The 15 Best Neo-Noir Films
Since its beginning with The Maltese Falcon in 1941, the genre of film noir has been the quintessential American film style. It is recognizable around the world and features actors that went on to be stars and a wave of directors that became the best of their time. It has retained its popularity and relevance and with just a few films made over a 17-year-period, film noir still inspires cinema today.
The end of the “classic period” is considered to be Orson Welles’ 1958 Touch of Evil, and Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss released in 1964 is considered by most to be the last film noir. There were a few attempts at noir in the 1960s and 1970s, but the genre’s real resurgence didn’t start until the 1980s.
The term “film noir” was coined in 1946 by French film critic Nino Frank and was further defined in 1955 by French writers Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in their book A Panorama of American Film Noir. While the films of the classic period were not produced consciously as noir, at least up until 1955, they all had thematic and visual similarities which identify what eventually became known as noir. The stories were influenced by the hard-boiled detective novels of Chandler, Hammett, Cain, and others and the striking visuals were heavily influenced by cinematographers and directors who came to the States from Germany before and during World War II. Most of the films were made inexpensively on studio sets and back lots, many as “B” movies. The location shooting done in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York have made them the quintessential noir cities.
While neo-noirs are very conscious of being noir, the films do look different than the classics; the trademark black and white photography with its dark lighting is gone, as are the rain slicked city streets and the fedora and trench coat. But the psychological depth of the movies with its disorientation, anxiety, desperation, obsession, cynicism, and alienation remains. The end result is a protagonist that is an anti-hero, a dangerous woman, bad guys, and the queasy side of life and love. The stories still have the underlying element of crime with the femme fatale being updated as the post-feminist woman who has all of the sexuality and deviousness of the 1940s and 1950s femmes, but the neo-noir femme relies on her intelligence more. The noir protagonist might be a little smarter, but he still gets outsmarted by fate – the fate he chose. Technically, most of the films look great and the writing and directing, free from the industry morality codes of the classic era, produce films that are more violent and overtly sexual.
No remakes make the list of neo-noirs found below. Four period films do. I tried to include only those that had a classic noir structure with a protagonist, a femme fatale influenced by her bad guy husband/boyfriend, and a narrative and feel about it that could definitely be considered noir. All were produced in the US after 1964.
There are well over a hundred neo-noirs to choose from. Films not making this list, but also very good and worth watching are: The Black Dahlia, Basic Instinct, Blue Velvet, Bound, Dark City, Femme Fatale, Lost Highway, The Hot Spot, Klute, Miller’s Crossing, Sin City, and Taxi Driver.
15. After Dark, My Sweet
From the novel by Jim Thompson, the hopelessness of the noir protagonist is portrayed in a punch drunk ex-prizefighter named Collie. When femme fatale Fay picks him up in a bar, patting the front seat of her car saying, “Come on now, there’s a good boy,” you can feel Collie surrendering to his fate. And after he agrees to take part in a poorly planned kidnapping scheme, it’s only a question of how he’s going down.
There is a lot of the Terry Malloy “I could’ve been a contender, I could’ve been somebody” in Collie, but Collie lacks Terry’s moral compass. He thinks he’s smarter than he is and his obsession with Fay makes him even less so. The remorse he feels only makes his fate more certain. It all ends about as badly as it could.
14. The Grifters
The opening scene is done as a triptych that follows our three central characters as they all run their con games on the unsuspecting. They are very different con artists whose fates will intertwine. Roy is a short-con hustler, Myra is a former big-time grifter who has been reduced to turning tricks to make ends meet, and Lily is an employee of an East Coast bookie whose job it is to bet down the odds at racetracks.
Each has his or her own desperation and sees the other as a way to make the big score, but none of them are capable of trust or forming partnerships. Myra and Lily both want a piece of Roy who wants nothing to do with either of them. A three-way power play ensues that gets grimmer with every turn, climaxing in a violent ending that is very noir.
13. The Two Jakes
The sequel to Chinatown was pretty much panned by critics and fans alike, but has proven over time to be a great film in its own right. Ten years after the events that ended so badly in Chinatown, private detective Jake Gittes stumbles onto a case that takes him back to some of the skeletons in his closet. A scandal that is reminiscent of what happened ten years earlier, this time with real estate and oilfields, is at its center.
While many post WWII noir protagonists are haunted by the war, Jake is haunted by a different past: the part he played in the death of Evelyn Mulwray and his inability to save Evelyn’s daughter, Katherine. And while there is some redemption in this story it is of little value to him. In the last scene, Jake pretty much sums up the critical sentiment of the noir protagonist: “The past never goes away.”
12. The Long Goodbye
From the book by Raymond Chandler, this updated interpretation of Phillip Marlowe is a tad on the irreverent side. Gone is the 1940s voice-over replaced by a mumbling Marlowe (you will need those subtitles) who talks to himself as he makes his way through 1970s Los Angeles. This Marlowe is an idealistic dreamer who refuses to give into cynicism despite the corruption he sees around him.
This film is quirky – he lights a cigarette in every scene, keeps a cat in his apartment and has very interesting neighbors – with some bizarre dialogue and a nicely complicated plot. Marlowe looks for the truth when his friend is accused of killing his wife and when a woman’s husband disappears. If it wasn’t obvious up until now, the ending very quickly makes the point that this version of one of the great classic noir detectives is very different than the 1940s version.
11. Devil in a Blue Dress
Returning WWII vet Easy Rawlins loses his job and is faced with the prospect of losing his house. A friend introduces Easy to trouble in the form of a shady character who offers him a chance to make some easy money. All he has to do is track down a politician’s wayward mistress who likes to hang out in black jazz clubs.
Easy Rawlins is the classic noir protagonist: a good, but morally ambivalent man who abandons his better judgment for something he knows is wrong. This film has a great 1940s mood along with bad cops, crooked politicians, a femme fatale and a psychopathic killer you can’t help but like. It also has something that classic noir rarely touched on: racism in post-WWII America.
Leonard has one purpose in life – find the man who murdered his wife. However the trauma of seeing his wife’s death results in a form of amnesia that prevents him from retaining new memories that last for more than a few minutes. So he leaves himself clues. All kinds of clues.
Leonard’s loss of control and inability to discover the truth is all part of the life of the noir protagonist. What makes this film great is in the way the narrative unfolds: the story is told backwards with time loops that create a confusion for the viewer that parallels Leonard’s. Leonard is doomed to living for vengeance that is unobtainable; even if he succeeded he wouldn’t remember it. But he will always have his last memory and with it his strongest emotion: the grief over the loss of his wife.
9. Mulholland Drive
This film has two stories unfolding at once; one real, one a dream. Struggling actress Diane Seldwyn creates an alternate existence to fix what is wrong in her life. Jealousy has destroyed Diane and eventually causes her to hire a hitman to kill her lover Carmilla. Her alternate reality as starlet Betty is the reconstruction of her life and her relationship with Carmilla, who becomes reincarnated in Diane’s mind as Rita. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is.
Diane’s confused, schizophrenic life plays out in an extraordinary story that has mystery, suspense, and bizarre, unexplained plot points. Diane has created in her mind her own Hollywood movie and her own noir existence of alienation, loss, guilt, and revenge.
8. Blood Simple
This film was produced with a budget of $1.5M, a first time writer and director, and a first time actor in the female lead. A love triangle with a woman in the middle who isn’t trusted by either man leads to a complex plot full of jealousy, paranoia, fear, suspicion, double crosses, murder and remorse, all set in a hole in the wall town in Texas.
It’s hard to say which of the two guys is getting screwed the most. The non-classic femme fatale is just a little bit smarter than the rest of the characters who really aren’t very smart. As the story unfolds each character in turn goes from being the most sympathetic character to the least likable. There are a lot of twists and turns in this one which may be what the memorable last shot is all about – literally.
7. Red Rock West
A small town California noir that has all the elements of a classic era story: a femme fatale married to a bad guy who also happens to be a dirty cop, a good guy/anti-hero who drifts into town and, as fate would have it, gets sucked into his own personal noir hell by a case of mistaken identity. There is also yet another psychopathic hitman from Texas who makes town to carry out a contract.
Suzanne is one of the great neo-femmes and even looks like a skinny Ava Gardner. The wheels are spinning in her head all the time and she has her accomplice in the completely morally compromised Michael whose wheels are spinning in something other than his brain. He seems like a nice enough guy, but is willing to play by Suzanne’s rules. Red Rock West got instant noir credibility by being a “B” movie that went direct to video before becoming an art house favorite.
6. The Last Seduction
Bridget Gregory is the perfect example of the neo-noir femme fatale. She knows how to use her sexuality but also knows that she will need her brain even more. She’s aggressive and plays by her own rules, which are made up as she goes. Bridget leaves New York and her bad guy husband, Clay, with $100,000 of money from their drug dealing enterprise. Clay hires some muscle to find her and the money. To throw Clay off of the trail, Bridget stops in a small town in Western New York where she meets her soon to be obsessed and totally doomed noir sap. Local boy Mike is not too smart and Bridget can work with that. Her goal: kill her husband and get away with the money.
Mike is way out of his league and Bridget maneuvers him into the plot by telling him he has to prove his commitment to her by doing this one little thing for her. The poor guy sees how bad she is but it doesn’t matter, he’ll do anything for her and is willing to overlook her faults. She puts her cigarette out in the pie that grandma had baked for him, but he no longer cares.
5. Point Blank
This movie brought noir into the modern world. Filmed in beautiful muted color, Los Angeles is all reflective glass and steel and gangsters are businessmen in grey suits who hang out with accountants. Walker, his wife Lynn and his partner Reese, intercept a mob money drop on abandon Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. After the robbery, Walker is betrayed by the two, shot and left for dead. Walker survives and lives for only one purpose: revenge. He wants them both dead and he wants his money back.
Time and space are a little out of sync as the film features flashbacks and jumps that confuse reality as well as Walker’s state of existence. We don’t know if Walker is living the events or dreaming them – both of his past life and his quest for revenge. He’s the lone wolf, a man that wants no allies; his separation from all that is around him creates an alienation that is complete and, for Walker, without ending.
4. Body Heat
It’s a hot summer in inland Florida, 1981. The heat is sweltering and the air is so still the wind chimes don’t move. No neo-noir has done better at creating a late 1940s feel in a contemporary setting. Ceiling fans, venetian blinds, long shadows, moody jazz clubs, everyone smokes, and no one has air conditioning.
The story owes a lot to Double Indemnity: a woman with an unwanted husband and an obsessed, easily manipulated lover – this time a not so smart lawyer. Matty Walker hooks and lands Ned Racine in one night and draws him into her very well thought out plan. She manipulates Ned into murdering her husband so they can be together, all while making him think the whole thing is his idea – and that she really loves him. By the time he figures it out it’s too late. For the neo-noir femme survival, doesn’t always mean winning. In noir, sometimes the winners don’t even win.
3. Blade Runner
The opening shot from above pans down on Los Angeles in the year 2019. Processing plant towers shoot flame high into the dark sky. The tall buildings do not let what little sunlight filters through the pollution reach the canyon floor. The fog and rain are constant, falling on the overcrowded, claustrophobic streets populated by people on the fringes of society.
Det. Rick Deckard’s assignment is to “retire” four outlaw cybernetic androids that have come back to earth and are considered dangerous. Deckard starts his investigation at the bad guy Tyrell Corporation, maker of the “replicants.” There he meets the beautiful Rachel who is a different kind of femme fatale. She’s not bad but there is something bad about her: she isn’t human. She is Tyrell’s latest model, programmed with memories that make her think she’s human.
Deckard’s obsession with Rachel is immediate – she’s both beautiful and forbidden. He now has to complete his mission and somehow save Rachel. As the two are drawn to each other their fates become intertwined and Deckard realizes the ultimate existential angst: what does it mean to be human?
2. L.A. Confidential
You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys in the 1997 film that marks a return to form for noir. The sun drenched California Dream of the 1950s is exposed as a veneer that hides a sordid underbelly of crime and sleaze. Corrupt cops and politicians, high priced call girls “cut” to look like movie stars, renegade police hitmen, narcotics, blackmail, and cover-ups.
The plot couldn’t be much more complicated and the noir detective is a composition of three cops: one tough guy, one good guy (sort of), and one narcissist who is only in it for himself. Two of the guys become involved with the same call girl; one wants to use her, the other just wants her. And all of them are part of the corruption in the police department and complicit in murder. Very much a three act play and in the third act the good guys are finally separated from the bad guys. This is one of the best films of the 1990s.
One of the great period films ever made is also the first neo-noir period film. It has a perfect feel for the time, place, and sensibilities of pre-WWII America, when California was still wide open. It’s Los Angeles, 1937, and private investigator J.J. Gittes’ work brings him a mysterious client whose case is much more complex than most of his divorce surveillance work. Evelyn Mulwray is wealthy, beautiful, and a pathological liar. She hires Gittes, telling him she thinks her husband is having an affair. Gittes’ investigation to solve what is now a murder leads to her father, wealthy landowner Noah Cross, who is at the center of a plot to bring water from the L.A. reservoir to the valley, most of which he owns.
When Cross tell Gittes, “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t,” he pretty much defines what it means to be a noir detective. He also foretells future events that Gittes will never completely understand. Gittes is all around the edges of the truth and by the time he sees it, he is too late. The story ends in one of Hollywood’s bleakest and best scenes. It’s the only one that takes place in Chinatown.