Film noir comes from a French phrase meaning "black film." The classics are shrouded in shadow.
In the film noir masterworks of the 1940 and '50s, luminous whites and blacks define a world in which tough people fight for advantage with little or no regard for the well-being of others. The movies are full of crooked cops, corrupt politicians, con artists, brutish thugs, manipulative women and men who let themselves be manipulated, or don't realize that they are. The dark dread of these worlds is reflected in the movies' dark cinematography.
Many movie makers have taken the challenge of evoking the dread without noir's chiaroscuro. They've made these treasures that are black even though they are bright:
1) Body Heat (1981) Written and directed by Lawrence Kasden.
It begins when an alluring woman of mystery (Kathleen Turner in her confident movie debut) tells a guy (William Hurt) who is disarmingly frank as he comes on to her, "You're not too smart, are you? I like that in a man." It ends when he realizes, too late, that was a warning.
In between, they have a torrid affair. In one especially suggestive scene, the sex they have shows who is in control. They also conspire to kill her husband.
Body Heat is set against a sultry backdrop in which we can feel the unrelenting Florida heat. John Barry's masterful musical score heightens the tension so subtly that it sneaks into a viewer's head, revealing itself only later as one thinks back on an unforgettable movie.
2) Bound (1996) Written and directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, creators of The Matrix (1999).
Jennifer Tilly plays a kept woman. Her knockout body and Marilyn Monroe/Betty Boop voice have got her a criminal boyfriend (Joe Pantoliano). They also get the attention of an ex-con (Gina Gershon), with whom she has a passionate affair and with whom she devises a scheme to steal some of the boyfriend's money.
Except that it's not his. The women do not care that the boyfriend's mob bosses will take revenge on him when their money goes missing.
Tilly and Gershon play their parts with such passion and intensity that what could have been a stereotype of butch/femme lesbians is instead a riveting case of opposites attracting. That's reflected in an image of spilled paint that is, like the movie, both mesmerizing and unsettling.
3) Dead Again (1991) Written by Scott Frank. Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
A murder from years earlier seems to be resonating in the lives of a detective and a mysterious mute woman who needs his help. Noir can be supernatural. Here's proof.
The terrific performances by Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Andy Garcia and Branagh could have saved an inferior movie. Instead, they are just some of the many riches in a haunting movie that is humorous, suspenseful, complex and filmed by cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti with luminous artistry.
4) L.A. Confidential (1997) Written by Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgland. Directed by Hanson.
It looks like it was filmed in Los Angeles in the 1940s, an impressive accomplishment but the least of this smart, complicated movie's attributes. Honest cops try to do their jobs but the crooked ones make that tough, especially the crooked ones who seem honest. Among the cast's many standouts (Kim Basinger won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) are Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, two Australians who couldn't be more convincing as American police officers.
5) Chinatown (1974) Written by Robert Towne. Directed by Roman Polanski. In 1998, the American Film Institute named it one of the Top 100 Films.
Actors John Huston, Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicolson play their parts perfectly. Even so, the real star is the story about a private detective investigating matters related to shady goings-on in a wealthy family. It's set against the backdrop of a Los Angeles that is developing rapidly, and developing a dangerous thirst for water as it does.
Towne gets credit for the polished screenplay but the lacerating finale is Polanski's. In Towne's version, Dunaway's character gets her revenge and the audience gets its catharsis. Polanski called on the memories of his hardships in a Nazi ghetto in Warsaw in World War II to give the movie its unrelentingly bleak and unforgettable ending.
6) The Last Seduction (1994) Written by Steve Barancik. Directed by John Dahl.
Linda Farentino seems actually to be her character, one of the smartest and most duplicitous ever shown in a movie. She manipulates a man into committing a crime for her -- of course he thinks it is for them -- but the real seduction is what this accomplished, Double Indemnity-inspired movie does to its audience.
7) The Usual Suspects (1995) Written by Christopher McQuarrie. Directed by Bryan Singer.
A group of small-time hoods try to pull off a crime and at least one of them is not what he is supposed to be. It boasts one of Hollywood's greatest twist endings, which is made even better because it might not explain the tantalizing mystery that precedes it. Depending on what you want it to be, the story is a maze you can try to navigate or a dizzying mindtrip you can take while you sit back and enjoy the view.
8) The Big Easy (1987) Written by Dan Petrie, Jr. Directed by Jim McBride.
New Orleans is hot and getting hotter as a cop (Dennis Quaid) and an assistant district attorney (Ellen Barkin) enjoy a sexy romance. When they're not making each other sweat, they're trying to figure out a fast-paced story involving a drug war, some apparent use of voodoo and some definite police corruption.
9) True Confessions (1981) Written by John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. Directed by Ulu Grosbard.
The cop is corrupt and so is the priest. They're brothers, they are each other's adversary and they are played by the powerhouse Roberts, DeNiro and Duvall.
The movie captures the 1940s but there are traces of more recent troubles for the Catholic Church when a monsignor tells a priest, "You do everything, in fact, but feel. It is the unfeeling ones that bring the Church into disrepute."
10) No Way Out (1987) Written by Robert Garland. Directed by Roger Donaldson.
This exciting remake of The Big Clock (1948) made a star of Kevin Costner, a decidedly mixed blessing, although that's not the movie's fault. He's a U.S. Navy officer assigned to investigate the murder of a woman with whom he was having an energetic sexual affair. He wasn't the only one.
For most of the time, Costner's character is trapped in The Pentagon as he rushes about trying to prove his innocence by identifying the real killer. This makes for claustrophobic suspense that doesn't let up until a nifty surprise ending.
In the original movie version, based on Kenneth Fearing's novel, there are hints that at least one of the characters might be homosexual. The remake doesn't hint.
IF THIS WERE A "TOP 25" LIST:
Blade Runner (1982) Named to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 1993. Noir can be futuristic. Here's proof.
Blood Simple (1985) The Coen Brothers let their imaginations run in this intricate tale of a hit man hired to kill an unfaithful wife.
Blue Velvet (1986) Writer-director David Lynch infuses his bizarre story about depravity and murder with off-kilter energy and offbeat humor.
City of Industry (1997) Harvey Keitel's explosive performance as a thug brought back for one more heist carries this one through some narrative rough patches. When the heist goes bad, it becomes a gripping account of cat-and-mouse revenge.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) Denzel Washington is powerful as a hard-luck guy hired by a shady figure in L.A. in the late 1940s to find a mysterious woman, but Don Cheadle steals his scenes as Washington's friend.
Face/Off (1997) Director John Woo's dizzying game of mixed-up identities pits Nicolas Cage against John Travolta in a hyperactive exploration of the gaps in the dotted line between good guys and bad.
The Grifters (1990) Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening and John Cusack are con artists scheming for a big score in a violent world in director Stephen Frears' superb movie that teaches a horrifying use for a half-dozen oranges.
House of Games (1987) It's by playwright David Mamet so the razor-sharp dialogue is expected. It is his film directing debut and so the movie's stylishness is a delightful surprise. Joe Mantegna and Lindsay Crouse are good in a twisty tale of an elaborate con game.
Night Moves (1975) Gene Hackman doesn't act so much as he seems actually to be a detective whose personal life is tumultuous. He is hired to find a runaway girl (Melanie Griffith), but he uncovers an unusual smuggling operation.
The Public Eye (1992) This nifty homage to classic films noir spotlights a terrific performance by Joe Pesci as a crime photographer in Manhattan in the early 1940s. He gets entangled with the wife (Barbara Hershey, who is given little to do) of a recently deceased nightclub owner/mobster.
Red Rock West (1993) Now she is mostly known for not eating enough and for wearing weird ballerina outfits to the Oscars, but Lara Flynn Boyle is dangerously beguiling as a woman who hires to kill her husband the hit man (Nicholas Gage) whom her husband had hired to kill her. Director John Dahl, who wrote this with his brother Rick, also directed the superlative The Last Seduction, cited above.
Reservoir Dogs (1992) Quentin Tarantino's electrifying, sometimes funny directorial debut features a powerful cast as criminals whose elaborately planned heist goes violently, horribly wrong.
Twilight (1998) There's blackmail and possible suicide in an engaging story brought to life by a top-notch cast: Paul Newman; Gene Hackman; Susan Sarandon; James Garner; and Stockard Channing.
The Underneath (1995) This remake of Criss Cross (1949) isn't as compelling as the original, but it comes close. Peter Gallagher and Alison Elliott are impressive as the man and his ex-wife whose planned robbery ends badly. Director Steven Soderbergh's movie is a little muddled but it also is moody and stylish.
Its name comes from the French and it often is called the dark side of the American dream, but film noir is global. Filmmakers from around the world have taken an art form that originated in the United States and made it speak their language. Their works are just as cynical and dark as their American counterparts and the characters they spotlight are just as aggressively selfish, but the accents are different. 10) Carne … more
We have the French to thank for film noir. American filmmakers made the pioneering works that explored the shadows in which hardened people ruthlessly exploit others by using their wits, which range from quick to none, and their morality, which ranges from skewed to none. It was French critics who recognized a singular sensibility in movies created by various writers, directors and actors and released by many different studios. They … more
For most casual film goers the term "film noir" has a mysterious sound to it but they really don't know what it means. The French film critic Nino Frank in 1946 first coined the phrase "film noir" after reviewing the movie the "Maltese Falcon," John Houston 1941. He saw that one of the most important components of "film noir" was characters that are portrayed as self questioning in an intellectual search dominated by Existentialism, (which is a philosophy … more