The Matrix (US, 1999)

They needed gun

They needed guns

The Matrix was a landmark special effects film; I still remember my awe when Trinity (above left) leapt in the air and froze as the camera tracked around her. Bullet time had arrived just before the turn of the century and CGI started its rule of Hollywood. The Matrix was more than a special effects extravaganza though, its subversive plot was seamlessly integrated with the digital wizardry and the knowingness of the action sequences justified their hyperbole.

I hadn’t seen the film for a number of years but it has stood up well. It was the Wachowski Brother’s second feature (after the superb Bound, US, 1998) and they integrated their cinephilia superbly into the mise en scene. The noir narrative is fully complimented by the set design. They haven’t managed much since unfortunately.

The Game (UK, 2014)

Satisfying complex

Satisfying complex

I’ve no idea why the BBC shelved this spy drama for 18 months and ran it on BBC America six months before its UK premiere as Toby Whitehouse’s series is top drawer. It convincingly recreated dingy 1970s complimented by an excellent cast and a suitably noir narrative that managed to pull all its threads together without too much straining of credulity. I think I read somewhere that it was a mix of Spooks (action-orientated) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (both the TV series and the film): that just about sums it up.

Red Riding Trilogy (UK, 2009)

No way out

No way out

Being a bloke whose formative years were before Gazza cried at the 1990 World Cup Finals, tears are something that are a foreign land to me (except when my dad died). So when I found a tear trickling down my cheek at the end of the final part of this trilogy, based on four David Peace novels, I knew I’d been watching an extraordinary set of films.

The portrayal of West Yorkshire, where I live, during the 1970s and 1980s, when I – thankfully – wasn’t here, is as bleak a picture as you could hope (?) to see. The pervasive police corruption (I notice today it’s been announced that complaints against the police in Britain have gone up 10%) that drains society of the rule of law is starkly presented. Peace’s novels are a mixture of fact, obviously the Yorkshire Ripper and I remember the case of the man, with learning difficulties, who was ‘fitted up’ for crimes he didn’t commit, and the fiction of artistic license. Maybe it wasn’t quite as bad in Yorkshire, or indeed Britain (though the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four were being incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit at this time), as the films show but there’s no doubt that it was that bad for some.

The noir narrative is difficult to follow, it’s condensed to such an extent – through the use of ellipses – that audiences have to work hard to keep up; as it should be in challenging drama. The large array of characters, brilliantly played by an cast of top actors, adds to the requirement to concentrate. Unusually, each of the three films, 1974, 1980 and 1983, are shot in different formats but despite this, and three directors, the trio are unified by the bleakness of the vision.

Spoilers. The focus of the investigations are into the disappearance and murders of young girls which the police, for reasons of corruption, fail to resolve, other than arresting and torturing confessions out of the innocent. Clearly such narrative problems are highly emotive, there are few things that can encourage anger quicker than the sexual abuse, and murder, of children. However, these always remain in the background, we never see the abductions and hardly see the suffering families because the focus is on the investigations: of a journalist in the first; of the police into police conduct in the second; and the police in the third. So the missing children are abstract and felt only in the way a missing child in reality is noted: we can feel bad and angry about it but, unless we know the people involved, it’s a necessarily detached emotion. By focusing upon the evil, and that’s not too strong a word for the world portrayed here, we are mired in the hell of the time and place. So the ending of the trilogy when, against all expectation, a girl is found alive the emotional release is immense: there can be good in the world too. This is heightened by quite brilliant direction (Anand Tucker), performances (Mark Addy, David Morrissey, Peter Mullan and Robert Sheehan and Peter Mullan) and the parallel editing that links two climactic scenes (Trevor Waite editor and Tony Grisoni script). As the camera rises with Addy’s character, clutching the girl, amongst a swirl of swan feathers… well, it was too much for me!

Gone Baby Gone (US, 2007)

Are the lumpen proletariat beyond redemption?

Are the lumpen proletariat beyond redemption?

When will Casey Affleck stop mumbling? He mumbled his way through Jesse James and he mumbles his way through this convoluted thriller. The plot’s noirish enough without having to hang on his every mangled word. This delivery worked in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) because it suited the character; he was not revealling everything about himself, here it works against the moral clarity his character is meant to embody.

This being a noir narrative, but not in visual style, we can expect to step into a place where morality, if it exists, is not as ‘we’ know it.  Gone Baby Gone guides us through a poor area of Boston, Mass. and, for the most part is engaging enough however it has a terrific final 30 minutes. However, I wonder if the narrative is mangled a little too much to manipulate audience’s viewpoint. For example, the protagonist has two voice overs, at the start and in the central section, placing him as our guide to the seedy side of Boston. However, crucially, at the climax (I’m not going to spoil) we get information that the portagonist, Patrick Kenzie, is not party to which, minutes later, is then reiterated in flashback just to make sure we’ve got it. It’s a narrative cheat that spoils the tour de force ending only a little.

The underworld Kenzie guides us through is the ‘no hope’ poor or, what Orwell prize blog winner NightJack calls, the ‘evil poor’. The suggestion is these are people for whom nothing can be done; so nothing should be tried. This is politically contentious, to say the least: ‘hey why waste money on benefits for these people who are no good anyway?’ As is always the case, the problem is the burden of representation that rests on films that bother to include the underclass; as they are so rarely represented then when they are shown the representation becomes representative.

In this film the ‘evil’ mother creates an exquisite moral dilemma for Kenzie so, dramatically, it’s terrific; but leaves an uncertain taste.

The Black Dahlia (US, 2006)

Now I know film noir is meant to have a convoluted narrative but can someone tell me what was going on? Looked good. (DVD)

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Sin City (US, 2005)

Visually stunning rendition of Miller’s graphic novel. As sexist as the source material, true, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It depends how your read it; and the blokes are not exactly paragons of masculinity. (DVD, 2)

Chinatown (US, 1974)

One of the great films from the New Hollywood of the early 1970s. Nicholson’s superb as the not-quite-with-it Private Dick (don’t find Dunaway convincing though) and the tale of corruption at the heart of America resonates. (DVD, 5)

Sin City (US, 2005)

An extraordinary rendition of the graphic novel. Great – too – if you’re a fan of noir. Is it sexist? Depends on how you read it. Lots of sexily dressed-good looking women; but they are not victims. They do need a bloke to ‘save’ them though. Though the blokes are saps. Depends how you read it. (DVD, 2)

The Maltese Falcon (US, 1941)

Often reputed to be the first film noir (it wasn’t) but it remains a classic. Bogey’s speech at the end is a fabulous summation of the feelings of a man who’s too savvy to be enthralled by lust (though it is a close run thing). Great performances all around, though I think it is difficult, now, to see Mary Astor as being ‘hot’. (DVD, 3)

Mona Lisa (UK, 1986)

Brilliant film noir directed by Neil Jordan. Possibly the best movie on Thatcher’s Britain (though it only deals with her devastation of Britain tangentially) and a thoroughly good thriller. Hoskins at his best as a cockney Everyman and Robbie Coltrane excels as his philosophical mate. Michael Caine’s brilliant too. Chilling movie. (DVD, 4).