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Noir-crazy helmer John Dahl keeps genre alive

IN A COVER STORY a couple of Sundays ago about “The Case of the Missing Film Genre,” the L.A. Times Calendar section plausibly questioned why so few of today’s bestselling mystery novels get made into movies. One of the chief answers is that authors are reluctant to see the rights to running characters tied up by one producer, although it’s also true that many contemporary hardboiled tales get optioned without ever going before the cameras.

Still, there is one young filmmaker faithfully upholding the noir tradition of down-on-their-luck heroes, treacherous women, ruthless killers, loads of drinking and smoking, and jaw-dropping betrayals and plot twists. He is John Dahl, whose five-year career thus far consists of three films. All of them are down-and-dirty mystery thrillers with the right mix of shady characters, sleazy intrigue, self-deprecating humor, upfront sex, tawdry style and bad attitude to make them stand out as the best of their kind on an admittedly parched contemporary landscape. Impressively, all stem from original screenplays.

Together, “Kill Me Again,””Red Rock West” and “The Last Seduction” cost less than $ 10 million apiece, and all have had their problems achieving any kind of profile in the marketplace. MGM/UA had no idea what to do with “Kill Me Again” in 1989, but despite few people having seen it, this tasty rough draft for Dahl’s subsequent work managed to develop a minor cult reputation. In it, bad girl Joanne Whalley-Kilmer tries to outwit homicidal boyfriend Michael Madsen and dazed private dick Val Kilmer in order to keep a large stash of cash all to herself.

Dahl should have moved decisively onto the scene last year with the outrageously good “Red Rock West,” in which Nicolas Cage’s dufus on the range is mistaken for a hit man for hire. But existing cable and video deals pretty much precluded a major theatrical release. It was only after exposure in those markets that the persistent belief in the picture on the part of Roxie Releasing’s Bill Banning was validated, as the film is now establishing itself as a specialized niche favorite.

Similarly, Dahl’s brand-new effort, “The Last Seduction,” in which Linda Fiorentino stars as a take-no-prisoners vixen who mows down every man standing between her and her ill-gotten gains, received a sizzling response in the Panorama section at the Berlin Film Festival in February. Some distributors, reportedly including Miramax, were very interested in taking it on. Once again, however, an HBO-first deal prevailed, meaning that if this deliciously nasty piece of work is ever seen on the big screen, it will probably be after its tube playoff.

SUCH FIDELITY TO A GENRE — and one that, unlike sci-fi, is more commercially problematic than popular — prompted me to imagine someone steeped in smoky paperbacks from an early age, and compelled me to track down Dahl to find the reasons for his lurid attraction. To my surprise, given the exceptional intricacy of his plotting, his influences lie much more in films than in fiction. “I still feel strange considering myself a writer,” he confessed the other day. “I was an art student at the University of Montana, and I was much more visually oriented when I started in films. In fact, I wanted to be a cameraman.”

Reading Chandler, Hammett and Cain, and living in the Los Feliz area when he first moved to L.A. helped nudge him toward noir territory, but not nearly so much as seeing the films of his hero, Billy Wilder, especially “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard.” Still, Dahl tries to steer clear of deliberate homage to the genre’s past masters. “Where I think people run into problems today is in trying to imitate the other ones too much. People get caught up in Raymond Chandler, in trying to recreate that style. ‘Chinatown’ is the movie that pulled it off most successfully. It put you right back in that time.”

One way Dahl has been able to resuscitate the form for his own purposes is by setting the action outside of L.A. — in the modern wild West in his first two, in small-town upstate New York in the third. “A lot of it for me was taking a noir story and putting it where I grew up, which was Montana. The wide open spaces of Montana are compelling, but also sort of scary. Running into a guy like Michael Madsen in a rest stop in the middle of nowhere (as happens in “Kill Me Again”) is really scary.”

The genesis for his best film, “Red Rock West,” was a single scene. “The initial idea was, a white Cadillac pulls into a small town and a guy goes into a bar and the bartender mistakes him for a killer. It started there.” The key to the film’s success, Dahl maintains, is that the actors, particularly Cage and Dennis Hopper, immediately understood that it was supposed to be funny. “They give you the permission to laugh with the movie rather than at it,” he observed.

DAHL IS IN PRE-PRODUCTION on his first departure from the genre, “Meltdown,” an action thriller set in a nuclear power plant in upstate New York that will be shot in Vienna this summer. “But I’m trying to give it a dark slant,” he adds. Two of his future projects are crime stories set in the West, but the tale that he considers the ultimate modern film noir just unspooled in real life.

“I would love to make the Tonya Harding story. Gillooly’s the perfect chump. Tonya’s the classic femme fatale. There’s something so black at the center of that woman’s heart, that’s so twisted, that she could stand there in the heat of all the press and world attention and say, ‘I didn’t do it.’ That’s noir, as much as ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’

“That sort of betrayal is so classic. The reason a woman is at the center of so many of these stories is that it tips the scales the most. It’s shocking, more so than a man betraying another man. Gillooly just spilling his guts is classic. He was so in love he was willing to do anything, even take the fall and go to jail. It is the perfect noir story.”