Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler (2014)
Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler (2014)
Image: Supplied

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of a film that is perhaps the greatest example of neo-noir, and one that boasts arguably the greatest script in movie history, Chinatown.

Written by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jack Nicholson as private detective Jake Gittes who finds himself embroiled in a knotty conspiracy that’s inspired by Los Angeles’ real 1930s “water wars”, Chinatown is a timeless classic. Yes it was directed by a man who has spent most of the past half a century evading arrest for sex offences but it remains as a cultural object, one of the finest films in American movie history and one that US audiences have been treated to a restored 4K rerelease of in honour of this milestone.

In honour of neo-noir, here are three examples that demonstrate the genre’s popularity as a means of telling dramatically satisfying, twisty, dark stories and its pliability for exploring social issues and the paranoia that has become an increasing part of US life in the years since Watergate. Start off with Chinatown, which is available to rent on Apple TV + and then head on down the winding road of neo-noir.

The arthouse essential:

Souzhou River — Mubi.com

Chinese director Lou Ye’s 2000 masterpiece is a complex, layered film that interrogates the ways in which we see the world and make sense of it through storytelling. It also has a dark noirish doomed love story at its heart and is set in the murky, gritty underworld of the waterfront of Shanghai. Newly restored and reappreciated the film is difficult to describe but hard to forget once seen.

Its protagonist is an unnamed and unseen videographer whose environment we only see through the footage he shoots. When he’s hired by one of his regular clients — a sleazy nightclub manager — to film a performance of a woman who works as a mermaid dancer in a tank, he soon becomes entranced by her and the two begin a romantic relationship.

She’s a mysterious, enigmatic figure who often disappears for long periods, leaving her videographer lover to worry and wonder and when she tells him, during one of their rare meetings, about an urban legend involving the story of a desperate young bike messenger who after his lover disappeared spent the rest of his life looking for her, he becomes intrigued with the tale.

It’s here that the film takes an innovative, mysterious turn as the videographer creates his own version of the legend of the messenger, narrating the tale over the reenacted version of the story he’s shot. That story takes on the more traditionally noirish form of a gangster tragedy with twists, turns, lust, murder and betrayal.

That’s only the beginning of what ultimately becomes a complicated, sophisticated film that harks back to classics such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It crafts its own unique examination of the fragility of identity and the unreliability of storytelling as a means of sustaining it and a grimy portrait of the realities of life in the margins of early millennial China.

Hidden in plain sight within its modernist narrative trickery is a hard-hitting critique of censorship in China, that did not go unnoticed by the Communist government, which promptly banned the film upon its release and punished its director for screening it at the 2000 Rotterdam Film Festival, with a two-year ban on filmmaking.


The stone-cold classic: 

Devil in a Blue Dress — Rent from Apple TV +

Carl Franklin’s 1995 adaptation of the first of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels is at first glance a straight-up neo-noir with its 1940s setting, jazz infused Elmer Bernstein score and moody Tak Fujimoto cinematography. But the film, starring Denzel Washington in one of his best performances, is far more than that — taking its twisting detective plot as a jumping-off point for examining the ignored realities of life for Los Angeles’ black citizens in the post-World War 2 era.

Washington is Rawlins, Word War 2veteran who is at a low point — recently fired, struggling to make ends meet and to keep up the payments on his house. When he’s offered a job by a shady white man, Dewitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), to track down a mysterious woman, Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) — who is the wife of a well-known politician in the socially unacceptable practice of hanging out in black bars — Easy is reluctant. When he’s assured that the job won’t involve anything illegal, he relents and begins the search for Daphne.

Things take a turn for the ugly and Easy is on the run from the cops as a murder suspect, his client’s henchmen and no nearer to locating the elusive Daphne. With nowhere else to turn he calls his old Texas buddy Mouse (Don Cheadle) a loyal friend with psychopathic tendencies who is his only hope to finding Daphne, clearing his name and escaping the mess he’s found himself in through no fault of his own, other than being a black man in 1940s LA.

Franklin highlights the issue of race as a significant factor in the power plays, back-stabbing and conspiracy riddled underbelly of the city in a film that’s an aesthetic delight on its own neo-noirish terms. It pushes the representational dimensions of the genre forward by smartly looking backwards with the righteous anger of hindsight.


The diamond in the rough:

Nightcrawler — Buy from Apple TV +

Few characters in recent movies are as venal and immoral as Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom, the slimy protagonist of Dan Gilroy’s 2014 dark comic neo-noir dissection of modern media mayhem.

A nocturnal animal who prowls the night streets of LA looking for easy marks and dubious moneymaking opportunities, Bloom seems to have found his perfect role when he gets a job as a cameraman, prowling after hours with a camera and a police scanner, capturing grisly crimes. His work soon catches the attention of a ruthlessly ambitious local news director (Rene Russo) who sees an opportunity to boost her ratings and enlists Bloom to go to increasingly morally reprehensible lengths to chase stories.

Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of a man who turns from dubious but sometimes likable antihero to bottom-feeding villain holds everything tightly together in a film that becomes tense and almost unbearable to watch as it progresses.

It’s all a very, very sick joke that by its end has some serious points to make about the line between the demand for grisly content in a saturated age and the demands it makes on the morality of those who decide to provide it.


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