10 great overlooked neo-noirs

Beyond Blade Runner and Chinatown, there’s a world of lesser-known modern noirs that reward rediscovery.

Paul O’Callaghan

Red Rock West (1993)

Red Rock West (1993)

Earlier this autumn, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 whipped up critics into a superlative-spouting frenzy. The great surprise for many was that Villeneuve had stayed so faithful to the neo-noir roots of Ridley Scott’s original, eschewing the bombast of modern sci-fi blockbusters to deliver a contemplative, slow-burning, thematically rich detective story, albeit one on a dazzlingly grand scale. Alas, the film severely disappointed at the box office, with pundits suggesting that Warner Bros may have wildly over-estimated the appetite for a sequel to a 35-year-old cult film, which was itself a flop back in the day.

And so, Blade Runner 2049 joins a long list of critically lauded underperformers that fall under the neo-noir or tech-noir umbrella. While noir’s moody aesthetics and nihilistic inclinations have informed some of the most successful films of recent decades, from The Matrix (1999) to The Dark Knight (2008), those that lean into the genre’s conventions too heavily often struggle to connect with a broad audience, at least on initial release.

For every breakout hit like Sin City (2005) or Drive (2011), it seems there’s an abundance of dark-hued, postmodern crime thrillers invariably hailed by their passionate champions as ‘underrated’ or ‘overlooked’. Perhaps the label ‘neo-noir’ is off-putting to a degree, as even the most committed cinephile would struggle to offer a satisfactory explanation of what it exactly means (I tried here).

The BFI’s current Thriller season offers opportunities to see several neo-noir big hitters, such as Manhunter (1986), Basic Instinct (1992) and Bound (1996), on the big screen. But whenever you’re ready to take a deeper dive into neo-noir’s murky recesses, here are 10 standouts that aren’t quite as widely adored as they should be. 

Night Moves (1975)

Director Arthur Penn

Night Moves (1975)

Arthur Penn’s sun-drenched 1970s noir has amassed a devoted cult following and widespread critical acclaim in the decades since its modest initial box-office haul. But for a film that stands toe-to-toe with Chinatown (1974) as a thrilling expression of post-Watergate American nihilism, it remains criminally underseen.

Gene Hackman takes centre stage as Harry Moseby, a perpetually out-of-his-depth private investigator hired by a louche, washed-up actress (Janet Ward) to locate and return her wayward teenage daughter (Melanie Griffith). Alan Sharp’s stellar script flirts with postmodernism, with a knowing reference to Sam Spade and a cheeky back-and-forth on the merits of Eric Rohmer movies. But Night Moves works just as well as a straightforward mystery, with Penn scratching at the seemingly idyllic surface of affluent LA and coastal Florida to reveal the corruption and moral degradation beneath. And its nerve-shredding, North by Northwest-referencing climax is one hell of a sign-off.

The Late Show (1977)

Director Robert Benton

The Late Show (1977)

A neo-noir in the purest sense, in that it explicitly repurposes the tropes of classic detective films to tell a story of its own time, Robert Benton’s gleefully unpredictable revisionist crime comedy is an audacious balancing act. At its core is the chalk-and-cheese coupling of ageing, world-weary PI Ira Wells (Art Carney) and Margo Sperling (Lily Tomlin), a highly-strung once-aspiring actress now eking out a living as a talent agent and part-time pot dealer. The pair initially unite to solve the case of Margo’s kidnapped cat, but their sleuthing swiftly leads them in the direction of some rather more serious crimes.

As in all the best potboilers, The Late Show’s seemingly disparate plot threads are tied together satisfyingly in the final act, but its greatest pleasure is the strangely touching relationship that develops between its central odd couple.

Hardcore (1979)

Director Paul Schrader

Hardcore (1979)

In a 2016 director’s commentary, Paul Schrader dismisses his second directorial feature as overlong and badly-written. But while it’s undeniably a little rough around the edges, Hardcore holds up as a thrillingly scuzzy, compellingly conflicted tour of 1970s LA’s sexual underworld. Leading us on this dark odyssey is George C. Scott as Jake VanDorn, a conservative Christian who infiltrates the porn industry in an attempt to find his missing teenage daughter.

Its best-known scene, in which VanDorn howls in anguish as he watches his daughter degrading herself on screen, has been partially robbed of its shock value thanks to a viral video in which the scene is spliced with the trailer for abysmal Adam Sandler vehicle Jack and Jill (2011). But with its proper context restored, it retains an unsettling rawness. Meanwhile Hardcore’s superficially happy ending, another element that Schrader regrets, is in fact appropriately troubling once you let it settle.

Cutter’s Way (1981)

Director Ivan Passer

Cutter’s Way (1981)

Czech New Wave pioneer Ivan Passer flawlessly captured the edgy mood of 70s America with this tale of paranoid amateur sleuths. Unfortunately, it was released in 1981, by which time New Hollywood was in its death throes thanks to the financial disaster of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) and the dawn of the summer blockbuster. Consequently, Cutter’s Way virtually sank without a trace, although it had its critical champions from the outset, and its reputation has only continued to grow over the years.

John Heard sinks his teeth into the role of Cutter, a disabled Vietnam vet who draws his gigolo friend Bone (Jeff Bridges) into his fanatical quest to pin a murder on a shady oil tycoon. Bridges offsets Heard’s manic energy with a more introspective, disquieting performance, while Lisa Eichhorn arguably steals the show as Cutter’s alcoholic, abused wife.

Red Rock West (1993)

Director John Dahl

Red Rock West (1993)

John Dahl’s assured second feature had its US release well and truly bungled, with distributor Columbia TriStar hastily consigning it straight to cable TV and VHS on the basis of weak test screenings. Through well-received festival outings and a subsequent limited theatrical run, Red Rock West eventually found an audience, but it remains an under-the-radar gem.

Delicately towing the line between gruff modern western, ripe melodrama and pitch-black comedy, this cine-literate romp stars Nicolas Cage, on relatively restrained form, as a down-on-his-luck drifter hired to kill a bar owner’s wife (Lara Flynn Boyle) as a result of an improbable case of mistaken identity. Boyle clearly has a blast as the sly femme fatale, while Dennis Hopper channels Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth as the film’s destabilising agent of chaos. Dahl’s follow-up a year later, the erotically charged The Last Seduction (1994), is another knockout neo-noir that didn’t quite achieve the success it deserved.

Insomnia (1997)

Director Erik Skjoldbjaerg

Insomnia (1997)

Almost a decade before the breakout success of detective series The Killing (2007-12) and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels, Erik Skjoldbjaerg served up a streamlined Scandi noir masterclass with this vivid tale of murder above the Arctic Circle. His simple masterstroke was to trade in the literal darkness of classic noir for the perpetual daylight of Norway in summertime, which grows increasingly oppressive the longer detective Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård) goes without sleep.

Following the brutal murder of a 17-year-old girl, Engström devises a plan to lure the killer out into the open. But an attempted ambush backfires horribly, burdening the world-weary cop with a guilty secret to protect. Though widely acclaimed, Insomnia is all-too-often passed over in favour of Christopher Nolan’s star-studded 2002 remake, while Skjoldbjaerg has thus far failed to deliver a worthy follow-up to this sensational debut.

Hollywoodland (2006)

Director Allen Coulter

Hollywoodland (2006)

By the mid-2000s, Ben Affleck appeared to have hit rock bottom in Hollywood, following a string of high-profile flops, including the disastrous one-two punch of Daredevil (2003) and Gigli (2003). He clawed his way back to respectability in decisive fashion with his 2007 directorial debut Gone Baby Gone (itself a solid neo-noir), but for some the Benaissance began a year earlier with his textured performance in Hollywoodland.

The feature debut of veteran TV director Allen Coulter (The Sopranos), this is a stylish, sprawling meditation on the bittersweet life and mysterious death of George Reeves, the star of TV’s Adventures of Superman (1952-58), whose apparent suicide in 1959 left many puzzled. To rake over the conflicting evidence, Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum cast Adrien Brody as a fictional PI, whose growing fixation with the case inevitably starts to shape his own life. The inconclusive nature of this real-world tale is destined to frustrate to a degree, but this is a film all about the psychological damage wrought by unfulfilled dreams and an inability to find closure. Affleck, presumably drawing on his own past, is spellbinding as Reeves, simmering with sadness and frustration.

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Director Andrew Dominik

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Bearing the dubious distinction of being only one of 17 films in history to have received the rock-bottom ‘F’ rating from American audience exit pollers CinemaScore, it’s fair to say that Andrew Dominik’s hitman caper didn’t exactly strike a chord with the general public. But just as his earlier The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) offered a dazzling deconstruction of western tropes, Killing Them Softly pulls a similar trick with the neo-noir crime thriller.

Riffing on George V. Higgins’ pulp novel Cogan’s Trade, Dominik relocates the action from 1970s Boston to post-Katrina New Orleans, with both the 2008 presidential campaign and the global recession visibly swirling in the background. Brad Pitt, on top form, stars as Jackie, a hitman contracted to dispense with the perpetrators of a poker game heist, but Dominik’s boldest move (and perhaps the reason the film tanked) is to strip every ounce of glamour from the scenario. In place of the charismatic outlaws that typically make crime cinema so darkly alluring, we’re instead stuck with a pitiful crew of addicts, neurotics and petty bureaucrats.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)

Director Diao Yinan 

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)

Diao Yinan’s labyrinthine detective thriller was the toast of the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, beating out both Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel to win the Golden Bear. Subsequently the film was less rapturously received, with detractors fixating on its confounding plot and pacing. But give yourself over to its strange rhythmic flow, and you may well find yourself seduced by this time-hopping tale of a cop slowly consumed by his search for a serial killer in China’s snowy industrial north.

Black Coal, Thin Ice opens in captivating fashion, with a dismembered hand discovered in a coal shipment. Cop Zhang (Liao Fan) makes relatively swift progress in identifying a suspect, but things swiftly go south when an attempted arrest descends into a jaw-dropping, Tarantino-esque shootout. This superlative set piece turns out to be something of a red herring, as the film promptly settles into a brooding, reflective mood much closer to that of David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). But whatever you make of the jarring tonal shifts, the film is never anything less than visually staggering.

Cold in July (2014)

Director Jim Mickle

Cold in July (2013)

Somewhat overshadowed on release by Jeremy Saulnier’s similarly hard-boiled Blue Ruin (2013), Jim Mickle’s deft pulp thriller casts Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under, Dexter) as Richard, an unassuming everyman drawn into a murky criminal underworld in the aftermath of a home invasion. Upon discovering that he’s being used as a pawn by corrupt local law enforcers, Richard forms an unlikely alliance with Ben (Sam Shepard), an almost comically menacing, grizzled ex-con.

Set in 1989, Cold in July modestly revels in its period setting, with a John Carpenter-style synth score, sporadic swerves into slasher movie territory, and nods towards one of the decade’s defining urban legends. The result is a dark-hued nostalgia trip that’s sure to delight kids of the 1980s who found Stranger Things (2016-) or Andy Muschietti’s It (2017) too twee.

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  • BFI Thriller

    BFI Thriller

    Who can you trust? A season of thrillers in cinemas nationwide, at BFI Southbank and on BFI Player. October-December 2017.

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