6 Forgotten Gems Of The Early Nineties Neo-Noir Renaissance
There are iconic eras in cinema: the Golden Age of Hollywood; the auteur-led New Hollywood of the seventies; Miramax and the nineties indie boom. These are the narrative tentpoles of the medium, the ones upon which we hang our reference points and around which we orientate our discussions.
But the great thing about cinema is that it also throws up funny little mini-eras — brief pockets of commonality that occasionally bubble up to the surface. Not your Dogme 95’s or anything quite so formal and codified; just strange glitches in the fabric of the industry that through either a prevailing cultural zeitgeist or a pool of certain talent — or whatever other mystical reason — create identifiable chapters. The ‘Frat Pack’ era that dominated comedies in the 2000s is an example. Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, and their slacker cohorts owned that decade, from Zoolander in 2001, and Old School, Anchorman, Wedding Crashers, through to Tropic Thunder in 2008.
One of my absolute favourite mini-eras is the brief neo-noir revival of the early-to-mid nineties. It wasn’t the first time that noir had been revived. The genre had bubbled up before, with films like Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, and Taxi Driver giving a modern, semi-ironic spin to its conventions. Noir had originally sprung from the uncertainty of the post-WWII world, when unambiguous evil had been overcome, the fight was over; and here we suddenly were, in a grey-hued world of uncertainty and moral compromise. The mid-seventies neo-noir movies were born of a similar unease: the idealism of the sixties had been cracked by Altamont and Vietnam and then completely shattered by Watergate. Similar to the other mini-era of the time, the golden age of conspiracy thrillers (Three Days Of The Condor, The Conversation, The Parallax View), the neo-noir revival of the mid-seventies reflected the nation’s unease and prevailing mood of paranoid distrust.
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the early-to-mid nineties neo-noir mini-era also acted as a release valve for a growing collective anxiety. Everything on the surface seemed perfect: the Cold War was over, emergent technology was shrinking the world, and we were in the middle of a credit-driven financial bubble that felt like it would never end. But put a person in a perfect-seeming situation, and see if you can try to prevent them growing uneasy and getting suspicious.
Some of the movies that came out of this period are rightly remembered and still celebrated today: L.A. Confidential, The Usual Suspects, Bound; but this list is not about them. Instead this is about those that seemed to have been unfairly left our of the conversation. This is a completely subjective view of course, as you and your specific noir-loving friends may namedrop these movies all the time, but your smartarse friends aren’t the ones at whom this list is directed.
Some of the movies actually came out in the late nineties, but that’s the thing about cinema mini-eras: they don’t always remain rigidly inside the labeled lines ascribed to them.
For full effect, listen to this while you read:
One False Move (1992) by Carl Franklin
Written by Tom Epperson and Billy Bob Thornton (who also stars) One False Move really is quite a remarkable movie. A trio of criminals flee after performing a violent drug rip-off in L.A. and the road leads them to a small town in Arkansas; two detectives from the big city pursue, and one local policeman has a crucial part to play. But it’s the way things unfold, and the way the three criminals at the centre of it behave and influence the unfolding that really sets this apart. It’s natural, it makes sense, and it’s a tragedy.
The scenes that don’t take place at night have a slight red-yellow hazy sheen to them, giving an impression of perpetual dusk, which couldn’t be more appropriate for a movie of almost unbearable, continuing dread — you know from the outset that this is heading somewhere desperate and cruel; the night is coming, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. The three leads are phenomenal. Billy Bob Thornton is a slimy scumbag par excellence; Michael Beach is terrifying as an intelligent con with a capacity for quick, ruthless violence; and anchoring it all is Cynda Williams’ perfect, determined, sympathetic performance.
One criticism that could be leveled at the noir genre is that it is almost entirely a white-led world. Its creators and its leads are almost universally Caucasian. One False Move bucks this trend, with two black leads, as well as having a black director in Carl Franklin. Its genius is that among the compelling story it also has something to say about race relations, but not by battering you over the head with it and distracting you from the tale. The year of its release was the year of the L.A. riots, and this atmosphere is palpable throughout. One of the few more overt ways it addresses things is when Williams’ single mother character responds to an accusation that running away makes her look guilty by saying, ‘Looking guilty is being guilty for black people.’
Red Rock West (1993) by John Dahl
Film noir was always about the urban experience — about the people that skulk in the shadows before being part-revealed by stark, artificial light, like Harry Lime’s face in The Third Man. The nineties neo-noir revival, however, often saw as much potential in the nooks and crannies of small towns. Red Rock West, like One False Move, anchors the action in a smaller playground, but — unlike Move — it also uses the genre savvy that so many filmmakers in the nineties were employing to play with conventions and remix this palate: the noir language remains, as well as the black humour inherent in that world; but into this it pours a healthy helping of Western, and what you end up with is really quite unique.
Nicolas Cage rides into town looking for honest work, but instead gets mistaken for a hitman from Texas by the man who has sent for said hitman. He has tasked him with killing his wife. Cage, perfect in the role and playing along as best he can to keep out of trouble, gets caught between a trio of people who have shifting motives and agendas that you would usually want to keep as far away from as possible.
Fun fact: after receiving great reviews at the Toronto Film Festival, the movie was deemed as a cable and direct-to-video release by its distributors, until the owner of a San Francisco cinema arranged for a local run, where it broke records and gained a national release.
The Last Seduction (1994) by John Dahl
Similar to noir most often being a very white genre, it is often an overwhelmingly male genre. The tough, brooding hero, smoking a cigarette and drinking a whiskey is very often a man. Yes, the femme fatale is of course an essential component of the noir lexicon, but by that role’s very nature she is an adjunct. She may be a stimulating, interesting adjuct, but nonetheless, all too often her role can be simplified to: ‘dangerous love interest’, ‘plot furtherer’, or just ‘eye candy’.
Not so Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction. John Dahl’s dark, dangerous follow-up to Red Rock West (and, by the way, what a one-two punch that is!) is her movie through and through. An immoral, scheming, effective snake of a human being, Fiorentino glides through this movie determined to take what she wants, and unafraid to use whatever man she can ensnare to get her way.
Much more in your face noir than Red Rock West, The Last Seduction relishes the visual conventions of the genre as well as the moral morass found therein (and the small town setting.)
And, holy shit, what an ending!
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) by Carl Franklin
Three years after One False Move, Carl Franklin returned with another great foray into the noir world. Devil In A Blue Dress is a distinct creation from his previous work. For a start it’s not quite as perfect and devastating; for another it is a period (post-WWII) piece and it adheres closer to the noir template, even if the template is something that Denzel Washington’s Easy Rawlings would not necessarily be familiar with. Adapted from Walter Mosley’s book, it tells a ‘missing woman’ noir story, satisfyingly so, with enough twists and turns to make for a rewarding viewing. Where it truly shines is in the snapshot depiction of a particular time and place; in Washington’s inspired, easy performance; and in telling an otherwise somewhat familiar story with an outsider’s twist — both by nature of Rawlings’ specific character, as well as his skin colour in 1940’s L.A.
The Spanish Prisoner (1997) by David Mamet
This is a David Mamet film, so you know everyone in it is going to be hyper-literate, and watching everything they say very carefully. Which, incidentally, is what this excellent film wants us to do.
The Spanish Prisoner isn’t your typical noir movie, in that many of the conventions aren’t trotted out as audience cues; but where it does intersect with the genre is in its twisty plotting and its visual palette and camera work, albeit in slightly more subdued ways.
The story involves corporate espionage and the theft of an algorithm that could be worth millions. No one here is what they seem — or maybe they are, but we can’t trust that, and the movie revels in the paranoia and fear of blinking that it induces in you.
Bonus points for a brilliant Steve Martin role.
U Turn (1997) by Oliver Stone
It’s an odd one, this one. Stone put out this hallucinatory Western/noir (there’s that cocktail again) after a run of JFK, Heaven & Earth, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon, so I think he’s just having fun, without worrying too much about whether it all makes perfect sense.
But fun it is, and if you let yourself get swept up in the small-town playground of danger that Sean Penn’s drifter finds himself in, then there’s enough here to make you forget that this may just be a filmmaker using askew close-ups and Dutch angles to prop up a world that the story doesn’t entirely support. Also, Joaquin Phoenix plays a blowhard local!
Petr Knava plays music