Classic Neo-Noir flicksSep 11, 2011 (Updated Sep 16, 2011) Write an essay on this topic.
Popular Products in MoviesThe Bottom Line If you haven’t seen any of these movies, I envy you their discovery – there isn’t a clunker in the lot.
Film Noir was an artistic reaction to the nihilistic nationalism of World War II and the alienation of the post war world. The term Film Noir, literally dark film, was coined by an unremembered French film critic to describe the gritty existential stories, gloomy settings, and amoral characters of many Hollywood movies of this period.
If imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery, then Film Noir is still exerting an important and continuing influence on the art of the cinema. The neo-noir films listed below contain many of the benchmark elements of Film Noir and their makers were obviously influenced by the directors, writers, cinematographers, and actors in classic noir films. They are all worth seeing in their own right and all are excellent examples of the continuing influence of Film Noir on cinema art.
Here’s my list – in chronological order (by release date).
Point Blank (1967) Directed by John Boorman
Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carrol O’Connor, Lloyd Bochner, and John Vernon
Point Blank opens with professional thief Walker (Lee Marvin) double crossed after a successful heist, gunned down and left for dead by his cheating wife and best friend (John Vernon). Walker survives the assassination attempt and embarks on a bloody quest for revenge that takes him into the heart of the California underworld. He is assisted in his search for retribution and the stolen loot by informant Keenan Wynn (who has an agenda of his own) and the delectable Angie Dickinson as he brutally unravels the impersonal corporate structure and diverse command levels of a post modern criminal syndicate.
Point Blank was based on The Hunter, a gritty crime novel by Donald Westlake (writing under the pseudonym Richard Stark). The story of an amoral criminal on a dogged quest for vengeance provided the perfect foundation for John Boorman’s synthesis of new wave European cinema style, a dark and driven protagonist, and the violent rapid-fire action of classic American gangster movies. Point Blank was a failure at the box office, but movie industry professionals saw limitless possibilities in Marvin’s amoral antihero, the moody aura of existential fatalism permeating the movie, and the film’s surrealistic avant garde style. Point Blank remains one of the most influential films of the sixties and the granddaddy movie that inspired an entirely new film genre, the action flick.
Klute (1971) directed by Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Charles Cioffi, and Roy Scheider
Klute is one of the most unique films to come out of the swinging seventies. Donald Sutherland plays John Klute, a small town detective sent to New York City to investigate the disappearance and probable murder of a Pennsylvania corporate executive. Klute’s only clue is a threatening and crudely sexual letter found in the desk of the missing executive. The obscene letter was evidently meant to be mailed to a NYC prostitute named Bree Daniels (Fonda) but was never sent.
Klute tracks down Daniels in NYC and attempts to question her, but Fonda won’t talk with him – she thinks he is a hick. Klute rents an apartment in the basement of Bree’s building, taps her phone, and watches her relentlessly, but he’s not the only one watching her. After Bree (who is a bit paranoid) discovers that Klute is watching her she becomes frightened and agrees to help him catch the killer before she becomes the next victim. Klute soon discovers that Bree didn't know the missing executive, but she takes Klute on a whirlwind tour of the underbelly of Manhattan to talk with her former pimp (Scheider) and to meet some of her prostitute friends who may have dealt with the missing executive. The problem is that the one girl who definitely knew the missing executive is dead and another who probably knew him has disappeared without a trace.
Society regards prostitutes as disposable, but Pakula shows Klute as a decent and compassionate cop, who truly wants to save Bree from the fate of many hookers; death at the hands of a deviant predator. Fonda completely owns Bree – and she plays her as a smart but delusional and paranoid lady who wants to get out of the life, but who continually reverts to her sleazier profession in order to minimize the rejection she repeatedly experiences in her attempts to break into acting or modeling.
The screenplay is exceptional, Pakula’s direction is restrained and subtle, and the actors are all superb in this character driven story. Fonda’s performance was so good that she won a Best Actress Oscar for her turn as Bree even though she was probably the most hated woman in America at the time. Shortly before Klute was filmed, Fonda had traveled to Hanoi and had her picture taken sitting in the gunner’s seat (surrounded by the laughing uniformed gun crew) of a North Vietnamese anti-air craft battery similar to the one that shot down John McCain’s Navy fighter and sent him to the Hanoi Hilton for six years.
The omnipresent surveillance in Klute offers a foretaste of the audio and video surveillance paranoia that would drive such classic seventies films as the The Conversation and The Anderson Tapes.
The Long Goodbye (1973) directed by Robert Altmann
Starring: Eliot Gould, Sterling Hayden, Nina Van Pallandt, Mark Rydell, and Jim Boulton.
When Robert Altmann decided to film Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel The Long Goodbye in 1972, he hired Leigh Bracket (who had worked with William Faulkner on the script for Howard Hawk’s almost perfect adaptation of Chandler’s earlier novel The Big Sleep in 1945) to pen the screenplay. Altmann’s story takes place in the amoral early seventies, but he wants us to see Gould as the manifestation of Chandler’s "...down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”*
Setting The Long Goodbye in the early seventies allowed Altmann to speculate on how Chandler’s moral and decent detective from an earlier era would fare when cast adrift in a corrupt, avaricious, and self-obsessed era where notions of friendship, loyalty, and personnal honor are meaningless. Marlowe sets out to find out whether his friend Terry Lennox murdered his wife, stole a fortune, and then (after his escape) committed suicide in Mexico. What Marlowe discovers in Mexico and what he does about it transforms Chandler’s moral and decent detective into a bleak post modern version of Phillip Marlowe, but with his honor intact. Altmann is, in my estimation, one of the five best directors who ever lived and this film, while largely unseen (it was a failure at the box office), is one of his very best.
Charley Varrick (1973) Directed by Don Siegel
Staring: Walter Mathau, Joe Don Baker, Felicia Farr, Andrew Robinson, Sheree North, John Vernon, and Norman Fell
Charley Varrick (Walter Mathau) is a small time crop duster who supplements his meager income with an occasional bank robbery. When Charley and his gang (Jacqueline Scott and Andrew Robinson) rob a bank in a small rural New Mexico town they end up with far more money than they expected. Two local cops and Mathau’s wife die in the ensuing shootout. Turns out the little backwater bank is a front for laundering mob money skimmed from Nevada casinos and the loot from the heist belongs to the Mafia. The local Sheriff (Norman Fell) wants the gang because they’re cop killers and the crooked bank President (John Vernon) is determined to find the robbers before the Mafia holds him responsible for the loss. If Charley is going to survive he must outwit the local cops, out think Vernon, and avoid the sadistic killer (Joe Don Baker) the mob sends to retrieve the loot and kill everyone involved.
Siegel’s direction is flawless, the pace is relentless, the acting is consistently superb, the action is fast and plausible, and the final confrontation between Mathau and Baker is ingenious and satisfying. After Charley Varrick was “in the can” (ready for release) Universal Pictures management decided they were unhappy with the film’s amoral story and disturbed that Mathau (best known at that time for his turn as lovable slob Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple) played an unrepentant bad guy. Charley Varrick went straight to the drive-in circuit (the predecessor of “straight to video”) and that’s too bad, because it’s an excellent film. Mathau turned in one of the best performances of his long career in this gritty crime story.
Night Moves (1975) directed by Arthur Penn
Starring: Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Susan Clark, Melanie Griffith, and James Woods.
Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a jaded retired football player who moonlghts as a private detective. Harry is hired to find the runaway daughter of an aging, very rich, and oft married “B” movie diva. Harry’s investigation takes him from L.A. to the Florida Keys where he finds the grand daughter (18 year old Melanie Griffith in her first major role) and discovers that there is much more to the story than he’s been told. Harry finds himself in the middle of the quintessential existential crisis. His intentions are good , but no matter what he does – things just keep getting worse. The bodies just keep piling up and the lies just keep unraveling. Betrayal is everywhere and absolutely no one can be trusted.
In the final analysis, Night Moves is radically different from any of Penn’s other movies (Bonnie & Clyde, Little Big Man) with a fatalistic story and characters who seem locked in an unescapable moral quagmire. This is easily one of the bleakest flicks of the seventies, but the story is compelling and the performances are mesmerizing. Although Night Moves was a failure at the box office, it has become something of a cult favorite following its videotape and DVD releases - Melanie Griffith and James Woods made their acting debuts in this movie.
The Yakuza (1975) Directed by Sydney Pollack
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Brian Keith, Takakura Ken, and Herb Edelman
In The Yakuza (a film about honor, friendship, and obligation) Robert Mitchum plays a middle-aged Private Detective asked by an old army buddy (Brian Keith) to help him get his kidnapped daughter back. In one of the best roles in his long and illustrious career Mitchum’s character returns to Japan for the first time in almost thirty years to help his friend and confront his own tortured past. Mitchum soon learns that Keith’s daughter has been snatched by the shadowy Yakuza (the Japanese Mafia) as leverage in a business dispute.
Mitchum determines he will need help if he’s to accomplish his mission. He asks his former lover, a woman he hasn’t seen since his post war occupation days to help him convince former Yakuza Takakura to join him in freeing Keith's daughter. Takakura agrees to help because he feels an obligation to Mitchum for helping his family during the tough years right after the war, but their alliance violates the Yakuza code of honor. Japanese gangsters view themselves as the modern day equivalent of the Samurai and their lives and conduct are guided by ancient warrior traditions. The clash of Western and Oriental values forms a strong undercurrent that colors everything in this film.
The Yakuza is one of the best action flicks of the seventies. Pollack’s pacing is perfect and the script by Robert Towne (Chinatown) and the Schrader brothers sensitively explores the complex clash of cultures. The violence is credible and never gratuitous. Mitchum and Takakura, as two strong warriors who don’t like each other at first, turn in equally exceptional performances, as they become allies and then friends.
Body Heat (1980) directed by Laurence Kasdan
Starring: William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Ted Danson, Richard Crenna, and Mickey Rourke
William Hurt plays sleazy small town Florida attorney Ned Racine. During a grueling and seemingly endless mid-summer heat wave Racine meets Mattie the young sultry wife of a very rich older man. Ned is completely hypnotized by Mattie’s blatant sexuality and the two begin a secret affair. Mattie soon admits to Ned that she loves him and that she wants to leave her husband, but she can’t since she signed a pre-nup that will leave her penniless if she divorces her sugar daddy. Mattie wants to be with Ned, but she won’t leave without the money. The two of them hatch an intricate and supposedly foolproof plan to kill Mattie’s husband. The plan will leave both of them with ironclad alibis for the time of the murder and then all they have to do is wait for the case to go cold and the insurance company to pay off.
The murder goes off without a hitch, but suddenly the police are snooping around and asking Ned lots of questions. The will has been changed and Mattie now gets all the money instead of half. Ned’s alibi begins to unravel and suddenly evidence placing Ned at the scene of the murder surfaces. This film was screenwriter Kasdan's (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back) first as a director and Kathleen Turner made her acting debut in this film – beautifully playing William Hurt for a prize chump.
Body Double (1984) directed by Brian De Palma
Starring: Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith, Greg Henry, Dennis Franz, and Deborah Shelton
As the movie begins Wasson, a struggling actor, is having a very bad day. First he experiences a claustrophobic panic attack on the set and the director fires him. Wasson then discovers his girlfriend in bed with another man and since it is her apartment Wasson must leave. So within a couple of hours, our hero is both unemployed and homeless. Wasson then falls off the wagon (further compounding his problems) and just when it appears things couldn’t possibly get any worse Wasson almost magically stumbles into what seems to be a series of genuinely lucky breaks. He suddenly has a place to stay – a very expensive house in the Hollywood Hills and a beautiful neighbor (Miss Universe 1980) who strips in front of her floor to cieling windows every evening. From this point on everything Wasson sees and experiences isn’t what it appears to be.
Body Double is one of De Palma’s lesser known films primarily because the cast was hungry unknown young actors and “B” listers, but it has become something of a cult flick because it is very very sexy and unrepentantly hip. Wasson embarks on a journey that continuously points out this film’s tagline, “You can’t believe everything you see”. In this film within a film De Palma repeatedly points out that the camera lies. Hollywood is the land of deceit, illusion, and artifice. Nothing is exactly what it seems to be and that becomes the center-point of this film as Wasson moves through the shadowy world of Hollywood movie making. De Palma constantly reminds us that our eyes are not to be trusted and that the glitzy Hollywood of endless summer, palm tree lined avenues, movie stars, and Rodeo Drive barely conceals the sleazy underbelly of the movie capital of the world where corrupt studio politics, unmanageable egos, sexual blackmail, selfishness, greed, and desperation drive the real action.
De Palma received a lot of highly negative and very personal criticism for this movie’s supposed misogyny. Women are treated with violence repeatedly in this film and there is a lot of nudity, but I believe De Palma was making an artistic and somewhat satirical point about the language of contemporary film – give the viewers what they want - sex and violence sells and profit is what drives Hollywood.
Slamdance 1987 directed by Wayne Wang
Starring: Tom Hulce, Virginia Madsen, Harry Dean Stanton, Mary Ellen Mastrantonio, Adam Ant, Don Opper (who wrote the screenplay) and Millie Perkins
Slamdance begins with a typical MacGuffin – Drood (Tom Hulce) a struggling cartoonist who is suddenly thrust into the classic Hitchcockian scenario of an average guy threatened with a very dangerous situation that he doesn’t understand. Drood is being framed for the murder of a beautiful young woman while being victimized by a thug (Opper) somehow connected to the crime. Slowly, the truth comes out – Hulce isn’t the complete innocent he initially appeared to be – he has a substantial level of personal involvement and possibly even some level of personal culpability as well. Now Drood must stay one jump ahead of a shadowy L. A. politician and a corrupt LAPD cop as he seeks the evidence to clear himself in the murder of his secret lover.
This film was characterized by a few contemporary critics as being new wave noir (as opposed to neo noir) because of its flashy music video style direction and the prominent punk soundtrack, however many of the elements of classic film noir are present. Slamdance is a tawdry existential tale with a flawed protagonist, a corrupt cop, a bad girl with a heart of gold, a good girl with an attitude, a killer with issues, and a sleazy politician.
Kill me again (1989) directed by John Dahl
Starring: Val Kilmer, Joanne Whaley Kilmer, and Michael Madsen
Joanne Whaley Kilmer plays Fay Forrester, who along with her boyfriend Vince (Michael Madsen) kills a Casino courier for $800,000 in mob skim money. When Fay and Vince disagree about how they are going to spend the money – Whalley Kilmer knocks Madsen unconcious and escapes with Madsen’s car and all the dough. She contracts with down on his luck Private Detective Jack Andrews (Kilmer) to fake her death so she can escape permanently from Vince and start a new life with the stolen money. The plan works, but the Reno police are now after Jack for murdering Fay and Vince (who reads of Fay’s untimely demise in the newspaper) wants to talk to Jack about what happened to his $800,000.
Jack tracks Fay down in Las Vegas and they decide to hide out at nearby Lake Mead until Jack can fake both of their deaths, allowing them to escape together (with the money) to Safe Harbor in Maine. Vince tortures Jack’s one remaining friend until he learns that Jack and Fay are in Lake Mead. When Jack returns from setting up the second violent death scenario and hiding the money – Fay and Vince have reunited. They make Jack take them (at gunpoint) to the money’s hiding place where Fay shoots Jack just before she and Vince hit the road in Jack’s car. The final fifteen minutes of this film would have made Alfred Hitchcock proud. Dahl resolves a succession of MacGuffins that tie all the diverse plot elements together plausibly and end the story very neatly.
After Kill me again was “in the can” (ready for release) the studio refused to arrange for distribution of the film, preferring that it go straight to video. Studio executives felt that a small independent film helmed by an unknown first time director (Dahl) and written by unknowns (Dahl and his brother Rick) would sink into quick obscurity. Their reasoning was that a character driven Private Detective flick with not a single car chase, set in Reno (rather than L.A.), and starring Val Kilmer in a very untypical role didn’t stand much of a chance at the box office. Dahl got the film into limited release and it got very good reviews, which resulted in a much wider release. Dahl garnered enough positive press to allow him to make Red Rock West. Joanne Whaley Kilmer’s blatantly sexual turn as Fay Forrester got her the starring role as call girl Christine Keeler in Scandal and Michael Madsen’s performance as the thuggish Vince led directly to co-starring roles for him in Thelma and Louise and Reservoir Dogs.
One False Move (1991) directed by Carl Franklin
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams, Michael Beach, Bill Paxton, Jim Metzler, and Earl Billings
First time director Carl Franklin's One False Move is a moody and riveting neo-noir road trip that begins with a horrendous crime in L. A. and ends in a thoroughly original and unexpected way in a small town in Arkansas. Thornton, Williams, and Beach play drug dealers who rob and murder the guests at an L. A. party before heading east to hide out in Thornton’s home town of Star City, Arkansas. Unfortunately they’ve left behind incontrovertible proof not only of their guilt, but also of their getaway plans. The L.A.P.D. sends two detectives to Star City to coordinate an ambush of the three killers with Star City Sheriff Paxton. One False Move was Thornton’s second film role (he also co-wrote the film’s screenplay) and the first major movie role for Paxton.
* Raymond Chandler in The Simple Art of Murder
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