Split Decision: Noirvember
Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!
This week’s question:
In honor of Noirvember, what is your favorite film noir (or neo-noir)?
My favorite noir from the 1940s is The Big Sleep, which has Humphrey Bogart as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The scene introducing Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) is wild, and ends with an amusing rejoinder. There's undeniable chemistry between Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The script, by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, features some of the best hard-boiled dialogue in the genre. I love the scene where Bogart goes to bookstore (and the follow up in another bookstore across the street) I also love that no one, not the esteemed screenwriters or Chandler himself, know who killed the Sternwood chauffeur. This is a defining noir and a film that yields countless pleasures every time I watch it.
For neo-noir, The Last Seduction, starring Philly-born actress Linda Fiorentino as Bridget Gregory, the iciest femme fatale ever captured on screen. "Anyone check you for a heartbeat recently," she's asked at one point--and with good reason. Bridget is getting back at her husband Clay for hitting her. She's taken $100,000 of his money and absconded to a small town where she sets her sights on Mike Swale (Peter Berg) who is cute but dumb. What transpires in the film is best left for audiences to discover, but Fiorentino is a force of nature here. Alas, The Last Seduction played on HBO before it received a theatrical run, making the film ineligible for the Oscars, and Fiorentino truly deserved Best Actress. It's a helluva performance in a helluva film.
I'll also add that one of my favorite noir characters is Peter Lorre's Joel Cairo from The Maltese Falcon. This scene:
When it comes to classic noir, my knowledge is embarrassingly limited. I've seen The Third Man, and if you want to include Casablanca in the mix (it counts, stylistically!!), I've seen that too. As for the neo-noir subgenre, I've seen them all and my favorite is easily the Coen brothers' debut film, Blood Simple. Unlike the classic noir as I understand it, there's very little by way of stylistic heightening in Blood Simple. Everything occurs exactly as it would in real life, with every assumption, mistake, or identity confusion feeling like a mistake any one of us could make, even with dramatic irony in tact. On top of that, this Texas set slow burn isn't nearly as crisp or clinical in tone. Nope, the polyester edge of noir is replace with sweat, dirt, and ever present humidity. It's no wonder people are killing each other.
I will take a cue from Gary and pick one for noir and one for neo-noir.
For classic noir, I have to go with Double Indemnity. Directed by Billy Wilder and starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, it also features a screenplay co-written by Raymond Chandler. The plot is one that has since been borrowed liberally from several times over, almost starting it's own micro genre- about an insurance claims adjuster who falls for a femme fatale, and the two hatch a plot to murder her husband while making it look like an accident to collect on the life insurance money. It's a dark and sexy movie for 1944. The dialogue, performances, cinematography, and Wilder's typically flawless direction are all just to die for. When it ends, you can't help but feel you have just watched a perfect movie.
For neo-noir, I have to choose Roman Polanski's Chinatown, one of my all time favorite films. Neo noir arguably started along with the New Hollywood and its major shifts in filmmaking style. It also updated the themes of noir to reflect the Vietnam era- one in which people were generally more cynical, mistrusting, and more aware of the powers that be. Chinatown has all that in spades, despite taking place during the 1940's. Starring Jack Nicholson right in the middle of his all-time great films streak, he plays detective Jake Gittes, a Los Angeles private investigator whose hired for a job tailing a cheating husband. He gets quickly wrapped up in a much bigger mystery- one involving murder, the California water wars, and the dark secrets of the beautiful Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Chinatown is famous for how it subverted many noir tropes- most notably, that the femme fatale Evelyn turns out to be the most sympathetic character in the film- perhaps the only one with any integrity or heart. Roman Polanski famously added on the dark ending to Robert Towne's original script, claiming that if it were a happy resolution to the story that nobody would remember the film. He might be right. Considering that Polanski's own wife was murdered by the Manson family just five years prior, the ending of Chinatown rings powerfully as a devastating ode to a young woman's life, one that was taken far too soon. And what is there to say, when all is said and done, when the bad guys get away and the good people have to suffer? "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
Miller's Crossing is my favorite movie, so it's probably my favorite noir as well. I've already written about it for Split Decision, though, so in the interest of not writing the same response about the same three or four perfect movies every time we do one of these, I'll pivot to Rififi. My sense of what is and isn't noir is pretty open (i.e. I'd consider a solid half of the Coen bros' other films to be noir), but Jules Dassin's Rififi is undeniably in the genre. Its real-life story, of a well-liked American director blacklisted from Hollywood before he was able to properly finish what was up to that point his masterpiece, bumming around Europe, failing to get anything else going as the US government puts pressure on everybody he starts talking to to dump him, is itself pretty damn noir. After selling out his fellow artists, Elia Kazan made On the Waterfront, which has some of the same beats as Dassin's actual life in the 50s. And I think Dassin, the real-life noir hero, still made the better film!
Miller's Crossing is such a great choice that I'm mad I didn't think of it first! So I'll instead dish out some love to Rian Johnson's breakout feature Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The approach of setting a gritty detective story in a high school but playing it straight as a true noir makes for an extremely entertaining odyssey with a wry sense of humor. It somehow feels appropriate, with the huge, performative emotions that we exude in high school fitting perfectly into the dark and cynical worldview of noir. As teenagers we treat every break-up as if it carries the weight of the world with it, and the irony of the heightened world in which noir exists paralleling those heightened emotions is deliciously comic. If you're only familiar with Johnson thanks to his (absolutely excellent) entry in the Star Wars canon, I can't recommend seeking this out enough, as well as his other earlier films, The Brothers Bloom and Looper.
It's hard to stray from popular opinion here because Noir is such well-tread territory, and one of the great early 20th century cinematic movements to form into such a distinct language of elements. The greats of Noir stand out so magnificently among the mediocre, and its influence has disseminated so widely that I've lost count of how many times I've either heard or used the term "Noirish" . Double Indemnity is indeed the crown jewel, the 100% pure straight-to-the-veins kind of Noir that set not only the tone and tenets of the genre but also established its mainstream potential as more than mere pulp. What Noir did was tap into a wellspring of pessimism and broke the bubble of American idealism alongside the torment of WWII. With such timing, it seemed to confirm the unimaginable darkness that ensnared the world and turned it into art that was more honest, or at least more perceptive of this turmoil. With all due deference to DI, I have to side with Alexander Mackendrick's cutthroat 1957 newspaper flick Sweet Smell of Success, starring Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, jazz and NYC. This is easily one of the most quotable films I have ever seen (literally every sentence), with wildly crafty cynical lines delivered with speed and near-naturalness unbecoming of their perfectly honed razorlike edges that shank with every utterance. It does what all truly great noir does: creates a dense mood of urgency and dread, reveals the seediest of underbellies in our institutions and in people's hearts, writhes in the shadows and textures of the city, crisscrosses allegiances until the constellation is too muddled to name, and makes it all delicious as lives are ruined and the city churns on. That Sweet Smell of Success takes place in one night makes it all the more potent, distilled, jagged and dangerous. For that reason, I have to throw Malle's Elevator to the Gallows into this mix, also a one night stand with calamity, also starring Jazz.
As for Neo-Noir, I'm less sure of what occupies the top of my list because defining Neo-Noir can be a difficult enterprise (though we more-or-less know when we've seen it... here's looking at YOU mid-90's). Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet are the forerunners of extending the aesthetic aspects of Noir that I love into more abstract and psychosexual territories. But I'm also drawn to the presence of Noir in less likely places. Ozu Yasujiro's Tokyo Twilight (another masterwork from 1957) is what I've described as a Domestic Noir, and in different ways Ozu infuses a slow-burning, largely familial drama with the weight, darkness and dread of Noir to brilliant effect without a single shootout. This reminds me too of the more overt reference to Noir mechanics via Voice Over Narration in Todd Field's suburban-set Little Children.
That said, the most most salient modern Noir in my mind, at least in terms of period setting, story and style is Mendes's 2002 Road to Perdition. Having only seen it once when it came out, I'm going on the ghost of a memory here, but even that specter is embedded deeply with texture, shadows and brooding urgency.
While I would love the challenge of trying to defend Sin City, I have to go with my heart and pick David Fincher's breakout film, Se7en. While Ali3n is technically Fincher's first foray into Hollywood features (and I just noticed the numbers-as-letters connection between these), Se7en was the movie that put Fincher on the map as more than just a great music video director. He constructs a methodically paced yarn that is arresting while also remaining relatively quiet until its heart-pounding third act. Se7en showcased the clinical camera movements and subdued color palettes that Fincher would later become known for, creating an unsettling cinematic atmosphere that you can't quite put your finger on.
The ambience is bolstered by subtle noir touches, like the constant torrential downpours (which Fincher actually employed as a budget exercise so he could anonymize the city in which these events take place), or the set-up of the serial killer making his way through the 7 Deadly Sins. It provides a kind of menacing race-against-time that is easy for the audience to follow, with the detectives being one step behind the killer for the entire film.
But what really makes Se7en stick out in my mind is the mystery behind the identity of the serial killer, right down to the marketing of the film. *SPOILERS AHEAD* His being a deplorable human being aside, Kevin Spacey was a big star in 1995. To think that Fincher deliberately (and successfully) withheld the surprise of Spacey being John Doe from audiences is so impressive that it still gives me a rush of adrenaline when I see a bald Spacey show up at the precinct occupied by the very people searching for him, with literal blood on his hands, to begin the final leg of his master plan. The conclusion of Se7en is so incredibly disturbing and immensely satisfying, I can't help but enjoy the ride more than objectively better Fincher noir films like Zodiac.
And I still find people shouting "What's in the booooooooxxxx?!?!?!". Any movie that is over 20 years old and still remains in the cultural zeitgeist deserves every ounce of praise we can heap at it.
Having only seen The Third Man once over a decade ago, the post-war Vienna film still looms high in my memory, especially chasing Harry Lime through the tunnels under the city. It’s a beautiful, haunting, and ultimately heartbreaking story on a number of levels.
As for neo-noir, I love when that style of storytelling is mixed with science fiction, as in several Philip K. Dick adaptations (Blade Runner, Minority Report). But a film that my mind frequently returns to is my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film, Inherent Vice. Anderson’s ear for arid comedy is highly underrated, and in adapting Thomas Pynchon’s stoner detective novel, Anderson plays up all aspects of those various genres, often for hilarious effect. And like much of Anderson’s work, by zeroing in on a specific time and subculture (in this case, stoners and the “silent majority), he reveals a truth about America. If you can remain sober long enough to piece it together, at least.