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May 22, 2012

Neo-Noir Films (Movie reviews)

It was already difficult to define the noir style, so what about neo-noir?

Neo-noir - which is generally thought to start somewhere in the 1970s and continue all the way to today - of course shares the characteristics of noir crime films (the sexual motivation of the crime plus presence of a femme fatale, and the general atmosphere of doom), although the precise visual style of classical film noir is more difficult to emulate, as these newer films are in color, but the shadows are often replaced by garishness, such as neon lights and their sleazy colors.

The main difference is that where noir was a period style, in which craftsmen-like directors churned out one B-film after another (although there were of course also individualistic directors as Welles), neo noir is a conscious style selected by an authorist director. He often plays around with noir elements in a postmodern way and often pays homage to classical noir films. For example, Femme Fatale by De Palma starts with footage from Double Indemnity and then places the face of its protagonist, who is watching TV, over that of Barbara Stanwyck to identify them with each other.

Although there are also excellent neo-noirs in other genres than the crime genre - most of all science-fiction films as the very noir Blade Runner or Alien, but also historical costume dramas as From Hell - I limit my discussion to the crime film, as I did for the classical noir film.

Some of the best neo-noir crime films are:
  • Basic Instinct (1992) by Paul Verhoeven and with Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas. A police detective investigating the brutal murder of a former rock star, becomes involved in a torrid and intense relationship with the beautiful and mysterious prime suspect. Sharon Stone is the perfect femme fatale, both in the mind games and in the sexual games she plays with her interrogators. There is also a strong sense of doom, for we see Michael Douglas mentally falling apart and slowly coming closer and closer to the flame of the dangerous seductress. One of the greatest films made in the 1990s, with an unbelievable low rating on IMDB. I give it (10).
  • MulHolland Drive (2001) by David Lynch and with Naomi Watts and Laura Harring. A car wreck on the winding Mulholland Drive renders a woman amnesic. She lifts a new name from a Gilda poster where Rita Hayworth is advertised and hides in a house where she meets a perky aspiring actress who has newly arrived in Los Angeles. Their quest for answers will take them beyond reality into the tricky world of dreams. A game with alternate realities, and, like Sunset Boulevard, about broken dreams in Hollywood. Laura Harring is a classic femme fatale, but here with a twist, for her charms work on another woman. Nightmarish, threatening atmosphere. (10)
  • Femme Fatale (2002) by Brian de Palma and with Rebecca Romijn and Antonio Banderas. A woman thief takes part in a heist at the Cannes Film Festival to steal a golden snake encrusted with diamonds, an object worn by a model on her naked body. She double-crosses her partners, but is by sheer luck able to easily assume another identity and flee to the U.S. Seven years later she returns to France as the wife of the new American Ambassador, but then her past comes to haunt her. Again a film in which a dream plays an important role. De Palma is playing around with genre expectations in a most inventive way and Rebecca Romijn is the classical femme fatale who only looks after her own interests. This film is sheer fun. (9)
  • Body Heat (1981) by Lawrence Kasdan and with Kathleen Turner and William Hurt. While a blistering heat wave rages in Florida, a somewhat sleazy lawyer begins an affair with the wife of a wealthy businessman that is soon blazing away even hotter than the weather. But the husband seems to stand in the way of perfect happiness so they hatch a plot to kill him. There is a nice twist at the end, showing you should never trust a femme fatale. Inspired by Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Started up the careers of both Turner and Hurt. (9)
  • The Last Seduction (1994) by John Dahl and with Linda Fiorentino, Peter Berg and Bill Pullman. A beautiful but amoral woman who is married to a doctor persuades him to sell medicinal cocaine to drugs dealers. Next she steals the money and goes undercover in a mid-American small town, where she meets a naive young guy who is blinded by her charms and brazen outspokenness. As her husband is still after her, she devises a diabolical plan to get rid of him and the boyfriend in one swoop and start enjoying her millions. Linda Fiorentino is a steely and deadly femme fatale, who turns the men around her into whimpering fools. Again a film which is sheer fun. (9)
  • Klute (1971) by Alan J. Pakula and with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. A square suburban cop comes to New York to find a missing man. The only clue is the connection with a cynical call girl. When the woman is uncooperative, the detective taps her phone intending to blackmail her into helping him. Then it appears that the call girl has a stalker after her, which finally brings them closer. The detective is not the only one listening to tapes. Fonda won an Oscar for her role in this tense erotic thriller and she fully deserves it. (9)
  • Jackie Brown (1997) by Quentin Tarantino and with Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Forster. Again a film about a woman with nerves of steel who takes it all. A flight attendant who gets caught smuggling money for a weapons dealer makes a deal with the cops to help them arrest the wanted man. Her bail bondsman - a burnt-out man in his fifties - helps her, but gets into more than he wanted when she hatches a plot to play off the cops against the criminals and cash the money herself. Great acting by all: Pam Grier, who was mainly famous for sleazy blaxploitation films from the 1970s, Samuel Jackson as the brutal weapons dealer, Robert De Niro as a brainless hood just out of prison, Bridget Fonda as a big-mouthed chick and Robert Forster as the kind bondsman who falls in love with Jackie Brown but in the end lets her go as she is too strong for him. (9)
  • Bound (1996) by Andy and Lana Wachowski, and with Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon and Joe Pantoliano. A young woman longs to escape from her mafioso boyfriend and enters into an affair with an alluring ex-con. The two women hatch a scheme to steal mafia money and put the blame on the former boyfriend. But that is easier said than done. A breezy and highly enjoyable film. (8.5)
  • Blood Simple (1984) by Joel and Ethan Coen and with John Getz, Frances McDormand and Dan Hedaya. The Coen Brothers have made many fine films that deserve the designation "neo-noir." This was their first one and it has the most authentic noir style. A bar owner thinks his wife is deceiving him with one of his bar keepers and has her watched by a sleazy detective. This sets off a complicated round of violence with many funny but fatal misunderstandings. Only the strong survive.  (8.5)
  • Memento (2000) by Christopher Nolan and with Guy Pierce, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano. An ex-insurance investigator who can no longer build new memories attempts to find the murderer of his wife - the last thing he thinks he remembers. He helps his failing memory with Polaroid pictures, notes and tattoos. Ingenious storytelling with two story lines, one normally moving forward in time, the other moving backward in blocks, so that viewers are in the same position as the protagonist: they have no memories of what has happened and feel displaced. The ending is open and suggests that the memory-less avenger may be endlessly repeating himself. There is also a wry sort of humor in how he is repeatedly cheated by those around him. (8.5)