The Criterion Shelf: Neonoir

Criterion gathers up films that rebooted a decades-old genre and which, our reviewers discover, were more than just gimmicks

When the popularity of film noir first emerged, the world was in danger: World War II was raging in Europe, men were coming home shell-shocked or not at all, and the idea that America’s shiny, prosperous existence was resting atop corruption and deceit was acceptable to audiences who were surviving rationing and the uncertainty of a future where Adolf Hitler could be emperor of the planet.

We all have our own idea of what film noir means: usually a story involving a detective and a femme fatale, a mystery set in a shadowy world, typically taking place in Los Angeles where the palm trees wave in the breeze to distract you from the dirt in which they’re rooted. The genre had already started before the war. Its stylistic roots can be found in the German Expressionist films whose directors came to Hollywood to escape the rising Nazi threat; the films often labeled as “proto-noirs” include, unsurprisingly, two by Fritz Lang–Fury and You Only Live Once– while a Wikipedia search reveals that Stranger on the Third Floor, a forgotten film by a forgotten director named Boris Ingster is considered the first “official” film noir.  Academic debate on the definition of noir has been controversial for decades. Some argue that its elements don’t even amount to a genre at all (and they should just shut up).

At its height, noirs featured actresses making a career out of playing women of questionable virtue: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Ava Gardner in The Killers, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Jane Greer never became a star after Out of the Past but that film is considered the very epitome of noir-dom, with Robert Mitchum emerging a legend for his portrayal of the classic private eye after it had been done so beautifully by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep (and less beautifully but still competently by Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet).  The term film noir was itself not coined until French critic Nino Frank used it in 1946 and, even more incredible, it wasn’t actually widely adopted by Americans until a revival of the genre found its way into movies in the 1970s.

With its revival in the era of Vietnam, counterculture and true corruption in government post-Watergate, film noir returned with more than a few modifications to suit the changing times: the detectives didn’t have to be fedora-sporting Los Angelinos. They could be from Harlem and be Black (which, in the case of Cotton Comes to Harlem, gave birth to another genre, blaxploitation, whose popularity would last the decade), the more prurient elements of the plots (sexuality, language) didn’t have to be cut out by censors (The Big Sleep remake) and while some films were sincere tributes to yesteryear (Farewell My Lovely), others were shaggy, ironic updates (The Long Goodbye).

The popularity of the newly renovated genre lasted well past the ’70s. The cynicism of the era was an awakening that has never gone away and, with the increased presence of film schools, archives and restoration projects, tributes to genres of the past (Body Heat) have become a genre of their own.  Criterion Channel’s Neonoir collection, a new height in the quality of curation that they provide, is a juicy indulgence that has no end of treasures to uncover or rediscover even if it is missing some key entries (The Grifters, L.A. Confidential and, hear me out, Loving Vincent).  The options that are included, which Colin Biggs and Barbara Goslawski generously helped take stock of, range from effective updates of the genre, like Penn’s Night Moves, to Brian De Palma’s using the template for his own brand of fun and games in Blow Out and Body Double.

Reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted.

 

MUST-SEE NEONOIR

Cotton Comes to Harlem (Ossie Davis, 1970)

Davis’s directorial debut is this exciting crime caper about two Harlem detectives (Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques) investigating a populist “Back to Africa” preacher who they believe is a con man and was involved in the robbery of his followers’ funds. Just under a $100,000 is hidden in a bale of cotton that the cops are trying to track down while getting to the bottom of just how far the suspected corruption goes. Superb action sequences and stunts enrich this film, long considered the birth of seventies blaxploitation, though its imitators rarely had its gorgeous cinematography and an exciting story whose pace never dips.

 

Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975)

This terrific detective story failed at the box office but time has been very good to its moody delights. Gene Hackman is terrific as yet another smart but frustrated lead character, a private eye who is hired by Hollywood matron Janet Ward to look for her missing teenage daughter (a debuting Melanie Griffith). He finds her in the Florida Keys and brings her home, but that’s not the end of the mystery when bodies start to pile up and the case turns out to be connected to (what else) greed and corruption in the movie business. Gorgeous, glinty cinematography, an assured, subtle pace and sexy chemistry between Hackman and femme fatale Jennifer Warren are just some of the highlights of this gem, which ends with a real bang.

 

Farewell, My Lovely (Dick Richards, 1975)

Barbara Goslawski: Antihero icon Robert Mitchum stars as legendary private eye Phillip Marlowe in this 1975 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s crime novel of the same name (previously adapted in 1944 as Murder My Sweet). If anyone finally personified that necessary hardboiled quality, it was him. An old-fashioned noir thriller with a psychodrama bent, it is a labyrinthine tale of unexpected twists: once bank robber Moose Malloy hires Marlowe to find his missing girlfriend Velma, the gumshoe is dragged into a seedy underground of dodgy characters and mistaken identities – until he meets the beautiful Mrs. Helen Grayle (a luminescent Charlotte Rampling). As Mitchum effortlessly exudes a strangely alluring world weariness, the rich complexity of the supporting characters energizes the film. A few of note include an Academy Award-nominated turn by Sylvia Miles and appearances by familiar faces such as a young Harry Dean Stanton and a baby-faced Sylvester Stallone. What cements the film’s status as classic American neonoir is its arresting moodiness. Right from the opening credits, cinematographer John A. Alonzo captures the sleazy din of the crass neon light, bleeding into the darkness of the cityscapes, a vision promising a deep dark plunge into something irresistible.

 

The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1977)

Wenders’ international breakthrough sees him taking a liberal approach to an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game (filmed more conventionally under its original title by Liliana Cavani in 2002). Dennis Hopper, the only cinematic Ripley in a cowboy hat and Canadian tuxedo, is slighted by ailing art restorer Bruno Ganz and gets him back by involving him in a gang war. shady Gerard Blain shows up and offers Ganz, who is dying of a rare blood disorder, a lot of money to kill a few enemies and won’t take no for an answer.  His well-planned assassinations can never go off without numerous hiccups and complications, and are observed with a breathtaking confidence by Wenders, while the cinematography by Robby Muller has, since this film’s recent restoration, retained its gorgeous multi-hued glow.

 

Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)

Frequently cited as De Palma’s masterpiece, this is certainly his most polished and detailed film, but it gets more respect than Dressed To Kill because it’s not as outrageously indulgent. John Travolta is excellent as an audio engineer who is out on a quiet night recording wild sound takes when he witnesses a car crash that kills a high-ranking politician.  Listening to his audio recordings later on, he’s certain he hears a gun shot that proves it wasn’t an accident, teaming up with the sex worker (Nancy Allen) who survived the crash to get to the bottom of a mysterious conspiracy. This audio take on Blow Up still has a sheen on it that will never wear off and manages to be quite exciting despite showing the director off at his most cynical.

 

The Hit (Stephen Frears, 1984)

One of the best in this collection, Stephen Frears’ first notable feature is a magnificent gangster noir set under the blazing hot Spanish sun. Ten years after he grassed on his underworld colleagues and went into hiding on the Iberian coast, Terence Stamp is kidnapped by John Hurt and Tim Roth and driven across the continent back to the boss he betrayed. Along the way they pick up innocent bystander Laura Del Sol and, as the gorgeous scenery passes outside the car’s windows, take part in a dangerous but understated battle of wills, at the centre of which is Stamp’s odd Holy Fool demeanour as he faces the end of his life.  Hurt’s blood-chilling performance is among his most powerful.

 

Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)

Colin Biggs:  When watching Mindhunter, True Detective or The Alienist, it’s difficult to avoid seeing the influence that Mann’s film has had on crime procedurals. Originally a box-office flop, it has grown in stature thanks to word of mouth and the increasing popularity of the Hannibal Lecter films and television series.  In the lead performance, a relatively unknown William Petersen captivates viewers as a criminal profiler using forensics and psychology to hunt down killers: Will Graham is plagued by his inability to shake the job at the end of the day, his unique gift for getting inside the headspace of killers perhaps just a little too honed. The character is a far cry from the detective films of the time that relied on clues, slip-ups and a quippy lead to relieve the tension, and without Petersen’s turn as Graham, there wouldn’t be an Agent Holden Ford or Rust Cohle to enjoy on television. Manhunter doesn’t have the reputation of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, nor does it have the horror aesthetic, yet it absolutely stands on its own as a crime thriller. Make amends now if you haven’t seen it.

 

Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan, 1986)

Bob Hoskins, in his career defining performance, plays a small-time hood who gets out of the slammer and tries to go legit but finds it difficult. A big-time gangster (a perfectly slimy Michael Caine) hires him to be a driver to a flashy sex worker (Cathy Tyson) with whom he becomes deeply attached enough to help her locate a missing friend. The labyrinthine trip into London’s underworld makes for one of Jordan’s most atmospherically mesmerizing efforts.

 

WORTHY NEONOIR

 

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)

Altman brings Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to the ’70s as something of a parody, but he doesn’t make light of the material itself, throwing a sarcastic Elliott Gould into a number of hairy situations that threaten his safety as he goes in search of a missing alcoholic writer (Sterling Hayden in a magnificent performance). The case ends up being tied to the murder-suicide of his best friend and friend’s wife, while a host of rich characters, including real-life femme fatale Nina Van Pallandt as Hayden’s concerned wife and The Rose director Mark Rydell as a psychotic gangster, populate a Los Angeles landscape whose sun-drenched days are as suspect and sinister as its wide empty streets are at night. Look for a brief early performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger in this underrated gem.

 

Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978)

A Hollywood thriller with flavours of Italian giallo cinema results in a visually dazzling horror movie whose weak ending doesn’t ruin its best qualities. Faye Dunaway plays a high fashion photographer who begins to have disturbing visions of women being murdered, seeing the killings from the victim’s perspective when the killer stabs them in the eyes. As she wanders a late ’70s’ New York swathed in cutting-edge couture and unrelenting ornate décor, she begins to understand that the killer is making their way towards her. Tons of fun.

 

The Onion Field (Harold Becker, 1979)

Newly partnered cops John Savage and Ted Danson pull thieves James Woods and Franklyn Seales over for a broken tail light and end up getting kidnapped at gunpoint. Savage manages to escape but remains psychologically scarred throughout the subsequent legal trial that sees the criminals working every angle of the legal system to avoid the death penalty for years, while the LAPD suggests that the cops were to blame for not being tough enough. A terrifying opening leads to an absorbing courtroom procedural before a moving examination of psychological trauma in a film that never feels messy or outsized despite daring not to retain the same flavour throughout. The emphasis is on realism (including shooting on real locations where the true story occurred) and is given a boost by Woods’ unsettling performance.

 

Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981)

Barbara Goslawski:  Lawrence Kasdan’s sizzling directorial debut is a classic that was criticized by some for hewing too close to its predecessors, remarkable in the ways that it lovingly pays tribute to film noir while at the same time updating the genre, and even subverting it. Free from the constraints of the old Hollywood production code and based on Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, it revolves around a rich woman’s (Kathleen Turner) steamy affair with a hapless shyster (William Hurt). Perhaps inevitably, events take a sudden sinister turn when the lovers hatch a plan to kill the husband. Kasdan’s surprisingly assured hand builds the suspense slowly – in the most satisfying way – helped in large part by the evocative performances.  It’s hard to believe that the film was shot during an unusual cold snap when every aspect of the film oozes the sweat and desperation of its fictional heat wave setting. This is the film that launched Kathleen Turner’s career, and once you see her intoxicatingly sultry turn, you can understand why a person – any person – would do anything to remain in her arms.

 

Cutter’s Way (Ivan Passer, 1981)

A film that, like Night Moves, bombed upon release but has been re-evaluated quite favourably since, this film is a superb example of noir elements being folded quite naturally into a study of personal relationships. Seedy gigolo Jeff Bridges is best pals with angry war veteran John Heard. After Bridges witnesses a man in a dark alley stuffing a young girl’s dead body into a garbage dumpster, he tells his buddy that he thinks it was a powerful business tycoon who did it. Going after the bad guy without being sure it is him riles up their own personal tensions, including their connection to Heard’s unhappy, alcoholic wife (Lisa Eichhorn). No one wanting a good thriller will be satisfied, but as a richly evocative drama with detailed performances and nuanced direction, this one is a classic.

 

The Bedroom Window (Curtis Hanson, 1987)

Isabelle Huppert gets out of bed, looks out the window and witnesses Elizabeth McGovern being assaulted by a man who then runs away and murders another girl instead. Huppert wants to tell the police what she saw except that she was in the bedroom of her lover Steve Guttenberg at the time, and he’s an employee of her husband’s. Plucky Guttenberg insists on going to the cops and saying that it was he who witnessed the attack. However, his good intentions turn on him when the cops start getting suspicious of his shaky story and Huppert leaves him out to dry, so he teams up with McGovern to catch the killer instead. The twisty turns of the story are beyond preposterous, but Hanson has a marvellous time creating gorgeous visuals out of the noir-inspired settings (the best of them an Edgar Allan Poe-themed bar) and plays with conventions by having characters constantly change their archetypes, Guttenberg from stalwart hero to pursued criminal, Huppert from innocent bystander to femme fatale and McGovern from would-be barmaid victim to wisecracking sleuth.

 

Swoon (Tom Kalin, 1992)

Kalin investigates the relationship of child murderers Leopold and Loeb, previously the inspiration for Hitchcock’s Rope and the 1958 film Compulsion, but this time with their sexual relationship presented honestly beyond just innuendo. The romance of two University of Chicago students, whose thrillseeking goes from causing trouble to foul play, is presented through a kaleidoscope of storytelling methods including on-screen narration, intentionally anachronistic characters and clever montages shot expertly in gritty black and white by Ellen Kuras. Part 8 ½, part Honeymoon Killers with dashes of Zelig and Derek Jarman thrown in the mix, Kalin’s tone is never sympathetic to the crime but makes sure to point out that a society that told these men that their relationship wasn’t legitimate might be responsible for their not caring about its rules.  He also doesn’t ignore the irony that during their highly publicized trial, the murder victim was not the major interest for most onlookers. Kalin’s breakout is from the same era of Suture, pre-Tarantino independent films that felt academic and experimental, but his carefully constructed sequences of meta-cinema include as much passion and spontaneity as they do film-school cleverness.

 

The Last Seduction (John Dahl, 1994)

Film lovers and critics were upset that Linda Fiorentino’s crackling performance as a slippery femme fatale who stays ahead of every move made against her was disqualified for Oscar consideration. (The film had premiered on HBO before its theatrical release.). However, it’s hard to know if the Academy would have gone for a character who breaks traditions with such unapologetic zeal: the scene in which the fearless actress takes her hand out of co-star Peter Berg’s unzipped fly and smells her fingers birthed a new brand of gleeful feminine nihilism and it has rarely been seen since. After Fiorentino and husband Bill Pullman pull off a very lucrative drug deal, she stiffs him for the cash and heads upstate where she hides in a town whose charms escape her. While avoiding jilted loan sharks out to punish her, Fiorentino shacks up with an unassuming nice guy (Berg) and, while he does his best to seduce her to his dream of love and romance, she begins to size him up as the perfect foil. Cleverly scripted and directed by Dahl at the top of his game, this one never compromises its lead character in the name of comforting the viewer’s expectations.

 

ONLY FOR THE CURIOUS

 

Across 110th Street (Barry Shear, 1972)

Like Cotton Comes to Harlem, Across 110th Street is another film set north of Central Park where the community’s issues with drugs and crime are actually because of mob involvement from outside of Harlem. Two Italian mobsters and three Black gangsters working for the neighbourhood’s kingpin collect three hundred thousand dollars in dirty money and are interrupted while counting it by three amateur thieves who kill them all and take off with the cash. Racist cop Anthony Quinn is forced to team up with Yaphet Kotto to find the culprits before the vengeful mafia don’s ruthless son-in-law Anthony Franciosa does. The violence is exciting and the film intelligently presents life in the concrete jungle as a moral quagmire where there are no good guys or bad guys, but it sags in the middle where the plot doesn’t progress and most scenes are an excuse for Quinn and Kotto to play a tired version of In The Heat of the Night.

 

The Big Sleep (Michael Winner, 1978)

Director Winner sets the action of this remake of Howard Hawks’ 1946 classic in bright and classy England, where an American ex-patriot general (James Stewart) hires Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) to find out who has been blackmailing him. As always, the situation spirals out of control and involves a number of nefarious characters and seedy situations hiding beneath the pristine hedgerows. Some of the odder choices, like turning Stewart’s daughters into a spoiled kook (Sarah Miles) and a drugged-out nymphomaniac (Candy Clark), won’t work for all viewers, but the lack of censorship refreshingly allows the story’s racier elements to appear. Joan Collins has a terrific supporting turn, filling in for Dorothy Malone as a fatale-ish bookstore clerk.

 

Blood Simple (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 1984)

The Coens’ first feature film, which earned them a following almost immediately, is a visually delightful indulgence in noir traditions, from the consciously shadowy photography to the emphasis on quirky underworld characters. Frances McDormand and John Getz want to run away together but her husband (Dan Hedaya) sets a private investigator (M. Emmett Walsh) after them. The emphasis is more on mood than motion, and thanks to the Coens being happy to indulge in violence but too shy to explore the sexy chemistry between the stars, getting to the exciting ending is a struggle.

 

Body Double (Brian De Palma, 1984)

De Palma responds to the popularity of Spielbergian wonder by taking themes and motifs from Blow Out and Dressed to Kill and giving them a more glamorous spin while scaling back the horror and tension. Craig Wasson plays a struggling actor who falls in love with a beautiful woman (Deborah Shelton) he observes through a telescope at the fancy, only-in-the-eighties-style mansion where he is housesitting, then is horrified to witness her murder. His investigation into the truth behind her death takes him into an exploration of the adult film industry where he teams up with a volatile porn star (an exuberant Melanie Griffith) who holds keys to some very big answers. Made up of a series of lengthy, carefully paced sequences of intrigue, this one is too silly and indulgent to really get De Palma’s cynicism about the seedy underbelly of the City of Dreams across, but is never less than entertaining.

 

Homicide (David Mamet, 1991)

Mamet’s self-consciously theatrical wordplay doesn’t read at all naturally on film, but the more ridiculous elements of this absorbing police thriller come across as creative rather than phony. Joe Mantegna is a detective who stumbles upon the murder of an elderly Jewish woman behind the counter of her candy store. The clues he follows take him down a fascinating rabbit hole of increasingly strange encounters that challenge his own identity as a Jewish man who is not connected to his heritage. As if unable to decide how to end a film that brings up so many fascinating complications, Mamet opts for a wholly implausible shift in the conclusion that neither his script nor Mantegna can sell, but this film is still a deeply enjoyable watch.

 

SKIP IT

 

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976)

Cassavetes’ least interesting film is set in a lurid underworld where seedy strip joint owner Ben Gazzara is in deep gambling debt to a bunch of hoods. They agree to clear the books if he does them the titular favour, which he does only to then see himself become a target. The spontaneous manner in which the action plays out, feeling plotless but not aimless, is as effective as it is in the director’s other films, but none of the characters make an impression. The Channel includes the original 135-minute cut from 1976, despite the 1978 105-minute re-edit being often referred to as the “director’s cut”. Both are for fans only.

 

Trouble in Mind (Alan Rudolph, 1985)

Rudolph sets a tale of passion and crime in a retro-futuristic place called Rain City, where ex-cop Kris Kristofferson gets out of prison and sets his sights on a beautiful ingenue (Lori Singer) who is stuck with an abusive criminal boyfriend (Keith Carradine). Rudolph uses camera setups and cool lighting to turn Seattle’s exteriors into a landscape of fantasy while employing some funky designs on the ultra-cool interiors, but as is often the case with many of his films, he surrounds a host of characters (including Divine in one of his few non-drag performances) around a very hollow centre. Carradine and Geneviève Bujold, as a diner waitress with a heart of gold, deliver spirited performances, but Kristofferson has no idea what his character wants from the story and getting through it is a chore.

 

Suture (Scott McGehee, David Siegel, 1993)

McGehee and Siegel, who would have success with another noirish drama The Deep End eight years after this, make their debut with a story about half brothers (Dennis Haysbert, Michael Harris) who have just lost their father in a murder that Harris might have committed. Switching identities with his brother, Harris then tries to kill Haysbert which sends the latter to the hospital, waking up an amnesiac who tries to piece together the memories he is being fed by people who think he is someone else. On an intellectual level the examination of identity and morality is as incisive as the monochrome cinematography is starkly divided between white and black images (which is, furthermore, reflected in the ironic casting), but it’s not as enjoyable as it is inventive and the whole thing is cold and shallow.

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