The Neo-Noir '90S

AFTER WORLD WAR II French critics became aware of a new mood gloomy, doomy and dangerous--in Hollywood movies, They coined a term, film noir, to describe these crime-infested, shadow-draped, black-and-white movies. What they couldn't have foreseen was how a fatalistic cinematic style would turn, in the pre-millennium '90, into a lifestyle. Noir is decidedly back--in the clothes we wear, the music we hear, the ads we read and in the most critically acclaimed movie of the year, "L.A. Confidential." Pottery Barn is offering a black "Dial for Murder" rotary phone. The new lounge-lizard culture, flaunting such retro poisons as martinis and cigarettes, invites us to glamorously rebel against an age of abstinence and political correctness. The folks at Camel advertise their beleaguered product with an image of a femme fatale beckoning us to danger. Tom Ford's new Gucci collection is noir-inspired down to its '40s-era monkey-fur jacket--and even Ralph Lauren is unleashing metal spike heels this season.

Not coincidentally, Carly Simon has come out with a CD called "Film Noir," following k.d. lang's torchy, nicotine-infused "Drag." And once disreputable pulp fictions have been canonized by the Library of America series, which has come out with a two-volume set of "Crime Novels" featuring such noir classics as James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me."

On our screens, film noir is still exuding its old, shadowy glamour, despite some bottom-line concerns at the big studios. Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential" flips the sunny '50s on its backside to reveal a stylish underbelly of corruption. Abandoning politics for his idea of a lark, Oliver Stone resurrects the femme fatale in the form of Jennifer Lopez in his relentless "UTurn." What started as an American specialty has become an international style: witness the brilliantly disturbing Mexican "Deep Crimson," and the soon-to-be-released "Kiss or Kill," a nifty Australian lovers-on-the-run noir.

Why are we in this somber mood? Crime is down, Wall Street is up and saturated fats have replaced communism on our worry list. But, of course, it was during an age of peace and prosperity that film noir got its start. During the Depression and war years, Hollywood had diverted a besieged nation with escapist entertainments and patriotic cheer. But with victory, our storytellers let down their psychic guard, and what poured out was dark and troubling fantasies of a dangerous, corrupt new world where the lines between good and evil got crossed. The streets were rain-slicked, fogbound, menacing; the heroes deracinated and weary; the women ambiguous, sexy and treacherous.

The noir vision was partly inspired by such hard-boiled novelists as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Cain, but the visual style was largely imported from Europe, by Germans and Austrians who had fled the Nazis and brought with them a taste for expressionism and a world view burdened by the weight of history: directors like the cynical Billy Wilder ("Double Indemnity"), the fatalistic Fritz Lang ("The Big Heat"), the stylish Robert Siodmak ("Phantom Lady") and the cool Otto Preminger ("Laura"). Classic film noir came to an end in the mid'50s, by which time it had evolved into ever more feverish, psychologically twisted variations. In the B-movie classic "Gun Crazy," young lovers kill with no motive; in Nicholas Ray's tortured "In a Lonely Place," the cocky Humphrey Bogart of "The Big Sleep" is replaced by a paranoid, violent Bogie. At the end of the line, in 1955, came Robert Aldrich's "Kiss Me Deadly," in which film noir embraced the age's ultimate fear--nuclear annihilation.

What sometimes gets lost is how much dark and dirty fun these movies were. But when film noir re-emerged in the '70s and '80s--embraced by a new film-school generation of directors--it had quotation marks around its name. Its cynicism seemed secondhand. Remakes like "Farewell, My Lovely" and "Against All Odds" (a rerun of Jacques Tourneur's classic "Out of the Past") limply traded on nostalgia. The highly entertaining "Body Heat," with Kathleen Turner in full femme fatale throttle, self-consciously translated '40s conceits into 1981 parlance. If 1974's "Chinatown" was the best and most vital of the period noirs, perhaps it was because, like its forebears, it was directed by an Eastern European (Roman Polanski) who had grown up with a firsthand taste of evil in Nazi-occupied Poland.

But in the blockbuster-hungry Hollywood of 1997, nostalgia-driven noir is a no-no. Teenagers aren't interested in the '40s and '50s. "If 'Chinatown' were pitched today, it would be turned down," says one studio marketer. "Everybody avoids the moniker of 'film noir' because it's so hard to sell a period piece." The success of "L.A. Confidential"--a hit but no boxoffice bonanza--is considered a fluke, unlikely to spawn imitations. The man in charge of marketing "L.A. Confidential," Chris Pula of Warner Bros., concedes that "the bulk of the audience who enjoys film noir are directors, film students, critics and the most ardent, generally upscale film enthusiast."

But as the man said, directors love the style. Which is why it refuses to go away. Many of our most talented young filmmakers began in a noir mode: the Coen brothers ("Blood Simple"), Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs"), John Dahl ("Red Rock West") and Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects"). Significantly, these are all independent films--the low-budget B-movies of our era. This is the arena where noir thrives today, not at the studios, where $60 million budgets are the rule and dark visions are discouraged. When the noir sensibility emerges in expensive mainstream movies, it's under another guise: spun into the future by Ridley Scott in "Blade Runner," twisted into cartoon shapes in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," cast as an epic crime movie by Michael Mann in "Heat."

The current craze for noir as a fashion statement is said to be a response to the underlying anxieties of our age. Perhaps. But noir is a stylistic safety blanket that lets us deal with crime and chaos without saying what's really on our minds. The linguistic irony of noir is that with a few exceptions (Chester Himes, Walter Mosely) it has always been a white style: that is to say, a style made by, for and about white people. What it rarely deals with is race. The mean streets of contemporary America have nothing to do with guys in trench coats on rainslicked pavement, nothing to do with martinis and smoke rings. Those 'hoods have been ceded to the black gangsta action movies, which have no truck with nostalgia. The one rare noir that deals with race as a theme is Carl Franklin's terrific 1992 "One False Move" (co-written by Billy Bob Thornton). This is an authentic noir for our times, its gaze focused on the present and not a "Dial M for Murder" phone in sight. The retro "lifestyle" noir pushed by Madison Avenue is intended to tranquilize; it rewrites history as a costume party. An authentic noir vision, kept alive by our best filmmakers, seduces and disturbs and snaps us to attention. Choose your poison.

Double Indemnity, 1944; Stanwyck burns The Big Sleep, 1946; The best Chandler Out of the Past, 1947; Stylish fatal triangle Gun Crazy, 1950; Classic cult B thriller In a Lonely Place, 1950; Paranoid Bogie The Big Heat, 1953; Scalding Fritz Lang Kiss Me Deadly, 1955; Apocalyptic noir Touch of Evil, 1958; Bordertown baroque Chinatown, 1974; Corruption cuts deep One False Move, 1992; Puts the black in noir