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.

“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

Iconic & Problematic: “Fatal Attraction” (1987) starring Michael Douglas & Glenn Close

Erotic thriller (perhaps a guilty pleasure for some of us in quarantine life) is a subgenre of film which is defined as a thriller w/ illicit romance or erotic fantasy. Most erotic thrillers contain scenes of sex and nudity (though the frequency and explicitness varies). Erotic thrillers emerged as a distinct genre in the late 1980s, as a result of the success of this film. As some critics/viewers have noted, erotic thrillers are connected to film noir of the 1940s and ’50s which explored the dark side of life in post-WWII America.

A one-night fling, with no strings attached. That’s what she said. That’s what he believed. -A tag line for the film

Most of you already know the plot, as Fatal Attraction is considered iconic, yet problematic (when viewed by our modern eyes). Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a successful NYC attorney, and on a weekend when his wife and daughter are away from home at his in-laws’ house, he has a work meeting that includes Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), an editor for a publishing company. This leads to a drink at a bar, and that leads to a passionate one night stand that turns into a weekend when Alex attempts suicide when Dan tries to leave. Dan thinks it’s over, as Alex has seemed to come to her senses. Suddenly, Alex tells him she is pregnant, and she is having this baby b/c (at age 36) it may be her last chance. Dan insists he isn’t leaving his wife for her and that he doesn’t love her; he is feeling indifferent (not hating her). Alex stalks Dan and gradually turns up the heat until his family is at risk!

Alex Forrest: [to Dan] Well, what am I supposed to do? You won’t answer my calls, you change your number. I mean, I’m not gonna be ignored, Dan!

I was surprised how good the film actually was; it’s an intense stalker-drama. The three lead actors (Douglas, Close, and Anne Archer as the wife) do a great job. Douglas was also working on Wall Street (1987) at the same time. When Close’s agent first called to express her interest in playing Alex Forrest, he was told, “Please don’t make her come in. She’s completely wrong for the part.” Director Adrian Lyne also thought that she was “the last person on Earth” who should play the role. I was impressed by Close, esp. in the first act of the movie; she plays it sophisticated, cool, and has obvious chemistry w/ Douglas. Of course, her transformation to stalker later is scary. The white dress she wears at the end of the movie resembles a straightjacket. Kirstie Alley, who was under consideration for the role of Alex, provided a tape of a woman who had been stalking her then-husband, actor Parker Stevenson, in which she was begging to be part of his life. The woman’s exact words were used for the tape Alex sends to Dan in the film- wow!

I would read that script totally differently. The astounding thing was that in my research for Fatal Attraction, I talked to two psychiatrists. Never did a mental disorder come up. Never did the possibility of that come up. That, of course, would be the first thing I would think of now. -Close in a 2013 CBS News interview

During the Trump era, SNL did a parody of it w/ actors playing WH advisor Kellyanne Conway and CNN reporter Jake Tapper. Though many enjoyed it, others were offended by how Conway was portrayed. There are elements in this movie that are outdated; recall Alex’s line re: her not likely to have another baby (she is only aged 36). The filmmakers also skip over the mental health issue- yikes! The original ending was changed (b/c preview audiences hated it), though it sounds a lot more interesting. The ending we see is quite brutal; at one point, Close suffered a concussion and was rushed to the E.R. While examining her, doctors discovered that she was several weeks pregnant w/ her daughter! A young female comedian recently commented that Alex needed therapy and also some girlfriends who supported her- quite valid points. I’ve been listening this Summer to a podcast focused on the erotic thriller genre (Fatal Attractions) hosted by UK and French cinephiles.

[1] Glenn Close who had only played the nice girl roles blew everyone’s mind when she played Alex Forrest. What passion she put into the role and part of you couldn’t really hate her. She brings up a great point to Dan “Because I won’t allow you to treat me like some slut you can just bang a couple of times and throw in the garbage?” Your heart does break for her, but at the same time you want to scream at her to let go of Dan and not hurt his family. Michael Douglas as Dan plays the role extremely well. He gives Dan a sense of realism, he’s not a major jerk… Ann Archer as Beth was not only beautiful, classy, but incredibly intelligent. She makes Beth so real…

[2] Aside from the moral problems of adultery, doesn’t Alex have a point ? Isn’t she entitled to something besides simply being used for a night or two? The tension in this film is constant, although a lot of it seems too easily foreshadowed.

[3] The impact and influence of this great box office success has continued to be significantly stronger than would normally be expected, as it has successfully maintained its popularity over the years and even been responsible for the term “bunny boiler” becoming a universally recognised part of the language.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Diabolique” (1955): A Classic French Horror starring Simone Signoret & Vera Clouzot

Monsieur Drain (a teacher): I may be reactionary, but this is absolutely astounding – the legal wife consoling the mistress! No, no, and no!

Christina Delassalle (Vera Clouzot) suffers greatly at the hands of her abusive husband Michel (Paul Meurisse), who is headmaster of a boys’ boarding school. She inherited this school from her family, but it’s clearly Michel who is in charge. Christina and Nicole Horner, one of the other teachers/Michel’s former mistress, decide to kill him! Christina (who has a serious heart condition) is terrified when- by chance- she meets a retired police inspector curious about the case.

Michel: [embarrassing Christina in the dining room while she is trying to eat some distasteful fish] Everyone is looking at you. Swallow.

Nicole: It’s disgusting!

Michel: Sorry?

Nicole: [angrily] Some things are hard to swallow, and I’m not talking about the fish.

When director Henri-Georges Clouzot bought the rights to the novel, he beat Alfred Hitchcock by only a matter of hours. Hitchcock was a big fan of this movie; some critics think that it influenced Psycho (1960). The message during the end credits was one of the first examples of a spoiler alert, requesting the audience not to disclose the plot. One of the posters said: “See it… be amazed by it.. but… be quiet about it!” Like most murder mysteries, the story is improbable; the film is entertaining, in part to plot twists and turns. The B&W lighting creates a noirish/sinister atmosphere. In the final 10 mins. we find an ending that is bound to scare (even modern/savvy audiences)!

Christina: Don’t you believe in Hell?

Nicole: Not since I was seven.

Christina: I do.

Filming took much longer than expected; the shoot was originally scheduled for 8 weeks, but ran for 16 weeks. This caused tension between Henri-Georges Clouzot and Signoret; Vera (also the director’s wife) tried to be a mediator. The co-leads couldn’t be more different from each other, though they are involved w/ the same man. Christina is delicate, petite, and wears conservative A-line dresses. She has two long braids that connect down her back (adding to her girlish qualities). Nicole is robust, tall, and wears blouses and pencil skirts. She has very short/blonde hair (reflecting her more modern personality). Christina is very religious; she has a small Catholic shrine in one area of her bedroom. While Christina (who can barely hide her nervousness) feels guilty, Nicole (cool as a cucumber) acts like planning a murder is no big deal.

Some viewers balk at reading subtitles- we should feel sorry for them! Others avoid unusually intense movies where the tone created makes the viewer feel uneasy. The crumbling boarding school where the main characters live doesn’t look pleasant at all. The swimming pool is filled w/ murky water, which makes it appear ominous. The teachers have to sit at the nasty headmaster’s table and eat old fish; only one glass of wine is allowed. Nicole’s apt. back in her small hometown seems stuffy and claustrophobic.

[1] From the very start it is very clear that all is not as it seems. But why? And who? What is the terrible secret of the swimming pool and later on, the bathtub? As the tension builds to an unbearable climax, we sit and hide behind our hands, peering through the gaps in our fingers. Oh my God!! It can’t be! It is!

[2] This movie does not offer cheap, pop out and scare you tactics. Rather, it makes the viewer expect things to happen that don’t. You wait on the edge of your seat for the quick jump out and scare you event to take place, but instead, it sneaks up from behind you. What an effect!

Les Diaboliques is a classic film that delivers the complete suspense package. It’s not surprising that many suspense movies of the modern era have tried to copy the plot.

[3] I remember when I first saw this. Nothing scary at first, but the nastiness of the place and the people is effortlessly shown. And then the bad stuff starts to happen.

Ugliness…shock…suspense…shock…mystery…eeriness…awful shock.

-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