When Tor.com asked me to write something for their Noir Week, I jumped at the chance. Being a fan of sci-fi, fantasy, and noir, this is the ultimate mashup for me.
Noir has lots of connections with sci-fi and fantasy, but lets get something out of the way: Batman is not film noir. I get that the early Batman and Dick Tracy comics drew heavily on Hollywood. The clothing styles, stories and art-deco look were very much inspired by early crime movies. Dick Tracy was modeled after square-jawed actor Jack Holt. The Joker was Conrad Veidt in the Man Who Laughs. However, when Batman movies are made today they take inspiration from the old great looking comics — not from noir. There is nothing I see in The Dark Knight that I would consider truly noir. The same with Sin City and all the comic movies in between — except for the fact that they’re almost black and white at times and they wear hats.
Noir was always small stories about bags of money and women that have men wrapped around their fingers in hopes that he’ll off her husband. It’s never about shooting rocket launchers from helicopters. (Incidentally, you’ll never hear a wailing saxophone wafting in a detective’s Venetian-blinded windows, either. Whenever I see that in a so-called modern noir I think the director was trying too hard).
There are some sci-fi noirs, however, if you’re interested: Blade Runner (1982) and Dark City (1998) are modern ones that pop into my head. I find both a bit too heavy on style when I look at them today. Blade Runner was once one of my favorites, but after endless reissues and edits I’m convinced the movie’s a muddled mess that is an absolute piece of art to look at — and frankly, I thought Harrison Ford’s noir-like voice over should have stayed. Dark City did something that good classic noirs did: It created a whole noir world. Boxing noir The Set-Up takes place in a made-up city that could only exist in a film noir. The semi-documentary The Naked City makes New York City look like the dankest, most dangerous noir city in the world. Dark City does this, too.
12 Monkeys and Children of Men definitely have a noir flavor to them too. Some would call them “future noir.”
But all of these more recent films probably break the rocket launcher/helicopter rule. My picks for sci-fi/fantasy noirs are from the classic era of film noir (1941 through 1959):
1.) The original Cat People (1942). RKO horror producer Val Lewton was just given titles and he came up with movies based on them — and boy, were they good. The crews and actors for these early 1940s film would later work on RKO film noirs like Out of the Past, so it’s no surprise that they ended up looking a lot like Lewton’s horror films. Cat People, about a strange woman who might turn into a jungle cat, is simply brilliant. You don’t actually see the cat until the end — and then, only because of RKO’s insistence that there be a monster in the movie—up until the film’s climax, you don’t know what to believe. It’s a shadowy, film noir-looking world where you can’t quite see the horror. The 80s remake is not without charm… but it’s no noir.
2.) Decoy (1946) is a thrill. Robert Armstrong — the overacting film director from King Kong — plays a gangster that has a bad day. He gets executed, then brought back to life with cyanide gas serum, only to be shot in the back minutes later. The femme fatale is one mean mother. She manages to get enough information from Armstrong to go after his hidden loot, but then she’s chased by cop Sheldon Leonard — the Damon Runyon-spouting fixture in crime movies. The film is outrageous, but it’s not Ed Wood; Decoy is one enjoyable film with one evil femme fatale.
3.) DOA (1950) has one of the most outstanding openings to a movie I’ve ever seen. A man stumbles into a police station to report a murder:
“Who was murdered?”
I’ll never forget watching DOA for the first time on late night TV, not being sure if I was half dreaming. DOA is a deeply strange movie. A man on a business trip is poisoned by a slow-working drug — a glow-in-the-dark, luminous toxin poison. He only has hours to figure out who murdered him.
The main character in DOA is played by Edmund O’Brien — a regular in film noirs, who was also the lead in the noirish 1984 released in 1956. 1984 was a former Noir of the Week and, although it doesn’t pack quite the same punch as the book, it’s not bad. Sexy Jan Sterling is in it (and is one of many things that went wrong with the film). Ultimately, though, it’s a movie that’s not all that bad if you watch it as a 50s thriller.
4.) Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is an interesting case. Spillane based Hammer on a comic he was writing in the 50s and the character seemed to retain some comic hero characteristics in his books. All “Mike Hammer” movies are almost unwatchable except one: Kiss Me Deadly is one far out film. Thanks in large part to director Robert Aldrich and especially screewriter A.I. Bezzerides (the former truck driver that inked some of the best film noir screenplays ever) the film takes on a very different feel. Mike Hammer is moved to L.A. from NYC. He’s nasty — memorably breaking the fingers of a guy played by noir vet Percy Helton. Hammer — in the form of actor Ralph Meeker — is in search of a box that, when opened, may be the end of the world (the glowing box would be seen again in Repo Man and Pulp Fiction). The dialog in Kiss Me Deadly is bizarre... as are some of the camera angles and performances. Spillane later called it some sort of “liberal left-wing attempt” at discrediting his right wing beliefs. Whatever. It’s by far the best thing to come out of Hollywood with Mickey Spillane’s name on it.
5.) Finally, I have to mention the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Yes, it’s a big story about aliens taking over the world, but watch it as a film noir next time. It’s a paranoid thriller similar to DOA when you think about it. No one believes the protagonist. He’s the only one that knows the truth. Seeing Kevin McCarthy run down the street like a mad man is gold: a perfect film noir in a sci-fi wrapper.
Steve Eifert is the editor of the blog Film Noir of the Week and manages Back Alley Noir: the official message board for the Film Noir Foundation. He recently wrote a piece on the pairing of Sydney Greensteet and Peter Lorre in film noir which appeared in Noir City Annual #3: The Best of the Noir City Sentinel Newsletter paperback.