Neo-Noirs

21/07/2023

The Texture of Milieu

   Neo-noir is in several ways easy to discern. Usually, the films are in colour, as opposed to classic noir’s black and white, are post-60s works, and social commentary is often more evident than in the earlier work. Numerous classic noir critics, including Paul Schrader and Richard Lingeman, have noted the importance of WWII and even the Korean War on the developing genre, with Jon Weiner noting Detour “…is one of Richard Lingeman’s touchstones in his new book The Noir Forties. For him the film dramatizes how, in the feverish world of immediate postwar America, “guilt is arbitrary, the sentence is death, and there is no appeal.”(Salon) Schrader saw the importance of “the war and post-war disillusionment” (Schrader on Schrader) Yet there is little sense in the post-war films they have a problem with the war itself; it is more that the war has sometimes created problems in the individual. As Raymond Durgnat says: the “returned war hero Alan Ladd nearly puts a bullet in his unfaithful wife.” (‘Paint It Black: The Family Tree of the Film Noir’)

     Classic noir often shows Nazi sympathizers (NotoriousThe StrangerGilda) in hiding. But whatever the presence of Nazis or psychopaths, of people hiding their war pasts or facing the demons war created in them, noir doesn’t indicate problems with WWII itself. Numerous neo-noirs have in their narrative background the Vietnam War as a troublesome event, or the morality of the times in the wake of it or during it, the various sixties assassinations, Watergate, Kent State and the Manson murders. As Andrew Nette says: "the domestic blowback of the Vietnam War. The sleaze and corruption of Watergate. The incipient rollback of the counterculture and many gains of the 1960s. Economic recession. The upheaval and uncertainty in the 1970s may have been tough on America’s collective psyche, but it resulted in some incredibly good crime cinema." 

        One needn’t turn sociological cause into narrative event but we can suggest at least that while WWII might have seemed heroic not only because it was about fighting fascism it was also because the footage released was usually controlled and propagandistic. When John Ford made the documentary The Battle of Midway, Capra and others, Why We Fight, the purpose was to show the value of the war. So much of the Vietnam footage indicated the opposite. When Peter Davis made Hearts and Minds in 1974, this jaundiced and critical account of the conflict went on to win an Oscar even though the war wasn’t yet over. The ceremony was on April 8th. The war ended on April 30th. If noir was steeped in cynicism, self-advantage and greed, this wasn’t quite self-hate, lassitude or national despair. Schrader may have seen the self-hate cinema of the end of the sixties and into the seventies as potentially naïve and romantic next to fifties noirs like Kiss Me Deadly and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, but while Schrader saw in the characters a greater darkness, the backdrop to neo-noir seems darker than the characters occupying them – as if the films' central characters cannot quite countenance the broader decay. Chinatown might be thirties-set, but its disillusionment belongs to the seventies, evident in the ending that Robert Towne changed to satisfy director Roman Polanski’s bleaker vision. Yet it was also one that reflected the times Polanski wanted “a film about the ‘30s seen through the camera eye of the ‘70s,” (Library of Congress) ”The word “Chinatown,” with its echoes of the Far East, where the United States had been mired in an unpopular war, is L.A. cop code for Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway’s attempt to unravel a mystery, a mystery one can never solve or even fully grasp, an absurdist-existentialist synonym for Fate” James Vernier says. “Although set in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, the film reeks of Old World pessimism and post-Vietnam disillusionment and despair.” (Library of Congress

Perhaps one way of understanding a branch of neo-noir is to see in it neo-noir disillusionment as opposed to noir pessimism, to see in the latter a frequent disappointment in the individual that needn’t open up into the societal, while in the former disillusionment suggests the broader corruption of the societal. One can see this not only in the optimistic backdrop so often evident in noirs that show us an underworld that by implication indicates another that isn’t corrupted, but in how the films often conclude on a sense of justice that the Hays code insisted upon. Brian Smith says, “one thing that a lot of Film noir does have in common is devious people doing devious things. As a part of the “Be Carefuls” portion of the Code, criminals always had to receive their comeuppance, and characters could not get away with murder.” (Stage 32) By the 1970s characters might, so even if Schrader could see romantic naivety in later characters and more cynical and smart ones in earlier noirs, the purpose shifted from the individually troublesome to the societially despairing: hence the shift from pessimism to disillusionment. Yet if this shift is fundamental to our look at noir films, one that will also incorporate such British works as Get Carter and The Long Good Friday, then we can also see that at a certain point, neo-noir retreated from examining the society out of which it came, and generated a knowing or melodramatic play with convention. If films like ChinatownNight MovesThe Long Goodbye and Cutter’s Way wished to muse over the social implications, films like Body Heat and Blood Simple, Basic Instinct and Body of Evidence, emphasised the genre conventions and/or hyperbolizes aspects of character and situation. Fredric Jameson may have seen both Chinatown and Body Heat as works that ushered in a self-reflexive, emotionally enervated cinema, as Jameson saw in Star WarsGreaseChinatown and Body Heat an approach to film that made the viewer aware that they were watching a homage or pastiche to an earlier genre. While this seems unequivocal in Grease’s case, likely in Star Wars’, and deliberately so in Body HeatChinatown for us is a film that is part of neo-noir as socio-politically regenerating rather than generically exhausting. Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat cleverly accepts the exhaustion, a contemporary set Florida film about a mediocre, womanising lawyer who gets played by a woman much smarter than himself, one who involves him in a murder plot that he will eventually take the wrap over while she disappears to a tropical island. The film both homages and exaggerates the conventions of noir. It has a femme fatale in white soon enough dressed in black, a fall guy who can’t see he is being played, and a love triangle that will inevitably end in murder. But it also has a sexual explicitness that was brought into the genre alongside Bob Rafelson’s remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, a sexual aspect the genre would play on throughout the eighties and well into the nineties: respectably in Black Widow (also by Rafelson), Fatal Attraction and Sea of Love, hyperbolically as we have noted in Basic Instinct and Body of Evidence, but also in Jade and The Last Seduction, and became the genre of choice for numerous films aimed at the video rental market. It is an insight Linda Ruth Williams explored in The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema: focusing on films like Improper Conduct, Night RhythmsAnimal Instincts and a couple of hundred others.  

But if The Postman Always Rings Twice and Body Heat started the rush for eroticising a genre that always had a sexual aspect in the double-entendres and underlying tensions, nevertheless the films fell into different categories. Body Heat had little interest in locating its sexuality within time and place but simply, and very skilfully, wished to bring out what was sitting behind noir all the time: how did so many fall guys get taken in? Kasdan shows what classic noir couldn’t show: a number of sexually vivid scenes that shows us precisely how the fall guy fell into bed, in love and into jail. The sexualised femme fatale pursues her ambitions at the man’s expense, and the man proves gullible because his libido is on heat: body heat indeed. In contrast, the depression-era set The Postman Always Rings Twice emphasises desperation over ambition, as though greed is merely a by-product of fear. In Body Heat, Ned (William Hurt) earns a decent living as a lawyer and Mattie (Kathleen Turner) is married to a man who it looks like she chose for his wealth. In The Postman Always Rings Twice the characters are much lower down the social scale, with Cora marrying for security and Frank (Jack Nicholson) happy to be off the streets as he starts working for Cora (Jessica Lange) and her Greek immigrant husband. 

          Rafelson is clearly interested in the misery of the era: vividly realized when it looks like Cora and Frank will escape to Chicago and we see the destitute hanging around the bus station; and also the husband’s Greek heritage, evident in a lengthy party scene that like other films of the period, The GodfatherThe Gambler and The Deer Hunter, wants to show the American experience contained respectively by Italian, Jewish, Russian/Ukrainian immigration, a form of ethnographic back story. The sexual earthiness we see in the scene where Cora and Frank screw on the kitchen table, and screwing again after murdering the husband, is part of a general verisimilitude the film seeks. It carries traces of the 70s noirs we will mainly concentrate on, while Body Heat anticipates numerous films that see in the sexual not only a heroine who reckons her way to wealth and success is through her body, but where the actors themselves see that a highly sexualised role can do wonders for their careers. Sharon Stone may very understandably have felt exploited by Basic Instinct but it also made her a star, while Turner noted: “you have to remember that my first big role was Body Heat, and after that I was a sexual target. I understood later, from Michael Douglas, that there was a competition between him and Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty about who would get me first. None of them did, by the by” (Vulture). Turner wisely turned down the advances but was also well aware that they came because of the status her role in Body Heat gave her.

Yet Body Heat’s commodification of the sexual was part of a generic need to play up the artificial: that sex wasn’t about desire between the characters so much as a desire for what the audience wanted to see: a point the low-budget sexual noirs of the 90s didn’t even attempt to hide and the higher budgeted ones like Basic Instinct and The Last Seduction couched in pastiche, irony and virtuosity. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven helmed Basic Instinct with a full awareness of how Hollywood presents the sexual and the violent, and his purpose was to take Hitchcock’s capacity for omission and make it evident. While Hitchcock will zero in on Marion and her lover post coitum at the beginning of Psycho, will show in Vertigo that it is clear that Scottie has removed Madeleine’s wet clothes and put her to bed, Verhoeven fills in the details. The opening of Basic Instinct is unequivocal sex and violence as a woman plunges an ice pick into her lover in the midst of coitus. Later, when Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tremmell throws on some clothes, the detective and the audience sees that doesn’t include underwear. The film’s purpose is to tease and reveal, as relevant to the story as it is to the sexuality. As Verhoeven said: “ you’re always trying to figure out the identity of the killer. Was it Sharon Stone, or perhaps Jeanne Tripplehorn? Everything in the whole film is dedicated to that mystery. In Basic Instinct you don’t meet any of the characters’ families. You have no idea, for example, about George Dzundza’s character—is he married? Does he have any children? There’s really none of that…” (Film Comment

         Equally, the sex in Body Heat, Last SeductionBody of EvidenceJade and Basic Instinct isn’t there to reveal character but to tantalize the audience with the promise of the explicit that it can then reveal in varying degrees of bluntness – a direct approach that classical Hollywood could never begin to show. Verhoeven says “Basic Instinct is more in the tradition of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett mysteries, where you never learn about the social environment of any of the characters because that’s not really the point; it’s about the detective solving the case.” (Film Comment) What the commodified noirs could promise wasn’t only the revelation of the killer, but the exposure of flesh and the pulping of bodies, well aware that the Hays code was no longer in place to prohibit such exposure. Whatever one thinks of Basic Instinct, Verhoeven showed he could take the grammar of Hitchcock and make the film language very vulgar indeed. Margaret Barton-Fumo reckons when speaking to Verhoeven that he has always combined “realism with stylization” (Film Comment), but in the context of his Hollywood films (RobocopShowgirlsStarship Troopers and others) much of that realism has been turned into just stylisation: that the sex and violence he has shown needn’t be seen as realistic but exaggerating the usual Hollywood violence into the grotesque. This isn’t the place to comment on that often brilliant grotesquery (the scene with Ed-209 in Robocop would be a good place to start). It is only to say that Verhoeven more efficiently than most exploited and made one aware of how far American cinema would go in pursuing the bottom dollar by scraping the bottom of various generic barrels. The sort of realism Verhoeven admitted he wasn’t interested in pursuing in his American films (family life; social milieux, complex psychology), was a reflection of what American noir wasn’t much interested in during the eighties and nineties. But while we can come back to this generic reductionism later in the piece, especially within the context of Body Double and also Blood Simple, this essay rests on looking at films which have taken aspects of noir and insisted on using the conventions as a way into psychology, milieu and the underbelly of sex and violence. They have also absorbed in different ways the social climate, often talking not directly about Vietnam or Watergate, the sixties assassinations, the radical political groups and the student protests, but allowing them to permeate the material, even offering variations in the two British films we will incorporate. Most of the films are inevitably set in the present but Chinatown, even if set in the past has more to say about the contemporary than many a present-set genre piece that eschews the socio-political. 

In The Long GoodbyeChinatownNight MovesCutter’s WayThe Friends of Eddie CoyleGet CarterThe Long Good Friday, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, we want to explore what we might call the sub-textural, a variation on the sub-text so often talked about in literature. One way of approaching it is to keep in mind Verhoeven’s remarks about what Basic Instinct doesn’t have. The sub-textural exists when the milieu utilised feels more than a set of pragmatic locations to move the story along, where even the supporting characters possess an existence beyond the frame, and where the political might not be explicit but is implicitly pertinent. Speaking of Chandler’s novel, Edmund Wilson said of The Long Goodbye, “it is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy…the explanation of the mystery when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough. It fails to justify the excitement produced by the picturesque and sinister happenings, And I cannot help feeling cheated.” Pauline Kael quotes Wilson while reviewing the film, saying, “locked in the conventions of pulp writing, Raymond Chandler never found a way of dealing with that malaise. But Robert Altman does.” (Reeling) Altman searches out what we are calling the sub-textural as he gives us milieu as much as story. At first, it can seem like Altman doesn’t know how to tell his tale, that the film meanders and dawdles over pointless incidents, from Marlow feeding his cat in the middle of the night, to a security guard doing Cary Grant impressions at a high-end gated community by the beach. But the story Altman tells isn’t quite Marlowe’s to investigate: rather than a story with a crime it is more a detective with an obligation. His friend Terry Lennox comes to him asking for help. Will he drive him from LA to the Mexican border? It is by helping Terry that he ends up briefly in prison: with the police arresting him after they tell him Terry has murdered his wife. Where is he? Marlowe keeps mum and ends up jailed and interrogated. 

Altman insists on a densely woven texture partly because the case is a little complicated but even more because he keeps giving time and attention to details that have little to do with the furtherance of the plot. When Terry turns up early on asking for help, he and Marlowe discuss the names of the three Di Maggio brothers before Terry makes the request. Later, when the police are questioning him, Marlowe smears his face with the fingerprint ink he has on his hands, turning him blackface as he sings Swanee in homage to Al Jolson. Looking on, through the glass is a black cop who calls him a honky bastard. The film keeps seeking texture over coherence and leaves the viewer absorbing the milieu rather than following the plot. When Marlowe is released after the police say Lennox has killed himself, Marlowe isn’t so curious, and it is only when he is hired by someone looking for her alcoholic writer husband, who has gone missing, that the story takes shape, though Marlowe isn’t really doing too much to give it that shape. Isn’t the detective supposed to lead the investigation rather than following bemused the lives of the LA wealthy? But Altman reckoned the point of The Long Goodbye wasn’t the plot. The director said he was surprised by critics’ reactions: “because I had read a lot of the books, and what Chandler wrote was really a bunch of thumbnail sketches or thematic essays, all about Los Angeles, and Marlowe was just a device to unite them.” (Altman on Altman). The director may have been saying as much about his own work as Chandler’s (especially the later Short Cuts) but central to what makes The Long Goodbye neo-noir is that Altman can insist on a different relationship with the image, absorbing the documentative dimension that allowed films to be captured more than staged. 

If classic Hollywood noir was part of a technological age in film where cameras were cumbersome and sound recording systems literally as big as a truck, by the sixties, filmmakers were using cameras that could be carried on their shoulders and boom mics carried by hand. As documentarist DA Pennebaker noted: the necessary apparatus was beginning to appear in the late fifties: “portable tape recorders; faster film stock; lenses that allowed for shooting in natural light, and an almost overlooked development, the zoom lens.” (Movies of the Sixties) It was difficult for classic Hollywood to work outside the studio, and most noirs were filmed on various backlots, creating a movie LA, one where “in the 1940s and ’50s, when most of the canonical noir films were made, most filming still took place on studio backlots and sound stages.” (La.curbed.com) Sure, there were scenes from Double IndemnityDOA and others that used occasional actual locations, but the genre was studio-oriented and so the thumbnail sketches Altman proposes were vital to the work of Chandler, wasn’t vital to film noirs. In The Long Goodbye they are, and what could be more location-oriented than filming in one’s very own house of the time? “I was living at that same house in Malibu that we shot as the Wades’ house,” Altman said (Altman on Altman). Other locations included Westwood Boulevard, La Brea Avenue and of course High Tower Drive, where Marlowe lives. Though Altman was interested in commenting on the genre he was working within, well aware that Marlowe was a man out of his time and still in a generic world, the emphasis was on the contrast between genre codes and topographic texture. Here we have the hard-drinking, abusive husband, the treacherous wife, the self-aggrandising gangster and the fall guy detective. Yet these are character types located in a world that interacts with a milieu that forces the type into an LA that is soaked in cinema, whose self-reflexivity is announced all the better to suggest they are in the world rather than in a film. We might initially assume that Altman wants to say that LA is like a movie but if it is true that most noirs were filmed on backlots rather than locations, LA is in some ways not like a movie — even if people within the city could be seen to act like they are in a film. When Umberto Eco argues with formalism over what is defined as motif, he says: “If — according to Veselovskij — a motif is the simplest narrative unit, then one wonders why “fire from heaven" should belong to the same category as “the persecuted maid” (since the former can be represented by an image, while the latter requires a certain narrative development.” (Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage) Both are strictly verbs but one suggests an instant action while the other a developing story. At the same time, images often infer a story without necessarily developing one. The persecuted maid we are inclined to assume is persecuted by her boss; if she were persecuted by her husband, she would no longer be the persecuted maid but the persecuted wife. Nevertheless, what we can take from Eco in the context of the maid, is the narrative developments here that suggest the generic and expand beyond it, while keeping in mind that these are characters who don’t act like they are in a movie but do act as if they are in a city that makes movies. We can see that ‘battered wife by drunken husband’ is a motif, just as ‘gangster exercising his power’, ‘treacherous friend’ and ‘controlling psychiatrist’ are motifs too. They demand instantaneous responses and strong inferences. But there is an enormous difference between a film like High Anxiety, or even Body Heat, and The Long Goodbye. In High Anxiety, the film is a constant gag on the tropes to be found in Hitchcock films, and Mel Brooks doesn’t even attempt to take seriously the plot he develops, even if the characters do take seriously the story they are within. In Body Heat, there is a reference at one moment when Ned and Mattie get into a conversation where the dialogue resembles the double entendres of Double Indemnity, and Ned says “I don’t talk like that.” But most of the time the characters are as oblivious to the genre they are in as the audience will be aware of the generic codes practised.   

    Altman’s purpose however seems to be to make us aware less of the genre that he is working in than the city that is saturated by movielore and which inevitably makes characters self-conscious in a way that is not unassociated with film. When Marlowe turns up at the Wades’ house and Mr Wade says she wants him to look for her husband, he asks her if she has any idea where he might be. She says that usually when he leaves like this they have argued, and he isn’t likely to tell her where he has gone. Marlowe wonders whether the reason she hasn’t contacted him sooner even though Wade has been missing for a week may rest on a fear greater than curiosity: “I don’t mean to be tactless Mrs Wade but it doesn’t look like you walked into a door.” Mrs Wade replies: “as a matter of fact I didn’t, I fell out of bed.” She is the abused wife aware of the convention, and yet offers the alternative cliched response less because she is in a film than that she is in LA: it isn’t offered with an awareness the audience possesses that she is oblivious to, but with a self-conscious understanding that Marlowe is a detective, she the battered wife, and in Los Angeles, where a detective could not be unaware of movie conventions.

In Genre, Rick Altman discusses the common elements between such literary theorists as Northrop Frye and Tzitsvan Todorov, including the idea is that “literature is created from literature and not reality.” It wouldn’t be enough for us to deny this claim by saying that cinema, as a recorded art form, escapes the notion as literature does not. How much reality did classic Hollywood let into its world as it recorded images, certainly, but not by most people’s reckoning much of the real if it was filmed in a Hollywood back lot? Yet some films appear more attuned to reality than others, and we can think again of the anecdote about The Long Goodbye: that Altman was living in the house he was using as one of his main locations. But this is only part of the story; more interesting still are the technical problems behind using that house, ones that created complications for the cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond that a studio-oriented shoot wouldn’t have had to worry about. Edward Lipnick noted, that “it was necessary to photograph the party on the sunlit patio, seeing into the shadow detail inside the house, and all in the same shot swing around and photograph the beach and ocean. All on a sunny day! The latitude required was tremendous, and flashing alone wouldn't do it. Vilmos elected to overexpose the film by three stops, flash it 35%, and cut the development time in half. This greatly lowered the gamma of the film, and he was able to hold detail from the bright highlights to the depths of the shadows.” (American Cinematographer

   The precise technicalities needn’t preoccupy us; what matters is, as Zsigmond says, “the closer a film looks like reality and real life, the better it is.” (Filmmaker Magazine) By choosing to shoot in daylight, using just one shot, and returning to the interior, the film sought not to produce a shot any more elaborate than the problem in showing on film the reality of someone moving from a bright exterior to a darkened interior. Zsigmond was, like many of the directors who invigorated classic noir, from Europe, but while Wilder, Siodmak, Lang and Preminger gave to forties a chiaroscuro, studio-oriented look, Zsigmond was a halfway house between Europe meeting California, and the realism practised by many of the New York-oriented cinematographers, who gave noirs and policiers of the seventies a grime-oriented verisimilitude that made a point of filming on the streets. Zsigmond didn’t tend to see realism as grubby without feeling it ought to be poetic, and some of his best works, The Deer HunterDeliverance and especially McCabe and Mrs Miller and Heaven’s Gate, could be seen as painterly. Many New York works showed the influence of street photography, with anything from The Seven-UpsThe French ConnectionAcross 110th StreetDog Day Afternoon and The Taking of Pelham 123, determined to capture New York as a city messy, chaotic and filthy. The photography may have often been as elaborately realistic as Zsigmond’s on The Long Goodbye, but often of a more cruddy sort. Owen Roizman, who shot The French Connection, and The Taking of Pelham 123, says, “the reason one chooses a location is because of the way it appears by eye….now if you go into that location, and all of a sudden. start to light it up and change the characteristics of the place, you may change the whole look of the location, the whole mood of it. So, if you can capture on film the way it appears to you in person, that’s optimum.” (Masters of Light

If neo-noir had a point and purpose beyond pastiche, it surely rested on its ability to absorb the genre into location shooting, into at least a relationship with the image that didn’t exaggerate the codes but found a way of seeing how a more documentative image could incorporate them. Chinatown may be period set, but plenty commentators have remarked on the Watergate mood that permeates the film. Philip French noted that “Chinatown was conceived, written, produced and released in the troubled period that included the last years of the Vietnam war, Watergate and Nixon's fraught second term in the White House.” (Guardian) While one needs to be wary of insisting on seeing allegories, metaphors and social comment behind works that may be clearly evident in the comments by critics and filmmakers, yet relatively absent from the film, it appears that numerous seventies films, once attending to codes beyond the generic, found they couldn’t but incorporate an aspect of the socio-political. Stanley Kauffmann may have said dismissively that “…this isn’t just a detective story, folks, it’s an allegory. Of what? American moral decay, of course, and especially, you’ve guessed it — Watergate.” (Before My Eyes). But better to see Night Moves, like many a neo-noir, as permeating rather than allegorical. In the Sight and Sound interview Kauffmann quotes, Penn says, after being asked if we figure out what happened in the film, “not really. I think you were supposed to take it as much on faith as, let’s say, Watergate. You don’t understand the plot of Watergate, do you?” Later he says that he feels “that politically and spiritually and morally” at this point the US is bankrupt, and perhaps the best way to see the film is a reflection of this malaise in the country. The more a filmmaker draws on the world around them, the more this perception of that world will likely bleed into the work they are doing, and in this sense, Night Moves can be seen as the opposite of an allegory. The allegorical “…represents one thing in the guise of another — an abstraction in that of a concrete image' (A Handbook to Literature), while central to many of the neo-noirs is making the reality out of which noir came more acknowledged. Penn is saying that in a world where the narratives in our political lives are confusing, and where cover-ups obstructing the truth common, how can we then have neat and tidy plots that allow for clear resolutions? In very different ways, both Chinatown and Night Moves insist on utilizing the political to comment on the personal, all the better to understand how one can comprehend self and society. Penn says “I’m trying to say that the solution lies in some kind of interior investigation, that the detective story is inwards rather than outward….we know the mystery is also outside but I don’t think there is any solution outside.”(Sight and Sound) We will say in a moment how this works in Chinatown, but how does it work in Night Moves

        Here we have central character Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) apparently cracking a simple case. He is hired to find a teenage runaway and return Delly to her mother and, after travelling to New Mexico, he finds her in Florida with her stepdad and his lover; she agrees to return to her mother after a frightening incident when, swimming at night off a boat, she sees the decomposing body of a pilot. The job thus proves straightforward, returning Delly (Melanie Griffith) to her mother, even if the process of that return involves numerous peculiarities and sub-mysteries as Moseby looks for Delly in New Mexico after an LA mechanic, who was having an affair with Delly, tells him she went off with a stuntman when they were all down there on location. The mechanic is bruised and all but says he got the injuries in a fight with the other lover. Later, in Florida, Delly comes on to Moseby and appears too to have had a fling with her stepdad. When Moseby returns Delly to her mum, an hour has passed but the film is far from over, and this rests on the character convolutions and the half-observed mysteries thus far. By the end of the film, we might be able to piece it together enough to say that most of the characters unbeknownst to Moseby have been involved in a major smuggling operation between Yucatan and the United States, and the decomposing body wasn’t just someone they stumbled across out at sea, but someone who was involved in that operation and where a piece of pre-columbian art was on the boat. 

    At the same time, Moseby has been breaking up with his partner and uses his detective skills here as well. As his wife’s lover says, after Moseby admits he discovered the affair by following them, “isn’t that what you do, look for clues?” Harry is an adopted child who even saw the search for his father as part of deduction, telling his wife, “I was really quite proud of myself, the way I tracked him down. I followed all the clues…” Harry thinks that he can sort things out by working out plots, but the biggest mystery might be himself. When he gets back with his wife on his return to LA, he promptly leaves again for Florida, trying to piece together a bit more of the story even as he is risking once again his marriage going to pieces as a consequence. When his wife sees him off at the airport, he says he will be back no later than Friday, but his wife can see no reason why he is going at all: couldn’t he have just told the police what he knew and left them to investigate? But the reason is reason, a belief that you can solve problems out there in the world and this will return a person to a modicum of certitude. This is what Penn wants to deprive the viewer of, just as Moseby cannot quite eradicate unease with resolution, and just as a country that has gone through so much tumult in the sixties and seventies cannot be expected to arrive at resolution either. The film seeks to capture a milieu more than tell a story, and so the story remains in the semi-background of a work that asks us to look at the messiness of people’s lives and see how much of the story is in that and not just in a plot that can be worked through. Whether it is Delly, a promiscuous sixteen-year-old, a mother who is alcoholic, Moseby and his wife childless and a stepfather Tom Iverson who clearly has designs on his teen stepdaughter, the film isn’t moralising, but it is interested in containing the story within the convolutions of people’s lives, and concluding with enough of a narrative focus for us to make provisional sense of events. Yet not so much that Moseby can resolve things and thus propose that reason wins out. 

When Verhoeven says that he was well aware in Basic Instinct that it was all about the identity of the killer, Penn might say it is all about the milieux in which people find themselves: LA, New Mexico, Florida. Understanding how these worlds function, how the people within them interact, is more important than categorical explanations. When the mechanic talks about a fight with the stuntman, this isn’t a fight we see but we hear about, and hear about it from a man whose perspective may be far from reliable even if the story is corroborated. It is confirmed when Harry gets to the set in New Mexico, by the stuntman who beat him up, a man, however, even more disagreeable than the mechanic. When the stuntman says he had slept with both Delly and her mother we might assume he is capable of lying but even more capable of having no qualms about sleeping with them both. We don’t believe him because he seems honest; we believe him because he is odious. Yet even if Harry is much more agreeable than the mechanic and the stuntman, Penn reckoned he “liked Bonnie and Clyde a lot more than Harry Moseby.” (Sight and Sound) It is thus less a film about detecting a killer than deducing behaviour, comprehending the chaos of people’s lives in the intricacies of the story Penn tells. However, we needn’t see this as the fallacy of imitative form, which, in Yvor Winters’ words, is when a poet claims they are “justified in employing a disintegrating form in order to express a feeling of disintegration,” which for Winter “is merely a sophistical justification for bad poetry.” (‘Primitivism and Decadence: A Study of American Experimental Poetry’) Night Moves brilliantly manages to capture much of the societal disintegration without quite disintegrating the form of the film itself. The plot is there more or less to be worked out but the detective doesn’t solve the case, and the viewer will be left wondering over certain details that they can only piece together with the assumption we believe the claims that are made by the various characters. Just as we never see the fight that leaves the mechanic with cuts and bruises, though we don’t doubt it has taken place, so we can say with some confidence how the story pieces together involving the connections between the various locations, LA (the mechanic, Delly and her mother), New Mexico (the stuntman and the avuncular older stuntman, Joey Ziegler), and Florida (Tom Iverson and his partner). One may even wonder if in some way Harry’s wife might be involved, however accidentally, and too the guy who runs an agency that gives Harry some extra work. She owns an antiques store in LA and when Harry visits the agency he fiddles around with some ancient Mexican artefacts; the very things that Iverson and co have been involved in smuggling, as we will find out later. Yet while some aspects of the plot can be confidently asserted (that Iverson has been smuggling artefacts and that the stuntman, who slept with Delly, turns out to be the decomposing body that Delly sees when she goes swimming), others are more speculative. The story isn’t cleanly told so that culprits can be found, but offered in a way that the muddiness of contemporary America can be delineated. Harry is damaged goods functioning as best he can in a damaged society. 

          In Chinatown, writer Robert Towne and Roman Polanski could have focused on the incestuous story of a father Noah Cross and his daughter Evelyn and what happens when central character JJ Gittes falls in love with her. But while that story is finally of the greatest importance (the film’s twist hangs on it), much of the film concerns what would seem in another film to be the sub-plot, one investigating land issues in California. Here it isn’t a background detail but a socio-political exploration within the body of a noir. If corruption is often a code within the genre, a convention that Raymond Durgnat notes while quoting Raymond Chandler’s famous formulation: “Down these mean streets must go a man who is not himself mean ... “ Durgnat notes that this “this knight errant relationship has severe limitations. The insistence on city corruption is countered by the trust in private enterprise…” (‘Paint It Black: The Family Tree of the Film Noir’) But if the film says city corruption cannot be countered by private enterprise, the private detective has then to compete on narrative terms with the corruption that will win out in the end. Gittes is a private eye but that is half the problem — he can only see what is in front of his eyes and may miss other things that are taking place literally behind his back. Though the film is almost entirely shown from Gittes’s perspective, there are moments when he is oblivious to what is happening even in the very frame he occupies. In one scene, Gittes is sitting eating while the villainous Noah Cross is standing in the foreground. They have their backs to each other and we watch Cross’s face as Gittes tells him exactly when he last saw Evelyn’s late husband. Cross’s facial expression completely changes but Gittes isn’t privy to it. The private eye is only that; an eye limited by his purview, and Polanski makes much of this limitation by refusing to leave Gittes’s perspective while also generating a complex sub-plot. Usually, the plot and subplot are distinct, perceptual things even if they usually dovetail with the main story. King Lear is a brilliantly complex example with many scenes focusing on characters other than Lear, including two of his daughters’ relationship with Edmund. Here, though, the subplot which could have been shown cutting away from Gittes’s focus, is absorbed completely into his perceptual field. When he investigates the water supply in the valley, he gets beaten up after the farmers assume he is working either for the water company or the real estate people. He says he is a private investigator sent down by a client to see if the water department has been irrigating their land. The farmer tells him that the water department has been out there blowing up his water tanks, and putting poison in his wells as Gittes gets information that could have been conveyed in an earlier scene if the film didn’t hold to the detective’s viewpoint so strongly.  

Potentially there is a paradox here, and a dramatic undernourishment. Aren’t filmmakers in the latter instance constantly being told to dramatise their work and here we have an action conveyed in language? Also, if we are claiming that central to many of the best neo-noirs is the texture of reality they access, then surely better to offer a crosscutting examination of the milieu? Yet several of the films we are discussing in this essay remain almost exclusively focused on the central character (The Long Goodbye, Night MovesChinatown), others half fill out the broader context by leaving the leading character behind (Charley VarrickThe Friends of Eddie CoyleThe Long GoodbyeCutter’s Way). But in both instances, that broader context is accessed. Just because a film limits point-of-view doesn’t mean that it has become solipsistic in its intentions. Instead, it means that potentially greater ambiguity can be generated. If a film decides it can access information narrowly then there is no reason why at the same time it cannot allude to it broadly. Let us contrast The Long Good Friday with Chinatown, both films very good on a powerful man interested in expanding his empire. In the former, Harold (Bob Hoskins) is absent for the first nine minutes of the film, as director John McKenzie details why he will soon find his empire falling apart rather than expanding, and after this, later in the film, several scenes will still focus on situations that will not involve him — for example when his wife takes the Americans who are in town for dinner, while Hoskins tries to find out who is targeting his gang. Even though in those first nine minutes, the film gives us a lot of information that we can piece together, we aren’t quite in the know as to why exactly people have killed his best friend, have blown up another colleague with a car bomb, and taken out his pub with high-level explosives. But when ninety minutes into the film his right-hand man Jeff (Derek Thompson) admits that he and others have been dealing with the IRA behind his back (and that was what we saw in those nine minutes) we don’t doubt that his colleague is telling the truth. We have seen it with our own eyes even if Harold hasn’t. The film could have removed those first nine minutes and given us this information in flashback as Jeff details what happened, or he could have relayed it to Harold without showing us what happened at all. If the film were chiefly about Harold’s enveloping paranoia this latter option might have been the way to go, and if the film was mainly interested in the whodunnit element of finding out what happened the flashback approach might have been the most effective. 

But Mackenzie wants to tell a story of man who sees himself as a decent fellow, a patriot who wishes to make London the centre of Europe and to go global with the Americans involved as well, as he talks about building up London docklands and making it great once again. The film is about a London that wants to go international but hasn’t quite sorted out problems within its own borders as the IRA won’t just go away. When Jeff tells him that the councillor who gets paid by Harold to do him favours also has to keep the IRA happy, as numerous Irish workers won’t work on London building sites unless some of the cash goes to those fighting for Irish self-determination, Harold can’t believe these “redneck terrorist scum” have been killing his henchmen and destroying the chance of a major business deal. The film isn’t at all about Harold’s paranoia; it is about his hubris — his belief not only that he can expand his empire far beyond the parameters of his ‘manor’, but take on a terrorist organisation as well. “For christ sake, they’re not interested in money, They’re political, they’re fanatics”, the councillor says, trying to persuade Harold that he can’t just buy them off or treat them like gangster rivals. The film offers elements of the whodunnit and paranoia, but by showing what sets the bombings in motion without quite giving us enough of a context to understand initially what has happened, the film allows for only a small amount of revelation in Jeff’s confession to leave is no any doubt that this is what happened. If the film had offered it in flashback we might have been in a position to question Jeff’s story and this would have worked well to exacerbate Harold’s paranoid thinking, but if we accept the film is about his hubris, his belief that nobody is bigger than he is, that he can make London great again and eradicate a terrorist organisation, it finds the best narrative organisational principle for such a theme. 

In contrast, Chinatown wants to offer a skilful detective in over his head, a man who can countenance corruption but can’t quite entertain evil; someone who is both rational and cynical but isn’t quite capable of thinking the worst. Thus the film is very much predicated on revelation but this is psychoanalytic as readily as deductive. Near the end of the film, after Gittes and Evelyn have slept together, Gittes says he wants to know exactly what is going on. She says that the person who she has been hiding and then claimed was her sister is actually her daughter. Gittes slaps her as she says she is her sister, then says her daughter, as Gittes keeps slapping her. Finally, Evelyn admits that the woman is her sister and her daughter as she acknowledges an incestuous relationship between her father and herself. Afterwards, she says: “understand, or is it too tough for you?” Gittes is a detective not a psychoanalyst: he solves problems based on clear motives. When he is trying to get a story straight enough so that he won’t have his detective licence revoked, and offers a plausible version of events involving Evelyn having enough money to shut up the person she has been hiding away, he offers it as the sort of case he can solve. Evelyn was jealous over the other woman, they fight, her husband ends up dead and she doesn’t want the other woman killed but has more than enough money to keep her quiet. Hence the deductive skills — but not the psychoanalytic ones required. Earlier in the film, Evelyn is in Gittes’ office and they are going through the case when Evelyn lights a second cigarette and Gittes notes that she has already got one going. She starts to shake slightly and though he offers what might seem a psychoanalytic line “(does my talking about your father upset you?), Gittes is the detective inclined to look for signs of lying rather than symptoms of denial. 

In The Long Good Friday, the point is to comprehend the vastness of Harold’s empire but shows, too, ambition much greater that will generate his downfall. Both Chinatown and The Long Good Friday are equally good at suggesting the broader picture, in showing the corruption involved in Los Angeles and London. But Harold isn’t blind, he is merely confused: McKenzie’s film needn’t play up too much the revelation, while in Chinatown the revelation is vital because Gittes has seen the story too narrowly. He has been so absorbed in finding out how corrupt Cross happens to be that he fails to understand how evil he is as well. By the end of the film, Evelyn will be dead but his other daughter is still alive, and taken away by Cross to ‘protect’ her, as we expect the abuse to continue into the next generation, just as Cross’s power will continue beyond his life span. He already has a granddaughter he has fathered and now may have a great-granddaughter too, while his dynastic interests will be enormous as he will control the LA water supply. What can you buy that you can’t already afford” Gittes asks. “The future, the future Mr Gittes.” This includes controlling the city’s water and also the gene pool. There is no Oedipal aspect to The Long Good Friday; nothing but Oedipus in Polanski’s film, a point numerous critics have pointed out including John Belton in an essay ‘Language, Oedipus and Chinatown’. 

Here Belton starts by noting that Laura Mulvey saw the rise of psychoanalysis coinciding with the popularity of detective fiction, and while both seem very much concerned with detection, one might wonder if the difference rests partly on detection as deduction and detection as symptomology, with the first relying on reason and the second on empathy. The therapist is usually someone in an empathic alliance; the detective in a state of hard-boiled suspicion. And even if Mulvey is right to see many similarities between the detective and the analyst, numerous detective films (from The Long GoodbyeDouble IndemnityTouch of Evil) needn’t be seen through the lens of the psychoanalytic. In Chinatown (like Night Moves), though, we can see the familial problem that needs understanding more than it needs comprehension. If in Chinatown, Gittes ought to have pushed Evelyn further on that nervousness she feels while speaking about her father, as she lights a second cigarette, in Night Moves, Moseby’s wife well-knows that his need to find out the truth about his father cannot be resolved simply by tracking him down. Partly what makes Chinatown a great film isn’t just that Gittes replicates a tragedy in the district of Chinatown but that he does so partly by needing to understand the broader societal implications but to the detriment of the emotionally symptomatic. What Polanski does is tell the story through Gittes’s eyes but, like Oedipus, he is following the wrong story — in the sense that while Cross’s corruption, exploitation and political manipulation is evident, Gittes is but a tiny figure who can do little to change anything, and this is reflected in the story of the water proving important within the narrative but not important enough for the film to deviate from Gittes to tell it. The revelation doesn’t rest on Cross wanting to control LA water but on Evelyn’s disclosure about her father’s abuse. The personal may not quite be the political but it is the personal Gittes could perhaps have done something about. However, he reads Evelyn for most of the film as a deductive rather than a psychoanalytic problem and looks for clues rather than symptoms. When he visits Evelyn at her house he says; “May I speak frankly Mrs Mulwray” and Evelyn replies: “You may if you can, Mr Gittes.” By the end of the film, we can read in her line a meaning that we wouldn’t have assumed: that she never could speak frankly about the incest. A therapist may have picked up on such a line but that is not the dynamic Gittes and Evelyn have even if, before the end of the film, they will become intimate enough to share a bed.  

This is not to suggest the investigation into LA water isn’t important to the plot. It seems much more important than it would generally be in a classic noir, or in what we might call meta noirs (Body HeatBlood SimpleBasic Instinct and so on where the generic codes become amplified while any notion of a broader reality recedes). But it does remain in the background. It has to do so because the story’s restrictive point of view can only show the corruption through Gittes’s investigation rather than crosscutting to show the magnitude of the problem. Like Night Moves and The Long Goodbye, the directors’ brilliance rests on making films where if the political isn’t quite the personal, the personal cannot quite ignore the malaise around which the film functions. In all three films, the detective is naive, next to the classic detective played by Bogart, not because they are any more stupid than Bogart’s Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. No, it is that the complexity of their world is such that it outstrips their deductive capabilities. If Mulwray was merely lying to Gittes he could have solved the case: he is smart enough not to let others get one over on him, but who is smart enough to realise that their deductive skills need to be met with psychoanalytic ones? If in Chinatown, Gittes would need to understand psychoanalytically Evelyn, in Night Moves, Moseby would need to understand himself: to apply the therapist’s eye towards his damaged upbringing. In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe is a little like a marriage guidance councillor who wants to understand better the workings of the Wades’ marriage, but therapy has now become a ruthless business — it is the terrible Dr Verringer who controls Roger Wade with bullying and intimidation. It seems that a successful seventies detective needs not just a healthy sense of cynicism and common sense, but also a textured understanding of human complexity and the environment in which people are mingling. When the huge Wade rails against the tiny doctor we might wonder why he so completely backs down in front of the little man, but back down he does, as Altman shows us that deduction would have to become now but a part of the detective’s arsenal.

In Get Carter, the titular Jack (Michael Caine) heads up north to find out who killed his brother, Frank, determined to get revenge when he arrives in Newcastle. But more importantly, director Mike Hodges involves him in a complicated milieu that he no longer quite understands. He may have been born there and made good as a gangster in London, but the confidence he shows and that should leave him capable of taking on anyone who gets in his way, becomes a hindrance as all around him become increasingly irate by his attitude and behaviour. The film is wonderfully sub-textural as it indicates a world far beyond the case Carter investigates, even if all the characters he confronts and comes into contact with are interrelated. Like The Long Goodbye, the film focuses mainly on its central character and so we sense that there is a world that precedes him in the north and that he has clumsily fallen into as he finds that one character after another is implicated in his brother’s murder. The confidence he shows is also the ignorance that has accumulated: making good in London has made him good at beating people up and putting them in their place, never more impressively than when he takes on a burly local businessman and says: “you’re a big man but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full-time job, now behave yourself.” However, Carter hasn’t been behaving himself either: he sleeps with his landlady and also the businessman’s mistress, breaks into the regional bigwig Kinnear’s (John Osborne) house, and lets a person who has been helping him take a beating without much sympathy from Jack. By the end of the film, he will be taken out — he may have gotten to the bottom of the case and gotten revenge on those who deserved it, but he will soon be at the bottom of the ocean when the sea washes away his dead body after he is shot on the beach by a sniper

What makes Hodges’ film especially impressive is that he doesn’t have the background characters as stock functions within the plot; Hodges conveys very well a milieu he wants to explore, with Jack the focal point allowing us to comprehend the periphery. Even a small detail can hint at a broader world. When Jack comes to see the young man who has received a beating after showing loyalty to Jack, he says this isn’t a good look now that his girlfriend is coming from Liverpool to visit him. “Nice surprise isn’t it”, he says, as Hodges offers a low angle from beside the pillow. Jack looms over with a wad of notes to assuage the pain, but shows his cynicism by saying, as puts down the money on the sideboard, “here, get yourself a course in karate.” The poor man yells after him as Jack goes out the door, “Frank said you were a shit and he was bloody well right. You even screwed his wife didn’t you”, while the camera offers a close-up showing the damage done to his visage. As we hear the door close, he adds “the poor bastard didn’t even know if the kid was his.” Did Frank tell people his brother had screwed his wife; did he even tell them that his daughter might not be his own? We never see Frank — he is dead at the start of the film and that is why Jack is in Newcastle. But the sub-texture of Get Carter is such that, not only do we have a character discussed in their absence, and not only absent from the scene but the entire diegesis, we are also left wondering what he may have said about Jack. It is one thing for Frank to tell people that his brother slept with his wife, especially if they are no longer together and when Frank, at the time of his death, had a mistress, Margaret. But he would also have had a teenage daughter. How many fathers would be inclined to go around telling their friends that their daughter might not be theirs? 

     We may think instead that at least the latter, and probably the former as well, were comments made behind Frank’s back by other members of the community, just as more violently Jack will be shot in the head at the end of the film in a moment that is hinted at in the very beginning. It is another rumour someone isn’t privy to but in this instance will lead to Jack’s death. On the train up north is the very assassin who will take him out at the conclusion, even if we have no idea at the time, and will only know about it near the end of the film when there is a brief scene where Kinnear more or less orders the hit. There is presumably a whole world going on around the assassin who we might assume is from London and is biding his time in the north while waiting to get the go-ahead. In the crosscutting scene with Kinnear, he is lying in bed but whose? He is not alone and we have no idea who the woman happens to be, but again it gives a little texture to the scene as we wonder if this is a regular lover or someone he has picked up. Functionally, it would have been enough to show him in a hotel room and getting the nod. It is, though, one of the many moments in the film where Hodges creates a broader mise en scene than necessary, and this gives characters lives alongside their functions. 

Some might call this realism, and they wouldn’t be wrong, though it might not be explanation enough. Generally, many of the seventies neo-noirs insisted on a more verisimilitudinous look, and some, like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, are much closer to the New York school, just as British films like Get Carter are closer to kitchen sink realism. If noir was a style that could draw together GildaLauraThe Lady From ShanghaiOut of the Past and numerous others, neo-noir cannot be so easily understood. “Whatever noir ‘is’, it originated in America, emerging out of a synthesis hard-boiled fiction and German Expressionism” ('American Film Noir: The History of an Idea'), James Naremore noted. It was a studio-oriented look that at the same time often invoked California while also hinting at the darkness of German cinema of the twenties, and would lead it to looking very different from many other films of the time. Yet in neo-noir, there is far more in common visually between the Friends of Eddie Coyle and The French Connection, than between the former and Chinatown, which still holds to a more visually deliberate look partly perhaps because it is set in the thirties. Yet one reason we have discussed the sub-textural rather than the realistic is to see that though some of the films (Chinatown and The Long Goodbye) have a more achieved look than others, what differentiates neo-noir from meta-noir isn’t chiefly that films like Body Heat, Blood Simple and Basic Instinct sacrifice realism to pastiche but that in the process they lack the texture of the best of neo-noir. In Body Heat, we don’t really know or care how Matty’s husband makes his money. There is some vague talk of business interests on the shore, including a club, The Breakers, but little is made of this next to the business interests of Noah Cross in Chinatown, or Marty Augustine in The Long Goodbye. The film conveys no more than that her husband is rich and a bit dubious. In Blood Simple, the barman is chatting to a woman at the counter and the owner comes over and asks the barman to go off and attend to someone else. He starts chatting up the woman who says she has known the barman for ten years. The owner hits on her; she rejects him and he goes off after the barman comes back. “What did you say your name was?”, the barman asks, and of course, the ten years was just a line to get rid of an odious character. One could see the Coen brothers writing the script and thinking, how do we get to register the obnoxiousness of this guy so that the audience won’t much care if his wife and lover kill him? The barman has little part to play in the film (though he proves useful for a plot point concerning the missing money from the safe; only the barman and the wife’s lover have the combination), but again this is the Coen brothers’ skilful use of function: that characters are constantly serving the demands of plot. 

There isn’t anything especially wrong with this and the Coen brothers are very efficient filmmakers who create an intricate story based on the various main characters assuming others have done things they haven’t done and acting on these assumptions. Yet it isn’t quite the same thing as the subtextural, where rather than merely thinking about what a character’s motives are within the context of plot, we are thinking also of how they might live. Obviously, the plot is of immense importance, and partly what makes The Friends of Eddie Coyle such a good film rests on the motivations of the various characters as they are thinking through their reasons even if much of this is taking place offscreen. It makes sense that the barman in Peter Yates’s film will be keeping things close to his chest as he needs to make sure he doesn’t get on the wrong side of both the criminals and the law. Like Eddie, he is both criminal and informer, but the difference rests on whatever Eddie keeps close to his chest is next to a heart, while the barman will do whatever serves his self-interest. The story we follow is Eddie’s but the master manipulator in the film is the barman, even if he has so small a role that his villainy is mostly retrospective: when we find out near and at the end of the film just how much he is playing and sacrificing others. In Blood Simple, the barman is no more than a function of the plot, and isn’t there to work anything out or through, but just to fulfil his purpose in the story and provide some moments of humour and cool: whether putting a song on the jukebox and striding insouciantly through the bar and doing a brief shuffle on the counter, or later speeding off in his sports car before realising like everybody else that the person he is visiting lives in a cul de sac, and he has to come back the way he came. 

Realism will up to a point cover the differences between The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Blood Simple, but if we accept that a more artificially inclined film like Chinatown can possess a texture Blood Simple doesn’t have, realism will not be enough. We can return to the ever-useful and famous comment by Renoir in The Rules of the Game. “Everybody has his reasons,” he says, and while in meta-noir, and perhaps too in many a classic noir, everybody has their function; in the best of neo-noir, everybody has their reasons within a milieu that conveys something of that complexity. We notice in Get CarterThe Long Goodbye and Night Moves, for example, how often characters stumble upon a milieu as readily as a mystery, and this is vital to the difference between everybody having a reason and everybody having a function. All three films do involve a strong premise or request. In Get Carter, Jack heads north after hearing his brother has been killed; Marlowe after his friend disappears to Mexico and when Mrs Wade hires him to look for her husband, and Night Moves when Moseby is paid to find a fading starlet’s daughter. But in each instance, one reason why the mystery is weak is that the milieu is strong, as though the plot dissolves into the myriad motives and reasons people have within the lives they are living. In The Long Goodbye, this leads to befuddlement: Marlowe seems more a bystander to the goings on in the community he finds himself in than a detective constantly making sense of the story he is investigating. When he finally escapes with his life this isn’t due to any great brainwork on Marlowe’s part; he is allowed his freedom after Marty Augustine receives the money. The gangster has assumed Marlowe has the cash or knows where it is (he doesn’t) and has him holed up in his office, surrounded by increasingly naked henchmen (long story), ready to remove Marlowe’s penis. But then a still-dressed flunky from the room next door comes in and says Marty has to see what has been delivered: the $350,000 Marty has been looking for, presumably delivered by Terry Lennox now that Wade is dead and Mrs Wade and Lennox have more than enough money with a major life insurance pay-out. Augustine lets him go and Marlowe says, “thanks a lot — especially since my fairy godmother has dropped 350 grand back into your lap.” 

In Get Carter and Night Moves, as well as Chinatown and in a different way The Long Good Friday, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the endings are ironic realisations, if we accept irony here as close to the Oedipal problem of trying to find a solution when your presence is vital to the cause and your behaviour adds to the likelihood of your demise. Jack in Get Carter might think he is just off to find out what happened to his brother, but in leaving nary a stone unturned he leaves many an individual mightily pissed off. We might wonder if his was a death pre-ordained, as his eventual killer is on the same train heading north, but when the call to the assassin is finally made, Jack has killed or been responsible for the deaths or beatings of half a dozen people. He manages to get even but it costs him his life as two brothers will now be dead in Newcastle. Carter is oblivious as he dies, killed by a sniper bullet in what he will have a second before seen as a moment of triumph after killing the man he was most seeking. In The Long Good Friday, Harold knows what is coming. He has been kidnapped by the IRA whom he believed he could defeat. Like Jack, he overestimates himself but rather than a bullet in his forehead from a long-distance rifle, he has a gun pointed at him from the front passenger seat while he sits in the back. Various expressions pass across his visage as his wife has been kidnapped too but whisked away in another car going in the opposite direction. He is a dead man chauffeured, a man who usually takes a back seat in the car but assumes he is in the driving seat when it comes to making decisions. Not this time he isn’t and, like Jack, is a man who has misunderstood the milieu, too oblivious to the workings of the Irish situation in London, just as Jack was too ignorant of the resentment accumulating around him in Newcastle. 

   In The Long Good Friday, Harold has been unaware the councillor who’s funded by Harold also has ties with the IRA; the councillor needs people to deliver money to Belfast, and had asked Harold’s gang to get involved while Harold was in New York. For various reasons, the deal goes wrong, and Harold is the last to know about it. But once he does, instead of trying to defuse a situation that has already been bomb-heavy with IRA-orchestrated explosions in a car and a pub, Harold exacerbates it by taking them on, despite warnings both by his right-hand man and the councillor. For Harold, the terrorist organisation is just another gang he needs to remove, just as he has remained in control of the various pieces of turf he has authority over all of London. However, this is an illegal political organisation not an illegal financial one, so Harold isn’t so much out of his league as failing to see that he is playing the wrong sport. The film may leave the IRA in the background but it conveys well a threat that was known to many during the late seventies and early eighties, just as the film is brilliant at utilising spaces that would soon enough become vital to the London we have now: as Lou Thomas says, “Harold Shand’s Docklands dreams were finally realised in 2012. That spring, Canary Wharf overtook the City of London as the biggest employer of financial services workers in Europe.” (bfi) In both Get Carter and The Long Good Friday, Jack and Harold think they are in charge of the narrative, but they are finally too unaware of their milieux for that, and both films make clear milieux matter.

If deductive astuteness is often vital to classic noir, then part of the irony in its neo-noir equivalent is that characters are a little slow in understanding what is going on. This would be simple irony if it lay in the ignorance of the detective, but neo-noir frequently suggests as we have noted that the milieux has become too complex for deductive assertion, evident in different ways in Chinatown and Night Moves where a psychoanalytic understanding would have been useful for Gittes and Moseby. But sometimes it rests on acknowledging the political, as Harold fails to do in The Long Good Friday, and Richard Bone finally comprehends by the end of Cutter’s Way. While Bone’s closest friend went off and fought in Vietnam, coming back minus, an eye, an arm and a leg, Bone stayed at home and bedded women, becoming a drifter who seems to sell the odd boat for a friend they share, George. One night after bedding a beautiful, older married woman, Bone is caught in the rain as his car breaks down and notices someone dumping what turns out to be a body into a garbage can. Later, taken into custody and questioned, Richard is released but on watching a Santa Barbara parade with Cutter and Cutter’s Wife Mo, he reckons he might just recognise a man he sees on a horse as the person who disposed of the body. Alex tells him this is JJ Cord, a very wealthy man in the city and a man who was involved in sending people like him to Vietnam — and even if he wasn’t, people like him were. 

The film works between Richard’s political indifference and Alex’s political paranoia. Bone just wants to get on with a life of drifting pleasure and Cutter wishes to find people to blame for his physical condition. Bone won’t admit what he has almost seen, and Cutter wants to blame Cord with the minimum amount of evidence. By the end of the film, we can say with some confidence that Cord is indeed the killer, evident in the smirk he offers as Bone finally takes a bit of responsibility as he fires the gun through the now-dead Cutter’s hand, after they have broken into Cord’s place. Yet the film is at its best with ambiguity, with even this moment leaving us wondering if Bone has fired the gun through Alex’s hand because this is what Cutter would want; that he kills Cord, or that Bone consequently won’t be held responsible for the tycoon’s death. But this can be part of a broader ambiguity that makes us wonder, for most of the film, if Alex is just looking for someone to whom he can take out his despair, and that Cord is the most socio-politically ambitious figure that he wishes to pester. Whether it is blacks in a bar he insults or a neighbour whose car he crashes into, Cutter constantly seeks to make lives as miserable as his own, and why not make the rich as irritated by his presence as the poor? 

The film for most of its running times leaves us caught between Richard’s disregard and Alex’s insistence, as though a thriller plot cannot quite develop since the able-bodied Richard doesn’t want to get involved and the multiply disabled Alex understandably wants to vent his frustration wherever he can. Czech emigree director Ivan Passer spends most of his time absorbing the texture of the place, interested perhaps in how Santa Barbara is a town of wealth and comfort that has no place for a returning veteran, and especially one with a missing eye, arm and leg. Like the Malibu that Marlowe wanders into, it is a beach-oriented community of rich people with rich tans and if Bone doesn’t have the cash he has the hue, and also has access to the people with the money through his casual job with George. He is in the service and servicing sector and sees no reason why this modestly good life shouldn’t continue. By constantly presenting Alex as an eyesore, as an affront to this genteel community, the film makes us wonder how seriously we should take his fight for justice and his claim that Cord is a guilty man. Isn’t he just very understandably angry with the complacency surrounding him? After all, Alex hasn’t witnessed anything, and he would be happy to see Cord in jail even if he is innocent of the crime: Alex reckons Cord is guilty for being a rich man who came away from the war financially wealthier while Alex came away from it bodily poorer. But such resentment isn’t of much use when it comes to generating a strong story. If The Long Goodbye, showed us a detective who seemed as perplexed by the various characters he finds himself coming up against in a flakey community as he was by any plot he should have been attending to, in Cutter’s Way, there is a plot that wouldn’t have gone anywhere at all if it weren’t for Alex’s sense of agitation. 

Alex’s enquiry is based on a dubious hunch and thus Richard finally avenges his friend’s death even if Alex has no evidence against the man he is pursuing. Passer one assumes wouldn’t wish to let the industrialist off and question his innocence; it is more that with guilt hard to ascertain, one must act on a guess that while very likely could still be wrong. This is why we talk of the characters in neo-noir outstripped by their capacity to know for much of the story what they are involved in, the magnitude of their situation. In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Eddie doesn’t realise how intertwined the justice department and the criminal underworld happen to be even if he is himself an informer within that world. Jack in Get Carter is finally oblivious to how many people are involved in the crime he is trying to solve, and that it includes the very man he might have noticed on the train going up to Newcastle. In The Long Good Friday, Harold reckons for most of the film that other gangs are trying to sabotage his big deal with American moneymen who will finance his docklands project, but he is too unaware of the political to see it is the IRA. We see variations in the other films too, with Moseby in Night Moves, for example, looking to solve a case that remains too complicated for him to fathom, as though he lives in a deductive world of plot, which has ready narrative parameters, while Penn has made a film partly about the dissolution of such demarcations. Kauffmann may mock Penn’s ambitions, and see no trace of them in the actual work, but Penn like other neo-noir directors is exploring how knowledge becomes much harder to ascertain in the modern world where it isn’t about a group of characters in one milieu. It is an operation that incorporates the border with Mexico and the various US locations — Florida, New Mexico and LA — as well as the familial problems of a mother and daughter, and Moseby’s parentless upbringing.  

What we thus so often have in the neo-noirs we have explored is the fallibility of figures not because they are dumb or even greedy, selfish or sexually preoccupied (nobody plays Richard Bone; and Marlowe never sleeps with Mrs Wade), but that the complexity of the milieu, the sub-texturality we have explored, is more complex than they can fathom. Usually, neo-noir doesn’t mock the characters; it offers instead a world that outstrips their capacity to understand merely by intelligence alone. If Christian Metz, as Rick Altman notes in Genre, could say that genre goes through four stages of classic, parody, contesting the status of being part of a genre, and finally critiques the genre itself, it would seem that neo-noir doesn’t play fair to this order. It would be noirs after neon-noir that we are calling meta noir which would be much more parodic or inclined to pastiche. There may have been noir parodies concomitant with neo-noir (like The Blue Bird and The Cheap Detective) but it would seem that the self-conscious play on tropes and the deliberate eschewal of the socio-political was much more prominent in the 80s and 90s rather than the 70s. 

Perhaps some of the films we have included wouldn’t be seen as noir by a strict definition of the term, and isn’t noir chiefly an American, even a Californian genre, and there we are including Get Carter and The Long Good Friday with their Tyneside and Docklands locations? But we are inclined to see greater similarities between, say, Rafelson’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Get Carter, than between Rafelson’s film and Body Heat, even if Kasdan’s film and Rafelson’s have very similar plots and were released in the same year. Kasdan’s film emphasises the iconic nature of genre: the white dress early on; the black clothes later, the husband who is wealthy and whose business deals are shady; the fortune that can be made if the passionate couple bump him off; the heat and the desire, the filtered, foggy images and the symbolism involved in lighting a cigarette. Now of course the black Maddy (Kathleen Turner) wears is for her husband’s funeral, and we don’t only see her in white in scenes prior. But Kasdan’s film works so well because it is fully aware of its intention and its consequent effects and affects. In a scene where Matty and her husband accidentally meet lawyer and lover Ned (William Hurt) in a restaurant, the husband insists he join them. While Matty is off in the bathroom, they discuss people who want something badly enough. The husband is talking about how ruthless one must be in business but we can see in the subtext that this is Ned wondering how ruthless he might have to be to get rid of the husband. The viewer has already been told that Maddie has signed a prenup, that the husband is enormously rich and, too, that he is mixed up with dubious people. The scene doesn’t tell us anything about the husband’s business interests; these are irrelevancies next to the motivation: that Matty and Ned will murder him for his money.

Kasdan’s film is in many ways more accomplished than Rafelson’s — as though Rafelson tried to find in the noir genre some of the frustration and drift in his greatest film Five Easy Pieces, and was hampered by conventions that he tried less to undermine than to give a socio-economic texture to as he set the film in the depression era. Though David Thomson talks of Cora’s “untidy, pressing inarticulateness” and how it is dispelled when she makes love. Thomson sees in Jessica Lange perhaps an actress still a little too ‘thoroughbred” to pass for a woman stuck in a marriage with an older man who runs a petrol station and diner. But there is in Thomson’s comments a yearning for a reality the film just about achieves. Thomson is right to note that the sex isn’t motivationally greedy, a femme fatale currency that suggests a woman uses what she can to get what she wants. Kasdan knows he merely has to replay that forties noir trope and it will be made new by the explicit sex he can offer. However, while Rafelson is no less explicit he wants the sex to reveal character rather than merely motive. If we wonder why Matty has found herself with an unattractive, morally dubious and almost certainly corrupt older man, the film’s plot more than justifies it. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cora (Jessica Lange) plays the role with an anxious practicality that proposes her dreams aren’t too outlandish; that a man she can love who can sexually satisfy her, a business she can run competently, and the prospect of motherhood, is enough to keep her happy. While Kasdan offers a femme fatale who wants to make a fortune (at the end of the film the school yearbook reveals that her ambition was to be rich), Cora looks like a woman who would be happy with being safe. Even the passion she expresses in the two key sex scenes in the film — when she first makes love with Frank (Jack Nicholson) and again after they have murdered her husband — seem borne of accumulated sexual frustration. We have no idea what Matty’s sex life was like before she met Ned: she is paradoxically asexualised by her greed, as if all the desire she expresses is merely a front for the money she wants. Cora’s desires leave us wondering how many women of the time (and before and after it), were devoid of the sex their bodies craved. 

Thus we can see that Rafelson’s film contains a neo-noir realist residue while Kasdan’s seeks a meta-noir play on signs. Anybody who tries to understand Matty Walker is missing the point; the pleasure resides in watching Ned failing to comprehend her greed because he is too caught up in libidinous pleasure. When they discuss whether leaving her husband will leave her much poorer, as Matty says does it matter that she won’t be left with a fortune since her husband forced her to sign a prenup, Matty admits it would have been great if she would still be loaded, but is it so important? No, Ned insists, speaking sincerely enough since what he wants from Matty is a body he can enjoy, unaware that what Matty wants from him is a fall guy lawyer who can help her get that fortune back after he has killed her spouse. Anyone watching the film thinking that this is true love is as deluded as Ned happens to be — but without the sexual favours that would be clouding their mind. Kasdan plays on the codes and contains within them a sexual explicitness that allows the viewer to understand why Ned might be taken in but see no reason why they, as viewers, need be taken in as well. 

      The film gives us reason enough (if sexual desire can pass itself off as reason) to see why Ned is hooked but no reason why we should be also. Hence, the film makes us well aware we are watching a woman on the make and a man being played, the rich husband a necessary convention as obstacle, and a twist near the end to show just how completely Ned will have to pay for the sexual favours Matty conferred. He ends up in jail, putting together the story in his celibate state as he couldn’t think straight when Matty was constantly sexually available. In an elaborate single-take track hovering around Ned and his police buddy friend Oscar, who visits him, Ned starts to offer a plausible story of Matty’s wiles. Oscar isn’t initially convinced but as the film moves to shot, counter/shot, Oscar looks a little more so but still sceptical. By the end of the film though we will be in no doubt that Matty has run off with the money and is living her high school fantasy: to be rich and live in an exotic land. All we see of this exotic place is a circling camera shot around her lounging body as we witness the sea and a mountain in the background. It was filmed in Hawaii but it could have been anywhere that passes for the far-flung and sun-drenched, and Kasdan’s approach is in very marked contrast to Altman’s use of Mexico in The Long Goodbye. When Marlowe goes to the country, Altman insists on showing us several shots of children on the street, a woman cleaning out a steel bucket, and stray dogs wandering around. This is long-hand sociological detail contained within a noir thriller, but a fixed frame might think we are watching a documentary. A fixed frame of the shot at the end of Body Heat suggests a TV advert. It is this shift from the neo-noir to the meta-noir that shows just how much has been lost; that noir was no longer chiefly a genre of socio-political and psychological examination, but an opportunity to make the codes ever more fixed and instant. Body Heat (like Blood Simple) is a very fine film on its own terms; it is the terms themselves we have been trying to dispute. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Neo-Noirs

The Texture of Milieu

Neo-noir is in several ways easy to discern. Usually, the films are in colour, as opposed to classic noir's black and white, are post-60s works, and social commentary is often more evident than in the earlier work. Numerous classic noir critics, including Paul Schrader and Richard Lingeman, have noted the importance of WWII and even the Korean War on the developing genre, with Jon Weiner noting Detour "...is one of Richard Lingeman's touchstones in his new book The Noir Forties. For him the film dramatizes how, in the feverish world of immediate postwar America, "guilt is arbitrary, the sentence is death, and there is no appeal."(Salon) Schrader saw the importance of "the war and post-war disillusionment" (Schrader on Schrader) Yet there is little sense in the post-war films they have a problem with the war itself; it is more that the war has sometimes created problems in the individual. As Raymond Durgnat says: the "returned war hero Alan Ladd nearly puts a bullet in his unfaithful wife." ('Paint It Black: The Family Tree of the Film Noir')

Classic noir often shows Nazi sympathizers (Notorious; The Stranger, Gilda) in hiding. But whatever the presence of Nazis or psychopaths, of people hiding their war pasts or facing the demons war created in them, noir doesn't indicate problems with WWII itself. Numerous neo-noirs have in their narrative background the Vietnam War as a troublesome event, or the morality of the times in the wake of it or during it, the various sixties assassinations, Watergate, Kent State and the Manson murders. As Andrew Nette says: the domestic blowback of the Vietnam War. The sleaze and corruption of Watergate. The incipient rollback of the counterculture and many gains of the 1960s. Economic recession. The upheaval and uncertainty in the 1970s may have been tough on America's collective psyche, but it resulted in some incredibly good crime cinema.

One needn't turn sociological cause into narrative event but we can suggest at least that while WWII might have seemed heroic not only because it was about fighting fascism it was also because the footage released was usually controlled and propagandistic. When John Ford made the documentary The Battle of Midway, Capra and others, Why We Fight, the purpose was to show the value of the war. So much of the Vietnam footage indicated the opposite. When Peter Davis made Hearts and Minds in 1974, this jaundiced and critical account of the conflict went on to win an Oscar even though the war wasn't yet over. The ceremony was on April 8th. The war ended on April 30th. If noir was steeped in cynicism, self-advantage and greed, this wasn't quite self-hate, lassitude or national despair. Schrader may have seen the self-hate cinema of the end of the sixties and into the seventies as potentially nave and romantic next to fifties noirs like Kiss Me Deadly and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, but while Schrader saw in the characters a greater darkness, the backdrop to neo-noir seems darker than the characters occupying them - as if the films' central characters cannot quite countenance the broader decay. Chinatown might be thirties-set, but its disillusionment belongs to the seventies, evident in the ending that Robert Towne changed to satisfy director Roman Polanski's bleaker vision. Yet it was also one that reflected the times Polanski wanted "a film about the '30s seen through the camera eye of the '70s," (Library of Congress) "The word "Chinatown," with its echoes of the Far East, where the United States had been mired in an unpopular war, is L.A. cop code for Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway's attempt to unravel a mystery, a mystery one can never solve or even fully grasp, an absurdist-existentialist synonym for Fate" James Vernier says. "Although set in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, the film reeks of Old World pessimism and post-Vietnam disillusionment and despair." (Library of Congress)

Perhaps one way of understanding a branch of neo-noir is to see in it neo-noir disillusionment as opposed to noir pessimism, to see in the latter a frequent disappointment in the individual that needn't open up into the societal, while in the former disillusionment suggests the broader corruption of the societal. One can see this not only in the optimistic backdrop so often evident in noirs that show us an underworld that by implication indicates another that isn't corrupted, but in how the films often conclude on a sense of justice that the Hays code insisted upon. Brian Smith says, "one thing that a lot of Film noir does have in common is devious people doing devious things. As a part of the "Be Carefuls" portion of the Code, criminals always had to receive their comeuppance, and characters could not get away with murder." (Stage 32) By the 1970s characters might, so even if Schrader could see romantic naivety in later characters and more cynical and smart ones in earlier noirs, the purpose shifted from the individually troublesome to the societially despairing: hence the shift from pessimism to disillusionment. Yet if this shift is fundamental to our look at noir films, one that will also incorporate such British works as Get Carter and The Long Good Friday, then we can also see that at a certain point, neo-noir retreated from examining the society out of which it came, and generated a knowing or melodramatic play with convention. If films like Chinatown, Night Moves, The Long Goodbye and Cutter's Way wished to muse over the social implications, films like Body Heat and Blood Simple, Basic Instinct and Body of Evidence, emphasised the genre conventions and/or hyperbolizes aspects of character and situation. Fredric Jameson may have seen both Chinatown and Body Heat as works that ushered in a self-reflexive, emotionally enervated cinema, as Jameson saw in Star Wars, Grease, Chinatown and Body Heat an approach to film that made the viewer aware that they were watching a homage or pastiche to an earlier genre. While this seems unequivocal in Grease's case, likely in Star Wars', and deliberately so in Body Heat, Chinatown for us is a film that is part of neo-noir as socio-politically regenerating rather than generically exhausting. Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat cleverly accepts the exhaustion, a contemporary set Florida film about a mediocre, womanising lawyer who gets played by a woman much smarter than himself, one who involves him in a murder plot that he will eventually take the wrap over while she disappears to a tropical island. The film both homages and exaggerates the conventions of noir. It has a femme fatale in white soon enough dressed in black, a fall guy who can't see he is being played, and a love triangle that will inevitably end in murder. But it also has a sexual explicitness that was brought into the genre alongside Bob Rafelson's remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, a sexual aspect the genre would play on throughout the eighties and well into the nineties: respectably in Black Widow (also by Rafelson), Fatal Attraction and Sea of Love, hyperbolically as we have noted in Basic Instinct and Body of Evidence, but also in Jade and The Last Seduction, and became the genre of choice for numerous films aimed at the video rental market. It is an insight Linda Ruth Williams explored in The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema: focusing on films like Improper Conduct, Night Rhythms, Animal Instincts and a couple of hundred others.

But if The Postman Always Rings Twice and Body Heat started the rush for eroticising a genre that always had a sexual aspect in the double-entendres and underlying tensions, nevertheless the films fell into different categories. Body Heat had little interest in locating its sexuality within time and place but simply, and very skilfully, wished to bring out what was sitting behind noir all the time: how did so many fall guys get taken in? Kasdan shows what classic noir couldn't show: a number of sexually vivid scenes that shows us precisely how the fall guy fell into bed, in love and into jail. The sexualised femme fatale pursues her ambitions at the man's expense, and the man proves gullible because his libido is on heat: body heat indeed. In contrast, the depression-era set The Postman Always Rings Twice emphasises desperation over ambition, as though greed is merely a by-product of fear. In Body Heat, Ned (William Hurt) earns a decent living as a lawyer and Mattie (Kathleen Turner) is married to a man who it looks like she chose for his wealth. In The Postman Always Rings Twice the characters are much lower down the social scale, with Cora marrying for security and Frank (Jack Nicholson) happy to be off the streets as he starts working for Cora (Jessica Lange) and her Greek immigrant husband.

Rafelson is clearly interested in the misery of the era: vividly realized when it looks like Cora and Frank will escape to Chicago and we see the destitute hanging around the bus station; and also the husband's Greek heritage, evident in a lengthy party scene that like other films of the period, The Godfather, The Gambler and The Deer Hunter, wants to show the American experience contained respectively by Italian, Jewish, Russian/Ukrainian immigration, a form of ethnographic back story. The sexual earthiness we see in the scene where Cora and Frank screw on the kitchen table, and screwing again after murdering the husband, is part of a general verisimilitude the film seeks. It carries traces of the 70s noirs we will mainly concentrate on, while Body Heat anticipates numerous films that see in the sexual not only a heroine who reckons her way to wealth and success is through her body, but where the actors themselves see that a highly sexualised role can do wonders for their careers. Sharon Stone may very understandably have felt exploited by Basic Instinct but it also made her a star, while Turner noted: "you have to remember that my first big role was Body Heat, and after that I was a sexual target. I understood later, from Michael Douglas, that there was a competition between him and Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty about who would get me first. None of them did, by the by" (Vulture). Turner wisely turned down the advances but was also well aware that they came because of the status her role in Body Heat gave her.

Yet Body Heat's commodification of the sexual was part of a generic need to play up the artificial: that sex wasn't about desire between the characters so much as a desire for what the audience wanted to see: a point the low-budget sexual noirs of the 90s didn't even attempt to hide and the higher budgeted ones like Basic Instinct and The Last Seduction couched in pastiche, irony and virtuosity. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven helmed Basic Instinct with a full awareness of how Hollywood presents the sexual and the violent, and his purpose was to take Hitchcock's capacity for omission and make it evident. While Hitchcock will zero in on Marion and her lover post coitum at the beginning of Psycho, will show in Vertigo that it is clear that Scottie has removed Madeleine's wet clothes and put her to bed, Verhoeven fills in the details. The opening of Basic Instinct is unequivocal sex and violence as a woman plunges an ice pick into her lover in the midst of coitus. Later, when Sharon Stone's Catherine Tremmell throws on some clothes, the detective and the audience sees that doesn't include underwear. The film's purpose is to tease and reveal, as relevant to the story as it is to the sexuality. As Verhoeven said: " you're always trying to figure out the identity of the killer. Was it Sharon Stone, or perhaps Jeanne Tripplehorn? Everything in the whole film is dedicated to that mystery. In Basic Instinct you don't meet any of the characters' families. You have no idea, for example, about George Dzundza's characteris he married? Does he have any children? There's really none of that..." (Film Comment)

Equally, the sex in Body Heat, Last Seduction, Body of Evidence, Jade and Basic Instinct isn't there to reveal character but to tantalize the audience with the promise of the explicit that it can then reveal in varying degrees of bluntness - a direct approach that classical Hollywood could never begin to show. Verhoeven says "Basic Instinct is more in the tradition of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett mysteries, where you never learn about the social environment of any of the characters because that's not really the point; it's about the detective solving the case." (Film Comment) What the commodified noirs could promise wasn't only the revelation of the killer, but the exposure of flesh and the pulping of bodies, well aware that the Hays code was no longer in place to prohibit such exposure. Whatever one thinks of Basic Instinct, Verhoeven showed he could take the grammar of Hitchcock and make the film language very vulgar indeed. Margaret Barton-Fumo reckons when speaking to Verhoeven that he has always combined "realism with stylization" (Film Comment), but in the context of his Hollywood films (Robocop, Showgirls, Starship Troopers and others) much of that realism has been turned into just stylisation: that the sex and violence he has shown needn't be seen as realistic but exaggerating the usual Hollywood violence into the grotesque. This isn't the place to comment on that often brilliant grotesquery (the scene with Ed-209 in Robocop would be a good place to start). It is only to say that Verhoeven more efficiently than most exploited and made one aware of how far American cinema would go in pursuing the bottom dollar by scraping the bottom of various generic barrels. The sort of realism Verhoeven admitted he wasn't interested in pursuing in his American films (family life; social milieux, complex psychology), was a reflection of what American noir wasn't much interested in during the eighties and nineties. But while we can come back to this generic reductionism later in the piece, especially within the context of Body Double and also Blood Simple, this essay rests on looking at films which have taken aspects of noir and insisted on using the conventions as a way into psychology, milieu and the underbelly of sex and violence. They have also absorbed in different ways the social climate, often talking not directly about Vietnam or Watergate, the sixties assassinations, the radical political groups and the student protests, but allowing them to permeate the material, even offering variations in the two British films we will incorporate. Most of the films are inevitably set in the present but Chinatown, even if set in the past has more to say about the contemporary than many a present-set genre piece that eschews the socio-political.

In The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, Night Moves, Cutter's Way, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Get Carter, The Long Good Friday, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, we want to explore what we might call the sub-textural, a variation on the sub-text so often talked about in literature. One way of approaching it is to keep in mind Verhoeven's remarks about what Basic Instinct doesn't have. The sub-textural exists when the milieu utilised feels more than a set of pragmatic locations to move the story along, where even the supporting characters possess an existence beyond the frame, and where the political might not be explicit but is implicitly pertinent. Speaking of Chandler's novel, Edmund Wilson said of The Long Goodbye, "it is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy...the explanation of the mystery when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough. It fails to justify the excitement produced by the picturesque and sinister happenings, And I cannot help feeling cheated." Pauline Kael quotes Wilson while reviewing the film, saying, "locked in the conventions of pulp writing, Raymond Chandler never found a way of dealing with that malaise. But Robert Altman does." (Reeling) Altman searches out what we are calling the sub-textural as he gives us milieu as much as story. At first, it can seem like Altman doesn't know how to tell his tale, that the film meanders and dawdles over pointless incidents, from Marlow feeding his cat in the middle of the night, to a security guard doing Cary Grant impressions at a high-end gated community by the beach. But the story Altman tells isn't quite Marlowe's to investigate: rather than a story with a crime it is more a detective with an obligation. His friend Terry Lennox comes to him asking for help. Will he drive him from LA to the Mexican border? It is by helping Terry that he ends up briefly in prison: with the police arresting him after they tell him Terry has murdered his wife. Where is he? Marlowe keeps mum and ends up jailed and interrogated.

Altman insists on a densely woven texture partly because the case is a little complicated but even more because he keeps giving time and attention to details that have little to do with the furtherance of the plot. When Terry turns up early on asking for help, he and Marlowe discuss the names of the three Di Maggio brothers before Terry makes the request. Later, when the police are questioning him, Marlowe smears his face with the fingerprint ink he has on his hands, turning him blackface as he sings Swanee in homage to Al Jolson. Looking on, through the glass is a black cop who calls him a honky bastard. The film keeps seeking texture over coherence and leaves the viewer absorbing the milieu rather than following the plot. When Marlowe is released after the police say Lennox has killed himself, Marlowe isn't so curious, and it is only when he is hired by someone looking for her alcoholic writer husband, who has gone missing, that the story takes shape, though Marlowe isn't really doing too much to give it that shape. Isn't the detective supposed to lead the investigation rather than following bemused the lives of the LA wealthy? But Altman reckoned the point of The Long Goodbye wasn't the plot. The director said he was surprised by critics' reactions: "because I had read a lot of the books, and what Chandler wrote was really a bunch of thumbnail sketches or thematic essays, all about Los Angeles, and Marlowe was just a device to unite them." (Altman on Altman). The director may have been saying as much about his own work as Chandler's (especially the later Short Cuts) but central to what makes The Long Goodbye neo-noir is that Altman can insist on a different relationship with the image, absorbing the documentative dimension that allowed films to be captured more than staged.

If classic Hollywood noir was part of a technological age in film where cameras were cumbersome and sound recording systems literally as big as a truck, by the sixties, filmmakers were using cameras that could be carried on their shoulders and boom mics carried by hand. As documentarist DA Pennebaker noted: the necessary apparatus was beginning to appear in the late fifties: "portable tape recorders; faster film stock; lenses that allowed for shooting in natural light, and an almost overlooked development, the zoom lens." (Movies of the Sixties) It was difficult for classic Hollywood to work outside the studio, and most noirs were filmed on various backlots, creating a movie LA, one where "in the 1940s and '50s, when most of the canonical noir films were made, most filming still took place on studio backlots and sound stages." (La.curbed.com) Sure, there were scenes from Double Indemnity, DOA and others that used occasional actual locations, but the genre was studio-oriented and so the thumbnail sketches Altman proposes were vital to the work of Chandler, wasn't vital to film noirs. In The Long Goodbye they are, and what could be more location-oriented than filming in one's very own house of the time? "I was living at that same house in Malibu that we shot as the Wades' house," Altman said (Altman on Altman). Other locations included Westwood Boulevard, La Brea Avenue and of course High Tower Drive, where Marlowe lives. Though Altman was interested in commenting on the genre he was working within, well aware that Marlowe was a man out of his time and still in a generic world, the emphasis was on the contrast between genre codes and topographic texture. Here we have the hard-drinking, abusive husband, the treacherous wife, the self-aggrandising gangster and the fall guy detective. Yet these are character types located in a world that interacts with a milieu that forces the type into an LA that is soaked in cinema, whose self-reflexivity is announced all the better to suggest they are in the world rather than in a film. We might initially assume that Altman wants to say that LA is like a movie but if it is true that most noirs were filmed on backlots rather than locations, LA is in some ways not like a movie even if people within the city could be seen to act like they are in a film. When Umberto Eco argues with formalism over what is defined as motif, he says: "If according to Veselovskij a motif is the simplest narrative unit, then one wonders why "fire from heaven should belong to the same category as "the persecuted maid" (since the former can be represented by an image, while the latter requires a certain narrative development." (Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage) Both are strictly verbs but one suggests an instant action while the other a developing story. At the same time, images often infer a story without necessarily developing one. The persecuted maid we are inclined to assume is persecuted by her boss; if she were persecuted by her husband, she would no longer be the persecuted maid but the persecuted wife. Nevertheless, what we can take from Eco in the context of the maid, is the narrative developments here that suggest the generic and expand beyond it, while keeping in mind that these are characters who don't act like they are in a movie but do act as if they are in a city that makes movies. We can see that 'battered wife by drunken husband' is a motif, just as 'gangster exercising his power', 'treacherous friend' and 'controlling psychiatrist' are motifs too. They demand instantaneous responses and strong inferences. But there is an enormous difference between a film like High Anxiety, or even Body Heat, and The Long Goodbye. In High Anxiety, the film is a constant gag on the tropes to be found in Hitchcock films, and Mel Brooks doesn't even attempt to take seriously the plot he develops, even if the characters do take seriously the story they are within. In Body Heat, there is a reference at one moment when Ned and Mattie get into a conversation where the dialogue resembles the double entendres of Double Indemnity, and Ned says "I don't talk like that." But most of the time the characters are as oblivious to the genre they are in as the audience will be aware of the generic codes practised.

Altman's purpose however seems to be to make us aware less of the genre that he is working in than the city that is saturated by movielore and which inevitably makes characters self-conscious in a way that is not unassociated with film. When Marlowe turns up at the Wades' house and Mr Wade says she wants him to look for her husband, he asks her if she has any idea where he might be. She says that usually when he leaves like this they have argued, and he isn't likely to tell her where he has gone. Marlowe wonders whether the reason she hasn't contacted him sooner even though Wade has been missing for a week may rest on a fear greater than curiosity: "I don't mean to be tactless Mrs Wade but it doesn't look like you walked into a door." Mrs Wade replies: "as a matter of fact I didn't, I fell out of bed." She is the abused wife aware of the convention, and yet offers the alternative cliched response less because she is in a film than that she is in LA: it isn't offered with an awareness the audience possesses that she is oblivious to, but with a self-conscious understanding that Marlowe is a detective, she the battered wife, and in Los Angeles, where a detective could not be unaware of movie conventions.

In Genre, Rick Altman discusses the common elements between such literary theorists as Northrop Frye and Tzitsvan Todorov, including the idea is that "literature is created from literature and not reality." It wouldn't be enough for us to deny this claim by saying that cinema, as a recorded art form, escapes the notion as literature does not. How much reality did classic Hollywood let into its world as it recorded images, certainly, but not by most people's reckoning much of the real if it was filmed in a Hollywood back lot? Yet some films appear more attuned to reality than others, and we can think again of the anecdote about The Long Goodbye: that Altman was living in the house he was using as one of his main locations. But this is only part of the story; more interesting still are the technical problems behind using that house, ones that created complications for the cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond that a studio-oriented shoot wouldn't have had to worry about. Edward Lipnick noted, that "it was necessary to photograph the party on the sunlit patio, seeing into the shadow detail inside the house, and all in the same shot swing around and photograph the beach and ocean. All on a sunny day! The latitude required was tremendous, and flashing alone wouldn't do it. Vilmos elected to overexpose the film by three stops, flash it 35%, and cut the development time in half. This greatly lowered the gamma of the film, and he was able to hold detail from the bright highlights to the depths of the shadows." (American Cinematographer)

The precise technicalities needn't preoccupy us; what matters is, as Zsigmond says, "the closer a film looks like reality and real life, the better it is." (Filmmaker Magazine) By choosing to shoot in daylight, using just one shot, and returning to the interior, the film sought not to produce a shot any more elaborate than the problem in showing on film the reality of someone moving from a bright exterior to a darkened interior. Zsigmond was, like many of the directors who invigorated classic noir, from Europe, but while Wilder, Siodmak, Lang and Preminger gave to forties a chiaroscuro, studio-oriented look, Zsigmond was a halfway house between Europe meeting California, and the realism practised by many of the New York-oriented cinematographers, who gave noirs and policiers of the seventies a grime-oriented verisimilitude that made a point of filming on the streets. Zsigmond didn't tend to see realism as grubby without feeling it ought to be poetic, and some of his best works, The Deer Hunter, Deliverance and especially McCabe and Mrs Miller and Heaven's Gate, could be seen as painterly. Many New York works showed the influence of street photography, with anything from The Seven-Ups, The French Connection, Across 110th Street, Dog Day Afternoon and The Taking of Pelham 123, determined to capture New York as a city messy, chaotic and filthy. The photography may have often been as elaborately realistic as Zsigmond's on The Long Goodbye, but often of a more cruddy sort. Owen Roizman, who shot The French Connection, and The Taking of Pelham 123, says, "the reason one chooses a location is because of the way it appears by eye....now if you go into that location, and all of a sudden. start to light it up and change the characteristics of the place, you may change the whole look of the location, the whole mood of it. So, if you can capture on film the way it appears to you in person, that's optimum." (Masters of Light)

If neo-noir had a point and purpose beyond pastiche, it surely rested on its ability to absorb the genre into location shooting, into at least a relationship with the image that didn't exaggerate the codes but found a way of seeing how a more documentative image could incorporate them. Chinatown may be period set, but plenty commentators have remarked on the Watergate mood that permeates the film. Philip French noted that "Chinatown was conceived, written, produced and released in the troubled period that included the last years of the Vietnam war, Watergate and Nixon's fraught second term in the White House." (Guardian) While one needs to be wary of insisting on seeing allegories, metaphors and social comment behind works that may be clearly evident in the comments by critics and filmmakers, yet relatively absent from the film, it appears that numerous seventies films, once attending to codes beyond the generic, found they couldn't but incorporate an aspect of the socio-political. Stanley Kauffmann may have said dismissively that "...this isn't just a detective story, folks, it's an allegory. Of what? American moral decay, of course, and especially, you've guessed it Watergate." (Before My Eyes). But better to see Night Moves, like many a neo-noir, as permeating rather than allegorical. In the Sight and Sound interview Kauffmann quotes, Penn says, after being asked if we figure out what happened in the film, "not really. I think you were supposed to take it as much on faith as, let's say, Watergate. You don't understand the plot of Watergate, do you?" Later he says that he feels "that politically and spiritually and morally" at this point the US is bankrupt, and perhaps the best way to see the film is a reflection of this malaise in the country. The more a filmmaker draws on the world around them, the more this perception of that world will likely bleed into the work they are doing, and in this sense, Night Moves can be seen as the opposite of an allegory. The allegorical "...represents one thing in the guise of another an abstraction in that of a concrete image' (A Handbook to Literature), while central to many of the neo-noirs is making the reality out of which noir came more acknowledged. Penn is saying that in a world where the narratives in our political lives are confusing, and where cover-ups obstructing the truth common, how can we then have neat and tidy plots that allow for clear resolutions? In very different ways, both Chinatown and Night Moves insist on utilizing the political to comment on the personal, all the better to understand how one can comprehend self and society. Penn says "I'm trying to say that the solution lies in some kind of interior investigation, that the detective story is inwards rather than outward....we know the mystery is also outside but I don't think there is any solution outside."(Sight and Sound) We will say in a moment how this works in Chinatown, but how does it work in Night Moves?

Here we have central character Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) apparently cracking a simple case. He is hired to find a teenage runaway and return Delly to her mother and, after travelling to New Mexico, he finds her in Florida with her stepdad and his lover; she agrees to return to her mother after a frightening incident when, swimming at night off a boat, she sees the decomposing body of a pilot. The job thus proves straightforward, returning Delly (Melanie Griffith) to her mother, even if the process of that return involves numerous peculiarities and sub-mysteries as Moseby looks for Delly in New Mexico after an LA mechanic, who was having an affair with Delly, tells him she went off with a stuntman when they were all down there on location. The mechanic is bruised and all but says he got the injuries in a fight with the other lover. Later, in Florida, Delly comes on to Moseby and appears too to have had a fling with her stepdad. When Moseby returns Delly to her mum, an hour has passed but the film is far from over, and this rests on the character convolutions and the half-observed mysteries thus far. By the end of the film, we might be able to piece it together enough to say that most of the characters unbeknownst to Moseby have been involved in a major smuggling operation between Yucatan and the United States, and the decomposing body wasn't just someone they stumbled across out at sea, but someone who was involved in that operation and where a piece of pre-columbian art was on the boat.

At the same time, Moseby has been breaking up with his partner and uses his detective skills here as well. As his wife's lover says, after Moseby admits he discovered the affair by following them, "isn't that what you do, look for clues?" Harry is an adopted child who even saw the search for his father as part of deduction, telling his wife, "I was really quite proud of myself, the way I tracked him down. I followed all the clues..." Harry thinks that he can sort things out by working out plots, but the biggest mystery might be himself. When he gets back with his wife on his return to LA, he promptly leaves again for Florida, trying to piece together a bit more of the story even as he is risking once again his marriage going to pieces as a consequence. When his wife sees him off at the airport, he says he will be back no later than Friday, but his wife can see no reason why he is going at all: couldn't he have just told the police what he knew and left them to investigate? But the reason is reason, a belief that you can solve problems out there in the world and this will return a person to a modicum of certitude. This is what Penn wants to deprive the viewer of, just as Moseby cannot quite eradicate unease with resolution, and just as a country that has gone through so much tumult in the sixties and seventies cannot be expected to arrive at resolution either. The film seeks to capture a milieu more than tell a story, and so the story remains in the semi-background of a work that asks us to look at the messiness of people's lives and see how much of the story is in that and not just in a plot that can be worked through. Whether it is Delly, a promiscuous sixteen-year-old, a mother who is alcoholic, Moseby and his wife childless and a stepfather Tom Iverson who clearly has designs on his teen stepdaughter, the film isn't moralising, but it is interested in containing the story within the convolutions of people's lives, and concluding with enough of a narrative focus for us to make provisional sense of events. Yet not so much that Moseby can resolve things and thus propose that reason wins out.

When Verhoeven says that he was well aware in Basic Instinct that it was all about the identity of the killer, Penn might say it is all about the milieux in which people find themselves: LA, New Mexico, Florida. Understanding how these worlds function, how the people within them interact, is more important than categorical explanations. When the mechanic talks about a fight with the stuntman, this isn't a fight we see but we hear about, and hear about it from a man whose perspective may be far from reliable even if the story is corroborated. It is confirmed when Harry gets to the set in New Mexico, by the stuntman who beat him up, a man, however, even more disagreeable than the mechanic. When the stuntman says he had slept with both Delly and her mother we might assume he is capable of lying but even more capable of having no qualms about sleeping with them both. We don't believe him because he seems honest; we believe him because he is odious. Yet even if Harry is much more agreeable than the mechanic and the stuntman, Penn reckoned he "liked Bonnie and Clyde a lot more than Harry Moseby." (Sight and Sound) It is thus less a film about detecting a killer than deducing behaviour, comprehending the chaos of people's lives in the intricacies of the story Penn tells. However, we needn't see this as the fallacy of imitative form, which, in Yvor Winters' words, is when a poet claims they are "justified in employing a disintegrating form in order to express a feeling of disintegration," which for Winter "is merely a sophistical justification for bad poetry." ('Primitivism and Decadence: A Study of American Experimental Poetry') Night Moves brilliantly manages to capture much of the societal disintegration without quite disintegrating the form of the film itself. The plot is there more or less to be worked out but the detective doesn't solve the case, and the viewer will be left wondering over certain details that they can only piece together with the assumption we believe the claims that are made by the various characters. Just as we never see the fight that leaves the mechanic with cuts and bruises, though we don't doubt it has taken place, so we can say with some confidence how the story pieces together involving the connections between the various locations, LA (the mechanic, Delly and her mother), New Mexico (the stuntman and the avuncular older stuntman, Joey Ziegler), and Florida (Tom Iverson and his partner). One may even wonder if in some way Harry's wife might be involved, however accidentally, and too the guy who runs an agency that gives Harry some extra work. She owns an antiques store in LA and when Harry visits the agency he fiddles around with some ancient Mexican artefacts; the very things that Iverson and co have been involved in smuggling, as we will find out later. Yet while some aspects of the plot can be confidently asserted (that Iverson has been smuggling artefacts and that the stuntman, who slept with Delly, turns out to be the decomposing body that Delly sees when she goes swimming), others are more speculative. The story isn't cleanly told so that culprits can be found, but offered in a way that the muddiness of contemporary America can be delineated. Harry is damaged goods functioning as best he can in a damaged society.

In Chinatown, writer Robert Towne and Roman Polanski could have focused on the incestuous story of a father Noah Cross and his daughter Evelyn and what happens when central character JJ Gittes falls in love with her. But while that story is finally of the greatest importance (the film's twist hangs on it), much of the film concerns what would seem in another film to be the sub-plot, one investigating land issues in California. Here it isn't a background detail but a socio-political exploration within the body of a noir. If corruption is often a code within the genre, a convention that Raymond Durgnat notes while quoting Raymond Chandler's famous formulation: "Down these mean streets must go a man who is not himself mean ... " Durgnat notes that this "this knight errant relationship has severe limitations. The insistence on city corruption is countered by the trust in private enterprise..." ('Paint It Black: The Family Tree of the Film Noir') But if the film says city corruption cannot be countered by private enterprise, the private detective has then to compete on narrative terms with the corruption that will win out in the end. Gittes is a private eye but that is half the problem he can only see what is in front of his eyes and may miss other things that are taking place literally behind his back. Though the film is almost entirely shown from Gittes's perspective, there are moments when he is oblivious to what is happening even in the very frame he occupies. In one scene, Gittes is sitting eating while the villainous Noah Cross is standing in the foreground. They have their backs to each other and we watch Cross's face as Gittes tells him exactly when he last saw Evelyn's late husband. Cross's facial expression completely changes but Gittes isn't privy to it. The private eye is only that; an eye limited by his purview, and Polanski makes much of this limitation by refusing to leave Gittes's perspective while also generating a complex sub-plot. Usually, the plot and subplot are distinct, perceptual things even if they usually dovetail with the main story. King Lear is a brilliantly complex example with many scenes focusing on characters other than Lear, including two of his daughters' relationship with Edmund. Here, though, the subplot which could have been shown cutting away from Gittes's focus, is absorbed completely into his perceptual field. When he investigates the water supply in the valley, he gets beaten up after the farmers assume he is working either for the water company or the real estate people. He says he is a private investigator sent down by a client to see if the water department has been irrigating their land. The farmer tells him that the water department has been out there blowing up his water tanks, and putting poison in his wells as Gittes gets information that could have been conveyed in an earlier scene if the film didn't hold to the detective's viewpoint so strongly.

Potentially there is a paradox here, and a dramatic undernourishment. Aren't filmmakers in the latter instance constantly being told to dramatise their work and here we have an action conveyed in language? Also, if we are claiming that central to many of the best neo-noirs is the texture of reality they access, then surely better to offer a crosscutting examination of the milieu? Yet several of the films we are discussing in this essay remain almost exclusively focused on the central character (The Long Goodbye, Night Moves, Chinatown), others half fill out the broader context by leaving the leading character behind (Charley Varrick, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Long Goodbye, Cutter's Way). But in both instances, that broader context is accessed. Just because a film limits point-of-view doesn't mean that it has become solipsistic in its intentions. Instead, it means that potentially greater ambiguity can be generated. If a film decides it can access information narrowly then there is no reason why at the same time it cannot allude to it broadly. Let us contrast The Long Good Friday with Chinatown, both films very good on a powerful man interested in expanding his empire. In the former, Harold (Bob Hoskins) is absent for the first nine minutes of the film, as director John McKenzie details why he will soon find his empire falling apart rather than expanding, and after this, later in the film, several scenes will still focus on situations that will not involve him for example when his wife takes the Americans who are in town for dinner, while Hoskins tries to find out who is targeting his gang. Even though in those first nine minutes, the film gives us a lot of information that we can piece together, we aren't quite in the know as to why exactly people have killed his best friend, have blown up another colleague with a car bomb, and taken out his pub with high-level explosives. But when ninety minutes into the film his right-hand man Jeff (Derek Thompson) admits that he and others have been dealing with the IRA behind his back (and that was what we saw in those nine minutes) we don't doubt that his colleague is telling the truth. We have seen it with our own eyes even if Harold hasn't. The film could have removed those first nine minutes and given us this information in flashback as Jeff details what happened, or he could have relayed it to Harold without showing us what happened at all. If the film were chiefly about Harold's enveloping paranoia this latter option might have been the way to go, and if the film was mainly interested in the whodunnit element of finding out what happened the flashback approach might have been the most effective.

But Mackenzie wants to tell a story of man who sees himself as a decent fellow, a patriot who wishes to make London the centre of Europe and to go global with the Americans involved as well, as he talks about building up London docklands and making it great once again. The film is about a London that wants to go international but hasn't quite sorted out problems within its own borders as the IRA won't just go away. When Jeff tells him that the councillor who gets paid by Harold to do him favours also has to keep the IRA happy, as numerous Irish workers won't work on London building sites unless some of the cash goes to those fighting for Irish self-determination, Harold can't believe these "redneck terrorist scum" have been killing his henchmen and destroying the chance of a major business deal. The film isn't at all about Harold's paranoia; it is about his hubris his belief not only that he can expand his empire far beyond the parameters of his 'manor', but take on a terrorist organisation as well. "For christ sake, they're not interested in money, They're political, they're fanatics", the councillor says, trying to persuade Harold that he can't just buy them off or treat them like gangster rivals. The film offers elements of the whodunnit and paranoia, but by showing what sets the bombings in motion without quite giving us enough of a context to understand initially what has happened, the film allows for only a small amount of revelation in Jeff's confession to leave is no any doubt that this is what happened. If the film had offered it in flashback we might have been in a position to question Jeff's story and this would have worked well to exacerbate Harold's paranoid thinking, but if we accept the film is about his hubris, his belief that nobody is bigger than he is, that he can make London great again and eradicate a terrorist organisation, it finds the best narrative organisational principle for such a theme.

In contrast, Chinatown wants to offer a skilful detective in over his head, a man who can countenance corruption but can't quite entertain evil; someone who is both rational and cynical but isn't quite capable of thinking the worst. Thus the film is very much predicated on revelation but this is psychoanalytic as readily as deductive. Near the end of the film, after Gittes and Evelyn have slept together, Gittes says he wants to know exactly what is going on. She says that the person who she has been hiding and then claimed was her sister is actually her daughter. Gittes slaps her as she says she is her sister, then says her daughter, as Gittes keeps slapping her. Finally, Evelyn admits that the woman is her sister and her daughter as she acknowledges an incestuous relationship between her father and herself. Afterwards, she says: "understand, or is it too tough for you?" Gittes is a detective not a psychoanalyst: he solves problems based on clear motives. When he is trying to get a story straight enough so that he won't have his detective licence revoked, and offers a plausible version of events involving Evelyn having enough money to shut up the person she has been hiding away, he offers it as the sort of case he can solve. Evelyn was jealous over the other woman, they fight, her husband ends up dead and she doesn't want the other woman killed but has more than enough money to keep her quiet. Hence the deductive skills but not the psychoanalytic ones required. Earlier in the film, Evelyn is in Gittes' office and they are going through the case when Evelyn lights a second cigarette and Gittes notes that she has already got one going. She starts to shake slightly and though he offers what might seem a psychoanalytic line "(does my talking about your father upset you?), Gittes is the detective inclined to look for signs of lying rather than symptoms of denial.

In The Long Good Friday, the point is to comprehend the vastness of Harold's empire but shows, too, ambition much greater that will generate his downfall. Both Chinatown and The Long Good Friday are equally good at suggesting the broader picture, in showing the corruption involved in Los Angeles and London. But Harold isn't blind, he is merely confused: McKenzie's film needn't play up too much the revelation, while in Chinatown the revelation is vital because Gittes has seen the story too narrowly. He has been so absorbed in finding out how corrupt Cross happens to be that he fails to understand how evil he is as well. By the end of the film, Evelyn will be dead but his other daughter is still alive, and taken away by Cross to 'protect' her, as we expect the abuse to continue into the next generation, just as Cross's power will continue beyond his life span. He already has a granddaughter he has fathered and now may have a great-granddaughter too, while his dynastic interests will be enormous as he will control the LA water supply. What can you buy that you can't already afford" Gittes asks. "The future, the future Mr Gittes." This includes controlling the city's water and also the gene pool. There is no Oedipal aspect to The Long Good Friday; nothing but Oedipus in Polanski's film, a point numerous critics have pointed out including John Belton in an essay 'Language, Oedipus and Chinatown'.

Here Belton starts by noting that Laura Mulvey saw the rise of psychoanalysis coinciding with the popularity of detective fiction, and while both seem very much concerned with detection, one might wonder if the difference rests partly on detection as deduction and detection as symptomology, with the first relying on reason and the second on empathy. The therapist is usually someone in an empathic alliance; the detective in a state of hard-boiled suspicion. And even if Mulvey is right to see many similarities between the detective and the analyst, numerous detective films (from The Long Goodbye, Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil) needn't be seen through the lens of the psychoanalytic. In Chinatown (like Night Moves), though, we can see the familial problem that needs understanding more than it needs comprehension. If in Chinatown, Gittes ought to have pushed Evelyn further on that nervousness she feels while speaking about her father, as she lights a second cigarette, in Night Moves, Moseby's wife well-knows that his need to find out the truth about his father cannot be resolved simply by tracking him down. Partly what makes Chinatown a great film isn't just that Gittes replicates a tragedy in the district of Chinatown but that he does so partly by needing to understand the broader societal implications but to the detriment of the emotionally symptomatic. What Polanski does is tell the story through Gittes's eyes but, like Oedipus, he is following the wrong story in the sense that while Cross's corruption, exploitation and political manipulation is evident, Gittes is but a tiny figure who can do little to change anything, and this is reflected in the story of the water proving important within the narrative but not important enough for the film to deviate from Gittes to tell it. The revelation doesn't rest on Cross wanting to control LA water but on Evelyn's disclosure about her father's abuse. The personal may not quite be the political but it is the personal Gittes could perhaps have done something about. However, he reads Evelyn for most of the film as a deductive rather than a psychoanalytic problem and looks for clues rather than symptoms. When he visits Evelyn at her house he says; "May I speak frankly Mrs Mulwray" and Evelyn replies: "You may if you can, Mr Gittes." By the end of the film, we can read in her line a meaning that we wouldn't have assumed: that she never could speak frankly about the incest. A therapist may have picked up on such a line but that is not the dynamic Gittes and Evelyn have even if, before the end of the film, they will become intimate enough to share a bed.

This is not to suggest the investigation into LA water isn't important to the plot. It seems much more important than it would generally be in a classic noir, or in what we might call meta noirs (Body Heat, Blood Simple, Basic Instinct and so on where the generic codes become amplified while any notion of a broader reality recedes). But it does remain in the background. It has to do so because the story's restrictive point of view can only show the corruption through Gittes's investigation rather than crosscutting to show the magnitude of the problem. Like Night Moves and The Long Goodbye, the directors' brilliance rests on making films where if the political isn't quite the personal, the personal cannot quite ignore the malaise around which the film functions. In all three films, the detective is naive, next to the classic detective played by Bogart, not because they are any more stupid than Bogart's Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. No, it is that the complexity of their world is such that it outstrips their deductive capabilities. If Mulwray was merely lying to Gittes he could have solved the case: he is smart enough not to let others get one over on him, but who is smart enough to realise that their deductive skills need to be met with psychoanalytic ones? If in Chinatown, Gittes would need to understand psychoanalytically Evelyn, in Night Moves, Moseby would need to understand himself: to apply the therapist's eye towards his damaged upbringing. In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe is a little like a marriage guidance councillor who wants to understand better the workings of the Wades' marriage, but therapy has now become a ruthless business it is the terrible Dr Verringer who controls Roger Wade with bullying and intimidation. It seems that a successful seventies detective needs not just a healthy sense of cynicism and common sense, but also a textured understanding of human complexity and the environment in which people are mingling. When the huge Wade rails against the tiny doctor we might wonder why he so completely backs down in front of the little man, but back down he does, as Altman shows us that deduction would have to become now but a part of the detective's arsenal.

In Get Carter, the titular Jack (Michael Caine) heads up north to find out who killed his brother, Frank, determined to get revenge when he arrives in Newcastle. But more importantly, director Mike Hodges involves him in a complicated milieu that he no longer quite understands. He may have been born there and made good as a gangster in London, but the confidence he shows and that should leave him capable of taking on anyone who gets in his way, becomes a hindrance as all around him become increasingly irate by his attitude and behaviour. The film is wonderfully sub-textural as it indicates a world far beyond the case Carter investigates, even if all the characters he confronts and comes into contact with are interrelated. Like The Long Goodbye, the film focuses mainly on its central character and so we sense that there is a world that precedes him in the north and that he has clumsily fallen into as he finds that one character after another is implicated in his brother's murder. The confidence he shows is also the ignorance that has accumulated: making good in London has made him good at beating people up and putting them in their place, never more impressively than when he takes on a burly local businessman and says: "you're a big man but you're in bad shape. With me it's a full-time job, now behave yourself." However, Carter hasn't been behaving himself either: he sleeps with his landlady and also the businessman's mistress, breaks into the regional bigwig Kinnear's (John Osborne) house, and lets a person who has been helping him take a beating without much sympathy from Jack. By the end of the film, he will be taken out he may have gotten to the bottom of the case and gotten revenge on those who deserved it, but he will soon be at the bottom of the ocean when the sea washes away his dead body after he is shot on the beach by a sniper

What makes Hodges' film especially impressive is that he doesn't have the background characters as stock functions within the plot; Hodges conveys very well a milieu he wants to explore, with Jack the focal point allowing us to comprehend the periphery. Even a small detail can hint at a broader world. When Jack comes to see the young man who has received a beating after showing loyalty to Jack, he says this isn't a good look now that his girlfriend is coming from Liverpool to visit him. "Nice surprise isn't it", he says, as Hodges offers a low angle from beside the pillow. Jack looms over with a wad of notes to assuage the pain, but shows his cynicism by saying, as puts down the money on the sideboard, "here, get yourself a course in karate." The poor man yells after him as Jack goes out the door, "Frank said you were a shit and he was bloody well right. You even screwed his wife didn't you", while the camera offers a close-up showing the damage done to his visage. As we hear the door close, he adds "the poor bastard didn't even know if the kid was his." Did Frank tell people his brother had screwed his wife; did he even tell them that his daughter might not be his own? We never see Frank he is dead at the start of the film and that is why Jack is in Newcastle. But the sub-texture of Get Carter is such that, not only do we have a character discussed in their absence, and not only absent from the scene but the entire diegesis, we are also left wondering what he may have said about Jack. It is one thing for Frank to tell people that his brother slept with his wife, especially if they are no longer together and when Frank, at the time of his death, had a mistress, Margaret. But he would also have had a teenage daughter. How many fathers would be inclined to go around telling their friends that their daughter might not be theirs?

We may think instead that at least the latter, and probably the former as well, were comments made behind Frank's back by other members of the community, just as more violently Jack will be shot in the head at the end of the film in a moment that is hinted at in the very beginning. It is another rumour someone isn't privy to but in this instance will lead to Jack's death. On the train up north is the very assassin who will take him out at the conclusion, even if we have no idea at the time, and will only know about it near the end of the film when there is a brief scene where Kinnear more or less orders the hit. There is presumably a whole world going on around the assassin who we might assume is from London and is biding his time in the north while waiting to get the go-ahead. In the crosscutting scene with Kinnear, he is lying in bed but whose? He is not alone and we have no idea who the woman happens to be, but again it gives a little texture to the scene as we wonder if this is a regular lover or someone he has picked up. Functionally, it would have been enough to show him in a hotel room and getting the nod. It is, though, one of the many moments in the film where Hodges creates a broader mise en scene than necessary, and this gives characters lives alongside their functions.

Some might call this realism, and they wouldn't be wrong, though it might not be explanation enough. Generally, many of the seventies neo-noirs insisted on a more verisimilitudinous look, and some, like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, are much closer to the New York school, just as British films like Get Carter are closer to kitchen sink realism. If noir was a style that could draw together Gilda, Laura, The Lady From Shanghai, Out of the Past and numerous others, neo-noir cannot be so easily understood. "Whatever noir 'is', it originated in America, emerging out of a synthesis hard-boiled fiction and German Expressionism" ('American Film Noir: The History of an Idea'), James Naremore noted. It was a studio-oriented look that at the same time often invoked California while also hinting at the darkness of German cinema of the twenties, and would lead it to looking very different from many other films of the time. Yet in neo-noir, there is far more in common visually between the Friends of Eddie Coyle and The French Connection, than between the former and Chinatown, which still holds to a more visually deliberate look partly perhaps because it is set in the thirties. Yet one reason we have discussed the sub-textural rather than the realistic is to see that though some of the films (Chinatown and The Long Goodbye) have a more achieved look than others, what differentiates neo-noir from meta-noir isn't chiefly that films like Body Heat, Blood Simple and Basic Instinct sacrifice realism to pastiche but that in the process they lack the texture of the best of neo-noir. In Body Heat, we don't really know or care how Matty's husband makes his money. There is some vague talk of business interests on the shore, including a club, The Breakers, but little is made of this next to the business interests of Noah Cross in Chinatown, or Marty Augustine in The Long Goodbye. The film conveys no more than that her husband is rich and a bit dubious. In Blood Simple, the barman is chatting to a woman at the counter and the owner comes over and asks the barman to go off and attend to someone else. He starts chatting up the woman who says she has known the barman for ten years. The owner hits on her; she rejects him and he goes off after the barman comes back. "What did you say your name was?", the barman asks, and of course, the ten years was just a line to get rid of an odious character. One could see the Coen brothers writing the script and thinking, how do we get to register the obnoxiousness of this guy so that the audience won't much care if his wife and lover kill him? The barman has little part to play in the film (though he proves useful for a plot point concerning the missing money from the safe; only the barman and the wife's lover have the combination), but again this is the Coen brothers' skilful use of function: that characters are constantly serving the demands of plot.

There isn't anything especially wrong with this and the Coen brothers are very efficient filmmakers who create an intricate story based on the various main characters assuming others have done things they haven't done and acting on these assumptions. Yet it isn't quite the same thing as the subtextural, where rather than merely thinking about what a character's motives are within the context of plot, we are thinking also of how they might live. Obviously, the plot is of immense importance, and partly what makes The Friends of Eddie Coyle such a good film rests on the motivations of the various characters as they are thinking through their reasons even if much of this is taking place offscreen. It makes sense that the barman in Peter Yates's film will be keeping things close to his chest as he needs to make sure he doesn't get on the wrong side of both the criminals and the law. Like Eddie, he is both criminal and informer, but the difference rests on whatever Eddie keeps close to his chest is next to a heart, while the barman will do whatever serves his self-interest. The story we follow is Eddie's but the master manipulator in the film is the barman, even if he has so small a role that his villainy is mostly retrospective: when we find out near and at the end of the film just how much he is playing and sacrificing others. In Blood Simple, the barman is no more than a function of the plot, and isn't there to work anything out or through, but just to fulfil his purpose in the story and provide some moments of humour and cool: whether putting a song on the jukebox and striding insouciantly through the bar and doing a brief shuffle on the counter, or later speeding off in his sports car before realising like everybody else that the person he is visiting lives in a cul de sac, and he has to come back the way he came.

Realism will up to a point cover the differences between The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Blood Simple, but if we accept that a more artificially inclined film like Chinatown can possess a texture Blood Simple doesn't have, realism will not be enough. We can return to the ever-useful and famous comment by Renoir in The Rules of the Game. "Everybody has his reasons," he says, and while in meta-noir, and perhaps too in many a classic noir, everybody has their function; in the best of neo-noir, everybody has their reasons within a milieu that conveys something of that complexity. We notice in Get Carter, The Long Goodbye and Night Moves, for example, how often characters stumble upon a milieu as readily as a mystery, and this is vital to the difference between everybody having a reason and everybody having a function. All three films do involve a strong premise or request. In Get Carter, Jack heads north after hearing his brother has been killed; Marlowe after his friend disappears to Mexico and when Mrs Wade hires him to look for her husband, and Night Moves when Moseby is paid to find a fading starlet's daughter. But in each instance, one reason why the mystery is weak is that the milieu is strong, as though the plot dissolves into the myriad motives and reasons people have within the lives they are living. In The Long Goodbye, this leads to befuddlement: Marlowe seems more a bystander to the goings on in the community he finds himself in than a detective constantly making sense of the story he is investigating. When he finally escapes with his life this isn't due to any great brainwork on Marlowe's part; he is allowed his freedom after Marty Augustine receives the money. The gangster has assumed Marlowe has the cash or knows where it is (he doesn't) and has him holed up in his office, surrounded by increasingly naked henchmen (long story), ready to remove Marlowe's penis. But then a still-dressed flunky from the room next door comes in and says Marty has to see what has been delivered: the $350,000 Marty has been looking for, presumably delivered by Terry Lennox now that Wade is dead and Mrs Wade and Lennox have more than enough money with a major life insurance pay-out. Augustine lets him go and Marlowe says, "thanks a lot especially since my fairy godmother has dropped 350 grand back into your lap."

In Get Carter and Night Moves, as well as Chinatown and in a different way The Long Good Friday, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the endings are ironic realisations, if we accept irony here as close to the Oedipal problem of trying to find a solution when your presence is vital to the cause and your behaviour adds to the likelihood of your demise. Jack in Get Carter might think he is just off to find out what happened to his brother, but in leaving nary a stone unturned he leaves many an individual mightily pissed off. We might wonder if his was a death pre-ordained, as his eventual killer is on the same train heading north, but when the call to the assassin is finally made, Jack has killed or been responsible for the deaths or beatings of half a dozen people. He manages to get even but it costs him his life as two brothers will now be dead in Newcastle. Carter is oblivious as he dies, killed by a sniper bullet in what he will have a second before seen as a moment of triumph after killing the man he was most seeking. In The Long Good Friday, Harold knows what is coming. He has been kidnapped by the IRA whom he believed he could defeat. Like Jack, he overestimates himself but rather than a bullet in his forehead from a long-distance rifle, he has a gun pointed at him from the front passenger seat while he sits in the back. Various expressions pass across his visage as his wife has been kidnapped too but whisked away in another car going in the opposite direction. He is a dead man chauffeured, a man who usually takes a back seat in the car but assumes he is in the driving seat when it comes to making decisions. Not this time he isn't and, like Jack, is a man who has misunderstood the milieu, too oblivious to the workings of the Irish situation in London, just as Jack was too ignorant of the resentment accumulating around him in Newcastle.

In The Long Good Friday, Harold has been unaware the councillor who's funded by Harold also has ties with the IRA; the councillor needs people to deliver money to Belfast, and had asked Harold's gang to get involved while Harold was in New York. For various reasons, the deal goes wrong, and Harold is the last to know about it. But once he does, instead of trying to defuse a situation that has already been bomb-heavy with IRA-orchestrated explosions in a car and a pub, Harold exacerbates it by taking them on, despite warnings both by his right-hand man and the councillor. For Harold, the terrorist organisation is just another gang he needs to remove, just as he has remained in control of the various pieces of turf he has authority over all of London. However, this is an illegal political organisation not an illegal financial one, so Harold isn't so much out of his league as failing to see that he is playing the wrong sport. The film may leave the IRA in the background but it conveys well a threat that was known to many during the late seventies and early eighties, just as the film is brilliant at utilising spaces that would soon enough become vital to the London we have now: as Lou Thomas says, "Harold Shand's Docklands dreams were finally realised in 2012. That spring, Canary Wharf overtook the City of London as the biggest employer of financial services workers in Europe." (bfi) In both Get Carter and The Long Good Friday, Jack and Harold think they are in charge of the narrative, but they are finally too unaware of their milieux for that, and both films make clear milieux matter.

If deductive astuteness is often vital to classic noir, then part of the irony in its neo-noir equivalent is that characters are a little slow in understanding what is going on. This would be simple irony if it lay in the ignorance of the detective, but neo-noir frequently suggests as we have noted that the milieux has become too complex for deductive assertion, evident in different ways in Chinatown and Night Moves where a psychoanalytic understanding would have been useful for Gittes and Moseby. But sometimes it rests on acknowledging the political, as Harold fails to do in The Long Good Friday, and Richard Bone finally comprehends by the end of Cutter's Way. While Bone's closest friend went off and fought in Vietnam, coming back minus, an eye, an arm and a leg, Bone stayed at home and bedded women, becoming a drifter who seems to sell the odd boat for a friend they share, George. One night after bedding a beautiful, older married woman, Bone is caught in the rain as his car breaks down and notices someone dumping what turns out to be a body into a garbage can. Later, taken into custody and questioned, Richard is released but on watching a Santa Barbara parade with Cutter and Cutter's Wife Mo, he reckons he might just recognise a man he sees on a horse as the person who disposed of the body. Alex tells him this is JJ Cord, a very wealthy man in the city and a man who was involved in sending people like him to Vietnam and even if he wasn't, people like him were.

The film works between Richard's political indifference and Alex's political paranoia. Bone just wants to get on with a life of drifting pleasure and Cutter wishes to find people to blame for his physical condition. Bone won't admit what he has almost seen, and Cutter wants to blame Cord with the minimum amount of evidence. By the end of the film, we can say with some confidence that Cord is indeed the killer, evident in the smirk he offers as Bone finally takes a bit of responsibility as he fires the gun through the now-dead Cutter's hand, after they have broken into Cord's place. Yet the film is at its best with ambiguity, with even this moment leaving us wondering if Bone has fired the gun through Alex's hand because this is what Cutter would want; that he kills Cord, or that Bone consequently won't be held responsible for the tycoon's death. But this can be part of a broader ambiguity that makes us wonder, for most of the film, if Alex is just looking for someone to whom he can take out his despair, and that Cord is the most socio-politically ambitious figure that he wishes to pester. Whether it is blacks in a bar he insults or a neighbour whose car he crashes into, Cutter constantly seeks to make lives as miserable as his own, and why not make the rich as irritated by his presence as the poor?

The film for most of its running times leaves us caught between Richard's disregard and Alex's insistence, as though a thriller plot cannot quite develop since the able-bodied Richard doesn't want to get involved and the multiply disabled Alex understandably wants to vent his frustration wherever he can. Czech emigree director Ivan Passer spends most of his time absorbing the texture of the place, interested perhaps in how Santa Barbara is a town of wealth and comfort that has no place for a returning veteran, and especially one with a missing eye, arm and leg. Like the Malibu that Marlowe wanders into, it is a beach-oriented community of rich people with rich tans and if Bone doesn't have the cash he has the hue, and also has access to the people with the money through his casual job with George. He is in the service and servicing sector and sees no reason why this modestly good life shouldn't continue. By constantly presenting Alex as an eyesore, as an affront to this genteel community, the film makes us wonder how seriously we should take his fight for justice and his claim that Cord is a guilty man. Isn't he just very understandably angry with the complacency surrounding him? After all, Alex hasn't witnessed anything, and he would be happy to see Cord in jail even if he is innocent of the crime: Alex reckons Cord is guilty for being a rich man who came away from the war financially wealthier while Alex came away from it bodily poorer. But such resentment isn't of much use when it comes to generating a strong story. If The Long Goodbye, showed us a detective who seemed as perplexed by the various characters he finds himself coming up against in a flakey community as he was by any plot he should have been attending to, in Cutter's Way, there is a plot that wouldn't have gone anywhere at all if it weren't for Alex's sense of agitation.

Alex's enquiry is based on a dubious hunch and thus Richard finally avenges his friend's death even if Alex has no evidence against the man he is pursuing. Passer one assumes wouldn't wish to let the industrialist off and question his innocence; it is more that with guilt hard to ascertain, one must act on a guess that while very likely could still be wrong. This is why we talk of the characters in neo-noir outstripped by their capacity to know for much of the story what they are involved in, the magnitude of their situation. In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Eddie doesn't realise how intertwined the justice department and the criminal underworld happen to be even if he is himself an informer within that world. Jack in Get Carter is finally oblivious to how many people are involved in the crime he is trying to solve, and that it includes the very man he might have noticed on the train going up to Newcastle. In The Long Good Friday, Harold reckons for most of the film that other gangs are trying to sabotage his big deal with American moneymen who will finance his docklands project, but he is too unaware of the political to see it is the IRA. We see variations in the other films too, with Moseby in Night Moves, for example, looking to solve a case that remains too complicated for him to fathom, as though he lives in a deductive world of plot, which has ready narrative parameters, while Penn has made a film partly about the dissolution of such demarcations. Kauffmann may mock Penn's ambitions, and see no trace of them in the actual work, but Penn like other neo-noir directors is exploring how knowledge becomes much harder to ascertain in the modern world where it isn't about a group of characters in one milieu. It is an operation that incorporates the border with Mexico and the various US locations Florida, New Mexico and LA as well as the familial problems of a mother and daughter, and Moseby's parentless upbringing.

What we thus so often have in the neo-noirs we have explored is the fallibility of figures not because they are dumb or even greedy, selfish or sexually preoccupied (nobody plays Richard Bone; and Marlowe never sleeps with Mrs Wade), but that the complexity of the milieu, the sub-texturality we have explored, is more complex than they can fathom. Usually, neo-noir doesn't mock the characters; it offers instead a world that outstrips their capacity to understand merely by intelligence alone. If Christian Metz, as Rick Altman notes in Genre, could say that genre goes through four stages of classic, parody, contesting the status of being part of a genre, and finally critiques the genre itself, it would seem that neo-noir doesn't play fair to this order. It would be noirs after neon-noir that we are calling meta noir which would be much more parodic or inclined to pastiche. There may have been noir parodies concomitant with neo-noir (like The Blue Bird and The Cheap Detective) but it would seem that the self-conscious play on tropes and the deliberate eschewal of the socio-political was much more prominent in the 80s and 90s rather than the 70s.

Perhaps some of the films we have included wouldn't be seen as noir by a strict definition of the term, and isn't noir chiefly an American, even a Californian genre, and there we are including Get Carter and The Long Good Friday with their Tyneside and Docklands locations? But we are inclined to see greater similarities between, say, Rafelson's The Postman Always Rings Twice and Get Carter, than between Rafelson's film and Body Heat, even if Kasdan's film and Rafelson's have very similar plots and were released in the same year. Kasdan's film emphasises the iconic nature of genre: the white dress early on; the black clothes later, the husband who is wealthy and whose business deals are shady; the fortune that can be made if the passionate couple bump him off; the heat and the desire, the filtered, foggy images and the symbolism involved in lighting a cigarette. Now of course the black Maddy (Kathleen Turner) wears is for her husband's funeral, and we don't only see her in white in scenes prior. But Kasdan's film works so well because it is fully aware of its intention and its consequent effects and affects. In a scene where Matty and her husband accidentally meet lawyer and lover Ned (William Hurt) in a restaurant, the husband insists he join them. While Matty is off in the bathroom, they discuss people who want something badly enough. The husband is talking about how ruthless one must be in business but we can see in the subtext that this is Ned wondering how ruthless he might have to be to get rid of the husband. The viewer has already been told that Maddie has signed a prenup, that the husband is enormously rich and, too, that he is mixed up with dubious people. The scene doesn't tell us anything about the husband's business interests; these are irrelevancies next to the motivation: that Matty and Ned will murder him for his money.

Kasdan's film is in many ways more accomplished than Rafelson's as though Rafelson tried to find in the noir genre some of the frustration and drift in his greatest film Five Easy Pieces, and was hampered by conventions that he tried less to undermine than to give a socio-economic texture to as he set the film in the depression era. Though David Thomson talks of Cora's "untidy, pressing inarticulateness" and how it is dispelled when she makes love. Thomson sees in Jessica Lange perhaps an actress still a little too 'thoroughbred" to pass for a woman stuck in a marriage with an older man who runs a petrol station and diner. But there is in Thomson's comments a yearning for a reality the film just about achieves. Thomson is right to note that the sex isn't motivationally greedy, a femme fatale currency that suggests a woman uses what she can to get what she wants. Kasdan knows he merely has to replay that forties noir trope and it will be made new by the explicit sex he can offer. However, while Rafelson is no less explicit he wants the sex to reveal character rather than merely motive. If we wonder why Matty has found herself with an unattractive, morally dubious and almost certainly corrupt older man, the film's plot more than justifies it. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cora (Jessica Lange) plays the role with an anxious practicality that proposes her dreams aren't too outlandish; that a man she can love who can sexually satisfy her, a business she can run competently, and the prospect of motherhood, is enough to keep her happy. While Kasdan offers a femme fatale who wants to make a fortune (at the end of the film the school yearbook reveals that her ambition was to be rich), Cora looks like a woman who would be happy with being safe. Even the passion she expresses in the two key sex scenes in the film when she first makes love with Frank (Jack Nicholson) and again after they have murdered her husband seem borne of accumulated sexual frustration. We have no idea what Matty's sex life was like before she met Ned: she is paradoxically asexualised by her greed, as if all the desire she expresses is merely a front for the money she wants. Cora's desires leave us wondering how many women of the time (and before and after it), were devoid of the sex their bodies craved.

Thus we can see that Rafelson's film contains a neo-noir realist residue while Kasdan's seeks a meta-noir play on signs. Anybody who tries to understand Matty Walker is missing the point; the pleasure resides in watching Ned failing to comprehend her greed because he is too caught up in libidinous pleasure. When they discuss whether leaving her husband will leave her much poorer, as Matty says does it matter that she won't be left with a fortune since her husband forced her to sign a prenup, Matty admits it would have been great if she would still be loaded, but is it so important? No, Ned insists, speaking sincerely enough since what he wants from Matty is a body he can enjoy, unaware that what Matty wants from him is a fall guy lawyer who can help her get that fortune back after he has killed her spouse. Anyone watching the film thinking that this is true love is as deluded as Ned happens to be but without the sexual favours that would be clouding their mind. Kasdan plays on the codes and contains within them a sexual explicitness that allows the viewer to understand why Ned might be taken in but see no reason why they, as viewers, need be taken in as well.

The film gives us reason enough (if sexual desire can pass itself off as reason) to see why Ned is hooked but no reason why we should be also. Hence, the film makes us well aware we are watching a woman on the make and a man being played, the rich husband a necessary convention as obstacle, and a twist near the end to show just how completely Ned will have to pay for the sexual favours Matty conferred. He ends up in jail, putting together the story in his celibate state as he couldn't think straight when Matty was constantly sexually available. In an elaborate single-take track hovering around Ned and his police buddy friend Oscar, who visits him, Ned starts to offer a plausible story of Matty's wiles. Oscar isn't initially convinced but as the film moves to shot, counter/shot, Oscar looks a little more so but still sceptical. By the end of the film though we will be in no doubt that Matty has run off with the money and is living her high school fantasy: to be rich and live in an exotic land. All we see of this exotic place is a circling camera shot around her lounging body as we witness the sea and a mountain in the background. It was filmed in Hawaii but it could have been anywhere that passes for the far-flung and sun-drenched, and Kasdan's approach is in very marked contrast to Altman's use of Mexico in The Long Goodbye. When Marlowe goes to the country, Altman insists on showing us several shots of children on the street, a woman cleaning out a steel bucket, and stray dogs wandering around. This is long-hand sociological detail contained within a noir thriller, but a fixed frame might think we are watching a documentary. A fixed frame of the shot at the end of Body Heat suggests a TV advert. It is this shift from the neo-noir to the meta-noir that shows just how much has been lost; that noir was no longer chiefly a genre of socio-political and psychological examination, but an opportunity to make the codes ever more fixed and instant. Body Heat (like Blood Simple) is a very fine film on its own terms; it is the terms themselves we have been trying to dispute.


© Tony McKibbin