Believe it or not, but Quentin Tarantino didn’t invent the kinds of films that he specializes in making. He simply adapted them to the attitudes of a new generation.
In “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” the former video-store clerk updated the film genre that grew out of the hard-edged 1930s fiction of such writers as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. On the big screen, that fiction became, respectively, “The Big Sleep” (1946), “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) and “Double Indemnity” ((1944).
Hollywood made some 300 films of this type between the years 1940-60. And it was the fashion-conscious French who, while quenching their thirst for American movies following World War II, came up with the catchall name to best describe them: film noir.
The greatest of the film noir bear a blackness of theme very much in keeping with the French name. In a time of world cataclysm, but even on into the sunny 1950s - a Walt Disney era in which, ironically, the twin threats of Communism and The Bomb never were far away - the antisocial film noir reflected the yin to Disney’s yang.
In film after film, good and bad blended into a moral morass of gray.
Good guys fought, but seldom very hard, their dark sides. And bad guys gleefully pushed their wheelchairbound elders down steep stairwells.
And the women? Well, the very best of them were bad to the bone.
How does this differ from what Tarantino has created? Distancing, for one.
Tarantino and the filmmakers who have followed his lead - Roger Avary (“Killing Zoe”), John Dahl (“Red Rock West”), Joel Coen (“Blood Simple”) and John Herzfeld (“Two Days in the Valley,” which is available on video this week, see capsule review below), just to name a few - seldom let us forget that we are watching a movie. The blood may flow, but it often comes in the wake of a joke.
Think, say, of the ear-amputation scene in “Reservoir Dogs.”
And then, Tarantino and his followers are less interested in dark effect than in effect period. Thus, while such noir classics as “D.O.A.” (1950), “Out of the Past” (1947) and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) end badly, the neo-noirs are just as likely to end with some happyfeet sense of justice triumphant.
There are exceptions, of course. The protagonist of Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant,” played with unremitting self-destruction by Harvey Keitel, is doomed from the outset. But the majority of the modern noir more often resemble the 1988 remake of “D.O.A.,” co-directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel with its improbably upbeat ending.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that one kind of noir is better than the other. It’s all simply a matter of taste, dependent on which era’s mores - or lack thereof - that you prefer.
Here are some of the best of both:
“The Big Sleep” (1946): Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) investigates a murder that draws him into an estrogen-heavy web involving Lauren Bacall.
“The Maltese Falcon” (1941): Everyone wants the Black Bird, and Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is no different. But first there’s that little problem of his dead partner.
“White Heat” (1949): As the mama’s-boy psychopath Cody Jarrett, gang leader James Cagney goes out in a blaze of glory.
“Double Indemnity” (1944): Barbara Stanwyck lures Fred MacMurray into murder, but insurance investigator Edward G. Robinson spoils the plan.
“The Asphalt Jungle” (1950): The quintessential tale of a heist gone wrong (look for Marilyn Monroe).
Special mention: “Chinatown” (1974).
“Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs” (1994 and 1992, respectively): Alternately intense and humorous, hip but not to the point of campiness, these films involve, in the first case, a few murderous days in the lives of Los Angeles losers and, in the second, the proverbial busted heist. They provide the standard by which all other modern noirs are measured.
“Blood Simple” (1985) and “Fargo” (1996): What doesn’t get said ends up being more important than anything that is communicated in this set of Coen brother studies. The first involves betrayal, murder and more of the same. The second is a mix of greed, stupidity and a flubbed kidnapping.
“Carlito’s Way” (1993): Here is a meeting of generations. As always, Brian De Palma’s camera draws attention to itself. Yet, for once, that doesn’t from the story he is trying to tell, which involves Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), fresh out of the joint and, ultimately, out of luck. He wants to go straight, but the sewer sucks him down.
And that, my friends, is darkness indeed.
Two Days in the Valley ***
Among other positives, this ‘90s-type film noir features a complex plot that develops gradually, blending the separate tales of various individuals until they all finally intersect in a flash of gunfire. Writer-director John Herzfeld credits his audience with having intelligence, no small feat these days, as he explores a story that begins with murder, follows the lives of everyone involved and ends the way it began. Herzfeld benefits from his superb cast, which includes James Spader, Danny Aiello, Glenne Headly, Paul Mazursky, Marsha Mason, Keith Carradine and, most surprisingly, Teri Hatcher in a role that indicates she might actually be able to act. Rated R
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