As Sin City: A Dame to Kill For storms style first into UK theatres, our writers recognise some of the finest films of neo-noir cinema.
The archetypal neo-noir, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is extremely prescient. 32 years after its original release, and with five years to go to its 2019 setting, we are disconcertingly not far from the world of perpetual rainfall, overpopulation, and runaway bionics presented in this tech-noir tale.
Harrison Ford, in arguably his most interesting role, plays Rick Deckard, an ex-Blade Runner pulled out of retirement by his old boss to track down and eliminate four Replicants, humanoid robots used for all manner of tasks off-world, who have broken their Earth-prohibition in order to find their creator.
Possibly the most influential sci-fi film outside of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the updated steampunk aesthetic, moody lighting and fantastic Vangelis soundtrack have been cribbed for everything from architecture to The Matrix, yet still nothing tarnishes or even touches Blade Runner.
Oh, and stick to 2007’s ‘Final Cut’. It’s the superior version.
The Last Seduction
In 1994, the Best Actress Academy Award would likely and deservedly have gone to Linda Fiorentino for The Last Seduction, but thanks to a technicality (it aired on TV once before hitting the big screen), she was ineligible. For a TV movie, TLS is as cynical and clever as the best of the 1940s thrillers it draws inspiration from, with a climax far more uncomfortable and provocative than any of those progenitors.
Bridget (Fiorentino) steals $700,000 from her criminal husband (Bill Pullman) before absconding and plotting a way to ensure her security, drawing a local small-town patsy into her intricate machinations.
Virtually irredeemable, Bridget’s implacability and always in control manner ensures we rarely sympathise, but rather guiltily marvel at her cold detachedness, and the inevitability of her plan as this definitive femme fatale manipulates every weak man that pathetically tries to do the same to her. Nihilism at its most hypnotic.
David Fincher’s Fight Club is a fantastically brutal meeting of film noir and 90s counterculture, exploring the place that male barbarity inhabits within drab Western workspaces.
It undoubtedly possesses the superficial noir characteristics of violent crime, poorly lit hovels and confused narration. But perhaps its most ingenious part is the update of these genre staples to the late 1990s, with the wrapping of an appropriately pessimistic worldview. A throwback to noir was perfectly timed here: an office and a salary were not hallmarks of success at the 20th Century’s end, but a death sentence.
Brad Pitt’s hugely entertaining character Tyler Durden convincingly shows the hypocrisy of modern consumerism (“the things you own end up owning you”) and suggests an alternate path of self-destruction. Choose dark over light, anarchy over order. Fight Club’s audience wanted what Edward Norton’s depressed protagonist wanted, and revisiting noir was the perfect way to do it.
In their first feature film back in 1984, the Coen brothers created a truly modern neo-noir, transporting the traditional backdrop of the asphalt jungle to the wide and arid plains of Texas, to tell a story of greed, murder, and infidelity.
The nihilistic tone and stark depiction of violence gives Blood Simple a real sense of danger and depravity, while we are left to wonder whether the sometimes affable, sometimes despicable, sometimes foolhardy characters who inhabit this world truly belong there.
With a title inspired by a line in the novel Red Harvest by pulp writer Dashiell Hammett, and a series of events depicting ordinary people doing horrible things to each other in the dark (to paraphrase Ethan Coen himself), this film really does bring the dingy world of post-war American noir into the greedy, seedy Reagan years.
The Man Who Wasn’t There
Only the Coen brothers could make a film about a barber who wants to break into dry cleaning and make it gripping.
Barber Ed Crane learns of his wife’s infidelity with the husband to the heiress of a major department store, and decides to blackmail him in order to raise funds for his new business investment.
However, everything goes awry when his victim finds out who the blackmailer is and Ed accidentally kills him in a fight. As if this wasn’t bad enough, it is then Doris, not Ed, who gets the blame and must be defended in court by an exceedingly expensive, eccentric lawyer.
The classic Coen humour is ever present in The Man Who Wasn’t There, and there are some terrific performances, but the fatalistic tone of the script and the darkness of the cinematography could well trick you into believing you are watching a classic, gritty film noir.
The preceding translation of Frank Miller’s dark graphic novel series onto the screen, Sin City remains an unparalleled neo-noir narrative for its visually visceral faithfulness to its source material.
Shot almost entirely on a digital backlot, Basin City is a grim backdrop of pure creation, complementary to its flawed characters and corpses that not only encompass typical traits of noir, but exaggerate and exploit them to a delightfully entertaining degree.
The film’s cinematically sinister criminal stories of violence, revenge and mystery are a thematic throwback to American film noir of the 1940/50s, though updated with its tales intertwined, and more explicit splatters of graphic imagery. A highly distinctive colour rendering process, used to create a brooding black and white aesthetic, adds to its evident homage to novel and noir, and with such salience, Sin City is a standout neo-noir title.
A Dame to Kill For appears to be a positive continuation of both style and story, though may have to do something seriously special to surpass the surprise spectacle of this 2005 original.
Though perhaps absent of many classical noirish nuances such as genre, mood and chiaroscuro lighting, Christopher Nolan’s Inception combines the foundational features of femme fatale, cyclical symbolism and a tragic protagonist, along with a science fiction plot, to create one of the most ambitious and brilliant neo-noir films.
Dom Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) heartbreakingly deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) is the cause of his cerebral fatality. Quite literally the woman of his dreams, Cotillard’s outstanding portrayal as the antagonistic femme fatale serves as the emotional counterbalance to the film’s layered caper crusade.
Most tragic is the fact we as the viewer barely get to meet Mal’s unscathed personality, making our relationship with her, or at least Dom’s mental projection of her, a complex and intriguing one. She embodies the essence of the femme fatale whilst also being ludicrously likable, constantly threatening the dreamy objective without interrupting one’s enjoyment of it, posing as a formidable yet sympathetic figure.
Inception‘s incorporation of noir elements to complement a modern sci-fi extraordinaire not only makes it a lucidly rewatchable phenomenon, but also proves the potential of neo-noir, with the film’s more delicate dabble in the style of filmmaking compared to the blatancy of say, Sin City.