Light emerging from the shadows: SOS staff members share their thoughts on noir
Film noir. What is it? What are its defining characteristics? What films best express its qualities? Sex appeal, violence, cynicism, anti-heroes, femmes fatales, bleak commentary on modern society, maddening twists of fate that perpetuate one’s misery, running away from danger yet never making any ground…noir is and represents a wide variety of things, so much so that film experts do not even agree on whether it is a genre unto itself. (Two of the leading voices, James Ursini and Alain Silver, agree that it represents a movement rather than a definable genre.) For well over two years now, Sound on Sight has hosted the Friday Noir column which, on a near-weekly basis, has covered a great many noir entries of the commonly recognized classic period (1941 to 1959) as well as sizable portion of neo-noirs. Slowly and steadily, the column has explored the extremely exhaustive catalogue of titles with still many to come.
That said, the perspective on noir has been solely my own. It certainly is a thrill and a privilege for Sound on Sight to have given me the mantle to be the writer about film noir, but after 99 articles (some credit should be given to former contributor Daniel Elisevich, who started the column) the time has come to know what Sound on Sight at large thinks of film noir. In conjunction with the column’s 100th entry, I asked the site’s staff members what some of their favourite films are, regardless of era. Sometimes, the responses consisted of unquestionable highlights while others paid tribute to under-seen gems. Collected here is the series of capsule reviews each contributor sent in for the occasion. For Friday Noir #100, I get to take the week off and leave the spotlight to some of Sound Sight’s most astute writers. Without further ado, allow my colleagues to shed some light on their personal favourite noirs.
Written by Ben Simcoe
Directed by Irving Lerner
Directed by Irving Lerner with an original script by Ben Simcoe (with uncredited edits by Ben Maddow), Murder by Contract has been growing in critical reputation ever since Martin Scorsese discussed the film in early interviews shortly after he directed Taxi Driver. Scorsese praised the film for its “economy of style,” the no-nonsense approach to filmmaking, and the ability Lerner exhibited to communicate complex ideas with a cinematic shorthand. The other noteworthy aspect of the film is the score, which is comprised of an electric guitar playing atmospheric lead lines without accompaniment. The film is about a contract killer who refuses to use a gun on the job, finding alternative ways to dispatch his victims (sometimes using his bare hands, high-voltage traps, or flaming arrows). His new job is a woman in a high-profile criminal court case and the killer is, for the first time, experiencing anxiety about his job because, until this point, he has only been hired to killed men. According to the killer, men are simple, predictable creatures while women are complex and are harder to understand. The first part of the film shows the killer sight-seeing around Los Angeles rather than him planning the murder. The killer is casual and aloof and the film spends some time examining this atypical character in contrast to the other, more conventional killers he meets in the underworld. Murder by Contract is filled with witty dialogue and offbeat characterizations throughout that ends with a tense climax in a tunnel, reminiscent of the finale in The Third Man. Thankfully, this film is available in a film noir box set that was put out by Columbia so we can all experience this B-noir masterpiece.
Written by Frank Davis and Jean Renoir
Directed by Jean Renoir
Jean Renoir knows film noir very well. His detective thriller La nuit de carrefour anticipated many of the visual and thematic tropes of film noir a decade before French critics discovered the concept and began applying it to American thrillers. The Woman on the Beach marks Renoir’s return to noir, telling a story about a love triangle, despair, jealousy, and madness. Adapted from the novel None So Blind by Mitchell Wilson and starring Joan Bennet, Robert Ryan, and Charles Bickford, The Woman on the Beach was set to be a prestige picture for RKO but was re-edited in post-production. Renoir most likely had a 90-minute picture in mind, but RKO had little faith in this master cineaste’s ability to film this story properly so they intervened, creating noticeable gaps in the plot. Even with all of these troubles, The Woman on the Beach turned out to be a fascinating portrayal of a desperate artist dealing with sexual jealousy and betrayal. Filmed with Renoir’s usual expertise and cut with all of the storytelling fat trimmed off, The Woman on the Beach remains one this director’s least known films and an overlooked film noir from the 40s.
Written and directed by Shane Black
“This is every shade of wrong.”
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is an odd little movie. In what other film noir would you find a gay private detective, conveniently named Gay Perry (Val Kilmer in one of his best roles), a fake actor (Robert Downey Jr.) and a struggling actress (Michelle Monaghan) colliding together and combing their way through dead bodies and a shifting mystery?
Adapted from a novel by Brett Halliday by Shane Black, directing his first film, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a shrewd, self-deprecating film noir. On one hand, it’s a very straightforward representation of the genre. There’s a pretty girl, murder, wry dialogue, and an intriguing mystery; but on the other hand it is deliciously aware of itself. There’s the clever voice over peppered with film references and divided into chapters with titles taken from Raymond Chandler stories, and a missing finger.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is certainly not the first of its kind, but it’s probably one of the best modern film noirs. Where it succeeds is the way it handles the material. Black relishes in presenting the story’s tone between completely down to earth and hilariously wild. As the story progresses and starts to spin off, things get more and more hectic and the movie embraces it. Kilmer and Downey Jr. are an exceptionally good team and have great chemistry, the script rarely misses a step, and Black is clearly having fun with his directorial debut. Everything about Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang just works.
It’s that mix of old and new that benefits Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang the most. The noir genre, for all its accomplishments and innovations, can become redundant if done the wrong way. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is charming, exceptionally well written, acted and directed. It’s a rare entry into the modern film noir category.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
Somewhere in his post-3rd Rock from the Sun/10 Things I Hate About You career, Joseph Gordon-Levitt turned a sharp corner. He gave his first truly powerful performance in 2004’s Mysterious Skin, but it was Rian Johnson’s 2005 directorial debut Brick that really knocked it out of the park. For years, filmmakers had revisited the noir style, always returning to a cop or detective as their antiheroes. Johnson set his in a Southern California high school, centering on Gordon-Levitt’s Brendan Frye, an outcast trying to piece together the clues surrounding his now-missing girlfriend. What gives Brick its distinct style is its full-blown homage to the Dashiell Hammetts and Raymond Chandlers of post-studio system Hollywood, while still maintaining a modern look and feel. Johnson’s screenplay is overstuffed with quick, snappy dialogue that feels like a 1940s detective story, influenced by Johnson’s request that the actors not watch classic noirs, but Billy Wilder comedies to understand the pacing (he didn’t want their performances to be heavily influenced by noir films). This was only heightened by the muted, shadowy cinematography from Steve Yedlin (he has yet to return to the genre) – the dark, closed-off meeting rooms, the tunnels and barren streets to which we return regularly. Johnson eschews the typical high school movie tropes for something much edgier, allowing Gordon-Levitt to develop and expose his inner Bogie. At its worst, Brick is an excellent intro for younger moviegoers into a classic film genre. At its best, it’s one of the strongest directorial debuts of the last 20 years and a worthy companion to the noir greats of the past.
Written by A. I. Bezzerides
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly is, most likely, not quite like any film noir you’ve ever seen, as jarring for its style as its violence. Our “hero” is Mike Hammer, a stupid, brutish thug of a private eye who, as noir detectives do on a regular basis, runs into a dame who’s nothing but trouble, and gets in over his head. While that may seem like the typical noir plot, Kiss Me Deadly is everything but typical.
Much of the allure comes from a continuing array of odd but fascinating stylistic choices. The opening credits roll top to bottom and backwards, so Kiss Me Deadly becomes Deadly Kiss Me, Robert Aldrich directed by. The film was shocking for its time for its depiction of violence and cruelty, but just as interesting is the violence left off screen. Much of Hammer’s penchant for inflicting bodily harm to his fellow man is left to the imagination, letting our minds fill in the blanks and lending Hammer an almost superhuman quality as he plows his way through mobsters and crooks with a tact and subtlety only otherwise seen in farming equipment. The MacGuffin that drives the film, the Box of Something that everyone wants and is willing to kill for, turns out to be something far more apocalyptic and deadly than the usual drugs or secrets or, God help you, microfilm, and leads to a climax far more violent and fiery and unexpected than even the bloodiest shootouts of the day.
It’s a film that has no heroes, no trench-coated knights with a moral code and the heart to live by it. More often, the characters of Kiss Me Deadly are just victims of their own ineptitude or their proximity to the inept. There are no winners, no heroes, and in many ways no answers to be found amidst all the violence and carnage. It’s been called nihilistic and deservedly so. Kiss Me Deadly has nothing but scorn for the human race and sees them as either hopelessly violent or self-destructive, if not both.
Kiss Me Deadly is an oddity, a film that swam into untested waters and was viewed as too strange and jarring to truly be successful or popular in its day, but would influence films from Repo Man to Pulp Fiction years later. It is an important film, a daring film, in ways people are only just now beginning to recognize.
Written by Pablo Trapero, Alejandro Fadel, Martin Mauregui and Santiago Mitre
Directed by Pablo Trapero
Ricardo Darin stars as Sosa-a lawyer with a troubled past who patrols hospital emergency rooms in search of car accident victims he hopes to turn into clients. He starts a relationship with Lujan-a drug-addicted paramedic played by Martina Gusman. Sosa hopes to get his legal career back on track while Lujan strives to become a surgeon.
As reality collides with their dreams, things don’t go smoothly for the new couple. Sosa’s uneasy relationship with his boss takes a severe downward turn, putting Sosa and Lujan in serious danger. With no other way out, the two plan an incredibly risky escape from their dire situation.
Veteran actor Ricardo Darin, best known for his starring role in Juan Jose Campanella’s award-winning The Secret in Their Eyes (2009), turns in another great performance here full of his trademark quiet intensity. Darin also has the remarkable ability as a superb screen actor to convey genuine tenderness in certain scenes without the use of dialogue.
Director Trapero and his screenwriting partners use distressing real-life statistics to aid them in creating Carancho’s relentlessly grim backdrop, making it clear that there are thousands and thousands of vehicular deaths every year in Argentina along with exponentially more injuries.
Within this dangerous environment, Sosa and Lujan are damaged characters that find a real bond with each other. But can they escape the dark world they find themselves in and create a brighter future for themselves? Carancho is an excellent, claustrophobic film that should be seen by anyone with an interest in how the spirit of classic film noir lives on in contemporary crime cinema.
Neo film noir fans should also seek out the late director Fabian Bielinsky’s brilliant The Aura (2005) starring Ricardo Darin in one of his career-best performances as an epileptic taxidermist drawn into a robbery plot.
Written by Fred Cavaye and Guillaume Lemans
Directed by Fred Cavaye
Not to be confused with John Boorman’s 1967 neo-noir favorite starring Lee Marvin, this Point Blank is its own dark animal and a highly accomplished and underrated one at that.
Gilles Lellouche plays a male nurse named Samuel who saves the life of an injured professional thief named Hugo played by Roschdy Zem. Samuel and his pregnant wife Nadia played by Elena Anaya are attacked in their apartment and Nadia is kidnapped. The kidnappers demand that Samuel remove Hugo from the hospital and deliver him to them in exchange for his wife. The exchange goes south and Samuel and Hugo are put on a collision course with corrupt policemen who have a score to settle with Hugo.
Director Cavaye and his co-screenwriter Lemans had previously teamed up for the neo film noir Pour Elle (aka Anything for Her) in 2008 starring Vincent Lindon and Diane Kruger. That film about a desperate man trying to break his wife out of prison was remade by Paul Haggis in 2010 as The Next Three Days with Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks.
Fred Cavaye remake fever is still with us as the outstanding Point Blank has been remade in South Korea as The Target by director Chang who had previously helmed the high-school horror film Death Bell.
An American remake of Point Blank has also been announced but the original French version is an intense, fast-paced must-see that deserves much more attention for its own remarkable merits including excellent acting and directing as well as a gripping, very tightly constructed screenplay.
Written and directed by Na Hong-jin
South Korea, 2010
Director Na Hong-jin had previously burst onto the international cinema scene in 2008 with his highly accomplished debut feature The Chaser.
In that horror-tinged neo film noir, Kim Yun-seok plays an ex-detective turned pimp who investigates the mysterious disappearance of two of his female employees only to discover they have fallen victim to a serial murderer played by Ha Jung-woo. For his next feature The Yellow Sea, Na Hong-jin executes a brilliant maneuver and casts Ha Jung-woo as the protagonist and Kim Yun-seok as the villain. That casting decision, far from being a gimmick, works beautifully as both talented actors again turn in great performances under Na Hong-jin’s skillful direction.
The Yellow Sea tells the story of a financially desperate cab driver who strikes a deal with a gangster and agrees to become a one-time hitman with hopes of reversing his dire economic situation and reconnecting with his wife. When the hit goes wrong, the cab driver becomes a wanted man and is pursued by both the lethal gangster who hired him and the police.
The Yellow Sea is an amazing film that, despite winning several awards, did not receive the widespread critical accolades heaped on The Chaser. The Chaser is excellent but had The Yellow Sea been directed by a more high-profile international director it would be considered a masterpiece.
It’s also worth noting that while the film’s premise may suggest a great deal of gunplay, The Yellow Sea’s characters prefer bladed weapons and they are put to incredibly brutal use multiple times in the film.
Sadly, Na Hong-jin is not prolific. Any lover of neo film noir needs to see The Chaser and The Yellow Sea and we can only hope that the highly talented director announces a new film soon.
The Friday Noir will be back in a few weeks after a short break. Stay tuned and thank for reading!