It’s November 2019, and Blade Runner is now set in the present. What better reason is there than that to commemorate neo noir films as part of this month’s Retrospective Roundtable? Keep reading to explore some of our neo noir favorites and click here to read what we wrote last year in celebration of Noirvember.
The Long Goodbye (1973)
By Kevin Jones
Philip Marlowe was introduced to cinephiles via classics such as Murder, My Sweet and The Big Sleep, among others, and serves as the central character in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. An adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel, Altman teamed with Leigh Brackett who had co-written The Big Sleep thirty years prior. Bringing that familiarity to the table, Altman nonetheless provided a neo-noir via his own sensibilities. Essentially, one where characters may be discussing something possibly crucial but the camera instead wanders off before fading out. An interrogation scene is filtered through the distracted eyes of the men in the room ogling the nude women living across from Marlowe (with the camera in deep focus the whole time). By his own admission, Altman viewed the film as a “satire” and called the character “Rip Van Marlowe” on set, viewing him as a man awoken from a 20-year sleep only to find himself in a completely different time.
It is not hard to see why with Elliott Gould playing Marlowe with a clear apathy and disillusionment, wading through life and mumbling to himself as he goes through the minutiae of life. Almost incidentally, he winds up in the midst of a murder case that he tries to work, but lets his friendship with the accused cloud his view. In essence, believing him to be innocent because he thinks he knows the guy. It is a perfect encapsulation of 1973 ideals – even if conceptualized in 1972 – considering the impact of Watergate on American society. Altman’s “satirical” touches that find Gould realizing how wicked the world around him really is serve as timely mirrors of society. Taking a wise cracking, smartass approach to everything before waking up to see that all of the morals he thought mattered had eroded, this disillusioned man is effectively working on a murder case involving the death of his own world-view. It is an incredible neo-noir, an introspective and astute take on Marlowe who is wonderfully portrayed by Gould. Incredible touches such as him lighting cigarettes everywhere and on anything highlight Altman’s satirical intent the best, but as funny as The Long Goodbye is, the melancholy malaise it creates is perhaps its most potent feature.
The Conversation (1974)
By Ben McDonald
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation often (predictably) takes a backseat to his more conspicuously ambitious works like The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now. And yet, the film stands among the seminal American auteur’s slickest and tightest efforts as a clever and chilling neo-noir thriller. Centered firmly within the suspicious mind of an eccentric surveillance expert, The Conversation unfolds as an unnerving psychological mystery-turned-paranoid fever dream. In the film’s breathtaking first shot – a slow zoom down from a bird’s eye view onto a crowded park square – we meet our central character Harry Caul (an irritable but nevertheless outstanding Gene Hackman). Harry makes his living by recording conversations people try to keep secret, a dubious profession that leaves him ashamed, alone, and extremely paranoid. Regardless, it’s an occupation at which he’s exceptionally skilled.
After listening to his most recent assignment, he becomes worried that he may be abetting a murder, something he may or may not have accidentally done in the past. What follows is an astonishing exploration of voyeurism, guilt, and paranoia, all wrapped up in the neat bow of a gripping neo-noir that’s as meticulous and anxious as its protagonist. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is often cited as one of the most thoughtfully self-reflexive films about filmgoing, proposing cinema to be an act of voyeurism in and of itself. If Rear Window is about watching what shouldn’t be seen, then The Conversation is the definitive film about listening to what shouldn’t be heard.
Blue Velvet (1986)
By Kevin Jones
When one thinks about noirs, they immediately think of detectives, femme fatales, and some over-the-top villain at the center of it all. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet ticks all of those boxes. However, it is Lynch’s emphasis of the classic noir theme of the “hidden world around us” that defines this film. Following as Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) stumbles into a world of crime in his small hometown after beginning to sniff around the case of a severed ear he found, Blue Velvet epitomizes this theme. Lynch drapes it in surrealism and symbolism, but at its center – as Jeffrey says a few times – is the realization that, all this time, they were surrounded by a criminal element that hid in the shadows.
While classic noirs focused solely on illuminating this element and bringing it to justice, Blue Velvet adds a layer of Douglas Sirk into his mixture, transposing the city setting of noirs to the suburbs. Exploring the false facade of the suburbs – no matter how idyllic they appear – and mirroring it to the darkness within a common person – whether Jeffrey or Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) – Blue Velvet works on many levels. It is a complex web, as with any Lynch film, but one that remains grounded on that noir foundation, building off of it while using its mystery as a map through which the underworld of Lumberton is probed.
The Grifters (1990)
By Eugene Kang
Noir may be the one genre of film and literature that best illustrates many men’s petrifying fear of women. Poor Roy Dillon (John Cusack) has to deal with not one but two femme fatales, his mother Lilly (Angelica Huston) and his girlfriend Myra Langtry (Annette Bening). Roy is a hustler specializing in the small con, pulling little hustles so that he can stay off the radar of the big sharks. Half against his will, he finds himself pulled into an intricate scheme by Myra that he has little chance of getting out alive, yet he does it anyways. The Grifters is equal parts Shakespearean tragedy and seedy genre trash and is anchored by three extremely strong performances. All three actors are excellent, but Annette Bening’s Myra is the standout. She is all surface, a dangerous mixture of sex kitten and calculating bird of prey. It also seems like she has no hint of an interior life. Or that her insistence on this persona she wears 24/7 is some way of escaping a deep personal trauma in her past. Not that she would ever tell or has any desire to.
Dark City (1998)
By George Morris
The societal parallels and dystopian themes of Alex Proyas’ Dark City fit so snugly within the dingy and deranged world in which they inhabit that it’s difficult to separate them from the strict adherence to the noir subgenre. Rufus Sewell’s John Murdoch (already a pulpy name) grinds out his voice and investigates the lurking shadows of the strange city he awakens in, with a mystery surrounding his past that’s lifted from the page of a crime thriller.
But Dark City isn’t content with following genre conventions. Whilst slick in style with high production values much like Proyas’ previous offering The Crow, the film emphasises the ‘neo’ aspects of neo-noir by injecting a telekinetic cult of bald leaders (known as The Strangers) into the mix. Add onto that a grimacing and scenery-chewing Kiefer Sutherland as a melodically-breathy doctor with the key to John’s past and you’ve got a damn fine detective story to counteract the film’s grandiose ambitions.
Of course Dark City’s true director’s cut washes away the importance of noir mainstays such as the narration, but when a film is dripping in 90s sci-fi pulp-enthused cityscapes and slimy brick-laden alleyways like this, it’s hard to resist. Whilst it wears its philosophical aspirations on its sleeve and doesn’t hide them within the subtext like genre giants such as Blade Runner, its expressionist style and comments on identity are enough to garner comparisons with the following year’s The Matrix. Nevertheless Dark City remains one of the most unique amalgamations of genre in recent times, and is one of the most underrated films of the 90s.
By Henry Baime
Though not his debut feature, it was Memento that firmly put Christopher Nolan on the map and announced his presence as one of the most exciting new directors of the 21st century. Like so much of Nolan’s work, Memento relies heavily on the director’s ability to play with time. Intercutting between a black and white narrative that moves forward and a color one that plays out in reverse order, Memento hurtles towards a stunning conclusion that’s chronologically at the film’s center. As the film progresses, the audience discovers the clues the protagonist, Lenny (Guy Pearce), left himself as to who killed his wife in scenes never lasting more than a couple minutes before switching to the other narrative line, giving the audience the feeling of Lenny’s inability to remember anything for more than a few minutes. It has all the classic noir elements with a sense of paranoia permeating the whole film, a disillusioned hero, a femme fatale, and more but it updates it all to a present day setting with an inventive plot device and a non-linear narrative that make it endlessly intriguing to watch unfold.
Femme Fatale (2002)
By Eugene Kang
Femme Fatale starts off conventionally enough with a Mission Impossible type sequence with several players conspiring in convoluted fashion to steal the diamonds off a patently impractical gold bustier a model is wearing at the Cannes Film Festival. Then, the film takes a hard left turn when Laure (Rebecca Romijn), through a series of mishaps, has to run away from her co-conspirators and ends up losing her memory. The movie only gets crazier as she finds out that the French couple who is taking care of her in her amnesiac state has a daughter who looks exactly like her. This may sound like most of the plot of the film, but in reality, this meager description barely scratches the surface of the insanity of this movie, in which Brian de Palma out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock while throwing in dashes of Bergman’s Persona. Femme Fatale plays like a fantasy of dominance and sexual intrigue, but though the movie itself could be called sexy, Romijn as Laure is not a mere object to leer at. Rather, the film is predicated on Laure’s journey to fully realize her powers as a dominant, powerful, sexual force to reckon with as she tries to take her fate into her own hands.
By George Morris
Whether you like him or not, there’s always been an underlying sinister-siding mystery surrounding Tom Cruise’s persona. It’s surprising that more films don’t take advantage of it too, especially when Michael Mann’s Collateral ushered in not only one of the best performances of his career but showed us how ruthless he can be as a character actor on screen.
When Jamie Foxx’s taxi driver Max Durocher is taken hostage by Cruise’s silver-haired Vincent, a never ending night of fear begins. From the sunset-drenched opening to the LA lights that inhabit the rest of the film, Mann follows the two through grime and dirt as the taxi transports us to a series of escalating set pieces that serve only to heighten Vincent’s ruthlessness. Whilst Durocher is used to ground events, it’s the mystery surrounding Vincent that cuts through the film as the bodies start piling up. Mann’s direction is assured, pristine and stylish whether chasing the two through subway cars or fighting through the crowd of a nightclub. It’s a story that blends in perfectly with the nightlife through its peaks and valleys, and one that deserves to be held in a higher regard.
By Ian Floodgate
Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Drive is one of the most stunning neo-noir films. Based on the book by James Sallis, it follows a reclusive unnamed driver played by Ryan Gosling who becomes romantically interested in his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and embroiled in her husband’s criminal affairs.
Drive has many of the distinctive traits embodied in film noir and neo-noir. Along with delving into crime, many dark nighttime scenes also have stark lighting that draws the eye. Gosling’s restrained performance is intriguing, which fascinates the audience, and when he speaks or moves, it heightens the dialogue or action of the scenes. One of the most notable examples of this is a scene set in an elevator. The driver (Gosling) enters the elevator with Irene with a third man already present. The audience is aware of who this stranger is, but he is unknown to the protagonists yet. The driver senses danger. As the doors close the action slows and the lights dim to focus in on the pair as the driver turns to kiss Irene. The audience becomes so fixated in what is happening that what follows has a profound impact. Many scenes within Drive display a similar effect. It makes for such an engaging piece of cinema and the film excels as a showcase of what neo-noir can offer.
By Ben McDonald
In the broadest of terms, much of Claire Denis’ work is concerned with the contradictory, often irreconcilable extremes of human behavior – the intense beauty of passion, the unimaginable horror of hate, and the more complicated “everything” in between. Like her most recent effort High Life, Bastards spends the vast bulk of its runtime on the uglier side of the spectrum, following sailor Marco (a quiet but rage-filled Vincent Lindon) as he investigates his brother-in-law’s mysterious suicide. On the surface, Bastards might appear to be a rather typical (albeit overly grim) neo-noir, containing a femme fatale figure, a shadowy sex-trafficking plot, and an oppressively dark visual palette. All of this is true, but like any of Denis’ genre excursions, Bastards is an utterly unique experience unlike any of its genre peers. It’s an exceedingly cryptic film, one that favors murky atmosphere and vaguely nihilistic sensibilities over pulpy storytelling. Far from traditional or even satisfying, Bastards is a chilling reminder that monsters live among us much closer and in far greater number than we’d ever like to imagine.