Neo-Noir: A Full Guide to the Genre

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Whether it’s the hardboiled private eye down on his luck or the beautiful but badhearted femme fatale, neo-noir tropes revive the era of film noir. But what exactly is neo-noir, and how does it both differentiate from and extend the legacy of film noir? For a synopsis of this sinister style of cinema, keep reading.

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What is film noir?

Rear Window“Rear Window” Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Film noir is a type of highly stylized Hollywood crime drama that was extremely popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Film noir, or “black film,” has roots in German Expressionism and American crime fiction. It largely focuses on mystery, disillusioned characters, criminal psychology, women of questionable character, and melodramatic cinematography including off-balance shot angles and high-contrast chiaroscuro lighting.

Film noir directors include:

  • Alfred Hitchcock: “Suspicion,” “Rebecca,” “Vertigo,” “Rear Window,” “Strangers on a Train”
  • John Huston: “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Key Largo” 
  • Stanley Kubrick: “The Killing”
  • Robert Siodmak: “The Killers,” “The Suspect,” “Phantom Lady”
  • Raoul Walsh: “White Heat,” “They Drive by Night,” “The Man I Love,” “The Enforcer”
  • Orson Welles: “The Stranger,” “The Lady from Shanghai,” “Touch of Evil”
  • Billy Wilder: “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Ace in the Hole”

What is neo-noir?

After Hours“After Hours” Courtesy Warner Bros.

Neo-noir is a film genre that updates and adapts the characteristics of film noir with modern themes and techniques. The 1960s and early 1970s ushered in a liminal time in cinematic history as noir began to be infused with new tropes in films such as Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande à part,” John Boorman’s “Point Blank,” Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” and Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.”  

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the official term “neo-noir” had risen to prominence thanks to movies such as Sydney Pollack’s “Absence of Malice,” Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out,” and Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours.” 

“Heists and homicides that rarely go to plan, assassins and amnesiacs with identity issues, and an array of characters placed in difficult situations, whether it is lovers on the run seeking to evade capture; innocent protagonists trying to clear their name; lone cops aiming to expose corruption in the force; or a number of detectives (both ‘official’ and otherwise) whose investigation often reveals more about themselves than their supposed quarry,” writes film analyst Sue Short. “As such a list suggests, neo-noir plots are both familiar and diverse, inviting ongoing intrigue while frustrating easy analysis.”

These familiar and diverse plots contain many of the thematic elements and sentiments of film noir but revive them for a contemporary audience.

What are the characteristics of neo-noir?

Fight Club“Fight Club” Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Neo-noir films intertextually respond to the film noir cinematic tradition while also transforming its tropes. Because of this, neo-noir films often function as palimpsests, or media that bears the evidence of prior media and thus asks its audience to consider the liminal space between. Neo-noir traits include:

The femme fatale: Who can forget Catherine Tramell alternately flashing, evading, and tempting homicide detective Nick Curran in “Basic Instinct”? Equal parts seductive and disatrous, the femme fatale character is commonly included in neo-noir films.

Empathic antiheroes: From the brutally violent Driver in “Drive” or the anarchic Narrator/Tyler Durden in “Fight Club,” neo-noir films are characterized by making audiences cheer for someone who very well may be the bad guy—cynical antiheroes abound.

Vivid cinematography: Low-key lighting, slanted shadows, unbalanced compositions, and Dutch angles, oh my. Neo-noir films such as “Sin City” and “The Dark Knight” often use highly stylized cinematography to really hammer in a sense of intrigue and unease.

Twists and turns: The ominous, anxiety-ridden atmosphere in “Shutter Island” and “Memento” include enough twists and turns to give even the most seasoned viewer vertigo.

Paranoia: Neo-noir films tend to depict paranoia and unease. Flashbacks, memory loss, existentialism, and a lack of trust in community all add to the conspiratorial thinking inherent in neo-noir.

Self-reflexivity: Neo-noir films respond to, revive, and reimagine attributes of film noir. Rather than simply subverting stereotypes, however, neo-noir films self-reflexively critique archetypes of film noir while simultaneously updating them to a contemporary era.

What is the noir legacy in filmmaking?

Good Time“Good Time” Courtesy A24

Noir has made an indelible impact on filmmaking. “The truth is the history of noir is not over and it cannot be given a single explanation,” writes film theorist James Naremore of film noir’s ongoing legacy. “The different manifestations of noir, however, can never be completely subsumed under a single demographic group or psychological explanation.”

These different manifestations of noir have led to the creation of several related subgenres:

  • Tech-noir combines elements of noir and sci-fi to create films such as “Blade Runner” and “The Terminator.” 
  • Superhero-noir includes contemporary supersaturated films and TV shows such as “Watchmen” and “Jessica Jones.” 
  • Neon-noir such as “Taxi Driver,” “Thief,” and “Good Time” use colorful neon palettes to paint vibrant yet bleak urbanscapes. 

The genre also exerts a strong influence on psychological thrillers, which portray many of the same anxieties and paranoia as the noir film corpus. The teen mystery show “Pretty Little Liars”—already rife with many noir elements, including the femme fatale, anxiety, and conspiratorial thinking—plays with this idea in its “Shadow Play” episode, filmed in low-lighting black and white and purposely invoking noir tropes. 

The focus on alienation and dehumanization innate to noir also intersects with many of today’s depictions of postmodern alienation—as seen in “Severance” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

Neo-noir directors and movies

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Courtesy Sony Releasing Pictures

  • Robert Benton: “The Late Show,” “Still of the Night,” “Twilight” 
  • Joel and Ethan Coen: “Blood Simple,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Fargo,” “Miller’s Crossing,” “No Country for Old Men” 
  • John Dahl: “Kill Me Again,” “The Last Seduction,” “Red Rock West”
  • David Fincher: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “Gone Girl,” “Fight Club,” “The Game,” “Se7en,” “Panic Room,” “Zodiac” 
  • Carl Franklin: “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “One False Move,” “Out of Time” 
  • Curtis Hanson: “The Bedroom Window,” “Bad Influence,” “L.A. Confidential”
  • David Lynch: “Blue Velvet,” “Lost Highway,” “Wild at Heart,” “Mulholland Drive” 
  • Martin Scorsese: “After Hours,” “Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver,” “Cape Fear,” “The Departed,” “Shutter Island”
  • Quentin Tarantino: “Jackie Brown,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Reservoir Dogs,” 
  • Paul Verhoeven: “Basic Instinct,” “Elle”

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