“There is only Noir!”
The Noir Vision
To discuss the history of film noir since the ’50s is to fly in the face of conventional studies, which assume the “genre” died sometime around 1958. First of all, noir is not a genre. Attempts to define noir in terms of genre confine it to either the excessively narrow conventions of the private eye film, or the somewhat wider parameters of the crime film. In either case, too many fish slip through the definitional net. Not all crime films are film noirs, and not all film noirs are crime films. Sunset Boulevard, for example, is a classic film noir that does not deal with private eyes or crime or criminals in the conventional sense (although it is admittedly framed by a murder). What makes Sunset Boulevard “noir” is its subject matter — the dark side of human relationships, the decadence and corruption permeating the world the characters inhabit — and the attitude of its director (Billy Wilder) toward that subject matter. When we talk about noir — in film or any other medium — we are talking about a vision, a way of seeing the world, that is transgeneric. Hence there are noir westerns (Pursued, Unforgiven), noir science fiction (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), noir period pieces (Hangover Square), and even noir musicals (New York, New York; Pennies from Heaven). The noir vision is essentially subversive — dark forces bubble over into the everyday, subconscious drives override conscious intentions — and as such, it has been applied to the entire range of cinematic expression, from animated films (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery) to documentaries (The Thin Blue Line).
Noir is not a visual style, although as a way of seeing the world, it expresses itself through certain recurring visual motifs (e.g., the tilted camera to show a world out of joint, the use of shadows to show encroaching metaphysical darkness). Certainly the black-and-white noirs of the ’40s are among the most visually beautiful films ever made. Nevertheless, there are noirs that approach the zero level of visual style. The Devil Thumbs a Ride, to name one, is as crudely shot as one could imagine. Yet it is unmistakably noir due to the fatalism of its narrative and the unmitigated nihilism of Lawrence Tierney’s star performance. To define noir strictly in terms of visual style leads the would-be historian into such fallacies as the statement that all true film noirs are in black and white. John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945) is the first of many noirs in color, and why not? Leave Her to Heaven didn’t need to be shot in black and white, because the central character (Gene Tierney) carries the noir darkness within her. Leave Her to Heaven‘s spectacular Technicolor cinematography of the Pacific North woods looks forward to David Lynch’s noir television series, Twin Peaks.
The noir vision is broad enough to encompass every technical innovation in cinematic history. When Cinemascope was invented, noirs were made in Cinemascope (Hathaway’s Niagara). When 3-D was invented, noirs were shot in 3-D (Jack Arnold’s The Glass Web).
Noir is primarily psychological, favoring atmosphere over action, less concerned with the explosion of the human time bomb than with what makes it tick. Some recent feminist film criticism has attempted to define noir in terms of its attitude toward women. According to these critics, the noir woman is invariably “other,” an amoral femme fatale who exists solely to disturb and mystify the male protagonist. However, this does not account for all the film noirs in which the point-of-view character is an innocent young woman investigating a corrupt, mostly male, world (Stranger on the Third Floor, The Seventh Victim, Phantom Lady). The best of these is probably Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, where Teresa Wright is the embodiment of intelligence and sensitivity as the niece who begins to suspect that her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) — and by extension, the world — harbors a dark secret. If anyone in this film exemplifies those qualities of mystery, amorality, and disturbed sexuality that feminist critics generally assign to the noir woman, it is the Joseph Cotten character, not his niece. Yet another category of film noir features more experienced women (Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford) as sympathetic point-of-view characters who struggle to survive in the fallen noir world (Beyond the Forest, No Man of Her Own, Mildred Pierce).
Finally, it makes no sense to consider noir as strictly an American phenomenon (as in Ward & Silver’s Film Noir, An Encyclopedia Reference to the American Style) or one confined to a particular time period. Elsewhere in this issue, John Belton argues that if film noir is not confined to a particular time and place it loses its specificity: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Germany, 1919) is therefore noir, as is Ossessione (Italy, 1942), The Grifters (USA, 1990), or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (USA, 1988).” Precisely! Every one of those films is film noir, except for Caligari (about which, more below). But I agree with Belton that the femme fatale and the unhappy ending are not absolute noir requirements. Noir resembles its cousins, surrealism and expressionism, to the extent that each had a so-called golden age, but all three are still very much with us.
If noir did not begin in America in the ’40s, where and when did it begin? Noir is rooted in the art and literature of anxiety. Thematically, we can trace it back to the 19th-century novel — Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, et al. — and from there to Theodore Dreiser, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, and the “hard-boiled” school of American writing. One can see the noir sensibility reflected in the paintings of Edward Hopper, the comic strips of Bob Kane and Chester Gould, and the still photography of Arthur Fellig (aka “Weegee”). There is noir classical music (the film scores of Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman, et al., Richard Rodgers’ ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue“), and noir jazz.
Most historians agree that film noir emerged somehow from German expressionism, but there is much disagreement about where and when the transformation occurred. In this regard, G. W Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1928) is a seminal work. Pandora’s Box begins as a “kammerspiel” (chamber play), but soon descends into a visual world as recognizably noir as anything made in the 1940s. Its star, Louise Brooks, remains the archetypal noir temptress.
Film noir arose from the collision of German expressionism with documentary realism, paralleling the emergence of “the city” as a character. Thus, the first true film noir is probably Fritz Lang’s M (1931). In M, the papier mache-and-canvas sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Siegfried, and Metropolis (all of which involved Lang as either writer or director) give way to backgrounds that are recognizably real but nevertheless stylized through camera angles and lighting to reflect the characters’ emotional states. The child molester played by Peter Lorre in M is seen not as purely evil but as a sympathetic character driven by dark forces he himself doesn’t understand. Like Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Lorre in M is a prototype for future film noir protagonists.
The same cultural tensions that gave rise to M in Germany also produced the earliest American noirs like Von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy(1931) and Mervyn LeRoy’s Two Seconds and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (both in 1932). Lang Himself emigrated to Hollywood in the mid-1930s, directing Fury, a wrong-man thriller, in 1936, and You Only Live Once, the original couple-on-the-run noir, in 1937. And from that point forward noir was a permanent part of the celluloid landscape.
The tension between expressionistic stylization and documentary realism remains one of the defining features of film noir. Noir relates paradoxically to auteurism, complementing it in some ways and opposing it in others. The contradictions arise because noir is essentially a collective vision, the result of many artists — directors, writers, cameramen, actors, and producers — sharing the same attitudes at the same time, whereas auteurism is all about the vision of the individual auteur. It is almost (but not quite) a rule of thumb that the more personal a director’s vision, the less comfortably his or her work will fit into the noir canon. Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, for example, although it has many characteristics of a noir, is first and foremost a film that sets forth the vision of its director. The same can be said of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane or Hitchcock’s Psycho. The opposite also holds true — many of the best and most characteristic film noirs, e.g., Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, Phantom Lady, and Criss Cross — were made by directors (channelers of the collective vision) whose work outside noir is relatively undistinguished. And there is a third category of director — e.g., Fritz Lang, Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich — whose personal visions are so congruent with the collective noir vision that practically their entire output can be considered noir.
Difficult as it is to categorize, the noir vision has certain defining characteristics: the divided — often obsessed — protagonist, the morbid fascination with sex and death, the sense of malignant Fate, and the lurking threat of the unseen. Most important, the noir world is a fallen world, haunted by a sense of original sin, desperately in search of redemption. The theological underpinnings of this worldview make possible the explicitly transcendental endings of Lang’s You Only Live Once and Borzage Moonrise. Yet this view of a fallen world is equally central to the existential noir of a Camus or Sartre, or the utter nihilism of a Jim Thompson (the ultimate noir writer).
1958 and Beyond
Nineteen fifty-eight is a key year, not because it marked the end of the cycle, but because it was a year in which America produced several noir masterpieces. The bravura descent into chaos which is Welles’ Touch of Evil is cited by almost every writer who has written on the subject of noir. However, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, an equally great noir, is often overlooked in this context, probably because it is a film noir in color. Vertigo has all the characteristics of classic noir. The detective hero, played by Jimmy Stewart, is obsessed to the point of madness. Kim Novak, the object of Stewart’s obsession, is like Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, a temptress driven to destruction by forces she hardly understands. Both characters move dreamlike through a world haunted by sex and death. And, as so often in film noir, a malignant Fate rears its head at the last minute to make sure both characters meet their appointed dooms.
Also overlooked by most noir historians is Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running, a film noir in Technicolor and Cinemascope! Some Came Running, like Fury and Shadow of a Doubt, is about the hypocrisy and corruption bubbling beneath the surface of small-town America. It boils over in the film’s tour-de-force climax, in which a crazed assassin stalks newlyweds Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine through a fairground at night. Minnelli’s use of color in this sequence, hellish flashes of red, orange, and yellow in a sea of black, is a brilliant translation of the noir visual aesthetic into color. Other key film noirs of 1958 are Roger Corman’s Machine Gun Kelly, Gerd Oswald’s Screaming Mimi (from a novel by Fredric Brown), Michael Curtiz’s King Creole (Elvis noir!), Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels, Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl (yet another noir in color and ‘scope), and Jack Arnold’s High School Confidential, teenage noir from producer Albert Zugsmith (who also gave us Touch of Evil and The Tarnished Angels).
In 1959 — the year after the classic noir cycle was supposed to have ended — noir masters Otto Preminger, Robert Wise, and Richard Fleischer directed three of their best noirs. Preminger’s brilliant courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder is at least as important a contribution to the noir canon as his earlier Laura. Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow is a doomed-caper film costarring Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan. Fleischer’s Compulsion Reenacts the story of thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb — in black-and-white Cinemascope — and features brilliant performances by Dean Stockwell and Orson Welles. The use of natural locations in all three films highlights the mixture of documentary realism and expressionistic stylization that is the essence of noir. Other significant noirs of 1959 include Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, and Billy Wilder’s noir comedy Some Like It Hot.
John Ford is a director not normally associated with noir, yet a number of his films are noirs or carry noir overtones. The Informer (1935), with its haunted, hunted protagonist (see also M) stands on the border between noir and expressionism. Much of The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath (both 1940) is noir. The Fugitive(1947) is a pure film noir based on the work of Graham Greene. Finally, beginning with Sergeant Rutledge in 1960, Ford’s work as a whole entered a late, noir phase, and remained there (with the exception of Donovan’s Reef) until the end of his career.Sergeant Rutledge, like most of late Ford, is characterized by frequent night scenes; dark, almost expressionistic cinematography; and the sense of a highly fragile order threatened by the twin malignancies of chaos and injustice. Ford’s version of the fallen noir world is additionally defined by a unique sense of nostalgia for innocence lost.
Nineteen sixty is also the year of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a pure film noir until the moment Janet Leigh drives up to the Bates Motel, at which point it shifts gears into gothic horror. Other key noirs of 1960 are Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, Samuel Fuller’s Verboten!, Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, Joseph Losey’s The Concrete Jungle (British crime noir), and Burt Balaban and Stuart Rosenberg’s Murder, Inc.
In 1961, Robert Rossen’s The Hustler did for the game of pool what previous film noirs (e.g., Wise’s The Set-Up) had done for boxing. Ace black-and-white cinematographer Haskell Wexler lent his talents to two “rural noirs,” Roger Corman’s The Intruder and Paul Wendkos’ AngelBaby. Other nominees for best noir of 1961 include Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s noir musical, West Side Story, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Duolos (“The Fingerman”), John Ford’s Two Rode Together (a noir Western), Samuel Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A., and Gerd Oswald’s German chess thriller, Brainwashed.
Nabokovian noir first reached the screen in 1962 with Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. This was also the year in which John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate initiated a cycle of noir conspiracy thrillers. The much-discussed gay-bar scene of Preminger’s Advise and Consent is a classic noir descent into hell. Other key noirs of 1962 are Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Hollywood noir in the Sunset Boulevard mold), J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear, Blake Edwards’ Experiment in Terror, Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player(from the David Goodis novel), and Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (from a novel by Ed McBain).
In 1963 Samuel Fuller gave us what may be his masterpiece, Shock Corridor, a noir allegory of America as insane asylum. Fuller’s tale of a Pulitzer prize-hungry reporter who commits himself to a mental institution in order to find out “Who killed Sloane in the kitchen?” follows the typical noir pattern in which an innocent investigator enters a dark area of the world only to uncover equally dark areas within himself.
If 1941 through 1958 was theoretically the golden age of noir in film, then 1959 through 1965 was definitely the golden age of noir in television. The noir vision, then flickering dimly on the silver screen, burned brightly for home viewers in such TV series as Peter Gunn, The Untouchables, The Naked City, Route 66, and The Fugitive,and especially in the fantasy/sci-fi series The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. The noir vision in these series was largely a function of the directors who worked in them. Blake Edwards was the auteur of Peter Gunn. Phil Karlson directed several episodes of The Untouchables. Gerd Oswald, abetted by producer/writer Joseph Stefano and cameraman Conrad Hall, defined the noir vision of The Outer Limits. Don Siegel, Jacques Tourneur, and Robert Florey each directed episodes of Twilight Zone. German-born John Brahm directed noir episodes of Thriller, Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. Twilight Zone had its own homegrown noir master in Douglas Heyes, best remembered for his direction of such episodes as “Eye of the Beholder,” “The After Hours,” and “The Howling Man.”
In 1964 Douglas Heyes also directed an underrated feature-length noir, Kitten with a Whip, in which a politician (John Forsythe) is tormented for close to 83 minutes by a psychotic sex kitten (Ann-Margret) before everything comes to a head in a Touch of Evil-like border town. Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss is a masterful inversion of the small-town noir formula; however, the investigator who uncovers the hypocrisy and corruption beneath the town’s surface is no virginal innocent, but a hardened prostitute. Other outstanding noirs of 1964 are Frankenheimer’s conspiracy thriller Seven Days in May(screenplay by Rod Serling), Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic comedy DrStrangelove, Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe (Dr.Strangelove played straight), Hitchcock’s Marnie (a throwback to ’40s thrillers like The Locket), and Don Siegel’s The Killers.
Nineteen sixty-five, a great year for British noir by non-British directors, saw the release of Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing (in black-and-white ‘scope), Joseph Losey’s These Are the Damned (noir sci-fi), William Wyler’s The Collector (with Terence Stamp, great as a psychopathic kidnapper), and Polanski’s Repulsion (noir horror). Tony Richardson’s The Loved One is an extremely noir comedy (darkly photographed by Haskell Wexler) about Hollywood and the mortuary business as seen through the eyes of a British emigre. In France, Jean-Luc Godard directed Alphaville(with Eddie Constantine as a private eye in the world of the future), and Pierrot le Fou(with a cameo by Sam Fuller). American noirs of 1965 include Arthur Penn’s Mickey One, Aldrich’s Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and William Conrad’s Brainstorm.
Noirs of 1966 include Burt Kennedy’s The Money Trap, Jack Smight’s Harper, Frankenheimer’s very paranoid Seconds, Michael Anderson’s The Quiller Memorandum (screenplay by Harold Pinter), Robert Mulligan’s Inside Daisy Clover(Hollywood noir), and Edgar G. Ulmer’s fabulously claustrophobic swan song (in black-and-white ‘scope), The Cavern. This was also the year of Antonioni’s noir-influenced Blowup, and John Ford’s last masterpiece in the noir mode, Seven Women.
In 1967, John Boorman’s Point Blank(starring Lee Marvin) reinvented noir for the late ’60s, replacing the black-and-white visual conventions of the ’40s with abstract color compositions, and modernist montages derived from Alain Resnais. Black-and-white noir continued to thrive in Richard Brooks’ docudrama In Cold Blood(cinematography by Conrad Hall). Other noirs of 1967 include Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (released briefly in America as The Godson), Blake Edwards Gunn, Terence Young’s Broadway-derived Wait Until Dark, Burt Kennedy’s bleak western Welcome to Hard Times, and Visconti’s The Stranger (from Camus). Finally, just as directorial attitude can sometimes turn a non-noir screenplay into a noir movie, in 1967 Arthur Penn directed the noir screenplay of Bonnie and Clyde with such sunny, anarchic energy that he transformed it into something very not-noir.
The couple-on-the-run story that formed the basis of Bonnie and Clyde — Lang’s You Only Live Once, Joseph H. Lewis’ GunCrazy, and Godard’s Pierrot le Fou — also inspired Noel Black’s 1968 film PrettyPoison, with Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld well cast as the criminal couple. In 1968, Don Siegel directed Madigan, Aldrich directed The Legend of Lylah Clare (quintessential Aldrich Hollywood noir), and Peter Bogdanovich directed Targets, a noir in the Boorman-like modernist mode. Overseas, Kinji Fukasaku directed the campy Japanese noir Black Lizard from a screenplay by Yukio Mishima.
From the late ’60s through the present, Hollywood’s noir output has been divided among those films that attempt either to recreate the noir conventions of the past or redefine noir in modern terms (e.g., Point Blank), and those of Aldrich, Siegel, Fuller, or Huston, which are noir simply because that is the way their directors view the world (regardless of when the films were made). An example of the noir that harks back to an earlier era is 1969’s Chandler-derived Marlowe. That same year, in France, two films by Claude Chabrol, La Femme Infidele and Le Boucher, redefined noir in contemporary terms, as did Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, shot in Canada. In England, Tony Richardson’s X-rated Laughter in the Dark was noir by virtue of its source material, a 1932 Nabokov novel.
Among the films of 1970, John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter was as unself-consciously noir as his ’40s and ’50s work, e.g., The Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Asphalt Jungle(1950). By contrast, Fassbinder’s The American Soldier was a studied attempt to emulate noir conventions — the opening dialogue between a man and a woman in a car is a direct lift from Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers was a good example of American independent noir. This was also the year of Paul Wendkos’ The Brotherhood of the Bell, one of the best of that director’s noir TV films, and Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama. And in France, Claude Chabrol continued his series of noirs with This Man Must Die, a loose remake of Lang’s Rancho Notorious.
In 1971, one could see noirs and self-conscious “neo-noirs” released side by side. Among the classical noirs released by Hollywood that year: Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang and Don Siegel Dirty Harry. Among the “neo-noirs.” Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, and William Friedkin’s The French Connection. However, the most visually striking noir in any category was an Italian film, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.
In 1972, future noir auteur Walter Hill entered the film industry by way of his screenplays for Robert Culp’s Hickey & Boggs and Peckinpah’s The Getaway (from a novel by Jim Thompson). Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman honed their noir personae in Michael Ritchie’s Prime Cut.
In 1973, Robert Altman, who first revealed a noir sensibility in some of the episodes he directed for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (notably “The Young One” with Carol Lynley), directed Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. In Altman’s film noirs, the sinister darkness of ’40s noir is replaced by a more modern sense of randomness and absurdity — the alienation of Altman/Gould’s Marlowe becomes his defining characteristic. Alienation is also the dominant mood of Badlands, Terrence Malick’s take on the couple-on-the-run story. Other noirs of 1973 include Peter Yates The Friends of Eddie Coyle, John Huston’s The Mackintosh Man (screenplay by Walter Hill), and Brian DePalma’s Sisters (loosely based on Hitchcock’s and Cornel Woolrich’s Rear Window).
In 1974, Roman Polanski’s and Robert Towne’s Chinatown was a deliberate attempt to distill the essence of ’40s film noir; it greatly expanded the public’s awareness of noir as a Hollywood genre/style, and at the same time helped promote the popular misconception of noir that defines it exclusively in terms of the private eye film and its variants. Other noirs of 1974: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and The Godfather, Part II, Alan J. Pakula’s conspiracy thriller The Parallax View (the second in his noir trilogy), Claude Chabrol’s Wedding in Blood, Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, and Karel Reisz’ TheGambler (from a screenplay by James Toback).
The ubiquitous Philip Marlowe (now played by Robert Mitchum) returned in Dick Richard’s 1975 version of Farewell, My Lovely. Among the many noirs of 1975: Robert Aldrich’s Hustle, John Frankenheimer’s French Connection II, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, Joseph Losey’s dark comedy The Romantic Englishwoman, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, Robert Mulligan’s The Nickel Ride, Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite, Walter Hill’s Hard Times (his directorial debut), and two films by Sydney Pollack, Three Days of the Condor and The Yakuza (from a screenplay by Paul Schrader).
The most influential noir of 1976 was Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver From a screenplay by Paul Schrader, and with a use of color and camera movement that owes a great deal to Vincente Minnelli’s treatment of noir in Some Came Running. The conspiracy docudrama All the President’s Men Was the third of Alan J. Pakula’s noir collaborations with cinematographer Gordon Willis. Other noirs of 1976: DePalma and Schrader’s Obsession, John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man, Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday, Burt Kennedy’s The Killer Inside Me (from a novel by Jim Thompson), Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, DePalma’s noir horror film The Fury, and John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
In 1977, German filmmaker Wim Wenders had an international success with The American Friend, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith and featuring performances by noir directors Dennis Hopper, Nicholas Ray, and Sam Fuller. Other noirs of 1977: Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Robert Aldrich’s The Choirboys (a dysfunctional police force as allegory for a corrupt world), Scorsese’s New York,New York, and Larry Cohen’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
In 1978, noir screenwriter James Toback made his directorial debut with Fingers, starring Harvey Keitel. Writer/director Walter Hill made The Driver, an exercise in Robert Bresson-inspired minimalism that may be his most striking achievement to date. Other 1978 noirs: Fassbinder’s Marriage of Maria Braun (with Hanna Schygulla as a German Mildred Pierce), Billy Wilder’s Fedora, and Claude Chabrol’s Violette.
By 1979, the field had been taken over completely by a younger generation of noir auteurs. Among the noirs of 1979: Walter Hill’s The Warriors, Paul Schrader’sHardcore, Fassbinder’s Despair (from Nabokov), Harold Becker’s The Onion Field, Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack, and, Jonathan Demme’s erotic Last Embrace.
In 1980, Schrader wrote and directed American Gigolo, an experiment in how far the boundaries of noir could be stretched. The film’s protagonist is, typically for noir, an alienated outsider (in this case a male prostitute) accused of a crime he didn’t commit. However, the film’s visual style, based on sunlit whites and David Hockney pastels, thumbs its nose at noir conventions; in American Gigolo, as always, noir is primarily a matter of attitude. In Britain, John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday Established Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren as noir icons for the ’80s and ’90s. Other noirs of 1980: Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue, John Cassavetes’ Gloria, Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill, William Friedkin’s Cruising, and Scorsese’s Raging Bull.
The next year saw the release of Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, Mark Reichert’s Union City, and Bob Rafelson’s remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, three examples of “neo-noir” at its most derivative. Among the more successful noirs of 1981: Fassbinder’s Lili Marleen, Lumet’s Prince of the City, DePalma’s Blow Out, and Herbert Ross’ noir musical Pennies from Heaven.
By 1982, the conventions of private eye noir were so generally recognized as to lend themselves to parody in Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. For viewers with less restrictive definitions of noir, 1982 was also the year of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir tour-de-force Blade Runner, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva, James Toback’s Love and Money, Joseph Losey’s La Truite, and two late Fassbinder masterpieces, Lola and Veronika Voss.
De Palma’s 1983 film Scarface (from a screenplay by Oliver Stone) was among the most savage of ’80s noirs. In 1983 Francis Coppola shot his great-looking teen noir Rumble Fish in black and white, and also produced Wim Wenders’ unfortunate “neo-noir” Hammett. Two other 1983 noirs, The Osterman Weekend and Star 80, were the last films of Sam Peckinpah and Robert Fosse, respectively.
In 1984, Brian DePalma, with Body Double, rattled the cages of his detractors by remaking Hitchcock’s Vertigo as a quasi-comic, pornographic thriller, throwing in lots of sex and violence and an improbable happy ending. Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion, starring Tony Perkins and Kathleen Turner, was another film that pushed the envelope of sexuality in movie noir. Other notable noirs of 1984: Richard Tuggle Tightrope(Clint Eastwood meets S&M), Jean-Jacques Beineix’s The Moon in the Gutter, the Coen brothers’ rural noir Blood Simple, and Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in America.
The next year, 1985, was the year of Scorsese’s noir comedy After Hours, Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, Arthur Penn’s Target, and Paul Wendkos’ TV miniseries, Celebrity. Noir’s cousin expressionism reemerged in full flower in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
In 1986, Dennis Potter’s British miniseries The Singing Detective (director, John Amiel) was a masterpiece of modernist noir. John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow initiated a series of Hong Kong film noirs built around hired-killer heroes (usually portrayed by Chow-Yun Fat). Other noirs of 1986: Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue, Scorsese’s The Color of Money, Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (with Bob Hoskins), and Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind.
If Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and The Long Goodbye defined film noir for the ’70s, the movie that best defined noir for the ’80s was David Lynch’s 1987 film, Blue Velvet. Recognized even by such conservative publications as The National Review as a dark portrait of Ronald Reagan’s America, Blue Velvet throws noir archetypes like the innocent investigator (Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern), the fallen woman (Isabella Rossellini), and the psycho gangster (Dennis Hopper) into a surrealist, nightmare universe that is distinctively Lynchian. Frederick Elmes’ muted cinematography in Blue Velvet and in Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge (also 1987) provided one of the most elegant solutions yet to the problem of translating noir’s black-and-white visual conventions into color. Other key noirs of 1987: Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction; DePalma’s The Untouchables; Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch over Me; two sci-fi noirs, Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop and Jack Sholder’s The Hidden; and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, which begins as the sort of populist comedy for which Demme was known, but soon turns into noir of the purest kind.
1988 was a year of remarkable noir hybrids: Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (noir animation), Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (noir documentary), and Paul Schrader’s PattyHearst (noir biopic). Other 1988 noirs: Roman Polanski’s Frantic, Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, and Mike Figgis’ Stormy Monday.
1989 was a year of unusually quirky and personal noir projects: Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, and Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Among the more traditional noirs that year: Harold Becker’s Sea of Love, Kathryn Bigelow’s BlueSteel, Walter Hill’s Johnny Handsome, and Ridley Scott’s Black Rain. Tim Burton’s Batman frequently looked noir, but was actually part of the expressionist revival led by Terry Gilliam and Rinse (Cafe Flesh) Dream.
By 1990, the noir revival begun by Blade Runner, Fatal Attraction, and Blue Velvet Was in full swing. David Lynch made his own couple-on-the-run film, Wild at Heart(from a novel by Barry Gifford), and, with Mark Frost, auteured the noir television mystery-cum-soap opera Twin Peaks. The ending of Wild at Heart, in which “The Good Witch of the North” (played by Twin Peaks’ Sheryl Lee), reunites noir hero Nicholas Cage with noir heroine Laura Dern, is a throwback to the transcendental endings of Lang and Borzage, as seen through the eyes of a postmodern goddess-worshipper. Among the many noirs of 1990: Alan J. Pakula’s Presumed Innocent, Jack Nicholson’s The Two Jakes, Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot, John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, Stephen Frears’ The Grifters and James Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet (both adapted from novels by Jim Thompson), George Armitage’s Miami Blues (from a novel by Charles Willeford), Abel Ferrara’s The King of New York, Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune, Mike Figgis’ Internal Affairs, John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights, and Peter Hyams’ remake of Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin.
Nineteen ninety-one saw the release of the ultimate noir conspiracy thriller, Oliver Stone’s JFK. Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again Was an overly studied exercise in “neo-noir.” Martin Scorsese remade Cape Fear with the kind of over-the-top visual pyrotechnics that would do Sam Fuller proud. And Jodie Foster acted her way to an Academy Award as an innocent investigator in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Other noirs of 1991 include the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink(Hollywood noir), Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers (Euro noir), and Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (from a screenplay by James Toback).
Nineteen ninety-two was a great year for woman-centered noir and noir in general: Sharon Stone attained instant iconographic status with her performance in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. Uma Thurman shone in Phil Joanou’s Final Analysis and Bruce Robinson’s Jennifer 8 (the latter loosely derived from Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground). Sean Young lent her striking beauty to Lizzie Borden’s Love Crimes (feminist noir). Twin Peaks’ Sherilyn Fenn played a stripper in John Mackenzie’s JFK follow-up, Ruby. Rebecca DeMornay played a demented nanny in Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and Bridget Fonda faced off against Jennifer Jason Leigh in Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female. Best of all was Sheryl Lee reprising her role as Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Tortured, obsessed, a sinner/saint spinning out of control, Sheryl Lee’s Laura Palmer was a true noir protagonist for the 1990s.
Robert Altman’s foray into Hollywood noir, The Player, was his biggest commercial and critical success in more than a decade. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino established himself as a noir auteur with his male ensemble piece Reservoir Dogs. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven legitimized the noir western and captured the 1992 Academy Award for best picture. Another male ensemble piece, James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross, matched its noir attitude with Edward Hopper-inspired visuals. Among the other noirs of 1992: Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper, Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World (a Roger Rabbit clone), Tom Kalin’s Swoon (gaynoir), Irwin Winkler’s Night and the City, and Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game.
After the noir peak of 1992, 1993 was somewhat anticlimactic, but highlights include Tony Scott’s True Romance (from a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino), John Dahl’s Red Rock West (see review elsewhere in this issue), Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire(with great performances by Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich), Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive, Robert Altman’s unique Short Cuts, and the return of Uma Thurman in John MeNaughton’s Mad Dog and Glory. There were at least three BasicInstinct spin-offs: Phillip Noyce’s Sliver (with Sharon Stone), Uli Edel’s Body of Evidence (with Madonna), and Carl Reiner’s parody Fatal Instinct (with a game Sean Young). Two 1993 noirs were based on the legal thrillers of John Grisham: Sydney Pollack’s The Firm was a star vehicle for Tom Cruise, while Alan J. Pakula’s The Pelican Brief FeaturedJulia Roberts as the latest version of the innocent investigator.
Film noir continues to evolve. One wave blends into another, and critically invented categories become meaningless in the face of the noir vision’s infinite variety. Someone once asked Claude Chabrol to define the French New Wave, and he replied, “There are no waves, there is only the ocean.” To that we might add: There is no “neo-noir,” there is no “proto-noir,” there is only Noir.
Originally published in issue 14 (1994) of the discontinued print edition.