Great Neo Noir Films: Brick (2005)

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Image: http://larryseymourmusic.com/detail_brick.html

Brick is a film worth watching, if for no other reason than the fact that it is unlike any other film to date. It takes a modern high school setting and smashes it quite enjoyably into a noir atmosphere. The juxtaposition of high school students with heavy noir tropes is pulled off delightfully by a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a supporting cast of little known actors.

Gordon-Levitt plays a young man who gets a distressing call from his ex-girlfriend. Knowing that she is in trouble, he tries to help, but she pushes him away saying that he can’t help her out of what she has gotten herself into. When she goes missing (and is eventually found murdered) shortly after that, he begins to probe deeper, revealing the school’s criminal underbelly, which is both amusing and well crafted. As Gordon Levitt integrates himself into the criminal organization, he learns that the whole story revolves around a bad brick of cocaine that no one is sure who cut. Levitt must discover who cut the brick to figure out why his ex-girlfriend was killed.

All the quintessential noir elements are acknowledged here while still staying true to the adolescent high school setting:

  1. A smart detective that uses his wits and resources, but still has t answer to a principle who is holding academic probation over his head if he doesn’t rat on his classmates.
  2. An underworld crime boss with minions to do all of his dirty work, a bad brick of cocaine threatening to start an internal war within his organization, and a mother who bakes fresh cookies for him and all of his friends.
  3. A woman who is dating the football jock at the school, but who is surprisingly helpful, and neither the detective nor the audience can be quite sure if she is to be trusted.

The dialogue is crisp, well written and wonderfully delivered. This film reeks of noir, and even when it pokes fun at itself, it never pulls you out of that noir atmosphere. One way that it does this is through the absence of technology; instead of high tech devices and databases, our detective must solve the case is through old school detecting. This helps the whole film feel more gritty and intriguing.

All in all, this is a wonderfully executed neo noir that is fresh and exciting, while always delivering a healthy dose of noir nostalgia.

-Anderson Ryle

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Newspaper Noir

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Newspaper Noir

“What are you reading, kid?” I asked.

“The paper,” he answered without looking up. His dirty brown hair hung down over his forehead and hid his eyes from view.

“I can see that. Aren’t you a little young to be reading anything but the funnies?” I lit my cigarette and tucked my lighter back into my coat pocket. The kid didn’t answer.

“Say, does that paper cover the Reynolds case?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Listen, kid, I’ll give you a quarter for it.”

“Go find your own newspaper,” he responded. “There is a box on every street from here to the post office, Oak Street, Linden Street, and Magnolia. Take your pick, but leave me alone.”

“How old are you?” I asked, a little incredulous at the boy’s manners.

He folded the paper and smoothed it across his lap like an old grandpa finally resigning to his grandson’s incessant questions. “I’m twelve.”

“You have a job?”

“Yeah. A paper route.”

“Shit, you run a paper route and you won’t sell me one newspaper? I just want to see the latest on the Reynolds–” The kid cut me off.

“It’s a messy divorce. Jim Reynolds still says that his wife stole a hundred thousand dollars worth of art from their mansion, and now she claims that he’s been cheating on her. Says she even hired a private detective who found proof.”

“Kind of grim stuff for a twelve year old to follow,” I said, taking a drag on my cigarette. “Who did she hire? Was it Bosworth? That sucker has out-maneuvered me at every turn. It’s not my fault though; he’s well connected.”

“Paper didn’t say who she hired.”

“I’ve been following the case, trying to get in on the action. I’m a private eye myself. There’s just one thing I don’t understand. If Bosworth was hired to scrape dirt on Jim, why didn’t he call to rub it in my face? There aren’t many private investigators in this town; I usually would have heard if there was a big fish on the market like Sally Reynolds.”

“I don’t know, mister. I’m just the paper boy.”

“Say, do you know when Sally made her statement to the reporter?”

“Not for sure. Ed Finch, who writes most of the articles on the Reynolds, told me that this case has been developing so fast he’s had to talk to his sources in the morning just so that he can get his piece in by the afternoon deadline.”

“If that’s true, then Sally would have had to make that statement yesterday morning. Jim Reynolds has been out of town on business for a week. He just got back in town late last night. I’ll bet Sally Reynolds never even hired a private investigator. It’s possible she hired someone from out of town, but I think she’s trying to bluff him out. If she can make him nervous about losing even more in the divorce, he might settle the case and drop his theft charges. She’s no dummy.”

“Doesn’t matter now,” the kid said, looking westward, down the street.

“What do you mean?”

“He’s dead. Jim Reynolds is dead.”

“What the hell!” I said in surprise. “Jim Reynolds isn’t dead.”

“Sure is.”

“Give me that paper,” I said, snatching it from the boy’s lap. He didn’t try to stop me; he just looked off down the street again like he wished that he were anywhere but there.

I read the short article where Sally claimed to have proof of her husband’s infidelity. It said nothing about Jim Reynolds croaking. “He’s not dead. It doesn’t say anything about Jim being dead,” I said, as I thumbed over to the obituaries. “Where did you read that?”

“Didn’t read it. I saw it.”

I put the paper down and tried to look the boy in the eye. He was staring off down that street trying his best not to look at me. There was a glistening drop of moisture precipitating at the corner of his eye.

“I saw it while I was on my paper route this morning,” he continued. “You know how they have those big glass windows in their bedroom? I was about to throw the paper from my bike when I heard yelling. I’ve been keeping tabs on the case, so I thought if I could get close enough to see, I might learn something nobody else did. Maybe even get my name in one of Ed Finch’s crime columns.” The tear couldn’t stay put any longer; it rolled down his cheek, and he smeared it away with his wrist.

He heaved a deep breath and then carried on with the story. “I walked up to the house with their paper in my hands. Saw that there was some movement in the bedroom window, so I crept over there, hidden by the bushes. I saw her, Sally Reynolds; she was laughing at him. She said that she had caught him with his pants down, and that she would get half of everything now. Then he called her a bitch and threw her on the bed, tried to strangle her. But she kept on laughing. It scared me, mister. Honest to God, that laugh scared me worse than anything I’ve ever seen at the horror pictures.” The boy breathed in silence for a few moments.

“Go on, kid.” I said, nursing the last shreds of nicotine from my cigarette. “What happened next?”

“Well, he was standing over her, trying to choke her to death. And his eyes were all closed shut while he was strangling her, as if he didn’t want to look at what he was doing. She was still laughing like a banshee. Finally, she reached under the pillow and pulled out a gun. Blew his head open.” The boy started crying. I put my hand on his shoulder and his sobs intensified.

“I don’t want to be in Ed Finch’s column. I don’t.” He said between sobs. “I just want to forget I was there.”

“You don’t have to talk to any reporters,” I said. “You don’t have to do any of that. It’s ok.” I kept my hand on his shoulder and pitched my cigarette into the street.

“She knew he was going to try to kill her. She was ready for it.” He said as he wiped his tears away, and started to regain his composure. “Why would she do that? Wasn’t one hundred thousand dollars worth of art enough? Did she really have to kill him for the rest of it?” He closed his eyes and rubbed them one last time. “She’s going to tell the police it was self defense; she certainly let him put the strangle marks all over her neck. I guess I’ll have to go down to the station too, make my own statement.” He looked like the most world-weary private eye I had ever seen, and he was only twelve years old.

“Kid, you’d make one hell of a detective.” I said.

“I don’t know about that,” he replied. “When I saw what happened, I froze up. Forgot to leave their newspaper on their porch; I just kept on clutching it tight in my hands, all the way back here where you found me.”


Thanks for reading, I welcome all feedback and constructive criticism.

-Anderson Ryle

The Antihero, and Why We Love Him

an·ti·he·ro
ˈan(t)ēˌhirō,ˈan(t)īˌhirō/
noun
noun: anti-hero; plural noun: anti-heroes; noun: antihero; plural noun: antiheroes
  1. a central character in a story, movie, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.

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Antiheros have been around for quite some time, and they are not confined to any particular genre. They are the protagonists that are deeply flawed, and who cannot seem to escape who they are.

In noir, often the conventional heroic attributes that are lacking include morality and idealism. These are quite often replaced with apathy and disillusionment. Instead of a courageous hero who acts on his principles which are founded on a set of noble ideals, we have a hero who is apathetic to a life  which failed to be as good as society advertised. These disillusioned protagonists resonated with post war audiences of noir film and literature, just as they do today. As humans, we identify with the deeply flawed character of the antihero, and like him, we have some mistrust in the good of society as a whole.

Still, these faults of the main character make us feel empathy for him, especially in stories that reveal how our hero became the way he is. We start to understand his shortcomings, and love him despite his violence, pessimism and moral ambiguity. Nothing is without a cost, however, and our noir antihero must pay for his character flaws. In noir, these flaws tend to surface at the most inopportune moments possible, and often arise due to the antihero’s counterpart, the femme fatale. She takes advantage of his moral ambiguity to seduce him for her own gain. Whether conscious of her manipulation or not, the noir hero cannot overcome his flaws as an ordinary hero might. Instead, the cynical, world-weary protagonist finally fights for something, and it becomes his undoing.

Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Body Heat are all great examples of stories where a protagonist gets caught up with a femme fatale and she uses his flaws and eventually ruins him. The final ruin of the antihero is not fundamental in noir, however. A few Humphrey Bogart characters were able to make it out of their stories no worse for wear. The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep are notable examples of this. Still, it can be argued that truly great noir shares this this theme: A flawed hero who cannot escape his own character.

-Anderson Ryle

Let Slip the Dogs of Noir

In 1995 Roger Ebert made the following observation concerning film noir: “Film noir is a movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending.”

One common thread that ties all noir together is that things just don’t work out the way you want them to work out. Often, as the noir hero unravels the mystery, the whole story embarks on an epic tailspin that gets more and more out of hand until the final climactic crash. We see this hold true across the entire expanse of the genre. These unhappy endings can result from a variety of factors including the main protagonist’s flaws, the betrayal of other characters, and completely uncontrollable outside circumstances. Often, several of these factors work together to create the final flawed conclusion to the noir story.

In Out of the Past, we see a man and woman whose love is doomed due to the inescapability of the protagonist’s past crimes and past loves. The film In a Lonely Place again shows us two lover’s who are torn apart; however, here we see the reckless flaws in Humphrey Bogart’s character combine with horrible timing to ultimately leave his relationship in tatters with no hope of mending. In the 1975 neo-noir Night Moves, Gene Hackman’s character finally unravels the greater mystery at play, but not as a result of great detective work, and not nearly in time for a happy ending.

It is this fact that makes these stories dark, that makes them noir. It is also this bleak unhappiness that casts an impenetrable cloud over the genre for many. Noir is not a genre for everybody. It is not a genre of happy endings. While in many non-noir stories, things seem to work out just perfectly right for the protagonist, noir takes the opposite approach where things work out wrong for the protagonist. Not just wrong, but just perfectly wrong.

-Anderson Ryle