Film Noir, that fabulous genre that depicted the darker side of particularly 1940’s and 50’s cinema, was the hard, complete and relevant antidote to the normality of standard Hollywood studio output. To Douglas Keesey the film noir genre didn’t pass away as a product of its generation but evolved to reflect a new one, one which examined the past and developed into new forms to address the present but with the same anti–establishment style that its predecessors had, reflecting new concerns and considerations. Noir wasn’t dead but neither was it totally revived, it became part of its new present and looked to a new future. Welcome to the Neo-Noir, a genre that is both familiar and at the same time aggressively different.
Keesey approaches the modern noir genre in a number of ways – first by emphasising or rejecting its relationship to the original established genre but also exploring its modernist approach and the way it redefined social attitudes by both becoming modern and re-forming or re-interpreting its past. In the Landmarks section we are shown the films that are considered to represent the modern adaptation of the genre – from Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) to LA Confidential (1999). These are wisely placed in context and shown as relations to and deviation from the original generic form. The relevance of including films such as Blade Runner (1982), The Matrix (1999) and Watchmen (2010) is open to debate although Keesey explains how these films are modern evaluations and derivations that reflect their time but also relate to the structures of the genre even as they might appear to reside into a different one.
This is the book’s strong point – rather than relying on the familiarity of cops and private investigators in the traditional sense – shows how time has developed the traditional characters to become products of their own age. Modern auteurs also get a look in, although there is a slight overlap between some of the films that means this section is deliberately specific – the Coens, David Lynch, Mike Hodges, and Brian de Palma are welcome additions. If this feels like it’s becoming a useful discussion of the familiar the book then helpfully moves on to Discoveries, recommendations of films you might not have caught or might have forgotten. There is also a selection of non English language films that range in time, space and scenario from a variety of essential auteurs (Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967), Takeshi Kitano’s wonderful Hana-Bi (1997) and Lars von Trier’s Element of Crime (1984)) but also some excellent films that nevertheless may relate more tangentially to the subject matter (notably Takashi Miike’s deranged cult exploitation flick Ichi the Killer(2001) and Park Chan Wook’s brilliant but shocking Oldboy (2003)) – all worthy of consideration and essentially raising the genre to its current modern interpretation.
The final chapter is entitled Remakes – classics that have been remade – and explores how they have adapted to a modern outlook and attitude. While this is best summarised in the re-interpretations of The Manchurian Candidate (2004) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Scorsese’s tolerable but slightly inferior film The Departed (2006) compared to the Hong Kong original Infernal Affairs (2002) also gets a look in.
Kamera: Neo-Noir is a fascinating look at the way an established genre has evolved to embrace modern styles and mores. By picking films that are both clear re-interpretations of the old school and those that depart from the definitions of the accepted genre, Keesey invokes opinion and creates a need to re-examine the language and morality of recent films in a way that not only relates to the old but treats it as a weapon to engage with the new. Films you are familiar with gain new perspectives and there are plenty of others that you’ll want to seek out.