The guys over at Pure Cinema Podcast recently covered their top neo-noir movies, pairing them with classic film noir titles that share some type of connection whether it’s plot, theme, or some other common element. It’s a great show and I highly recommend listening to it. I enjoyed it so much that I was inspired to come up with my own list of neo-noir/classic noir pairings:
The Grifters (1990) Stephen Frears – Force of Evil (1948) Abraham Polonsky
From the first moment I saw it, The Grifters has been one of my favorite neo-noir movies largely due to a great Donald Westlake screenplay based on the excellent novel by Jim Thompson. The cast is stellar as well: John Cusack plays a small-time con man whose mom (Anjelica Huston) works for an intimidating bookie named Bobo (Pat Hingle in a terrifying role). The mother/son relationship is given some very interesting scenes and is actually pivotal to the film’s lasting power. (Annette Bening is also excellent in the film, by the way.)
Force of Evil considers another family relationship, this time between two brothers. John Garfield plays Joe, a corrupt lawyer who has an opportunity to make a big score by helping to fix the numbers racket so that all of the smalltime numbers operators will come under the control of Joe’s buddy, mob boss Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). Problems arise when Joe warns his brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), who runs a small-time numbers racket, that he needs to bail out before he’s ruined. We get enough (but not too much) of the brothers’ backstory to understand that nobody is going to budge until one of them is ruined. Both Garfield and Gomez – exceptional actors – are brilliant here as is Marie Windsor. (Also keep an eye out for a very young Beau Bridges.) Both films explore the friction of family relationships, both arriving at devastating ends.
El Aura (2005) Fabián Bielinsky – Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) John Farrow
In the Argentine film El Aura, the always amazing Ricardo Darín plays Estaban Espinosa, a taxidermist who fantasizes about how he would commit the perfect crime. He has a photographic memory, exceptional organizational skills, epilepsy and possibly a unique gift resulting from the combination of all three. When Espinosa accidentally kills a man on a hunting trip, he becomes involved in an armored car heist by being mistaken for the dead man’s confidant.
In a film with one of the greatest titles ever, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Edward G. Robinson plays a nightclub mind-reader/fortune teller who unexpectedly acquires the ability to predict the future accurately. Both Night Has a Thousand Eyes and El Aura explore the fascination of unusual abilities (call them gifts or curses) and their noirish consequences.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) Joseph Sargent – Split Second (1953) Dick Powell
Both of these films feature hostage situations. In The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (not to be confused with the 2009 remake The Taking of Pelham 123), four men hijack a New York City subway train holding 17 passengers and the conductor hostage, demanding $1 million. If the money’s not delivered with an hour, they’ll kill one passenger a minute.
In Split Second (the first film directed by Dick Powell), Stephen McNally and his pals escape from prison and pick up several hostages, deciding to hide out in a western ghost town. They don’t realize that an atomic bomb test site is located nearby and that a bomb will be going off in just a few hours, killing them all. The tension in both films is amazing and the noir aspects of desperation, lies, betrayal (to say nothing of the “race against time” element) are played to the hilt.
Zodiac (2007) David Fincher – He Walked by Night (1948) Anthony Mann, Alfred L. Werker
You have to wonder if the actual Zodiac killer ever saw the movie He Walked by Night, a film about a killer (played by Richard Basehart) with no criminal past who always seems to be at least one step ahead of the police. Both He Walked by Night and Zodiac are largely procedurals with the police doing most of the work in the first film and a combination of police and newspaper cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) tracking down clues in the second. Although the films are visually quite different, there’s an eerie similarity going on between them.
Mulholland Drive (2001) David Lynch – His Kind of Woman (1951) John Farrow, Richard Fleischer
Okay, this connection is a bit tenuous and I’m not even 100% sure of its accuracy, but I seem to remember hearing Eddie Muller say at Noir City DC last year that His Kind of Woman was the Mulholland Drive of its time. (It’s possible that he was referring to The Specter of the Rose , which is also pretty weird…) His Kind of Woman is certainly a weird film noir, but not in the same way that Mulholland Drive is weird. You can read more about His Kind of Woman here, but know that the film stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell (neither of which are weird) and involves an over-the-top Hollywood actor (Vincent Price), gangsters, an ex-Nazi plastic surgeon, the Mexican police, and more. Sure, the connection to Mulholland Drive is slight, but I suspect audiences leaving theaters after watching His Kind of Woman were probably scratching their heads, saying, “What just happened?” much like 2001 audiences who watched Mulholland Drive.
Those are my pairings – Please share yours!
Photos: The Mad Challenge, DoctorMacro, Toronto Film Society, Le Blog du West, Only the Cinema, New York Times, DVD Talk, Excelsior Branch