As the sun sets earlier and the days get darker, the films we talk about do as well. The Cinema Etc. staff discusses some of our favorite noirs:
The Third Man (1949)
One of my favorites since the first time I saw it, The Third Man solidified its spot at the very top of my all-time lists when I made the trip to Vienna earlier this year and saw it in a cinema before going to a museum dedicated entirely to the film and walking around the city to find all the locations that had been featured. Though the city has been rebuilt, the shadow of the post-war days remains and buildings have scorch marks and alleyways have sunken portions of ground. The film is, in my opinion, the greatest entry into the noir genre and the darkness that permeates is deliciously foreboding, owing in no small part to the war torn streets on which it was filmed and the huge contrasts between light and dark.
While every aspect of the film is excellently executed to provide a tense and thoughtful picture of a world still at war with itself even after peace had been declared, what stands out most and brings the whole film together is Orson Welles’ performance as Harry Lime. Though Welles directed, starred in, and penned a handful of masterpieces and had just a supporting role in The Third Man, I think his role here is among his greatest contributions to cinema. Harry Lime may be profiting off of death but his manner is so charmingly impish that his explanations almost become convincing. Beyond just his performance, Welles brought a bit of his writing talent to the film and added one bit of dialogue, the cuckoo clock speech, that wasn’t in the initial screenplay but elevated the entire film to masterpiece status in a single scene. – Henry Baime
Though Double Indemnity is my favorite noir film, in an effort to avoid an obvious (though stellar) choice, I’m going with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s woefully underseen 1997 psychological horror/thriller Cure. The plot is noir-adjacent: a detective investigates a series of similar murders committed by different perpetrators who have each apparently lost their memory, unable to recall what they had done or why. He discovers that these seemingly unmotivated crimes are connected by a sinister underlying force, which slowly begins to eat away at his psyche. I won’t reveal the direction it takes, but what initially seems like a more traditional mystery eventually unfolds into something far more cerebral and chilling.
Even apart from the detective story premise, the film is bathed in the cynicism, intrigue, and gloom inherent to film noir. The narrative’s supernatural undertone is grounded by the stark and subdued filmmaking, giving it a gritty, borderline nihilistic atmosphere. The horror is entirely psychological – there are no cheap jump scares – but the sense of creeping dread builds continuously until the ending, which is one of the best final shots I’ve ever seen. Borrowing from film noir, horror, and police procedurals, while remaining distinctly unclassifiable, Cure is a hypnotic, unnerving, and thought-provoking film that’s often overlooked but not easily forgotten. – Kern Wheeling
Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction film carries several visual and thematic characteristics of film noir. The sweeping landscape shots of futuristic Los Angeles carry a similar atmosphere to establishing shots of seedy underbellies in dimly lit cities. The film uses a lot of conventions of the noir genre in its story as well. Deckard, the detective brought in to take on a case where he ends up in over his head. Rachael, the mystery woman who serves as a point of interest for Deckard. Binge drinking, chain smoking, it’s all here to create the aesthetics and mood of classic noir.
Both sci-fi and noir allow for explorations of right and wrong and the nature of man, and Blade Runner presents them both with the character Roy Batty. Harrison Ford might play the lead, but Rutger Hauer steals the show as the charismatic yet desperate Batty. Noir frequently concerns itself with the murky morality of its characters, and the fact that the villain of the film also receives its most emotional moment after serving as a brutal antagonist is a testament to how much Batty truly embodies the spirit of the film. Blade Runner certainly stands the test of time as a neo-noir classic. – Jen
U Turn (1997)
noir (/ˈnwɑː/): a genre of crime film or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity. See also: (French) black
Few films embrace both the definition and translation of the word ‘noir’ as enthusiastically as Oliver Stone’s 1997 film U Turn. Stone applies the same frenetic energy that fuelled his magnum opus, Natural Born Killers, to a smaller scale, darkly comic narrative that sees Sean Penn’s down-on-his-luck gambler stranded, at the mercy of the locals, in a hodunk desert town. It is remarkable how unapologetically pessimistic this film is – a gnarled and nasty piece of work with pitch-black sense of humour that takes endless pleasure in the misfortune of its fatally flawed protagonist. Robert Richardson’s cinematography combines with a vintage Morricone score to amplify an atmosphere already dripping with inherent desperation, the futility of it all becoming more and more palpable as consequences are excruciatingly escalated. U Turn takes classic noir tropes and pushes them beyond breaking point until they’re as twisted and perverted as the characters that populate it. If the genre appeals to you, make sure it’s on your watchlist this Noirvember. – Chris Barnes
For as precious a concept as “a hard-boiled noir with high schoolers” is, Rian Johnson’s Brick treats both halves of his premise with so much love and respect that it becomes nigh-impossible to look at it with the cynicism and condescension that the movie is constantly running from. A sun-baked, washed-out view of southern California that immediately contrasts with film noir’s more common conventions of harsh shadows and hazy backroom deals, Brick’s greatest strength comes in its humor. Instead of laughing at kids acting grown-up with murders and drug dealing, it laughs at the absurdity of the genre, and that anyone would be in this place, no matter their age. But even in such absurdity, the film never loses sight of the gravity of the situation and places the audience right alongside the lonely, underestimated Brendan at the center of a situation he had no business being in.
Brick is a tightly designed puzzle box of backstabs and betrayals, where every answer begets ten more questions that hang in the air until the film’s final few revelations. Birthed both from empathy and film history, it’s still Johnson’s best film, and one of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s defining performances, deftly balancing the line between a scared kid and a bona fide gumshoe that commands the screen. When looking over the Sundance boom of the 2000s, as well as surveying the relatively bare selections of proper noir films to come out in the past few decades, Brick manages to rise to the top on both accounts. – Davey Peppers
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)
“Carlotta was the kind of town where they spell trouble T-R-U-B-I-L, and if you try to correct them, they kill you”.
Since this month’s theme is Noirvember, I decided to shed some light on a very comically innovative, underappreciated film called, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (dir. Carl Reiner). To those who have had the pleasure of laughing out loud alongside one of Steve Martin‘s best roles, good on you. To the rest of you, particularly fellow fans of the hard-boiled P.I. stereotype in noir, you’re gravely missing out on one of the genre’s best love letters. If my word hasn’t gained your trust yet, allow the stellar cast to speak for itself: Steve Martin and Rachel Ward lead a hilarious investigation into the murder of a prominent cheese scientist, alongside the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster, Ingrid Bergman, Veronica Lake, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, and many more. You may be asking how this is all possible?
Well, Carl Reiner’s satirical collage of noir films, weaves a very base level senseless plot, by splicing Steve Martin into various classic 40s films scenes, opposite the aforementioned black and white icons. You’ll be treated to Martin’s detective “Rigby Reardon” educating Bogart on the etiquette of wearing a tie, making Lancaster a strong cup of java, shaving his tongue while Notorious’ Ingrid Bergman gets dressed, or even seducing Double Indemnity’s Fred MacMurray in drag. It’s a pastiche of all the noir stereotypes, and quite an artistic if not maybe tad bit opportunistic “because we can” end product that is guaranteed to make you laugh. In a contemporary time where executives find it acceptable to bring back actors from the dead through CGI, I find it interesting to look back at Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Rather than de-age or revive those from their slumber, the film injects Steve Martin, fresh off The Jerk, seamlessly back into the 40s, “ya see.” – Lee
Staff Selects ava gardner barabara stanwyck bette davis blade runner brick burt lancaster carl reiner cary grant cure double indemnity ennio morricone film noir fred macmurray humphrey bogart ingrid bergman joseph gordon-levitt kiyoshi kurosawa natural born killers noirvember notorious oliver stone orson welles rachel ward rian johnson ridley scott robert richardson rutger hauer Staff Selects steve martin the jerk the third man u turn veronica lake