NEO-NOIR

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Neo-noir is a category of almost unlimited versatility, as virtually any kind of film can join the category simply by employing enough noir motifs to clearly evoke the original noir phenomenon. In addition, since at least the 1970s, American filmmakers have been increasingly influenced by an extensive knowledge of film history, with film noir being one of the phenomena that has been most influential. Major filmmakers from Martin Scorcese to Quentin Tarantino have reflected this influence particularly strongly in their work, especially in their earlier works, such as Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) or Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). This survey, however, will limit itself primarily to films that are important primarily for their neo-noir aspects and not for other reasons (such as the importance of their directors).

One thing that all neo-noir films share is an awareness of the looming presence of noir itself as background. Some neo-noir films are virtually identical to noir films, the only difference being this self-conscious awareness that it has all been done before. All neo-noir films share this awareness, while most of them supplement it in other ways as well; most, for example, are made in color, and all are made after the downfall of the Production Code, thus allowing them to employ much more overt representation of sex and violence than had the original noirs. There has been considerable discussion of just where the neo-noir cycle begins, partly because the boundary between noir and neo-noir is not absolute and distinct, with films such as Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964), which I have characterized as “late” noir, clearly serving as transitional texts. Some have considered John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) to be the first neo-noir film, while others would push the boundary up to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Thieves Like Us (1974).

Any discussion of the beginnings of neo-noir, however, should at least acknowledge the role played by French film in this phenomenon. Given the admiration of French critics for American film noir, it should come as no surprise that film noir subsequently exercised considerable influence on the evolution of French film, and especially of the French New Wave. In at least one case, this influence was especially direct, in the sense that the French heist film Rififi (1955) was directed by blacklisted American director Jules Dassin, himself a past master of the noir mode. Rififi appeared while the classic noir cycle was still in full swing, but it might rightly be considered a neo-noir film, simply because it is so self-consciously made as a sort of re-creation of the American noir mode (with additions, enabled by the absence of the U.S. Production Code, of such things as a much more detailed treatment of the heist itself than would have been possible in American film at the time).

Among French directors, the key figure in the recreation of the noir mode in French film was Jean-Pierre Melville, who made a number of films that might be considered neo-noir. Among these, perhaps the most meticulously crafted reproduction of the noir style occurs in Le Samouraï (1967). But even this reproduction is self-consciously a reproduction, making it a neo-noir film. Here, Alain Delon’s Jef Costello is a hitman who plays cat-and-mouse with both the police and the mysterious employers who hire him to carry out a hit early in the film. Both this character and the film itself became iconic and remain an enduring part of the legacy of modern French cinema. This film and this character were highly influential even on subsequent American film, suggesting that one of the important determinants of neo-noir in America was the fact that the noir mode had by that time been reflected back from and filtered through such French films.

Point Blank, released the same year as Le Samouraï, stars Lee Marvin as a gangster seeking revenge after he is betrayed by his wife and partner. It certainly contains an abundance of noir elements, and it is also interesting in the overt way it presents the criminal organization at the heart of a film as just another corporation, suggesting that there might be something a bit criminal about corporations in general. The film also contains a number of dream-like sequences—in fact, the whole main plot might be a dream on the part of Marvin’s character as he lies dying after being shot by his partner. Beautifully shot in full color, Point Blank does not, at first, look much like a noir film (even Alcatraz looks scenic), though it certainly contains some classic noir settings—in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. It does not, however, seem so much like a nostalgic look back to the noir era as it is an overt attempt to deploy the new freedoms offered by the collapse of the Code to explore territory that had been forbidden during the classic noir era.

Personally, I think Altman’s films are a better starting point for genuine neo-noir, largely because of Altman’s intense awareness that he was playing with a pre-existing generic tradition in making these films and his desire both to honor the conventions of that tradition and to creatively challenge them. The Long Goodbye, for example, immediately establishes a connection to the noir past because it is based on a 1953 novel of the same title by Raymond Chandler. It has other directions as well: it was written by Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep (1946), and it feature noir mainstay Sterling Hayden in a key acting role. On the other hand, Philip Marlowe is played by Elliott Gould in an almost Brechtian example of intentional miscasting. Gould’s shambling Marlowe is something of a lovable bungler who seems to have very little in common with Chandler’s tough, hard-boiled, and efficient original. This new Marlowe has a soft spot for cats, is not good with women, and never wins a fight. Moreover, in a surprising twist, he ends the film by shooting down his best friend in cold blood. Meanwhile, The Long Goodbye is anachronistically set not in the 1930s, but the early 1970s, giving the entire film an off-kilter feel. Finally, the film, which both begins and ends with “Hooray for Hollywood” playing in the background, also satirizes Hollywood and its values, making the film a sort of forerunner of Altman’s later Hollywood satire, The Player (1992).

The film begins as Marlowe’s friend, Terry Lennox (former baseball pitcher Jim Bouton), comes to Marlowe and asks him to drive him to Tijuana. Marlowe complies, then learns that Lennox has been implicated in the murder of his wife. Convinced of Lennox’s innocence, he spends most of the film trying to find the real killer. In the process, he encounters the requisite dangerous blonde, in the person of Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt). He also encounters Eileen’s husband, Roger Wade, a broken-down, alcoholic writer, wonderfully played by Hayden. Marlowe also encounters gangster Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), who is trying to recover the $350,000 that Lennox was holding for him. Augustine is convinced that Marlowe either has the money or knows where it is, so the detective is repeatedly manhandled (and once nearly castrated) by Augustine’s thugs, including one played by a young Arnold Schwarzenegger (in the days when he was still credited as Arnold Strong).

Marlowe manages to keep his genitals when the money is returned at the last moment. Meanwhile, he has concluded, based largely on information supplied by Eileen, that Roger Wade killed Mrs. Lennox, with whom the writer was having an affair. Marlowe does not realize until the end of the film that he has been duped, that Lennox was having an affair with Eileen, and that Lennox did, in fact, kill his wife as originally charged. In the meantime, Wade conveniently commits suicide, and the wealthy Eileen heads to Mexico to join Lennox. By the time Marlowe realizes what has happened, the two lovers are living it up in high style. Infuriated by the betrayal of his friendship and by Lennox’s escape from justice, Marlowe goes to Tijuana, confronts Lennox, and coldly shoots him down. He walks away as Eileen drives up in her Jeep, not realizing what has happened. This ending seems a bit improbable, but that may be the point; it can effectively be read as a parodic comment on Hollywood’s insistence that closure be obtained by bringing criminals to justice, by any means necessary.

Thieves Like Us (1974), meanwhile, might be seen as a remake of Nicholas Ray’s noir classic The Live by Night (1948), though it takes its inspiration for directly from the 1937 novel from which it takes its title. Altman’s film follows the Anderson novel almost exactly in plot, the major change being that the film takes place in Mississippi, while the book takes place in Oklahoma and Texas. It begins as T. W. Masefield (called T-Dub, played by Bert Remsen), Elmo Mobley (or Chicamaw, played by John Schuck), and Bowie Bowers (Keith Carradine) escape from a Mississippi prison. T-Dub and Chicamaw are experienced criminals, specializing in bank robbery. Although serving a life sentence for murder, the younger Bowie is actually rather innocent, his one crime having been committed almost as an accident. The three escapees take refuge at the home of Chicamaw’s cousin, Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt), who owns a small-town filling station. There, Bowie meets Dee’s daughter, Keechie (Shelley Duvall), who seems to resent their presence but soon begins to warm up to Bowie.

The three fugitives soon begin a series of successful bank robberies, leading to increasing press coverage of their exploits. Now with rewards on their heads, the three proceed cautiously and decide to lie low for a while. Bowie, however, is injured in an automobile accident, after which Chicamaw shoots and kills two policemen who come to the scene to investigate the accident, then drives on with the injured Bowie, eventually leaving him at Dee’s filling station to recuperate. Keechie tends Bowie’s wounds, and romance blooms between the two of them. They make love for the first time as an enactment of Romeo and Juliet plays on the radio. They then rent a remote lakeside cottage and set up housekeeping. Bowie, meanwhile, attends a prearranged rendezvous in Yazoo City with T-Dub and Chicamaw, after which they pull still another bank robbery. Bowie then heads back to rejoin Keechie but hears on the radio that, in the aftermath of the robbery, T-Dub has been shot and killed by police, while Chicamaw has been captured.

Chicamaw is sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, while Bowie and Keechie meanwhile consider moving to Mexico. First, though, they travel to the town of Pickens, where T-Dub’s sister-in-law Mattie (Louise Fletcher) now owns a motor court, bought for her by T-Dub from his robbery money in recognition of her loyalty to her husband, his brother, who is currently in prison. Posing as a sheriff, Bowie manages to break Chicamaw out of prison. The two argue after Chicamaw unnecessarily kills a hostage, then makes disparaging remarks about Keechie. Bowie puts Chicamaw out on the side of the road. He then returns once more to Keechie, who has by this time has discovered that she is pregnant. Soon after his arrival, however, police appear and surround their rented cabin, having been tipped off by Mattie, who hopes thereby to get her husband out of prison. Bowie and the cabin are shot to bits as a horrified Keechie looks on. The film then ends as the pregnant Keechie takes a train to Fort Worth to try to start a new life, while a speech by famed 1930s right-wing radio commentator Father Coughlin plays in the background on the train station radio.

This speech by the right-wing Coughlin helps to emphasize the film’s subtle suggestion that the crimes committed by Bowie, T-Dub, and Chicamaw tell us more about certain dark tendencies in American society than about the criminal proclivities of the thieves themselves. In addition, radio programs such as Gangbusters and The Shadow frequently sound in the background in the film, suggesting a fascination with violence and criminality in American culture as a whole. Thieves Like Us emphasizes in a fairly obvious way that, in Depression-era America, people like Bowie and Keechie, no matter how basically good, have few opportunities to build the kind of life advertised as the American dream. The film lacks the book’s repeated emphasis on the fact that the robberies being pulled by Bowie, T-Dub, and Chicamaw are no more dishonest, and often no more violent, than the day-to-day activities of American business and professional people, but it does at least gesture in this direction, as when Bowie at one point wishes he had gotten an education so he could rob people with his mind, instead of a gun.

Altman was unusual enough as a filmmaker that his two neo-noir films of the 1970s might not necessarily be considered part of a wider movement. The film that clearly established neo-noir as a genuine phenomenon was Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, also released in 1974, when it began to be clear that a resurrection of film noir was genuinely afoot—but with a distinctly nostalgic tinge that set these new films clearly apart from the films of the original noir cycle. Still perhaps the greatest of all neo-noir films, Chinatown features Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, a somewhat down-on-his-heels private eye who get caught up in a circle of corruption that extends to the highest levels of Los Angeles society. Set in 1937 but with a look that might be any time from then until the late 1940s, this film is striking for its ability to reference the feel of film noir cinematography (complete with the requisite Venetian blind shadow shots), even though it is shot in full color. In addition, the dialogue, plot, and characters might almost have been taken straight out of a classic film noir, though the “almost” here is key: the film is quite self-conscious in its project of evoking the films of the past, making it one of the key examples cited by Fredric Jameson in his discussion of nostalgia and pastiche in postmodern film.

Chinatown (1974) convincingly demonstrated that film noir, very much a creature of the 1940s and 1950s, still had considerable unexplored potential for the post-Code, New Hollywood generation of filmmakers. Several other important neo-noir films appeared in the 1970s, including Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), a film that has gained in critical stature over the years but that was not a particular success when first released, suggesting that neo-noir film was still having a bit of trouble gaining traction in Hollywood. Here, Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a former pro football player who is now working as a world-weary private investigator in Los Angeles. Amid personal problems that include the infidelity of his wife Ellen (Susan Clark), Moseby is hired by former minor Hollywood actress Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward) to find her runaway daughter Delly (played by a teenage Melanie Griffith). It seems a simple assignment, but the job leads Moseby into a world of sex, corruption, and murder centering on a plot to smuggle valuable ancient artifacts from Mexico into the United States. Set in the 1970s and less obviously nostalgic for noir than is Chinatown in terms of visuals and music, Night Moves fits in well with the noir tradition in terms of its plot and dark view of the world. The final shot, in which Moseby lies unconscious on a boat traveling in circles around two bodies floating in the water, is a powerful summation of the film’s cynical view of the pointlessness of existence. As with Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), it also shows the influence of the French New Wave, in this case through a prominent allusion to Éric Rohmer’s film My Night at Maude’s (1969), indicating the extent to which the New Wave, strongly influenced by film noir, subsequently reflected some of that influence back onto neo-noir.

Altman, by the way, served as the producer for another prominent 1970s neo-noir film, The Late Show (1977), directed by Robert Benton. Partly a spoof of detective films, The Late Show features Art Carney as aging private detective Ira Wells; indeed, much of the film is built around the fact of Wells’ advancing age and the difficulties it causes. Much of the humor is supplied by Lili Tomlin, who plays Margo Sperling, a kooky actress, dress designer, and pot dealer who wants to hire Wells to retrieve her kidnapped cat. Something of an homage to the pulp tradition, The Late Show can sometimes be quite clever in its handling of tropes from that tradition, updated to the 1970s.

One interesting phenomenon of the 1970s was the remake of two earlier noir films based on the novels of Raymond Chandler. Both Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely (1975, restoring Chandler’s original title) and The Big Sleep (1978) feature noir icon Robert Mitchum as private detective Philip Marlowe, which certainly adds interest, though it also adds age to the detective, given that the Marlowe of Chandler’s fiction was roughly in his mid-thirties, while Mitchum was born in 1917 and thus had pushed into his sixties by the time of the second film. The fact that Mitchum was such an important actor in the original noir cycle adds a certain nostalgia value to his performances, but these films are not particularly remarkable and are both inferior to the originals. This is especially the case with The Big Sleep, which, somewhat bizarrely, attempts to avoid nostalgia by setting its action in 1970s London, rather than 1940s Los Angeles, which largely misses the point of Chandler’s fiction.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that neo-noir really began to gather steam. In 1981, Bob Rafelson’s remake of the 1946 noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice didn’t really go that far beyond the original, but it did give a boost to the neo-noir movement by featuring A-list Hollywood stars in Nicholson and Jessica Lange. That same year,Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat demonstrated the potential for graphic eroticism in a noir form now freed of the shackles of Production Code censorship. Body Heat was a crucial film in building momentum for neo-noir film. Overtly inspired by Double Indemnity, this film featured a virtually unknown Kathleen Turner as Matty Tyler Walker, a considerably sexed-up version of the femme fatale. The performance, featuring a substantial amount of nudity and steamy scenes of explicit sexual activity, made clear what classic film noir had always implied: the femme fatale is able to manipulate men so easily partly because she is willing to use sex as a powerful weapon. Turner’s performance in the role propelled her to stardom, and the success of the film as a whole launched a successful directorial career for Lawrence Kasdan (formerly known primarily as a screenwriter for Star Wars films), though, oddly enough, he never directed another neo-noir film.

Still, after Blade Runner established the tech noir form in 1982, it was clear that neo-noir was here to stay. Numerous neo-noir films have been produced since that time, in a variety of modes. 1984, for example, saw another remake of a noir classic when Against All Odds retold the story of Out of the Past in an updated and largely diminished form that removed most of the elements that made the original film truly noir (and truly interesting. A young Jeff Bridges is unable to capture the noir sensibility that Mitchum had brought to the central character in the original (a problem made worse by the fact that Bridges’ character is not a private eye but, weirdly, a professional football player, perhaps echoing Gene Hackman’s character in Night Moves), while Rachel Ward’s character doesn’t come close to the diabolical femme fatale figure that had been played by Jane Greer in the original. Against All Odds does, however, achieve some genuine noir nostalgia by casting Greer herself as the mother of its femme fatale, while casting noir legend Richard Widmark as an unsavory real estate developer—two characters who do not even appear in the original.

Incidentally, Ward had perhaps been cast as the femme fatale character in this one because of her highly successful send-up of such characters in Carl Reiner’s noir parody Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), which incorporates clips from actual noir films into the film’s own footage. In so doing, it relates a complex plot (involving Nazis, among others) that is only slightly more preposterous than the plots of many films of the original noir cycle. The film stars Steve Martin as private investigator Rigby Reardon, who becomes involved with Ward’s femme fatale in the course of his attempts to unravel a Nazi conspiracy. In the process, he saves the world—but not Terre Haute, Indiana.

Ward also plays the femme fatale in James Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet (1990), an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1955 novel of the same title. Here, former boxer Kevin “Kid” Collins (Jason Patric), feigning brain damage in order to escape a murder rap, wanders into a town in the California desert and gets caught up in a sleazy kidnapping plan on the part of Ward’s Fay Anderson and her partner in crime, Garrett “Uncle Bud” Stoker (Bruce Dern). Of course, everything goes wrong, but the film is surprisingly effective at detailing its series of events and at making clear the grimly empty, soulless nature of all the main characters. It is, in fact, one of the finest adaptations of a novel by Thompson, who deserves special mention in any discussion of neo-noir because so many of his novels (perhaps a bit too far out there for American film in the 1950s) have come to the screen during the neo-noir period. Thompson’s most highly-regarded novel, The Killer Inside Me (1952), for example, was adapted to film in both 1976 and 2010. Meanwhile, the highest-profile films based on Thompson novels are The Grifters (a 1990 adaptation of Thompson’s 1963 novel) and adaptations in both 1972 and 1994 of Thompson’s 1958 novel The Getaway. Thompson’s The Kill-Off (1957) came to the big screen in 1990, while his novel A Swell-Looking Babe (1954) was adapted as Hit Me in 1996. In addition, Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman (1954) was adapted in the French film Série noire (1979), while his Pop. 1280 (1964) was adapted in the French film Coup de Torchon (1981). Thompson, of course, also worked on the screenplay for two early Stanley Kubrick films, the noir heist film The Killing (1956) and the ironic World War I film Paths of Glory (1957).

In terms of neo-noir, special mention should also go to the works of Joel and Ethan Coen, talented filmmakers who have incorporated noir motifs in a number of their films—and who seem to understand the noir mode unusually well.[i] Their highly respected Fargo (1996), for example, leans heavily toward neo-noir, even though the far-north setting adds an unusual ambience, as does the unusual admixture of offbeat comedy. And their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (2007) is one of the greatest examples of Western neo-noir. Two of the Coens’ films, however, are especially pure examples of neo-noir. The first of these (and the first film made by the Coens), Blood Simple, was released in 1984, just as neo-noir films were gaining considerable momentum. However, while many neo-noir films were moving into the realm of big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas with A-list stars, Blood Simple was a decidedly low-budget affair, financed with contributions from individual private investors (mostly rich friends of the Coens’ family from Minnesota) solicited via Joel’s one-on-one pitch campaign that involved a simple homemade trailer that prominently featured a shot of light shining through bullet holes in a wall. An unknown who had previously worked mostly in porn, Barry Sonnenfeld, came on as the cinematographer, and an unknown actress, Frances McDormand, was cast as the female lead after the Coens’ first choice, Holly Hunter (at the time, not that well known herself), turned them down. In short, the film had many of the gritty, outside-the-mainstream ingredients that had made so many noir films special in the first place. It also seemed like anything but a guaranteed success, but it in fact garnered heaps of critical praise, while many felt that its Texas setting added special energies to the neo-noir phenomenon.

Then, in 2001, the brothers would undertake their most concerted effort to make a seemingly genuine replica of a film noir in the form of The Man Who Wasn’t There, a film that was shot (or at least developed) in black and white[ii] and whose classic film noir plot is set in 1949, about the time when the noir cycle was at an absolute peak. Nevertheless, despite the mutual interest in noir, The Man Who Wasn’t There could hardly be described as a return to the mode of Blood Simple. As Nathan puts it, these two films “couldn’t be more diametrically opposed in style or mood and yet still be recognizably part of the Coen canon” (104). Thus, while The Man Who Wasn’t There can certainly be categorized as a neo-noir film, numerous elements of it continue to suggest the Coens’ habitual refusal to be tied to generic purity or historical accuracy, thus putting as much emphasis on the “neo” as on the “noir.” As Peter Bradshaw (calling the film the Coens’ “masterpiece”) puts it, The Man Who Wasn’t There is “a thriller in the style of James M. Cain, set in suburban California in 1949 and obviously influenced by the movies of the period, yet somehow transmitting the atmospheric crackle of a strange tale from The Twilight Zone (196). Cain’s 1943 novel Double Indemnity (first published in serial form in 1936) does seem to be the main literary referent of The Man Who Wasn’t There, with a dash of Cain’s earlier The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) thrown in for good measure, but there are numerous other potential sources as well.[iii]

By this time, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), based on a 1990 novel of the same title by James Ellroy, had also made a big splash, becoming one of the sensations of late 1990s film. Set in Los Angeles in 1953, L.A. Confidential is in many ways the quintessential neo-noir film: not only does Hanson build the film on a number of key noir concepts (liberally injected with extra sex and violence thanks to the absence of Code restrictions), but he does so in a highly self-conscious way—which he signals quite openly. For example, one key character (played by Kim Basinger) is a hooker (with a heart of gold, as it turns out) who has been made up to resemble noir starlet Veronica Lake, thus giving her clients an extra thrill. Then, in one key scene, an ambitious policeman (played by Guy Pearce) insults a woman whom he thinks is another hooker made up to resemble Lana Turner, only to discover that she really is Lana Turner. The film is populated with corrupt policemen, crooked politicians, a corrupt and opportunistic reporter, gangsters, hookers, and a variety of petty criminals; even the “good” guys are compromised, while many of the “bad” characters have inclinations and motivations that make them at least partly sympathetic. It is, in short, a carefully painted noir world—but one that is painted so that the brush strokes remain visible, reminding us that this film is not a noir film per se, but a pastiche of the kinds of noir films that were being made in Los Angeles back during the time when the action is set.

A Simple Plan (1999), directed by Sam Raimi, a long-time friend of the Coens, clearly shows the influence of the Coens’ work, especially Fargo. Here, in a classic noir scenario, three friends come upon a huge stash of cash in a downed plane in the snowy woods. They decide to keep the cash for themselves rather than turning it in, which leads to a disastrous chain of circumstances that leaves two of the friends (and several others) dead, while the remaining friend (played by Bill Paxton) realizes he has to destroy the cash to avoid further disasters. The sense of inevitable (and pointless) doom that haunts this film is very much in the noir tradition, though the utter stupidity of the two associates of Paxton’s character can be a bit tedious.

Moving forward, filmmakers began to seek more and more ways to enliven the4 noir mode with new elements. Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005), for example, takes its plot almost directly from the noir tradition, but sets it in a modern-day California high school, making all its stock noir characters (including a detective, an array of dangerous females, a sinister drug dealer, and a murderous henchman) into high school students. The result might have been farce, but Johnson plays it straight, even though it is impossible to overcome the cognitive dissonance of seeing all the film’s classic noir moments play out among teenagers. The result is not for everyone, but it has definitely gained a cult following.

Also released in 2005, Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is another significantly updated treatment of noir motifs. This one, though, does go for farce, even though it has a significant amount of violent action as well. Robert Downey, Jr., plays Harry Lockhart, a small-time burglar in New York who flees the Big Apple for Los Angeles where he inadvertently stumbles into the film industry. Val Kilmer plays a gay private investigator hired to give Lockhart tips on how to be a P.I., so that he can play such a role in an upcoming film. Lockhart runs into his old childhood sweetheart from Indiana, Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan), who is also trying to break into the film business. And they call get caught up in a web of corruption and murder that is made significantly more dangerous and complex by their own bungling. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is entertaining as an homage to film noir, but it does not reside within the true realm of noir in its own right.

Dutch director Nicolas Winding Refn made a big splash with Drive (2011), which was widely acclaimed as a fresh neo-noir entry. Here, Ryan Gosling plays a classic noir character, though he has perhaps more depth and complexity than your typical noir protagonist. A stunt driver in the movies who moonlights as a getaway driver for heists, he is also soft spoken but can erupt into deadly violence when provoked. A kindly soul who seems to genuinely care about his pretty neighbor and her small son, he is also surprisingly formidable and able to slice his way through an imposing sequence of thugs and gangsters. The central plot involves lots of betrayals and a heist-gone-wrong, placing it in a long noir tradition, but the action sequences of driving are really unprecedented in a noir film. Lots of shady characters and lots of the graphic violence for which Refn has by now become famous—and enough neo-noir stylistic flourishes to make this one of the most talked-about films of 2011 and one of the foremost neo-noir films of the twenty-first century.

NOTES


[i] For a more thoroughly discussion of the films of the Coen Brothers, see my book The Coen Brothers’ America.

[ii] By the time this film was shot, it was simply not possible to acquire film literally to shoot in black and white, So the film was shot on color film, but developed in black and white.

[iii] The film is, in fact, laced with subtle allusions, as are all of the Coens’ films. For example, a hotel called the Hobart Arms figures prominently in the film, in an apparent reference to the apartment building of the same name that appears in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) as the place of residence of detective Philip Marlowe.