Cult classic, not bestseller: favourite film noirs with The Streets star Mike Skinner

Rapper Mike Skinner of The Streets has ventured into filmmaking with a noir-inspired nocturnal crime drama. As it goes on tour, we talk favourite noirs, his love for Raymond Chandler and his weakness for a fiendish twist.

22 September 2023

By Sam Wigley

Mike Skinner © Ben Cannon

Down these mean streets go… The Streets. Starting with his now classic 2002 debut album Original Pirate Material, with its lairy, pavement-level tales of petty crime, chance hook-ups and drug-fuelled London nightlife, UK rapper and garage artist Mike Skinner has always been a storyteller. His lyrics occupy an after-hours world of post-club come-downs, late-license bars and takeaway counters – a present-tense nightscape of constant motion and nefarious opportunity.

Turn a corner, take a different alley, and you could find yourself in a film noir. The Streets’ nocturnal domain shares some of noir’s taste for illicit encounters and kerbside confrontation. It seems natural, then, that to accompany his new album The Darker the Shadow, the Brighter the Light, Skinner has plunged into filmmaking to make a feature-length, noir-inspired crime odyssey centred around a down-on-his-luck DJ.

“I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler and watching these types of films,” Skinner tells us. “I suddenly realised that it would be quite funny if a DJ was a sort of Philip Marlowe type. There’s as much crime in DJing as there is in the oil business that Raymond Chandler was in. I couldn’t stop thinking about this DJ that was a bit over the hill and making all these wisecracks.”

Skinner himself plays the DJ. He also wrote the film, directed it, produced it and shot it. He funded it himself, and even recorded the foley footsteps. It’s a passion project that’s been 10 years in the making. As the results go on a tour of Everyman cinemas around the country, we caught up with Skinner to chat through his noir inspirations. 

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

What’s it about? In Jacques Tourneur’s labyrinthine flashback noir, Robert Mitchum plays the gas station attendant in a small California town. One day a stranger arrives looking for him, pulling him back into his dark past. 

Mike Skinner: “I grew up in the neo-noir era. The Usual Suspects was my absolute favourite film when I was younger. But I only began to really study film in the noughties, when I was writing songs a lot. That’s when I started to go back to the real noirs, and films like Out of the Past, where the dialogue is just insane. There’s no other films that have such great wisecracking in them. The amount of amazing lines in that film. I actually think Out of the Past captures the incredible dialogue of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep better than The Big Sleep film somehow.”

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946)

What’s it about? Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall ping innuendo back and forth amid a case of blackmail and murder for private detective Philip Marlowe in this classic adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s mystery thriller.

Mike Skinner: “I’m not really a fan of horror films, or even sex scenes. I think I’m quite sensitive really. I find films from the time of the Hays Code really creative because of what they can’t say.

“The Big Sleep is my favourite book, and Bogart and Becall are just absolutely phenomenal. But when I first saw the film, I was a bit disappointed. But I think that’s because I love the book so much, and it’s almost like it wanted to be a TV show, like eight or 10 episodes. 

“With Raymond Chandler’s plots, he didn’t know where he was going. There’s that famous quote, ‘If you’ve got writer’s block or if you can’t think of what to say, just have a guy with a gun come in the door and whack him over the head.’”

D.O.A. (1949)

D.O.A. (1949)

What’s it about? This high-concept 1949 noir gives accountant Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) just 24 hours to live. That’s 24 hours to try to find out who poisoned him, and why.

Mike Skinner:D.O.A. is just incredible. It’s got the best first 10 minutes of any film. The guy comes in and says, ‘I’d like to report a murder.’ And the policeman says, ‘Whose murder?’ And he says, ‘Mine.’ It’s almost like the screenwriter just thought of that and then thought, how am I going to dig this guy out of this?

“I forget the name of the thing he’s swallowed. It’s basically atomic waste, isn’t it? It’s that era of glowing green things in films.”

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

What’s it about? One False Move director Carl Franklin immaculately recreates Los Angeles in the 1940s in this brilliant 90s neo-noir starring Denzel Washington as an out-of-work war veteran who turns detective to go looking for a missing woman.

Mike Skinner: “There’s a scene at the beginning of Farewell My Lovely, the Raymond Chandler book, where it’s horrifically racist: Philip Marlowe goes into a bar and it’s a load of Black guys in the city. And it’s almost like Devil in a Blue Dress with Denzel Washington is about that bar that he goes into. I don’t know whether that’s intentional, but I absolutely love Devil in a Blue Dress.”

On why the film never got the popular recognition of L.A. Confidential (1997): “I would imagine maybe the world wasn’t ready for that level of Blackness. [With 90s films like] Boyz N the Hood (1991), there’s something a bit exploitation about it. Whereas Devil in the Blue Dress is more romantic. So I feel like it’s more futuristic. It would probably work perfectly now.”

The Usual Suspects (1995)

The Usual Suspects (1995)

What’s it about? Who is Keyser Soze, the mysterious crime lord who orchestrated a multi-million dollar heist in San Pedro harbour? From an interrogation room after the event, Bryan Singer’s neo-noir attempts to put the pieces together.

Mike Skinner: “I was really, really affected by that era in the 1990s when you had those big twists, like M. Night Shyamalan films and The Usual Suspects. I was talking to my son about it recently, and I think that you don’t really have that now. You had Seven (1995), The Sixth Sense (1999), Usual Suspects, just these massive twists. The other big twist in the 90s was Fight Club (1999). And there’s Memento (2000), which apparently is a noir, although I’m not sure whether it is, but that’s a phenomenal film. Those were the years when I was most affected by music and film. I really miss that.”

The Darker the Shadow, the Brighter the Light is currently on tour. Each screening will be followed by a Q&A with Mike Skinner.

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