The Current State of Film Noir

by Robert Pagán

As part of their TCM Presents series, Turner Classic Movies recently had showings of Double Indemnity, a classic film noir from 1944. Seeing the film brought back the love many have for the genre. But film noir films are not as prominent as it was in the 40’s and 50’s. It seems that there are few and far between as people yearn for more. But are there films that can or have satisfied such an appetite?

Neo-noir has been a term that has been used to describe films and other forms that prominently use elements of film noir, but with updated themes, content, style, visual elements or media that were absent in noir films of the 1940s and 1950s. However, this has been term used over 45 years since 1970. There needs to be something new to describe the films that do come out in such a genre.

That being said there have been great neo-noir films in the past 15 years. There is some hope. Some have been able to capture the essence of film noir is some capacity. Whether the films stick to the book or enact a new path film noir lives on. There are those who use the strategy of actually setting the story in the 1940’s or 1950’s to fit into film noir. Nevertheless, most recent films that exhibit film noir qualities modernized into the time the film is made in. The films that stand out as unique examples of the recent film noir scene includes: Memento, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Brick.


Memento (2000) by Christopher Nolan revolves around a man named Leonard (Guy Pearce) who has lost his short-term memory and is searching for his wife’s killer to seek vengeance.  He is helped along the way by a corrupt police officer named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). As with film noir there is a potential femme fatale named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss). The mise-en-scène in Memento is typical of the film noir genre. The use of lighting, colors, costumes, props and the set in general, have strong film noir roots. Some scenes, however, employ black and white lighting giving them the noir feel. The scenes where colors are used are often dulled and are not as vibrant as they could be. The use of shadows and the contrast of the dark with the light give an objective and rather rational view of Leonard.

What makes the film truly stand out is the narrative structure of the film. It follows a non-linear structure. Although non-linear narratives are not a recurring theme in film noir or neo-noir genres, Memento uses this device to bring out noirish moods and styles. The narrative is divided into two sets. The colored scenes run in reverse chronological order and are intercut by the black and white scenes that are shown chronologically. The confusing order is enhanced further by the voice-over narration a staple of film noir. Memento, however, employs a stream-of-consciousness narration, divulging Leonard’s erratic and confused thoughts as opposed to reliable narrator. He cannot provide perspective on the events of the movie because he has none- he can barely keep track of the previous five minutes of his life, much less make moral judgments on the entire affair.

Other films have taken a more lighthearted approach to film noir. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) is a film about a petty thief Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) posing as an actor for an unlikely audition in Los Angeles and finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation along with his high school dream girl Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) and detective Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) who’s been training him for his upcoming role. As with other noir films the film begins with Harry as the narrator introducing himself as a form of exposition. The narration continues as a flashback-told story.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the old noir style mixed with the popular black comedy. This combination changes the usual mold of film noir. While the film rigidly adheres to much of film noir, it simultaneously turns it on its head. Harry is not the typical protagonist often seen in film noir. He is not a professional detective and that is exhibited in his narration. The audience cannot help losing sight of his dark, morose characteristics when they are too busy laughing at his shoddy narration and fumbling attempts at detective work. However, Harry’s poor detective figure is complemented by the addition of the more suitable Gay Perry. Cynical, street-wise, and an actual detective, Perry is much more of a noir protagonist. But even he cannot be free of the comedy’s touch, and holds claim to some of the film’s best lines.

memento tattoos

Brick (2005) on the other hand sticks to the mold of film noir much more closely than the other films. A story is based around an American high school and the plot is centered on a student named Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). His ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) has been murdered and he sees it as his duty to solve the murder. The storyline is complicated, twisting and non-linear starting at the middle with the first part of the story being a flashback similar to many classic noirs and the second part following a more conventional storyline (starting back at the middle and finishing at the end). The mystery of her murder provides the basis for a typical noir storyline and the various gang members and drug dealers involved reinforce many of the perceptions of noir characters but they fit far more into modern society than the gangsters or detectives in classic film noirs.

Instead of treading a new path Brick references its heritage to film noir. The film pays homage to noirs of the past in many creative ways. Several of the film’s wide-angle shots angle up from street level, giving it noir’s trademark claustrophobic feel. The film’s haunting, melancholy score often evokes both the feeling of a 1940s nightclub, particularly in the scenes that feature interactions between Brendan and the popular girl Laura (Nora Zehetner) who can also be seen as a femme fatale.  The film plays up the Brendan/Sam Spade, Laura/Brigid O’Shaughnessy parallel by referencing a specific moment from John Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1941). In Huston’s film, Spade (Humphrey Bogart) tells Brigid (Mary Astor) that he’ll signal her by using a long-short-long-short ring of the doorbell. In Brick, when Brendan needs Laura to signal him from outside a house, he tells her to use the car horn to make the exact same long-short-long-short sign.


All of the films serve as a testament of the success that film noir can have in the modern landscape of Hollywood film. Each has their own distinctive way of tackling film noir. Memento uses an unconventional structure even for film noir to tell its story. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang steps out of the genre to include satirical comedy as a comment on the genre itself. Brick pays tribute to the noir films that came before it while simultaneously setting the film in the modern day. Although, the term neo-noir can be used to describe all these films a new term needs to be created; a term that would rightly define the films that detach themselves from the genre in unique ways.