Friday, October 26, 2012

Dark city: L.A. neo-noir

Though film noir will forever be associated with American movies of the ‘40s, the term actually originated in France. It was coined in 1946 by a French critic called Nino Frank (noir means ‘black’ in French), and in 1955, with A Panorama of American Film Noir, his countrymen Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton conducted the first in-depth study of the genre. It was an apt label: these films were undeniably black, both in their visual style (mostly dark interiors lit with a single light source) and their pessimistic outlook. Many of the golden age noirs – Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep – were set in Los Angeles; something in that city’s mixture of seediness and high glamour called out to directors working in this genre. Decades on, L.A. is still a favoured setting for filmmakers looking to push the boundaries of noir, as can be seen in these four titles.

Blade Runner (Reliance Home Video, Rs 499)

In 1982, Ridley Scott released a sci-fi film that was, strangely but unmistakably, also a noir. Blade Runner plays out in a Los Angeles of the future, with flying cars and android-like creatures called replicants. Yet it’s also possible to draw a line connecting Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard to the loner private eyes played by Humphrey Bogart and Ralph Meeker over half a century ago. The film has other noir characteristics as well – voice-over narration, wet, dark streets, a femme fatale and a general air of fatalism. Blade Runner is based on Phillip K Dick’s cult novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and in the years since its release, it’s become somewhat of a cult item itself. Twenty years after its dystopian visions first surfaced, the film remains one of the most persuasive arguments for taking noir out of its comfort zone and allowing it to spread its dark sheen over other genres.  

The Usual Suspects (Sony Pictures, Rs 599)

For certain film geeks who grew up in the ‘90s, Bryan Singer’s film was the height of cool. It looked like a noir, sounded like a gangster movie, and behaved like the smartest kid in the class. It had one of the juiciest set-ups in film history: a group of criminals meeting in a line-up at a police station. The characters all had names to die for – Kobayashi, Fenster, Verbal Kint, Keyser Soze. The action is spread over two great noir cities – New York and Los Angeles. Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay was pure pulp, a late entry in the hardboiled tradition of Raymond Chandler, though with one significant difference – Chandler’s universe is usually governed by some kind of moral code, while The Usual Suspects is exhilaratingly amoral. Its rug-pulling denouement is justly famous, but the real fun is in getting the surprises out of the way and coming back to admire the sleight of hand filmmaking that sets everyone up for a fall.

L.A. Confidential (Reliance Home Video, Rs 499)

L.A. Confidential would make a nice double bill with Chinatown, another noirish look at systemic corruption. Polanksi’s film was a key influence, and Confidential’s director Curtis Hanson acknowledged this by giving one of his characters a bandaged nose like the one Jack Nicholson sported in the 1974 film. Set in the 1950s, L.A. Confidential’s Los Angeles is a city going to seed. The editor of a sleazy gossip mag provides tip-offs to a detective. A prostitution racket supplies call girls who resemble movie stars. Policemen spend Christmas Eve administering a beating to a group of jailbirds. Amidst all this, two straight-shooting cops see their parallel investigations dovetail. While it didn’t quite break new ground for the genre, L.A. Confidential is nevertheless a stylish, highly entertaining period thriller. Watch it just for its cast – the pre-fame duo of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, and Kim Bassinger made up as Veronica Lake (two femme fatales for the price of one).

Drive (Reliance Home Video, Rs 599)

When Nicolas Winding Refn won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival last year for Drive, he earned comparisons with Michael Mann. While its slick action scenes and night-time explorations of L.A. place it in Mann territory, Drive is also reminiscent of the more romantic noir films by Hollywood émigrés like Robert Siodmak and Jacques Tourneur. (Like Tourneur’s lushly poetic Out of the Past, Drive too has a protagonist who lives on the edge of society and returns for one final job.) Ryan Gosling plays The Driver, a stuntman and getaway driver-for-hire who falls for his married neighbour, only to find himself inheriting her husband’s problems with the local mafia. Juxtaposing moments of great tenderness with shocking bouts of violence, the film ends up somewhere between a fairy tale and a very gory gangster film. Still, if you like your movies sleek, swift and sentimental, Drive is your vehicle.

This piece was published in the October issue of Man's World.

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