The release this fall of Hollywoodland and The Black Dahlia signaled the fedora-laden return of retro noir, a sub-genre of film noir that has only had occasional success over the years, most notably with Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997). Both recent releases cash in on the popular conception of post-war Tinseltown as a contrast of glamour and seediness, depicting one of the birthplaces of noir in its defining period.
But after seeing these two films, viewers unfamiliar with the evolution of film noir may be tempted to pigeonhole the entire noir genre as some sort of mid-20th-century true-crime costume drama that involves the obligatory wearing of trench coats and too-short ties. In all of their emphasis on period dress and historical recreation of actual people and events, these films — particularly The Black Dahlia — sometimes come off as more of a pastiche of the genre than genuine entries in the noir canon.
With a gritty, authentic look and strong acting performances from Adrian Brody, Bob Hoskins, and (I can hardly believe I’m writing this) Ben Affleck, Hollywoodland nearly hits the mark in its exploration of the mysterious death of TV’s Superman, George Reeves. However, the latter half of the film is saddled with parallel storylines, unnecessary subplots, and a Rashomon-style plot device involving alternative explanatory flashbacks.
The Black Dahlia, on the other hand, is visually stunning pornography for noir lovers, but the script relies far too much on narrative shortcuts and pre-fab characters instead of genuine storytelling and character development. This may be the inevitable result of condensing James Ellroy’s complex novel into a two-hour feature. Dahlia‘s the kind of movie that’s better seen than heard.
In contrast to these two films is the independently produced Brick, released this spring on roughly 1% of Dahlia‘s $50 million budget. It captures the dark spirit of noir almost perfectly and is destined to become a classic of the genre. A quirky, stylized neo-noir about a teenage loner trying to solve the murder of a former girlfriend by navigating the social strata of his SoCal high school, Brick creates an initially disorienting alternate universe where high school students spew hard-boiled lingo, spend almost no time in class, and rarely encounter adults. In fact, they generally behave like the idiosyncratic adult characters that populate the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Purposely divergent enough from reality to avoid criticisms of inauthenticity, yet close enough to evoke our own memories of high school, it succeeds in telling a twisted tale about the underbelly of modern society.
Although both Hollywoodland and The Black Dahlia hint at the cinematic greatness of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, neither reaches that level of artistic accomplishment. While this latest revival of retro noir may renew popular interest in classic noir, it will not likely be remembered for contributing much to the genre. Given the success of Brick, and the struggles of the other two films, one wonders if the retro noir genre itself is burdened with inherent obstacles that are difficult to overcome. Perhaps it is no coincidence that there have been only a couple of great retro noirs, but at least a dozen outstanding neo-noirs that use a contemporary setting. What is it, then, that makes retro noir excellence so difficult to achieve?
Perhaps a key problem with these films is that they often focus too much on depicting a long-gone world that never was. Given that films have limited budgets – and thus a limited amount of time and attention which can be paid to each element – an overemphasis on any one aspect of the production is likely to come at the expense of other areas. Many retro noirs seem too self-conscious about mimicking classic noir imagery and authentically portraying historical clothing and decoration to also devote sufficient energy to fully telling a compelling noir story with authentic noir characters. In addition, the immediacy and relevance of the plot – as well as the ability of most viewers to empathize as closely with the characters – may be somewhat muffled by the choice of historical setting.
By contrast, noir films of the classic period were generally set in their own time period, in part because of sparse budgets, in part because they were often designed as current social commentary, and in part because of a lack of awareness about the genre they were creating.
At its essence, noir is about showing ordinary people in extraordinary situations, forced to make extremely difficult choices, and usually succumbing to temptation along the way. Placing a noir in a historical setting doesn’t make it impossible for the viewer to empathize with the dilemmas of the characters, but it can create a handicap to overcome, particularly when the historical setting comes at the expense of character development.
Since the end of the classic noir era, the noir genre has been highlighted by neo-noir releases with a contemporary setting, such as The Long Goodbye (1973), Body Heat (1981), Blood Simple (1984), The Last Seduction (1994), Fargo (1996), and Memento (2000). Like Brick, these films frequently reference the themes, imagery, and dialogue of classic noir, but keep a firm footing in the modern world. They have succeeded in part because they have taken the timeless, tragic themes of noir and connected them with characters, situations, and issues that modern audiences find relevant. And, like classic noir films, they have generally seemed more authentic because they are set in their own time period.
Although retro noirs can occasionally surmount the unique pitfalls of their subgenre, noir too often becomes a parody of itself when trying to replicate the films of the classic era. Good noir isn’t tied to any particular era. It isn’t about fedora-wearing gumshoes or femmes fatales with cigarette holders. It’s about flawed human beings making questionable choices that will likely come back to haunt them in the end.
Dan Alban is an associate (bar admission pending) at Wiley, Rein & Fielding LLP in Washington, DC.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire