Modern Film Noir: The Dark Side of Life (In Color)

Body Heat (1981)

This film is considered to be an erotic thriller; it is (obviously) inspired by classic noir. So, maybe we can consider this to be neo-noir? Matty (Kathleen Turner) is the femme fatale; she has a secrets in her past. Ned (William Hurt) is the not-so-smart/playboy/lawyer who gets caught in her web.

Read my review.

Blade Runner (1982)

Many critics consider this to be the first sci-fi noir. It is a deep film that makes us wonder re: the nature of humanity. Many have wondered if Deckard (a young-ish Harrison Ford) was a human or a replicant. If you find this interesting, you may also like the sequel- Blade Runner 2049 (starring Ryan Gosling).

Dir. Ridley Scott and D.P. Jordan Cronenweth achieved the “shining eyes” effect by using a technique invented by Fritz Lang (“Schüfftan Process”) where light is bounced into the actors’ eyes off of a piece of half mirrored glass mounted at a 45 degree angle to the camera. Lang is known as a titan of the noir genre.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

This is a lesser-known Coen bros film w/ young-ish Gabriel Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden (who I saw on the NYC subway years ago) that I really enjoyed. You see fine character actors in a world of their own which is very engaging (as expected from the Coens).

Read my review.

Cape Fear (1991)

This is the remake of the classic film dir. by Scorsese; the stars are Nick Nolte, Robert De Niro (sporting long-ish hair and fake tattoos), Jessica Lange, and a teenaged Juliette Lewis. You will also see cameos from Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum (I got a kick out of that). It’s NOT as good as the original, but still worth a look.

Heat (1995)

This film is loved by many who like action films, but also want strong character development. Fans of De Niro and Pacino will definitely want to check it out!

Read my review here.

The Usual Suspects (1995)

I haven’t seen this movie in a long time- think will give it a re-watch soon! It’s been on “modern noir” lists I looked up.

Fargo (1996)

Perhaps the Coens’ most well-known/loved film; we find quirky characters, dark humor, crime, moments of lightness, etc. Frances McDormand is the pregnant cop who you just can’t help but admire and root for, as she works to investigate some shady events in her small/snowy/usually safe community.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Three young cops w/ different approaches to their work: Russell Crowe (looking hot), Guy Pearce (also looking hot), and Kevin Spacey investigate a series murders in 1950s LA. Kim Basinger revives her career w/ a strong (supporting) role. I will re-watch this soon.

Se7en (1997)

I’ve only seen this film once; I didn’t like it that much (aside from Morgan Freeman’s role). You get to see a young/lonely wife (Gwenyth Paltrow) and her hubby/rookie detective (Brad Pitt); they are newlyweds starting their lives in the big city (Chicago). Of course, the baddie (Spacey) steals the show, as many of you know. We know dir. David Fincher made a big splash w/ this controversial/bloody/creepy film.

Training Day (2001)

You all probably know I’m a big fan of Denzel Washington; I also really like Ethan Hawke. They make a great/unlikely duo in this film, which has good supporting actors, action, dark humor, crime, etc. Denzel is really good as a baddie, though he’s NOT a one-note villain!

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Wow, the Coens really hit it out of the park here! I recall many/diverse viewers commenting that they enjoyed this film; they were also scared (or at least, on edge). I became a fan of Javier Bardem (who they ugly-fied for his baddie role). I also enjoyed seeing Tommy Lee Jones; also, I think Kelly Macdonald should’ve gotten even bigger roles (as she’s good in everything).

Gone Girl (2014)

I saw this film w/ a group of (mostly) single gal pals in one of our local theaters; we were NOT expecting what we saw (LOL)! Is this a farce (as some critics have noted)? Is the depiction of dysfunctional marriage meant to be taken (mostly) seriously? You can hate exurban life in the Midwest (BUT not as much as the wife played by Rosamund Pike)! Ben Affleck had his Batman physique then; I found that somewhat distracting (he’s supposed to be a underemployed teacher/writer). I liked the detective (Kim Dickens) and the defense lawyer (Tyler Perry); they were the ONLY characters that seemed somewhat normal/relatable. Maybe I’m just NOT a fan of Fincher’s cold/slick style? Thank goodness for my single life!

Hell or High Water (2016)

This is a Western neo-noir set in the Southwest starring the (always great) Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine (in a rare non-glam/anti-hero role), and Ben Foster (a fine character actor I’ve admired since he was a teen). The two working-class bros at the center of the story can’t seem to get ahead, so they take a (criminal) turn. A must-see for fans of smart films!

Read my review.

“Meet John Doe” (1941) starring Gary Cooper & Barbara Stanwyck

As a parting shot, fired reporter Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) prints a fake letter from unemployed “John Doe,” who threatens suicide on Christmas Eve in protest of declining society. This is during the Great Depression where many are unemployed and starving; Ann has to support her widowed mother and two younger sisters. The letter causes such a stir that the editor, Henry Connell (James Gleason), is forced to rehire Ann. They hire an unemployed/former baseball player, “Long John” Willoughby (Gary Cooper), to impersonate Doe. An old pal of John’s reluctantly comes along, The Colonel (Walter Brennan), who was happy to be a carefree hobo owing nothing to anyone. John wants money to fix his injured elbow (so he can play again). Ann and her bosses milk the story for all it’s worth, until the “John Doe” philosophy starts a nationwide political movement! In a few mos. time, many (incl. Ann) start taking it seriously; publisher D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) has a plan of his own to use it for his benefit.

Mayor Hawkins: Why, Bert. I feel slighted. I’d like to join, but nobody asked me.

Sourpuss Smithers: I’m sorry, Mayor, but we voted that no politician could join [the Joe Doe Club].

Mrs. Hansen: Just the John Does of the neighborhood because you know how politicians are.

Director Frank Capra didn’t want anyone to play John Doe except Cooper, who agreed to the part (w/o reading a script) for two reasons: he had enjoyed working w/ Capra on Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and he wanted to work w/ Stanwyck. Well into production, Capra refused to reveal publicly what the film was about b/c of the fear that powerful US fascist organizations would pressure Warner Bros. not to make the film and also the screenplay hadn’t been finished. In the end, Capra (a first gen Italian American) produced this film independently, along w/ his partner Robert Riskin (a first gen Russian-American who wrote the screenplay). Riskin was married to actress Fay Wray w/ whom he had several children, incl. historian/author Victoria Riskin. As she explained in a 2019 interview, her father was given the opportunity to showcase Hollywood films to European countries as the Allies were liberating them from the Nazis; he didn’t include this film, as he thought it’d convey an dark view of the U.S. Four different endings were filmed, but all were considered unsatisfactory during previews. A letter from an audience member suggested a fifth ending, which Capra liked and used in the final version. The original copyright was never renewed, and the film fell into public domain (so you can see it for free).

D. B. Norton: What the American people need is an iron hand!

When films contain an ensemble, romance, a sense of optimism (even as life becomes dark), and a belief in the goodness of America- they may be labeled “Capraesque”). Capra directed some of the most iconic films in his day which still appeal to modern audiences: It Happened One Night (1929)- perhaps the 1st rom com, You Can’t Take It with You (1938) w/ young Jimmy Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)- a holiday staple starring Stewart, and State of the Union (1948) w/ Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Although most of his films were written by individuals on the political left, Capra was a lifelong conservative Republican! He was awarded the American National Medal of the Arts in 1986 by the National Endowment of the Arts. If you haven’t seen this film before, it’s worth a look. Though I wasn’t a big fan of the ending speech by Stanwyck (which seemed a bit shrill), it had some fine (and funny) moments.

I thought drama was when the actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries. -Frank Capra

[1] This film is even more relevant today than when it was made… Capra is asking his viewers to think critically of EVERYTHING they hear on the radio or see in papers or hear from elites, and amen to that!

[2] Capra weaves his well-loved everyman through a tale of both simplicity and political intrigue, taking in the American depression and Biblical references along the way, and comes up with messages that remain startlingly relevant today…

[3] He [Capra] backs up his strong, daunting ideology with sharp, crisp writing and even sharper character delineation. Capra’s social piece was timely released in 1940, when Nazi sympathizers were gaining a potent voice in America, just prior to our involvement in WWII.

Cooper and Stanwyck are ideal in their top roles. Stanwyck is peerless when it comes to playing smart, gutsy gals.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

 

“Ball of Fire” (1941) starring Barbara Stanwyck & Gary Cooper

Opening credits prologue: Once upon a time – in 1941 to be exact – there lived in a great, tall forest – called New York – eight men who were writing an encyclopedia. They were so wise they knew everything: the depth of the oceans, and what makes a glowworm glow, and what tune Nero fiddles while Rome was burning. But there was one thing about which they knew very little – as you will see…

I saw this movie yesterday (July 16th)- Barbara Stanwyck’s b-day. A clever/sexy/wise-cracking nightclub singer, Katherine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Stanwyck- who got an Oscar nod), needs to be kept on ice b/c her mobster bf Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews- slick and sharply-dressed) is suspected of murder and her testimony could get him the electric chair. A naive/tall/handsome professor, Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper- almost 40 and fabulous), meets Sugarpuss while researching an article on modern slang; in rom com fashion, their two worlds collide. When she hides out with Potts (and his 7 fellow nerdy profs), everyone learns something new! This is included among the AFI’s list of the Top 100 Funniest American Movies.

Potts: What’re you gonna do?

Sugarpuss: I’m going to show you what yum-yum is. Here’s yum. [kisses him] Here’s the other yum. [kisses him again] And here’s yum-yum. [gives a long kiss that knocks him backwards onto a chair]

To pick up slang for their script, screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett visited the drugstore across the street from Hollywood High School, a burlesque house, and the Hollywood Park racetrack. When Cooper is taking notes of the newsboy’s slang, the marquee on the theater across the street advertises Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), an inside joke that refers to the script’s inspiration. There is even a promo photo showing the actors sitting in front of a Disney poster, each one in front of his corresponding dwarf: S.Z. Sakall – Dopey; Leonid Kinskey – Sneezy; Richard Haydn – Bashful; Henry Travers – Sleepy; Aubrey Mather – Happy; Tully Marshall – Grumpy, and Oskar Homolka – Doc. Lucille Ball wanted to play Sugarpuss, as she thought it was the kind of role that would win her an Oscar. She fought for the role and was eventually hired, but once producer Samuel Goldwyn found out that Stanwyck (recommended by Cooper) was available, he gave her the part instead. Andrews based his character on notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel, who owned the Formosa (a club across the street from Goldwyn Studios). Andrews used to go there after work; he had the suits, hats, and spats down pat.

Miss Bragg: That is the kind of woman that makes whole civilizations topple!

One of Gene Krupa’s four trumpet players was Roy Eldridge, the only Black man in the band (briefly seen in the film). To avoid offending white audiences in the Jim Crow South, the studio and director Howard Hawks came up w/ a plan. The reels of a movie were shown using two alternating projectors. Sixteen mins. into the film, Stanwyck comes on, sings “Drum Boogie” (Martha Tilton provided the voice) w/ the band, and Eldridge stands to perform his trumpet solo. When the song is over, Stanwyck leaves the stage and the first reel ends. As the next reel begins, she returns for an encore, the band is still in place and the audience is still applauding; however, Eldridge has been removed from the band. By simply switching projectors before Stanwyck’s first entry, a projectionist could “edit out” Eldridge.

Sugarpuss: [about Potts] Yes, I love him. I love those hick shirts he wears with the boiled cuffs and the way he always has his vest buttoned wrong. Looks like a giraffe, and I love him. I love him because he’s the kind of a guy that gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. Love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk!

After surviving quarantine life, all of us know about being house-bound, lonely, and out of touch w/ the world (though we aren’t working on a set of encyclopedias)! It’s obvious that the the (also nerdy) Miss Totten has a crush on Potts; when she comes by for a meeting re: financing their work, the other profs urge him to be nice to her. In just a few days, Potts wins over Sugarpuss by being kind, thoughtful, and respectful (traits that her bf doesn’t possess). She teaches the profs re: current songs and how to dance the cha-cha- it’s sweet and funny. Check this movie out if you want a laugh!

[1] A very funny, sprightly film, fast-paced and full of wonderful performances. Stanwyck is glowingly wonderful, but I still can’t get over Cooper’s wonderful characterization of a supremely attractive total geek. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, see the movie and you’ll realize it’s true.

[2] I really liked the way that every one of the nerdy professors is tempted to correct every mistake made by the others. But the gags throughout the movie are really something. Hilarious.

[3] “Ball of Fire” shows pre-Pearl Harbor comedic Hollywood at its zenith.

[4] The expressions of the day are dated and humorous and there are so many you can’t count them all. Some are stupid; some are hilarious… which is what you get with most comedies anyway. Not every line hits the mark, but a lot do in this one.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Object of Beauty” (1991) starring John Malkovich & Andie MacDowell

A romantic comedy about the fine art of thievery. -Tag line

Two Americans living the good life in London find their romantic relationship challenged by a sudden lack of funds. Jake (John Malkovich), a commodities broker, is unable to pay the bills (b/c of a strike that holds up a cocoa shipment). So, he suggests that Tina (Andie MacDowell) file an insurance claim on her little Henry Moore statue. This statue is the only item of value that she owns- her sense of security. One day, the statue suddenly disappears from their posh hotel room! They are begin to doubt each other and the strength of their love.

Tina: You’ve always said when it comes to food, shoes, and sex, price is no object.

Jake: Good shoes are important!

I cam across this on IMDB TV when I was looking for movies w/ John Malkovich (after seeing Dangerous Liaisons). The writer/director is an American, Michael Lindsay Hogg, who worked on music videos, TV (incl. Brideshead Revisited), as well as movies. Tina’s best friend, Jenny (Lolita Davidovich), is also American; she was married to Cint Eastwood and is the mother of Scott Eastwood. The hotel’s investigator Victor Swayle (Bill Paterson) goes on a little power trip. Paterson is a veteran character actor who recently appeared as the father in the hit TV show- Fleabag.

Jake: I am on the verge of something very lucrative, so for you to even be talking about dishonoring one of my checks, really puts me in a very sweaty mode.

The statue is taken by the deaf/mute hotel maid- Jenny (Rudi Davies). She knows this is wrong to do, but later explains that the statue “spoke to me.” Jenny (only in her 20s) lives in a tiny flat w/ her teen brother (who is in danger of becoming a criminal). As some viewers noted, Jenny is at the heart of the story and the only likeable character. It’s also rare to see a (working-class) person have a well-developed arc in a movie.

This movie is for those of you who enjoy character development and quirky humor. There is fun chemistry between Malkovich (who loves fashion) and MacDowell (who looks great in all the fashions as a former model); they joke around and seem to have fun together. If you like fashion, you may notice the Armani suits and Manolo Blahnik shoes. Siskel and Ebert both liked this movie (two thumbs up). I really liked the ending- it was sweet and funny!

[1] The film is an underhanded, cynical, satirical poke at American materialism…

[2] The chemistry between the two of them reminds one of William Powell and Myrna Loy. If they had picked up the pace a bit, they would have had a real classic comedy here. This film is highly watchable, though.

[3] My favorite not-to-be-missed extremely funny scene? John Malkovich’s “Jake”, in a moment of depressed exasperation, talking aloud to himself composing his own obituary.

[4] You will enjoy this film much more if you pay attention to the irony of the value placed by different characters upon this Henry Moore sculpture. It is worth nothing to some, only money to others, an emotional commitment to another, and an object of aspiration to one other. All of these perspectives speak to each other, and it is a very interesting conversation.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Romancing the Stone” (1984) starring Michael Douglas & Kathleen Turner

Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), a romance novelist in NYC, receives a treasure map in the mail from her recently murdered BIL. Her sister, Elaine (Mary Ellen Trainor- one of the co-writers of the screenplay), is kidnapped in Colombia. Two sleazy criminal cousins, Ralph (Danny DeVito) and Ira (Zach Norman), demand that Joan travel to Cartegena to exchange the map for her sister. Joan, despite the warnings of her editor, Gloria (Holland Taylor), flies to Colombia. Joan (who doesn’t know Spanish) becomes lost in the jungle after being fooled by the mysterious Zolo (Manuel Ojeda). Joan meets an irreverent fortune-hunter, Jack Colton (Michael Douglas), who agrees to help her out for a price. They embark on an adventure that could be straight out of one of Joan’s novels!

Gloria: [observing men in a bar] Wimp. Wimp. Loser. Loser. Major loser. Too angry. Too vague. Too desperate. God, too happy. Oh, look at this guy. Mr. Mondo Dismo. I actually used to date him. Total sleaze bucket. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Hold everything. Get a load of this character. What about him?

Joan Wilder: No, he’s – he’s just not…

Gloria: Who? Jessie?

Joan: Maybe it’s silly, but, I know there is somebody out there for me.

This was the only produced screenplay for writer Diane Thomas; she was a waitress in Malibu when Douglas optioned her script for $250,000 – wow! Thomas (only 39 y.o.) died in a car accident, while working on a new project w/ Steven Spielberg the following year; her bf has been driving the Porsche that Douglas had bought her as a gift. Director Robert Zemeckis was able to go forward on his own project, Back to the Future (1985), since this movie was a hit. Alan Silvestri was hired to do a temporary score, but Zemeckis liked his work so much that he kept him on as composer. Romancing the Stone was to be filmed in Colombia; the country suffered an increase in kidnappings of Americans, so production was moved to Mexico. After the film’s original cut rated very low w/ preview audiences, Fox feared it would be a flop and Zemeckis was fired from Cocoon. Zemeckis made substantial changes, incl. to the prologue and ending; the scene w/ Gloria and Joan to the bar was added and scene in the crashed plane was re-shot (6 mos. later).

Joan: [after Jack cuts off the heels of her shoes] These were Italian.

Jack: Now they’re practical.

If you’re in a cranky mood, or just want to watch a fun movie, check this out! Yes, this has elements of the rom com (NOT my fave genre), BUT the twist is the action/adventure (which drew me in). There is also humor, incl. some LOL moments (even IF feeling V low/tired)! The chemistry between Turner (who came from the theater) and Douglas (who was already a box office draw) is terrific; Douglas said: “I don’t know what it was. Somehow, we just got along right from the start.” I’m NOT a big fan of Douglas (though I love his dad’s work), BUT I found him to be a charming guy here. Turner admitted that it was tough to work w/ Zemeckis, as she was still new to movies and didn’t understand much re: directing for the screen. We know DeVito is very funny, but Juan (Mexican actor/director Alfonso Arau) provides humor also. At first, Juan (a drug lord) becomes a fanboy upon meeting Joan (his fave writer), then he takes her and Jack on a wild ride on his “mule” Pepe (a tricked-out truck). Arau directed two of the most (visually) appealing movies I’ve ever seen- Like Water for Chocolate and A Walk in the Clouds.

Joan: What is all this?

Jack: All this? About five to life in the States, a couple of centuries down here.

Joan: Oh, marijuana.

Jack: Oh, you smoke it?

Joan: [defensively] I went to college.

The music goes along so well w/ the film- it just carries you into the adventure. The scenery is beautiful, esp. the brief scene where Juan, Jack, and Joan come upon the valley w/ “The Devil’s Fork.” The hair and costuming also helps tell the story. At the start of the story, Joan has her hair up in a bun and wears a puffy jacket over conservative/tight business suits. Later on, her hair is down and she’s wearing a flowing top and skirt w/ bold/bright flowers. The dance scene is sweet and also reminiscent of classic Hollywood; Douglas said that they didn’t realize that cameras were rolling (so were just enjoying themselves dancing w/ the locals/extras).

In the prologue depicting Joan’s latest novel, the music used is the theme from How the West Was Won (1962). In the fight scene, Zolo asks Joan: “How will you die? Slow like a snail? Or fast like a shooting star?” This is a call-back to the opening when the villain tells Angelina: “You can go quick like the tongue of a snake, or slower than the molasses in January.” At the end, Jack and Joan “sail off” down the street in Jack’s yacht Angelina (the name of the character in the book Joan is writing at the beginning of the film).