In the last two decades, film directors as significant as Christopher Nolan, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Jane Campion, Jacques Audiard, Lynn Ramsay and David Fincher have all made knowing, vivid use of the palette of moods that make up film noir. Yet before I started to look (at first, back in 2013) into noir’s survival as a tendency in 21st-century cinema, I would have said that its influence had waned.
Once an indelible genre, it seemed to have become merely a set of gestures the be applied to hybrid thrillers. The sourly romantic blend of fatalism, desire, danger, fantasy and mistrust that sparked off my own cinephilia when I spent much of the 1980s tracking down as many noirs of the 1940s and 50s as possible, seemed to have become only a passing thrill.
Certainly, the careworn figure of the hardboiled detective who “down these mean streets… must go”, as Raymond Chandler put it, went out of fashion as soon as Hollywood was obliged to pursue more fluid modern concepts of the masculine. Hollywood narratives in the noughties – key exceptions like Bond and Batman aside – preferred to offset the centrality of the existential loner, preferring buddy partnerships or the shared sparkle of ensemble power-play.
Audiences didn’t feel the need so much to identify with one lead character. In the globalised market, the moviegoing experience offered customers multiple viewpoints, a greater sense of community. Perhaps, also, it was decided that movies shouldn’t try to compete in existential terms with the online games industry, where each individual gamer (or shooter) is truly responsible for their body count or blood trail, an inhabiting of character films can’t yet rival.
Hollywood had, in any case, become commercially allergic to medium-budgets. The many dark-themed, transgressive thrillers that used to fall into into this modestly profitable cache lost their source of funding. And of course, with big screens and digital technology allowing television to be much more cinematic, great television series, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to The Bridge to Babylon Berlin, borrowed much of film noir’s seamy allure.
So the suspicion lingered that in cinema only the vestiges of noir remained, its hose laddered, its raincoat discarded in favour of the arthouse anorak – that it had become merely one of the set patterns of the postmodern grab-bag of popular thematics.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Looking back with the blinkers off, noir has remained a constant source of fresh visions. I’m arguing that the 15 films below are as much a fragmentary guide to the concerns of our times as the original noirs were to those of wartime and post-war America.
Of course, seven or eight decades after the first acknowledged films noirs appeared, a filmmaker can’t use such an approach to crime themes without a revivifying angle. But that’s what’s so startling about the films below (and others I mention in passing): they are hybrid forms bursting with fresh perspectives. Which means that few, if any, of my examples are pure in the sense of the original canon, but then few of those originals contained all that noir allows.
Nitpicking of noir definition arose as soon as French critic Nino Frank first used the term ‘black film’ in 1946, borrowing from the série noire novels, and thereby mystifying the people who made those films, who thought they were making inexpensive moody thrillers.
Even after the classic period was established, critically, as having lasted from John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), it was still sometimes hard to figure out when a gangster film or a police procedural or a heist movie or a psychological thriller stopped being just what was written on the film cans and could be toe-tagged as bona fide film noir. For, as Paul Schrader has it, “film noir is not a genre… It is not defined… by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the most subtle qualities of tone and mood.” I’d cavil that those qualities were not always so subtle, but Schrader is otherwise dead-on.
Step outside that canon – most of which is listed in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopaedic Reference to the American Style – and noir is wide-open to category disputes. A new problem arrived with the first major spate of self-conscious, post-definition noir films, such as Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Peter Yates’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Dick Richards’s Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975).
How do you draw a line between sincere tribute and kitsch parody in a form that has flaunted its pulpy, gaudy ‘low’ culture allegiances from the get-go? Thereafter, the handy tag ‘neo-noir’ separated the originals of 1941-58 from the endless numbers of films inspired by them. Yet, as the Wikipedia list of neo-noirs will confirm, that term is so indiscriminate as to be virtually useless, even as it demonstrates noir’s discreet pre-eminence.
Combing through likely titles for this round-up, I could have made claims for at least 50 noirish films made since 2000. To hone my selection criteria, I went for films whose use of noir moods seemed either formally inventive or apt about a contemporary anxiety.
I also looked for new uses of the usual elements: hardboiled literary sources; tough, morally ambiguous protagonists; first-person (possibly unreliable) voiceover narration; flashbacks and dream sequences; subjective camera viewpoints; subversions of classical narrative; melancholic saxophones and strings; a femme fatale or two; elements of expressionist lighting; a grainy dystopian angle on urban life. As might have been expected, with such a disparate set of signifiers, inherent contradictions soon bubbled like boiling tar.
As everyone knows, in routine hands, these noir stylistics are clichés. Filmmakers today must use them with caution. And there are other constraints. The theoretical writings that helped make watching noir so delectable in the 1980s also made filmmakers more knowing in their depiction of the archetypal characters, which sometimes makes them too self-conscious. Some of noir’s darkest imaginings have been co-opted by the serial-killer genre – which may be why films like Brick, Tell No One, and Widows find the night a less compelling metaphorical arena.
Yet in the 15 films below, noir retains much of its original capability to act as a conduit and pressure-relief valve for the contradictions and hypocrisies of the day. That so many of the lead characters experience their sense of self being fragmented, merged, replaced or destroyed is a common noir trope, but 21st-century examples take that dissolution much further (which may itself indicate that contemporary mistrust of the loner). The portrayal of fragile, shifting personalities and identities in Memento, Mulholland Dr., In the Cut and A History of Violence parallels anxieties about the way we create and manage our personas through social media.
Screen violence used as an aesthetic as well as a dramatic tool is a familiar trope, but in the pulp extravagance of Sin City and the macho indulgences of Drive the conflict between violence-as-outrage and violence-as-pleasure is tested to an unnerving, degree. Despite the three noirs with female protagonists here (In the Cut, Mulholland Dr and Widows) women tend to be more readily shaped for the fatale stereotype than they were in the 1970s ‘neo-noirs’ – a problem that missing examples like Baise-moi (2000) or Miss Bala (2011) wouldn’t have solved.
Smaller concerns – such as the creative convergence of film and television compellingly evidenced in Mulholland Dr. and Red Riding, or the way that films like Collateral use the new digital cameras to better capture how we see the city at night, or the sense given by Sin City that all cinema may be heading towards animation – provide further evidence of noir’s shape-shifting.
If the documentary aspects of noir have largely been left to the likes of The Wire and the Scandi-noir TV series, the feeling remains that at the extremes of the category, a high-school noir spoof like Brick can engage our attention to a real-life setting almost as well as a terrifying, poetic look into institutional child murder like Red Riding. Finally (and this was one of the aspects that intrigued me most when I set out) noir has again become a strong, if oblique, influence on international art cinema – as it once was on Godard, Melville, Fassbinder and Bertolucci, to name but four. As we shall see in the entries on Three Monkeys, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, some of the most decisive films in international art cinema made in the last dozen years can be said to owe noir a debt.
I can’t claim that this collection is in any way definitive. One of the pleasures of noir is that everyone is loyal to their own transgressive feeling for it. Strong cases can be made for many missing films – even a completely different 15. I’ve found no place, for instance, for class-mobility semi-noirs such as Match Point (2005) or Andre Zvyagintsev’s Elena (2011).
But what I hope my selection establishes is that 21st-century noir is more than just the outer circle of the blast pattern of a cultural explosion that happened a lifetime ago. The fact that there’s only one pastiche period piece here (The Black Dahlia) shows that noir has shrugged off its corny Bogart-in-a-raincoat image.
If we had to choose new poster boys and girls for noir, the habitual criminals would be Mark Ruffalo (see In the Cut) and Scarlett Johansson (The Black Dahlia, Match Point). But if you’re seeking the contemporary equivalent of Bogart’s cool, then for better or worse Ryan Gosling – a man who down these mean street must drive – has it. He’s not so much out of the past as in a less lonely place.
Christopher Nolan, 2000
Loss of self
Noirs favour haunted memory and the dream-state, so it’s no surprise that so many begin with the protagonist in bed. When Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is woken by a phone call, the traditional noir circumstance of the lone male explaining himself in voiceover begins, except that Shelby can’t do that because he suffers from anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new memories – a dilemma of some contemporary resonance.
The burgeoning prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease means that memory loss – a common noir event – is now a universal dread, and part of Memento’s fascination comes from watching how Shelby copes with his lack of knowledge or understanding in an action context.
While we sympathise with his vulnerability and essential isolation, the tone of the film isn’t sombre or mournful – it’s outgoing, almost jaunty. Shelby is a vigorous, fidgety person. It’s noticeable that everywhere the sunshine seems too bright, as if director Christopher Nolan is making light the opposite of enlightenment.
Shelby gears himself up for each new day by rehearsing certain drills, like a child refining his persona for school. He has a system of where to put things and how to interpret the instructions he’s left for himself the day before. This activity sometimes feels like a critique of the dependent way we run our lives via electronic media. He will only talk to people face to face, because he needs to look into their eyes to see if they’re telling the truth. He takes polaroids and tattoos the most important messages on his own body, a corporeal authentic stance that also feels very noughties (text on the body being a major recent preoccupation of Western artists). But we buy Nolan’s whole outlandish conceit, I would argue, because the noir crime-film conventions ease us into his dilemma.
As soon as Shelby finds a gun strapped to his leg and we understand there’s a revenge motive – someone killed his wife – we’re comfortable enough to cope with the film’s significant challenge: that the story unfolds in a dual but contrary manner, with colour sequences that succeed each other by going backwards in time, and black-and-white sequences that go forward.
Nolan has shown a consistent interest in identities threatened by noir-ish situations (in Insomnia, 2002, The Dark Knight, 2008 for instance), and having a narrative fold back on its storyline is, of course, a key noir trait; but reverse chronology is a more extreme strategy.
It’s curious that several films with a similar structure were made around the same fin de siècle time – Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Lee Changdong’s Peppermint Candy (1999), Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002), François Ozon’s 5x2 (2004) and a subplot of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
Only one of those is particularly noir-ish: Irreversible, with its notoriously graphic underpass rape of Alex (Monica Bellucci), which is shot and lit much like a noir, with Bellucci dressed as if she were a femme fatalle.
What makes Memento significant in the canon is that it’s all about the dissolution of the central personality; what makes it radical is that this dissolution happened before we meet him. So we watch the piecing back together of a man who is a ghost to himself, who remains innocent of the memory of his doings, even as we learn who he is through what he’s done – in a way that he, despite being the first-person narrator, can never know. In that sense, it couldn’t be more dazzlingly postmodern.
David Lynch, 2001
In every dream a nightmare
The most impressive parts of David Lynch’s career have been dedicated to extending the more unnerving effects of the noir palette on viewers’ psyches, but Mulholland Dr. is probably his most potent variation on noir themes – specifically, here, the career terror lurking beneath Hollywood’s bright facade. Like Memento it centres on memory loss, but there’s an excess of recall and imaginings here that’s almost the opposite of the repetition and reductiveness of Nolan’s film.
After the pure fun of a montaged jitterbug opening sequence, we see an image that couldn’t be more intensely noir: a shiny black limo crawling through the darkness of Mulholland Drive, high above Los Angeles, its red tail lights like eyes peering from the stygian gloom. The unnamed glamorous woman (Laura Elena Harring) in the back seat looks every inch a classic femme fatale, but she’s in danger. “What are you doing? We don’t stop here,” she asks as the driver and his partner turn with guns in their hands. Then a carful of joyriding teens collides with them and our heroine is the only survivor (car-crash survival is a Lynchian mini-theme). Now she’s suffering from amnesia as she staggers downhill (crossing Sunset Boulevard en route).
Her psyche, however, is not the one the film is most interested in. It’s the mind of Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), the ingenue actress whose apartment our amnesiac slips into, that we’re invited to slip into. When Betty asks the stranger for her name, she calls herself Rita after Rita Hayworth (she’s just seen a poster of Gilda on the wall).
As a particular kind of femme fatale, ‘Rita’ is meant to be unfathomable, but Betty, taking on the investigator role, forces the pace on trying to find out her identity. Since she’s a button-bright goody-two-shoes, this is perhaps the most prominent inversion in the film of noir typology.
It allows Lynch to pair Rita’s classic vamp and Betty’s cross between Doris Day and a Hitchcockian ice queen in a lesbian tryst that distracts us from the notional goal but offers motivation for the film’s extraordinary coda, when the upbeat Betty ‘becomes’ the bitter Diane Selwyn and ‘Rita’, famous actress Camilla. The relationship between them now mirrors the likes of All About Eve and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? – their transformations cued by the opening of a mysterious blue box.
Few noir films can match Lynch’s ability to make a seemingly super-ordinary environment seethe with uncanny dread. Since we know that the film was constructed out of the vestiges of a pilot for a TV series that never happened, with the coda drawn from some extra scenes added a year later, we accept the undeveloped nuances that put full comprehension beyond reach.
The same applies to the ambiguity around identity, which can be read several ways. You can argue, for instance, that Betty/Diane more or less behaves like a male protagonist, thereby undermining in turn the disruption of thriller norms the film seems to achieve – but then the identity-merging and swapping that occurs puts quicksand under that view too.
In the sense that you’re never altogether sure if you’re watching a dream or not, Mulholland Dr has some affinity with Scorsese’s near-noir Shutter Island (2009) – though the presentation of the latter film, inevitably, is more uptight.
3. In the Cut
Jane Campion, 2003
Sex and the city
This sexual take on noir comes from combined female voices – those of author Susanna Moore and director Jane Campion. Moore’s ‘erotic mystery thriller’, published in 1996, shocked many by having its protagonist Frannie – a college professor teaching writing to ghetto kids – butchered at the end by the serial killer. Campion’s film, made in collaboration with Moore, goes for a more redemptive ending, but otherwise explores the erotic allure of danger for Frannie (Meg Ryan) with alacrity.
The professor hangs out in rough places so she can pick up ghetto speak for a book she’s publishing. When visiting a dodgy bar with a student, she accidentally witnesses a woman with long blue fingernails giving a man a blow job; his face is in shadow, but she notices a number and a playing-card tattooed on his wrist. She comes home to find a man lurking on the staircase of her apartment building, who turns out to be Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), investigating the death of a woman who, we discover, had long blue fingernails.
Signalled as emotionally distant – at least in comparison with her more instinctive and vulnerable flatmate Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – Frannie is also physically fragile and socially clumsy. Meg Ryan – playing against her romcom persona – gives her a New York edge of quirky curiosity, like a less kooky Woody Allen heroine, but it’s also intriguing to imagine what the film might have been like had Frannie, as originally intended, been played by producer Nicole Kidman. (She backed out, saying she couldn’t commit to something this emotional while in the throes of divorcing Tom Cruise.)
Not that Frannie holds back in the raunchy sex scenes in which she seems to lose herself with the very able Malloy. Even after he ignores her, suddenly, when his cop partner shows up, and she’s mugged on the street because she had to walk home alone in the rain, Frannie remains drawn to a policeman she half-suspects may be involved in the murder.
Class differences simmer along with the sexual tension. Malloy’s interest in Frannie could be casual curiosity about a more upscale person than himself, but it could equally be sinister. Ruffalo handles the ambiguity superbly, his behaviour by turns touchy, sensitive and highly observant. (Also in Collateral, Shutter Island and Zodiac, Ruffalo is clearly the go-to actor for 21st-century near-noir.)
This curious, intelligent woman’s yen for a potentially dangerous man cuts to the heart of noir’s often queasy appeal. The city’s underbelly as a dark playground for desire is explored more exorbitantly here even than in Mulholland Dr., but the film is also curious about the lighter side of single women in New York.
In the Cut adopts the point of view of people who too often find themselves alone in their apartment, bemoaning their inability to make contact with the world – the internet-dating generation’s predicament. Some of the chatter between Frannie and Pauline about sex and clothes seems like a mild satire of Sex and the City – then at the height of its television fame. But it’s the way that Campion, in scene after scene, juxtaposes powerful female desire with vulnerability that makes In the Cut a unique noir.
Michael Mann, 2004
The electronic night
Mann’s gun-for-hire drama is really about competence and social justice, but the way it changed the game for noir has more to do with its technical advances. Collateral was probably the first noir-ish film to fully employ the digital RED camera, which captures the electronic urban night in a way that’s closer to how our eyes adapt to see it than anything real film could achieve.
The film is mostly set in a taxi, an environment that allows us to view nocturnal downtown LA in its gleaming, yellowed corporate glory – roaming coyotes and all. Max (Jamie Foxx), an African-American who has dreams of building his own limo company, is the driver. An easeful figure, he couldn’t be less like the obvious noir taxi prototype of Travis Bickle.
The film starts calmly, with a nicely judged flirtation scene between Max and Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a lawyer who’s out of his league, but charmed by his honesty and ambition. After she gets out the next customer is Vincent (Tom Cruise), a white assassin with a schedule of potential witness murders that promises mayhem.
Like his fellow directors Nolan and Lynch, Mann has revisited noir like an addict. If his magisterial heist epic Heat (1995) seemed a hyper-charged summary of all his favourite dramatic situations from the myriad TV cop shows he’d worked on, as well as his TV film The Jericho Mile (1979) and the features Thief (1981) and Manhunter (1986), Collateral takes certain of those elements and plays them quietly, like mutterings in the corner of your mind.
Vincent, a Nietzschean figure, rides Max’s benign, good-guy worldview as hard as he does his cab (which gets wrecked in stages). The killer espouses a carpe diem life, and recapitulates the essence of Orson Welles’s “would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving” speech from The Third Man by asking whether Max’s life was changed one bit by the slaughter in Rwanda (and, of course, he’s saying that to a black man).
Vincent is the characteristic Mann warrior: the guy living at the extreme who has to hold on to his angst (he dresses like a yuppie, but was, we learn, raised by the state); he even has the same name as Al Pacino’s thief-taker in Heat. However dominant he is in the dialogue exchanges, Vincent is not the soul of the film. Yet Max, who is, cannot achieve his apotheosis without taking on some of Vincent’s attitude.
In one of the best scenes, Max must pretend to be the assassin in order to get information from the gangster who’s sponsoring the killings. He’s doing very badly at it, but then takes off his glasses and repeats one of Vincent’s laconic catch-phrases in an ice-cool manner. (This transference of personality is like a miniature of what happens in A History of Violence.) To be a success in the Collateral world, you need to become a reluctant killer against the grain of your conscience – a classic noir twist.
Rian Johnson, 2005
High school confidential
Thanks to Brick we don’t have to imagine what it would be like to merge a John Hughes high-school movie with a low-budget noir. Of all the films included here, this one cleaves closest as a narrative to the early-1940s models.
Even the youth of the actors is less of a divergence than it might appear: Joseph Gordon-Levitt was 24 when he played Brendan, a soft-looking student type who, in the opening scene, is contemplating the corpse of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin), which lies in a storm-drain outlet. This made the actor about five years younger than, say, Robert Mitchum and Alan Ladd were when they first put on a raincoat. His female co-stars de Ravin and Nora Zehetner (who plays the femme fatale Laura) were also 24, and thus older by two years than Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep.
Brendan is not as soft as he looks. Writer-director Rian Johnson’s script – heavily influenced by Dashiell Hammett, who invented hardboiled detective fiction with his Continental Op stories – seems at first to give his hero the moralising knight-errant persona and sparkling wise-guy patter of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. “I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night. That gives me the edge over all of you,” he tells a gaggle of would-be-threatening stoners. An early strategy sees him win a knockdown fight with a football jock, but soon he’s getting beaten up all the time, the way a private detective should be.
A flashback from the opening death scene to “two days previously” allows us to follow Brendan as he unravels the sordid tale of Emily, who wanted to be on the inside of the hooked-up narcotics set rather than “eat with” a loner like him. Eventually we find that Brendan is no knight after all – he ratted out his own dealing partner to the school because he’d lured Emily away.
If you go with it, the conceit of high-school kids speaking and behaving as if they were in Red Harvest works wonderfully. It also leads to some great gag scenes, such as when drug overlord ‘The Pin’ (Lukas Haas) tells the thoroughly beat-up Brendan, lying in his basement, that they should return to the real world; we next find them sitting in the kitchen being given milk and cookies by the overlord’s doting mother. Another fine moment sees Brendan come on like the DA as he bullies the vice-principal, forcing him to make a mutual back-scratching deal.
Noir is easy to spoof, but it’s hard to do it well. Brick is brilliant at it and not as blatant as Shane Black’s elegantly airy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). But don’t be fooled by the high-school setting into thinking Brick is cutesy. It remains true to drug-scene violence and the heartbreak that makes Brendan both a tough guy against type and a highly intelligent provocateur of mayhem. One nice twist is that his intelligence-gathering techie partner is called Brain, and may not actually exist outside Brendan’s head, which means he’s been talking to himself even more than the average tough guy.
6. Sin City
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller, 2005
The valve wide open
Sin City brought noir back close to its pulp-magazine origins, using green-screen CGI technology to exactly recreate the exquisitely etched, near-monochrome ink-splash world of comic-book legend Frank Miller’s Sin City stories, four of them, all set in Basin City, a seething dystopian hellhole.
The actors (Bruce Willis et al) are shot and lit by Rodriguez to merge seamlessly into animated panels from Miller’s pages. For anyone who’s ever been a comic-book fan, it’s an exhilarating experience – one that’s much truer to the Pop Art quality of, say, the Marvel or DC superhero comics of the 1960s than any ‘realistic’ Marvel adaptation.
There’s apt usage of Miller’s trademark white-out-of-black effects: white blood, the rectangles of sticking plaster on the rock-like head of doomed thug Marv (Mickey Rourke), the figure of Dwight (Clive Owen) falling as a flat white shape against black tar. Similarly enjoyable are the privileged small details – eyes, a bed, a dress – picked out in colour.
Transparently immersed in a graphic-novel vice world, Sin City pushes its levels of violence – and show nearly all women as lissome, semi-clothed or naked S&M vamps – to a degree you’d never get away with in a realistic-looking movie. The film is a relentless hymn to bloodlust, with a sidebar sentimental concern for romantic promises.
At the scene of the massacre of bad guys at the end of the fourth story ‘The Big Fat Kill’, wanted murderer Dwight – who has engineered the doom of gangsters trying to take over the prostitute-run Old Town – describes his machine-gun toting former lover thus: “The Valkyrie at my side is shouting and laughing with the pure hateful bloodthirsty joy of the slaughter… and so am I.”
Marv, the implacable super-tough hunk of ‘The Hard Goodbye’ section, extols the pleasures of torture. It’s comical – in the gallows sense – to see how blatantly Rodriguez takes noir’s position as a site of repressed and undirected desires and opens up the valve.
As with A History of Violence, there’s a mock-epic quality to the way graphic-novel voiceover description and speech-bubble dialogue is written that grants further distance from any plausible real world, allowing greater licence. Sin City is fantasy fiction that caters blatantly to the urges of young males, cashing in, too, on many adults’ enduring fondness for past pleasures.
David Cronenberg, 2005
Although it mimics the 1947 classic Out of the Past in its premise of a mild-mannered, seemingly innocent small-town guy whose former life of crime reclaims him, A History of Violence only confirms its noir predilection in the last section, when Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) returns to Philadelphia, his native territory, to finally erase his former criminal identity as crazy Joey Cusack. Up until then it’s as much a family drama about a man who becomes a local hero when he foils an armed robbery at his diner by killing the two perpetrators, only to find that press photos attract the attentions of gangsters from back East.
Folksy touches in Cronenberg’s film remind one of the soap-opera elements in Twin Peaks; and like Sin City, the dialogue (no voiceover here) has its roots in a graphic novel (by John Wagner and Vince Locke), from which screenwriter Josh Olson’s script was adapted.
The film has some of the portentousness of Sam Mendes’s 2002 gangster-noir graphic-novel adaptation Road to Perdition (a film stylistically that sits about halfway between this and Sin City). Cronenberg’s focus, however, is on Tom Stall’s Janus personality, and in what the irruption of violence into ‘ordinary’ life does to his lawyer wife Edie (Maria Bello), teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and young daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes).
There’s a fascinating contrast of role-playing between a pre-revelation sex scene with Tom in which Edie dresses up as a teenage cheerleader to liven up their wedding anniversary, and a more primal post-violence coitus on the stairs of their ‘little house on the prairie’.
The moment when Edie realises who she’s been married to for so long is typical of the dialogue and the dilemma:
Tom: “What do you think you heard?” Edie: “It’s not what I heard… It’s what I saw. I saw Joey. I saw you turn into Joey right before my eyes. I saw a killer, the one Fogarty warned me about. You did kill men back in Philly, didn’t you? Did you do it for money? Or did you do it because you enjoyed it?” Tom: “Joey did, both. I didn’t. Tom Stall didn’t.”
The final scene, when Tom returns to this once-placid home in Millbrook, Indiana, shows that the re-emergence of his violent self is regarded precisely as if he’d had an adulterous affair, and he’s offered the same sort of forgiveness (much as returning kidnap victim Nicholas Brody constantly was in the series Homeland).
A History of Violence can be read as a film about gun control. Here is the Midwestern citizen, who’s fine as long you treat him decent, but will defend his own to the death. So the Stall family’s shotgun refers to the one in so many US homes – and to the history that put it on the wall rack or in the gun cabinet.
8. Tell No One
(‘Ne le dis à personne’) Guillaume Canet, 2006
Canet’s French adaptation of US writer Harlan Coben’s urgent thriller is perhaps the most difficult of my selections to justify. For such a dark-themed narrative – it has paedophilia, bent cops, sadistic assassins, street gangs and corrupt politicians – Tell No One seems to go out of its way to be sunny and provincial. Though half of the film was shot in Paris, even its urban scenes are mostly spacious and leafy.
The hospital where conscientious paediatrician Dr Alex Beck (François Cluzet) works is in Clignancourt, at the northern tip of Paris. It seems a bubble of calm professionalism – except when the thug-like Bruno (Gilles Lellouche) turns up with his haemophiliac son and won’t let anyone but Alex touch him. Alex has a big fluffy Briard dog, and his sister Anne is a show jumper. His family come from the Yvelines region, near the Rambouillet forest. They couldn’t be more bourgeois or more French.
Tell No One begins in that forest, eight years before the main action. After an outdoor family dinner, Alex and his wife Margot (Marie-Josée Croze) take their annual swim in a lake just as the sun is going down. As it grows dark, Margot swims away from the raft where she and Alex have been having a small tiff. He admires her body as she gets out of the water and stands on the jetty. A moment later he hears her scream, swims for the shore and – as he’s climbing the ladder – gets knocked out and falls back into the water. When he comes round, he finds Margot has been murdered.
A jump forward to the present takes us to what screenwriter’s call ‘the inciting incident’, when Beck gets an email with a video clip that shows Margot is still alive – just as the police discover two new male bodies at the lake. Soon Alex is the main suspect in several murders. So Tell No is a classic wrong-man thriller, right?
No, not in my book. Apparently, when he rang Coben, director Guillaume Canet was persuasive about how he would adapt the film. When a planned Hollywood version collapsed, Coben (who appears briefly in the film) offered it to Canet, because, he said, unlike the Hollywood execs, the director understood it was a love story first and a thriller second.
Though the romance in Coben’s novel is pretty cheesy, transferring it to France at least makes Beck’s undying passion for a seemingly dead woman seem part of a tradition of amour fou. Given that it’s a story of redeemed love, rather than the usual doomed affair, the sunniness of the mise en scène makes sense; but the desperation with which Alex clings to his romantic illusions while bluffing a banlieue thug suggests that he could find his own history of violence.
Tell No One is also here to represent the renaissance of the Europe-set thriller. Its soul was reborn with John Frankenheimer’s Ronin (1998), setting the tonal template for Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (2002).
Of course Frankenheimer and Liman are US directors, but they rekindled a taste for the muted-palette, existential Euro-thriller that has produced such treats as Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009 – so ably remade in the US by David Fincher), Götz Spielmann’s Revanche (2008) and Alberto Rodriguez’s Marshland (2014).
The remarkable career of Jacques Audiard is also a factor. His Hitchcock tribute Read My Lips (2001), The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) – a brilliant remake of James Toback’s Fingers (1977) – his prison movie A Prophet (2009) and his Tamil Tiger immigrant’s survival tale Dheepan (2015) all feed off noir atmospherics. Tell No One, however, is a different proposition: a noir drenched in sunshine.
Brian De Palma, 2005
If there’s one pulp author of recent times who remained true to the darker impulses of noir it’s James Ellroy. Two of the ‘LA Quartet’ of reputation-making novels published between 1987 and 1992 – The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz – have been made into features: illustriously with Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), and elegantly with De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, in a work of similar scale and ambition, yet with more of a yen for the 1940s and 50s wardrobe.
The film centres on a love triangle between two police partners, Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) – former boxers who bonded after a staged-for-their-bosses rematch – and Blanchard’s girlfriend Katherine ‘Kay’ Lake (Scarlett Johansson), whom he stole from a sadistic racketeer he saw imprisoned.
When Blanchard engineers a transfer for him and Bleichert to a special team investigating the brutal torture and death of young wannabe actress Elisabeth ‘Betty’ Short – soon known to the press as ‘The Black Dahlia’ – Bleichert starts to worry about him. “He’s all bent out of shape on this dead girl,” he tells Kay. Sweet in his brow-furrowing, Hartnett is perfect for these observant early scenes, but lacks the gravitas to handle the shifts in tone to come. The story only gets more baroque and perverse, building up to a truly hard-to-credit convoluted climax.
This is the only 1940s-50s period piece included here, and in terms of old-school Hollywood glamour, few can do better (with a half-reasonable budget) than De Palma. Despite its extremely dark story, The Black Dahlia keeps a light tone most of the time, and avoids spoofery, creating a grandiose, grit-free kind of pastiche with gorgeous melancholic orchestral interludes.
If De Palma’s lushness at times seems an odd equivalent to the clipped, staccato urgency of Ellroy’s prose, it does sweeten the pill of the Black Dahlia’s revolting destiny. (Ellroy’s best book, the autobiographical My Dark Places, in which he pays for the real-life 1958 murder of his mother to be reinvestigated and reveals his own dangerous obsession with the real-life Dahlia case, has never been adapted for film.)
What made such an operatic cop drama refreshing to see in 2006, despite the overly relaxed performances of its cast, was its contrast to the cultural talking-point of the day: television’s Baltimore-based The Wire (2002-8). Most cop dramas since have cleaved closer to social realism.
Ellroy’s novels reveal the deep longstanding corruption that’s part of the LAPD’s heritage. Other dramas were quick to exploit the late-1990s Rampart Division scandal that revealed the depth of that cess pit. TV’s The Shield (2002-8), running in parallel to The Wire, showed LAPD cops operating without restraint (much like the Yorkshire police of David Peace’s Red Riding novels).
Ellroy and writer-director Oren Moverman subsequently zoned in on the same material for Rampart (2011); David Ayer’s End of Watch (2012) is more respectful of front-line cops (if not their colleagues). But films about the LAPD can’t seem to dodge the stink in the way that, say, James Gray’s We Own the Night (2007) romanticises the NYPD with its Cimino-like love of milieu and the crowd scene – or how David Fincher makes a workaday, diligent public servant out of San Francisco’s Inspector Dave Toschi (Ruffalo again) in his superb serial-killer procedural movie Zodiac (2007).
10. Three Monkeys
(‘Uç Maymun’) Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2008
Best known as a director of superb international festival art cinema, Ceylan has never been shy of borrowing moves from genre cinema. In particular he uses the shock reveal of ghost stories. You can see it when the lead character falls asleep and imagines being suffocated by sand on the beach in Climates (2006), and again with the ghostly appearance of the central family’s young son – who was drowned before the film begins – at moments when family honour is compromised.
Three Monkeys, though, is wholeheartedly a noir. It begins, like the early scene in Mulholland Dr, with a rear shot of a car driving at night – here through a thunderstorm. The driver is Servet (Ercan Kesal), a relatively wealthy businessman trying to move into politics, who’s having trouble staying awake.
He kills a pedestrian by accident and flees when a second car comes, knowing they got his licence-plate number. Being arrested will destroy his political career, so he calls his driver Eyüp (Yavuz Bingöl), and persuades him to take the rap in exchange for his continued salary and a lump sum when he gets out of prison.
Eyüp’s family are relatively poor, living literally on the wrong side of the railway tracks. Hacer (Hatice Aslan), Eyüp’s attractive wife, dotes on their feckless teenage son Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar).
When Ismail fails his college exams, he asks Hacer to persuade Servet to lend him the money for a car, so he can work as a school driver. Though she gets the money, Servet makes a pass at her and soon they’re having an affair. Ismail discovers this, but doesn’t confirm his father’s sharp suspicions. When Eyüp gets out, the film moves broodingly, inexorably towards murder.
The cinematography is high-contrast, textured with rough skin, inky shadows and bruised purple skies. The plot follows a fatalistic downward spiral that’s like a shadow version of A History of Violence, in that all the family collude not to acknowledge the transgressions they’ve committed. There’s barely anything approaching an action scene. Everything is concentrated on Chekhovian interactions between people, all shrouded close by a very Turkish sense of noir.
Three Monkeys stands here as the most obvious example of the regular use of the noir palette by international auteurs. (Sharunas Bartas’s 2010 Eastern Drift – a realist tale of the downfall of a petty thug – would have worked equally well.)
A list of 21st century noir-influenced arthouse films would also include Robert Guédiguian’s La ville est tranquille (2000), Fabián Bielinsky’s Nine Queens (2000), Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, Michael Haneke’s Hidden (2004), Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007), the Dardenne brothers’ The Silence of Lorna (2008), Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016) and many others.
Julian Jarrold, 2009
Brit punk noir
Nothing like Red Riding had ever come out of British film or television before, although you can find fragments of novelist David Peace’s poetic approach to an underworked period of British crime history in all sorts of punkish cultural artefacts: music, song lyrics, posters. Peace’s incandescent Blake-as-a-tabloid-writer style in his novels 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983 is unique in its combination of words-as-bullets, indelible imagery and zealous fury at Yorkshire police corruption and violence.
Tony Grisoni’s vivid scripts for the trilogy (which missed out 1977, to keep costs down for commissioners FilmFour) were written to be shot as films – which is how they were first experienced in the US – but were seen by most people in Britain on Channel 4. This cross-platform fluid identity – one that affects several noir works here – does not diminish how cinematic these works are, or how much they raised the game for both kinds of crime drama in the UK.
I’ve chosen the opener of the trilogy to represent the whole because it is the most straightforwardly noir-ish in plot and tone. In 1974, a pre-teen schoolgirl, Claire Kemplay, goes missing, and cocky young Yorkshire Post reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), back from an unsuccessful sojourn down south, thinks the police are ignoring links between several cases. When his colleague Barry Gannon (Anthony Flanagan) warns him that “there are death squads in every city”, Eddie dismisses him as paranoid.
After Kemplay’s body has been found – she’s been tortured and raped, and has swan’s wings stitched into her back – Eddie is sidelined by his editor, and the police swoop on a Roma site that happens to have been earmarked for development by local developer John Dawson (Sean Bean). But Eddie can’t keep his nose out, and when Gannon is found dead, he presses a connection between Dawson and Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), one of the mothers grieving for a murdered daughter, to the point where the police work him over and warn him off. It all leads to a classic confrontation that’s as Yorkshire as batter mix yet as cinematic as anything else in this article.
When 1974 was about to be transmitted, I praised its “crisp, energised bleakness”, adding that “it looks like a dream collision of early Wim Wenders and prime Mike Hodges” and writing about Brit noir’s “air of fatal misery” – a tradition that loops back to Roeg and Cammell’s Performance (1970), Hodges’s Get Carter (1971) and Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1972). I stand by that appraisal.
The later films in the trilogy play out in the shadow of the real-life Yorkshire Ripper case and go further into fascist levels of police activity and collusion with paedophiles – all of which has an even darker ring after so much has come out about the Yorkshire Police-related cases of Jimmy Savile and the Hillsborough disaster.
Crime films of all sorts have boomed in the UK in recent years, a run that probably started with the comedy geezer gangsterism of Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). Several films stand out from that ruck, including Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (2000), Shane Meadows’s Dead Man’s Shoes (2004), Paul Andrew Williams’s London to Brighton (2006), Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011), Noel Clarke’s London Crime Trilogy (2006-2016) and Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil (2012) – you can add your own examples.
But what makes Red Riding so tantalising is that its aesthetic ambition made it possible to imagine a British television series to rival The Wire or Denmark’s phenomenal noir whodunnit The Killing. Possible, that is, if you could find the money and TV-company confidence to back such outlandish talents as were brought together for the trilogy. Sadly, that ain’t gonna happen.
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011
Refn’s Copenhagen-set Pusher trilogy, made between 1996 and 2005, established the director as a purveyor of highly realistic and violent drug-gang films soaked by a noctural drizzle of constant fear and tension – and laced with the bleakest strain of black humour.
Two English-language films made quickly in Britain, the prison psychobiography Bronson (2008) and the Viking saga Valhalla Rising (2009), got him the attention of movie star Ryan Gosling, which is how he got to make this adaptation of James Sallis’s neo-noir page burner.
I’ve avoided the term neo-noir for most of this article, but use it here to distinguish what it conjures in my own head. Rather than denoting anything too down-at-heel, neo-noirs usually are in love with gleaming surfaces, mirrored skyscrapers and the like: William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1989) and Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) are buffed and waxed in this way.
Drive is also – for the first half of its 100 minutes at least – a tribute to the mythic street epic noirs Walter Hill made in that run from The Driver (1978), through The Warriors (1979) and 48hrs (1982) to Streets of Fire (1984).
Ryan Gosling plays the ‘Driver’ – exactly what Ryan O’Neal’s character is called in Hill’s movie of the same name (which itself was inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï): a young man of few words and a dazzling stare who works as a movie stuntman and sometime getaway driver.
The film begins with this nicely definitive line of patter: “You give me the time and the place, I give you a five-minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own.”
Its opening sequence is pure, exquisite noir tribute, with an LA night at least as evocative and exciting as that in Collateral, and the driver’s ordinary-looking but souped-up Chevvy playing vanishing games with police choppers and black-and-whites.
Sadly, Refn’s film then settles into a gawky love triangle that unfeasibly casts the classily elfin Carey Mulligan as the wife of a serious felon doing time. All the excitement of a film ostensibly about fast cars is allowed to fizzle out through that unlikely bit of casting.
Refn either isn’t interested in what cars can do, or he didn’t have the budget to find out. He prefers his figures to stand perfectly still, framed staring in awe at whatever’s just happened, as if in a trance. And in any Refn film: sooner or later there’ll be moments of extreme violence.
Sure enough, in a lift scene, the cool, good-looking, neatly dressed Driver shows how nasty he can be. A smooch with Mulligan precedes the Driver stamping and crunching an assassin’s face to pulp – a scene as hard to watch as the brutality meted out by Casey Affleck’s Lou Ford to Jessica Alba’s Joyce Lakeland in The Killer Inside Me (2010), although maybe not quite as full on as the revolting skull-crunching performed by Vince Vaughan’s character in S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017).
The opprobrium Michael Winterbottom’s film attracted seemed to miss Refn altogether, perhaps because nobody expects anything else from him. Thus Drive for me looks like the real thing, but has no power under the bonnet. I include it here because, for ten glorious opening minutes, it captures the mythic quality of Hill’s best films. And I’m glad that’s still grabbable.
Lynne Ramsay, 2017
My last two choices are marked depictions of mental dissolution or abandon that portray the lives of their protagonists as continuous noir. Lynn Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, adapted from Jonathan Ames’s crystalline pulp novella, centres on a violent man suffering from a severe form of PTSD that has him zone out for seconds at a time, afflicted by images of past trauma.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is an ex-serviceman living a kind of civilian black ops untraceable life as a private heavy specialising in rescuing kids from rings of paedophiles. His method with the captors involves the brutal use of hammers, images from which, in a film that favours close-ups of objects, Ramsay’s camera steps away. They’re shown at a distance, for instance, on CCTV cameras. There’s no glorying in blood just photographic chill, and that recoil from horror, for me, makes them all the more powerful than the close-up splatter of S. Craig Zahler or Tarantino.
Noir here is gorgeous gleaming city lights flashing by shot from taxis and hire cars, piss-yellow interior corridors, long shots of near-empty buildings with a single implacable figure moving through them, a fragmentary dicing of things that catch Joe’s haunted attention.
Phoenix, sporting a shaggy beard and a wary, impassive mien, sculpted his body into that of a shambling multi-scarred muscle man with a gut, whose memory taunts him not with the absence suffered by Memento’s Leonard Shelby but with jagged flashbacks that leave him frozen and enervated in the moment.
Anonymity protects his fragile existence, but secrecy is compromised when, on entering the house he shares with his mother (whose abuse by his father is the source of his own trauma) a kid who works at the supermarket where he picks up his work messages sees him.
When his next job – ostensibly rescuing a politician’s daughter – goes wrong, that moment of being spotted leads to a classic noir bind: Joe, having lost everything that matters to him attempts a suicide by drowning that becomes a rebirth. We assume then that vengeance is on his mind and there’s a young innocent to save but what unfolds purposefully undermines the man’s-gotta-do element of fatalist biblical justice.
Throughout, the film, through Joe’s eyes, freezes on close-ups of random human faces, as if the camera is looking for evidence of trauma in every passer-by. As befits an age when therapy and protection of the vulnerable are prime concerns, You Were Never Really Here is more interested in revealing the causes of crime and the damage inflicted than in crime itself, the psychological fore and aftermath of events that noir, with its flashbacks and its anxious scanning for what’s coming, is uniquely capable of accommodating but rarely embraces.
Steve McQueen, 2018
Black and white
Several Black American directors seized the opportunity to use elements of noir in the 1990s: Carl Franklin with One False Move (1992) and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995); John Singleton with Boyz n the Hood (1991), Mario Van Peebles New Jack City (1991) and Bill Duke Deep Cover (1992).
Infamously, that surge of fresh Black talent was neither nurtured nor encouraged by Hollywood and one consequence is that Black American directors seem less interested in a genre that confines them to portraying criminals types. But in Widows, British director Steve McQueen, working with American crime fiction novelist Gillian Flynn as co-screenwriter, successfully turns that problem inside out, using multiple perspectives to expose the political structure of graft and intimidation that cements criminality into the fabric of American politics.
With its brief intimate first shot, the film makes an immediate statement of the contrasting skin tones of Viola Davis and Liam Neeson as they kiss in bed of white sheets in an apartment of white walls. Yet what’s most striking about Widows is not the difference but the moral near-equivalence of its venal participants.
The film is drawn from the 1980s British television series of the same name, whose basic conceit has not been changed. A team of male bank robbers gets killed while on a job. Under pressure to replace the money lost, their widows resolve to mount a heist themselves using chief robber Harry Rawlings’s detailed playbook.
But if the difference between good and bad here is just shades of economic necessity, that’s not to say the blatant distinction between a race kept down since slavery and one that presumes the continuance of its privilege of power isn’t present. It inflects every spoken word.
Of all the Neo-noirs here Widows is the film which best offers that greater sense of community I mentioned earlier. Partly this comes from our protagonists being women forced to band together against their better judgement and partly it’s to do with the admittedly rickety subplot: the election for Alderman in a South Side Chicago district that pits a corrupt white continuity candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrow) against an equally corrupt Black hopeful Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry).
Veronica (Davis), ostensible widow to Rawlings (Neeson), is immediately threatened by Manning whose campaign money it was that was stolen. She recruits two others, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a Latino, and Alice (Elisabeth Debicki), of Polish origin – the fourth Widow, Amanda (Carrie Coon), is excused because she has a recently born baby.
The urgent sense conveyed of their desperate vulnerability to an imminent fate is what makes Widows most noirish.
As well as handling his first crime film with the directness of a Don Seigel, McQueen is also adroit at the shorthand of nodding to existing crime films. The casting of Neeson as Harry Rawlings, the homme fatale, makes use of his implacable persona from the Taken films, and his character has echoes of Gillian Flynn’s most famous creation, Amy, the disappeared wife in Gone Girl (2014).
In Neo-noir terms, setting a heist movie in Chicago puts the film in Michael Mann territory and there are a few echos of Heat, not least a brief coffee shop encounter between Davis and Coon, two hard women talking tough less sentimentally than De Niro and Pacino.
Bi Gan, 2018
In the mood for reverie
At Cannes in 2004, so powerfully did Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 inhabit my mind that I wandered the back streets of that tourist town feeling that everything I saw was an extension of that film as I walked in a kind of trance of echoed moments and memories.
The only filmic equivalent I’ve ever had of that rich post-screening experience was watching Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018), a labyrinthine, noir-inspired dream-logic film that would be easy to dismiss as all style – especially as you’re given 3D glasses and told to use them only at the moment the protagonist puts his on. I’ve chosen it here for its radical reworking of noir language but it also stands for the phenomenal influence of Wong Kar-wai.
No one has done more to revive and update the glamour and allure of noir cinematography and settings than Wong and his collaborator designer/editor William Chang, although this century they’ve mostly used them in gorgeous melancholy romantic dramas such as In the Mood For Love (2000), 2046 (2004) and My Blueberry Nights (2007). Wong is just one – the crucial one – of the many influences acknowledged happily by Bi Gan; prominent among the others are Resnais, Tarkovsky, Lynch and Apichatpong.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is unquestionably a noir but it has no coherent narrative plot line. What it seeks to do and succeeds in achieving in two parts (like Mulholland Dr.) is an evocation of the pull of fractured memory followed by an immersion in a nocturnal dream state.
“Anytime I saw her I knew I was in a dream again,” says protagonist Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), a former casino manager, referring to Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), a femme who proved fatale in the past when her gangster ex-boyfriend killed her lover, Luo’s friend Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi).
Luo himself questions whether his memories of his own affair with her, in which she’s always wearing a green dress, are real or not. He’s thinking about death because he’s just returned home to Kaili (Bi Gan’s home town in the sub-tropical Guizhon region of South West China) for his father’s funeral and about Wan Qiwen because he’s hoping to find her there.
This first pre-3D part of the film revels in the insubstantial, in slippages of time and identity, in half-heard mutterings, and flashes of recognition. The second part begins when Luo, with time to kill, enters a cinema and puts on his 3D glasses. Thereafter, in one continuous 50-minute take, via scooter and zip wire, we descend first to a pool hall managed by a woman who might be Wan Qiwen, then on downwards via levitation to a village karaoke contest where trouble is brewing.
At nearly every moment of this dazzlingly choreographed shot one is beguiled by some detail or wowed by the ever-morphing spectacle. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is at the absolute forefront of rethinking how cinema works, and it shows how the reconfigured language of noir can successfully describe states of consciousness never realised before on screen.
Originally published: 27 November 2020