01 October 2008

Film Noir 101: An Introduction to America’s Greatest Cinematic Phenomenon

Just like jazz, baseball and apple pie, film noir is a singularly American phenomenon. A French term literally meaning black film, film noir is a label that was applied to 1940’s American cinema after its inception by French film thinkers. Some consider noir to be a genre, while others see it as a style or atmosphere, and many deem it to be both.

Regardless of its lack of an official status or text book definition, film noir is an indelible force in American cinema. Here is a brief introduction to the nature of noir.


Stylistically noir developed out of the 1920’s German Expressionist movement of filmmaking. Expressionist films such as “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” and “Nosferatu” evoke a dark and sinister world through the use of low key, high contrast lighting known as Chiaroscuro. This moody visual style heavily influences the dark and desolate city streets so prevalent in the noir environment.

Noir’s themes and narrative style also derive significantly from 1930’s hard boiled crime fiction, most notably the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet and James M. Cain. In fact, many of the greatest noir films are direct adaptations of their books.  Such stories feature complicated twists and turns, and often weave intricate tales of crime, murder, sex and corruption.

1930’s gangster films such as “Scarface” and “Little Caesar” also influenced film noir, featuring dark nights, tough streets, and even tougher criminals.


Noir films feature convoluted plots full of crime, murder, violence, backstabbing, treachery, deceit, loss and misfortune. Determinism and entrapment play a large factor in the world of noir. The protagonist, often a private detective, is typically doomed to ill fated misfortune, often caused by the most infamous of noir characters, the femme fatale. Beautiful, seductive yet seemingly innocent, the femme fatale often leads the protagonist down a dark and dangerous road.

Film noir is just as dark and mysterious stylistically as it is thematically; low key, high contrast lighting known as chiaroscuro, black and white photography, as well as dark and rainy city streets all contribute to its intriguing sense of style. Other familiar noir trademarks include recurring voice over, psychological dream sequences, and flashbacks.


Although there is much dispute as to which films should be categorized as noir, film noir’s classic genre period is generally considered to have taken place in the 1940’s. Here are several must see films from this period.

“Out of the Past” (1947)
Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and an excellent Kirk Douglas, “Out of the Past” is about a seemingly ordinary gas station owner with a secret, mysterious and potentially dangerous past.

“Murder My Sweet” (1944)
“Murder My Sweet” stars Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, and Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s famous detective protagonist, who is featured in numerous noir thrillers.

“Double Indemnity” (1944)
This classic film noir is based on a novella written by James M. Cain, and stars Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and the always impressive Edward G. Robinson, whose career success began with early gangster films such as “Little Caesar.”

“The Stranger” (1946)
Orson Welles directs and stars in this 1946 noir classic about a Nazi hiding out in the United States after WWII.


From the dark science fiction future noir of “Blade Runner”, to 2005’s graphic novel adaptation “Sin City,” to Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning crime thriller “The Departed,” no other cinematic style or genre has had such a long lasting and deeply impacted effect on cinema. Some of America’s greatest contemporary filmmakers owe much of their vision and success to the influence of film noir. Many of the Coen brother’s films are influenced heavily by film noir, and their 2001 film “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is a direct homage to the classic noir period. Among many others, directors such as Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann have all been struck by film noir’s dark influence.

There is something carnal to the dark and gritty toughness exuded by the noir world that captivates and fascinates audiences. Whether you consider it to be a genre, style, environment or something else entirely, film noir’s themes, visual style, and technical trademarks have influenced countless genres and filmmakers since the 1940’s, and will continue to do so for many years to come.

01 September 2008

5 Movies Every Science Fiction Fan Should See

Exploring a variety of sub-genres, including noir, horror, adventure, and romance, each of these films are firmly rooted in science fiction. But what they have in common, and what makes each one worth seeing is their ability to transcend genre. These films have timeless themes, beautiful visuals, and they all evoke powerful emotion.


Intriguing, terrifying, mysterious, bizarre, innovative and beautiful are only a handful of words that could be used to describe Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece. Based on Aurthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” chronicles the entire span of human evolution.

The film was not only technically innovative, it also pushed the boundaries of narrative structure and thematic content. Inspiring countless films and filmmakers, “2001” is considered a cinematic classic.


Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror classic follows the mission of a mining ship’s crew that investigates an unusual transmission coming from a dark, barren planet. They encounter an alien species on the surface which violently attaches itself to the face of a crew member. What ensues is a desperate struggle for survival, and one of the most infamous scenes in contemporary film history.

“Alien” is a classic because it delivers thrilling suspense and terror in a thoughtful and well executed way. As Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.” This film uses both the bang and its anticipation to engender a terrifying cinematic experience.


One could spend hours looking at “Blade Runner” without any sound or dialogue. The art direction, set design, costumes, and lighting are visionary, meticulously detailed and absolutely stunning. That’s not to say the visuals are the film’s only strength. On the contrary, “Blade Runner” tells a stylish and intriguing future-noir adventure rife with subtle depth; something lacking in most action based science fiction.


Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, “Solaris” is a beautiful and thoughtful romantic vision from director Steven Soderbergh.

Psychologist Christ Kelvin is sent to a space station orbiting a mysterious planet called Solaris. Upon arrival, he learns that a crew member has died and that others are experiencing some kind of unknown psychological trauma. As he begins to have anomalous experiences of his own, the unique and mysterious power of “Solaris” is revealed, and Kelvin’s life will never be the same.

“Solaris” has many qualities inherent to great science fiction; intriguing mystery, beautiful visuals, and a uniquely singular power. Even if stripped of its sci-fi elements, this film would remain a stunning achievement. At its core “Solaris” is an endearing and heartfelt romance that transcends genre.


It is fifty years into the future and the crew of the Icarus II is carrying a huge nuclear payload towards the Sun in a desperate attempt to re-ignite the dying star. Now the survival of humanity hinges on their success.

In making his science fiction debut, Director Danny Boyle wisely borrows from several classics of the genre. “Sunshine” pays homage to “2001” and “Alien.” by contemplating the significance of absolute power and mystery, as well as utilizing a serenely slow, yet tantalizingly suspenseful pace.

Beautiful to look at and intriguing to think about “Sunshine” should be considered a classic of its genre.

20 August 2008

Movie Review: "The Ninth Gate"

Rating: 3.5/5
Director:Roman Polanski, (1999)
Actors: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin
Run Time: 133 Minutes

Roman Polanski’s “The Ninth Gate” provides a glimpse into an ostensibly small niche in modern filmmaking. Resembling classic Noir films of the 1940’s and films by Alfred Hitchcock much more than today’s average thriller, “The Ninth Gate” is somewhat of a unique film going experience for the contemporary viewer. Released in 1999, “The Ninth Gate” received mixed reviews, and while not a failure at the box office, performed somewhat poorly. Since its release the film has been mostly forgotten, lost between discharge of action packed thriller after action packed thriller. However, what this film lacks in action and special effects, it more than makes up for in tantalizing Noir like suspense, great characters, and the overall atmosphere of classic 1940’s cinema.

“The Ninth Gate” begins in suspenseful fashion with an old man (Mr. Telfer) hanging himself in his library. This sets the thick suspenseful atmosphere in which the film unfolds. We are then introduced to the unscrupulous protagonist Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), rare book dealer and sometimes swindler, whose sleazy charm defines the anti-hero. Corso is hired by a multimillionaire business tycoon named Boris Balkin (Frank Langella) with more than a slight obsession with the devil. Balkan hires Corso to travel to Europe to verify the authenticity of his most sacred book (purchased conveniently from Mr. Telfer the day before he kills himself) called “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows.” According to Balkan “The Nine Gates” is adopted from a book written by Satan himself, and when the proper rituals are performed the devil can be conjured up in person. There are two other existing copies, the Kessler and the Fargus, and Balkan believes that only his copy is authentic.

As Corso accepts Balkans task and begins on his quest, the strange, unusual, and dangerous emerge; people are killed, Corso’s apartment is sacked, and the difference between friend and foe is blurred. Throughout Corso’s mysterious adventure he is relentlessly followed by a blonde woman with the uncanny ability of being at the right place at the right time, guiding him on his path. Ultimately, the final struggle comes as Corso attempts to unwind the mystery of “The Nine Gates,” outsmart his enemies and possibly confront the Devil himself.

One of the strongest features of Polanski’s film, and one closely related to its Film Noir heritage is the way in which suspense is implicated through the utilization of camera and sound. Similar to Hitchcock’s use of camera, this film builds great suspense by relying on slow, deliberate, and fluid movements of longer takes and minimal cutting. A great example of this is found in the very first scene in which Telfer hangs himself in his library. In this scene, terribly chilling suspense is generated by the camera as it moves deliberately from object to object throughout the room; from the stool, then to the noose and finally to the missing book on the shelf. Polanski lets the camera do all of the talking.

Another way in which the camera creates suspense is through the use of a subjective point of view, and the utilization of point of view shots. Polanski uses this technique for a significantly singular purpose; to embody the presence or influence of the devil in the film. Almost all of the point of view shots occur through mysterious or unknown characters who either have evil intent, or perform a violent or malicious act. An apt example occurs as Corso is studying Kessler’s copy of The Nine Gates in her library. The camera creeps up slowly behind an unaware Corso, suspensefully building tension, as if we, the audience, are the ones creeping up on him. A dull thump is heard and the camera switches to Corso’s point of view as his face slumps into the table in front of him, unconscious. Polanski is implicating the viewer in the devil’s shadowy influence, bringing the devil into the action without ever letting us see him in person, which creates an atmosphere that is extremely unsettling.

To further the suspense, Polanski employs the use of a musical score to near perfection. With the almost singular purpose of heightening suspense, the soundtrack sadistically dances along, combining joyous glee with wicked mischief to create a greater sense of tedious unease.

There are many great characters in Polanski’s film. Yet another quality abundantly prevalent in the classic noir thriller that is used to great success in “The Ninth Gate.” Perhaps the most recognizable of such characters is Liana Telfer, the femme fatale, embodied finely by Lena Olin. Olin’s character successfully exudes the attractive yet deceptive nature of the femme fatale as she sinks her claws into Corso. Polanski even makes a direct reference to this noir archetype as Liana seductively speaks with Corso: “This has happened before someplace.’ ‘I know, in the movies.’ ‘She had an automatic in her stocking.” This scene typifies the classic Noir relationship between protagonist and fatale.

Finally, there is the protagonist himself, Dean Corso, played to great effect by the talented Johnny Depp. The success of Depp’s character comes from a slippery undefinability. Corso is callous, manipulative and selfish, but in a slick and charming way. Called many things by many different characters throughout the film, including unscrupulous, a vulture, and most appropriately, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Corso is by no means a hero, nor is he a good guy. This makes for a dynamic and interesting protagonist who is at the center of a mystery full of trickery and deception, very much a modern day Philip Marlowe.

“The Ninth Gate” won’t give you amazing special effects, nor will it impress you with ostentatious action sequences. But, it’s a great throw back to 1940’s noir thrillers, where the credits roll before the film, everyone smokes, no one enters a room without being offered a drink, and the cab rides use rear projection for the New York city landscape. For Polanski it’s all about atmosphere, intrigue and suspense, and thats what you get with this film. “The Ninth Gate” is a refreshing return to the classic thriller genre, and remains intriguing each time you see it.