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

“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

“Yojimbo” directed by Akira Kurosawa (1961) & “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) directed by Sergio Leone

Better if all these men were dead. Think about it! – Tagline for Yojimbo

In Yojimbo, Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) is a middle-aged traveling samurai (AKA ronin) who comes to a small town in 19th c. Japan. After learning from the old innkeeper that this town is divided between two rival gangsters, he plays one side off against the other. Then a younger man, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the son of one of the gangsters, arrives in town w/ a gun. Insults fly, as do swords, and (selflessly) Sanjuro decides to help a kidnapped woman reunite w/ her husband and young son. Sanjuro survives a brutal beating and hides out in an abandoned temple. He returns to town after learning that the innkeeper has been beaten for helping him escape. In the “spaghetti Western” A Fistful of Dollars (AFoD), a drifter gunman w/ no name (AKA Joe) played by Clint Eastwood (in his first starring role at age 34) arrives in the Mexican village of San Miguel. He befriends the elderly owner of the local bar, Silvanito. Joe learns that the town is dominated by two gangster lords: John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy) and Ramón Rojo (Gian Maria Volontè). After Joe kills 4 men in Baxter’s gang, he’s offered a job by Ramón’s brother, Esteban Rojo (Sieghardt Rupp). Of course, Joe also decides to play both sides off each other.

This is the man with no name. Danger fits him like a glove. -Tag line for AFoD

Sergio Leone was inspired by Yojimbo (“bodyguard” in Japanese) to make his movie (which has a similar plot). Leone didn’t officially get permission for the remake, which was copyrighted Akira Kurosawa, so the Japanese director sued him and delayed the release of AFoD until 1967 (3 yrs). Leone had to pay Kurosawa a sum and 15% of the profits. Kurosawa was influenced by American Westerns, incl. High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953). He was also influenced by the film noir The Glass Key (1942). (I’ll have to check that out!) Kurosawa came up w/ the (darkly comic) idea of the dog carrying the human hand to show that Sanjuro was in a dangerous town. Kurosawa told Mifune that his character was like a wolf or a dog; he told Nakadai that his character was like a snake. Mifune came up with Sanjuro’s trademark shoulder twitch. Composer Masaru Sato was instructed by Kurosawa to write “whatever you like” as long as it wasn’t the usual period samurai film music. This film is part of the jidai-geki (“period drama”) genre which were usually set during the Edo Period. As for the violence (esp. sword fighting)- it’s done so fast!

I’ve never been to Italy. I’ve never been to Spain. I’ve never been to Germany. I’ve never been to any of the countries (co-producing) this film. The worst I can come out of this is a nice little trip. I’ll go over there and learn some stuff. I’ll see how other people make films in other countries. -Clint Eastwood, recalling his thinking after getting his role

In AFoD, we see Eastwood’s (now trademark) squint; it was caused by the combination of the sun and high-wattage arc lamps on set in Spain. The producers chose Spain- it was 25% cheaper than shooting in Italy. Eastwood (looking good) brought some pieces for his costume from home: black jeans, boots, hat, and cigars (though he was a non-smoker). At first, Eastwood had some major disagreements w/ Leone, particularly over the script. After convincing Leone to cut his dialogue to a minimum, the men began to collaborate better. Eastwood’s performance would later become a trademark of his Westerns and crime films. This was Leone’s first time working w/ composer Ennio Morricone; the (now iconic) music contributed much to its success. The theme song was originally composed by Morricone as a lullaby.

[after saving Marisol and her family and giving them money]

Marisol: Why do you do it for us?

Joe: Why? I knew someone like you once. There was no one to there to help. Now get moving.

Yojimbo is among the films in Roger Ebert’s list of The Great Movies. There are many creative creative shots, incl. one where Sanjuro is perched high above the two gangs as they (comically) threaten each other on the street below. Both Sanjuro and Joe (AKA The Man With No Name) are men of few words; however, some of the looks that Mifune makes are priceless (revealing this thoughts). The scene where Joe faces off with Ramón using the boiler plate as a bulletproof vest in AFoD is being watched by Biff in Back to the Future Part II (1989) and then re-created by Marty (Michael J. Fox) in its sequel Back to the Future Part III (1990). Marty dons an outfit similar to Eastwood’s and uses the name “Clint Eastwood”- LOL! In S2 E5 of HBO’s Westworld, you will also see influences from both of these films.

[1] The fact that this masterless samurai has deep compassion for strangers is different than most modern action movies alone. Toshiro Mifune is magical in the lead role. His presence is felt all throughout the film even when he isn’t on camera. All film buffs should watch this film, it is a perfect example of a director and actor with confidence in their craft.

[2] If I had to choose only one movie for film students to learn from, this would be it. Other films may be more profound, or their imagery more groundbreaking, but this one is so tightly constructed that nothing – not a frame, word, or gesture – is extraneous.

Kurosawa meticulously infuses every detail with meaning; there’s a purpose behind every shot, and aspiring directors should pay close attention (why is the camera slightly tilted? why are there concubines in the background?)

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews re: Yojimbo

[1] This is the beginning of the Man With No Name series. The visuals are beautiful, the character of the Man With No Name menacing and mysterious, the score is brilliant and the action is a blast. The one that launched a thousand copycat versions…

[2] see the nascent Leone visual style here, with the close-up style and contrast of close-ups and long shots appearing. This alone sets it apart from previous films, westerns and non-westerns alike, and still provides for great visual treats that one can appreciate today.

This films also marks the first brilliant score of Ennio Morricone. It is here that he introduced the lonely whistling, guitar music, chorus, and unusual combinations and styles that developed into the music that has become in the U.S. synonymous with westerns and duels in the same way that Leone’s visuals and themes have.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews re: AFoD