In his 1972 essay “Notes on Film Noir”, film critic-turned-screenwriter/director Paul Schrader wrote on how the genre was “not defined…by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood.” It’s a mood best described as ‘you’re screwed, pal.’
Cynicism has always been at the heart of film noir, a genre full of desperate characters clinging to the shadows of world that’s forgotten them. It’s a cynicism born out of post-War disillusionment and anxiety that spawned the genre’s heyday from the early-40s all the way through the mid-1950s when suddenly “Dragnet” and “Leave it To Beaver” were reaffirming America’s squeaky-clean Eisenhower-era view of itself.
But with the post-Watergate 70s and Cold War 80s came a new slew of anxieties as the genre evolved, this time with less Hollywood restrictions. That meant more sex, more violence, more brutal cynicism, and frankly, more fun. Here are some Neo-Noir gems (both beloved and obscure) that helped bring the genre out of the shadows and into the modern era.
“Body Heat” (1981) — Click Here to Watch on FilmStruck
Noir is often a screenwriter’s medium, with its knotty plotting and clever, snappy dialogue. So it makes sense that Lawrence Kasdan, the writer behind “Star Wars” The Empire Strikes Back” and “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”, made his directorial debut with “Body Heat,” a throwback-verging-on-remake of Billy Wilder’s noir classic “Double Indemnity.” William Hurt plays a sleazy Florida lawyer who strikes up a sexy-as-hell affair with a married woman (Kathleen Turner, in her breakout role) and gets drawn into a murder plot that (duh) doesn’t go as planned.
At first, “Body Heat” can seem like a spoof of noir conventions, but the movie’s eventual, ahem, heat comes from its intense eroticism. Sexual motivation has always been a basic ingredient in noir – the hubris of horniness – but not until Hurt threw a chair through those French doors was that desire put onscreen so explicitly. Needless to say, “Body Heat” was a huge hit, catapulting Turner to stardom (along with Mickey Rourke who makes a big impression in a small role), and introducing a neo-noir subgenre that would come to dominate the 80s – the “erotic thriller.” But no matter how many tried (sorry “Body Double” and “Body of Influence“) few entries were as erotic or as thrilling as Kasdan’s classic debut.
“Night Moves” (1975) — Click Here to Watch on FilmStruck
God, what a premise: a retired football star turned Los Angeles private eye (Gene Hackman) looks for the daughter of a washed up movie star. It’s a fun, pulpy set-up that could have just played like an extra-awesome episode of “The Rockford Files” and yet under Arthur Penn’s direction, “Night Moves” manages to be one of the more affecting dramas of the bitter post-Watergate era that defined Hollywood’s 1970s revolution. Hackman’s Harry Moseby represented a new kind of noir antagonist, one who didn’t always know what to say or do when confronted with danger, an anxious reflection of his time who finds himself quite literally adrift and isolated at the film’s startling climax.
Featuring incredible supporting performances from Jennifer Warren and Susan Clark (not to mention James Woods and Melanie Griffith in early career roles), “Night Moves” may have failed at the box office, but it has since gone on to be considered one of the stone cold classics of the neo-noir canon.
“Mona Lisa” (1986) — Click Here to Watch on FilmStruck
Bob Hoskins was basically the Jimmy Cagney of the modern British crime film, playing small-time crooks that mean well but tend to express themselves through bursts of violence and rage. In “Mona Lisa,” Hoskins plays one of these gangsters just out of prison who lands some work as the driver for a high-class call girl and after falling for her, finds himself entangled in the sordid underworld of sex trafficking and prostitution.
Written and directed by Neil Jordan just before his sensational “The Crying Game” garnered him worldwide attention, “Mona Lisa” is at once lurid, violent, and yet incredibly sweet, all thanks to Hoskins’ volcanic performance, which earned him an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe. Michael Caine also has fun playing a ruthless crime boss that could easily be his character from “Get Carter” a few years on.
(Fun fact: “Mona Lisa” was produced by George Harrison, whose production company HandMade Films produced several bold films during the 1980s including Hoskins’ other neo-noir classic “The Long Good Friday,” Monty Python collabs “Life of Brian” and “Time Bandits,” and, um, “Shanghai Surprise.”)
“The Yakuza” (1974) — Click Here to Watch on FilmStruck
From “Out of the Past” to “Cape Fear” to “Night of the Hunter,” nobody lurked in the shadows of a noir picture quite like Robert Mitchum. So it was nice when he returned to the genre for a brief late-career streak in the 70s with “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “Farewell, My Lovely,” and Sydney Pollack’s bizarre and violent “The Yakuza.”
Written by Paul Schrader and his brother Leon (with punch ups by “Chinatown” scribe Robert Towne) “The Yakuza” follows retired detective Mitchum as he’s sent to Tokyo to retrieve the kidnapped daughter of an old army buddy (Brian Keith) who’s run afoul of the titular Japanese gangsters. Upon its initial release, “The Yakuza” was shrugged off by critics and audiences, but since then has gained something of a cult status, and it’s no wonder. When an aging Mitchum tears through Yakuza headquarters with a parka and shotgun alongside his katana-wielding best friend, you’re firmly in cult territory.
“The Onion Field” (1979) — Click Here to Watch on FilmStruck
“Guilty? That’s just something the man says in court when your luck runs out.”
So says a small-time thief on trial for murder in “The Onion Field,” Harold Becker’s adaptation of the true crime bestseller about the brutal 1963 killing of an LAPD detective and its prolonged legal aftermath. It’s a deeply compelling film that deals with guilt, both legal and psychological. There’s the detective (John Savage) who ran away after watching his partner get shot and can’t live with the guilt of his perceived cowardice; there’s the small-time thief (Franklyn Seales), wrongfully accused of pulling the trigger but still responsible and tormented; and there’s the killer himself (James Woods, absolutely chilling), who seems to feel nothing at all.
In many ways, “The Onion Field” feels like a direct forebearer to David Fincher’s “Zodiac” in its attention to forensic detail and how it conveys the central grisly crime as just the hinge point of a much longer and messier story about law and order. “The Onion Field” is the rare noir film that might seem too cynical and despairing at times if it all weren’t so damn true.
Other neo-noir classics available on FilmStruck:
“The Grifters” (1990) — Click Here to Watch on FilmStruck
“The Long Good Friday” (1980) — Click Here to Watch on FilmStruck
“Blood Simple” (1984) — Click Here to Watch on FilmStruck
“The Killing of A Chinese Bookie” (1976)— Director’s Cut — Click Here to Watch on FilmStruck