A Modern Take on Film Noir
April 10, 2016 – Alex Walker
Cinema historically pays tribute to its past. Entire film movements have been echoed, mirrored, honoured, and even parodied by modern day movies. Film Noir, a film era predominantly from the 1940’s and 50’s often used notable traits to distinguish itself. Usually crime dramas and thrillers, its themes were based on cynicism, betrayal and sexual desires, capitalising on the post-Great Depression in the US, with a visual style based on German Expressionism of the 1920’s. Stories would revolve around a hard-boiled detective, a double- crossing femme fatale, wrapping them both in murder. Modern cinema took these traits, built upon them, and produced a new genre in itself: Neo Noir.
The films based in this genre are all very diverse, set across a multitude of other genres, from sci-fi to fantasy, but all have themes rooted in Noir films of the 40’s and 50’s. This list looks at examples of films from recent history that pay homage to the greats that came before them.
Drive (2011, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
Radiating cool, Winding Refn’s Drive pays homage to both Noir and 80’s thrillers. A rare example of a style-over-substance film doing it right, Drive is filled with slow-paced, real time moments between characters where a lot is said, just without words. When the action hits, it hits hard; with the rush of seeing the Driver (Ryan Gosling) outsmart police and gangsters alike.
Beautifully and moodily lit, shots of the Driver lingering in doorways, and close moments with Irene (Carey Mulligan) are mirrors to classics like Casablanca and Touch of Evil.
Nightcrawler (2014, dir. Dan Gilroy)
While Nightcrawler may not follow as many of the conventional Noir tropes, its influences are certainly there. The seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, focusing on modern media, the solitary lead male (Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom) and the femme fatale (Rene Russo’s Nina Romina). Dripping in psychological overtones, Nightcrawler is the only film on this list that roots itself within modern day television – a new twist on the traditional L.A stories of the Golden Age of Cinema.
Brick (2005, dir. Rian Johnson)
With most of the lead characters being high-school students, Brick stands as one of the more unique takes on the hardboiled genre. During production, Johnson made no reference to its noir roots, as to make sure the production was not a reproduced genre film. Despite this, the film draws heavily on the works of Dashiell Hammet, an author famous for detective novels and screenplays. Johnson says, “It was really amazing how all the archetypes from that detective world slid perfectly over the high school types”.
Fight Club (1999, dir. David Fincher)
Controversial upon its release and laden with dark humour, Fight Club has been interpreted in a number of ways. With themes of coming of age, psychological breaks and Nietzsche-esque questions of morality, Fight Club’s characters fit the tropes of the disenfranchised and grizzled lead male (Edward Norton), with the femme fatale (Helena Bonham Carter) luring him into sexual and dangerous encounters, both mentally and physically. Building upon these outlines, the characters are modern day human examples of cynicism with society.
Blade Runner (1982, dir. Ridley Scott)
From modern day L.A to futuristic Tokyo, Blade Runner has always wowed audiences with its setting. Blade Runner owes a great deal to Film Noir, blending questions of morality, technology and globalisation with the femme fatale, the grizzled detective with questionable morals and a rain-drenched showdown between Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). With shot similarities in Metropolis and I Wake Up Screaming, Blade Runner builds on the Noir themes to produce a stunning sci-fi film with many themes that run through the veins of cinema.
Shot comparisons between Metropolis and Blade Runner (Blade Runner dir. Ridley Scott, distributed by Warner Bros. Metropolis dir. Fritz Lang, distributed by UFA, Paramount Pictures and Kino Lorber)
L.A. Confidential (1997, dir. Curtis Hanson)
The only film on this list to be set in the 1950’s, L.A. Confidential was described by Roger Ebert as being”film noir, and so it is, but it is more… It contains all the elements of police action, but in a sharply clipped, more economical style; the action exists not for itself but to provide an arena for the personalities”. The film’s visual style, while in colour, accurately represents the themes of police corruption and shady going-ons. Its story is one of the more traditional noir-themed in our examples; the femme fatale, an underbelly of crime and the glitz of Hollywood.
Memento (2000, dir. Christopher Nolan)
The inventive mystery thriller Memento’s innovative script and dark cinematography add something fresh to the neo-noir genre. With monochrome and colour photography, the film finds a blend of old and new cinema. Like many of Nolan’s films, you can trace the influences of Memento backwards in time, to films such as Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, with themes of obsession and a want for power over another.
Sin City/Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2005/2014, dir. Robert Rodriguez)
Based on the cult comic book series, the Sin City films are immediately recognizable as neo-noir films before a word of dialogue is spoken. Heavily stylized with its digital monochrome cinematography, the films are both faithful to the source material and to the monochrome style of Film Noir, using high contrast between the blacks and whites. Shots for example, especially in the sequel, feature the famous venetian blinds shadow across a character’s face. Famous examples of this can also be seen in films such as The Maltese Falcon. Because the film used a heavy amount of digital effects, it allowed the production to match the comic book nearly frame for frame, which leads to it being able to recreate noir tropes in an unique manner.
Mulholland Drive (2001, dir. David Lynch)
A twisted tale of Hollywood, David Lynch’s Oscar-nominated neo-noir film holds resemblances to Sunset Boulevard, with the actual Sunset Boulevard featuring in the film. A story about broken dreams, deceit and manipulation, Mulholland Drive’s themes and motives are straight from the noir films of the 50’s, through the warped lens of David Lynch’s storytelling. Infusing nostalgia for real filmmaking in amongst the cynicism of Hollywood, with the lead character Betty (Naomi Watts) being recognized by studios for her talents, and the casting of actors such as Chad Everett and Ann Miller. A film with plenty of thematic depth to explore, Mulholland Drive is a film entrenched in both current and Golden Age Hollywood.
Oldboy (2003, dir. Park Chan-wook)
A tale of brutal revenge, South Korean thriller Oldboy blends hard violence with beautiful cinematography. Its plot revolves around a man released from a hotel room after being captive for 15 years, as he tracks down his captors and becomes entwined with an attractive young chef. These themes of mystery, lust and vengeance fit under the noir parasol, despite deviating the classic lead character roles. South Korean cinema holds a variety of films in the same vein, such as Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil, including the other two films in Oldboy’s trilogy, Lady Vengeance and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
Neo-Noir owes much to Film Noir, with the themes of storytelling being hallmarks of both genres. Notable themes and character frameworks are identifiable in many of the films on this list; with each one building on what came before, adding new twists and enhancements to tell new stories.