Paint It Noir

By David WolinskyThe Daily Northwestern

The private eye who keeps pulling himself deeper into a web of corruption and deceit. The lone dame who has the look of an angel and the heart of a fiend. The dialogue is so tough and nasty you’d think the script was written in acid.

These are but a few of the staples of that most elusive of film genres – film noir. In 2006, over 45 years since the film noir movement dried up, these movies are making a comeback, with new releases The Black Dahlia and Hollywoodland, among others. But do today’s filmgoers care to make noir as popular today as it once was?

The present-day resurgence of noir began in the mid-90s with cult favorites like Seven, Fargo and The Usual Suspects.

But some of the most recent noir films have not received such universal acclaim. Hollywoodland fared well with major critics, garnering a 68 percent positive reaction on film Web site Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com), but most of the reviews seem to admire the film more than they actually like it.

But if you were to believe many critics, it would seem that Hollywoodland is God’s gift to noir when compared to Dahlia. That film currently sits at a paltry 32 percent positive reaction on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating a genuine critical misfire.

Montana State University film professor James Joyce thinks an inherent flaw in these films is the lack of a connection to the character.

“Audiences know the material, but not the characters, so we don’t have a recognition with the character,” Joyce says. “The movies are both based on sensationalist topics, and character development seems to be pushed to the background, which could be part of the reason why audiences aren’t intrigued.”

But the neo-noir film to have received the most acclaim is not a huge Hollywood production. It also breaks many of noir’s conventions: It’s filmed in color and takes place in a high school. Brick – which plays as if Raymond Chandler (writer of 1944’s Double Indemnity) wrote a storyline for “The O.C.” – is already a cult hit, generating an 80 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Students say what elevates Brick above the other recent neo-noir films is its complex, intricate plot.

“(Brick) was a movie that required thought,” says Weinberg freshman Carolyn Goldschmidt. “Sin City had a lot of hype, but it was too special-effects driven. Brick had a very good plot.”

Dahlia, on the other hand, was lambasted for its overcooked plot. Plus, Brick may be the one neo-noir film that captures the noir spirit as well as the style.

“Film noir is less about aesthetics and more about content,” says Max Freedman, a Weinberg freshman and avid noir fan. “Black Dahlia fails because it’s an exercise in style and the characters and story ring false throughout every frame of the film. Brick is not as painstakingly art-directed, but it has the soul.”

Joyce agrees that Brick updates film noir for a modern audience.

“(The creators of Brick) do a fantastic job of walking between using film noir conventions as a joke and using them in unique ways,” he says. “I think Brick, like Memento, could become a quiet classic.”

The most pressing issue, though, is that of box office receipts – or lack thereof. Dahlia opened with a disappointing $10.4 million in its opening weekend, and April’s Lucky Number Slevin only managed to gross a little more than $22 million before its DVD release.

And it’s not just films starring Josh Hartnett that are financially failing – Brick only grossed around $2 million, low even by independent film standards. Hollywoodland has also begun to fizzle, sinking from second to ninth place last weekend in box office ratings. The most financially successful neo-noir in the past few years is Sin City, which grossed over $74 million at the box office.

Dahlia and Hollywoodland may have an excuse for performing poorly. Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office reporting agency Exhibitor Relations, says the release of two L.A.-based noir films may have been too much for audiences. If this is the case, upcoming noir releases have it cut out for them.

If most film noirs these days are taking such a critical and commercial beating, why is Hollywood producing them en masse?

Joyce thinks that noir’s success on TV is spilling over into cinema.

“Veronica Mars and other noir-esque shows have done well,” he says. “Hollywood’s had a good track record with using noir in new ways lately.”

The main difference now is that Hollywood is pushing noir to be much more mainstream than it once was, when B-filmmakers weren’t always out to create art. This studio interference could end up quenching any hope noir had of reliving its glory days.

Still, Joyce remains optimistic about the future of noir.

“There’s something interesting about the noir protagonist in that they are not perfect,” he says. “People are drawn to them because you can get into a broken character’s head so easily.”

Weinberg freshman David Wolinsky is a PLAY writer. He can be reached at [email protected]