Few genres are as instantly recognizable as Film Noir. During the 40s and 50s Hollywood produced a large collection of crime and mystery films that shared some of the following characteristics. Hard-boiled private eyes; alluring Femme Fatales; dangerous gangsters, spies and Nazis; stolen artefacts and inheritances; cigarette smoke and the city at night; captured on celluloid in high-contrast black and white. But where film noir is easily recognizable in tone, visuals and usage of props, neo-noir is perhaps most categorized in how it diverges from film noir.
Instead of the dark cities and offices, neo-noirs can be set in the futuristic, neon-lit dystopian LA from Blade Runner, rather than gangsters and spies the antihero can be pursued by Wall Street brokers and Rabbis such as in Pi, and in place of the cynical detective and the seductive dame, a neo-noir can star a clueless loser and a feminist performance artist, as seen in The Big Lebowski. Where did this slippery genre originate from and how can it be defined when its iconography is so unsteady?
A history of the neo-noir genre is impossible without a brief explanation of the genre it evolved from. Film Noir is a style of classical filmmaking which scholars place in the period between 1941 and 1958, beginning with the Howard Hawke picture, The Maltese Falcon. This genre saw its glory days during and after the Second World war. This is partly because many of the writers and crew members working on these pictures were European refugees, but also because during this time of social and political unrest, there was a need for stories that expressed this mood.
Tonally, film noir is a genre that foregrounds feelings of paranoia and cynicism, usually employing crime and violence as subjects to achieve this. Noir stylistically favours stark contrast in its black and white cinematography, and tends to employ strange camera angles and are usually set in the underbellies of large cities. While their lighting favours a high black and white contrast, film noir thematically centres around morally grey protagonists. Good men who make questionable moral decisions, or downright vile people falling even lower.
It would then be easy enough to say that a neo-noir is a film that employs a certain number of these characteristics but was made outside the Hollywood noir-boom of the 40s and 50s. However, delineating what is noir and what is a neo-noir in such rigid terms may be slightly complicated. What about Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, which was released in 1964 but is a classic noir in every other sense. Or Polanski’s Chinatown. Released in 1974 and shot in colour, the picture is often seen as one of the great noir masterpieces and follows every trope from the hard-boiled private eye, the seductive femme fatale and the moral degeneracy of its political world. Like the noir pictures released after the war did so for their period, Chinatown’s portrayal of political corruption reflected the Watergate scandal and the Nixon presidency. So if the time period is too simplistic a denominator, what makes a film a neo-noir?
Unlike other genres, the neo-noir evades definition. Rather than its own fixed set of themes and conventions, the neo-noir borrows from a previous era of filmmaking and can only be pinned down through its subversion of these tropes. For example, the noir tended to present an antihero as the protagonist, detectives and gangsters who find themselves alienated by a nihilistic and pessimistic world, where traditional morality is rejected in favour of monetary or sexual gain. The hero is often seduced and/or deceived into entering a larger scheme than they originally thought they were getting into, usually taking the fall so the bigger villains can get away scot-free.
A neo-noir film can subvert this trope in a number of ways. Some films push the audience on what they can accept from their protagonist, featuring tortured and ruthless individuals instead of well-intentioned antiheroes. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet sees squeaky-clean Kyle Maclachlan play a young man whose amateur investigations lead him into a terrifying plot of sexual assault and kidnapping, but the film truly becomes chilling when he begins having his own fantasies of rape. On the other end of the spectrum, various neo-noir comedies place a clueless buffoon at the centre of their plot filled with intrigue and double-crossing, or place a traditional noir protagonist in a ridiculous plot, like the explicit noir parody Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid or the animation classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).
The genre is able to venture into much darker places than the classic noir ever could; the latter was often restricted by the infamous Hays Code. This code constituted a series of guidelines for self-censorship in Hollywood, including such restrictions as no nudity, profanity or sympathy for criminals. The Hays Code was upheld throughout the 40s and 50s but had slowly fizzled out around the end of that decade.
A result of the Code was that many classic noirs could merely imply some of the seedier aspects of their plots, a limitation not shared by the neo-noir. Whereas a film like The Postman Always Rings Twice had its ending altered so the criminals were punished, in The French Connection and Se7en, the antagonists ultimately triumph over the protagonists. And neo-noirs see far fewer restrictions on the depiction of sex. An example is Paul Schrader’s Hardcore where George C. Scott plays an entrepreneur who has to save his teenage runaway daughter from the seedy underbelly of the LA porn industry. The mere plot description alone would have killed this film during the Hays era.
Codes & Conventions
One could say that Chinatown, simply by being filmed in colour subverts the high contrast black and white cinematography convention of classic film noir, but there are plenty of examples of colour noirs, the most vibrant being the endlessly stylish Leave Her To Heaven.
Filming in colour does not mean a film automatically receives a neo-noir tag, nor does black and white cinematography make a film a classic noir. Pi and Singapore Sling are both filmed in low key lighting and feature noir elements. Singapore Sling is more of a shock horror film with all the taboo-breaking that entails and as a result, disrupts classic noir conventions.
The synthesis of the noir with different genres is an element shared by many neo-noirs, whether it is cyberpunk science fiction as seen in the Blade Runner films, body horror as in Videodrome or even superhero fantasy such as Constantine where Keanu Reeves plays an occult detective who has to battle demons in contemporary LA. The only aspect that simply has to be carried over from the noir to the neo-noir is the presence of crime. If a film lacks the element of crime, no matter how small, it cannot be called a neo-noir.
Directors & Works
Unlike the classic noir, which features stars primarily known for their noir work such as Humphrey Bogart and Lawrence Tierney, the neo-noir does not have a series of particular actors who return to the genre on a regular basis. However, there are some directors who seem to be fascinated with the form and seek to engage with the classical genre through their own films.
The Coen Brothers made a series of excellent neo-noirs in the 90s and early 2000s including The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There (titles which recall the noir classics The Big Sleep and The Man Who Knew Too Much). Their neo-noir masterpiece came later with No Country for Old Men, a gruelling thriller with very few laughs. It pits a hardened cowboy who stole a briefcase filled with money against an emotionless assassin in one of the most intense games of cat and mouse that cinema has ever offered. Instead of shadowy urban environments, No Country For Old Men is set in the American south, taking place in quiet border towns and run-down motels. It retains the morality play of the noir. The protagonist makes one unethical decision and has to pay for his mistake for the rest of the running time.
Lynne Ramsay directed You Were Never Really Here, a subversion of the genre where a hitman is tasked with recovering a little girl who has fallen into the hands of a paedophilic ring but is plagued by trauma from his own abusive childhood. You Were Never Really Here is so much darker and more grounded in reality than most films belonging to the subgenre, and at the same time brings strange moments of lyrical beauty to its story of depravity.
On the darker end of the spectrum, there are the films of David Fincher, who revels in the murkiest aspects of the noir genre. The aforementioned Se7en deliberately presents a world so vile that two different hard-boiled detective archetypes; the seasoned and silent older professional and the wild and passionate younger recruit, are pushed to their absolute moral limitations. Gone Girl breathe new life into the cliché of the femme fatale, following a woman setting up a more obtuse man as a fall guy, but by presenting the story through her point of view the audience is invited to relate and understand the femme fatale on a level which must classic noirs failed or were not allowed to.