Thursday, 12 July 2012

Neon Noir

Since the release of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive last year, larger audiences have become aware that several 80's crime thrillers are a part of a subgenre (or rather, a sub-subgenre). While Hollywood's directors still had the last few remnants of their creative power, several directors directed a string of films that were visually marvelous to behold. They told stories of the seedy underworld of major American cities and pictured them with neon lights and nightly rain-soaked streets. It was a sort of continuation of the Film Noir tradition, only transferred to the 80's, when drug pushers, pimps, panhandlers and other scum were still working more open, and money was the only thing anyone was striving for. But basically, the stories weren't so much about the crime as they were about love, comradeship, diligence, determination turning into obsession, betrayal, hate and anger, revenge, and taking a step in the wrong direction and seeing all the chips fall down as a result. In other words, the way America was back then.

Thief (1981)
Director: Michael Mann

Michael Mann's first theatrical feature-length film determined much of his career from there on. One could argue that he's attempted to remake the same film every decade. If one takes this stance, then  he has surely bettered Thief since then. But it's by no means a bad flick and worth watching for every fan of Mann's unique crime movie style. Thief's plot is about as basic for Mann as it gets: A professional criminal plans to do the biggest heist of his career and retire undefeated. In this case, the central figure is safe-cracker Frank (James Caan), who dreams of a normal middle-class life with wife and kids after years of being in-and-out of prison. He sets out a plan to accomplish his grand plan, which means wooing a local waitress Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and working for a notorious mob boss (Robert Prosky). But when convincing himself he's ultimately out for a good cause, he underestimates the greed of his fellow workers.

Mann's way of showing criminals as ordinary entrepreneurs chasing the big American Dream, is not actually a new idea for a crime film. But it is still a parallel he does undeniably well. Frank is the sort of person that thinks that aiming for a completion of dreams means a fairy tale ending for the diligent. He won't change his plans even when his world around him start crumbling. His best friend and father figure Okla (Willie Nelson) is a good measurement of this. Frank figures he can get the terminally ill Okla free from jail before he dies, but fails miserably, if only because he has too much else occupying his mind to accomplish it. Prison is presented to be the ultimate evil, the death of all hopes and dreams, and the freedom to be able to work one's way to the top.

Thief still misses out a bit in being a true classic. The romances in Mann's films have always felt forced and hollow. The director might be making a point in that in showing that Frank figures romance should be a part of his glorious future and thus passionlessly chases after the first girl that comes around. Jessie herself does not seem to be the sharpest pencil in the box since she can't really see past Frank's dreamer coating and figure that he's heading towards disaster. But the film still wastes way too much time lingering in these two cold fish and their relationship's development, when the big job and the seedy criminals swarming around it would be much more interesting. Mann owes a huge debt to Jules Dassin's Rififi, particularly at his major heist scene. Sadly, the unbelievably strong thrills of safe-cracking aren't duplicated. But the brutal and action-packed ending is a wonder, and makes the whole ordeal into a major American tragedy.

★★★ 1/2

To Live And Die in L.A. (1985)
Director: William Friedkin

Friedkin's magnum opus (at least from his crime catalogue) divides audiences to this day. Many dismiss it as just another TV late-night cop thrillers that's all style but no substance. The fact is, this is the sort of film that only reveals its grandeur on cinema screens. I myself was dismissive of the film until I saw it in a movie theater. That's not to say there aren't some goofy parts (like the inexplicably strong homoerotic vibe it gives, or the Naked Gun-worthy, oddly racist opening scene where William Petersen protects the US President from Arab terrorists) and perhaps it runs a bit too long. But fact of the matter is, it's a damn near masterpiece as it is.

A ruthless counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe) earns big money and avoids capture. He considers himself an artist and runs an art gallery during the daytime. The LAPD have been on his tail for a long time, yet he always manages to stay one step ahead of them. But Jim Hart (Michael Greene), an old, wise cop nearing retirement, happens upon one of Masters' hideouts at the wrong time, and gets brutally murdered by the criminal mastermind. Hart's protegee and partner Richard Chance (William Petersen) vows to avenge his death and to arrest Masters whatever the cause. And that may mean crossing the line into criminal territory, and committing acts of violence to get the information to get to Masters' tail. He is partnered with the more timid John Vukovich (John Pankow), who tries to keep him in line, with poor results.

The film moves in a very morally grey area. Masters is presented to the audience as a sort of anti-hero, who's mild-mannered, polite, smart and charismatic. He's a real ladies' man as well, rather than a real sleazebag surrounded by thugs all the time. So when he does kill another likable character, it comes off as a shock. Chance by contrast is an angry young man, viable to act before thinking. He acts aggressive towards women, particularly his stripper/call-girl/girlfriend Bianca (Debra Feuer). But he is hard-nosed and adamant in catching the criminals, which leads to several good chases, one by foot in an international airport. The other is the amazing car chase along the passer's lane, which has already come a legend among action scenes. As for the third lead, the weak, wary and weasely Vukovich isn't cut out to be hero material – yet the moment when he finally takes the action into his own hands is both surprising and well-built. Friedkin surely isn't afraid to go against the stream and go for the unconventional and shocking storytelling.

So the actors are great, the script is great, the action is great. What else is there to praise? Oh, Wang Chung's legendary synthesizer score! Friedkin's insistent that things are played as realistic as possible, to the point that the crew actually counterfeited money, filmed in an actual, operational prison, and the car chase... was shot last so as if the cast members would die or injure themselves, since most of their scenes would be wrapped already. This just goes to show what a large pair of balls for uncompromising film making can achieve.

★★★★ 1/2

Fear City
Director: Abel Ferrara

Abel Ferrara is the sort of director that specializes in bringing out the worst sleaze and dirt from New York City. Fear City is among his first steps towards mainstream, after cheap grindhouse films such as Driller Killer.

Which is also probably why this was advertized as a giallo in France.

A mysterious psychopath follows young strippers and hookers home or to a back alley and brutally murders them. Strip joint owner Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger) starts to worry his will affect his business, since girls are scared to go out at night and thus refuse to come perform. The tough police detective Al Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams) warns him to not interfere with his investigations, and taking law into his own hands. But since Rossi's business has ties to the mafia, he has to find the culprit before he's completely ruined. So, he hires a bunch of mob enforcers to set up a trap for the serial killer.

If Friedkin's or Mann's protagonists act in a morally grey area, Ferrara has it all pitch black. Every single character in his movie is bad, or worse, crooked, dishonest, sleazy, greedy and violent. Or rather, that's just the males that are actual characters. All the women are strippers and hookers, only existing as a source of income for the men. So the film's bleak worldview can't be said to be particularly feministic.

This is a man's world.

But as the title suggests, this should all be taken in context of what Ferrara is saying about New York. Fear brings the worst up in people, and justifies brutal methods in the minds of his characters. Even if innocents get hurt, Ferrara's protagonists merely shrug and don't give another thought to anything else but to nailing the murderer. The whole thing is laced with deliciously black humor. Particularly Michael Gazzo's Italian mob underling insulting a pudgy stripper on the phone while complaining to Rossi, is absolutely hilarious. The film does have a few flaws. It repeats itself quite a lot, particularly in the scenes where the slasher kills another victim. The ending is also a bit anti-climatic and counters the film's point about vigilantist justice. But it's just as well, as mostly this is a very enjoyable sleazefest.

★★★ 1/2


  1. Nice post. I love neon noir 80s movies. Would you consider No Mans Land (1987) to be Neon Noir?

  2. Thanks! I haven't seen No Man's Land, but I'll check it out if the opportunity rises.



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