Movie Article

Anxious? Have We Got a Genre for You

Bringing film noir into the '90s

Endless night, rain-slicked streets, cigarette smoke unfurling in a shadow world taut with uncertainty — that's the stuff film noir was made of. Named by admiring French critics — noir means black or dark — such movies of the 1940s and early '50s became a metaphor for Cold War anxiety. Today, Steven Soderbergh's The Underneath is only one of a recent spate of neo-noir films to explore post-Cold War pathologies. Mark Malone's Bulletproof Heart is classically spare, while director John Dahl plays the genre for mordant humor in Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. Are the elements of noir changing? The directors offer their views:

Do noir movies have to be literally dark?

Mark Malone: No. One of my favorite movies is Stephen Frears' The Hit (1984), which takes place in brilliant sunlight. It's noir as any, taking place in the underworld with criminals and dark dealings and double crosses.

The femme fatale, can she be too good-looking?

Steven Soderbergh: I love Kathleen Turner in Body Heat as much as the next person, but I wanted an actress who was attractive ... but didn't come across like one of these black widows.

How important are venetian blinds?

Malone: You see them in almost all of noir. It's almost a universal. They're also important in budgetary ways. There was nothing behind all the windows with blinds in Bulletproof Heart — no street scene, no larger world out there. There was no money for that.

Can a noir film have a happy ending?

John Dahl: I don't think I've ever seen a noir film with a happy ending. I've seen a lot of noir films with a satisfying ending. You know, if you got to the end of Double Indemnity and you found out that Stanwyck's husband was not really dead, that the gun MacMurray shoots Stanwyck with had a blank in it and then MacMurray's lovable boss wakes him up and it was all just a dream — it would be a completely different movie.

Originally posted May 12, 1995 Published in issue #274 May 12, 1995 Order article reprints