A Simple Favor, released last month, is a bizarre cocktail of murder, mystery, and a sexy, suave elegance. Although it’s not a perfect film, its themes harken back to the style of a bygone era — the beautiful framings and fatalism of 1950s film noir.
A genre of femme fatales, private eyes and murder mysteries, the release of A Simple Favor seemed a fitting excuse to take a flick through some of the best neo-noirs the last 60 or so years of cinema has offered us.
#10: Night Moves (1975)
Despite fairly positive reviews, Night Moves was pretty much ignored upon release. It stars Gene Hackman as a private investigator submerged in a sea of lies and tasked with finding the daughter of a washed up actress. Night Moves sees Hackman at his absolute best, under stellar direction from one of America’s most underrated directors, Arthur Penn. Penn installs the film with a pervading sense of post-Watergate paranoia. Best of all is an obvious awareness of its noir roots, with postmodern references to the noir style throughout.
#9: Blood Simple (1984)
Blood Simple was not a box office smash. Yet the debut film from the Coen Brother’s is a brilliant take on the noir staple. Aptly named due to its violent nature, its title is also taken from a Dashiell Hammet novel. A corrupt private investigator is hired by an enraged husband to murder his wife and her new lover. However a series of deviations and misunderstandings leads to a twisted and darkly comic thriller. A stellar cast caps off a subversive edge to Blood Simple, notable for the debut of the fantastic Frances McDormand.
#8: Blade Runner (1982)
Though it’s fundamentally science fiction, the 1982 Ridley Scott helmed classic is pure noir. Set in a dystopian future, Blade Runner sees a rogue cop (Harrison Ford) tasked with hunting down a group of android humans known as replicants. From start to finish Blade Runner feels as though it was engineered as a noir experiment. It takes place in a tailor-made film-noir world of a sprawling urban metropolis where it’s always night. Its philosophy is deeply nihilistic, grappling with the meaning and value of humanity. A helping of shadows, a morally dubious central character, and a femme fatale mark it as a true continuation of the noir’s hardboiled style, despite its high concept.
#7: Mulholland Drive (2001)
“Dream” is a word often used to describe film noir. The way characters interact, talk, and act seems to exist in a dream state, clouded by a world gone wrong. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a film that fully embodies this sentiment. A true mystery caper, it follows Betty, an aspiring actress who befriends a woman recently left in an amnesiac state after a car crash. Betty and the woman, naming herself Rita, begin to attempt to uncover her true identity. Obsession and illusions are the film’s principal themes, however, Mulholland Drive’s noir qualities are just a figment of its identity, with the film now regarded as an all-time cinematic great.
#6: Point Blank (1957)
Released only 7 years after the 1950s, I was initially hesitant about including Point Blank on this list. But the cult classic took noir’s style to new, rawer territory and is often heralded as the first neo-noir. It passed largely unnoticed at the time, with the noir craze already dead and buried. A brutal revenge flick, the film boasts a body count and thirst for violence that was shocking for cinema of the time. It stars Lee Marvin as a man left for dead after his partner shoots him and runs off with his wife and share of the money. Marvin is a cool, urban, and relentless anti hero — a twist on the usual hapless PI trope. A textbook example of quintessentially cool film-making, Point Blank is a true must-see for any neo-noir fans out there.
#5: Oldboy (2003)
Park Chan-wook’s subversive, action-packed picture is astounding. It follows the story of a man suddenly released from captivity after being held for 15 years by unknown captors, with unknown motives. An action film shrouded in a noir sense of fatalism and paranoia, Oldboy features stunning sequences of extreme violence and gore paired with sheer cruelty and heartbreak. Spike Lee produced a 2013 remake but it failed to replicate the bizarre intensity of the original which won the Grand Prix at Cannes ’04 and is gradually gathering a reputation as a masterpiece of gritty, brutal cinema.
#4: Memento (2000)
Memento was released to critical acclaim in 2000. Guy Pearce stars as an amnesiac striving to track down the person responsible for the rape and killing of his wife, with only Polaroid photographs to aid him in his attempts. Christopher Nolan uses alternating black and white and color sequences, with the former evoking the aesthetic of noirs effortlessly. Memento posits a haunted view of the world, filled with paranoia and doubt arising from Pearce’s character’s intense short-term memory loss. Memento is a true highlight of Nolan’s early career and an imaginative reworking of the noir sensibility.
#3: LA Confidential (1997)
It’s a shame LA Confidential was released the same year as Titanic. It won only 2 Academy Awards but has grown in stature to become one of the 1990s most acclaimed movies and a quintessential neo-noir. In true noir style the story (based on James Ellroy’s novel) takes place in 50s LA. Russell Crow, Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey star as LAPD officers wading through a sea of murder, deception and internal corruption. Director Curtis Hanson crafts a fully formed world where body counts pile up in minutes. A masterful screenplay sees Hollywood, the press and the police all intersect ferociously among the city’s smog. Dripping in moral ambiguity, this is a film swimming in the psychology of characters pulled into a pit of scandal and paranoia.
#2: The Long Goodbye (1973)
The Long Goodbye is endlessly influential and effortlessly cool. A favorite of mine, Robert Altman’s take on the classic Raymond Chandler novel is essential neo-noir viewing. Transported from fast-talking 50s LA to the relaxed haze of the 1970s, detective Philip Marlowe finds himself in the counterculture and is sent in a dizzying spin when his best friend is said to have killed his wife and disappeared to Mexico. Marlowe begins to investigate, unraveling a web of adultery, murder and schemes all while just wanting to find his cat. A far cry from the noir of the 50s, The Long Goodbye is a classic example of Altman sensing genre rules and destroying them.
#1: Chinatown (1974)
When done in the right way even the most complex films can seem effortless. Chinatown is one of the best. Roman Polanksi’s debauched, hard-hitting mystery masterpiece follows a stylish PI (Jack Nicholson) who finds himself caught up in the California Water Wars of the early 20th century. The thriller’s pedigree was obvious immediately. It racked up an impressive 11 Academy Award nominations in ’75 but only won for best screenplay. Still, Robert Towne’s gripping, twisted original script earned every inch of it. Both Nicholson and feverishly dangerous femme fatale, Faye Dunaway, also earned Oscar nods for their performances. Examining family strife, perverse sexuality and institutional corruption and greed, Chinatown ranks as a landmark noir and a cinematic giant.
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