Noir! It’s the thing that happens in between cigarettes. Noir is what happens while you’re making plans. Ha ha! Noir.
I love Noir films because it’s a really diverse brand of film-making with very few limitations. What do you need to make a good noir film? A hard-living, hard-drinking, nicotine-stained hero with a semi-permanent sneer. A femme fatale with those stocking things that you don’t see anymore. A villainous plot. And lots and lots of back-lit scenes in cars. It’s hard to do that wrong and easy to parody. We generally associate Film Noir with the forties and fifties, the era of Humphrey Bogart and Billy Wilder, The Maltese Falcon and The Lost Weekend.
Really, though, the themes developed during this time have been used and recycled so often that they often seem tired and old-hat when they should be fresh and innovative. Some modern films, like LA Confidential (sorely underrated) or Basic Instinct (massively overrated) hark straight back to a time when men were men and women were stenographers. I’m a big fan of films that are stylistically noir but have some added elements…like flying cars, for example.
..Or child-murderers. M is maybe Fritz Lang’s second-best film (after the iconic, immense and brilliant Metropolis) and set the tone for most black and white films for another twenty years. It was also the first film ever, ever to touch on the subject of child-abduction (although I’m not sure that’s particularly noteworthy). Peter Lorre, he of Casablanca and a thousand other movies, plays the mysterious M, a child-murderer captured and brought to justice by a gang of criminals. M, interestingly, plays on a lot of the later elements of Film Noir like guilt, fear and obsession in a way that for the thirties was massively ahead of its time. M is the first example of a truly scary movie villain, as he wanders around whistling In The Hall Of The Mountain King. The scene where Elsie, a local child, goes missing is one of the creepiest on film. The balloon that M gives her to win her trust drifts into power cables and disappears.
“Remember Sammy Jankis.” So begins one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen. Guy Pierce, who deserves multiple Oscars for just…I dunno, just being alive, plays Leonard Shelby, a man who wakes up in a hotel room covered in tattoos and no memory of yesterday. Gradually he pieces together that he is searching for the man who killed his wife, but things aren’t what they seem. Christopher Nolan’s finest film is shot in a mixture of black and white and full colour, in the wrong order, and it isn’t until the end that you realise that Leonard’s quest isn’t nearly as straightforward as it seems. Nolan’s film features all of the classics of Noir : femme fatale, hardboiled hero, and slick villain, but it isn’t nearly that simple, because everybody is playing a part.
Minority Report (2002)
It’s odd to describe anything Spielberg has done as Noir, but Minority Report fits the bill. Filmed in washed-out blue-green, depicting a future where people’s actions can be determined before they do them, Minority Report balances several Noir tropes while adding new ones. Tom Cruise plays the only character he knows how – the lonely divorced man with an axe to grind, mourning the death of his son while he works in the Precog division of DC’s police force. When he’s implicated in a murder of a man he doesn’t know he goes on the run, and the film features a truly horrifying eye-surgery scene that creeps me out to this day. Minority Report happens in a grungy, Se7en-like world where black-market drug-dealers and surgeons operate out of hotel rooms while the police catch people who haven’t do anything (yet). Minority Report is surprisingly bleak for a sci-fi movie, with some seriously disturbing philosophical implications (are you guilty of a crime if somebody stops you beforehand?) and a bizarrely happy ending that clashes with the overall feel of the film.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang holds a special place in my heart for being the film that rehabilitated Robert Downey Jr after Less Than Zero (sorry, I mean after all the drugs and DUIS and stuff) and let Hollywood let him make Iron Man (I,II &III), Sherlock Holmes (I & II) and The Avengers. This film has a lot of kudos. It would be shame if it was a bad film, but as luck would have it there is some justice in the world. It’s a funny movie. It’s smart. And Val Kilmer plays a gay guy. Why is it Noir? It’s dark, too. It revolves around a conspiracy of sorts involving a murder. It’s set on the west coast and features hardboiled characters and guns.
Training Day (2001)
I don’t have a lot of time for Denzel Washington. I just don’t really like him. I know he’s,like, some kind of icon or something but I just don’t find him believable as a human being. He looks like me when I’m at a party listening to some guy talk about how much snowboarding he did last year and I’m nodding and smiling and saying, “shucks” when really I’m thinking, “I could quite easily murder everyone at this party, pretty indiscriminately, maybe with a Sig Sauer P226 with fifteen .22 hollowpoints and it would not impinge on my conscience one iota”. Denzel Washington has that kind of look about him. A blank, not-having-fun-but-smiling look. The Tom Cruise special, I guess you’d call it.
Weirdly enough, that’s what makes Training Day so good. Ethan Hawke is his sidekick for the day as Washington plays a veteran showing him around the seamy side of LA. Gradually Hawke begins to realize that this outstanding cop is as bent as…something bent and things gradually come to a head in a really dramatic way. So what’s Noir about it? Well, it’s this really grim take on Los Angeles, which I’m led to believe isn’t really a very groovy place. It’s very intrigue-ey, with a strong psychological aspect. I can, in short, imagine it happening in black and white.