‘Neo noir’ and ‘noirish’ are terms that get thrown around a lot these days and tend to be applied to just about any movie with a crime in it. In my opinion, a neo noir needs to have some relevance to classic noir. It doesn’t have to replicate the black and white style of the original noirs, nor does it have to use 100% noirish themes but here are some great movies that consciously channel classic noir in some form or other and are truly deserving of the label.
Film Noir in colour. That’s the basic idea behind Chinatown and it hadn’t been done before. The plot is a complex web of conspiracies and corruption within the Department of Water and Power where a plan to rob the tax payer of millions is being put into effect. Jack Nicholson plays gumshoe Jake Gittes who, initially hired to expose an adulterer, finds himself set up and drawn into the labyrinthine tangle that masks the rotten core of a wealthy family with more than a couple of skeletons in its closet. Director Roman Polanski didn’t bother aping the noir aesthetic, instead striking a contrast between the dark subject matter and bright, sunny streets. There’s no parody or satire here, just a damn good noir movie made well outside of noir’s classic era.
Taxi Driver (1976)
A big theme in Film Noir is the returning WWII vet struggling to find his place in a world he no longer feels a part of. In Taxi Driver the war is Vietnam and the vet is Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro); a seriously disturbed loner desperate to leave his mark on the world in some shape or form. The depiction of his plan to assassinate a presidential candidate is all the more chilling in a decade that saw five different attempts on presidents’ lives. Abandoning this plan, Bickle develops an obsession with an underage prostitute (controversially played by a thirteen-year-old Jodie Foster) and turns his attention on ridding the world of her pimp (Harvey Keitel) and his associates. The rainy, neon-lit underbelly of 1970s New York is a superb noirish backdrop as is Bernard Hermann’s sleazy saxophone-infused score.
Body Heat (1981)
Sex was often a driving force in Film Noir but due to the strict limitations of the Hays Code little more than sly innuendo could be used in its portrayal. Not so at the dawn of the 1980s, widely regarded as the decade of excess in terms of money, materialism and sex. Lawrence Kasdan’s erotic thriller has womanizing lawyer Ned (William Hurt) hook up with rich housewife Matty (Kathleen Turner). Their greed and lust for each other prompt them to do away with Matty’s obnoxious husband and score big on the will. But Ned soon learns that he is being played in true femme fatale fashion. The plot is nothing we haven’t seen before (Double Indemnity immediately springing to mind) but Kasdan gives the noir tropes a thoroughly ’80s update and capitalizes on the slackening of censorship laws to give us a steamy neo noir of the highest order.
Blade Runner (1982)
At some point in the bringing of Philip K. Dick’s classic science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to the screen, the decision was made to film it as a noirish detective movie. 1940s style clothes, cigarette smoke and Venetian blinds galore provide the visual cues and the developing identity crisis of android hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is noir to a tee. Composer Vangelis uses saxophones and synthesizers to create the perfect mood as Deckard stalks the rain-slicked streets of 2019 Los Angeles; a multi-cultural mixing pot of sleaze and crime, looking for his psychopathic quarry.
Red Rock West (1993)
Very much in the vein of Dashiel Hammett and echoing small town noirs like Out of the Past (1947) and Detour (1945), Red Rock West introduces us to Michael (Nicholas Cage); a down-on-his-luck drifter who wanders into the titular Texan town looking for work. A local man mistakes him for the hit-man he has hired to kill his wife (Lara Flynn Boyle). Desperate for cash, Michael plays along but rather than carrying out the hit he warns the unsuspecting wife and splits town with the cash. Unfortunately, he runs down a man on the road and is forced to return to Red Rock West where the real hit man (Dennis Hopper) has turned up and the employer he cheated turns out to be the local sheriff. Bad times.
Lost Highway (1997)
Madness, sexual obsession and disorientation have long been associated with Film Noir and that pretty much sums up this bizarre and mesmerizing entry by David Lynch. Like watching somebody’s nightmare in which the point of view changes without warning, we are introduced to Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) who, after an alarming introduction, winds up on death row for murdering his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). Awaiting his execution, he dreams up a secondary life in which he is a young mechanic called Andy who has an affair with Alice; a gangster’s girlfriend (also played by Patricia Arquette). But even this is too simple for David Lynch and the film soon spirals into a delirious nighttime road trip of sex and surrealism.
A lot of it is filmed in pure noir style with car headlights providing much of the illumination and the shadows so deep and malevolent that anything could appear from them. Patricia Arquette in her dual roles of Renee/Alice is a blatant femme fatale and the shifting face and motivations of the protagonist is one of the most disorientating things on film. If you try to understand the plot you’ll only go round in circles, much like the protagonist(s). Maybe that’s the point.
Disorientation and paranoia are cornerstones in Film Noir and what could be more disorientating and terrifying than anterograde amnesia (the loss of the ability to create new memories)? Leonard (Guy Pierce) is hunting down the man who murdered his wife and leaving himself clues in the form of post it notes and body tattoos so he won’t forget them. The rub is that if he is successful, he won’t even remember it. This existential conundrum is compounded by the sneaking suspicion that he may have already killed his man and is doomed to forever chase his own clues.
The Man who Wasn’t There (2001)
Ever since their 1984 debut Blood Simple (which took its title from a line in Dashiel Hammett’s pulp novel Red Harvest) the Coen Brothers have been synonymous with neo noir. Their prohibition-era gangster flick Miller’s Crossing (1990) could have been written by Hammett himself and Fargo (1996) mixed the noir crime caper with black comedy. The Man Who Wasn’t There is perhaps their most overt homage to Film Noir with its gorgeous black and white cinematography and exquisite 1949 setting.
It begins with a classic noir set-up reminiscent of James M. Cain. Disassociated barber Ed (Billy Bob Thornton) is trapped in a loveless marriage and decides to blackmail his wife’s boss when he learns of their affair. Naturally things don’t go to plan and the film delivers twist after twist. Ed has to help his wife beat a murder rap without drawing any attention to his own guilt while simultaneously falling for a teenage piano prodigy (played by a baby-faced Scarlett Johansson). The Coens even work in UFOs which seems so left-field that one can’t help but wonder if they are sneakily inviting the viewer to adhere to one of the film’s central themes; the more you look, the less you really know.
High School Noir never really became a thing but not for want of trying on the part of Rian Johnson’s independent cult classic. Channeling Hammett, the hard boiled dialogue rattles from the mouths of teenagers and the noir archetypes translate surprisingly well to the setting. The jilted loner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) on the trail of his ex girlfriend’s killer is the obsessed private detective. The rich popular girl is the femme fatale. The school principal stands in for the police commissioner trying to reel in the wayward PI while simultaneously trying to use him for his own ends. The local dropouts-turned drug dealers represent the figures of organised crime to be pumped for information in any good detective yarn.
This is an example of the noir aesthetic taking precedence over plot and theme. The action is ludicrously over-the-top comic book fare and with four separate story lines, the characters never really get a chance to tell us much about themselves, but it’s all about the eye candy. Shot entirely on greenscreen, the monochrome pallet of inky shadows and blinding highlights is occasionally stained by the red of blood or the flicker of a cigarette lighter. Almost a parody of Film Noir rather than an honest neo noir, this religiously faithful adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novels is so damned beautiful that it could only have come from the mind of somebody who understood the noir style through and through.