Post-Noir Influences

A genre as important and memorable as Film Noir can never be forgotten, not only for its place in Hollywood for two decades but for how it influenced film in the decades after. Elements of Film Noir to this day can still be seen in both American and foreign cinema, but with updated technologies and themes that were not around in the 1940s and 1950s, they cannot be truly viewed as part of the Film Noir era. Films following the classic era, known now as Neo-Noir were usually shot in color and do not always follow the visual style that defined Film Noir, but used many themes and plots that the era made famous. Many modern film directors, including Christopher Nolan, Roman Polanski, Quentin Tarantino, and many more, have heavy influences of Film Noir in their films. Here, we will look at several of these directors’ films to showcase the legacy that Film Noir continues to leave in modern Hollywood.

Among the first of the Post-Noir films was The Manchurian Candidate (1962), directed by John Frankenheimer. It is hard to place The Manchurian Candidate in any specific genre, because it covered so many. A story about a Korean War hero named Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) who was brainwashed and programmed as a Soviet mole agent to assassinate a Presidential candidate, The Manchurian Candidate can be viewed as a horror film, a war film, a science fiction film, a thriller, and a melodrama, themes that were not largely present in classical Film Noirs. But Frankenheimer kept the style of The Manchurian Candidate within the frameworks of style established by Film Noir, showing that Film Noir’s style can go beyond the traditional story lines that Film Noir was famous for.

Scene from The Manchurian Candidate. Note how the gun covers and distorts the character's face, hiding the character's true identity.

Other directors decided to go a different route with what Film Noir had become over the years, instead focusing on keeping themes from the Classical era and reinventing its style. These films became known as part of the Neo-Noir era. One of the most important films from this era is Chinatown (1974), directed by Roman Polanski. Set in 1930s Los Angeles, the story of Chinatown borrows many thematic elements from Film Noir, including multi-layered plotlines and detective fiction. But the stylistic elements differed from Classical Film Noir, the largest being that the film was in color, eliminating the shadowy and darker feel that Film Noir aimed for. Polanski had not modernized the Film Noir in a setting sense, but instead modernized the tone that Noir can accomplish.

The first successful film that truly modernized the Neo-Noir genre is the Martin Scorsese directed Taxi Driver (1976). Taxi Driver was the first film of its kind to bring themes of Film Noir into a modern setting. The film follows the life of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a former Marine in the Vietnam War who leads a life of solitude as a Taxi driver in New York City. In following the events that take place in the film, from Bickle’s attempted assassination of a Senator to doing what was necessary to help a twelve year old girl escape prostitution, the audience has a difficult task to decide to accept Bickle as a hero or a villain. Taxi Driver showed that themes prevalent in Film Noir’s classical period can be showcased in modern settings and still be just as successful.

Scene from Taxi Driver. Hero or villain?

Neo-Noir continued to expand into the 1980s and 1990s, with one of the most successful duo of directors drawing on its themes in their work. Joel and Ethan Coen, known among film circles as the Coen Brothers, have created several films with heavy classical Film Noir influences. Fargo (1996) is a film from the brothers that is a prime example. The story follows the type of story themes that most Classical Film Noir films follow, being a crime film with very dark tones. But the film also adds other elements that Film Noir lacked, including being shot in color and an underlying comedic element.

Another prominent Neo-Noir director during these decades is Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps the most direct association to Film Noir among his films is Pulp Fiction (1994). Based on the pulp fiction magazines popularized in the 1930s that had a significant influence on the Classical Film Noir era, Pulp Fiction follows the life of crime among several different characters in modern day Los Angeles. Tarantino added his own style on top of the Film Noir styles present in Pulp Fiction, including an out of sequence plotline throughout the whole film, along with elements of comedy and pop culture references.

The rise of the comic-book adaptation movies in the most recent decades also provides a few examples of Neo-Noir tones. While most “comic book movies” had gone the path of a campy, child-like feel, there are few exceptions that have become the norm among the genre. Most notably of these films are those of director Christopher Nolan, and already successful Neo-Noir director who took over the Batman franchise. His two Batman films, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), told stories of the Caped Crusader with a much darker tone than the Batman movies from years before. Nolan portrays Gotham City as a dirty, gritty metropolis run by corrupt politicians and organized crime, both of which are themes in Classical Noir films. They both show Batman (Christian Bale) as a flawed hero, embracing the idea of vigilante justice to fight crime in Gotham while also struggling to maintain a double identity as Bruce Wayne. Nolan also uses visual styles from Classical Noir, using darker colors and tones to bring Gotham City to life as the seedy city that Batman swears to protect. These movies proved that Film Noir is still alive and well, and can be implemented in bringing superheroes and villains to life on the big screen. Nolan’s Batman films achieved enormous critical success that no comic book movie had seen since Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), and films in the genre have begun to implement their own styles based on Nolan’s accomplishments.

Scene from The Dark Knight. Batman stands atop a crumbled building in Gotham City.

Film Noir continues to have an enormous influence on style and themes that draw from its classical period, decades after that last true Film Noir film as produced. As a new decade is passing, it remains to be seen what new manifestation Film Noir will have in Hollywood. But as recent history suggests, directors will find a way to continue the lasting effect created by Film Noir.


– John Abbott

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