Dear Neo-noir,

We both know I’ve been avoiding you. Your shiny revolvers, your crimson blood, your permeating reek of expensive cologne. And your love of mobsters with their high-class, merciless criminal lifestyles. All so vivid it’s hard to pretend you don’t think you’re depicting the real American dream. So, Neo-noir, I’m going to try to tell you why we meet so rarely.

Edward G. Robinson's Johnny Rocco (Key Largo)
Edward G. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco (Key Largo)

Sure, I love noir gangsters, the Johnny Roccos and Mr. Browns. I love the overacting, how they turn from bravado to desperation when the jig is up, the fact that we’re meant to loathe them. Noir is always about excess, stylized to the hilt. For me, neo-noir too often isn’t.

For one thing, neo-noir is often set in contemporary America and in filmed in color. That takes it a step toward realism, and often that’s a step too far. I don’t want to watch people vividly tortured and graphically killed. There’s too much of that going on in the world beyond the screen.

Richard Conte's Mr. Brown (The Big Combo) has a weakness, a blonde weakness.
Richard Conte’s Mr. Brown (The Big Combo) has a weakness, a blonde weakness.

I’m not saying I need a bright and shiny hero to root for. Noir rarely gives that. The shamuses and innocent bystanders trying to extricate themselves from intricate webs are often flawed, with a touch of the dark in their souls. The whole world is grimy in noir; that’s one of its major themes. And neo-noir follows suit. But with old black-and-white films made on a dime and trying not to bend too far under the Hays Code, the fantasy is always obvious. We learn some truths about life and ourselves, sure, but we also escape into the darkness with our characters and come out into a brighter — at least on the surface — world.

Bound: my favorite neo-noir.
Bound: my favorite neo-noir.

So, I guess one thing I’m saying is that neo-noir often doesn’t give me the cultural distance I need to enjoy it. And that’s about me, not you, Neo-noir. I do best with neo-noir when it’s obvious homage, costume drama set in the 40s or even in a speculative future where the private dick of the past makes a return.

Harrison Ford is my kind of gumshoe in futuristic neo-noir Blade Runner.
Harrison Ford is my kind of gumshoe in futuristic neo-noir Blade Runner.

The two neo-noir pictures I like best, therefore, are Bound and Blade Runner, the former for its emulation and evocation in mis-en-scene, tone, and content of classic noir and the latter for its use of noir style to pose a query into what makes us human. (I like Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, too.)

I welcome recommendations of films that will help me expand my neo-noir tastes. But for now, I’m going to keep enjoying the classics.

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