Here at Latent Images, we are passionate about leading student discussions on film and media. As part of a new ongoing series, each month we will be highlighting a different selection of favorites from our team of staff writers and contributors. Monthly selections will alternate, varying on different kinds of topics — from actors, to film scores, to noteworthy moments — giving students the space to discuss, recommend, and praise as they please.
This month, we’re delving into the complicated worlds of film noir and all the ancillary subgenres. Noir, as an aesthetic and cultural phenomenon, continually penetrates a wide variety of film genres, movements, and histories. It’s prominence can lead to very creative and unique injunctions of cinematic form and ideas, unbound by classicism or conventionality. As this list demonstrates, noir is present in a multitude of inflection points and filmic modes, ranging from melodramatic westerns to classic crime thrillers.
I Shot Jesse James, 1949, dir. Samuel Fuller, USA
“The law says it’s legal. Don’t look at it no other way.”
Within the character of Robert Ford exists an insatiable desire to escape. To escape the life of an outlaw, of violence, of the American West. Upon finding a way out, Ford is met with justified criticism. A traitor marked, he feels his actions were right. He killed his best friend, Jesse James, for the sake of his future, for the sake of a life he so desperately wants. He is never allowed the release. Themes of betrayal and violence as well as hard lighting mixed with the black and white photography of noir are present in Sam Fuller’s debut. I Shot Jesse James transcends the Western genre. The cowboy and the town marshal do not stand distant from each other ready to draw. The town marshal, Kelley, turns his back to Ford under the cold moon. Fuller shines the spotlight down on Ford making his crimes clear. He stands in an empty void of shadow unable to escape the great betrayal committed against his friend. – Aidan Collins
The Long Goodbye, 1973, dir. Robert Altman, USA
In many ways, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is a subversion of the classic detective film and a prototypical example of the slacker noir (sometimes also referred to as stoner noir). The film follows Phillip Marlowe now in the seventies and caught in between several mysteries: a missing cat, a missing friend, a missing author, and a missing 350,000 dollars. Altman takes his time parsing through these mysteries though as he is more interested in the private detective rendered anachronistic in a corrupt world. Marlowe (played by a witty Elliot Gould) is a holdover from a begotten era, still clad in a 2 piece tweed suit and smoking like it 1946. The film revels in its postmodern pastiche and self-awareness, upending the notion of a Phillip Marlowe story. The plot is as convoluted as some classical noir predecessors yet Altman is not concerned with explaining it or maintaining conventional motives or characterization. As classified in an article for Slate magazine, the protagonists in slacker noir films usually seek to extricate themselves from the main narrative. As with The Long Goodbye, Marlowe is more concerned with finding his cat than any of the crime or mystery plots. The result is a humorous evaluation of where the detective noir film is heading and evidence of a genre in transition, a film caught between The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski. – Julian Hart
The Long Goodbye is streaming for free on tubi, Prime Video, and Pluto TV. It can also be rented on Apple TV and VUDU.
Bringing Out The Dead, 1999, dir. Martin Scorsese, USA
Paul Schrader’s decrepit screenplay, plunged in the depths of hopelessness and insomnia-tic isolation meets Martin Scorsese’s dead of night New York City, one that is filled with nightmares instead of dreams in Bringing Out The Dead. Nicholas Cage plays in far more of a nihilistic character study than the action-based roles he grew a reputation for, and his tough-guy charm makes him sympathetic and haunted, rather than freely lovable and heroic. Scorsese washes this neo-noir in color, more of a dark psychological thriller than a classic crime tale, but the tonal noir of it all still remains. There is no brightness except street lights and the glowing red of the ambulance, traversing through crime and terror, carrying the weight of responsibility along with a cup of coffee that grows cold in Cage’s hands. Cage wanders from neighborhood to neighborhood in his labor and pursuit of helping people, but each street brings more irreconcilable horrors, an overwhelming amount of desire to help, the stress of his inability to do so, and the all-consuming guilt that plagues his streets like steam from subway sewers. Bringing Out The Dead is a sleepless nightmare, a portrait of a godless city and a helpless, haunted man, striving to work until the city tears him apart. – Karenna Umscheid
Bringing Out The Dead is streaming for free on HBO Max. It can also be rented on Vudu or Prime Video.
Jacob Madkour – Variety, 1983, dir. Bette Gordon, USA
Ending in full immersion into the pornographic image, in keeping with the vain tendency toward voyeurism present within many aspiring writers, Christine, a close to failed author, seemingly fawnish and pensive, desperate for a job, is hired as a ticket-taker at an all too sleazy Manhattan porno theater. What she originally conceived of as a curious occupation in which she could live once removed, observing the scum and the sex-obsessed—the theater’s customers, proves to be far from the truth as she discovers she is no better than such characters upon stepping into one of the theaters and being utterly overtaken by the faceless bodies squirming, merging, and moaning behind the flitting projection of decaying, secretly sold celluloid. Christine becomes so awestruck that she alienates herself from her boyfriend and other acquaintances, only able to repeat and imitate line for line the adult flicks she watches at work, she becomes possessed by the logic of pornography—an abstracted spectre of eros. Director Bette Gordon, at the time best known for her reinvention of Americana aesthetics through an angelic and surreal bent, making use of light whether from the sun or the neon of advertising and novelist Kathy Acker (the screenwriter of the film), best known for her subjects ranging from bloody prom queens to cyborg pirates, take the usual feeling of menace present in classic film noir and use it to make this colorful, pessimistic and often overlooked statement about female sexuality.
Variety is available to watch for free at archive.org.
The Wild Goose Lake, dir. Diao Yinan, Mainland China
Half a decade after his Golden-Bear-winning Black Coal, Thin Ice, the Chinese director returned in 2019 with another reinvention of neo-noir, this time polished with maximal style and swagger. Akin to his previous films, The Wild Goose Lake excels at being a simple yet enthralling experience: After accidentally shooting two police patrols dead, a motorcycle-thief-turned-fugitive flees to return to his family, while being hunted by both the police and his rival gang. While inheriting genre traditions, The Wild Gooses isn’t afraid to deviate from narrative spectacle and emphasizes on nothing but the ever-growing tension, as the hunt slowly closes in on the protagonist. Title of the film, The Wild Goose Lake, alludes to the story’s setting – a lawless underbelly that stands as one of Hunan province’s many desakotas, liminal spaces between urban and rural, mixtures of construction sites, worn blocks, and open fields. The locale provides the film a grimy and gritty hunting ground – something essential to noir films – and also exposes a world that feels alien to even its native audiences. However, the most outstanding aspect about The Wild Goose Lake is, without a question, its visual language – With mise-en-scene reminiscent of Refn’s more recent works (The Neon Demon, Only God forgives), the cinematography wraps the film with a deliciously psychedelic texture. – Richard Zheng
The Wild Goose Lake is available on Crackle, Prime Video, and PLEX for free. It can also be rented on YouTube and Google Play.
A Simple Plan, 1998, dir. Sam Raimi, USA
Though it contains many similarities to Fargo (by Raimi’s good friends, the Coen Brothers), A Simple Plan stands out as an underappreciated but unequivocally powerful piece. Though it deals in regular noir themes like deception, sides of the law, and femme fatales—Raimi’s adaptation of the 1993 novel does so with both affecting melodrama and realistic brutality. The story finds a trio (Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Brent Briscoe) who discover $4 million, cash, buried in an abandoned plane within the Minnesota wilderness. Hank Mitchell (Paxton) is the smartest of them by far, but feels swallowed by the blue collar nothingness of a rural town. When he accidentally spills to his notably conniving wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), the two must contend with the uncertainty of their bumbling accomplices, and especially with Lou’s (Briscoe) short-sighted greed. Like Fargo, the film’s atmosphere is drenched in oppressive snowfall, and the comparative lack of humor assists in drowning the audience in this sense of imposing destruction for the everyman. While this may be a film more fit for the Oscars than Raimi’s usual fare, his iconic visual style is present even in this more muffled form, creating a dynamic tension between this small ensemble in a way almost reminiscent of Leone. Somewhere fluttering between Raimi’s most restrained and a particularly bold mainstream drama lies this criminally underseen masterwork. Check it out. – Charlie Compton