While neo noir movies aren’t exactly the same as those labeled film noir, they do have much in common. The grim storylines, doomed characters, and frequent use of shadows are still present, but neo-noir movies recognize modern technology and themes. For example, you’re not going to see films made in the ‘40s or ‘50s commonly dealing with technology issues or a crisis of identity. These, however, are common themes of the neo noir. The violence is also bloodier, and naked breasts frequently accompany the big screen adventures of tough-guy detectives and sultry ladies in peril.
Translating directly into “new black,” neo noir movies borrow heavily from their film noir counterparts, and some would argue that any modern-day motion picture with elements of noir would qualify for this category. The movement has been recognized as beginning in the 1970s, and the style has become increasingly popular over the decades. The following dozen films are my favorite examples of neo-noir, and I urge you to see each and every one.
- Brick (2005) – Rian Johnson exploded onto the scene by writing and directing this superb neo-noir that owes a great deal of credit to the works of Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man). Set in an unnamed California high school, the plot follows social outsider Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he attempts to solve the murder of his one-time girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin). But in order to do so, he’ll have to deal with everything from the popular kids to a youthful crime boss (Lukas Haas) who still lives with his mom. A masterful take on the hardboiled detective story, it’s a must-see for fans of crime movies thanks to a star turn from Gordon-Levitt.
- Blood Simple (1984) – Joel and Ethan Coen made their directorial debut with this tale of jealousy and murder, and cinematography was provided by future director Barry Sonnenfeld. Abby (Frances McDormand) and Ray (John Getz) are in love, but there’s just one problem: Abby’s violent-tempered husband, Marty (Dan Hedaya). Once he has proof of their infidelity, Marty hires a slimy private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) to murder them, but things quickly spiral out of control thanks to greed and suspicion. Walsh excels as a creepy slimebag, the camerawork is fresh and inventive, and the script will keep you guessing right up until the final shot.
- The Last Seduction (1994) – Linda Fiorentino exhibits both sex appeal and animal cunning as Bridget Gregory, a femme fatale who steals $700,000 from her lowlife husband (Bill Pullman) and then seeks refuge in a small Illinois town. There, she begins an affair with a naïve insurance agent (Peter Berg) and schemes on how not to get caught by her revenge-minded spouse. Fiorentino gives one of the most sly and smoldering performances ever captured on-screen, and it’s a shame that she wasn’t eligible for an Oscar nomination (the film aired on HBO before hitting theatres).
- Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005) – Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout) wrote and directed this motion picture that deftly mixes crime and comedy. Robert Downey Jr. is delightfully flippant as Harry Lockhart, a small-time thief who wanders into the middle of a movie audition and finds himself being flown to L.A. Paired with gay private eye Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), Harry is supposed to watch and learn in preparation for his role. Instead, he romances a childhood crush (Michelle Monaghan), gets caught up in a plot involving kidnapping and murder, and initiates perhaps the most ill-conceived game of Russian Roulette ever played. The dialogue drips with wit and sarcasm, and Downey and Kilmer are at the top of their game throughout.
- The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) – Based on the novel and the 1946 film adaptation, this version was directed by Bob Rafelson and penned by David Mamet. Jack Nicholson stars as Frank Chambers, a drifter who wanders into a California diner, gets a job there, and begins an affair with Cora (Jessica Lange), the beautiful young woman whose older husband (John Colicos) owns the place. As you might expect from a neo-noir, they soon plot to kill Cora’s husband. The kitchen table sex scene is still remarkably erotic, and co-stars include Michael Lerner, Anjelica Huston, and MMA star Chuck Liddell (who plays a boy scout).
- Body Heat (1981) – You’d be hard-pressed to find a steamier example of neo-noir, all thanks to star Kathleen Turner’s smoky voice and beautiful body. She plays Matty Walker, the conniving wife of a wealthy businessman (Richard Crenna) who begins an affair with a seedy attorney named Ned Racine (William Hurt). Thanks to a prenuptial agreement, Matty will be left with almost nothing in a divorce, so the sinful pair hatch a scheme to kill her husband and flee together. But that’s just part of the plot, as Racine comes to suspect that there’s a double-cross in the works. Mickey Rourke co-stars in an early role as an arsonist, and the sex scenes between Turner and Hurt will fuel your erotic dreams for weeks to come.
- L.A. Confidential (1997) – Based on the crime novel by James Ellroy, the film is set in L.A. during the 1950s and focuses on three police officers: the brutal Bud White (Russell Crowe), the smooth Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), and the ambitious Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce). When a massacre goes down at a coffee shop and leaves a former cop dead, the three men pursue justice in their own ways. This leads them to corrupt politicians, seedy journalists, pimps, pushers, and hookers cut to look like famous celebrities. Boasting an intelligent script, numerous twists and turns, and an Oscar-winning performance from Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential is a neo-noir that easily bridges the gap between the 1940s and the 1990s. Also starring James Cromwell, Danny DeVito, David Strathairn, and Simon Baker.
- Bound (1996) – If you’re a lesbian (or would like to be one for a day), then be sure to check out this steamy neo-noir crime thriller from the Wachowski brothers. Corky (Gina Gershon) has just completed a five-year stint in prison, and now she’s landed a maintenance job at an apartment building. That’s where she meets Violet (Jennifer Tilly), a bi-sexual bombshell who lives with a short-tempered thug (Joe Pantoliano) who launders money for the Mafia. After beginning a passionate affair, the sapphic duo hatch a plan to steal the money, frame Violet’s boyfriend, and start a new life together. But nothing is as simple as it sounds.
- Fargo (1996) – Nominated for seven Academy Awards, Fargo is the movie that transformed the Coen brothers from quirky filmmakers into perpetual critical darlings. Set in Minneapolis during the late ‘80s, the film begins with a seedy car salesman (William H. Macy) hiring a couple of crooks (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife. His plan is simple: get his rich father-in-law (Harve Presnell) to pay the ransom, and then keep most of the money for himself. But things go fatally off the rails, and a pregnant police chief (Oscar winner Frances McDormand) is soon on the case. Off-kilter characters abound, and the Coens excel at blending dark humor with moments of graphic violence. Film critic Roger Ebert went so far as to state, “Films like Fargo are why I love the movies.”
- After Dark, My Sweet (1990) – Based on the 1955 Jim Thompson novel, After Dark, My Sweet revolves around a brain-damaged ex-boxer (Jason Patric) who escapes from a mental institution, falls in with a sexy widow (Rachel Ward), and helps carry out a kidnapping. Filled with the wretched and the doomed, it’s a powerful, compact tale that would be right at home in the 1950s (if not for the sex and violence). Bruce Dern co-stars in a memorable role as the treacherous and ultra-sleazy “Uncle Bud.”
- Sin City (2005) – You can almost feel the grit and smell the smoke in this visually distinctive film from director Robert Rodriguez. Taking his material from the works of comic book legend Frank Miller, Rodriguez interweaves five stories to create a portrait of death, hope, love, and redemption in the digital backlot known as Sin City. “The Hard Goodbye” is a standout, with Mickey Rourke playing a massive bruiser trying to avenge the death of his prostitute lover (Jaime King). Along the way, he’ll get some assistance from his lesbian parole officer (an off-the-charts Carla Gugino), and have to butt heads with an unnaturally quick cannibal (Elijah Wood). Other tales in this crime anthology star Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Benicio del Toro, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Brittany Murphy, Josh Hartnett, and Powers Boothe.
- Memento (2000) – Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Memento stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a man whose amnesia-riddled brain refuses to store any new information. So he takes pictures–lots of pictures–not to mention tattooing key bits of information onto his body. This is all so he can avenge the rape and murder of his wife (Jorja Fox), and the audience is kept in suspense until the very end thanks to key segments being presented in reverse chronological order. A dazzling film brimming with violence, confusion, and regret, Memento is a thinking man’s neo-noir. Co-starring Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano.
If you enjoy tales of murder, deception, and lust, then be sure to take a look at one or more of these neo noir movies. They’re just as good as anything turned out in the ‘40s or ‘50s, especially with the addition of squibs and naked breasts. And even when nudity isn’t present, it’s hard to beat actresses like Kim Basinger, Frances McDormand, and Carrie-Anne Moss.