What exactly is noir, anyway? Its name suggests that the movie must be in black and white, and yet, who can deny that Polanski’s Chinatown is a noir masterpiece?
Others think that noir is specific to a time, namely the years following World War II, and that it reflects the seedy underside to America’s sudden power and prosperity following the Big Fight. I agree with all that, but I think that commentary can be applied to modern crime films (not to mention crime movies from other countries.)
The reason is simple: that postwar malaise lingers even today. To me, noir reflects the rot that exists beneath the surface of every prosperity, it examines the desperate measures people take to try and make their lives glamorous or wealthy. Money seems to be at the root of virtually all noir, though in one case below, fame is also a motivating factor.
The five movies I’ve selected below all reflect great noirs since 1990. This has been a fairly dead period for great crime movies, though I know the world loves L. A. Confidential, I think that one, though entertaining, pales terribly compared to Chinatown or any other minor noir, including Kansas City Confidential. The five listed here are personal choices that simply blew me away at the theaters, even if they’re often deeply flawed.
5. Hollywoodland (2006.) Hollywoodland is a near-to-great movie. It had all the elements: a stellar cast in Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, a surprisingly moving turn by Ben Affleck as George Reeves, and the ever reliable Bob Hoskins as a vicious studio head.
Like Chinatown, it had a McGuffin that was truly fascinating on its own: in real life, Reeves, who played TV’s “Superman”, committed suicide because he was despondent over his inability to find work (and how interesting is it that he almost shared a surname with the other, equally tragic Superman, Christopher Reeve). See, “Superman” ruined him for anything else. Cast in a large role in From Here to Eternity, people laughed at him during a press screening, his role was cut, and his career seemingly vanished. He tried everything, ending up in shitty z-grade flicks before ending it all.
But was his death a suicide? That’s the key question in Hollywoodland, a film that examines the terrifying emptiness that is Hollywood, land of dreams. There is a real sense of penetrating evil that surrounds this flick, from Hoskins’ mephistophelean Eddie Mannix, MGM exec, to Adrien Brody’s Louis Simo, an ambulance chasing private dick working out of a seedy hotel room.
The sets are brilliant, classic noir–run down cafes, the studio lots, houses with bloodstained floorboards. What makes the movie work so well is its bleakness, the insidious, sun-drenched world of Southern California. The sense that even when the movie closes, the horror remains.
The acting, across the board, is solid–Brody trying to be noble yet undermined by his penetrating love of a buck; Diane Lane as a chilly, aging woman watching her life slip through her fingers; and especially Ben Affleck, who wears Superman’s cape as if it weighed as much as a mountain. He is the soul of this picture, and it is to his credit that he made the most of it, bringing a surprising sadness to Hollywoodland.
Even better, I loved its ending, which suggests that whether Reeves killed himself or was murdered is of little matter, for his soul was devoured years ago.
What doesn’t work is the filmmakers’ fear of going full tilt with this story. For whatever reason, the writer or director put in a hideous backstory involving Simo’s child, his divorce, his trying to come back to his wife. I might have told director Allen Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum: you never give the private eye any backstory. No one cares. The shamus is only our portal into the abyss.
Nearly a masterpiece, Hollywoodland is still worth checking out.
4. One False Move (1992.) This flick has a cool little history, so typical of our modern video era. Actor Carl Franklin directed this gritty little crime thriller, written by Billy Bob Thornton (who, as you know, won an Oscar a little while later for a thing called Sling Blade) and a guy named Tom Epperson. The studio, IRS, was known as a record label, the one that used to house R. E. M. Well, One False Move was supposed to go straight to video, but word got out that it was a heck of a cool picture, Ebert and Siskel praised it (Siskel called it the best movie of the year!), it played in theaters to some fanfare and a bit of cash, got rented more than expected, and a lot of the people involved went on to do some decent work (including Franklin, who made the decent Devil in a Blue Dress.)
Still, it’s pretty much forgotten today. But it’s got a crack story: Ray (Thornton), Fantasia (Cynda Williams–by the way, her and Thornton were married briefly during this time), and Pluto (Michael Beach) are three desperate criminals in Los Angeles, who rob a drug dealing family, and then slaughter them. I mean, they kill the living fuck out of these people–it’s horrible.
So they go on the lam, heading back to Fantasia’s home town of Star City, Arkansas. Well, the LAPD is aware of this, too, and head to Star City to wait. There, the local Sheriff, Dale “Hurricane” Dixon (Bill Paxton, perfectly cast) does his usual job: pulling over drunks, stopping bar fights, ending domestic disputes. He’s excited as hell that the LAPD’s in his town, and is eager to help.
This is not the usual “Big City v. Little City” cop-and-pony show: the detectives are respectful, ask for Dixon’s help, though privately they snicker. Dixon hears the snickers, but instead of puffing out his chest and being the bigger dick, he’s humbled and ashamed. The facts are plain: the LAPD are the LAPD, well trained, dealing with this kind of violence on an almost daily basis, and leagues better than our hero.
There’s a great little secret in One False Move: Dixon’s had an affair with Fantasia, and their child lives in town with her mother. When the LAPD discovers that this is Fantasia’s son (they’re still in the dark about Dixon), they set a trap, sensing she’ll come for her child.
One False Move is a tight thriller, exciting, violent, and with an honesty about race relations and small town life. If it had been made in the 50s, it’d probably be revered today.
3. Miami Blues (1990.) This is the weird one. And perhaps the most fun.
Frederick Frenger, Jr. (Alec Baldwin, who is amazing in this role) is a small-time hood. Relocating to Miami from California after a spell in the joint, the charismatic but totally psychopathic Frenger steals suitcases in the Florida airport, and when irritated by a Hare Krishna, breaks the dude’s finger, accidentally killing him from shock.
After checking into a hotel, Frenger falls hard for Susie Waggoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh, oh man was she cute), a young woman who puts herself through community college by being a prostitute. She also dreams of owning a Burger King franchise someday.
Well, they become domestic quickly, living the dream as best they can. The squalor here is totally sun-baked, everyone wearing southern Flordia’s worst color combinations, and they both seem totally winsome and totally stupid. Into this domestic scene comes Detective Hoke Mosely (Fred Ward, also great), a cop who looks as if he’s been chewed on by rats every morning. He has dinner with the couple, and hints that he knows that Frenger is his culprit. Susie doesn’t get it, but Freddie, he knows where the detective’s going.
Big mistake! Frenger breaks into the detective’s apartment and steals his gun, his badge, and the old man’s dentures. Using these (well, not the dentures), he goes on a strange binge–following small-time robbers, and robbing them of their loot… but keeping it for himself to the utter surprise of the victims who come to thank him for his heroics.
This is easily the best southern Florida crime film, which may seem like a lot of qualifiers, except that hard-boiled literature is full of books in this locale, from John D. MacDonald to Carl Hiassen today to Charles Willeford, who wrote the book Miami Blues was based upon.
This one’s unique, though, because of the cute love story at its heart, its shocking violence, and its rich characters. But like all the movies here, this one baffles, too, as its director, George Armitage, went on to do only two more films, one of which is the overpraised Grosse Pointe Blank, and some shit called The Big Bounce. Then, nothing. So enjoy this one.
2. After Dark, My Sweet (1990.) I remember the spring of 1990, seeing Miami Blues at some crappy mall theater (it was in wide release) and After Dark, My Sweet, a near art house flick, at the Odeon, a little microcinema in East Lansing, MI. After Dark, My Sweet is amazing. Directed by James Foley, who has a reputation as a half-decent director (At Close Range, Glengarry Glen Ross on the one side of the coin, everything else he’s done on the other) and based on a novel by Jim Thompson, this is one hell of a twisted noir. Much was made of The Grifters, a Thompson adaptation from that year (that was nominated for a slew of Oscars), but this is the one that captures his crazy work better than any other.
One of Thompson’s hallmarks was the insane protagonist. Most crime thrillers just have people who want money, or are bent because they love violence, etc. But you understand their motives. Thompson’s crazies have slippery motives that they themselves probably don’t quite understand. That makes everything totally unpredictable and unnerving.
So it is in After Dark, My Sweet. After seeing this, I was certain Jason Patric was bound for stardom, as this is literally one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen–it haunts me to this day. He plays “Kid” Collins, an ex-boxer, newly released from a mental asylum. Look at him: hunched, walking as if he’s expecting a right blow (from either a boxing glove or whatever it is they whacked him with in the asylum), his gaze always averted, Collins is at once tough, violent, scared, and lonely.
The poor guy ends up in the clutches of femme fatale Fay, and her pal, “Uncle” Bud, played by Rachel Ward and Bruce Dern. Perfect casting abounds! Ward was beautiful, but looks worse for wear, as if she’s lived a hard life. Dern just looks seedy and half-stupid himself–as if he could kill your or accidentally blow his own brains out trying.
Of course, Kid Collins is being set-up. Of course, Fay has some feelings for the Kid. Of course, it all goes awry, people get killed, and the sheer joy is watching it all unfold in the most run-down Southern California ranch home imaginable.
After Dark, My Sweet is unlike the prior films in that it’s a true masterpiece, an almost perfect movie, a classic noir and one of my favorites of all-time.
1. 13 Tzameti (2005.) I’ll never forget seeing 13 Tzameti, on a wet December evening back in ’05. I saw the trailer (below) and was blown away–that is literally one of the finest made trailers ever, man. The movie came to Minneapolis at the Lagoon Theater, a six screen multiplex, and it showed once every day, at 10:00, in the smallest one. It was there only a week, and I was the only one at that Wednesday’s show.
13 Tzameti lived up to the trailer. The tension begins almost immediately. Sébastien (George Babluani, brother of director Géla), a Georgian immigrant barely eking out a living in France as a housepainter. After a long job, his employer, a drug addict, dies, and his widow can’t pay the kid. So he steals an envelope containing instructions on a job that will pay big money.
The gig? Well, you can see from the trailer, so it’s no spoiler: he’s to be #13 in a round-robin game of Russian roulette to be played for the entertainment of some wealthy French. And the winner takes a prize of nearly a million Euro which will haul his beaten family out of crushing poverty.
Christ, if 13 Tzameti isn’t a noir for the Occupy Wall Street movement, I don’t know what is. Shot in beautiful black-and-white, this picture is perfectly tense and dour, and it is not anywhere near as violent as you’d expect a Russian roulette movie to be (in fact, it’s the least violent of all the movies in this piece.)
Unfortunately, the director has gone on to virtually nothing, including a remake, simply called 13 (well, the original is that, too–‘tzameit’ means ’13’ in Georgian) with a big cast. In fact, it was finished a couple of years ago and has been languishing forever because the studio doesn’t know what to do with it. Maybe Bebaluni will never make another film.
That’s OK, because 13 Tzameti is enough. It’s tough, stylish, beautiful, and in glorious black and white and, more today than in 2005, it speaks to this economic malaise better than most films directly on the subject. If that’s not noir, what is?
God, I could watch this trailer a hundred times. I may have, in fact. Enjoy it.