Best of French Film Noir

Films policier is a portmanteau term which refers to the crime-thriller genre of French cinema, often in the context of trench coat wearing gangsters and tough, ageing police inspectors. The polar is a specific kind of policier which involves a central mystery (although a polar does not necessarily have to be a policier).

The film policier developed in French cinema from early attempts to emulate American film noir in the 1940s. The genre has passed through several phases (including polar, neo-polar and, most recently, post-noir), but the film noir origins are almost nearly always recognisable.

The film policier invariably centres around an outsider (a law-enforcer or a law-breaker) who assumes the moral high ground and is engaged in a fight for survival against a mightier adversary. If the central hero is not obviously indestructible (such as Inspector Maigret, Lemmy Caution or virtually any character played by Jean-Paul Belmondo), he will almost certainly perish in the last five minutes of the film. It goes without saying that the hero is nearly always male, since the world of the policier is inherently rough, bleak and male dominated.

Those directors who can be credited with having mastered the film policier include: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jacques Becker, Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri Verneuil, Jacques Deray and Georges Lautner. To this list of luminaries, we should add Claude Chabrol and Costa-Gavras, who have distinguished themselves in the related genres of psychological and political thriller.

Here is a selection of the finest examples of French film noir.

Arsène Lupin détective
Jules Berry takes on the mantle of Maurice Leblanc's celebrated gentleman thief, Arsène Lupin, in this whimsical comedy thriller. [More...]
Pépé le Moko
Once banned by the French authorities for being too depressing, Pépé le Moko is now regarded as a masterpiece, a perfect blend of poetic realism and film noir thriller, set in the Algerian Casbah. [More...]

Hôtel du Nord
The apotheosis of poetic realism, the film starts with a suicide attempt and ends with a revenge killing. Not much room for light relief in this sombre drama from the Carné-Prévert team, other than some sparkling repartee between Arletty and Jouvet. [More...]
Le Quai des brumes
Jean Gabin plays a deserter hoping to start a new life but it all goes wrong when he falls in love with the ward of a ruthless gangster. The pessimism of the time is reflected in this film, a haunting tale of ill-fated love from the masters of poetic realism. [More...]

Macao, l'enfer du jeu
A gun-runner plays for the highest stakes in this atmospheric film noir set in the Far East. Delannoy's skilful direction is surpassed only by Erich Von Stroheim's unforgettable performance. [More...]
Robert Siodmak made this thriller-romance during his exile in Europe. The influence of American film noir is very noticeable, and Maurice Chevalier gives a fine performance. [More...]

L'Assassinat du Père Noël
This intriguing murder mystery directed by Christian-Jaque was the first film to be made in France under the Nazi occupation, something which lends the film a grim double meaning. [More...]
L'Assassin habite au 21
Pierre Fresnay and Suzy Delair sparkle in this comedy thriller, Clouzot's first full-length film. Despite the comic situations, the plot, sets and atmosphere are pure film noir. [More...]

Le Corbeau
This "black diamond" of the Nazi occupation is now regarded as one of the finest films made in France. Now seen as a brilliantly constructed suspense thriller, its shocking depiction of a morally corrupt society angered many when it was first released and it was soon banned. [More...]
Quai des Orfèvres
Louis Jouvet brings a much-needed humanity to Clouzot's dark suspense thriller, which gives a rare insight into French music hall of the 1940s. [More...]

Entre onze heures et minuit
You could easily mistake Louis Jouvet for Humphrey Bogart in this very obvious pastiche of American film noir, the template for the French polars of the 1950s. [More...]
Le Salaire de la peur
Clouzot's best film out-does Hitchcock at almost every level, making this one of the greatest suspense thrillers of all time. The film has a sustained dramatic intensity which makes it a truly exhausting and harrowing  cinematic experience. [More...]

Touchez pas au grisbi
One of the earliest and best examples of the crime thrillers which would dominate French cinema in the following decades. Its origins in American film noir are very apparent, particularly in the nocturnal photography, the haunting music and the inevitable bloody shoot-out. [More...]
Du rififi chez les hommes
An unashamed direct import of American film noir, this film became a cult in it own time and is now regarded as one of the true masterpieces of its genre. It is best known for the meticulously filmed jewellery robbery, in which not a single word of dialogue is used. [More...]

Les Diaboliques
An extraordinarily compelling suspense thriller which, with its chillingly macabre murder scene and nerve-shattering climax, remains a popular classic with a very wide audience. [More...]
Voici le temps des assassins
Julien Duvivier's most cynical portrait of human nature is most noted for its recreation of the Halles market in Paris and for Danèle Delorme's shocking portayal of an unscrupulous gold digger. [More...]

Maigret tend un piège
Obvious references to American film noir make this a moody and claustrophobic crime thriller, with Jean Gabin playing Georges Simenon's famous detective, Inspector Maigret. [More...]
Le Désordre et la nuit
Although the policier genre had by this stage become formulaic, this film stands out by virtue of its attempts to embrace modernity, using jazz heavily to portray a sleazy criminal underworld. [More...]

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud
This stylish variation on the popular policier genre gave an early glimpse of the determination of fresh young directors to break away from the traditional film form. [More...]
Signé Arsène Lupin
Arsène Lupin returns to cinema, this time in the guise of Robert Lamoureux, in a film which comes closest to capturing the style of Maurice Leblanc's original Lupin novels. [More...]

À bout de souffle
In one of the most spectacular directoral debuts in film history, Jean-Luc Godard gives new meaning and form to the medium of film in this bizarre pastiche of the film policier. [More...]
This compelling study in which a young man is consumed by an uncontrollable desire to steal allows Bresson to develop his unique cinematography and explore the themes of sin and redemption. A film with a rare silent eloquence and humanity. [More...]

Deux hommes dans Manhattan
This film is less a traditional policier and more a homage to American film noir. Melville himself plays both detective and director, leaving no cliché unturned but somehow managing to create a work of art from the familiar trappings of the genre. [More...]
Les Yeux sans visage
The most celebrated French fantasy horror film, and rightly so with its graphic depiction of mad scientist surgery set in the creepiest house to make it onto celluloid. Guaranted to give you nightmares. [More...]

Le Trou
Becker's final film is his best, an uncompromisingly hard-edged realist portrait of a prison break-out attempt, offering a compelling study of human nature. [More...]
Plein soleil
The talented Alain Delon plays the original Mr Ripley in this sumptuous yet chilling adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's thriller novel. [More...]

Tirez sur le pianiste
The first and best of Truffaut's homages to the American crime thriller features a sublime performance from Charles Aznavour. [More...]
Le Doulos
Jean-Paul Belmondo stars in this stylish mélange of French film policier and American film noir, which, in true Melvillesque style, contrasts the morality of criminals and law-enforcers. [More...]

Le Septième juré
Georges Lautner's best film, this has the feel of a great Hitchcock suspense thriller in places. The film stars Bernard Blier in his finest role and makes a scathing assault on the French legal system. [More...]
Les Tontons flingueurs
The best of Georges Lautner's comic parodies of the French crime thriller unites Lino Ventura and Bernard Blier as you have never seen them before. Michel Audiard's witty dialogue is a bonus. [More...]

Chair de poule
Possibly the best example of French film noir in the 1960s, this chilling adaptation of a James Hadley Chase novel is guaranteed to bring on the goose pimples. [More...]
Bande à part
Jean-Luc Godard clearly had tongue firmly in cheek when he made this homage to the low budget American thriller. Brilliantly subversive, daringly funny, it is one of Godard's more accessible works. [More...]

Lemmy Caution is resurrected for this bizarre blend of crime thriller and science-fiction, intended as a satire on contemporary French politics. Outrageously funny, yet deeply disturbing. [More...]
Pierrot le fou
Godard's most celebrated film is this bizarre yet striking deconstruction of American pulp fiction. It marks the start of Godard's radical departure from the conventional narrative form in his continual quest to re-invent cinema. [More...]

Compartiment tueurs
Costa-Gavras' first film is this magnificently constructed crime thriller, the director's tribute to American film noir. The film stars Yves Montand, who would work with Costa-Gavras on several subsequent films. [More...]
Le Deuxième souffle
This is arguably the best of Jean-Pierre Melville's distinctive crime thrillers, both mesmerising and shocking its audience with its hard-edged neo-realist depiction of gangland violence. [More...]

Le Samouraï
With its ice-cold existentialist cinematography and a chilling performance from Alain Delon, this stylish cult film is the closest that the gangster thriller got to being represented as a work of art. [More...]
La Piscine
Alain Delon and Romy Schneider star in this suspenseful psychological drama, which has strong undercurrents of Freudian lust and perversion. [More...]

This landmark political thriller which won two Oscars was partly inspired by real-life events in Greece. Beneath the obvious caricatures and the black comedy there is a chilling sub-text. [More...]
Le Boucher
A sleepy provencial village harbours a serial killer and the school mistress suspects the local butcher. One of the best psychological thrillers made in France, filled with suspense, with a chilling macabre under-belly. [More...]

Le Cercle rouge
This stylish mix of film noir and western became one of the definitive policiers of the 1970s, crafted by perhaps the only French film director to truly master the genre. [More...]
Le Magnifique
Beginning as what looks like the most outrageous spoof of the spy/thriller genre ever, this film develops into a poignant, but hugely entertaining, portrait of a failing writer, played by the ever charming Jean-Paul Belmondo. [More...]

Le Grand blond avec une chaussure noire
Pierre Richard is hilarious in this notorious spoof thriller, scripted by Francis Veber and featuring the great Bernard Blier. [More...]
Flic Story
Alain Delon and Jean-Louis Trintignant play a dangerous game of cat and mouse in this masterfully composed thriller which has a striking edge of realism. [More...]

Peur sur la ville
One of the best examples of the kind of high budget, action- packed crime-thriller which proved to be so popular in France in the mid- 1970s. The film includes some of Jean-Paul Belmondo's most daring stunts. [More...]
Le Juge Fayard dit le shérif
Patrick Dewaere gives an impressive performance in this hard-edged crime thriller, one of the earliest "neo-polars", in which the State is shown to be a bigger villain than any individual group of criminals. [More...]

Mort d'un pourri
This fine example of the neo-polar features Alain Delon at his near-best in a well-scripted, fast-paced and very stylish thriller. [More...]
La Menace
Yves Montand and Marie Dubois are a winning combination in this suspenseful, film noir thriller, one of Alain Corneau's most compelling films. [More...]

Le Dossier 51
A disturbing political thriller which uses an unconventional narrative form to emphasise the film's central premise: the extent to which technology dehumanises society, reducing individuals to nameless commodities. [More...]
With its sylish photography, awesome sets and adrenaline-pumping action scenes, Diva was the most highly rated French thriller of the 1980s, showing impressionist and existentialist influences. [More...]

Garde à vue
A brilliantly taut psychological, minimalist thriller, which features a remarkable confrontation between two stalwarts of French cinema, Lino Ventura and Michel Serrault. [More...]
Coup de torchon
A disturbing black comedy set in a French African colonial town. The superb Philippe Noiret plays a police chief who, after years of humiliation, decides to clean up crime - by shooting people. [More...]

La Balance
Strong acting performances and well choreographed action scenes makes this one of the best and most realistic French crime thrillers of the 1980s. [More...]
Bresson's final film, based on a short story by Tolstoy, is a minimalist masterpiece which illustrates the corrupting power of money on the human soul. [More...]

Mortelle randonnée
A near-perfect example of the French psychological thriller, made all the more gripping by forceful performances from its lead actors Michel Serrault and Isabelle Adjani. [More...]
L'Été meurtrier
In this suspense-laden psychological thriller, Isabelle Adjani gives a mesmerising performance as a deranged adolescent who might just be capable of murder. Alain Souchon is her co-star. [More...]

Les Ripoux
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. That's the moral of this comedy thriller which satirises corruption in the police force with a vengeance. The film stars Philippe Noiret and Thierry Lhermitte. [More...]
Vivement dimanche!
Fanny Ardant dazzles in this off-the-wall comedy thriller from one of France's greatest directors. For his final film, Truffaut manages to unite his passion for film noir, Hitchcockian suspense and comedy romance. [More...]

Monsieur Hire
By merging psychological thriller and comedy romance, Patrice Leconte creates one of his best films, a dark yet tender study in loneliness and desire. [More...]
Regarde les hommes tomber
Typical of the post-noir breed of thriller to emerge in the 1990s, this film offers a dark study in obsession and survival. The film features chilling performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean Yanne and Mathieu Kassovitz. [More...]

La Cérémonie
A masterful film adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel with a truly terrifying climax. Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire star in one of Claude Chabrol's best thrillers. [More...]
Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien
This superlative black comedy, winner of four Césars in 2001, consists of an extraordinary sequence of comic situations. Sergi López is both enchanting and disturbing as the friend who just can't help doing a good turn. [More...]

Hidden guilt has the power to destroy... Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil star in this taut psychological thriller with a shock ending. [More...]
De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté
This stylish noir thriller is set alight by a remarkable performance from Romain Duris. The film won no less than 8 Cesars and is worth every one of them. [More...]