A-list Actors and Directors Showcase Their Knowledge of Film Noir with Fresh Insight

Lately I’ve been watching a lot of neo-noir films without even realizing it. This week alone, GI Jake and I watched The Departed, The Dark Knight, and Training Day. Neo-noir (Greek- “new” and French- “black”) is a style that occurs in modern filmmaking which utilizes elements from the film noir genre of the 1940s and 50s. It is an amalgamation of these old noir elements with modernized themes, technology, and/or storylines; making it a wide margin encompassing a blend of different genres. This idea was popularized with filmmakers in the 1970s during the film noir resurgence and has continued to influence our most popular directors and actors today, particularly with crime dramas and psychological thrillers.  Some say neo-noir is so convoluted that any crime drama can find qualification. However, I would like to point out specific film noir aspects and how they can particularly influence the neo-noir style in an array of genres.

Film noir is a term meaning “black film” or more accurately, “dark film,” coined by critic Nino Frank in 1946. It was a popularized genre with unique style growing from post WWII pessimism, urban isolation and the grim moral ambiguity of America at the time. Directors like Orson Welles and Billy Wilder drove audiences into unsettling and obscure narratives showcasing disruptive edits via flashbacks, violent murder, crime, and storylines filled with mystery, greed, and jealousy. This movement came from American hard-boiled “school of crime” novelists who wrote paperback pulp fiction after the Great Depression. These novels found popularity in France, whose audience called them “Series Noir.”

Stylistically, the characteristics include angular shadows, low-key lighting, low or wide-angle shots with German expressionist lighting influences. These films constantly highlight the lonely feel of urban areas, flawed and conflicted “anti heroes” who are full of doom and despair, and of course the femme fatales. These are the beautiful and determined women who don’t know whether to love or kill the protagonists. Film noir was not fooling anyone into believing there would be a happy ending. The genre is all about the dark underbelly of the 1950s’ urban crime scene. 

Noticing that I have been watching so many films falling into this category, I began researching criteria for being considered neo-noir. What I found was that those paying homage to the film noir genre are actually some of the most popular and revered in Hollywood. Saying that neo-noir is convoluted is ignorant in that these folks are making conscious decisions to honor film noir in innovative and entertaining ways. This brings me to my favorite list of very dissimilar, albeit neo-noir films of the 2000s.

10. American Psycho (2000)

Christian Bale in 'American Psycho' - Image: Lions Gate Films

Christian Bale in ‘American Psycho’ – Image: Lions Gate Films

Christian Bale plays Patrick Bateman in a psycho thriller directed by Mary Harron. Bale stars alongside Willem Dafoe and Jared Leto in this black comedy set in 1987 New York City.  Patrick is a businessman whose jealousy over business cards gets a little out of hand in that he goes on a psychotic killing spree. The film is dark, dread-filled, extremely violent, and totally unfeeling following right in line with the neo-noir style. This brutal depiction of fashionable despair is narrated by Patrick in first person voice over and alludes to popular film noir title, Double Indemnity.

9. Memento (2000)

Guy Pearce and Carrie-Ann Moss in 'Memento' - Image: Columbia TriStar Home Video

Guy Pearce and Carrie-Ann Moss in ‘Memento’ – Image: Columbia TriStar Home Video

Director Christopher Nolan wrote this screenplay based on his younger brother’s short story. It is a thriller starring Guy Pearce as Leonard, our protagonist suffering from anterograde amnesia. It pulls from film noir edits and style by having two simultaneous sequences of scenes happening at once throughout the film; one in black and white, chronologically ordered and the other in color, working in reverse. It was filmed in LA for a noir-ish atmosphere and utilizes the genre tropes of unreliable narrators, discouraging/disorienting editing, hotel rooms and phone confessions. Leonard tells his own story in this murder mystery and the audience is left to complete the nonlinear plot line.  There is a distinct emphasis on lighting and shadows, especially in the black and white sequences that are blatantly film noir.

8. Training Day (2001)

Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in 'Training Day' - Image: Warner Bros.

Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in ‘Training Day’ – Image: Warner Bros.

This script was written by David Ayer (The Fast and the Furious, Fury) and was directed by Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw). Detective Jake (Ethan Hawke) is on his first training day with Detective Alonzo (Denzel Washington). Jake soon discovers Alonzo is not the stand up cop he thought (Denzel won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance) and is taken on a wild crime-ridden ride in L.A. Stylistically, this film is not so film noir, but the storyline of good cop/bad cop is right out of a Series Noir novel. Training Day portrays a questionable hero, sense of doom, definite mental instability, and an awesome shotgun under the bed attached to a swivel (had to mention it). Also, there is a lot of classic noir dialogue exchanged.

7. Mulholland Drive (2001)

Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in 'Mulholland Drive' - Image: Universal Pictures

Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in ‘Mulholland Drive’ – Image: Universal Pictures

This mystery was directed by David Lynch and is deeply involved in the film noir style. The story follows aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts), who arrives in L.A. and meets a woman (Laura Elena Harring) with amnesia hiding in her aunt’s apartment. If you didn’t notice, amnesia is a big element of noir. She doesn’t know her own name and possesses a lot of money. The story is nonlinear and has many seemingly unrelated scenes that come together at the movie’s finale. Mulholland Drive landed Lynch a Best Director prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.

6. Brick (2005)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Nora Zehetner in 'Brick' - Image: Focus Features

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Nora Zehetner in ‘Brick’ – Image: Focus Features

Writer/director Rian Johnson’s directorial debut stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Brendon, a high school kid trying to solve the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Emily. The style and rich dialogue come straight from the 1950s but in a modern high school setting. The story is unclear as it unfolds in true noir fashion and the plot is modeled after a “hard-boiled” detective film. This film is extremely original and brings a youthful element to the neo-noir style.

5. The Departed (2006)

Kristen Dalton and Jack Nicholsen in 'The Departed' - Image: Warner Bros.

Kristen Dalton and Jack Nicholsen in ‘The Departed’ – Image: Warner Bros.

A sheer masterpiece by Martin Scorsese, The Departed won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Director. It stars Mark Wahlberg, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon (everyone, I know). Frank (Nicholson) plants Colin (Damon) as a mole in the Boston police while the police plant Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) in Frank’s Irish mob. They both try to discover the other’s identity before their own demise. This film is full of violent crime and dark murder scenes. Billy is our antihero; he is a fallen cop, psych patient, and a criminal himself. Leo was also nominated for a Golden Globe in this role. The film has the dialogue and violent storyline that pushes it right into neo-noir for me.

4. The Dark Knight (2008) is a comic book film in neo-noir style.

Heath Ledger in 'The Dark Knight' - Image: Warner Bros.

Heath Ledger in ‘The Dark Knight’ – Image: Warner Bros.

Constantly pushing the envelope for who’s a “good guy” and who’s a “bad guy,” everything about this film exudes noir. There is urban isolation and suffocation, plenty of moral ambiguity, and a constant sense of doom (look at the title). Christopher Nolan and Batman (Christian Bale) come together for this story to explore the underworld of crime in Gotham. It’s an unsettling and very dark film, although super heroes don’t usually fit that bill. If there were any superhero that could be considered noir, I would say it is absolutely Batman.

3. Shutter Island (2010)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo in 'Shutter Island' Image: Paramount Pictures

Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo in ‘Shutter Island’ Image: Paramount Pictures

Also directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the 2003 novel by Dennis Lehane, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as U.S. Marshal “Teddy” Daniels. Teddy is investigating a mental hospital on isolated Shutter Island. It is set in the mid -1950s, and definitely neo-noir.  Again, Leo is our protagonist and anti-hero suffering from amnesia and identity crisis. There are flashbacks and fedoras, but more specifically the style is dark and plays with lighting and shadows the way Hitchcock would.  This film hosts shocking scenes of violence and reeks of despair at every turn. It is also on the list for a re-watch this week in my house.

2. Nightcrawler (2014)

Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Nightcrawler' - Image: Open Road Films

Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’ – Image: Open Road Films

Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a former thief who is filming crimes and accidents in L.A. Bloom sells the footage to news channels for money. However, he goes from finding incidents to arranging them for more bucks. Desperate news reporter Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is the femme fatale. The film is overwhelmingly cynical as it explores the soullessness of video journalism. There is a resounding feeling of a lack of humanity and eternal doom in this city. The neon and dark lighting propel this creative storyline into a neo-noir style that shouldn’t be passed up.

1. Zootopia (2016)

'Zootopia' - Image: Walt Disney Pictures

‘Zootopia’ – Image: Walt Disney Pictures

Proving that this style is coming from all genres and verifying firm awareness of film history, this neo-noir movie is a family film! Our leading lady-bunny, Judy Hopps is determined to be a cop in urban Zootopia. She has to solve a crime in 48 hours to be taken more seriously than her former position as meter maid. She gains the help of a con artist fox, Nick Wilde, and finds herself right in the middle of the dark underground crime scene of the big city. Co-directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore share a love of the noir genre. The crime scenes are dark and shadowy which is surprising for a family film, and seems to recall Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The A-list actors and directors are the reason why I am so fond of this genre and it only confirms my theory that the best in Hollywood are students of film history. Those who I respect and enjoy most (actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Denzel Washington, Matt Damon and directors like James Cameron, David Lynch and Brian De Palma) are all paying tribute to the history of the film noir genre and they are doing it in unique and interesting ways. It was hard to curate this list, as there were so many great neo-noir films to discuss. I’d like to give honorable mention to Christian Bale in The Machinist (2004), Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Ryan Gosling in Drive (2011), and Gosling’s directorial debut/first script Lost River (2014). Here’s to reinventing classic genres and styles with incredible talent!