Film Noir is said to have taken place between the years 1941 and 1958, beginning with the release of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and ending with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. The genre was named by French film critics who recognized a cynical and pessimistic worldview in the American films that were made post World War II. They were dark films, filled with a black & white frame that juxtaposed light and shadow. They were primarily crime thrillers, often times following the exploits of criminals or sociopaths, and showcasing a darker side of life.
Neo-Noir is those crime thrillers that have since come after the Film Noir movement. It is an unlisted film genre and it does not actually exist, but to those viewers who remember and share a fondness for Film Noir it is still very prevalent. The two most prominent films that come to mind are Chinatown (1974) and Angel Heart (1987), detective or private investigator stories that follow a gumshoe, stomping a beat to solve a crime. But the Neo-Noir genre offers more to viewers than just pulp detective stories. There are distinct story characteristics to a film from the era of Film Noir that make it “noir” and those characteristics still exist in films today. The most recent film that harkens back to a genre from half-a-century ago is Nightcrawler.
Nightcrawler follows petty criminal, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he turns to video journalism in order to make a buck. He buys a video camera and police scanner, then prowls the night in search of breaking crimes that can be sold to news channels as stories. It’s a dirty, unethical line of work, but somebody’s got to be out there on the streets after dark so that common folks can have their news the next day. Bloom goes in over his head when he and his partner are the first to arrive at a crime scene and he becomes a witness to a grisly and gruesome murder. It is not just the neon that punctuates the night sky in Nightcrawler that makes the film Neo-Noir, it is story elements of classical Film Noir, recognized by this astute observer of the genre.
The Stranger: Louis Bloom is an outsider. He does not belong in the world of today. He is a casual observer with no attachment to other people. He does not like other people. People are just pawns for him to use. He records them with his video camera so that he may profit. He was once an optimist, but is now a cynic due to hardship and strife and his worldview has grown into something twisted and askew. He cares very little for the human race and more for his own self-preservation.
The Femme Fatale: Nina Romina (played by Rene Russo) is a veteran news reporter past her prime. She recognizes the potential in Louis Bloom and uses him to boost the ratings of her special report news program. She is the female alternative to the male rebel. Her actions are morally ambiguous and legally questionable. She is a ball-buster and spider-woman, trapped in a male dominated world where she must use her cunning and sexuality to achieve her goals.
Male Violence: Throw a man behind bars and treat him like an animal and he will fight back. Louis Bloom fights back. He’s lived like an animal, trapped in a clunky automobile and tiny, Los Angeles studio apartment, until his journalist efforts succeed. But he had no choice. He could either live in squalor like an animal, or allow his violent, sex-filled male aggression to take over and fight back.
The Fatalistic Nightmare: The world is a shit-hole. Everyone else shits on it, so why can’t the lead characters do so? It’s an urban jungle, filled with contrasty areas of light and shadow, neon and darkness. What once was good, turns bad. There is no escape or distant Laralay where paradise awaits. The characters are stuck and they must persevere the only way they know how: lie, cheat, and steal.
The story and concept of Nightcrawler impresses me more than its directing and actual filmmaking. It does not have the precision of Film Noir masterpieces from decades ago. It’s a modern noir film, complete with shaky, hand-held cameras and uncomfortable close-ups. However, the morally ambiguous and downright sleazy characters are the most fascinating aspect of the film. Their actions are questionable, bordering on insane, and quite possibly sociopathic. There are times that I absolutely despise and dislike Louis Bloom, but there are other times that I sympathize and understand Bloom’s reasoning. He’s an ambitious man and goal-driven, but the actions he takes in order to succeed are borderline illegal and criminal. I don’t think I’d like to work with him or be his friend.