Vague Visages Writers’ Room: Favorite Neo-Noir Films

In the Vague Visages Writers’ Room on Facebook, freelancers were asked to comment about their favorite neo-noir films in celebration of #Noirvember.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems), Thief (1981)

The New Hollywood period of American cinema inaugurated a fresh interest in noir. Productions from the 1970s that took noir tropes and conventions often ironized them, deconstructing the genre and style to reflect the general sense of disillusionment with institutions that accompanied their historical moment. American cinema from the 1980s maintained an interest in noir, but the neo-noirs of that decade frequently took the genre and style more seriously, updating it for the new decade, free from production code restrictions that governed violence, sex and morality. One such example is Michael Mann’s 1981 film Thief, starring James Caan as Frank, a master Chicago safecracker. Largely free of ironic distance, Thief plays it straight, but presents its central character as a conflicted, obsessive anti-hero. Mann’s filmography is rife with professional men entirely committed to their work, and Frank is no exception. The film is one of the great examples of process on screen, recalling the meticulous design of heist noir like John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). Frank’s robberies, and Mann’s visual presentation of them, are exacting in their detail. The director’s photography captures Chicago’s rain-slicked nighttime streets, and an icy blue color palette dominates much of the movie, standing in for the harsh chiaroscuro lighting that is essential to noir. Gone are the tragic, dirge-like scores of the 1940s, replaced by the soaring electronic waves of Tangerine Dream, whose synthesized notes begin the film against a crane shot descending into a Chicago back alley. The noir world of Thief is established from its opening moments, but continues to its final sequence, where a slow-motion midnight gun battle brings Frank to his moment of reckoning. The neon neo-noir of 1981 lets Frank disappear into the night, alive, but wounded and without the certainty of control over his own life that he has spent the film chasing, a winner and a loser all at the same time.

Colin Biggs (@wordsbycbiggs), Brick (2005)

The femme fatale, the gumshoe detective, the voiceover. With Brick, Rian Johnson takes the essentials of noir filmmaking and props them up inside a Southern California high school. None of this should work, but the tale of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s loner set out to solve the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), just crackles off the screen. As a first-time feature filmmaker, one wouldn’t expect Johnson to utilize such poise in putting together a dash of David Lynch suburban paranoia along with Dashiell Hammett’s sense of wit and gloom. The opening says it all: Levitt squats near the opening of a tunnel, next to a murdered woman, his hands clasped, trying to piece everything together. His brain fractures at the sight and, with the aid of cinematographer Steve Yedlin, Johnson makes the audiences take in these different details each time with Levitt. It’s a small, quiet scene, but there was no louder way to announce that Brick marked the arrival of a new auteur.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25), Le samouraï (1967)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic, Le samouraï, contains my favorite neo-noir moment. It’s when Jef Costello (Alain Delon), the hitman, walks boldly with determination in his trench coat and hat across the bridge at the train station toward the designated crime syndicate contact. Like an unstoppable train, Costello confronts the reprimand for his flawed performance head-on. This is symbolic of the unavoidable trajectory toward his doomed fate. Just as Jef dresses, walks and talks with perfection, he follows the code of honor impeccably. This culminates in his staged ritualistic suicide. He carries on his life in a setting of grey, while following a strictly black and white rulebook. What is not apparent in black and white stark contrast is whether Melville presents Costello as a hero or a troubled man looking for a place to die.

Caroline Madden (@crolinss), Angel Heart (1987)

An amalgamation of detective noir and supernatural horror peppered with a sardonic comic style and spellbinding sensuousness, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart follows Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), a wisecracking gumshoe enlisted by the mysterious and elegant Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a crooner and shell-shocked veteran named Johnny Favorite who evaded his contract with Cyphre. Angel’s odyssey into the mystical world of New Orleans voodoo and Satanism wears down his cheeky façade and plunges him into a hellish phantasmagoria, and Rourke conveys his horrifying psychological descent with a moving authenticity. One of the film’s most iconic scenes, where Angel makes love to a voodoo priestess as rain transforms into blood, best demonstrates Parker’s gumbo-like visual aesthetic. It touches on both horror and camp sensibilities, and it’s precisely this multifariousness that gives the pulp neo-noir Angel Heart its mesmeric quality.