10 Best Pulp Noir Movies, from ‘Pulp Fiction’ to ‘Sin City’

Ora Sawyers

It may be a relatively niche subgenre, but pulp noir has produced some of cinema’s most iconic cult classics—You just may not know it. It’s a style of storytelling (filmmaking in particular) inspired both by the various noir genres of old times, and the pulp fiction genres caracterized by accessible genre stories with sensationalistic stories and archetypal characters.

These two styles go hand in hand perfectly, pulp stories having had a huge influence on noir genres from the start. Whether it’s an old highly-praised classic like Double Indemnity, or a case of pulp noir brought to modern times like in Pulp Fiction, these are films that are pretty easy to love.

10 ‘Gilda’ (1946)

Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford in 'Gilda'
Image via Columbia Pictures

Gilda is a film that you may not hear a whole lot about these days, but it’s still worthy of being considered one of the finest noir thrillers of the ’40s. It’s the story of Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a small-time gambler who discovers that his new boss’s wife (Rita Hayworth) is an old lover of his.

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Sensual, gripping, and complex, Gilda is a movie that fans of the genre can’t miss. Drawing from classic pulp fiction tropes like flashback narration, a love triangle, and a delightfully cynical tone, it proves that pulp and noir are a match made in heaven.

9 ‘The Rocketeer’ (1991)

A superhero soars through the sky with his jetpack.
Image via Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

If action-packed fun with great special effects is all you’re looking for, The Rocketeer has got you covered. It’s the story of Cliff (Billy Campbell), a pilot who finds a rocket-pack and becomes a masked hero who fights crime from up high.

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The movie pays direct homage to old pulp comics and matinee serials, with its hero fighting Nazi antagonists in 1930s L.A. with cool technology and pure superhero thrills. It’s not made for those looking for a more cerebral story, but those craving pure nostalgia and non-stop excitement will have an amazing time.

8 ‘Batman’ (1989)

Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

Before the superhero movie craze of today, it was Tim Burton who first showed that these characters could star in stories that were very much to be taken seriously. Batman pits the title character (Michael Keaton) against his homicidal nemesis Joker (Jack Nicholson), in a fight for the future of Gotham City.

While the movie certainly has Burton’s signature grim and serious tone, it also has just the right amount of camp reminiscent of its pulp source material. It also noticeable draws influence from film noir, with a morally complex protagonist doing some detective work within a gritty, corrupt city.

7 ‘Sin City’ (2005)

Goldie and Marv in a car in Sin City (2005) (1)

Co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller (the latter the author of the comic book series the movie is based on), Sin City is exactly the kind of film you’d expect from those names. Narratively dark and visually stunning, it explores the lives of three residents of Basin City, a hellscape enveloped by violence and corruption.

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With a star-studded cast, staggering black-and-white visuals with some color splashed in, and a gripping noir-like story with the edgy tone and non-linear narrative of many pulp stories, it’s a worthy cult classic that’s impossible to hate.

6 ‘Dick Tracy’ (1990)

Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy looking at the camera.
Image via Buena Vista Pictures

Starring Warren Beatty as the iconic eponymous protagonist of Dick Tracy, the film shows the hard-boiled hero chasing after the gangster scum of his city, led by the despicable Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino).

Tracy proves that Batman isn’t the only detective hero in town, in a story that’s engaging from beginning to end. The noir influences are clear, the detective protagonist with an ambiguous moral code fighting against a memorable rogues’ gallery. The pulp elements are very evidently there, too, with the larger-than-life characters and explosive action scenes.

5 ‘Out of the Past’ (1947)

Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey and Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past
Image via RKO Radio Pictures

Leave it to Robert Mitchum to make a noir film that goes down in history as one of the best. In Out of the Past, he stars as a private detective who must return to the big city after years of running away from his past, alongside Jane Greer as one of the most entertaining femme fatales of the ’40s.

Out of the Past is a huge classic for a reason. Its enthralling narrative builds an ever-growing web of lies and deceit as fun to try to decipher as that of any noir, with the stirring simple tropes of all the best pulp stories of the past.

4 ‘The Killers’ (1946)

The Killers - 1946
Image via Universal Pictures

Based on Ernest Hemingway‘s seminal short story of the same name, The Killers focuses on an investigator (Edmond O’Brien) investigating the murder of a man (Burt Lancaster), which may have had something to do with the beautiful yet dangerous woman he loved.

RELATED:The 10 Best Films of the 1940s, According to IMDb

The film burrows the best elements of Hemingway’s source material and places it into a strong noir setting, full of beautiful chiaroscuros and interesting brooding characters. One also has its pulp fiction roots to thank for the atmospheric tone and strong archetypal characters, from a hard-boiled lead to a fascinating femme fatale.

3 ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944)

Image via Paramount Pictures

Typically regarded as one of the best film noirs of all time, Double Indemnity features in Fred MacMurray‘s Walter one of the most interesting protagonists of the genre, and in Barbara Stanwyck‘s Phyllis one of its best femme fatales. It’s the engrossing tale of a rich woman and a calculating insurance agent plotting to kill her husband after he signs a double indemnity policy.

With beautiful urban Californian backdrops and a plot full of crime and betrayal like you see in classic pulp magazines, as well as the typical tropes of film noir at their very best, Double Indemnity is a fascinating film from beginning to end.

2 ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941)

Humphrey Bogart_The Maltese Falcon
Image via Warner Bros.

Cited by some experts to be the first true film noir, The Maltese Falcon lives up to its title. Its premise is simple, with a private detective (Humphrey Bogart) taking on a case that involves him with a quest for a priceless statuette, but its twist-y story is where its complexity lies.

The film established all the elements you typically find in a classic noir, from a very distinct visual style to existential themes told through a story full of backstabbings and unexpected turns. Its basis was Dashiell Hammett‘s quintessential pulp detective novel of the same name, so there’s a lot of this same vibe to be found in the movie.

1 ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)

John Travolta and Uma Thurman dancing in 'Pulp Fiction'
Image via Miramax Films

Pulp Fiction is undoubtedly one of those films that every cinephile must see at least once. A tense multi-narrative crime drama by Quentin Tarantino, it tells the story of two wisecracking hitmen, a hard-boiled boxer, the wife of a gangster, and a couple of low-level crooks.

There is perhaps no movie that better embodies classic pulp fiction than the one that carries that name in its title. Tarantino’s magnum opus also borrows a lot of elements from the noir and neo-noir genres, mixing its non-linear narrative and dark sense of humor with witty dialogue, thoughtful themes, and a story that’s ambitious without ever ceasing to be simple, pure fun.

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