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By Martin Keady · January 20, 2015
Noir – the four-letter genre. And there is certainly something dark, something dirty, about noir. It is an investigation (literally and metaphorically) of the back-alleys and other dark places of society and our imagination.
A superb BBC documentary on the classic period of noir (roughly 1945 to 1960) pinpointed the unique appeal of the genre: its golden age was the one time that American cinema stopped simply peddling happy endings and produced something more true to life, more grown-up and more complex. Then, as quickly as it began, that golden age, which produced masterpieces such as Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon and Touch of Evil, was over, as mainstream Hollywood returned to its usual fare of sunshine and left the shadows behind.
But of course the truth is that noir never died, and never will. Noir is not so much a genre as a virus, or even a meme, that has infected all other genres, so that every other genre can itself become the prefix to a noir film, as the following Top 10 of Neo-Noirs (noirs made after the genre’s golden age) proves.
10. BRICK (2005) (HIGH SCHOOL NOIR)
Brick was the brilliant debut of writer-director Rian Johnson, who went on to make the extraordinary “hitman-hunting-himself” thriller, Looper, and is now slated to contribute to the Star Wars reboot. But it all began here, with his transplanting of the detective movie to the American high school. In recent decades, the high school has become a setting for all kinds of genre experiments, including literary adaptations from Jane Austen (Clueless) to Shakespeare (10 Things I Hate About You), but Brick was the first high school movie to incorporate the idea of a classic detective story (a loner investigating the heroin-related death of his ex-girlfriend) into the universal detective story of a teenager searching for their identity and role in life.
9. ONE FALSE MOVE (1992) (REALIST NOIR)
One False Move has one of the great openings of any film: the ultra-realistic depiction of a drugs heist gone wrong, culminating in a slow, brutal, almost unwatchable strangulation. It is the antithesis of so many movies where people – many people – are killed quickly and easily, and it proves the truth of Clint Eastwood’s great line from Unforgiven: “Killing a man is a hell of a thing.” This stark opening sets the tone for the rest of the movie, as the murderers head for a small town where the local sheriff (Bill Paxton, never better than here) has to confront both them and a tragic secret from his own past.
8. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997) (HOLLYWOOD NOIR)
The original novel, L.A. Confidential, was written by James Ellroy as the third part of his L.A. Quartet series of books. Ellroy is the spiritual successor to Chandler and Hammett as the great writer of neo-noir. Much of his writing, like L.A. Confidential itself, is set in the original noir era, but Ellroy shows just how awful that period really was, telling the stories that it was impossible for the authors of the time to tell: tales of police corruption, of hookers ‘cut’ to look like Hollywood stars, and of rampant, unfettered racism. It is a testament to the greatness of the book that approximately only 10% of it was used as the basis of the screenplay, and since the film was made it has often been rumoured that TV channels such as HBO or AMC will one day film the book in its entirety as a long-form TV series. Until then, there is still a superb film to enjoy, as detectives Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce (in their breakthrough roles) try to uncover the truth of the “Nite Owl” killings (a slaughter at a downtown diner), only to find that the killers may be fellow policemen.
6. MEMENTO (2000) (PSYCHO-NOIR)
Memento Mori (“remember that you will die”) is the title of the short story by his brother, Jonathan, on which Christopher Nolan based his remarkable psychological noir (or even amnesia-noir), and it is really the maxim of all noir, old and new: never forget that you will die. The irony, of course, is that Leonard, the supposed hero of Memento, can barely remember anything, including the identity of the man who raped and murdered his wife, as he had been struck on the head during the attack. In a nod to Double Indemnity, Leonard is an insurance investigator who slowly, painstakingly tries to rebuild his memory by all manner of extraordinary means: notes to himself; polaroids (which themselves are now a largely forgotten icon of the pre-digital age); and even tattoos. The result is an absolute head-screw of a movie (more successfully realized than other similar psycho-noirs, notably Shutter Island), in which we are never sure whether Leonard is victim or suspect. And in the end, of course, in true noir fashion, he is both.
4. THE LONG GOODBYE (1974) (STONER NOIR)
The Long Goodbye is one of Robert Altman’s finest movies, and one of the finest neo-noirs. It is literally an updating of a classic noir, as Altman took Raymond Chandler’s last great novel, written in 1953, and set it in 70’s Los Angeles, complete with hippies, marijuana and a broken coke bottle that becomes an appalling but ingenious weapon of torture. As part of that updating exercise, Altman chose as his screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who had helped adapt Chandler’s The Big Sleep for Howard Hawks a quarter of a century before. Arguably, Brackett (who was no relation to Charles Brackett, another great screenwriter who co-wrote Sunset Boulevard with Billy Wilder) did an even better job on The Long Goodbye than she had on the famously complex script of The Big Sleep, which even its director struggled to make sense of. The Long Goodbye may be “stoner Marlowe,” but in many ways it is more clear-headed and comprehensive in its depiction of evil than Hawks and Bogey’s heavy-drinking Marlowe in The Big Sleep.
3. SE7EN (1995) (THRILLER/MYSTERY-NOIR)
The crime scenes in Se7en were unlike any ever seen in a noir before – or indeed, any mainstream Hollywood movie before: an obese man literally forced to eat himself to death; a blood-sucking lawyer literally drained of his own blood; and a prostitute literally fucked to death by a steel dildo. These genuinely horrible imaginings were the brain-children of Andrew Kevin Walker, whose “head in a box script” (as it was famously known) was thought to be unfilmable until it fell into the equally dark hands and mind of David Fincher, who fashioned his first great masterpiece from it. Of course, the ultimate horror in Se7en is that, like Brad Pitt’s detective, we are forced to confront our own demons and, rather than slaying them, we all too often lash out, thus becoming part of the increasingly angry and violent modern world. The final lines of Se7en, spoken by Morgan Freeman’s world-weary Detective Somerset sum up noir, especially neo-noir, which is even darker and more violent than its parent-genre: “Hemingway said, “The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for”…I agree with the second part.”
2. BLADE RUNNER (1982) (FUTURE NOIR)
Like roaches and rats, noir will probably survive even the apocalypse, or so we are led to believe by Blade Runner, arguably the greatest Science Fiction film ever made (certainly no movie has ever looked so much like the future as Blade Runner, with its ceaseless rain, multi-ethnic society and proto-digital photography) and unarguably the finest future-noir. Blade Runner is also one of those mythical movies, whose making is almost as fascinating as the story it tells. The numerous “cuts” of the film that exist create a kind of mystery in themselves, as viewers (especially the most fanatical “Blade-heads”) try to determine which is the best and truest version. For what it is worth, I think that Blade Runner is a rare example of studio interference proving a good thing. Personally, I prefer the version with the voice-over (which I acknowledge many viewers loathe), for two reasons. First, it is firmly in the noir tradition of the cynical, jaded detective telling his story to an uncaring, unfeeling world. Secondly, and even more importantly, it makes Deckard more human (surely only humans hear voices, and voice-overs, in their head), making the final revelation of his true identity all the more shocking.
1. CHINATOWN (1974) (CLASSIC NEO-NOIR)
Chinatown is not just the finest neo-noir, but perhaps the finest noir – full-stop (or “period”, as I should say in classic noir terminology). It was essentially responsible for establishing the whole neo-noir genre: The Long Goodbye came earlier, but that was more of an updating of an old genre than the creation of a new one. Its screenplay, by Robert Towne, is often cited as the finest ever written, and with good reason: it is as formally perfect as an Austen novel or a Shakespeare sonnet. And Chinatown is a truly epic story, investigating not a single crime, but perhaps the definitive modern crime: the theft of water by the city of Los Angeles from its surrounding environs, which gave birth to the great modern metropolis and, crucially, Hollywood itself. In this way, Chinatown is an almost Biblical examination of the city’s founding story, or founding myth. And like the Adam and Eve story, it shows that after a crime of that scale has been committed, everyone is tainted.
NEO-NOIR (THE PRESENT – AND FUTURE)
It is often said that TV is the new cinema (at least for adults who prefer sophisticated storytelling to the mindless spectacle that makes up much of modern cinema), and in that vein many of the finest neo-noirs of recent years have been television series, notably The Wire (surely the ultimate expression of noir) and True Detective. But unlike so many of its protagonists, noir is unkillable and so it will surely not be long before the genre mutates again and gives us another classic movie to match the great masterpieces of the genre.