Between film noir’s first wave during the 1940s and 50s and the neo-noirs that formed such a vital part of American cinema in the 1990s, some things didn’t change. Four or five decades on, protagonists still comprised luckless folk drawn inexorably into complex situations they couldn’t control. Bad people still did terrible things. Violence, lust and intoxication were still rampant. And some 90s noirs wouldn’t contain one single happy scene, let alone that kind of ending.
Thankfully, some things had changed, and the 1990s saw a wider range of perspectives beginning to come to the fore. While male directors still dominated, neo-noir became one of the key modes of the emerging New Black Cinema, with African-American directors including Bill Duke, Carl Franklin, Charles Burnett and the Hughes brothers all riffing on noir themes. Meanwhile, the Wachowskis’ Bound (1996) put a lesbian relationship front and centre.
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Below is just a snapshot of 90s US noir compiled to coincide with the BFI Blu-ray release of Peter Medak’s Romeo Is Bleeding (1993). In Medak’s film, corrupt NYC homicide detective Jack Grimaldi (Gary Oldman) gets entangled with mob assassin Mona Demarkov (Lena Olin) after she kills both a mobster in witness protection and the policemen guarding him. In a noir set-up fit for any era, Grimaldi had indirectly caused these murders by revealing the mobster’s location to the boss who wanted him killed.
As with any list of 10, there are some notable omissions, such as John Dahl’s other 90s noir Red Rock West (1993), Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects and David Fincher’s Seven (both 1995). It’s also worth seeking out Fargo (1996), featuring Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning performance, and Bill Duke’s other 90s noir, A Rage in Harlem (1991).
The Grifters (1990)
Director: Stephen Frears
Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled writing has provided fertile source material for noir cinema, whether it be neo, 90s or otherwise. Stephen Frears’ adaptation of his 1963 novel is a rich, disturbing brew, which gave John Cusack his first great adult role. Cusack stars as small-time conman Roy, who gets in over his head with fellow grifter girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening) and his veteran con-artist mother, Lilly (Anjelica Huston, in one of her finest parts).
No one in The Grifters can be trusted, with neither maternal nor romantic ties ultimately counting for safety or a happy resolution. It’s a cunning, vicious film, full of mystery, which poses another one off-screen – how did Martin Scorsese find the time to produce this at the same time he was making GoodFellas?
Basic Instinct (1992)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
It would be a crime almost as heinous as the ones committed in Basic Instinct to omit it from a list about 90s noir. Paul Verhoeven’s dazzling erotic thriller is a masterpiece of blockbuster trash that made waves upon its release. A notorious police interrogation scene involving bisexual murder suspect author Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) raised eyebrows and temperatures, while the lesbian and bisexual activist group LABIA protested against the film. This followed protests from gay rights groups during filming that claimed the film depicted negative depictions of homosexuals.
Michael Douglas is perfectly believable as dirtbag detective Nick Curran, a former cocaine addict in professional therapy because he accidentally shot a pair of tourists while high. He suspects Tramell of murdering her rock star boyfriend with an ice pick – suspiciously, she’d just written a book featuring a murder using the same method. The did-she, didn’t-she plot is bolstered with fulsome sex scenes and further murders, the full-throttle Verhoeven excess derived from a Joe Eszterhas script.
Deep Cover (1992)
Director: Bill Duke
Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum’s terrific screen chemistry, a plethora of natty 90s threads and Snoop Dogg’s recording studio debut on the theme tune are just three reasons to recommend Bill Duke’s sizzling noir. Deep Cover starts as it means to go on, opening with a fierce scene in which a junkie dad snorts cocaine in front of his young son, robs a liquor store and is shot dead in front of him.
The boy grows up to become Officer Russell Stevens Jr (Fishburne, here credited as Larry), a Cincinnati cop tasked with infiltrating a South American importing kingpin and his politician uncle as part of a long-term undercover operation. As he works his way from LA street dealer to serious player, Stevens befriends and partners slick lawyer/dealer David Jason (Goldblum) while avoiding getting murdered by rival dealers and the cartel. Tense, exhilarating viewing.
One False Move (1992)
Director: Carl Franklin
When three violent drug dealers leave six dead in LA and hotfoot it to Star City, Arkansas, it’s clear a classic confrontation is brewing. Star City sheriff Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton) is eager for some action on his otherwise humdrum patch and – wouldn’t you know it? – here it comes.
Co-written by Billy Bob Thornton, who stars as murderous dealer Ray, there is no messing to One False Move, which proved the breakthrough feature for director Carl Franklin. Full of malevolent characters, snappy dialogue and gripping deception, it won high-profile praise, including American critic (and Roger Ebert’s TV sparring partner) Gene Siskel naming it his favourite film of 1992. The only regret watching it now is seeing Paxton in his prime – he deserved more meaty roles like this.
The Last Seduction (1994)
Director: John Dahl
A career-best Linda Fiorentino gets the better of every man she comes across in neo-noir hitmaker John Dahl’s sexually charged thriller. Fiorentino plays New Yorker Bridget Gregory, a clever opportunist who steals $700,000 of drug money from her husband Clay (Bill Pullman) and hides out in a small town near Buffalo.
Bridget manipulates local man Mike (Peter Berg) into an insurance scam offering cheated wives the chance to have their husbands murdered, but has to deal with a private detective Clay has hired to hunt her. She also can’t help herself from investigating Mike’s ex-wife. As femme fatales go, Bridget is one of the most memorable. Her shrewd tenacity and weaponisation of sex make for a darkly funny and riveting feature, with a bitter mood and stylish twists.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
Director: Carl Franklin
Franklin’s second film on this list is a whisky-drenched adaptation of Walter Mosley’s 1990 novel. Denzel Washington stars as Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins, an unemployed man who turns private eye when mysterious DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) hires him to look for a missing woman. After an evening of hard drinking, a lengthy sexual encounter with a sleeping friend’s partner and a beating at the hands of the LAPD, Easy tracks down Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) and the case’s mysteries grow exponentially.
Franklin’s smoky tale didn’t break even at the box office, so there hasn’t been a series of Easy Rawlins films featuring Washington – surely a cinematic injustice. Alongside Washington’s charismatic lead, Don Cheadle owns the screen as Easy’s gun-happy pal Mouse, and there’s prescience in the way the film looks at race relations in America in the 1940s – something largely ignored in noir’s original cycle.
Directors: The Wachowskis
Fans of The Matrix trilogy may balk, but there’s a case for Bound being the finest Wachowski production to date. It’s a sultry and seductive piece involving a lesbian ex-con plumber having a passionate affair with her next-door neighbour – whose boyfriend is a money launderer for the mafia.
The central pairing of Gina Gershon as plumber Corky and Jennifer Tilly as neighbour Violet sets the screen aflame, while Joe Pantoliano is ace as sleazy launderer Ceasar. Sex scenes were choreographed by feminist scholar Susie Bright, and the film remains a landmark in mainstream LGBTIQ cinema as well as a delicious, bloodthirsty noir.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Director: Curtis Hanson
A marvellous adaptation of James Ellroy’s third L.A. Quartet novel, L.A. Confidential yielded two Oscar wins. Kim Basinger bagged the best supporting actress Oscar for her role as high-class sex worker Lynn Bracken, while Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson won best adapted screenplay.
Hanson, who also directed and produced this 1950s-set corrupt cop thriller, does wonders with a stellar ensemble cast. Guy Pearce plays seemingly by-the-book good cop Edmund Exley, with Russell Crowe as rough-but-gets-results detective Bud White. It’s hard to choose the most intriguing character. Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian Jack Vincennes, who supplements his income by advising a TV show and fitting up drug-taking celebs for tabloid magazine Hush-Hush, is in with a shout. Hush-Hush’s scurrilous editor Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) is too.
Lost Highway (1997)
Director: David Lynch
Pullman crops up again in the most unconventional film on this list. He plays Fred, a saxophonist who starts receiving mysterious VHS tapes of him and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). When one of the tapes shows him lingering above her dismembered body, the discovery leads to him being convicted of her murder. In prison, Fred disappears from his cell and is replaced by a young mechanic called Pete. It’s a puzzler.
Lost Highway is the first of three LA-set David Lynch films and of a piece with the mind-warping pair that followed it: Mulholland Dr. (2001) and Inland Empire (2006). Like those, Lost Highway is a wild, sensory extravaganza that’s tough to follow in parts but rich in the kind of bizarre episodes and twisted dream logic that nobody does better than Lynch. Watch out for Richard Pryor in his last film role, and don’t try to understand everything you see – you’ll end up more baffled than Fred.
Director: Robert Benton
Paul Newman stars as detective Harry Ross in this box-office bomb, albeit one with heart and wit to spare. Harry lives with two ageing LA movie stars (Susan Sarandon and Gene Hackman, both typically superb) and their daughter Mel (Reese Witherspoon). For the most part, Harry lives an ordinary existence playing cards with terminally ill Jack (Hackman) until Jack asks Harry to deliver a package to a house, only to be shot at by a dying man.
The subsequent murder enquiry uncovers a series of secrets and upsets, including a blackmail attempt by Jeff (Liev Schreiber), a former boyfriend of Mel’s who shot Harry in the thigh years before. Though Benton and Richard Russo’s screenplay contains the narrative chicanery of all good noir, Twilight is set apart by its warmth and the sheer star power on screen. It’s a particular treat to empathise with Newman in one of his last great roles.
- Lou Thomas also contributed an essay on corrupt cop films to the new Romeo Is Bleeding Blu-ray.