Film critic Robert Warshow once wrote, “The two most successful creations of American movies are the gangster and the Westerner: men with guns.” The main character of film noir, an equally successful and quintessentially American genre, lies somewhere in between. While the cowboy carries a gun to serve justice, and the gangster does so in search of power and glory, the “hero” of film noir wields one for a cause that is always caught in both these worlds at once. He is the private detective, for example, who defends the law while not being beholden to its stifling restrictions.
Unlike the Western, though, which in its beginnings romanticized the lone American vigilante, film noir always served as an exploration of the underbelly of supposedly just and honorable American life. It did not need, then, to be given the same kind of modern reworking. Clint Eastwood’s rebranding of the Western in Unforgiven, for example, sought to expose a rarely explored darkness in that genre. Alan Rudolphs’s 1985 neo-noir Trouble in Mind, meanwhile – being given the 25th anniversary treatment this year by Shout! Factory – does the opposite (almost). It exchanges the smoky bars of old film noir for roadside diners, and the old stark black and white for colorful ‘80s kitsch.
Many other ‘80s films revisited film noir. Most did so, however, with the goal of intensifying one of the genre’s core elements, be it the social commentary (Blade Runner), the sexuality (Basic Instinct), or the violence (Blood Simple). Rudolph takes a significantly less serious approach in Trouble in Mind. At times he imitates the genre’s norms, at other times he modernizes them, but at many points he is content to make a complete farce out of them.
The movie begins with ex-cop Johnny “Hawk” Hawkins (Kris Kristofferson) being let out of jail after serving time for an undisclosed crime. At the same time as Hawk is returning home to Rain City, Coop (Keith Carradine) decides to leave his trailer park home and move to the city with his wife Georgia (Lori Singer) and son Spike. The two stories combine at Wanda’s Diner, outside which Coop parks his trailer, and to which Hawk returns to find his old love Wanda (Geneviève Bujold). Through Coop and Hawk, we are introduced to the crime world of Rain City.
That Trouble in Mind is not your typical film noir is clear from the fact that its criminal mastermind, Hilly Blue, is played by famous ‘80s drag queen Divine (not in drag for the role, though). In fact, if there is one thing the film does consistently, it is to emasculate the genre.
Coop arrives in Rain City and immediately sets out to get rich through robbing and reselling jewelry. Throughout the film, though, his hairstyle and makeup become increasingly exaggerated until he is the polar opposite of the clean-cut finesse that defined old noir heroes. Hawk, meanwhile, is much more in line with the traditional noir leading man, both in style and attitude. But he returns from jail to find that his masculinity is suddenly resistible or, worse, unattractive. So while we get the typical love scene repeated from classic noir –where the leading man forcefully kisses his love interest until her initial resistance turns into true and willing acceptance – we also get the completely un-noir aftermath: Wanda warns Hawk never to try any sexual advances again. “What I got’s mine,” she tells him, but Hawk doesn’t quite understand. “Don’t tell me you never get hungry,” he says, to which Wanda answers, with a heavy-handed slap, “It’s got nothing to do with hunger, thickhead! It’s a matter of philosophy!”
Just imagine that happening to Humphrey Bogart.
The story is not content to change the women of film noir into self-sufficient feminist prototypes. Rather, the two main female characters, Georgia especially, veer between preaching self-reliance and seeming like damsels in distress. They are both women who see the possibility of independence but somehow get stuck with subservience, anyway. Georgia throws herself back and forth from Coop to Hawk. She recognizes when each one is taking away her independence (Coop: “You just let me worry about buying stuff for Spike”; Hawk: “Once I fix this up, you belong to me”) but always runs back into the other man’s arms. The world of Trouble in Mind is run and maneuvered exclusively by the men who inhabit it. We get no femme fatale’s who have learned how to play the game as well. In fact, even the men in the film sometimes seem incapable of making their way through the world they find themselves in.
Though this is the world Randolph presents to us, by no means is it shown as anything close to optimal. Rain City is less of a character in Trouble in Mind than Los Angeles is in the classic noir of Raymond Chandler. The little we learn about it, though, resembles the dystopian future of Blade Runner more than the dark alleys and bars of Los Angeles. At various points throughout we hear government messages in the street informing the populace that “defense is everywhere”, “this city is great”, and “everybody wins in the end”. The militia, which identifies itself as the author of those public service announcements, appears frequently in the background, breaking up protests, marching in public, or just watching over citizens. This is the world that the men in the film created and maintain, one where violence and corruption is seemingly the norm. It’s a world familiar from all film noir, only in this case it’s not an underbelly but rather the totality of the futuristic reality that Randolph presents to us.
The climax of Trouble in Mind (which alone is worth watching the movie for) serves to show, like all film noir, the unsustainable nature of such a world. Randolph, though, ingeniously replaces the normal tragedy of such a conclusion with absurdity. Throughout, he consistently trades noir’s grim reality checks for biting satire. In Randolph’s hands, noir ceases to just show the violence and betrayal hidden beneath a city’s shining veneer. By the ‘80s it was time for the genre to also reflect on the ridiculous nature of the world that it portrayed. A world where men vainly try to prove their self-worth only to scutter away with wounded egos, leaving behind the women to whom they promised everything but delivered nothing, as well as a world no one would ever want to live in.
The re-release of Trouble in Mind is well-timed to make sure it does not get lost for future audiences. Its reappraisal of film noir deserves its place next to the other neo-noirs of the ‘80s, if only for its completely unique take on the genre.