Dark times for the age of film noir

Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a remake of the 1947 film noir of the same name about the rise and fall of an unscrupulous carnival mentalist. Or, as the filmmakers insist (as filmmakers are wont to do because they don’t care for the word “remake”), a new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel.

Del Toro’s film recycles all the hallmarks of classic noir: flawed hero, femme fatale, fatalistic narrative, downbeat ending. But, being modern, it’s also in colour, adds 40 minutes to the 1947 version’s running time, and proudly flaunts its immaculate retro costumes and production design – which naturally would not have been considered retro back in the 1940s.

The makers of classics such as Double Indemnity (1944) or Out of the Past (1947) didn’t think of what they were creating as “noir”. American critics at the time called it “celluloid dirt” and “fundamentally unpleasant”.

The word “noir” was first applied by French critics faced with a backlog of American thrillers that landed in European cinemas after World War Two, recognising them as kindred to home-grown 1930s “polars” (crime stories) such as Le Quai des Brumes or Pépé le Moko.

The Hollywood version already had its roots in Europe: it was characterised by black and white chiaroscuro cinematography (handy for disguising low budgets) influenced by German Expressionist cinema, many of its directors were European refugees such as Billy Wilder or Robert Siodmak, and its gloomy social realist themes echoed the moral uncertainty of the era rather than brash American optimism.

When film noir reared its head again in the 1970s, it didn’t just reflect society’s malaise in the face of Watergate and the Vietnam war, but viewed its own past through a modern lens; Chinatown (1974), for example, cast a quasi-feminist light on archetypes such as the femme fatale.

INoir these days is less a genre than a buzzword, aesthetic affectation and parade of superficial tropes, as opposed to an organically occurring reflection of societal malaise, which really is ironic considering we are now living in a real-life Age of Noir

This was also the decade when the word “noir” itself started to be bandied around by English-speaking critics and cinephiles. The genre was soon diversifying into neo-noir (Body Heat), sci-fi noir (Blade Runner) and the 1980s “yuppie nightmare” (After HoursSomething Wild and Into the Night), a blend of noir thriller with screwball comedy, both genres in which an uptight guy is drawn into a dangerous intrigue by a free-spirited femme fatale.

En route there was a detour into erotic noir, exploiting latter-day relaxation in censorship to amp up the femme fatale’s traditional come-hither glances into explicit rumpy pumpy. Basic Instinct (1992) and Wild Things (1998) took eroticism about as far as it could go before on-screen copulation was relegated to direct-to-DVD or Pornhub, and physical desire was effectively erased from mainstream cinema by a new wave of sexless action.

But for the past three decades we’ve had “noir” up the wazoo, with the term now applied willy-nilly to any bog-standard whodunnit or crime thriller. Today’s critics unblushingly refer to “western noir” (The Power of the Dog), “neo-noir” (Last Night in Soho), “neon noir” (Gunpowder Milkshake) “ironic noir” (Joker) and “card-sharp noir” (The Card Counter). Even Kenneth Branagh has got in on the act, declaring that his creative inspiration for Death on the Nile, an Agatha Christie adaptation he directs and stars in as Hercule Poirot, was film noirs like Double Indemnity. If contemporary filmmakers rarely go as far as monochrome, they often desaturate the colour to give a fashionable steely-blue or ochre tint, or bathe it in a warm glow of nostalgia.

In effect, noir these days is less a genre than a buzzword, aesthetic affectation and parade of superficial tropes, as opposed to an organically occurring reflection of societal malaise, which really is ironic considering we are now living in a real-life Age of Noir.

In the third decade of the 21st century, moral uncertainty has metastasised into a permanent fixture of our everyday lives, along with “alternative facts”, false equivalence, gaslighting, an untouchable autocracy, and failure to hold miscreants accountable for their actions. We could almost be trapped in Chinatown, minus the period trimmings.

“Right now, we need to talk about how dark a moment it can be when we don’t distinguish clearly between lies and truth,” De Toro told The Times in a recent interview. Yet his Nightmare Alley, for all its exquisite craftsmanship, remains stubbornly enmired in period pastiche, admittedly gorgeous (those Art Deco interiors!) but at a safe remove from what’s happening in our lives rather than holding a mirror up to it.

There is always room for lavish period remakes, or for recycling the hard-boiled work of golden-age crime writers such as Dashiell Hammett or James M Cain. And yet, beyond the bailiwick of the English-speaking film industry, there remains a vibrant strand of genre cinema in which creators seem genuinely engaged with the zeitgeist.

I’m talking about films like The Chaser (South Korea) or The Wild Goose Lake (China) or The Nile Hilton Incident (set in Egypt but, for political reasons, shot elsewhere) or Just 6.5 (Iran) or A Dark, Dark Man (Kazakhstan). You probably won’t have heard of any of these titles, but I would contend they channel the true, desperate spirit of noir more acutely than any number of feel-good, faux-noir nostalgia fests.

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Very interesting point of view. Made me want to see the films mentioned at the end. As far as NIGHTMARE ALLEY goes, I do feel the new version is a far better film than the original. I think it more closely reflects the book. That said, neither film version accurately captures the lead character’s rise from carny worker to upper class con spiritualist. The book is fascinating in that respect and the character’s rise is a potent comment on class hierarchy. The novel is also much more sad and grim than either film.


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