Out of the Past and Into the Fire

Cinefiles love film noir when it’s done right.  But the genre has had a spotty track record since its glory days in Old Hollywood.  In the April 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Stephen Rebello examined some of the reasons neo-noir usually doesn’t work.

A man crawls a mile with his brains blown out. A woman calls the police after she’s shot through the heart. A man is hanged and poisoned and shot and he goes right on living.” That’s how the late, hard-boiled thriller writer Jim Thompson once described the naked hunger–for sex, money, kicks, power, whatever–that fuels a broad genre of cinema known as film noir.

Ever since the ’40s, when snarly, doom-laden, black and white melodramas like Double Indemnity, Gilda, Laura, Out of the Past and Murder, and My Sweet got made, film noir has cast a seductive spell over Hollywood. Fraught with angst, frame-ups, heists and murders, the noir classics were psychodramas played out in chiaroscuro against alleyways, boxing rings and cheap hotels. They featured smoky, snappy-talking femmes fatales (played by such gorgeous spiderwomen as Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Veronica Lake, Jane Greer, Lizabeth Scott and Ava Gardner) and cynical, willing chumps (Glenn Ford, John Garfield, Alan Ladd, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster). And they went straight to the unconscious of ’40s and ’50s moviegoers with their erotic gunplay, suggestive dialogue, shadowy motivations and obsessive romantic fatalism. Even the publicity slogans for these flicks crackled: “From the moment they met it was murder,” snapped the ads for Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. “Hate is like a loaded gun,” growled posters for Crossfire.

The strange thing is, moviemakers these days appear to be as hopelessly hooked on the genre as anybody ever was. Check out Final Analysis, Rush, Bugsy, Shattered, Miller’s Crossing, The Hot Spot, Narrow Margin, D.O.A., No Way Out, Stormy Monday, Internal Affairs, and The Big Easy. All were made within the last few years. Go a little further back and you have Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Chinatown, Body Heat, Blade Runner, Murder by Death, The American Friend, The Cheap Detective, The Long Goodbye, Pulp, and Point Blank. These movies, and dozens more made within the last few decades, genuflect to noir. Some spoof it. Some castrate it on the butter knife of nostalgia. The smart ones–Rush, The Grifters, Internal Affairs, for example–breathe with a nasty, malicious, contemporary life of their own as they recall classic noir. Smarter ones–Bugsy, Miller’s Crossing, Body Heat, Who’ll Stop the Rain, Chinatown, The American Friend, Taxi Driver, and Blue Velvet–play head games with genre expectations and point toward a postmodern neo-noir.

“At their best, noir movies stand as conscience to many filmmakers, reminding them of what film can be,” asserts Henry Bean, screenwriter of Internal Affairs and co-writer of Deep Cover, an upcoming noir thriller starring Jeff Goldblum and Larry Fishburne.

Noir’s vision explains the world we live in: the profound sense of malaise, powerlessness, the sense of an infernal machine working against us all. The things that form the experience we now have of our lives. If these movies weren’t art, they were pretty close to it.”

We know, of course, that art doesn’t always pay the rent. And film noir has almost never paid the rent. Aficionados may groove to the nuances of Nicholas Ray’s young-crooks-on-the-run melodrama They Live by Night (1949), but RKO lost nearly half a million dollars on it. Don’t even ask how much in the red Paramount is on Chinatown and The Two Jakes combined, or what The Ladd Company lost on Blade Runner. In fact, in the last 50 years of moviemaking, no other noir but Taxi Driver (1976) has made a killing at the box office.

But that isn’t stopping Martin Scorsese from plotting a film of Richard Price’s inner-city murder novel, Clockers, while Irwin Winkler shoots Robert De Niro in Night and the City, an update of the 1950 nail-biter. Stanley Kubrick’s old producer James B. Harris sniffs movie potential in modern noir-master James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia. Reversal of Fortune screenwriter Nicholas Kazan may direct his own dark romance called Dream Lover. Bruce Willis was mentioned for a remake of the acrid 1950 Humphrey Bogart movie In a Lonely Place but dropped out, to be replaced by Martin Sheen. Columbia reputedly remains hot for Cold as Ice, a script for which Peter Guber and Jon Peters paid over $250,000. Melinda Jason and Marilyn Vance are producing Nocturne, a remake of a 1946 George Raft murder flick. Rumors have swirled since the mid-’80s about a possible movie version of Raymond Chandler’s Poodle Springs. And over the years, such directors as Bernardo Bertolucci, James Bridges, Walter Hill and Stephen Frears have all considered filming Dashiell Hammett’s bloody Red Harvest.

Do these guys actually think they’ve figured out how to beat the odds and make a killing at the box office with noir? Must be. But this begs the real question: Why, if Hollywood insists on remaining obsessed with noir, a genre that isn’t making everybody rich, can’t it make movies that rival the gritty masterpieces of old? For all the fascination noir holds for contemporary filmmakers, most present-day noir pieces come out utterly lacking in crackle. For every Internal Affairs, a flawed but at least tightly coiled and lurid film, there are 10 or 20 Hot Spots, movies that retro you to death with their fixation on style at the cost of everything else.

I’ve been revisiting noir lately, trying to smoke out what it is the old flicks had that contemporary movies can’t seem to get a line on. First, better start with some basics. What exactly is noir? Literally, the words mean “black film,” or “dark film.” French critic Nino Frank coined the term in 1946 when, in a single, post-WWII month, tout Paris saw for the first time The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Laura, The Woman in the Window and Murder, and My Sweet. Generally shot on the cheap (back then, studio heads knew they weren’t crowd-pleasers), these movies stung like strong, lived-in stuff. Of the directors behind the films just mentioned–John Huston, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang and Edward Dmytryk respectively–only Huston wasn’t an Eastern European expatriate or the child of one. Their up-close experiences with want and tragedy had left them tough-minded, wary and burning for attention. The Maltese Falcon was screenwriter Huston’s first shot at directing. Dmytryk, Wilder and Preminger had done only workmanlike assignments for years before getting a crack at noir. Their hunger comes across in a jazzy Expressionism–cockeyed camera angles, velvety shadows and Freudian symbolism. These movies rock. Which brings us to a good reason why modern moviemakers tend to make lousy noir:

1) Genre-idolizers are usually the wrong guys for the job of making noir work in the ’90s.

“Asking ‘Why isn’t contemporary film noir as good as the old?’ is like asking ‘Why isn’t contemporary Impressionism as good as Monet?’ ” observes writer-director Nick Kazan. “There’s art, then there’s imitation. When writers and directors derive feeling and technique from 40-year-old, black and white masterpieces, how can it be anything but stale and pathetic? It’s like once having fallen madly for a girl with short, dark hair, then spending the rest of your life going to bed with girls with short, dark hair, trying to recreate something you never can recreate.”

In great old noir, feeling excites technique. In new noir, technique pinch-hits for feeling. Nobody in the ’40s and ’50s learned moviemaking at school. Nobody but Frenchmen sat around loathing/idolizing American pop, revering such writers as Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Cornell Woolrich and Patricia Highsmith, enshrining such directors as Hitchcock, Hawks, Don Siegel, Phil Karlson and Sam Fuller. “Turning noir into a cult,” asserts Michael Tolkin, who co-wrote Deep Cover, “made it a blind alley to filmmakers. Breed a generation of film school graduates who grow up studying noir, who only know movies, and that puts noir, or any other kind of film, in the way of their being able to see it. Or to make it.”

Once critic-turned-director Peter (Paper Moon) Bogdanovich made it seem hip and profitable to direct movies about other movies, the gate was blown wide for such other encyclopedic film buffs as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Joe Dante, John Landis, Mel Brooks, John Carpenter and Lawrence Kasdan to play Raiders of the Lost Genres. Just when Vietnam was a festering, open sore, a wave of nostalgia (for danger long since warded off, like WWII Nazis, space creatures or whatever) came along to balm it over. In the ’60s and ’70s, such films as Marlowe, The Big Sleep (the remake), The Maltese Bippy, Peeper, Gumshoe, Dead and Farewell, and My Lovely winked knowingly as they paraded around in vintage clothes like trick-or-treaters and bracketed their line readings with quotation marks.

Things livened up when Kasdan did Body Heat in 1981. Not that this film didn’t cast backward glances. The plot steals from James M. Cain, and, though set in the present, the film’s mired in ’40s imagery–slow-whirling ceiling fans, chinks of light through half closed blinds, and so on. But Body Heat was not just a slow dance down memory lane. The erotic scenes have the feel of post-’60s sex in them; Mickey Rourke is unmistakably modern-screwy; and William Hurt is a purely contemporary dupe–a young, loutish lawyer fuckup (“You’re not very bright, are you?” Kathleen Turner observes. “I like that in a man”).

But Kasdan’s achievement was the exception, not the rule. Just look at the sequel to Chinatown to see how far wrong a guy can go mining noir. Whereas Roman Polanski had brilliantly played with our expectations of the private eye/treacherous dame genre, director Jack Nicholson wowed us with production values and went without a subtext. Polanski had known enough to ditch screenwriter Robert Towne’s original upbeat ending for an oedipal bloodbath straight out of Greek tragedy. In The Two Jakes, Nicholson seems to have conned himself into believing he could hide the wobbles with period window dressing. “When moviemakers draw on old stories, old styles,” says Henry Bean, “they’re going to get trapped in forms that refer to an earlier vision.” Indeed.

2) Contemporary noir films do not address our times the way classic noir films addressed theirs.

“What’s inspiring about noir is what’s inspiring about postwar Japanese movies or Italian movies of the ’50s and ’60s,” says Michael Tolkin. “They’re pictures of a social moment. They’re what happened when filmmakers looked at their time in a cold light and tried to make sense of it.” Hanging heavy over vintage noir is the sense that times are rotten and unlikely to improve, and people are scared because the game of life is rigged. In Criss Cross (1949), shot extensively on the streets of the Bunker Hill section of L.A., Burt Lancaster deadpans in voiceover: “It was in the cards or it was fate or a jinx or whatever you want to call it.” Characters in old-time noir come by such fatalism honestly. They’re suffering from war wounds, reeling from bad love affairs. They’ve been scammed by friends. On top of that, they’re panicked at being a paycheck or two away from homelessness. When audiences left theaters, their terror wasn’t just about how other people lived.

“The job of art is to talk about our lives now, or what’s the point?” says Henry Bean, whose Deep Coveris a thriller about our government’s cozying up to a powerful, Noriega-like drug trafficker. “We’ve got George Bush as president, a terrible economy, cities going to hell, terrible race relations, an America completely bereft of any kind of optimism about itself. What more material does anyone need to make contemporary stories that let go of these old noir forms?” As Nick Kazan says, “The future right now seems at least as bleak as it seemed any time films noir were made in the past. A pessimistic world view, the stuff of noir, seems the only sane response.”

“We don’t know how to look at our time,” says Tolkin. “We’re dumb, where guys back in the days of Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller and Don Siegel were brilliant. Storytelling is so lame now. We don’t have people who can even plot the way Robert Towne did Chinatown.”

3) Contemporary noir is too concerned with dark alleys, not concerned enough with dark psychology.

Obsessed with invoking the style of classic noir, current filmmakers almost never manage to include the substance–which is human darkness. Two examples from the last couple of years show it can be done.

Stephen Frears’s The Grifters (based on Jim Thompson’s novel) concerns a double-crossing mother and son, and the double-crossing girl who comes between them. Unlike the book, the movie unreels in some timeless time specifically so it can pivot on a classic oedipal tug of war and speak to something rich, strange and universal in the human condition. “It’s not only the smartest, most successful of the recent noirs,” says screenwriter Bean, “but it also conies the closest to being modern, particularly because of the relationship between John Cusack and Anjelica Huston. It’s just like any suburban kid and his mom. He makes fun of her, acts like she’s just a big pain in the ass, yet he’s completely in her thrall. That’s brilliant.”

Mike Figgis’s Internal Affairs is, right on the surface, of our time. It tells of a cop investigating corruption within the force, a story not unlike Serpico or Prince of the City. And it zings as few current films can, thanks to the villainous cop played by Richard Gere. An utterly amoral, conniving, charismatic scumbag who plays upon the mistrust between husbands and wives like a virtuoso, Gere’s character is hired by a businessman to kill his parents; when that’s done, the businessman’s wife hires Gere to kill her husband.

Best of all, the dark moral ambiguities of the Internal Affairs investigator played by Andy Garcia, our protagonist, are nearly as unsettling as those of Gere’s character. It’s nothing new to link the kinks of the hero and villain, but it feels right, particularly in a world, our world, where so much seems out of whack. What’s more, Internal Affairs, like Chinatown, is resolutely modern noir because, unlike less sophisticated specimens of the genre, it doesn’t suggest that the hero in the end makes order out of chaos.

4) Contemporary moviemakers aren’t as good with sex as the old guys.

It’s one of cinema’s many paradoxes that often, the stronger the restraint, the steamier the movie. One of the smartest moves actor-producer Warren Beatty, director Barry Levinson and screenwriter James Toback made in their very smart Bugsy was confining the eroticism to machine gun banter (She: “Do you always talk this much before you do it?” and He: “I only talk this much before I kill someone”), just like in the old days.

In the early ’30s, when eroticism and violence in the movies were self-regulated by the Hays Code, MGM snapped up the rights to James M. Cain’s steamy The Postman Always Rings Twice, which was about a sexy drifter and a sexy wife who bump off her older immigrant husband and get away with it. Paramount bought Cain’s Double Indemnity, which was about a sexy insurance man and a sexy wife who bump off the older husband and don’t get away with it. Neither movie could be made until the mid-’40s, and even then censors confined the moviemakers to pungent words, steamy glances and lots of shared cigarettes. But both films are sexually supercharged.

Consider the exchange in Double Indemnity where Barbara Stanwyck, wearing a filmy white dress and a fetishistic ankle bracelet, is supposed to be talking with salesman Fred MacMurray about an insurance policy for Stanwyck’s husband. She: “There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. 45 miles an hour.” He: “How fast was I going, officer?” She: “I’d say around 90.” He: “Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket?” She: “Suppose I let you off with a warning, this time.” He: “Suppose it doesn’t take?” She: “Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles?” He: “Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder?” She: “Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder?”

That spectacular scene, like so many in these movies, packs a dizzying punch of erotic obsession, of being in too far over one’s head to give a good goddamn. What allows it to do so, besides the magical chemistry of the movie stars, is terrific dialogue played against suggestive imagery.

Dennis Hopper somehow wouldn’t or couldn’t act smart when he directed 1990’s The Hot Spot, based on the novel Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams. The story, nearly made into a Robert Mitchum movie in the early ’60s, pivots pretty much on the groin area of a studly drifter (Don Johnson) who sells cars, robs a bank and diddles the two most luscious women in a small Texas town (Virginia Madsen, Jennifer Connelly). Hopper mistakes soft porn for sexual crackle. When Madsen, as a scheming rich old fart’s wife, spreads her thighs and invites Johnson into the back seat of a car for “a real good look,” or tells him, “We’re a lot alike, you and me. We’ve got these hard, hard outsides, but inside–” and he interrupts, “We’re hard, hard, hard,” it’s not hot, it’s camp, camp, camp.

Sex is ironically one of the areas in which contemporary noir could make an advance over classic noir, since sex is at the heart of noir and it can be presented more graphically on screen now than in the vintage noir era. The problem is that, with few exceptions, filmmakers have failed to develop in any genre a visual language of eroticism that effectively takes advantage of the freedom relaxed censorship has granted. In any film, but particularly in noir, it’s what’s going on in the minds inside those bodies that matters–filmmaking that fixates you on the skin’s surface (and often doesn’t even do that) fails to accomplish what the great noir directors did with smoke.

The notable exception is, of course, Body Heat. That film succeeds on an erotic level because it has great chemistry between charismatic actors, because it has great dialogue churning the blood before anyone touches anyone else, and because it’s uncommonly well directed by Lawrence Kasdan, who figured out how to run with what the censors tossed. But in general, sex on the screen is as tricky a trap for contemporary noir as the worship of style.

5) Noir demands actors with voltage, and they are in short supply these days.

Some of the sizzle from old-time noir comes from the zombie cool of the pros who starred in it. “One of the great pleasures these movies give,” says Michael Tolkin, “is seeing how other people live. Watching and listening to Dan Duryea, in Ministry of Fear or The Woman in the Window, wearing a cheap suit with a too-wide tie, tells volumes. He’s playing one of the million characters that exist in that world, where movies today have about two of those characters.” It’s axiomatic that noir requires stylized, vivid actors. Barbara Stanwyck once defined “presence” as “coming on the screen as if someone kicked you in the seat of the pants.” But noir requires a different, surreally downplayed “presence.” Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, or Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price and Clifton Webb in Laura, play with a flattened-out monotone cool that’s completely unlike anything else they did. Audiences in the ’40s and ’50s grooved to the new, affectless acting style they found in noir. But that’s because they could tell it was deliberate. Contemporary audiences take chillcd-out, colorless actors for granted. These days, who doesn’t sound like one of the walking dead?

In modern noir, we’ve mostly gotten Kevin Costner–one of our least resonant actors–floating through No Way Out. Or Costner and Madeleine Stowe, the frozen dead, in Revenge, barely changing their expressions. “We’re approaching the post-personality era,” James Toback asserts. “Shifty nuances of consciousness, dangerous extremes of mood–historically, the respiratory system of film noir–have, at best, become ‘weird,’ or, at worst, ‘sick.’ The future is with biochemistry, astrophysics, genetic engineering: Cut out aberration, smooth out rough edges, straighten out the twists. Can irrational man and film noir be saved? Time is not on our side.”

It’s not like we haven’t had actors born to bite into noir: Jack Nicholson, Nick Nolte, James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Michelle Pfeiffer, Melanie Griffith, Richard Gere, Andy Garcia, Ellen Barkin, Judy Davis. But few actors believe they can sell tickets playing an ambiguous character. Tony Goodstone, an actor who is working on a book about the advertising of noir, believes audiences want to see “invincible, Schwarzenegger heroes, whereas noir heroes are aware they’re in a losing situation, fight through it anyway, and almost always lose. How many actors want to play that? How many people will pay to see it?”

Okay, so very few writers, directors or actors know how to do it anymore, but film noir, like the western, the suspense thriller and the musical, appears to be virtually indestructible. “Audiences may prefer fantasies where the man carries off the girl in his arms at the end,” says Nick Kazan, “but something in the souls of creative people attracts them to bleaker material.” Which implies that noir will always be a hothouse species. And that reminds me: Gotta go catch a screening of China Moon, a new, erotic noir starring Ed Harris and Madeleine Stowe. Will it be any good? The odds say no. But, hey, once a noir die-hard, always one.


Stephen Rebello interviewed Drew Barrymore for our March issue.


Posted on April 29, 2017, in Movieline Articles, Movies. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Love Film Noir, even the lesser efforts; good article.


  2. I love film noir. I practice great conservatism calendar-wise when it comes to classifying films as noir. The timeframe ends in 1959, with TOUCH OF EVIL. Anything after that is neo-noir. It begins in 1940 with STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. Some say it begins in 1941 with THE MALTESE FALCON, but the noir inflections and style is most certainly apparent in the former. Color films that were noir-like in nature cannot be classified as noir, because they are in color. They are noir-adjacent. Films that would otherwise be easily categorized as noir, like NIAGARA or LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN fall into this category, based solely on them being filmed in color.

    One thing that I have to nitpick about the article is that MURDER, MY SWEET and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, both based on the Raymond Chandler novel Farewell, My Lovely, for some reason have an “and” thrown into their titles each time they are referenced in the article. This is a terrible error for a magazine to have made, and it should have been caught and corrected prior to publication.

    Sorry this comment is so late. I’ve been slacking on blog post readings as of late.


    • The terminology that I’ve frequently come across, and picked up on myself is this: “film noir” refers to the films made in the classic era of the 1940s and 50s. “Neo-noir” refers to more modern films which are set in the time period of classic noir, which would include Chinatown, Devil in a Blue Dress, L. A. Confidential, etc. And “contemporary noir” refers to more modern films set at approximately the time of filming, such as Body Heat, The Grifters, or John Dahl’s films such as The Last Seduction.


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