Top 10 Neo-Noir Films
nuanced, freed from the restrictive Production Code that was crumbling just as the Neo-Noir movement was taking shape. Generally attributed to have started in the mid-60’s, Neo-Noir continues pop up several times each year with a different take on the Noir sensibility. Whether the films were set in the past to evoke a Noir feel, or in the present, but hyper realized, to evoke the dystopia of urban decay, the setting of Neo-Noirs can be a centrally defined element. Just as easily, however, the mise en scene, that is the images that occupy the frame, can also evoke the classic era through claustrophobic interiors, ink black darkness, offset camera angles and bisected images. Just as easily, though, Neo-Noir can splash vivid colors, bright sunshine and open spaces to comment on Noir’s limitations. Finally, story can be the guiding indicator of Neo-Noir by focusing on either remaking a classic Noir, utilizing a criminal framework or twisting both to comment on Noir tropes. In essence, Neo-Noir can take on chameleon-like qualities of just about anything, but still ring true, simply by the time tested “you know it when you see it” mantra. This list represents a sampling of the many facets of Neo-Noir, but is no way complete. Where possible I have noted similar examples of films in the Neo-Noir canon that could just as easily been included.
#10. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976).
Director John Cassavetes has long been lauded for his visceral films that still hold the feeling of immediacy some 45 years later. Ben Gazzara stars as a small-time strip club owner who is pressured into murder to pay off gambling debts he has with a criminal organization. Throughout the film, Cassavetes & Gazzara team to combine the mundane with the dangerous as Cosmo Vittelli moves between his club and the world outside. Cassavetes’ camera (Mitchell Breit) moves in a herky-jerky fashion, always holding Cosmo in crosshair-like closeups and 2 shots. There is the Noir sense of claustrophobic and entrapping interiors, here balanced with dark streets, brightly lit, but it’s the Noir trappings of story which capture the Neo-Noir vibe in this film. A degenerate gambler, in debt to the mob, must choose catastrophe or death; a Noir tale if there ever was one (Night & the City ’50, Force of Evil ’48). Cosmo, however, is a different kind of anti-hero. He is confident, smooth with the ladies and struts around with the ability to convince himself it will all end well. What leads up to his journey to the compound of the Chinese bookie, however, cannot compare to the violent outburst once inside. Cosmo is the vengeance of God as he coolly moves throughout the house & Cassavetes captures the scene will matter of fact camera placement and movement, simplifying the absolute turning point of the character. Cassavetes imagined telling the story of an ordinary Joe who had always done everything by the book, but was going to be killed for making a simple mistake. In typical fashion, he instead created a multidimensional character who exists on the periphery of what most people would call normal society, neither a saint, nor a sinner, but flawed as most good Noir protagonists would be.
#9. Fargo (1996).
The Coen Brothers launched themselves into filmmaking with the Neo-noir classic Blood Simple (1984), but it wasn’t until they created Fargo that they found perfection. In what should have been a simple murder for hire storyline, the Coen’s layer in character after character who brings mayhem and pathos in equal measures. As in many Noir plots where a spouse plots to kill their partner there is no simple crime here, with each mistake being compounded by hair trigger thieves, a meddling father-in-law more keen on money than the life of his daughter, and at its center poor nitwit Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). While Frances McDormand won a well-deserved Oscar playing the too smart, too kind and too pregnant sheriff, Fargo ultimately succeeds because of Macy’s hapless desperation. Lundergaard sets the plot in motion by hiring two out of town killers to kidnap, but not harm, his wife, the daughter of Lundergaard’s boss, a scrupulous car dealer. In what first appears to be mere farce, the story turns dark as first a police officer is shot & killed, triggering a series of brutal murders, culminating with a woodchipper, a killer’s arrest and a missing suitcase of ransom money. If patch black content can be tinged with humor & displayed on the whitest of snowy canvases, then Fargo is Neo-Noir through and through. The futility of crime rendered in classic Noir, here not burdened with confessions & remorse dictated by the Production Code, is wholly captured in the killer’s stone-cold indifference and juxtaposed with the animalistic howling of Lundergaard as handcuffs are slapped on his wrists. In Fargo, everyone is guilty, save the righteous police chief and her adoring husband.
#8. The Last Seduction (1994).
If ever there were a singular defining element of classic Noir it would be the Femme Fatale. Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (’44), Kitty Collins in The Killers (’46) or Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice (’46) are archetypal castrating temptresses, but they can only sit alongside Bridget Gregory from The Last Seduction. As the title implies, Bridget is out to seduce, beguile, and in typical Noir fashion, exploit a hapless male victim. She even doubles down by stealing from her drug dealing husband, so sure of her powers over men that she can flaunt her powers when found out and cornered. While Dietrichson, Collins & Smith were all captives to the Production Code’s puritanical punishments for sexually aggressive women and adultery, director John Dahl & writer Steve Barancik were under no such perimeters, so Bridget thrives. After stealing drug money meant to pay down a gambling debt of her doctor husband, Bridget takes off for small town upstate New York, takes on an assumed identity and for self-gratification has sex with a stupid, but hot local ex-hockey player. She treats him like garbage, but he quickly succumbs to her charms and falls madly in love. This element is an overt change to classic Noir, in that Bridget makes no bones about her physical needs, demanding the traditional ‘male’ place in the narrative. Sure, the classic Femme Fatale had needs, but anything sexual was always spoken by the male. Neo-Noir by was of Double Indemnity, Bridget seduces the male stud, Mike, into a murder for hire scheme targeting the wives of cheating husbands. Murder for profit is a Noir staple, but with Bridget there’s always a motive and there’s always a planned outcome. She is malevolent evil, wrapped in a pencil skirt and a silk blouse. She is smart, a master manipulator and unafraid of anyone or anything. That she triumphs is no surprise because in a Neo-Noir world you can have your cake and eat it too. In fact, her victim might as well just expect to be either dead or in prison by the time she’s done with them!
#7. Taxi Driver (1976).
I struggled about whether to include Martin Scorsese’s ode to violence on this list, but in the end the thematic and stylistic conventions overwhelm the non-noir plot elements. Simply put, Taxi Driver wonderfully captures the dark and oppressive nature of living in a large city like New York. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) narrates his disgust with the human garbage and dirty streets of the city, thematically borrowing from classic Noir’s overwhelming sense of doom and claustrophobia brought about by city life. Bickle’s is a street level burden brought about by acute mental illness, but it reflects a Noir sensibility in that he verbalizes (internally) the thoughts of the classic Noir protagonist. He is the avenging angel, however, not the criminal, so his disgust holds weight and propels the viewer towards simultaneous identification and disgust. His isolation also reflects a certain Noir-ness because it removes him from society in the same way lone killers (Phillip Raven in This Gun for Hire ’42 or the title characters in The Killers) float on the periphery before engaging humanity. Perhaps the most critical Neo-Noir element for me, however, is the brilliant camera work & production design. The light glistening off the rain soaked windshield or reflecting off the puddled streets could just as easily been the venetian blind shadows of classic Noir. The camara movement in the dingy apartment of Sport (Harvey Keitel) felt as cramped and confining as the criminal dens and hideouts of the earlier era. And the use of color, judiciously at night, bold during the daylight, and finally saturated blood red, emphasized the nightmarish descension into madness. Taxi Driver is easily one of the darkest films of the Neo-Noir era, what with it’s keen understanding of mental illness wrapped in misplaced love and expressed in a bloody and rage filled climax. Of course, any reflection of Taxi Driver is also influenced by its association with the attempted assassination of Ronald Regan, which of course, only enhances its Noir bonafides at the same time elevating the extreme sadness of its story.
#6. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
Speaking of sadness, there is an overwhelming sense of dread that surrounds Peter Yates’ film based on a George Higgins novel. That Noir legend Robert Mitchum plays Coyle in the world-weary manner of a beaten man only enhances the emotional depth of his character. Coyle is a small time gun-runner who is in line to spend time in prison if he doesn’t cooperate with a federal agent and nark on associates. Several perfectly executed heists, hoever, elevate The Friends of Eddie Coyne towards Neo-Noir perfection. They are each cool, calculated and quietly carried out and remind viewers of near silent heists in Noir’s past like The Asphalt Jungle (’50) or The Killing (’56). The beauty of the precise execution belies the high stakes danger, until it is shattered with strikingly brutal violence. Coyle himself is removed from the violence and a pivotal scene between Coyle and his wife gives the performance gravitas in the way it humanizes Coyle and illustrates the criminal’s refrain of “doing everything for their family”. Coyle intimates the refrain without saying anything about what’s hanging over his head, whether its jail time or betraying his friends. While Coyle is able to set up a more important gun dealer, he is left without protection from the feds and must pay for his betrayals. Yates crafts the story with a cynicism that has every character working against every other character, whether criminal or law enforcement. It’s a brutal dog eat dog story that leaves the vulnerable helpless. If Taxi Driver captures images of the dark side of New York City, than The Friends of Eddie Coyle brilliantly represents the depression of Quicny, MA, complete with one of a kind location scenes in abandoned industrial wastelands. Coyle himself reminded me of the fated tout Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) in Jules Dassin’s fantastic Night & the City (’50), in that the system was set up against them and they were both ultimately fated for death. That Fabian was constant motion, however, was in stark contrast to Coyle’s almost catatonic calmness. Fabian trips and stumbles, while Coyle ambles slowly towards the inevitable, almost wishing sweet relief as he becomes drunker and drunker at a hockey game. In the end, everything about The Friends of Eddie Coyle screams Neo-Noir. As a dark take on the also ran criminal, struggling under the weight of sustenance, Eddie Coyle is a masterclass in understatement and cool and systemic cruelty in the criminal world.
#5. Body Heat (1981).
Lawrence Kasdan’s modernized retelling of Double Indemnity (1944) is a moody, sexy and incredibly well-done version of the Femme Fatale eliciting a poor sap to kill her husband story. As in Double Indemnity, the murder is all about insurance money, but Kasdan was not tethered to the production code, so the title has double-meaning as both a reminder of the arson central to the story & the sexual interplay between Maddy Walker (Kathleen Turner) & Ned Racine (William Hurt). Both actors give stellar performances that are at the same time beguilingly cool, but with excessive passion and emotional energy. Hurt plays a relatively unskilled attorney who is lured into a sexual relationship with a married, but neglected wife during a steamy Florida Summer. Kasdan, as writer and director, plays up the noir-like staccato dialogue between the couple to amp up the sexual tension, while cinematographer Richard H. Kline (Camelot ‘67, King Kong ’76) uses warm oranges and deep blues to create the illusion of oppressive & overwhelming heat; a heat that melts and destroys. Classic chiaroscuro lighting Every character in the film is given emotional depth and plays a critical part in the unfolding tragedy. JA Preston & Ted Danson play friends of Racine’s, act as his conscience, in much the same way Edward G. Robinson’s Barton Keyes did in the original. Mickey Rourke, in a small, but pivotal role as the arsonist, sees the inevitable conclusion for Racine, but helps him nonetheless. The breadth of the characterizations harkens back to the classic era even as the linear plotting diverges from the earlier movement. The core, of course, is the relationship between Maddy & Ned and the movie succeeds wholly on the believability of Maddy’s deception, Ned’s dim understanding of his peril and the execution of the murder plot. Maddy joins the long list of classic Femme Fatale’s, just as Ned joins the tragic list of seduced, deceived and damned list of losers. Just as in The Last Seduction, the Neo-Noir element comes through loud and clear in the film’s cryptic conclusion, proving that crime can pay.
#4. Night Moves (1975).
Just as Body Heat & The Last Seduction play upon classic Noir’s fascination with the Femme Fatale, the private eye was also a staple of both classic Noir & Neo-Noir. Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) arguably kicked off the classic Noir era in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon & Phillip Marlowe made multiple appearances in both phases of Noir (The Big Sleep ’46 & ’78). In most films in both time periods the detective is often more of the focus that the crime and Gene Kelly’s private eye Harry Moseby is central to what makes Arthur Penn’s Nigh Moves a wonderful example of the Neo-noir style. If Spade were always one step ahead of not just the characters in the film, but also the audience, then Moseby is more in line with Marlowe’s penchant for coming at the solution through trial and error, often paying the price through beatings and disappointment. An ex-professional football player, Moseby is hired by an aging actress to locate her daughter, the actresses only source of income. His search ends in Florida, where he finds the girl livng with and attempting to seduce one of her mother’s ex-lovers. He convinces the daughter to return to California, but not before they discover a sunken plane with a dead pilot not far from the ex-lover and his girlfriend’s house. A series of murders further Harry’s involvement in uncovering the mystery of the plane crash, including a suspicious death on a movie set & a floating corpse in a dolphin pen. The plot winds its way through Harry’s discoveries, but its Hackman’s typically ‘everyman’ approach to his performance that yields the most satisfying elements of Night Moves. His wife cheats on him and he discovers her suitor; he is seduced as a distraction, yet doesn’t lose focus. Finally, he appears to give up, by offering to quit his business to win his wife back, but ultimately can’t let go. He is accused of avoiding his own life to solve the crimes in his PI work and it’s clearly true, which further links him to the Noir private dicks of the past by his dogged pursuit of the truth, no matter the cost. In the classic era that cost was often the girl, and Harry loses both his wife and the seductive one-night stand, but in Night Moves he may lose even more. With one of the more cryptic and cynical endings in the Neo-noir canon, Harry may have solved the case, but in the end what difference did it make for him or anyone else?
#3. LA Confidential (1997).
Other than Chinatown, no other film on this list captures the ethos of classic Noir better than LA Confidential, director Curtis Hanson’s & writers Brian Helgeland’s adaptation of James Elroy’s classic Neo-Noir novel. The script is a labyrinthine web of corruption, deception and exploitation, peppered with sharp & acerbic dialogue, some lifted directly from Elroy’s novel. The story’s many twists and turns are also given weight by Elroy’s tangential inclusion of real-life characters from LA’s Noir-soaked local history. As the story unfolds in linear fashion, but from 3 separate perspectives, the audience is keyed into more information than the characters themselves, but the format perfectly lays out a complicated, multi-character plot in great clarity. In exposition lifted right out of classic literature, police officers Bud White (Russell Crowe), Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) & Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) are carefully & exquisitely drawn in the opening few scenes and their character arcs are carried through to perfection. Dialogue, tone and storyline are all classic Noir, with Hanson & cinematographer Dante Spinotti (The Last of the Mohicans ’92, The insider ’99) also providing images and camera angles that cast back to the earlier era. Muted colors saturate the screen and Spinotti’s use of light and dark combine for a moody mise en scene reflective of the cynical look at police corruption of the highest order. Some could call LA Confidential strictly derivative of the classic era, but I look it quite differently, instead focusing on how the filmmakers assume Noir intelligence strictly as a springboard for deeper and more nuanced storytelling. In separating the story along the three main characters, each with a different driving motivation and perspective, it propels itself, while revealing the mystery at the same time it layers character development. LA Confidential may not be for the Neo-Noir purest, but it represents enough of the differences of the separate eras to hold itself as a logical and natural extension of both eras.
#2. Point Blank (1967).
Nick Schager, writing in a 2003 review of Point Blank, noted its “romanticized fatalism,” which perfectly sums up Classic Noir and the beginning of a new, modern movement called Neo-Noir. Often cited as the first film in that new movement, John Boorman’s hallucinatory heist film captures classic Noir’s darker tendencies & its intricate plotting, complete with flashbacks, but splashes them with washed out & barren images of modern Los Angeles. The heist, a calculated take down of a mob money courier in an abandoned Alcatraz, is just the jumping off point for a story of revenge, with Lee Marvin playing Walker, the avenging angel who is double-crossed by his partner and left for dead. What follow, loosely based on Donald Westlake’s 1963 novel, The Hunter, could be the fever dream of a dying man or it could be the calculated & systematic take down of an omniscient criminal enterprise called The Organization. It’s a cynical outfit that relies on modern business structure to execute criminality on the highest level, complete with reflective glass buildings, gray suits and deferential treatment of the hierarchical structure; the modern-day mafia as corporate entity. Walker is a cypher in the same way as Allen Ladd in This Gun for Hire (1942), an emotionless killer seeking redemption through death. He is aided by the mysterious Yost, who happens to drop key information just as Walker needs it, furthering the killing as he works his way up the criminal chain. At turns extremely violent and hypnotically lyrical, Point Blank is a one of a kind piece of stylishly subversive filmmaking. The shot compositions, deliberately defined with hard, flat surfaces (concrete riverbeds) and saturated single-color interiors, contrast starkly with classic Noir’s claustrophobic interiors and foreboding cityscapes. Marvin is perfect as the hunter because his steely face betrays nothing and his flat bass voice is direct and daunting. His threats mean action and his relentless pursuit of the $93,000 he was cheated out of is the driving force of the film; a film that is haunting and inconclusive in the end, open to interpretation that adds yet another layer to its brilliance.
#1. Chinatown (1973).
Chinatown is near perfection. It evokes Los Angeles at the beginning of its sprawl, not innocent, but certainly ripe for the corruption depicted. Robert Towne’s script, lauded as one of the most concise and structurally sound ever written, matches director Roman Polanski’s keen direction, the brilliant production design & finally tying it all together is Jerry Goldsmith’s evocative soundtrack. The story of the battle for control of water in a desert, Chinatown itself becomes a motif for that which cannot be understood, controlled or fathomed. As one character says, it’s not a location, but a state of mind. Private detective JJ Gittes is retained to find a missing husband, but when the husband turns up dead, the client wasn’t his wife and then goes missing, he is caught in a heap of trouble. Thus begins a winding and wonderfully complicated plot that utilizes time & place like few films before or after. Gittes is a throwback to the private eyes of classic Noir. He is honest, but not above utilizing trickery to get information. He is smart, but cannot see every angle, at times missing the big picture in pursuit of what is right in front of him. And finally, he is fallible to the point of getting those he cares about hurt. As Jack Nicholson plays him, he is dynamic, interesting and cocksure, a signature Nicholson performance. While Gittes is also the sun around which the story moves, it is Evelyn Mulwray, played by Faye Dunaway who centers the emotional impact of the film. She is a tragic femme fatale, unlike any other in the Noir cannon, capable of incredible manipulation one minute and indescribable vulnerability the next. The character and the performance are among the best not just in Noir, but in film history. Dunaway’s face is a perfect mask for the character that hides her intentions and emotions throughout most of the film & keep Gittes off balance through a combination of sexual appeal and aloof indifference. John Huston personifies one of the vilest characters in all of film as the malevolent Noah Cross, overlord of the criminal conspiracy. There is simply no weak note in Chinatown and it captures the essence of Noir at its bitter and disturbing best, fully justifying it’s spot at the top of the 10 Best Neo-Noir Films!
11/5/2021 09:07:39 pm
This neo-noir top 10 should have included Farewell My Lovely, with Mitchum being the best Phillip Marlowe ever. Thought it was better than Chinatown.
11/7/2021 02:35:54 pm
Every list is subjective & I wasn't able to find Mitchums' Farewell My Lovely, but It's on my list of things to watch! Stay tuned, as I often go back & edit lists if I watch something that's worthy!
11/6/2021 07:22:02 am
Excellent and well written analysis of what I can assume are ten outstanding films. While I’ve seen many of the films on the list, you provide enough insight to make me rewatch those that I have seen. And you’ve convinced me to seek out those that I’ve yet to experience.
11/7/2021 02:36:37 pm
Thanks for the feedback!
11/6/2021 02:31:40 pm
can't explain how excited I was to see Point
Leave a Reply.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.