Knee-Deep in Neo-Noir


Film noir is the only major Hollywood cycle named retroactively by critics rather than by the industry. Touted in the ’40s and ’50s as “crime melodramas” or “psychological thrillers,” now-classic titles such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Big Heat (1953) were grouped into an untidy, highly contested category celebrated as the narrative-stylistic benchmark of postwar production. Over the past two decades an efflorescence dubbed “neo-noir”—bolstered by a promiscuously noir-ish mediascape of TV parodies, fashion ads, literary and theatrical rehashes—has emerged as the missing link between classical and postmodern moviemaking and a virtual rite of passage for indie directors. Film Forum charts the roots and spreading branches of neo-noir in a seven-week, 60-film survey beginning February 18. Organized around pop scholar Foster Hirsch’s recent book, Detours and Lost Highways, the series takes a wildly scattershot approach to the territory après noir, and in so doing reveals the self-consciousness in contemporary approaches to genre as nourished by both earlier films and critical discourse.

One implication of the series is that though noir died out in 1958 with Touch of Evil, as most historians believe, it was immediately followed by a string of modest spinoffs that run until Body Heat (1981) reignited wide audience interest. From this perspective, Odds Against Tomorrow, a gritty crime caper completed less than a year after Welles’s masterpiece, passes the torch to Blake Edwards’s underappreciated Experiment in Terror and John Frankenheimer’s overrated The Manchurian Candidate (both 1962). Arthur Penn contributes a jittery existential riff in Mickey One (1965), the vaunted private investigator resurfaces in depleted form in Harper (1966), and so it goes until the ’80s revival. Are there common elements cementing this neo-noir chain of morbidity? Well, sort of . . . if you consider crime, paranoia, and liberal doses of male sexual anxiety sufficient grounds to constitute a genre.

A second assumption, following Hirsch, is that postclassic noir has an international dimension stemming from French New Wave engagement with Hollywood’s gangster codes, a revisionist arc extended by recent British, Japanese, and Hong Kong forays into ritualized brutality. Despite differing cultural constructions of the criminal underworld, the idea of a multinational noir impulse is helpful when applied to Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) but woefully wrongheaded for Bresson’s austere Pickpocket (1959). Similarly, the inclusion of blaxploitation landmarks Superfly (1972) and Coffy (1973), motivated by the vague analogy of noir alienation and the legal system’s oppression of African American communities, carries a whiff of political opportunism.

Taken simply as a playful rubric for a gang of downbeat action films, neo-noir pays off. A terrific double bill of John Boorman’s Point Blank and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (both 1967) yokes allegories of depersonalized urban experience that simultaneously trump and subvert the ethos of ’60s counterculture. The pairing of Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) with Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993) is a lesson in how current entertainment can romantically recuperate a favorite myth—the heterosexual outlaw couple on the run—from the devastation of a notorious endgame statement.

When neo hits its stride in the 1990s, it becomes less a matter of hymns or homages than a cagey commercial franchise ingesting its own press clippings, if not the weighty arguments of academic film theory. For example, if the femme fatale served as centerpiece and litmus test for the first feminist critiques of sexual representation, Romeo Is Bleeding (1993) and The Last Seduction (1994) return the favor by creating female characters so ruthlessly in command that they register as twisted wish fulfillments of a vulgar social agenda. A similar process recalibrates formalist readings of classic noir as winking stylistic tics in the work of Abel Ferrara and Quentin Tarantino. Only time—and the marketplace—will tell if this orgy of film-critical reciprocity continues, but for now neo-noir rules.