Barbara Stanwyck: The Queen of Film Noir, A Film List

Alice Munro once wrote, “To be a femme fatale you don’t have to be slinky and sensuous and disastrously beautiful, you just have to have the will to disturb.” That is Barbara Stanwyck in a nutshell. She may not have been classically beautiful, but she was daring. While composed and calculated in many of her roles, the danger lurking beneath her cool exterior, and the unpredictable effect of her nature, made her a force to be reckoned with. When playing unsavory characters, like a spider in a web, she would will her victims to her at their peril, and often times they would go willingly just to witness the full effects of that mysterious, inexplicable power she held. As one of the most celebrated femme fatales in cinema, she fleshed out iconic characters in numerous film noirs, making one wonder if the genre was invented for her alone. And so, below is a sample of some of the films in which Stany was absolutely and unapologetically willing to ‘disturb.’

1. Double Indemnity (1944).

Not only a Film Noir masterpiece, but a Masterpiece with a capital M! Billy Wilder’s most chilling movie, this classic boasts an electric script boiling over with unforgettable dialogue and an equally engrossing film score by Miklos Rozsa. Fred MacMurray is at the top of his game, Edward G. Robinson steals the show, and Barbara Stanwyck knocks it out of the park. It’s A Film Noir Essential to watch every Noirvember– or whenever the mood for greatness strikes.

Double Indemnity (1944). Paramount.
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson
What Makes it Noir: 

Everything. This cinematic benchmark is rightfully hailed as the Gold Standard of Film Noir in every single aspect: a de-glamorized L.A. setting, voiceover flashback narrative style, pessimistic tone, claustrophobic interiors, cynical characters, the ultimate bad-to-the-bone femme fatale, and, of course, shameless greed that ends in cold-blooded murder.


2. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

Stanwyck’s performance in the title role cemented her status as the ultimate Femme Fatale. She also never looked more radiant than in Edith Head’s costumes while portraying the conflicted Martha, even as walking the twisted path she and Walter (Kirk Douglas) have been on since a shared childhood tragedy. In the hands of director Lewis Milestone, darkness and deviousness never looked so delicious. Add to this Kirk Douglas’s star-quality film debut, Van Heflin’s unequivocable charisma, and Lizabeth Scott’s turn as the cynical ingenue, and you have a Film Noir Classic.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Paramount.
Director: Lewis Milestone
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas and Lizabeth Scott.
What Makes it Noir: 

The film starts with one of the most iconic flashback/intro scenes ever! How can one forget Martha’s aunt? The stairs, the storm… The forbidden juvenile love that was never meant to be… This story weaves a haunting tapestry of sex, lies and murder– complicated by the peculiar but absolutely engrossing love/lust quadrangle of its four main characters.


3. Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).

Another iconic classic by Stanwyck,who this time portrays a “defenseless,” bed-ridden, invalid woman who accidentally uncovers a murderous plot in Manhattan. The clincher? She just may be the victim… Her world unravels as she comes to realize that the absent husband that she so depends upon may be planning to take care of her– permanently.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). Paramount.
Director: Anatole Litvak
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster.
What Makes it Noir: 

A back-and-forth flashback narrative, complex and unsympathetic main characters with dark pasts, paranoiac cinematography, and claustrophobic settings. Even though Fiona (Stanwyck) lives in a NYC mansion, she is confined to a single, suffocating room. The exteriors, equally intimidating, belong to the dark, bleak underworld of the city—a character all its own. The Staten Island scene by itself quite something.

4. The Lady Gambles (1949).

If it weren’t for Stanwyck’s impressive array of amazing performances, this portrayal of a middle-class housewife’s dark descent into gambling addiction would be one of the highlights of her career. Highly underrated, due an ending that succumbs to its own psycho-babble, the film offers an absolute tour de force showing by Stanwyck in one of her most unique roles and certainly one of her most Oscar nomination-worthy ones. It’s a must-see for any true Stanwyck fan.

The Lady Gambles (1949). Universal.
Director: Michael Gordon
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Preston, and Stephen McNally.
What Makes it Noir: 

There is a debate regarding whether this should be labeled a “woman’s picture” or a film noir, but the scales tip toward the latter due to the gravitas with which the subject matter is portrayed and the depths to which the main character plummets by succumbing to her worst instincts. The brutality of the intro scene leaves no doubt, this is a Film Noir. Set in Vegas, this movie about gambling, crime, and addiction was made in 1949– way ahead of its time. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the two versions of Vegas that are portrayed, which  mimic the duality of Stanwyck’s character: the tourist-y, pleasant Vegas with superficial, illuminated sheen and the seedy underbelly of the more disturbing Vegas that hides in the very shadows cast by those electric lights.

5. The File on Thelma Jordon (1950).

Stanwyck once said, “I have to figure out a way to portray my 40th fallen female in a different way than my 39th.” Case in point: Thelma Jordon, one such ‘fallen female’ turned femme fatale whom Stanwyck naturally and creatively played to perfection. As if Stanwyck’s performance isn’t enough, this Robert Siodmark forbidden love story turned courtroom drama has enough twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end. Conflicted as viewers over Thelma’s guilt or innocence, we keep rooting for her, desperate that she emerge from her torments victorious.

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950). Paramount.
Director: Robert Siodmark
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, and Wendell Corey.
What Makes it Noir: 

The necessary ingredients of deception mixed with murder, and cynical characters one can’t help but simultaneously enjoy and loath. Equally intriguing is the cinematography, which even upon a tropical, Floridian backdrop remains thick with mystery. As if that isn’t enough, all these elements are deftly perfected under the direction of Noir Master, Robert Siodmark.

6. No Man of Her Own (1950).

A fan favorite and a truly underrated gem, this stylized film noir by Mitchel Leisen witnesses Stanwyck as a reigning noir Queen. In a movie more than worth setting aside two hours for, Stanwyck’s hard luck gal gets a sad but fortunate break in life– only to have her shameful past catch up with her– viciously. Lyle Bettgett’s turn as the heavy and Jane Cowl’s performance as the loving mother-in-law help to elevate this one to celestial cinematic heights.

No Man of Her Own (1950). Paramount.
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, John Lund, Jane Cowl, and Lyle Bettger.
What Makes it Noir: 

Voice-over flashback, mistaken identities, illegitimate children, ruthless heavies, light-and-shadow cinematography… Another oft-explored noir theme appears, as decent characters find themselves corrupted by and falling into criminality for love. Although set in suburban America, by the final reels this one manages to give us a crude view of the “wrong-side-of-the-tracks,” intensified by its contrast to the white picket fence Americana. No Man of Her Own might not check all the boxes of Noir, but it certainly is an entertaining and unusual option.

7. The Furies (1950).

This might be one of the few Western that could also be considered a Film Noir, and though many would argue that it’s not, under intense examination, it proves to be more noir than western. All our main characters are dark, twisted and cynical. Seemingly evil to the care, they unapologetically swim in their baser instincts. The Furies at its core is a revenge story about a father and his once loving daughter. The themes go Greek with heavy implications of an Electra complex, and the screen practically bleeds tragedy as a result. Plus, you have a powerhouse triumvirate in the lead roles: Walter Huston in his final film, the incomparable Judith Anderson –delivering that unforgettable scissor scene – and, naturally, Stanwyck, who is at her most sadistic as her own father’s femme fatale.

The Furies (1950). Paramount.
Director: Anthony Mann
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey, Judith Anderson, and Gilbert Roland.
What Makes it Noir: 

Freudian undertones, a heavy and compelling atmosphere, and diabolical, remorseless characters; a western Noir directed by the great Anthony Mann with stunningly beautiful black and white photography by the great Victor Milner. The exterior shots alone of Stanwyck atop her horse in a frenzied ride to save her friend and his family are breathtaking.

8. Clash By Night (1952).

This Fritz Lang Noir adaptation of a Clifford Odets play is best known for having a young and primed for stardom Marilyn Monroe in a secondary role. But, the film is Stanwyck’s through and through. This time her “fallen female” finds herself regretfully back in her childhood home. Trapped and jaded, survivalism leads her to settle down with a “nice guy,” but lust has other plans…. A bold drama about adultery, the film belongs to Stanwyck and Robert Ryan for their explosive chemistry and raw portrayals of authentically flawed human beings on a seemingly unpreventable freight train to destruction.

Clash by Night (1952). RKO.
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, Paul Douglas, and Marilyn Monroe.
What Makes it Noir: 

True, this one is much more of a drama than a Film Noir, but the maestro Fritz Lang gives it enough haunting elements to claim a double category, including tone, cinematography, contemptuous, and self-serving characters. Mostly, he presents a painfully bleak view of the world, which penetrates the eyes and ears and strikes the audience to the bone 

9. Witness to Murder (1954).

Before Rear Window, there was Witness to Murder, and while the former was a suspense movie through and through, the latter is a Film Noir from top to bottom. In this story, Stanwyck witnesses a murder, through her window obviously, and when she goes to the police, nobody believes her. What’s more, the murderer, the great George Sanders, is at his all-too-clever best using his wiles to set her on a very dangerous path– one leading from witness to victim. Ever the fighter, Stany never gives up on proving herself, even when surrounded by skeptics—and danger.

Witness to Murder (1954). United Artists.
Director: Roy Rowland
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders, and Gary Merrill.
What Makes it Noir: 

Murder, sublime cinematography, an L.A. setting with menacing exterior shots… Extra honors go to the psychiatric hospital scene, which is so unsettling that it alone makes the film totally worth it.

10. Crime of Passion (1957).

What would you do to help your husband get a promotion? Common mortals would suck up to the boss, but Stanwyck takes it one step further… Her descent into femme fatale territory on this film is quite unusual: a former hot shot journalist turned house wife, her oppressively irrelevant life with her humdrum policeman husband is clearly too much for Stanwyck’s character to bear…so, we get it, sometimes murder is the only way out…

Crime of Passion (1957). United Artists.
Director: Gerd Oswald
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden, and Raymond Burr.
What Makes it Noir: 

The title says it all… With the stunning B&W cinematography, L.A. setting, oppressive atmosphere, and a healthy side of seduction, it can only fall into one category. Raymond Burr’s performance helps to keep things cooking, but frankly, we all root for Stanwyck in this one. Fools should know: back out on a promise to Barbara, and suffer the consequences…