Film Noir

Jake Gittes in Chinatown

Films noir, crime novels and detective stories all have a long history of unlikable characters that we cheer for. Bad guys doing good work. Flawed heroes who always know the right line to say and the right time to offer a lady a light. Agatha Christie this isn’t, and this week we’re getting our hands dirty by talking with Killing Them Softly director Andrew Dominik about violence and “Seduction of the Innocent” author Max Allan Collins about the history of the genre. He’ll offer the best films noir for new fans to start with, and then Geoff and I will discuss how to write unlikable characters with Chinatown in our sites. For more from us on a daily basis, follow the show (@brokenprojector), Geoff (@drgmlatulippe) and Scott (@scottmbeggs) on the Twitter. And, as always, we welcome your feedback. Download Episode #11 Directly Or subscribe Through iTunes

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The Woman in the Fifth

The basic premise of The Woman in the Fifth is that Ethan Hawke is playing an American writer who moves to Paris and strikes up a romance with a mysterious widow played by Kristin Scott Thomas. After hearing this you probably immediately get visions of the two actors sipping espressos at street side cafes, browsing for books at kiosks set up along the Seine, you know… doing Parisy-type stuff. But The Woman in the Fifth isn’t that sort of movie at all. It’s much darker, and more disturbing. How do I know? Because in the film’s new trailer there’s all sorts of spooky music and Ethan Hawke is talking in Christian Bale’s Batman voice. That’s how.

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Samuel L. Jackson finally gets to put Nick Fury aside and play a serious, well-rounded character in The Samaritan, a new film noir. The experience of watching Jackson actually act is the primary pleasure to be gleaned from David Weaver’s movie, which places the star in a narrative that’s so grim and hopeless it’s no fun at all. Experienced con artist Foley (Jackson) leaves prison after serving 25 years for the murder of his partner. He just wants to be left alone, but alas, that’s not to be. His partner’s embittered son Ethan (Luke Kirby) has orchestrated a gigantic snare aimed at forcing Foley to take part in an ambitious, risky con targeting crime kingpin/oenophile Xavier (Tom Wilkinson). Foley spends most of the movie angrily resisting Ethan’s overtures, engaging in repeated violent confrontations. But his antagonist, played with sheer smarminess by Kirby, has a big trump card: a pretty young woman named Iris (Ruth Negga) who’s carrying a big secret.

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Why Watch? The fine folks at Finite Films effectively have an open invitation to this column. So far, they’ve managed to craft a frightening horror film, a quirky romantic comedy, and with Imperfect, they’ve proven that they’ll excel no matter the genre (and no matter the constraints put on them by their fans). The constraints this time included: • A supernatural being/non-human must masquerade as a human. — Dan B. • One of the characters doesn’t speak English. — Ana • A character must say the line “Please stop shooting me.” — Dan B. • A character must say the line “I don’t know where, I don’t know when, I don’t know how, and I don’t know why. Well, I know where…” — Daniel C. • Plot must revolve around the murder of a character we never know. — MD • The main character never speaks a line of dialogue. — Freddie A. • Must be in the style of a 40′s noir. — Olivia They’ve woven those limitations into a text-book noir with a heartbeat of its own – something that captures the ugly of the world in gorgeous, impressionistic detail. Plus, it quietly slips in a few sci-fi elements that would make Ralph Meeker proud. Maybe it wouldn’t make a list of the top films noir, but hot damn if it isn’t excellent work. What will it cost? Only 23 minutes. Skip Work. You’ve got Time For More Short Films

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Editor’s Note: Max Allan Collins has written over 50 novels and 17 movie tie-in books. He’s also the author of the Road to Perdition graphic novel, off which the film was based. With his new Mickey Spillane collaboration “Lady, Go Die” in great bookstores everywhere, we thought it would be fun to ask him for his ten best films noir. In true noir fashion, we bit off more than we could handle… We have to begin with a definition of noir, which is tricky, because nobody agrees on one. The historical roots are in French film criticism, borrowing the term noir (black) from the black-covered paperbacks in publisher Gallimard’s Serie Noire, which in 1945 began reprinting American crime writers such as Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Horace McCoy, Jim Thompson, Mickey Spillane, W.R. Burnett and many others. The films the term was first applied to were low-budget American crime thrillers made during the war and not seen in France till after it. The expressionistic lighting techniques of those films had as much to do with hiding low production values as setting mood. In publishing circles, the term has come to replace “hardboiled” because it sounds hipper and not old-fashioned. I tend to look at dark themes and expressionistic cinematography when I’m making such lists, which usually means black-and-white only; but three color films are represented below, all beyond the unofficial cut-off of the first noir cycle (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955). Mystery genre expert Otto Penzler has […]

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The Best Short Films

Why Watch? More than just a compilation of movie scenes and a narrator who’s seen better, whiskey-filled days, this intriguing film noir from Fabrice Mathieu is a conceptual curiosity. It abstractly tells the story from the perspective of a Shadow who has decided to get rid of its “Wearer” – the meat doll it’s attached to – and Mathieu uses shots of shadows from other films to get the job done. At once, it functions as its own dark animal and as a movie fan’s slideshow through great works. The copyright infringement necessary is…undoubted…but the final product is something mysteriously engaging. What will it cost? Only 8 minutes. Skip Work. You’ve got Time For More Short Films

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Over Under - Large

John Huston’s 1941 detective tale The Maltese Falcon gets credit for a lot of things. Not the least of which is the launching of both Huston’s career and the career of its star, Humphrey Bogart. It also gets credit for beginning the longstanding and successful onscreen pairing of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, and heck, more often than not it’s pointed to as the beginning of the entire film noir movement of the 40s. That’s a lot of acclaim for a pretty simple mystery story about a salty detective named Sam Spade trying to find the whereabouts of a statue shaped like a bird. The late 70s and early 80s were a time when genre films were king. Not only were the titans of the industry, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, tearing up the box office with huge event franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but lots of other directors were getting in on the act as well. Joe Dante hit it big with horror/comedy Gremlins, Robert Zemeckis struck gold with sci-fi/comedy Back to the Future, and even directors like Walter Hill made their names doing exploitation stuff like The Warriors. But, despite having the schlocky grit of something like The Warriors and the goofy humor of something like Gremlins, Alex Cox’s 1984 film Repo Man remains a movie remembered only by those plugged into the pulse of cult film. It’s a trivia question, an obscure pick, and not a cherished childhood memory like all the others.

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This week, on a very special episode of Reject Radio, we speak with hardboiled crime fiction writer Max Allan Collins about writing for film and print and chat briefly with Aaron Aites, one of the producers behind a documentary about the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Plus, we use Michael McDonald as an audio pun. As usual. Download This Episode

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What great news. Considering his entire body of work (but especially L.A. Confidential), Russell Crowe signing on to a film about a private investigator delving deeper than he was hired to is a thrilling prospect. This time around, Mark Walhberg will be the private dick, and Crowe will play the Mayor of New York City who believes his wife is tickling someone else’s fancy. According to Deadline Harlem, Crowe is locked for the Allen Hughes-directed, Brian Tucker-scripted Broken City. Since he’s been working on Man of Steel and The Man With the Iron Fists, this will be the first non-metal-based movie for Crowe in a while. But more to the point, it’s great to see hard-boiled films like this being made. Of course, it’s being independently financed by Emmett/Furla Films to the tune of an estimated $60m. More and more it seems like those larger independent houses are making a mark on the landscape while the studios focus on their tentpoles. Getting Crowe for this role will certainly help put a stamp on this film. Hopefully there’s greatness here.

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With the entire original run of The Twilight Zone available to watch instantly, we’re partnering with Twitch Film to cover all most half of the show’s 156 episodes. Are you brave enough to watch them all with us? The Twilight Zone (Episode #39): “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” (airdate 10/14/60) The Plot: A two-bit criminal is giving something to chew on while he waits in broken sauna excuse for a lousy motel room. The Goods: If the previous episode was an example of some of the worst the series has to offer, this is certainly an example of the best. Instead of cliches and the expected lesson to prevail, this tale recruits Joe Mantell to play opposite himself in a shared monologue about the directions life takes you. Mantell plays Jackie Rhoades – a nervous man who’s not even a good example of a criminal. Unlike other criminal figures in the series like Rocky Valentine, Jackie is on the lower end of the spectrum both as a villain and as a human being. Full of excuses and flop sweat, Jackie is holed up in a crappy room awaiting his next job, but when gangster heavy George (William D. Gordon) tells him its time to graduate from petty robbery to murder, Jackie has the entire evening to drive himself crazy with the jail bars and a hard place he’s stuck between.

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Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die. This week’s Old Ass Movie goes line for gritty line down the Western Genre Rules and twists them all up with a one-armed stranger, a Japanese farmer, a conspiracy, and a handful of deadly secrets. It’s Noir in the desert. Director John Sturges takes all of it and works it into a sweat out in the southwest at the tail end of WWII. As a silent, enigmatic man gets off a train that never runs, everyone is in for a Bad Day at Black Rock.

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As someone who has to hit his X-Box (original) in order for its tray to open, I’m not exactly on the cutting edge of video games, but when a video game adaptation comes down the pipe that has the words “film noir” involved, I get excited. I get even more excited when David Milch – the co-creator of NYPD Blue and creator of the fantastic Deadwood is set to write the script. Heavy Rain – which could be mistaken for a Hard Rain sequel (and where is the world’s Hard Rain sequel?) – will have all the noir goodness of a serial killer who uses heavy rains to drown his victims, a father who finds out his son might be the next victim, and the coppers trying to take the bad guy down. The killer is known as The Origami Killer because leaves his victims folded up into creative displays. Just kidding. He leaves a folded piece of paper at the crime scene which is just as ominous and far less time-consuming. It sounds like something David Fincher would love directing (or has already directed). Milch’s involvement is the best part here. The world is never going to be worse off with more noir, and Milch is a talented, dark mind that doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty in the creative process. It sounds cool, but any video game adaptation always brings back the question of when the Bioshock movie is going to happen.

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Culture Warrior

One odd thing about being a child of the 80s is that you learn movie history backwards. In watching anything from Animaniacs to Pulp Fiction, I became acquainted with references and homages to classical Hollywood cinema long before I ever watched the movies referenced or the moments paid homage to. Thus, my knowledge of cinema’s past was framed through cinema’s present: I learned about old movies because of what new movies did with them. One of the most formidable moments of this backwards cinematic education occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s when major event kids’ movies became especially preoccupied with 40s film noir in movies like Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) or Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990). These movies embodied a world of double crosses, femme fatales, and cynical detectives without requiring their viewers, young or old, to have seen any of the films these genre tropes are indebted to. Thus, because of my exposure to new tweaks on an old form, conventions became familiar to me long before I could name the films from which such conventions originated. But one movie was exceptionally influential in formulating a distinct impression of film noir in my childhood imagination, and that movie was – oddly enough – Home Alone (1990).

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Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents the story of a murdered woman loved by everyone, a police detective with a silver leg, and the twists that no one saw coming.

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Criterion Files

As discussed in last week’s entry in the cannon of the Criterion Files with Carol Reed’s The Third Man for our themed month dubbed “Noirvember”, the delineation of what is considered film noir is as gray as the pictures that encompass the genre (if genre is what it’s believed to be). It’s many things yet nothing distinctive.

In many cases, the aesthetics of low-angles and dark photography dominating the image mark a common visual signature that’s distinguishable, but not always definitively ‘noir’ and not always present in film-noir. Yet, somehow, we kind of know it when we see it.

In other instances, visual style takes the backseat of the police car in a picture with literary elements of crime, corruption, betrayal and other sinful activity found quite often in the films considered undoubtedly ‘noir,’ yet their presence does not define their categorical placement amongst films like The Third Man. Yet, somehow, we sort of just know it when we feel it.

Taken in its literal context the word ‘noir’ simply means dark. Dark what? Dark anything, really; and that’s part of what makes the genre so non-distinct and occasionally contradictory. A dark film is not necessarily noir, but noir films are in one way or another dark; and some in ways that non-noir films can be.

Therefore, the only definitive fact about film-noir is that it’s an abstract concept thanks to films like Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), loosely adapted from Ed McBain’s crime novel “King’s Ransom”, and is in many ways the antithesis to what would be considered dark for nearly eighty-percent of its running time. Yet, when you see it, you feel it, and its inclusion in consideration for what is noir further expands what the genre can be, or doesn’t have to be.

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Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents the story of a rough private investigator who’s more unethical than the scum he tracks down, the mystery woman he picks up on the side of the road, and the explosive ending that had to have inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark. Plus, it’s a perfect film to check out during Noir-vember.

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Criterion Files

Film noir is a much-debated subject amongst cinephiles. It’s often argued to be a genre or an aesthetic, yet any definition designating it as either typically encounters generality and contradiction. Noir takes on many forms. It’s indefinite, but somehow you know it when you see it. In order to pursue a greater understanding of film noir, Adam and I are devoting the next four weeks to examining films noir from various directors, schools of style, and histories from around the globe. So here, an examination of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), is the inaugural entry in a month of analysis we’ve decided to call “Noir-vember.”

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Movies We Love: The Long Goodbye

Snarky, unlit-cigarette-gritting Private Detective Philip Marlowe is visited late one night by an old buddy, Terry Lennox, who asks Marlowe, without explanation, to drive him to Tijiuana.

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Trained assassin Columbus deals with a beautiful Italian woman, his usual case load of targets and the new sensation of having a price put on his head by a powerful unknown source who wants him dead.

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In case you were wondering where all those spy film elements come from, it’s this film – the Grandfather of Modern Spy Thrillers. James Bond owes Fritz Lang his life.

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