LIST: 6 Iconic Neo-Noir Films
NOTE: You can find the posters and details about the films listed at the end of the article.
As an avid crime fiction fan, I couldn't help but write a piece about my favorite neo-noir films, a genre that fascinates me, perhaps even more than the classic interpretation of the genre as represented in the cinematic productions of the post-war years in the United States. Movies such as Blood Simple, L.A. Confidential, and Memento are considered to be modern classics and still remain a reference point for film scholars and academics who explore the various elements that comprise the neo-noir phenomenon. Below, I will make a brief introduction in the history of the classic film noir and the emergence of its extension in the form of neo-noir and then I will list 6 of my all-time favorite movies of the genre.
FILM NOIR- HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Film noir is the French equivalent of "black film" or "dark film" and the term was coined by Nino Franc in 1949 in order to describe a certain type of American productions, shot in the decades of 1940s and 1950s. Even though it is a subject of academic debate whether or not the concept of film noir constitutes a separate genre or just a particular cinematic style, the movies that comprise the core of it employ distinct themes, visual style, and characterization techniques. The most popular examples are the detective movies of the hardboiled American tradition, directed by legendary auteurs such as Orson Welles, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Jules Dassin and other notable silver screen artists of the past. Some of the classic examples of film noir are The Maltese Falcon (John Huston/1941), Laura (Otto Preminger/1944), Touch of Evil (Orson Welles/1958), and Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk/1944). The noir atmosphere is saturated in pessimism and angst, perhaps because it was born during a tough era in the U.S., following traumatic historical events such as the Great Depression and World War 2. The insecurity about the future as felt by each American dictated a new type of cinematic narrative in which cynicism and moral ambiguity reigns. The majority of the noir protagonists can be considered as anti-heroes, individuals who struggle to navigate themselves through a muddy everyday existence and they often move and act outside the boundaries of the law or the common perceptions of good and evil. Noir movies also introduced another notorious trope, that of the femme fatale, the woman who exploits and manipulates the protagonist for her own gain. In terms of visuals, the movies, influenced heavily by the German Expressionist movement, featured a shadowed lighting style and the low-key, black versus white photography can be observed in almost every picture that embraced the noir form. The dim colors further underlined the bleakness of the stories where violence and immorality are everywhere. The staccato dialogue of the characters reflected the work of the great American crime fiction authors of the past such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Mickey Spillane. 1959 was the year that marked the "death" of the classic film noir, thus entering the post-classical era of the 1960s and 1970s.
THE NEO-NOIR PHENOMENON
Even though the term "neo-noir" applies to several movies and has proven to be a rather elastic concept, stretching to include films that initially seem to have few things in common, there are certain tropes and narrative as well as visual patterns that pay homage to the classic film noir of the 1940s and 1950s. Thematically, the neo-noir movement follows the tradition of featuring damned, tormented protagonists who find themselves in precarious situations that prompt them to commit malicious, violent acts. The thirst for revenge, the paranoia, the estrangement of the character from his social environment are only some of the motives that drive the neo-noir protagonist and propel the plots of the films. Nihilistic undertones can be detected in many more recent productions of the genre which remain loyal to the moral obliviousness of the hardboiled protagonists of the classical era. The somber colors of the cinematography and the interplay of light and shadow are further proof of the linkage between the classic and the neo-noir while the elliptical, non-linear narrative structure, often accentuated with the use of flashbacks, has became a precious tool in the hands of the younger directors who drew inspiration from the work of the emblematic auteurs of the past. Melancholy, disillusionment, and corruption are some of the hallmarks of neo-noir that lie at the center of the stories and the constant scheming, backstabbing, and viciousness define the relationships between the main characters. For the majority of the critics, the film that introduced neo-noir to the audiences is Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), but there are more film creators who can rightfully claim that their work is the natural continuation of the noir paradigm. The most prominent are the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen who have written and directed movies that have been elevated to the status of classic throughout the years such as Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and Miller's Crossing. Christopher Nolan also delivered some milestone neo-noir films in the beginning of his career with the Following and Memento, craftily using the fragmented narrative structure in order to tell stories of deceit and treachery. Neo-noir pictures are still produced and excite audiences with their unique atmosphere and intriguing plotlines, proving the the original setup stands the test of time despite the many decades that have passed from the beginning of the 1940s.
"BLOOD SIMPLE" (1984)
The debut feature film by the brothers Ethan and Joel Coen is perhaps their most enchanting work to date as they have managed to create a movie that remains loyal to the classic noir tradition while at the same time evolving the prototypical narrative structure. The characters are thoroughly unlikable and their actions evoke nothing but indignation to the audience. The plot revolves around infidelity and revenge, some of the most common noir motifs. The story begins when Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires a private investigator to follow his wife whom he suspects that she is cheating on him. Marty's obsession escalates when his suspicions are confirmed and so he asks the private eye to kill his wife and her love. The rest of the film is a rollercoaster of carnage and blood is spilt and the fate of the protagonists is in the balance as each one is struggling to survive. Frances McDormand is wonderful as always in the role of the only sympathetic character in the film, the naïve Abby who unwillingly becomes the apple of discord for two men. The captivating cinematography, the exceptional performances, and the austere dialogue make for a prime watching experience. Blood Simple is definitely my number one neo-noir movie of all time.
"L.A. CONFIDENTIAL" (1997)
This is the film adaptation of the third installment in James Ellroy's "L.A. Quartet" novel series that also includes The Black Dahlia (#1). Ellroy's books are known to be heavily plotted and the characters are all created according to the regimen of the hardboiled school of crime fiction, neither all good or all bad but inhabiting the grey area of the moral spectrum. An all-star group of actors such as Russel Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, Danny DeVito, and James Cromwell comprise the cast and they give memorable performances in their respective roles. The representation of a long-gone era in Los Angeles is exemplary and the 1950s are enlivened on screen in an accurate and opulent manner that indicates an expensive production. The story is convoluted and includes several characters, the emphasis being put on three cops: the impulsive Bud White (R. Crowe), the straight-as-an-arrow Ed Exley (G. Pearce), and the insidious Jack Vincennes (K. Spacey). Each one of them plays a critical role in the film and their roads will be crossed during the investigation of a massacre that takes place in a restaurant in town. There is a fair amount of chicanery and some wonderful twists that render L.A. Confidential a true modern classic.
Christopher Nolan's directorial debut is a black-and-white little masterpiece with a runtime that doesn't exceed the 70 minutes. Having a production budget of no more than six thousand dollars, one of the least expensive feature films ever, and shot almost entirely in a handheld camera style, Following is a story about a young man (Jeremy Theobald), who remains unnamed throughout the movie, aspiring to be a writer and spending his time trailing stranger in the streets in order to collect empirical material for his book. While sitting in a cafe, he is approached by a charming stranger, Cobb (Alex Haw), who is a gentleman burglar and lures the protagonist in a life of crime. Together they will break and enter several houses and their relationship will grow stronger. Nevertheless, nothing is what it seems and Cobb will be proven to be a man with a preconceived plan to manipulate the young man. The short duration of the film is a plus and adds to the suspense while the revelations concerning the plot are revealed in a measured pace making each second of the movie's runtime to count. In my opinion, Following is Nolan's most underrated film and deserves wider recognition and praise.
"BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD" (2007)
Every movie bearing the signature of Sidney Lumet guarantees excitement and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is no exception. The story is about two brothers, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) who face financial headaches and decide to rob their parents' jewelry store. But everything goes wrong and the two conspirators will have to take the heat when the consequences of their actions threaten to destroy their lives. Marisa Tomei is the femme fatale of the story and the woman with whom both the brothers are in love with. Lumet takes his time and allows his characters to develop and despite their dubious actions, the audience can't help but feel sympathetic to their predicament. Albert Finney plays the father of Andy and Hank, the most tragic figure of all as he realizes that his sons are responsible for his dear wife's death. There is a lot of family drama, combined with bouts of suspense and the finale is fitting and satisfying. This is one of Lumet's best films and won the critical acclaim when it was released in 2007. It is definitely one of the top choices for those who want to know what neo-noir is truly about.
Bound is one of the lesser-known neo-noir films despite its tight plot and dark mood. Written and directed by the formidable duo of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, widely known as the creators of the legendary Matrix saga, the movie is about the liaison between two women, the tough-as-nails, ex-con Corky (Gina Gershon) and her sexy new neighbor Violet (Jennifer Tilly) who is married to a crooked gangster, Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). The attraction between the two women is instant and after a while, they begin to plot and scheme in order to take Caesar out of the way once and for all and to steal a large amount of cash from the mob for which Caesar works. However, despite the intricate planning of the two accomplices, things won't turn out as they expect and they will have to fight for their lives and face the ultimate test of the strength of their bond. The first 30 minutes of the movie are filled with erotic tension and the well-shot sex-scenes entice the audience with Jennifer Tilly stealing the thunder. Nevertheless, a strong sense of foreboding is already present and we know that something bad will happen, something which may prove irreversible and seal the fate of the protagonists. The second part of the movie is intense and the pace accelerates as things become all the more crazy and blood is spilt all over. Bound unequivocally deserves a special place in this list.
There are many cinephiles who believe that Fargo is the Coen brothers' magnum opus and perhaps they are right as the movie has all the hallmarks of a masterstroke: dark atmosphere, great performances, a twisted script, even pacing, an ideal setting, and a memorable finale. I already stated my preference in Blood Simple, however I cannot deny that Fargo is an equally engrossing film that I've greatly enjoyed. The plot revolves around Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a car salesman who finds himself in a tough spot financially and decides to assign two thugs to abduct his wife in order to collect the ransom money. As it is always the case, nothing goes as planned and Jerry will grow more desperate as the story reaches its climax. Macy's portrayal of Jerry is ingenious as he conveys to the audience all the anguish that the character feels. Equally compelling is, once again, Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for her performance, as the detective of the story who investigates the case of a fatal shooting of a cop and two innocent bystanders by the two goons hired by Jerry. The gloominess of the frozen landscape dominating a little town in the Minnesota border is a perfect match to the grim story and the Coen brothers know how to use the setting to enhance the emotional effect of the narrative. Fargo is a violent film and much of the atrocities happen for no good reason, in a way that reminds the audience the senselessness of such acts. All the noir trademarks are present here either regarding the dismal cinematography or the shadiness of the main characters. The only flicker of hope is McDormand's character, a conscientious police officer and soon-to-be mother who ponders on all the carnage she witnesses only to say in the end: "And for what? For a little bit of money".
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