Hollywood exists in movements. We often see movies that are popular come and go or get reinvented when a new generation rises to power. One of those cycles came from noir, a popular genre in the early days of Hollywood that came back in the 70s and 80s as neo-noir.
Neo-Noir Meaning and Origin
You cannot have a neo-noir without film noir.
The term film noir came from the French for “black film” (literal) or “dark film” (closer meaning). French critic Nino Frank coined the term in 1946, but most people didn’t acknowledge it until later. The term is usually identified with a visual style that emphasizes low-key lighting and unbalanced compositions. Noir films usually deal with things outside of the mainstream, like grisly murders, gangsters, and gothic romances. Many times they focus on social problems and can have melodramatic overtones.
The term film noir was popularized in 1955 by French critics Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton. They said it covered crime and gangster films of the 1940s and 1950s produced in the United States (among other places) and adopted 1920s/1930s Art Deco visual stylings.
Film noir ended in 1959. Everything that came after was neo-noir.
Neo-noir is the reimagining of the genre of film noir.
Neo-noir comes from the Greek “neo,” meaning new. So, “new noir.”
Mark Conard defines neo-noir as “any film coming after the classic noir period that contains noir themes and noir sensibility.” It refers to noir films made after the 50s, particularly in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, through today.
How Can You Identify a Neo-Noir Film?
One of the most difficult things about noir is that there is no strict definition. You have to see it to understand it. They were black and white detective pictures in the old days, but as the definition evolved, so did the directors and their stories. Some ways to pull out neo-noir films from the crowd are the use of tilted camera angles, the interplay of light and shadows, and obviously unbalanced framing.
You can also rely on violence, sex, moral ambiguity, and criminal activity to be at the center of the story.
Why Filmmakers Love Neo-Noir
So much of the joy of writing and directing is taking the lessons you may have gleaned from the stories of the past. Writing and directing neo-noir allows filmmakers to pay homage to the greats of the past, while reinventing the genre for themselves, using their own voices to riff on what came before them.
It also allows them to play in stuff outside the mainstream. They can experiment with film lighting, camera angles, cast against type, dig into dark territories, and talk about social problems that can echo through generations.
The pioneers of noir are also some of the most famous filmmakers of all time, so you get a chance to walk in their shoes. Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, and many other famous directors made their mark on the industry through this genre. They allowed us to be involved in mysteries and thrillers all juxtaposed with the underbelly of America.
In neo-noir you get to use a lot of colors as well. It even has broken into its own offshoot, neon-noir, which replaces the black and white or stark images with bright colors and fantastical sets. You can constantly keep inventing and changing the story as you go.
The 10 Best Neo-Noir Films and Other Examples
For this section, I want to look at neo-noir films I think are essential to understanding the genre as a whole. I didn’t include many new ones—for those you’ll have to look at the list I’ll add below. But let’s go over what I deem to be the 10 best neo-noir films ever made.
To start, I have a special love for John Boorman’s Point Blank. It has one of the coolest intercut tracking shots in film history and tells the story of a man just trying to get the money he’s owed after his wife and friend betray him.
More on the contemporary side, I also love Rian Johnson’s Brick. This movie takes the old-timey speak and then adds it to a contemporary high school, where people are trying to figure out what happened to a classmate.
I’m also a huge fan of Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat. It is a riff on Double Indemnity and uses the erotic thriller genre to expand on older tropes, allowing the audience to feel sleazy in the best way.
I also think Brian De Palma’s masterpiece Body Double should be studied in this list. It is his pastiche of Hitchcock homages, which features the underbelly of Los Angeles film production. Sort of a play on the movies that would come before and after.
Many great filmmakers get their start in this genre too. The Coen brothers gave us Blood Simple, which also introduced us to Frances McDormand as she played someone trying to get rid of her husband. It also has a darkly hilarious death scene with a shovel.
Curtis Hanson delivered his masterpiece, L.A. Confidential, in the mid-90s, seemingly reviving the genre once again. It gazed back at Hollywood and its superficiality and fame obsessions.
I also can’t write this list without mentioning Blade Runner, a movie that took neo-noir into the future, tracking a detective hunting robots. This showed how flexible the genre could be and how filmmakers could truly make it their own.
Still, 1970s hits like Chinatown also bolstered the roots of the genre as well, showing that the past was also fruitful to talk about the problems of today; greed, aristocracy, and violence.
The Long Goodbye is the rare neo-noir that is set in that movie’s present, dealing with someone who goes missing again. Robert Altman was able to keep his auteur sensibilities inside the story and still have an entry that is considered one of the best all-time neo-noirs.
Shane Black broke into the world writing scripts that could be classified as neo-noir, but I love his movie The Nice Guys, and think it belongs on this list because it shows how comedy still have a place within the hardboiled world, something that film noir never could have seen coming in the 1930s.
To read more, click here.