The art of film holds endless fascination. It is trite but true to note that men and women love the movies because, for a brief time, they get to experience the larger-than-life existence of the hero or the heroine on screen as if it were their own.
The feelings of the cinema-goer are merely vicarious but the glimpse they give us into other worlds and lives can feel quite real. Maybe that’s why it’s so much fun to watch old movies—in which we Americans get to visit our own past—and foreign movies—in which we get to visit other countries and cultures.
Naturally, going abroad may be hampered by language barriers. Many of the greatest films of all time were made by Swedish, German, Italian, French, Japanese, and Bengali craftsmen. It would be foolish to deny oneself the sheer aesthetic pleasure of experiencing these masterworks. But it can also be challenging.
Believe it or not, it can be challenging just translating from English to English. You read that right. Much can be garbled in the journey through time and space, even if you’re just traveling from Hollywood to Britain in the 1950s.
So, for something a bit lighter, we offer you the opportunity to gain the qualifications of an interdimensional cinephile. Do you have the vocabulary to travel both time and space?
First, check out our glossary of key terms and become fluent in Hollywood Film Noir and British crime slang. Once you’re done, you’ve earned the right to check out our best-of lists for classic Hollywood films noirs; classic British crime, suspense, and mystery films; a few Hollywood-British co-productions; and, finally, some recent British TV cop shows.
Film Noir Glossary
In each instance, we’ve offered a film noir term and a concise definition—we’ve also provided the classic British crime slang in a few cases. Use these words in your everyday conversation to confuse friends and beguile neighbors.
- A fight; a free-for-all; a brawl
- Racehorses, the hair on their tails was often cut square, or “banged”
- Nuts; crazy; insane; off one’s rocker
- A gun, also heater
- Behind the eight-ball:
- In a difficult position, in a tight spot (possibly derived from Kelly pool, an earlier version of pocket billiards with 16 balls)
- Big House/Calaboose/Hoosegow/Stir:
- jail, prison, slammer
- A dame; a broad; a sort-of-chauvinistic term for a woman
- Prison sentence, also 12½ cents (used in multiples of 2, equalling 25 cents)
- Plainclothes railroad cops; uniformed police; prison guards
- Bump gums:
- To talk about nothing worthwhile or excessively, to argue
- Button man:
- Professional killer, member of the Mafia
- Woman singer or band vocalist, also to turn state’s evidence
- Chicago overcoat:
- Coffin; implies murder, from the practice of sealing a corpse in cement for disposal in deep water
- Conversation; chinning: talking.
- Close-mouthed (clammed up), silent, discreet
- Policeman (New York city’s first police seargants carried copper badges)
- Detective, usually qualified with “private” if not a policeman. A “house dick” or “house peeper” would be a hotel security officer. Also, gumshoe (so-named for wearing silent shoes with soles of gum-rubber rather than leather). Also, shamus: a private detective, probabyl from Yiddish.
- A thing or a gadget
- Scatterbrained, stupid. “Dizzy with a dame” is to be so deeply in love as to be scatterbrained. A “dizzy dame” is a scatterbrained woman.
- A floozy; a loose woman; a kept woman; a prostitute or semi-prostitute
- Go away, sneak away, get lost
- Finger, Put the finger on:
- To point someone out, to dentify criminals for police
- An old car, once a nickname for the Model-T Ford
- To steal, or to arrest
- Pie hole; mouth
- Grass/Drop a dime:
- Rat out; fink; give information to the police (drop a dime originates from pay phones, which required a dime to place a call)
- Confidence game, swindle
- Hop it/Blow:
- Leave hurriedly; leave under duress; (if an expression from another movie genre may be allowed) get the hell out of Dodge
- Interest on a loanshark’s loan
- Person who is set up, victim of a confidence game; fool, chump, dupe
- Bumpkin, easy mark
- Scarper/Take a powder:
- To hop it or blow by surreptitious means; to sneak away in cowardly fashion; slink away; (the etymology of the phrase “take a powder” is disputed, but seems to have to do either with needing to leave the room immediately or with disappearing altogether, upon taking a laxative or a magical powder)
- Skint/On the nut:
- Stone-cold broke, without enough money to cover expenses (one’s “nut”)
- Sort out/Settle ________ hash:
- To “fix” someone; to come to terms with someone; usually means to beat up or kill someone, as in retaliation for a bad debt; (the term “sort out” is used very much more widely than this in the U.K. today, but in classic British crime/suspense/mystery films it used to have this narrower connotation)
- Tiger milk:
- Some sort of liquor
- Arrant nonsense; B.S.
- A poor specimen of humanity; a pitiful, disgusting, good-for-nothing fellow; (“wanker,” which literally means “masturbator,” is not used in classic British films, but is used as every-other-word in many contemporary British TV cop shows; we suspect it was being said back then, too, they just weren’t allowed to say it onscreen)
- Weak sister:
- A push-over
- Whine; complain; bemoan one’s fate in cowardly and irritating fashion
For an even more comprehensive list of beguiling film noir lingo, we recommend visiting Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang from Miskatonic University Press.
Our Best-of Recommendations
Now that you know the vocabulary, you’re ready to watch. Here’s your starting point. Happy viewing!
The 20 Best Classic Hollywood Films Noirs
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder; 1944)
Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock; 1951)
The Maltese Falcon (John Huston; 1941)
The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston; 1950)
Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock; 1943)
Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur; 1947)
On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray; 1951)
Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger; 1950)
The Big Heat (Fritz Lang; 1953)
In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray; 1950)
Laura (Otto Preminger; 1944)
Angel Face (Otto Preminger; 1953)
Impact (Arthur Lubin; 1949)
Pushover (Richard Quine; 1954)
Pickup on South Street (Sam Fuller; 1953)
Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur; 1957)
Where Danger Lives (John Farrow; 1950)
Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin; 1949)
Side Street (Anthony Mann; 1950)
The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer; 1952)
The 15 Best Classic British Crime-Suspense-Mystery Films
Odd Man Out (Carol Reed; 1947)
The Third Man (Carol Reed; 1949)
The Quare Fellow (Arthur Dreifuss; 1962)
The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden; 1960)
Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson; 1940)
The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed; 1948)
Night Train to Munich (Carol Reed; 1940)
Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock; 1936)
The Woman in Question (Anthony Asquith; 1950) [full movie – we could not find a clip or trailer]
Brighton Rock (John Boulting; 1947)
Night and the City (Jules Dassin; 1950)
The October Man (Roy Wood Baker; 1947) (*spoiler alert!)
Waterloo Road (Sidney Gilliat; 1945)
They Made Me a Fugitive (Alberto Cavalcanti; 1947)
Obsession (Edward Dmytryk; 1949) [full movie – we could not find a clip]
Five Hollywood/British Co-Productions Not to Be Missed
Three Strangers (Jean Negulesco; 1946)
The Lodger (John Brahm; 1944)
Hangover Square (John Brahm; 1945)
The Mask of Demetrios (John Negulesco; 1944)
The Conspirators (John Negulesco; 1944)
Note: These films are Hollywood productions with British creative participation and set wholly or partly in England. They have a British flavor, but mostly avoid British slang.
Best Recent British TV Cop Shows
Prime Suspect (Lynda LaPlante; 1991–1996; 2003, 2006)
Cracker (Jimmy McGovern; 1993–1995, 1996, 2006)
Accused (Jimmy McGovern; 2010–2012)
Broadchurch (Chris Chibnall; 2013–)
Happy Valley (Sally Wainwright; 2014–2016)
Note: These shows are great for catching up on more-recent and grittier British slang. We admit that one or two terms from these newer shows leaked onto the main list, but we have mostly avoided the much harsher language (e.g., the ubiquitous “bollocks”) that is now regularly heard in British film and TV fare, for the simple reason that it has no counterpart in classic Hollywood film noir. Back then, it would have been unthinkable to hear correspondingly vulgar terms uttered on screen.