Three easy pieces

Postmodern film noir

By Rev. Adam McKinney on April 13, 2018

Another month, another edition of Three Easy Pieces, where I explore a pocket of pop culture from its birth through where it sits today. This month, I'm thinking about postmodern film noir. In the decades following film noir's heyday in the ‘40s and ‘50s, filmmakers took the genre's touchstones -- dark themes, amoral characters, troubled gumshoes, vicious villains, femme fatales -- and turned them inside-out. For brevity's sake, I won't be discussing noir pastiches like Blade Runner and The Big Lebowski.

BIRTH: The Long Goodbye
Honorable mention: The Late Show, Night Moves, Chinatown

Robert Altman's defining style involved a lot of naturalistic performances, improvised dialogue, long takes, and incidental stories. He was practically the godfather of what would come to be known as the "hangout movie." It was a wild swerve, then, for him to make The Long Goodbye (1973), an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel, starring Elliott Gould as perhaps the most famous detective of the noir era, Philip Marlowe.

Beyond transposing the setting from the late ‘40s to the ‘70s, Altman also replaced the whip-smart terseness of a noir script with the same laconic, rumpled vibe that Altman introduced to audiences in M*A*S*H. As Marlowe, Gould is frequently seen mumbling to himself, serving as a winking stand-in for the ever-present narration of classic noir; Marlowe, here, is less crackerjack private eye, and more of a wry, world-weary man out of time, confused by the creeping hippie crowd taking over what used to be a seedy Los Angeles. As for the movie's central mystery, it's a typically labyrinthine one, where the crime goes far deeper than it initially seems.

DEVELOPMENT: House of Games
Honorable mention: After Dark, My Sweet; Miami Blues; L.A. Confidential

Speaking of that snappy, terse dialogue, you can't point to many more accomplished masters of the trade than David Mamet. Yes, he may be a pretty lousy guy these days, and the performative, theatrical tone of his words may be kryptonite to some moviegoers' ears, but Mamet was long the king of writing flavorful, evocative conversations. While House of Games (1987) was his directorial debut, Mamet had been venturing out of theater and into the realm of screenwriting for a few years. House of Games showed that he could not only write a twisty, magnetic mystery, but that he could lend it the deep shadows and stark colors that helped define film noir in the ‘40s.

The story concerns a psychiatrist who falls in with a group of con men, after approaching them to warn them off of her gambling addict patient. Fans of movies about con men may be able to predict some of the twists and turns, but it ends in a surprisingly violent, morally ambiguous way, befitting its noir lineage. Less predictable is the proficiency with which its actors are able to handle Mamet's difficult dialogue, with Mamet ringers Joe Mantegna and Ricky Jay faring the best, while star (and ex-wife to Mamet) Lindsay Crouse showcases how hard it is to master such a specific rhythm.

TODAY: Inherent Vice
Honorable mention: The Nice Guys, Brick, Too Late

Returning to the sun-drenched ‘70s noir of The Long Goodbye is Inherent Vice (2014), Paul Thomas Anderson's absolutely dizzying adaptation of Thomas Pynchon, an author whose work has long been thought to be unfilmable. Anderson was the first to take a stab at bringing Pynchon to the big screen, and while the source material is considered to be relatively straightforward for Pynchon, it is by no means a walk in the park to follow every confounding thread.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, a perpetually stoned Los Angeles P.I. in 1970 who's persuaded by his returning ex-girlfriend to investigate the potential abduction of her current boyfriend, a real estate developer. Even being able to unfold the inciting incident of the movie was hard on my brain, and it only gets more tangled from there, as plot threads spider-web out into a vast conspiracy of LA municipal corruption, neo-nazis, and wild, drug-induced paranoia. While the detective's stoned, this is no Big Lebowski. Instead, Inherent Vice is a hazy mystery where we're frequently just as confused as the gumshoe working to solve it.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Comic Book Adaptations for Adults.