Neo-noir films transcend style

'Memento,' 'Drive' hark back, look forward

The film genre that loomed largest among 2001’s critically lauded features didn’t even have a name during its original heyday.

A spate of moody, hard-boiled crime dramas (first triggered by 1942 Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake vehicles “This Gun for Hire” and “The Glass Key”) that ushered in a flood of similar pics in the post-WWII decade were considered simply that — ordinary crime melodramas — until ever-thoughtful French cineastes dubbed the distinctive screen style “film noir” several years later.

American critics and viewers found little worth noting in what were considered mostly bottom-of-the-bill B pics, and nothing more. Age would lend Hollywood’s noir canon increasing stature, however, as well as considerable influence.

That legacy has seldom been more evident than in last year’s crop of neo-noir mysteries, each of which paid tribute to and transcended the once-derided genre.

Christopher Nolan’s ingenious arthouse sleeper “Memento” digs deep into the warped consciousness of a man (“L.A. Confidential’s” Guy Pearce) seeking to avenge his wife’s murder while afflicted with a brain-damage disorder that erases his short-term memory every few minutes.

With one central character suffering from a different form of amnesia, David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” finds elliptical suspense in the shadowy world of Hollywood itself, where power and success often require a Faustian bargain.

Writing-directing team Scott McGehee and David Siegel (“Suture”) radically re-interpret a classic noir story in “The Deep End.” While Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” the clearest genre homage of this bunch stylistically, contrives an original man-in-a-trap nightmare worthy of such pulp masters as Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.

Diving deep

This last year’s noir-indebted crop is notable for the artistry and depth with which its creators reinvent the genre. Nolan’s “Memento” has fascinated repeat viewers with its tricky backwards narrative. “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” the one title here actually set in a classic noir time and place (1949, Santa Rosa, the fictional setting of Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Psycho”), has delighted auds not just with a baroque accidental crime spree of poker-faced protagonist Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), but with the extraordinary B&W period flavor evoked by production designer Dennis Gassner and d.p. Roger Deakins.

Revising the source

Alone among the current group of filmmakers, Scott McGehee and David Siegel based their film on pre-existing material. But “Deep End,” which centers on a desperate cover-up by a present-day Lake Tahoe housewife (Tilda Swinton) of her teenage son’s apparent homicide, drastically refigures both the novel (Elizabeth Holding’s 1947 “The Blank Wall”) and famed movie (Max Ophuls’ 1949 “The Reckless Moment,” with Joan Bennett and James Mason) that predate it.

“The enduring appeal lies in the lead character’s motherliness and her family context,” Siegel says. “We’re attracted to those kind of genre films and story ideas; seeing the bind that ordinary characters get in — those extraordinary circumstances are sort of fun to explore.”

Shot in aqueous widescreen color by d.p. Giles Nuttgens, “Deep End” strikingly departs from the traditional high-contrast, chiaroscuro noir design scheme.

“We chose Lake Tahoe because we’d been based in San Francisco and when we started thinking about water locations — because the story depends on that — we liked its relationship to Reno, which is about an hour away by car,” he adds. “Tahoe is such a beautiful, unique lake, ringed by tall glacial mountains. We tried to take our visual clues from the blue of the lake, the greens, browns and ambers of the forest. We liked the idea of keeping a kind of open, spectral feeling that would underline and highlight aspects of the (imperilled) family.”

McGehee laughs recalling that a French journalist dubbed their acclaimed feature “un film bleu.”

The black soul of noir seems particularly alive — and malevolent — in Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” which began life as a rejected TV series pilot then was retooled into the year’s surprise critics poll-topping triumph.

Angelic blonde Betty (Aussie newcomer Naomi Watts) is drawn into a sinkhole of impenetrable Tinsel Town mysteries when she arrives from the Midwest and is immediately waylaid by Hollywood casualty in distress Rita (Lara Elena Harring), who doesn’t remember what left her alone and shaky. As Lynch’s typically surreal scenario unfolds, nothing is certain in this haunted Hollywood landscape.

“I like films that hold more than one genre,” Lynch says. “I love noir. … I love mood, primarily, a nighttime mood in a city or almost anywhere. But (my) ideas tell me what it’s all about. When the ideas come, they tell you everything.”

Lynch finds L.A., his home since 1970, a particular source of fascination.

“There’s so many fantastic places that still hold the wind of the golden age of Hollywood, and one of those is the Courtyard Apartments (where his two ‘Mulholland’ protagonists live). There’s something about leaving the street and going into a courtyard apartment complex that’s like going back in time.

“There’s a pervasive feeling of the past for me in L.A. Even though ‘Mulholland Drive’ is set in the present day, the film the director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is working on is a period piece, and the lead female characters have a feeling of something from the past. So it’s always an element in the present tense.”

In his three-decade L.A. residency, the auteur has absorbed “a lot of (such) stories that I know of, … they enliven our past and it’ll be just a shame if they’re lost.”

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