Film noir is the French equivalent of “black film” or “dark film”. The term was coined by critic Nino Frank in 1949 to describe a certain type of American production shot in the 1940s and ’50s. Even though it is a subject of academic debate whether the concept of film noir constitutes a separate genre or just a particular cinematic style, the films comprising its core employ distinct themes, visual styles, and characterization techniques.
The most popular examples are the detective movies of the hard-boiled 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 following traumatic historical events such as the Great Depression and World War II.
Insecurity about the future dictated a new type of cinematic narrative in which cynicism and moral ambiguity reign. Most noir protagonists are anti-heroes, individuals who struggle to navigate 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 films also introduced another notorious trope, that of the femme fatale, the woman who exploits and manipulates the male protagonist for her own gain. In terms of visuals, these films, influenced heavily by the German Expressionist movement, feature a shadowed lighting style, and low-key, black-versus-white photography can be observed in almost every picture that embraced the noir form. Muted colors further underline the bleakness of these stories, where violence and immorality are everywhere. The staccato dialogue of the characters reflects the work of the great American crime fiction authors of the past, such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Mickey Spillane. The year 1959 marks the “death” of the classic film noir, as filmmaking entered the post-classical era of the ’60s and ’70s.
The Neo-Noir Phenomenon
Even though the term “neo-noir” applies to many films 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 ’40s and ’50s. 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. A thirst for revenge, paranoia, and the estrangement of the character from his social environment are only some of the motives that drive the neo-noir protagonist and propel the film’s plots.
Nihilistic undertones can be detected in many more recent productions of the genre, which remain loyal to the moral obliviousness of the hard-boiled 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 become 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 scheming, backstabbing, and viciousness define the relationships between the main characters.
Many critics cite Roman Polanski‘s Chinatown (1974) as the film that introduced neo-noir to audiences, but more filmmakers can rightfully claim that their work is the natural continuation of the noir paradigm, too. The most prominent are the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who have written and directed movies elevated to classics such as Blood Simple (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Fargo (1996), and No Country for Old Men (2007). Christopher Nolan also delivered some milestone neo-noir films at the beginning of his career with Following (1998) and Memento (2000), craftily using the fragmented narrative structure to tell stories of deceit and treachery. Neo-noir pictures are still produced and excite audiences with their unique atmosphere and intriguing plot lines, proving 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 neo-noir feature film by the brothers Ethan and Joel Coen is perhaps their most enchanting work. Blood Simple remains loyal to the classic noir tradition while evolving the genre’s prototypical narrative structure. The characters are thoroughly unlikable, and their actions evoke indignation. The plot revolves around infidelity and revenge, some of the most common noir motifs.
Blood Simple‘s story begins when Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires a private investigator to follow his wife, whom he suspects is cheating. Marty’s obsession escalates when his suspicions are confirmed, and so he asks the private eye to kill his wife and her lover. The rest of the film is a rollercoaster of carnage. Blood is spilled, and the fate of the protagonists is in the balance as each is struggling to survive.
Frances McDormand is wonderful, as always, in the role of the only sympathetic character, 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.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential is an adaptation of the third installment in James Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet” neo-noir novels, which includes The Black Dahlia (#1). Ellroy’s books are known to be heavily plotted, and the characters are created according to the regimen of the hard-boiled school of crime fiction – neither all good nor all bad but inhabiting the gray 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.
L.A. Confidential‘s 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 with an emphasis on three cops: the impulsive Bud White (Russell Crowe), the straight-as-an-arrow Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), and the insidious Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey). Each 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. A fair amount of chicanery and some wonderful twists render L.A. Confidential a true modern classic.
See also “Curtis Hanson’s Sunny, Sinister ‘L.A. Confidential‘”.
Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir directorial debut is a black-and-white little masterpiece with a runtime of only 70 minutes. With a production budget of only $6k, Following is one of the least expensive feature films ever.
Shot almost entirely with a handheld camera, Following is a story about a young man (Jeremy Theobald) who remains unnamed. He aspires to be a writer and spends his time trailing strangers in the streets to collect empirical material for his book. While sitting in a café, he is approached by a charming stranger, Cobb (Alex Haw), a gentleman burglar who lures the protagonist into 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. Following‘s short duration is a plus and adds to the suspense, while the plot revelations come at a measured pace, making each second of the film’s runtime count. Following is Nolan’s most underrated film and deserves wider recognition and praise.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Every film bearing the signature of Sidney Lumet guarantees excitement, and neo-noir 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 and the woman with whom both brothers are in love. 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 in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, combined with bouts of suspense, and the finalé is fitting and satisfying. It won critical acclaim when released in 2007 and it remains one of Lumet’s best films.
See also “‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ Bites“.
Despite its perfectly tight plot and dark mood, Bound is one of the lesser-known neo-noir films. Written and directed by the formidable duo of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, widely known as the creators of the legendary Matrix saga, Bound is about a 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. They begin to plot and scheme to take Caesar out of the picture and 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.
Bound‘s first 30 minutes are filled with erotic tension. The well-shot sex scenes entice the audience, with Jennifer Tilly’s Violet stealing the thunder. Nevertheless, a strong sense of foreboding looms. We know that something bad will happen, and it may prove irreversible and seal the protagonists’ fate. The second part is intense, and the pace accelerates as things get crazy and blood is spilled. Bound unequivocally deserves a special place on this list.
Many cinephiles believe that Fargo is the Coen brothers’ magnum opus, and perhaps they are right, as the film has all the hallmarks of a masterstroke: dark atmosphere, great performances, a twisted script, even pacing, an ideal setting, and a memorable finalé. I already stated my preference for Blood Simple; however, I cannot deny that Fargo is an equally engrossing film.
Fargo‘s plot revolves around Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a car salesman who finds himself in a tough financial spot and decides to assign two thugs to abduct his wife to collect the ransom money. As is always the case, nothing goes as planned, and Jerry grows more desperate as the story reaches its climax. Macy’s portrayal of Jerry is ingenious, as he conveys to the audience all the anguish the character feels. Equally compelling is, once again, Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for her performance as the detective who investigates the case of a fatal shooting of a cop and two innocent bystanders by the two goons Jerry hired.
The neo-noir gloominess of the frozen landscape dominating a little town on the Minnesota border perfectly matches 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 of the senselessness of such acts. All the noir trademarks are present here in the dismal cinematography and the shadiness of the main characters. The only flicker of hope is seen in McDormand’s character, a conscientious police officer and soon-to-be mother who ponders the carnage she witnesses only to say in the end: “And for what? For a little bit of money.”
See also “The Coen’s ‘Fargo’ Is Turned Inside Out“.