In the wake of World War II, American audiences were acutely receptive to doom and gloom. The national uncertainty gave rise to one of the most unique and enduring of clearly-defined Hollywood genres: film noir. These films used shadowy, foreboding city-scapes as an expressionistic backdrop for tales of cynical detectives and doomed nobodies turning to crime in search of some glimmering chance for happiness.
Although the uniquely postwar genre had fallen out of vogue by 1960, the pessimistic themes and visual idiosyncracies of film noir continue to inspire young directors to make their own dark crime films that pay tribute, in one way or another, to the old film noirs. These are some of the best of that ilk, called neo-noirs, that find unique ways to explore the Hollywood genre with a modern context.
1. The Big Lebowski
The fraternal directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen loves making movies that ape and inject comedy into old Hollywood genres, from gangster films (Miller’s Crossing) to screwball comedies (The Hudsucker Proxy). Cult classic The Big Lebowski is only one of the Coen brothers’ films that follows a noir-like structure, replacing Bogart’s streetwise Philip Marlowe with Jeff Bridges’s hapless stoner Jeffrey Lebowski, aka The Dude. Like Marlowe in The Big Sleep, The Dude is drawn into a rich family’s impenetrable affairs and becomes the target of multiple Los Angeles lowlifes seeking to do him harm. The Big Lebowski, amazingly, makes even less sense than The Big Sleep, but the Coens nonetheless create a compellingly surreal and hilarious portrait of ’90s slacker culture intersecting with old Hollywood tropes.
For his directorial debut, Rian Johnson supplanted the action of a film noir or Dashiell Hammett picture into a Southern California high school. He changed little else but the setting, making the bold decision to have his cast of high schoolers (led by a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt) speak with all the bluster and euphemisms of old Hollywood slangsters. Amazingly, it works, and the standard noir tropes and archetypes fit perfectly into the deceptively sunny new setting, adding to the usual angst and deception inseparable from adolescence. Even with such an idiosyncratic concept, Johnson (who has since directed Looper) manages to play it straight, crafting a story of genuine mystery and pathos.
3. Inherent Vice
Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s noir-tinged novel stars Joaquin Phoenix as the stoned-out-of-his-mind PI and unreliable narrator Doc. Like many detective movies, the film is little more than a series of conversations with various shifty characters on either side of the law, all of them offering as many red herrings as actual clues. Doc is a perpetual underdog as he works against a square society, personified by Josh Brolin’s hilarious cop Bigfoot, working hard to marginalize his kind at the dawn of the 1970s. Inherent Vice might be about a world wherein an all-powerful drug cartel seeks to control all of modern Californian society, if you choose to trust the information Doc gets from some sources, but more so, it’s about a world wherein almost nothing makes sense and counter-cultures are demonized for the sake of greed and ill-advised progress. It’s also funny as hell.
Unlike just about every other film on this list, Chinatown changes almost nothing from the old-school noir formula, other than adding color since it was made in the 1970s. Director Roman Polanski created possibly the greatest noir of them all, but since he did it a few decades too late, it’s classified as neo-noir. Jake Gittes stars as an ex-cop private eye struggling to get to the bottom of a Los Angeles water shortage that appears to be an invention of some high-powered interests. His investigation leads him down roads of tragedy and heartbreak depressingly familiar, as the dual conspiracies involving incestuous family dynamics and control of the city water supply paint a portrait of American expansion wherein the rich and powerful hold all the cards.
5. Blade Runner
In adapting one of sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick’s most acclaimed novels, Ridley Scott injected a bit of old Hollywood flair into the film’s influential visual style. The streets of this futuristic Los Angeles are overrun with smog not unlike the fog that permeates Los Angeles in the old film noirs. The detective at the center of this tale of fugitive humanoid androids is Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, whose tragic past and inability to understand the times in which he lives color all of the events. He even has his own noirish voiceover track in some versions of the popular film. By supplanting tropes of the past into an entirely new landscape, Scott created an influential science fiction film whose themes resonate no matter the exotic setting.
6. Blue Velvet
Director David Lynch juxtaposes two visions of American life, both lifted in part from ’40s and ’50s pop culture. His protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) lives in a Leave It to Beaver-esque vision of suburban domestic bliss, until he stumbles upon a severed human ear lying in a field. One surreal occurrence begets another, and soon he’s in a noir-tinged world with added nightmarish qualities, most of them due to Dennis Hopper’s terrifyingly unstable villain and Isabella Rossellini’s abused variation on the femme fatale. Lynch uses his trademark surrealism to play up the seedy, id-centric underbelly of MacLachlan’s life to such disturbing extremes that his ostensibly happy ending still feels somehow doomed, like all noir endings.
7. Memories of Murder
The influence of film noir extends well beyond American borders, as demonstrated in this early effort from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, based on the true unsolved mystery of that nation’s first serial killings. As he does in most of his films, Bong uses familiar Hollywood storytelling to comment upon the less-familiar social and political landscapes of his home country — here, South Korea is on the verge of modernization. Several of his detectives are abusive and overpowered political pawns, called away from their work on the killings to suppress student protests. All of it leads up to a haunting ending that suggests the sins and violence of South Korea’s past cannot be forgotten, no matter how modern the nation becomes.
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