Wed
May 25 2011 10:00am

Retro versus Neo-Noir

Vintage poster of Stranger on the Third Floor The classic period of film noir lasted from roughly 1940 to 1960. Roughly is the operative word here since the exact perimeters of the period have always been open for debate. I mark the beginning as Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and the end as the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy, the man who killed the fedora as a fashion symbol. With the demise of the snap brim, classic noir pretty much lost its will to live.

Of course, by that time many other factors had come into play. In the fifties, the studio system fell apart and television began to chip away at the movie business. To compete, movies got bigger and louder. Perhaps most importantly, they also got more colorful. Black and white suddenly became old, signaling the end of the iconic noir cinematography. Noir became stodgy in other ways, too. After Psycho and Bonnie & Clyde upped the ante on mainstream sex and violence, B-movies went through a depressing period of readjustment—or perhaps a better word is disintegration. Noir advertising had always promised more cheap thrills than the movies actually delivered. By 1969, however, a film like Don Henderson’s sleazy The Babysitter—a sloppily shot muddle of hippie nudity and druggie sadism—was evocative of the new grindhouse version of pulp. If what you wanted was sex and violence, there was no longer any reason to sit through an actual plot.

This is not to suggest that the sixties were all bad, though. Films like Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence (1961), and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964) kept expanding the limits of the form. Pulp—like everything else in Hollywood—changed. By the time the seventies rolled around, noir had spilt into the two main permutations we still see today:

Jack Nicholson in the film Chinatown

1. Retro-Noir-In a nutshell, these are noir period pieces. Films like The Man Who Wasn’t There, Devil in a Blue Dress, LA Confidential, The Black Dahlia, Hollywoodland, and 2010’s The Killer Inside Me are crime stories set during the classic period of noir in the forties and fifties. Like all period films, they fetishize the details of the era’s speech, cars, and clothing (though Curtis Hanson made the decision to forego hats in LA Confidential for fear they would be too distracting). The Maltese Falcon of Retro-Noirs is Chinatown, a perfect blend forties detective flick and seventies art house.
 
Kate Hudson as Amy Stanton and Casey Affleck as Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me

Film poster of The Friends of Eddie Coyle2. Neo-Noir-These are films set in the time period in which they are made but carry on the themes and archetypes of noir. Examples abound, but superior entries include The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, Reservoir Dogs, A Simple Plan,The Last Seduction, Memento, Match Point, Zodiac, Gone Baby Gone, and 2010’s Winter’s Bone. Neo-noir might also encompass various offshoots of modern noir such as comic book noir (Sin City, The Dark Knight) and dystopian sci-fi noir like Blade Runner and Dark City.

Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby and Carrie-Anne Moss as Natalie in Memento

Retro-noirs can certainly be done well—Chinatown and LA Confidential are about as good as movies have a right to be—but they come with certain pitfalls. Like all period pieces, they erect an additional layer of unreality between their story and the audience, a fabricated distance of time. There’s something distracting when a modern star slips on a fedora and fires up a Lucky Strike. This ties into another problem with Retro-noirs: they have to negotiate the pull between being a reenactment of another time period and a reenactment of the movies of another time period. The Black Dahlia is a crappy movie for many reasons, but it might have been better if Dana Andrews had been around to play Josh Harnett’s part. Likewise, the cast of Mulholland Falls (1996) don’t seem to know what kind of movie they’re in because the movie itself doesn’t know. The best Retro-noirs transcend this intrinsic problem. Carl Franklin’s underrated 1995 Devil in a Blue Dress, for instance, stays true to the spirit of Walter Mosley’s novel by following detective Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) on an adventure through parts of LA that Philip Marlowe never thought to visit. Like all good Retro-noirs, Devil in a Blue Dress has a legitimate reason to be set in the forties.

Film poster of Animal KingdomNeo-noir encompasses a much larger field of filmmaking—everything from Point Blank in 1967 to Animal Kingdom in 2010. In fact, the problem here seems to be knowing where to stop. I was talking to noir historian Eddie Muller recently and he lamented, “You know, everything gets called noir these days.” Muller’s point—and it’s a good one—is that the term “film noir” has become a marketing tool as much as an aesthetic description. Is Black Swan a neo-noir? I’d argue yes (see it and then Netflix the 1948 A Double Life). But search IMDB for “neo-noir” and you’ll also get things like Kill Bill Vol. 2, I Am Legend and Saw IV.

And on and on. The apparently deathless debate  over what exactly constitutes noir (visual style? plot? archetypal characters?) is pretty good evidence that the idea of noir is malleable. This hasn’t been a bad thing through the years. A genre needs to adapt to the times. The rigidity of the western, for instance, hasn’t done that genre much good over the last twenty years or so. At least in part, noir’s essence is a sympathy for the devil, an impulse to complicate black and white morality and show that ordinary people are capable of acts of evil. Whether that takes its form in a period piece like The Good German or a present day potboiler like Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, perhaps the point is still the same: the darkness in the human heart lives on.


Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor

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11 comments
Megan Frampton
1.
I'm hoping you'll be offering a post on the actual noir period at some point--I've seen a bunch of noirs, but have only nibbled at the genre, and would like some more recs.
Interesting to tag Memento as neo-noir; not arguing with your categorization, but I'd never thought of it in those terms. But I can definitely see it.
Cathy Zhu Chen
2.
Very interesting points. Noir's adaptive nature is no surprise as the very genre pushes parameters--of good and evil, ethics and logic. One film not mentioned that would also qualify as neo-noir would be Inception (another of Nolan's films). It has strong elements of noirish aesthetics and the complementing futurist surrealism only strengthens your point about noir's flexibility as a genre.
Jake Hinkson
3. JakeHinkson
@MFrampton-

Thanks for the reply. I'll be doing a lot more on classic noir in the future. My last piece, on noir cinematography, is a good place to start for some viewing possibilities.
4. Paul D Brazill
Another top piece, Jake. The big danger of retro-noir is always its danger of tripping into pastiche. And after Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, that can be a bit of a tumble. Remember that Fallen Angels TV series, by the way?
5. samper
Have you actually watched The Friends of Eddie Coyle any time recently? It stinks.
6. Alec Cizak
Great article. Another problem I think retro-noir encounters is the myopia of modern "sensibilities" that leads artists to 'judge' the social morals of the time a piece takes place in. That self-conscious criticism, I believe, takes an attentive audience out of the moment and ruins the fiction.
Terrence McCauley
7. tmccauley_nyc
As someone who writes period thrillers set in the 1930s, I agree that retro-noir can be difficult to pull off, but rewarding when done right. The Black Dahlia was a terrible film because it allowed style to supplant story telling. The fedora and raincoat became the story, not characters wearing them. Your point is well taken: if you're writing in the past, the writer needs to justify that in the story.

Publishers have recently told me that audiences don't want stories about retro-noir anymore, but the recent success of Mad Men, Public Enemies, Boardwalk Empire and the like seem to prove that theory wrong. In literature, well-received books about the period by Joseph Kanon and Peter Quinn prove that readers still like the period if the story is well told and the period setting plays a key role in telling that story.
8. Angelica Jade
Very interesting article. I recently did a post on the failings of retro-noir/noir homage in terms of the 2006 film The Good German on my blog, poison pen cinema @wordpress. So this post really interests me. As a screenwriter, I know my love of noir seeps into my work but I don't write any retro-noirs for various reasons including the pitfalls you mentioned.

French filmmaker Jean Pierre-Melville films like Le Samourai (which is a late '60s film)are definitely neo-noirs, his respect and love of the genre is evident from every frame. I usually don't care much for 1960s cinema but Jean Pierre-Melville is undoubtedly one of my greatest inspirations as a screenwriter, even though I don't think our work is similar, and one of my favorite directors.

Glad that you pointed out Memento, Christopher Nolan often has noir ideas in his work and I've heard him talk a lot about noir as inspiration.

Great article!
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
9.
Samper @5, that opinion would be more interesting if you explained why.
10. Mike Dennis
Great piece, Jake. I especially like your inclusion of the dilemma retro-noir filmmakers face when they do the period detail. Too often, they become obsessed with the clothes and the cars, and wind up playing at being noir directors. LA Confidential was probably the prime example of a director who assiduously avoided that pitfall, downplaying the period detail and letting the film itself place the viewer in that time.

Also, remakes of classic noir films tend toward disaster. Night And The City comes immediately to mind, but there are others. I've never understood the urge to remake an already-classic film, but I guess it will always inspire those among us to do exactly that.
11. NeoNoirs.com
Neo-noirs are all films dealing with dark themes. I would classify The Crow, Old Boy, Zodiac, L.A. Confidential, and Pulp Fiction as neo-noir films. Maybe The Perfect Murder falls into this paradigm.

Tron, Blade Runner, Drive, Collateral and Wild Things are also portrayed as neo-noirs. For the most part, the central theme of these films is dark crime. Futuristic movies such as Repo Men and Minority fit this mold because we are introduced to perceived future with crime elements.

http://www.neonoirs.com
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