Where to begin with neo-noir

A beginner’s path through the dark and dangerous world of modern noir.

26 January 2016

By Paul O’Callaghan

Sin City (2005)

Why this might not seem so easy

Bande à part (1964)

It can prove something of a headache trying to fathom what exactly constitutes ‘neo-noir’. The term is thrown around so liberally in pop culture criticism, virtually any stylish modern crime film is liable to be branded as such by someone or other. Part of the problem lies in the fact that, like film noir before it, the label was coined by critics to retroactively describe a cycle of relatively disparate films. As such, the filmmakers we’d now hail as neo-noir pioneers weren’t aware that they were making neo-noir films in the first place.

A strong case could be made for Jean-Luc Godard as the primary forefather of neo-noir. His radical, revisionist crime films – Breathless (1960), Bande à part (1964), Alphaville (1965) – paved the way for a younger generation of Hollywood filmmakers to breathe new life into a stale genre.

In a 1976 article for Film Comment entitled ‘Life Après Noir’, Larry Gross identified Alphaville, alongside John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), as part of a new wave of films that might nominally be labelled ‘noir’, but which were simultaneously “attempting to shift from a psychological to a sociological analysis, and to aggress against Hollywood narrative conventions.” While classic noir films often fixated on the complex psyches of their troubled protagonists, these later films were more outward-looking in their world view, reflecting the widespread mood of pessimism and distrust of authority that characterised the cold war era.

Blade Runner (1982)

This first wave of neo-noir films also frequently emphasised the artificiality of genre tropes, and in doing so sought to debunk the optimistic lies peddled by the Hollywood dream factory. The entire classic noir cycle was produced in the age of the Motion Picture Production Code, or Hays Code, a deeply conservative list of ‘moral guidelines’ which rigidly restricted what could be depicted on screen. So, while noir invariably offered a gloomy worldview, with notions of good and evil muddied, ultimately no crime could ever be seen to go unpunished. With the code’s decline, and eventual abandonment in 1968, Hollywood filmmakers were able to delve into much murkier territory, and to address head-on the dark subjects that noir was forced to skirt around.

In subsequent decades, genre-savvy filmmakers have stretched the definition of neo-noir far beyond the scope of this initial cycle. From the chilly tech noir of Blade Runner (1982), to the absurdist crime films of the Coen brothers, to Christopher Nolan’s technically dazzling noir-inflected blockbusters, the sub-genre has continued to thrive and evolve, often in pleasingly unexpected fashion.

The best place to start – Chinatown

The quintessential ‘first wave’ neo-noir, Chinatown (1974) is also one of the undisputed pinnacles of 70s Hollywood cinema. In its opening scenes, Roman Polanski’s masterly detective thriller plays out more or less like a colourised classic noir, from its 1930s Los Angeles setting to Jack Nicholson’s understated, world-weary turn as opportunistic private eye Jake Gittes. There’s to be nothing postmodern or fourth-wall-breaking about the way in which it appropriates genre conventions.

Chinatown (1974)

But as Gittes find himself at the centre of an increasingly labyrinthine tale of adultery, fraud, and corporate corruption, it begins to emerge that this is something altogether more subversive than a handsomely mounted period piece. In place of the sleazy lowlifes and snarling mob bosses you’d find lurking on shady street corners in a film noir, Chinatown’s villains are beige bureaucrats and elderly entrepreneurs, who carry out their misdemeanours, utterly unrepentantly, in broad daylight. Larry Gross posits that, in ‘film après noir’, “There exists the unspoken assumption that all institutions in this new world resemble criminal or underworld structure… Criminals do not seem to have usurped power illegitimately. They are identical with the status quo.”

Equally dispiriting is the fact that, while Gittes has the demeanour of a quick-witted, slick operator, he spends the entire film in a state of confusion, and is constantly outsmarted and wrong-footed by his malevolent antagonists. Ultimately, his inability to solve his case has tragic consequences and terrifying ramifications, both for him personally and for society at large. Over 40 years on, Chinatown feels perhaps even more potent and uncompromising than it did on initial release – it’s almost unthinkable that a major studio movie today might end on such a brutally bleak note.

What to watch next

Fargo (1996)
Park Circus

From the razor-sharp thrills of Blood Simple (1984) to the monochrome musings of The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), the Coen brothers have time and again proven themselves neo-noir masters. But it’s perhaps Fargo (1996) that does the best job of elegantly flipping genre tropes on their heads, and creating something utterly distinctive in the process. While many noir mysteries unfurl in dystopian cities, the Coens here bring murder and mayhem to a sleepy, snow-covered, unwaveringly friendly Minnesota town. And in place of the hard-drinking, cynical detective protagonist you’d normally expect to find at the centre of such a tale, the investigation is led by police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) – heavily pregnant, unflappably pragmatic and innately optimistic. In a tale that oscillates tonally between outrageous black humour and bleak fatalism, she provides surprising grace notes of warmth and profundity.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005) is an audacious, genre-splicing experiment that pays off handsomely. While the conceit of an old-school noir thriller set in a modern suburban high school might sound off-puttingly whimsical, or too close to Bugsy Malone (1976) for comfort, the choice of location ultimately proves inspired. Johnson wryly re-appropriates the tough-guy posturing, affected emotional indifference, and coded language of noir to tell the story of Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a teen investigating the mysterious death of his ex-girlfriend. These genre tropes are inventively exploited to express the characters’ quintessentially adolescent struggle to appear cool and credible while contending with inner emotional turmoil.

Memento (2000)

While neo-noir has diversified stylistically and thematically over the decades, the vast majority of its protagonists continue to be straight white men. Notable exceptions include Shaft (1971) and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), both of which depict African American private eyes forced to contend with racism as they go about their dirty work. Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) casts Val Kilmer as an acerbic, quick-witted gay detective, while the 2015 Netflix series Jessica Jones offers perhaps the most compelling screen portrayal of a female gumshoe (who also happens to have super powers) we’ve yet seen. Other women-centred neo-noirs include femme fatale thriller The Last Seduction (1994) and the Wachowskis’ Bound (1996).

This is really just the tip of the iceberg. Aside from any of the titles name-checked thus far, you could just as happily continue your neo-noir journey with Wim Wenders’ beguiling, Patricia Highsmith-inspired The American Friend (1977), David Lynch’s psychosexual masterpieces Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Dr. (2001), John Dahl’s underrated Red Rock West (1993), Christopher Nolan’s tricksy amnesia thriller Memento (2000), or Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s nihilistic, eye-poppingly violent Sin City (2005).

Where not to start

Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) is an ingenious adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel, and an essential entry in the neo-noir canon, but it’s perhaps not an ideal starting point. The ‘neo’ twist is that Altman essentially imagines PI Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) falling asleep during the classic noir era, waking up 20 years later, and struggling to make sense of the strange new world he finds himself in. Its chief pleasure lies in the absurd spectacle of Marlowe attempting, and failing, to reconcile his stoic 1950s code of ethics with life in post-swinging 60s society. Without a fairly firm grasp of noir conventions, Altman’s playful subversions might seem a little obtuse. The film is also utterly Altman-esque, packed with the filmmaker’s trademark overlapping dialogue, and barely interested in its own convoluted plot. Consequently, it’s not particularly representative of the sub-genre in a broader sense.

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Another film that’s perhaps best appreciated by genre veterans is The Big Lebowski (1998). Here, the Coens task bumbling stoner The Dude (Jeff Bridges) with negotiating his way through a high-stakes kidnapping case. In a manner that bears comparison with The Long Goodbye (the two films make for a great double-bill), much of the humour stems from The Dude’s hapless attempts to apply anachronistic detective movie logic to a messy, modern-day crime. It works perfectly well as an outlandish comedy in its own right, but you’ll get much more out of it with a few classic and neo-noirs under your belt. 

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