Stark cinematography, a stifling atmosphere of corruption and murder most foul: film noir is one of the most iconic genres of film to emerge in the history of cinema. Its enduring images of shady criminals in shadowy rooms has influenced countless films since its heyday in the 1940s, but none more so than the plethora of ‘neo-noir’ films that reinvented the elements of the classic noir into contemporary tales shaped with modern moviemaking techniques.
The Grifters has long been regarded as one of the very best neo-noir films to emerge from this re-fashioned genre of crime film. Directed by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons) and produced by Martin Scorsese, The Grifters is a taut thriller in which seduction and betrayal could lead to murder. When small-time cheat Roy Dillon (John Cusack) winds up in hospital following an unsuccessful scam, it sets up a confrontation between his estranged mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) and alluring girlfriend Myra (Annette Benning). Both Lilly and Myra are con artists playing the game in a league far above Roy, and always looking for their next victim. As Roy finds himself caught in a complicated web of passion and mistrust, the question is: who’s conning who?
To celebrate the new special edition Blu-ray release of The Grifters from 101 Films ‘Black Label’ on 21 May, we’re looking back at six more of the very best neo-noir films.
Point Blank (1967)
Directed by John Boorman (Deliverance) Point Blank tells the story of Mal Reese (John Vernon), a man who get’s in over his head with heavy debts to a host of shady criminals. In order to get the cash to pay his due, he stages a robbery, double-crossing his partner in crime in the process. But, everything is not as it appears to be as Reese is drawn into an inescapable criminal underworld. Coming only 10 years after the film noirs of the late 1950s, Point Blank combines the classic noir crime story with the style of the 1960s French New Wave, and although not initially successful at the box office, it is now widely regarded as one of the great post-war crime thrillers.
Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning one for Best Original Screenplay, and is a mainstay on ‘critics best films of all time’ lists. Strongly channeling Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, Jack Nicholson plays a private detective who finds himself entangled in a web of corruption and murder in 1930s dustbowl LA. Of the film, the late critic Roger Ebert wrote, ‘Chinatown was seen as a neo-noir when it was released – an update on an old genre. Now years have passed and film history blurs a little, and it seems to settle easily beside the original noirs. That is a compliment.’
Blade Runner (1982)
Perhaps the most famous neo-noir, Blade Runner took the bleakness and moral complexity of the classic noirs and updated these themes into a neon-lit dystopian sci-fi tale. It’s based on Philip K. Dick’s famous novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and is set in a futuristic world where artificial humans called replicants are bio-engineered en masse to work in labour colonies. It stars Harrison Ford in one of his most enigmatic performances, a role that was reprised in Denis Villeneuve’s visionary sequel Blade Runner 2049, released in 2017 (just two years before the original film was set!).
LA Confidential (1997)
Set in the 1950s, LA Confidential tells a story that interweaves police corruption and Los Angeles celebrity. With fedoras and bad cops aplenty, it bears a striking resemblance to the classic noirs it is influenced by. In fact, director Curtis Hanson even held a mini film festival of classic Hollywood cinema to get his cast on board with the kind of movies he wanted to celebrate. In the line-up was Nicholas Ray’s ultra-bleak In A Lonely Place starring film noir stalwart Humphrey Bogart, which Hanson showed as it portrayed the uglier side of Hollywood celebrity.
Infernal Affairs (2002)
Although film noirs were primarily made in America and Europe, the genre has inspired films across the world. One of the very best of these is Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Hong Kong crime thriller, Infernal Affairs. Incorporating the classic noir theme of police corruption, the film tells the story of an undercover officer on the tale of the triads and another officer who has become part of the criminal gang. It picked up seven out of 16 awards at the Hong Kong film awards when it was released, and has since been remade by Martin Scorsese into The Departed, starring none other than Chinatown’s Jack Nicholson.
Sin City (2005)
Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s visionary neo-noir tells an ingenious interconnecting story, borrowing from three instalments of Miller’s original graphic novel series of the same name: The Big Fat Kill,The Hard Goodbye and That Yellow Bastard. It was one of the first films to be shot primarily on a digital backlot; photography took place entirely on a green screen stage with the artificial environment added later. Sin City took the film noir headfirst into the 21st century with this innovative approach to filmmaking, but very much kept the grizzled and hardboiled attitude of the genre fully intact.