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.

Film Noir takes on “Bonnie & Clyde”: “Gun Crazy” (1950) starring John Dall & Peggy Cummins

Thrill Crazy… Kill Crazy… Gun Crazy -A tagline for the film

Since he was a little boy, Bart Tare (John Dall) has loved guns. After 4 yrs. of reform school, then a stint in the Army, he returns home to his small town. His older sister (Ruby)- who raised him after they lost their parents- is now married w/ 2 young kids. His two best friends (a cop named Clyde and a newsman named Dave) take him to a carnival; he meets Annie Laurie Starr, a blonde/petite woman who is a sharp-shooter. Laurie loves guns as much as Bart- even getting him a job! They end up getting married, leaving the carnival (after the boss hits on Laurie), and have a long honeymoon where they live it up. When they get low on money, Laurie tells Bart her idea- robbery!

I told John, “Your c*ck’s never been so hard,” and I told Peggy, “You’re a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don’t let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.” That’s exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn’t have to give them more directions. -Joseph H. Lewis, director

This film is based on a story written by McKinley Kantor reworked by Dalton Trumbo (who was blacklisted). Here we see the linking of sex and violence; it also reveals that guns are a big part of American life. Though this was an inexpensive B movie, it has some fine elements that were ahead of its time. Director Joseph H. Lewis uses long takes, angles, deep focus, and jerking camera movements. Lewis also gave the actors permission to improvise. As the hosts commented on Out of the Podcast, “Bart and Laurie are equals” and “are the only ones who understand each other.” Though Bart avoids shooting anyone, Laurie isn’t as careful; she tells him early on that she’s “no good” and wants some “action” (excitement). Dall and Cummins have great chemistry; they are like two magnets instantly drawn to each other. Coming from the theater, Dall is also not afraid to express emotions (incl. fear and doubt).

Dall and Cummins did all their own driving in the film; only one process shot (i.e., rear projection behind the actors pretending to drive) was used in the film. The cinematography by Russell Harlan is a standout. The bank heist sequence was done in one take, with no one outside the principal actors and people inside the bank aware that a movie was being filmed. When Bart says, “I hope we find a parking space,” he really meant it. At the end of the scene, someone screams that there’s been a bank robbery; this was a bystander who saw the filming and assumed the worst.

[1] It’s psychological side of danger, pathological lies, and the pattern of a downward spiral in having to commit violent acts (even un-intentionally), becomes what really pulls in the viewer into the picture, aside from the more loose, on-location ‘real’ style and interesting camera-work.

[2] Peggy Cummins is really good in this. …her baby-doll voice creates an effective contrast to her colder-than-ice attitude. She’s crooning into her lover’s ear one minute and itching to kill someone the next.

I thought John Dall was at first odd casting for the role of Bart. Annie is supposed to think of him as a man’s man, and Dall, with his willowy physique and gentle mannerisms is far from that. But then when we realize that he’s at heart really too gentle for the life he and Annie have chosen for themselves, his casting makes sense.

[3] What is the quintessence of a film-noir? A good answer is: an evil strong woman that manipulates a weak, although basically decent, man, involving him in a crazy love, doomed to a tragic ending. Then we can safely state that “Deadly is the Female” [the original title] is a perfect instance of film-noir.

The movie has outstanding merits. The cinematography, and especially the camera-work are excellent, and comparable to the best achievements in the film-noir genre.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Nightmare Alley” (1947) starring Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Colleen Gray, & Helen Walker

Pete Krumbein: Throughout the ages, man has sought to look behind the veil that hides him from tomorrow. And through the ages, certain men have looked into the polished crystal… and seen. Is it some quality of the crystal itself, or does the gazer merely use it to turn his gaze inward? Who knows? But visions come. Slowly shifting their forms… visions come. Wait. The shifting shapes begin to clear. I see fields of grass… rolling hills… and a boy. A boy is running barefoot through the hills. A dog is with him. A… DOG… is… with… him.

Stanton Carlisle: Yes… go on… his name was Jib. Go on!

Pete: [Choked laughter] Humph. See how easy it is to *hook* ’em!

Twentieth Century-Fox bought the film rights to William Lindsay Gresham’s novel in 1946 for $50,000 at the request of star Tyrone Power, who wanted to change his image and show his range. The studio built a carnival set on the backlot covering 10 acres; it hired 100+ sideshow attractions and carnival workers. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck hated this movie so much that he eventually took it out of circulation. Zanuck ordered the happy scene to be added (no shock there). The movie was re-released in 1956-1957 and did good business, esp. in drive-ins. It received wide distribution (on TV) after Power’s premature death in 1958. The DVD release (2005) brought Nightmare Alley back into wide circulation. According to Eddie Muller, con men/grifters in the new age movement would ask “Are you a friend of Stan Carlisle?” to confirm that the person they were talking to was in the same line of business.

Stan: You’ve got a heart as big…

Zeena Krumbein: Sure, as big as an artichoke, a leaf for everyone.

The movie opens at a carnival offering a muscle man, young women in skimpy outfits, a mind-reader, and the “geek” (a freakish man who supposedly bites the heads off live chickens). Among the crowd is a new worker, Stanton Carlisle, who is esp. interested in Zeena (Joan Blondell), the mentalist who was successful w/ her mind-reading act (before her hubby/partner, Pete, became an alcoholic). Stan is observant and ambitious, so he sets out to charm Zeena and learn her secrets. Stan’s true nature is revealed when he bluffs the sheriff (who has come to shut down the carnival); he’s good at manipulating others’ emotions (and enjoys it)!

Stan [to Molly]: Listen to me, I’m no good. I never pretended to be. But, I love you. I’m a hustler. I’ve always been one. But, I love you. I may be the thief of the world, but, with you I’ve always been on the level.

There are scams, swindles, deceptions and betrayals; we see the exploitation of people who are gullible or vulnerable. Stan’s rise from the seedy carnival to classy nightclub is captivating to watch! Stan is that rare homme fatale who uses his looks and sex appeal; near the end, he undergoes a de-glamorization that may shock some viewers. This is an obscure film, but much praised by noir fans. As Muller commented, even by film noir standards, this is a dark tale. I learned that both the director (Edmund Goulding) and writer eventually committed suicide!

The film wisely always plays to Power’s performance as charming and affable. It only hints at sinister intent, and so we’re on the ride with him seeing him as almost a heroic figure despite his cynical and insidious approach towards the world. For Stan, money is almost secondary to his desire to prove that he’s smarter than everyone else, which is why the film casts Lilith in his path to show us someone who’s not only potentially more dangerous, but also someone who’s more ingratiated with society. -Matt Goldberg (Collider)

The black and white photography by Lee Garmes is very well-done; it was perhaps too dark for audiences of that day. There are 3 interesting women characters- a rarity even today in Hollywood! Blondell (buxom and still good-looking in middle-age) is clever, jaded, but also good-hearted. Colleen Gray (in an early role) is “girl next door” pretty and sweet; her character falls hard for Stan. Helen Walker is smart, sophisticated, yet chilling as psychologist Lilith Ritter. She’s smarter and more ruthless than Stan; notice how her eyes shine w/ joy when she makes a fool of him!

[1] It was a raw, exposed nerve of a film. Instead of the Hollywood diction we had come to expect, this film expressed itself in 1940’s carny colloquialisms. And nobody in the cast was soft – they were all hard knocks characters, almost down for the count, but still fighting.

[2] Power, Blondell, Gray, Helen Walker, and the marvelous Ian Keith turn in great performances in a gritty film somewhat ahead of its time for its unrelenting toughness, its hard view of alcoholism, a look inside the world of mentalists and carnival life, and its theme of the supernatural.

[3] Nightmare Alley is a remarkable film- it hardly blinks in showing a cynical, scheming “preacher” doing his thing. Given the norms of Hollywood at the time, or almost at any time, it does give you a lot to consider. Tyrone Power is brilliant…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Obsession” (1943): Italian Adaptation of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”

In Fascist Italy, Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti), a young/handsome tramp, stops at a humble restaurant (trattoria) run by Giovanna (Clara Calamai) and her husband Bragana (Juan de Landa). Giovanna is unhappy w/ her older/controlling husband, who she married for security/money. Gino does some work around the place and he and Giovanna quickly fall in love. She refuses to run away w/ him and lead the life of a poor wanderer. Gino leaves for another town and becomes friends w/ a street artist, Lo spagnolo (“the Spaniard”); they work together for a few weeks. One day, Gino sees Giovanna and Bragana at a street fair; it is obvious that they haven’t gotten over each other. After a day of fun (w/ plenty of drinking on Bragana’s part), Giovanna comes up w/ a plan to finally be rid of her husband! Gino (though reluctant) goes along w/ the plan.

The film’s negative was destroyed by the fascist government of Benito Mussolini during WWII, but (first-time director) Luchino Visconti managed to save a print. In Italy, some priests sprinkled theaters w/ holy water after this film was shown- LOL! Obsession wasn’t seen in the U.S. until 1976, as James M. Cain’s publishers fought the release. Cain is perhaps best known for Double Indemnity, though The Postman Always Rings Twice was quite a popular work also. I heard about it recently (from a Facebook film noir group); it caused quite a controversy and was way ahead of it’s time.

The original actress cast for Giovanna was the glamorous/diva-like Anna Magnani, but she became pregnant before shooting. Unlike some other femme fatale, Giovanna isn’t glamorous or evil; she is more like a spoiled girl-next-door (too good to cook and clean). Bragana isn’t totally a bad man either, but (like many husbands of his day) has to “wear the pants” in the family. He is short, stout, and unattractive (though he can be jovial at times). Gino is down on his luck, not that educated, but also handsome w/ a strong physical presence. Lo spagnolo (Elio Marcuzo) brings a sense of lightness/fun into the film; I really liked his character. The young dancer/part-time prostitute, Anita (Dhia Christiani), is only in the film for few minutes, but she made a big impression. The director and actress were able to do a lot w/ this character- I thought she was heartbreaking!

Most of the people behind the film were still in their 20s and willing to take risks. Let us compare these two scenes where the (would-be) lovers first see each other. In the ’46 American film noir (starring Lana Turner and John Garfield), we first see Cora (the object of desire) from the POV of Frank. Here we first see Gino’s face from the POV of Giovanna (making the man the object of desire)! While the American version gets more into the world of cops and lawyers, Obsession concentrates more on the psychological effects of the crime on the lovers. If you’d like to know more re: the neo-realism movement, check this film out.

[1] Ossessione is a very complex film with complex characters. It’s always fascinating, but it does go on a bit too long. This is partly due to the neorealist stylistics that Visconti was inventing within this film. It was, after all, the first film that won that label. We see a lot of the action prolonged as it would be in real life, without any hurrying to the next plot point.

[2] The movie is brilliantly filmed, and the acting by the three leads are first rate. You really get a genuine insight into 1940s Italian working class life. The character of The Spaniard adds an interesting touch to the story with a possible homosexual relationship between Gino and himself. It’s very subtle but it’s there if you look. […] The movie is surprisingly frank for the time and period (Mussolini’s Italy), much more realistic and earthy than Hollywood movies of the same period.

[3] …such graceful camera movements, such beautiful composition, such wonderful faces, such terrific characters, such a great story development, the first movie adapted from James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

…I can’t believe this was made in ’43, eight years before Brando was supposed to have introduced realistic acting to the world with A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). The actors in this may not have used the method technique… but they’re some of the best, most genuine and realistic performances up to this date in cinema.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959) starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, & Ed Begley

Dave Burke (veteran character actor Ed Begley) is looking to hire two men to assist him in a bank raid: Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), a white/middle-aged ex-con, and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte- also co-producer), a young/Black singer w/ a gambling problem. Ingram (who likes the finer things in life) is recently divorced from his schoolteacher wife, Ruth (Kim Hamilton), w/ whom he shares a young daughter. Burke arranges for Ingram’s creditors to put pressure on him. Slater (who has a quick temper) feels humiliated by his failure to provide for his devoted wife, Lorry (Shelley Winters), who works two jobs. The two men, though reluctant at first, eventually accept to do the crime. Slater loathes and despises Blacks; tensions in the gang quickly mount.

[after Slater insults Ingram]

Burke: Don’t beat out that Civil War jazz here, Slater! We’re all in this together, each man equal. And we’re taking care of each other. It’s one big play, our one and only chance to grab stakes forever. And I don’t want to hear what your grandpappy thought on the old farm down in Oklahoma! You got it?

Belafonte chose Abraham Polonsky (writer/director of Force of Evil) to write the script. As a blacklisted writer, Polonsky used the name of John O. Killens (a Black novelist/friend of Belafonte). In 1997, the WGA restored Polonsky’s credit. The director is Robert Wise (West Side Story; The Sound of Music); he used infra-red film in some scenes (to create a distorted feel).

This is the first film noir with a Black protagonist! The bartender at the jazz club is a young Cicely Tyson (her second film appearance); she passed away in early 2021. Noir icon Gloria Grahame makes a brief (yet important) appearance. The movie was praised highly by James Ellroy and influenced the work of Jean-Pierre Melville (a French director). The volatile chemistry between the three men is at the center of the movie. I liked the character development, on locations shots of NYC (incl. Central Park), and the slightly uneasy atmosphere. Jazz and Calypso music are played at the smoky club where Ingram performs.

[1] Good low budget heist film. Ryan’s character is one of the ugliest portrayals of a white racist in film. Belafonte’s character is one of the most multi-faceted and complex potrayals of an African American up until that time, and the performance doesn’t date at all. Wise keeps the pacing taut and the suspense high.

[2] Personally I found Belefonte’s contribution the most searing. He captures the role of the divorced father to a tee. The scene where he is awakened by his ex-wife after sleeping (ever so slightly) with is daughter is masterful. You can sense the longing in his heart for the nuclear family that once was.

[3] Wise wants to communicate a whole context, he wants to detail his characters to a fault. How many directors would dare that today? Robert Ryan’s part is very complex. First he seems friendly, but further acquaintance shows a lack of self-confidence (he’s getting old, he’s a washout, he wants to go for broke). And he is a racist. Rarely, this obnoxious feeling has been depicted with such wit.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMBD