently divorced mother trying to maintain custody of her son by turning to cocaine smuggling for money. It’s twisty and sexy and perfect to curl up with as we head toward winter.
📚 Phantom by Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett
Pretty much anyone who knows me even a little knows how much I love Jo Nesbo, and Phantom (Book 9 in the Harry Hole series) is one of my favorites. Like the Pusher movies, Phantom is the Harry book that focuses most on the drug world. But it’s also intensely personal, with the son of his long-time love addicted to a new designer drug taking over the streets of Oslo and possibly involved in murder.
🍿 Winter’s Bone featuring Garret Dillahunt, Jennifer Lawrence & John Hawkes
The movie that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career and led to her first Oscar nomination at age 20, Winter’s Bone is a chilly, dark story of an impoverished young woman in the Ozarks trying to prevent her family’s eviction. The only problem is that she has to dive into the world of the meth trade to locate her missing father in order to save her home.
📚 Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
Ozarks native Woodrell penned this mystery of Ree Dolly’s search for her father, a man awaiting trial for running a meth lab who’s skipped out on bail. Her journey is heart wrenching and inspiring, and a little haunting to boot.
📚 Ozark Dogs by Eli Cranor
Speaking of the Ozarks, folks who love Winter’s Bone will want to take a look at Eli Cranor’s latest novel. There is a feud between the Fitzjurls and Ledford families. Jeremiah Fitzjurls takes custody of his granddaughter when her father goes to prison for murder, and he is doing his best to raise her in his junkyard armory. But his best might not be enough when meth dealers from the Ledford family come looking to settle scores.