The noir since 1960 is like pornography: it’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. With “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” in theaters, it may be time to tackle the question more directly. To paraphrase Paul Schrader, what is a (modern) film noir?
In 1972, Schrader, now known for his work as a screenwriter (“Taxi Driver”) and director (“American Gigolo”), penned the classic essay “Notes on Film Noir” for Film Comment. It’s an ideal introduction, laying out film noir’s influences, aesthetics, and themes in terse, colloquial language. He argues that the American movies of the Forties and Fifties that French critics labeled “film noir” — defined by hard-boiled writing, chiaroscuro lighting, oblique compositions, and disillusionment with the postwar order — constituted not a genre but a movement, more like German Expressionism or the French New Wave than the gangster film or the Western. And so, like any movement, it ended: Schrader calls “Touch of Evil” (Orson Welles, 1958) “film noir’s epitaph.”
To purists, then, the “modern noir” is impossible; it simply does not exist. And, by Schrader’s definition, the purists are right. No film made since can ever replicate the particular collision of high style, historical context, and studio system that created the likes of “Double Indemnity” (Billy Wilder, 1944) or “Kiss Me Deadly” (Robert Aldrich, 1955). The modern noir, by contrast, is film noir unbound. It might be made in 1971 or 2005, sketched in blizzard white or dusky pink; it might not even be American. It might be deadly serious or seriously funny. With such diffuse characteristics, such loose adherence to tradition, noir since 1960 is tough to pin down — though, as Schrader admitted, so was the original artifact.
If classic film noir was a movement, modern film noir is more like a genre, treating private eyes, femmes fatales, dark shadows, and evil itself as conventions to be played with rather than symbols of a specific historical moment. As is true in other genres, the modern noir pays homage, critiques, or parodies, unwilling, indeed unable, to shoot straight. Schrader describes film noir as a reaction, in part, to wartime idealism, but “disillusionment” presumes the existence of an illusion. The war in Vietnam forever put to bed the notion that any American war was just simply because it was American: while classic noir lamented the failed promise of World War II, modern noir argues that every promise is a lie to begin with.
What connects these distinct forms of noir, to quote Schrader, is “a passion for the past and present, but also a fear of the future.” In applying a form so rooted in the postwar city to the Japanese boardroom, Brighton boardwalk, Minnesota countryside, or suburban high school, the modern noir is, in this sense, the film noir par excellence. In modern noir the styles of the past meet the politics of the present, and the future holds only an unhappy ending. Indeed, Schrader’s “Notes on Film Noir” sometimes reads as a presentiment of how we live now. “In such a world style becomes paramount,” he wrote. “[I]t is all that separates one from meaninglessness.” – Matt Brennan
Read our (by no means exhaustive) list of 15 must-see modern noirs after the jump.
“High and Low” (Akira Kurosawa, 1963): Akira Kurosawa’s deliriously cinematic police procedural traverses the
highs and lows of mid-century Japanese class calamity, setting its story
— but never its camera, as best seen in the film’s jittery train
car sequences — around an affluent business exec (Toshiro Mufine) whose driver’s son is
kidnapped and held for ransom by cunning criminals. The original Japanese title literally translates to
“Heaven and Hell.” And hell is where Kurosawa goes: an urban underworld
of drugs, sex and crimes that don’t pay. But this is noir. Somebody has to. – Ryan Lattanzio
“Alphaville” (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965): Jean-Luc Godard’s glorious black-and-white surreal sci-fi noir stars trenchcoated Eddie Constantine as Lemmy
Caution, who tries to save dame in distress Anna Karina. ‘’Reality is
too complex. What it needs is fiction to make it real,” intones the
computer at the film’s beginning. “Alphaville” exaggerates reality.
Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard did not flood Paris with light.
Instead they photographed at night on real Paris locations in order to
make a film with the creepy feel of a nightmare. When it came to his own
filmmaking, Godard was always playing with ideas. He saw his films as
works of criticism: to him, art criticizes itself. “Alphaville” is
packed with references: Dick Tracy, Henry Dickson, Flash Gordon, and
most especially, “Underworld USA,” Sam Fuller’s masterpiece of
malevolent dark-street ambience. Fuller’s quote from Godard’s next film
“Pierrot le Fou” could easily apply here: “The film is like a
battleground. Yes…love…hate…action…violence…death…in one word, emotion.” – Anne Thompson
“Le Samourai” (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967): “There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle,” reads the text that flashes on screen at the opening of “Le Samourai.” “Maybe…” In Jean-Pierre Melville’s portrait of contract killer Jeff Costello (Alain Delon), the jungle is a concrete one, and the loneliness is the loneliness of crowds. The minimalist narrative — Jeff, caught in a dragnet following a hit, tries to elude both the police and the underworld syndicate that hired him — matches the surrounds, stripped bare of romance: the gray, drizzly city on display is the saddest Paris ever known, and the claustrophobic architecture of Melville’s masterly compositions comes to resemble nothing so much as the birdcage in Jeff’s apartment. A superlative early sequence in the police precinct follows the investigation through a series of spartan rooms, chasing the truth into the bowels of a pitiless bureaucracy, but it turns out that there are as many perspectives of who the culprit was as there are witnesses and suspects. “Le Samourai” is film noir as Sartre might have written it, envisioning other people as a Hell from which there is no exit. – Matt Brennan
“Klute” (Alan J. Pakula, 1971): This effortlessly sexy thriller runs on noir’s otherwise peripheral femme fatale, here a street-smart, classy call girl named Bree Daniels. Alan J. Pakula made this masterpiece in 1971, when thrillers were the realm for serious artists like cinematographer Gordon Willis and sound designer Christopher Newman, who bring rich cinematic texture to a sleazy New York serial killer storyline. As the prostitute without a heart of gold, Jane Fonda delivers one of her most iconic feminist statements — as far as performances are concerned — and, with it, a model for how an actor can bring an archetype to life. She carries Bree’s intimate catharses and flinty reserve almost imperceptibly. As she’s about to leave town–and therapy–with a man who isn’t trying to buy her intimacy, she shrugs, and tells her shrink, “You’ll probably see me next week.” She knows who she is. – Ryan Lattanzio
“The Long Goodbye” (Robert Altman, 1973): In the midst of one of the most fruitful periods in his (or any) career, Robert Altman directed “The Long Goodbye,” a countercultural film noir send-up loosely based on Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel. It sets down private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) in Joan Didion’s Los Angeles — a place of dry winds, hash brownies, and Malibu mansions, balanced on the leading edge between tragedy and farce. Gould, strangely sexy, plays Marlowe as a laconic, half-interested smart aleck, and the film is equally teasing when it comes to the genre’s conventions. A security guard imitates the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Brennan, and Marlowe responds to a pair of detectives at his door by quipping, “Oh, is this where I’m supposed to say, ‘What is all this about?’ and he says, ‘Shut up, I ask the questions’?” But all this irreverent merrymaking is done out of love, or perhaps disappointment. The details of Marlowe’s investigation are immaterial, Altman knows, because the old rules no longer apply. – Matt Brennan
“Chinatown” (Roman Polanski, 1974): Polanski’s elemental classic is a fateful meeting of earth and water, the natural and the man-made. Half of it is desiccated riverbeds and dying orange groves, the other half reservoirs, aqueducts, and dams. Private investigator J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson, in a career-defining performance) navigates this forbidding landscape with a bandaged nose, trying to sniff out the sordid truth behind the moneyed sheen of Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and her father, Noah (John Huston), but the facts ultimately prove more terrifying than even the hardened Gittes had imagined. Produced by Robert Evans and written by Robert Towne, “Chinatown” evokes the entire mythic history of the California dream and then warps it beyond recognition. By the time we arrive in Chinatown for the chilling denouement, little is left but the urge to wipe the map clean and start over, or perhaps abandon the project forever. “Are you alone?” a woman on the phone asks Gittes in the early going, and his reply reduces the existential bleakness of “Chinatown” to two words, as damning as a death sentence: “Isn’t everybody?” – Matt Brennan
“The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (John Cassavetes, 1976): 16mm camera unsteadily in hand, Cassavetes colors outside the lines in this derisive anti-Hollywood followup to “A Woman Under the Influence.” Loser, boozer and compulsive gambler Cosmo Vittelli, who’s in hot water with the mafia and is forced to carry out a dangerous assignment to absolve his debts, ranks among the definitive 1970s director’s most grotesque figures. While he certainly isn’t the lowest of the low, as that distinction belongs to coercing gangster Mort Weil (a smoothly sinister Seymour Cassel) and his band of troglodytes. he’s down there with the worst of them. But his self-destruction is compelling to watch, particularly in the seamy interiors of Cosmo’s crummy strip club, where he choreographs unsexy, misogynist dance routines with the steaming madness of a sloppy, fat-headed filmmaker –which of course Cassavetes, whose sensitivity to the rock-bottom human folly is in lunatic form here, was not. But there is some of him in Cosmo, the ultimate Cassavetian loser. – Ryan Lattanzio
“Body Heat” (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981): Kathleen Turner sizzles in this melodrama as a Florida housewife looking for a way out of her dull marriage to a Southern lawyer played by Richard Crenna. But when she teams up with her lover, played by William Hurt, to off her husband, everything goes operatically awry. The dizzying structure and dense turn-of-events dip into 40s “Double Indemnity” territory–with a soapy, Southern twist. It’s the sleazy, bodice-ripping underbelly of great noir, wickedly told with writer/director Kasdan’s crackling language and verbose visual style. – Ryan Lattanzio
“Blade Runner” (Ridley Scott, 1982): Ridley Scott’s 1982 Philip K. Dick adaptation blends the worlds of film noir and dystopian science fiction where genetically engineered humans walk among us in a not-so-distant future Los Angeles. Designed Oscar nominee Lawrence G. Paull, Downtown LA’s threatening beauty swirls around Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, who embodies the ragged charm of film noir’s classic antiheroes. – Ryan Lattanzio
“Mona Lisa” (Neil Jordan, 1986): Nat King Cole’s wistful standard lends “Mona Lisa” its title and much of its music, playing over the radio as George (Bob Hoskins), a gangland driver and ex-con, chauffeurs Simone (Cathy Tyson), a high-priced prostitute, from swanky hotels and sprawling estates to the lurid shadows of King’s Cross. Their unlikely friendship is run through with a peculiar mix of sexual desire and fatherly instinct, but Hoskins and Tyson are made for each other. Searching London’s underworld for her lost friend, Cathy (Kate Hardie), their Platonic chemistry blossoms into mutual understanding: both are expected, in their own way, to play the roles that others imagine for them. “Sometimes they fall for what they think I am,” Simone says to George of her clients, but as Jordan’s palette of Valentine pink and Savile Row gray suddenly bursts into crimson, it becomes clear that the time for such fantasies is over. “Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa,” Cole sings, “Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?” – Matt Brennan
“Pulp Fiction” (Quentin Tarantino, 1994): When Tarantino’s breakout “Reservoir Dogs” hit theaters in 1992, the hardboiled noir displayed the writer-director’s trademark mix of violence with a humorous twist, delirious dialogue and slick visuals. Released two years later, “Pulp Fiction” took Cannes by storm, boosting the careers of John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, won the Palme d’Or — and redefined cinema. Tarantino threw straight narrative out the window, intertwining character arcs in multiple time zones and ultra-violent verbose stories packed with references to westerns, blaxploitation flicks, bromantic comedies and Hong Kong actioners. The movie was so intense that the needle in the heart sequence literally gave one attendee at the New York Film Festival palpitations. Critically hailed, the movie earned seven Oscar nominations and one win for Best Original Screenplay. Is it noir? Fuck yeah. – Anne Thompson
“Fargo” (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996): Like the snowy whiteout of its brilliant title sequence, “Fargo” deftly inverts the conventions of film noir and black comedy at every turn. Dim offices and shadowy streets become fluorescent buffets and wide expanses of flat land; the hard-boiled detective is a warm, thoughtful, very pregnant cop named Marge Gunderson. As one of the recent cinema’s great heroines, Frances McDormand invests every inflection (“Prowler needs a jump!”) with humane intelligence, steadily following the threads of car salesman Jerry Lundergaard’s (William H. Macy) kidnapping plot. Indeed, McDormand is so effortlessly compelling that you scarcely realize the film’s turn into the belly of the beast until you hear the whir of a woodchipper in the distance — “Fargo” is a balancing act of the first order, and a masterpiece of Middle American disquiet. – Matt Brennan
“A Simple Plan” (Sam Raimi, 1998): Sam Raimi’s snowbound thriller is often compared to “Fargo,” but there’s nothing remotely funny about it. In “A Simple Plan,” even the henhouses, pickup trucks, and snowmobiles of a Minnesota small town become accessories to murder. When Hank (Bill Paxton), Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Lou (Brent Briscoe), discover $4.4 million in a downed plane, crows loom on the barren branches above, a premonition of what’s to come. Crime piles atop crime as their simple plan unravels, and with wife Sarah (a terrifying Bridget Fonda) goading him along, ordinary Hank finds himself capable of extraordinary evil. By the time the unbearable tension of the climax finally recedes, Raimi’s film is as black as a crow’s feathers: “Goddamn it, this is what it costs!” Hank screams at Jacob, and in fact what it’s cost him is everything. – Matt Brennan
“Mulholland Dr.” (David Lynch, 2001): Whether it’s your first or second or fiftieth time down “Mulholland Dr.,” no trip is the same as the last. If a movie could dream, it would look like David Lynch’s free-fall into the Hollywood wilderness — and the haunted carnival of his own damned head. Naomi Watts is brilliant as the Hitchock-blonde young actress who collides with an amnesiac (Laura Harring) and, away we go into the terrifying unconscious of a damaged woman! The iconic Club Silencio sequence pulls the curtain back on the disquieting dream of the fantasy first half, revealing a nightmare reality that’s straight out of noir (and some of the other films on this list). The final hour is Lynch’s finest, and his most tragically humane, an unstoppable pileup of desire and delusion all perfectly encased in an illusory Spanish-language cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Long and lonely is the drive. – Ryan Lattanzio
“Brick” (Rian Johnson, 2005): Johnson’s debut feature twists together film noir and teen drama into a bracing tightrope. Time after time, he nearly falls, but the impassioned formalism of this strange suburban mystery demands attention. “I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night,” loner Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tells a menacing band of sallow-faced punks. “That puts me six up of on the lot of you.” Like the slangy poetry of the language — brick, Tug, poor Frisco, The Pin — Brendan’s journey into an underworld of drugs, privilege, and absent parents speeds headlong toward the point of no return, and the sunny Southern California vistas make the film’s disenchantments all the more potent. Sure, it’s mannered, but “Brick” has all five senses and then some, signaling the birth of a major talent. – Matt Brennan
See trailers below.