Finding The Worst Character In Neo-Noir: Let The Voting Begin!

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!!

In two previous posts, I…

  1. Introduced two metrics, POINTS and Opportunity-Adjusted POINTS (“OAP”), to rank films by how often they are cited as “neo-noir,” allowing for how many reputable authors on film noir could have listed them.
  2. Selected 64 characters as contenders for “worst character in neo-noir.”

These 64 characters are evenly distributed across four loosely-defined categories: Corrupt Power, Crime Boss, Cunning Manipulator, Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin.

Corrupt Power

Harry Angel (Angel Heart), Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry), Noah Cross (Chinatown), Tyler Derden (Fight Club), Judge Doom (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), Tom Farrell (No Way Out), Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me), Ras Al Ghul/Henri Ducard (Batman Begins) Alonzo Harris (Training Day), Mr. Hand (Dark City), Paul Kersey (Death Wish), Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs), Charlie Meadows (Barton Fink), Captain Dudley Smith (L.A. Confidential), Stansfield (Leon: The Professional), Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Watchmen)

Crime Boss

Frank (Thief), Marv (Sin City), Frank Booth (Blue Velvet), Jack Carter (Get Carter), Alain Charnier (The French Connection), Francis Costello (The Departed), Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn (One False Move), Don Logan (Sexy Beast), Rick Masters (To Live and Die in L.A.), Neil McCauley (Heat), Liam “Leo” O’Bannon (Miller’s Crossing), Keyser Soze (The Usual Suspects), Tom Stall/Joey Cusack (A History of Violence), Marsellus Wallace (Pulp Fiction), The Joker (The Dark Knight), The Pin (Brick)

Cunning Manipulator

Catherine (Black Widow) Mike (House of Games), Jackie Brown (Jackie Brown), Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord (Red Rock West), Peter Cable (Klute), Lilly Dillon (The Grifters), Bridget Gregory (The Last Seduction), Andy Hanson (Before the Devil Knows Your Dead) Woo-Jin Lee (Oldeuboi), Terry Lennox (The Long Goodbye), Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley, et al.), Leonard Shelby (Memento), Suzie Toller (Wild Things), Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct), Mavis Wald (Marlowe), Matty Walker (Body Heat)

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin

Kevin (Sin City), Vincent (Collateral), Walker (Point Blank), Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Louis Bloom (Nightcrawler), Max Cady (Cape Fear), Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men), Jef Costello (Le Samourai), John Doe (Se7en), Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction), Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs), Loren Visser (Blood Simple), Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction), Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega (Reservoir Dogs), The Driver (Drive, The Driver), Rorschach (Watchmen)

This is a (relatively) diverse and fascinating group. Ten of the 64 are women, though nine of them are in the Cunning Manipulator category, which speaks volume about gender roles (in both senses of the word) in neo-noir films. The one woman not so categorized, Alex Forrest, is killed off at the end of Fatal Attraction, even though her initial “crime” was asserting her own sexuality. Setting aside the ethnically-uncertain Ras Al Ghul, literal cartoon Judge Doom, non-terrestrial Mr. Hand and possibly-supernatural Charlie Meadows, there are six people of color, excluding Anton Chigurh, portrayed by Javier Bardem. Jack Carter and Don Logan are British, Alain Charnier and Jef Costello are French, Keyser Soze is…Hungarian, I believe…and Woo-Jin Lee is South Korean. The Pin and Suzie Toller are high school students—while Elijah Wood was just 24 when Sin City was released. Tom Ripley and Catherine Tramell are both LGBTQI+; Lilly Dillon has a very unusual relationship with her son, though not the one Noah Cross has with his daughter.

There are two characters each from Pulp Fiction, The Silence of the Lambs, Sin City and Watchmen. Robert DeNiro portrays three characters—Travis Bickle, Max Cady, Neil McCauley—while Mickey Rourke (Harry Angel, Marv) and Kevin Spacey (John Doe, Keyser Soze/Verbal Kint) each play two; Bickle and Cady both appear in films directed by Martin Scorsese. If you count the version of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, director Michael Mann is represented by four characters (Lecter, McCauley, Frank and Vincent), as are Ethan and Joel Coen (Chigurh, Meadows, Leo O’Bannon, Loren Visser) and Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown, Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega, Marsellus Wallace, Jules Winnfield). Christopher Nolan (Ras Al Ghul, The Joker, Leonard Shelby) and Scorsese (Bickle, Cady and Francis Costello) have three characters each; six other directors—John Dahl, Jonathan Demme, William Friedkin, David Fincher, Robert Rodriguez (with an assist from Tarantino and Frank Miller) and Zack Snyder have two characters each.

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To mimic the ordering used by NCAA Basketball brackets, I used the product of POINTS and OAP to “seed” characters within each category from 1-16. Do not take these seeds too literally, as they reflect awareness of the film as a whole rather than the darkness of any specific character.

Figure 1: Worst Character in Neo-Noir, Initial Field of 64

I used the following rough criteria to determine “winners” in the first two rounds:

  • Whether the character gets away with her/his scheme—not necessarily the same as surviving, as John Doe shows.
  • The number of people that die at the character’s own hands
  • The number of despicable actions besides murder—raping your own daughter, as Noah Cross does, being the classic example
  • Intelligence: Suzie Toller may be a high school student but her IQ is well over genius level–and she is willing to pull out her own teeth to make her scheme work. This distinguishes characters who are “merely” brutal, like Marv or Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega.
  • What is the scope of the character’s villainy? Is it global—like Adrian Veidt’s plan to end the Cold War or Ras Al Ghul’s desire to “save” Gotham City—or is it more personal and banal—like Walker wanting his share of $93,000?
  • Does the character have a redemption arc?
  • Similarly, do we root for the character in some way? Motivation matters: Walker has no grand design beyond revenge and getting his money, Carter wants to avenge his brother, Brown wants to be free from Ordell Robbie, Tom Stall wants to forget his past life, Frank wants to settle down and have a family, and The Driver (in the 2011 film) wants to protect his new friends.
  • Is the character the nominal “hero” of the film? I discussed this in the previous post in reference to Harry Callahan, Paul Kersey, Frank, Walker and others.

With these very rough criteria in mind, we commence Round 1 of elimination.

Round 1

Corrupt Power

Noah Cross over Adrian Veidt. This was surprisingly tough. Cross is a brilliant and power-crazed man who rapes his own daughter—and walks away with his daughter/granddaughter after his daughter is shot by police officers. And Chinatown is the definitive neo-noir film. But “Ozymandias” murders people with his bare hands, is one of the most intelligent characters in cinema history and is willing to destroy New York City to end the alternate-timeline Cold War. And therein lies the rub…his motivation, however twisted, is just other-serving enough to eliminate him here.

Ras Al Ghul over Mr. Hand. The latter is an alien, full stop.

Alonzo Harris over Judge Doom. The latter is a cartoon character, full stop.

Harry Angel over Tyler Derden. Yes, the latter blows up entire buildings and convinces men to beat each other to a pulp—and sort of gets away with it. But Johnny Liebling literally sacrificed a random stranger to make a deal with the devil—and there is a reason the source novel was called Fallen Angel: Harry Angel is pure evil, with or without “Louis Cyphre” guiding him. Derden is also, you know, only a figment of The Narrator’s imagination.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter over Paul Kersey. As despicable as I think Kersey’s actions are, he is the nominal “hero” of Death Wish (and its many sequels), and he acts out of grief. Lecter is a sociopathic genius cannibal locked in a maximum security prison.

Stansfield over Harry Callahan. This is an upset, a 14 seed beating a 3 seed. But while Callahan may be “Dirty,” he is not a pill-popping DEA agent who would gleefully murder a 12-year-old girl in cold blood.

Tom Farrell over Lou Ford. Ford’s sociopathy is local, Farrell’s criminality is global.

Dudley Smith over Charlie Meadows. There is enough uncertainty over Meadows’ true nature—or how much of Barton Fink is in the title character’s mind—to eliminate him. Plus, L.A. Confidential is one of the premier neo-noirs—and the cruelly calculating Smith makes my skin crawl; his casual shooting of Jack Vincennes remains my greatest shock watching a film in the theater.

Crime Boss

Don Logan over Marv. This is the supreme upset—a 16 seed toppling a 1 seed—yet it was not a close decision. After re-watching Sin City, I realized that as criminal and violent as Marv is, he reserves his most extreme viciousness for the truly evil characters in Basin City: Kevin, in particular. We genuinely root for Marv; motivations matter. Logan, by contrast, terrifies even the most hardened criminals in Sexy Beast.

The Joker over Alain Charnier. Everyone remembers Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight. I had to look up Charnier’s character’s name.

Frank Booth over Rick Masters. Masters is essentially an artist-turned counterfeiter who uses violence to protect himself in a mediocre movie. Booth is a drug-addled sociopathic sadist in a brilliant film who is among the worst movie villains ever.

Neil McCauley over Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn. This was a tough choice. I had forgotten about Pluto—the leader of the Los Angeles drug gang in the oft-overlooked One False Move. He is brilliant, patient and legitimately frightening. But McCauley simply operates at a completely different level. He plans intricate, massive-haul heists in broad daylight, and he is willing to abandon anyone at any time to save himself.

Jack Carter over Francis Costello. Two of the best gangster films ever made in Get Carter and The Departed. Two of the greatest actors of the last 75 years in Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson. Carter is someone we root for—he wants to avenge his brother—even as his violent depravity shocks us. Costello rules a vast criminal empire, untouched by the law, for decades. However, for all of Nicholson’s talent, Caine imbues Carter with an icy resolve that chills viewers…and, as I pointed out before, Costello is loosely based on “Whitey” Bulger.

Keyser Soze over The Pin. The Pin is a high school student, Keyser Soze…is Keyser Soze.

Tom Stall/Joey Cusack BARELY over Frank. A fascinating matchup between two very sympathetic—albeit violently criminal—men who just want to forget the past and be with their families. But their past won’t let them, so they must brutally destroy that past. The one difference is that we know Stall returns to his family, and his children (at least) welcome him. Frank’s ending is far more ambiguous.

Marsellus Wallace over Leo O’Bannon. Despite very little screen time, Wallace is the absolute dominant force in Pulp Fiction. Jules and Vincent work for him, the briefcase belongs to him (and, no, it is NOT his soul), Butch Coolidge is hiding from him and, well, there is that “medieval” thing. Not to take anything away from mob boss O’Bannon, but Miller’s Crossing is a long way from Los Angeles.

Cunning Manipulator

Matty Walker over Suzie Toller. I agonized the most over this decision, by far. Both of them get away with their crimes, perhaps ending up on the same tropical beach with the world thinking they are dead. Indeed, Toller does everything Walker does, with far more intelligence, dedication (she literally rips out her own tooth with a pair of pliers) and cool-headedness…and she is only a high school student. In the end, however, it boiled down to the “neo-noir” status of each character’s film. While I think Wild Things is very underrated, it simply is not the classic of neo-noir Body Heat is. For that reason, and for that reason alone, I extremely reluctantly chose Walker over Toller.

Catherine over Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord. The bottom line is this: Brown/McCord is not necessarily the worst villain in Red Rock West. Catherine is the only villain in Black Widow.

Lilly Dillon over Jackie Brown. Jackie Brown may be the most charming and delightful character on this list; I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed Jackie Brown. By contrast, Dillon is…difficult to like.

Leonard Shelby over Andy Hanson. This is not close. Hanson arranges for his hapless brother to rob their parents’ jewelry store—no muss, no fuss, until the robbery goes horribly wrong. While he is an amoral jerk, Shelby lets himself become a serial killer rather than face the fact he is responsible for his wife’s death…assuming he still actually cares. He can always forget any despicable crime he commits, charming his way through life.

Peter Cable over Mavis Wald. These are two old-school, not especially interesting characters (1971, 1969) whose murders operate within a fairly narrow sphere. Cable was effectively a coin flip.

Tom Ripley over Terry Lennox. This is only a mild upset. Like Wald, Lennox is old-school; both emerge from classic Raymond Chandler novels. Ripley is also old-school, emerging from the brilliant mind of Patricia Highsmith. But Ripley keeps appearing in films, beginning with Plein soleil (Purple Noon) in 1960, and he is the poster-boy for manipulation, effortlessly becoming other people.

Catherine Tramell over Mike. This was a tough choice, as both are among the most skilled liars in all of neo-noir. However, Mike is primarily a phenomenally gifted con artist who only kills when absolutely necessary, and he does get defeated in House of Games. If I read the ending of Basic Instinct correctly, Tramell murders incessantly and gets away with it.

Woo-Jin Lee over Bridget Gregory. I admit to being at a disadvantage here: I have seen The Last Seduction twice, but I have not (yet) seen Oldeuboi. Still, here is what I do know. Gregory is driven by fear and revenge over her abusive husband Clay, played with slimy perfection by Bill Pullman. But she is not inherently bad; she mostly just wants to be left alone…though she allows an innocent man to pay the price for her crimes. Lee, by contrast, locks a man—admittedly no saint—in a room for 15 years, then maneuvers him into sleeping with his own daughter. The yuck factor alone propels Lee forward.

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin

Rorschach over Walker. For the second time, a 16 seed upsets a 1 seed. While Point Blank, along with Body Heat, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential and Taxi Driver, is of the five key neo-noir films—those with 20.0 POINTS or more—Walker is far too sympathetic to be a villain. He is left for dead at the film’s start, betrayed by his partners in crime. In fact, the entire film may be a revenge fantasy Walker plays out in his mind as he dies. Meanwhile, I suspect Watchmen, like Nightcrawler, will receive more recognition as a neo-noir over time. And Rorschach will take his place alongside Callahan, Kersey and others in the vigilante pantheon—though less sympathetic and more unsettling.

Vincent over Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega. Vincent is a meticulous planner, while Vega is a screw-loose thug.

Loren Visser over The Driver. As violent as the latter is, his redemption arc and the tenderness with which he moves Irene aside in the elevator before pummeling a hit man to death keeps him from advancing to the next round. Visser, for his part, is the textbook hired assassin: deadly, ruthless and unwavering.

Kevin over Max Cady. Cady is terrifying, almost animalistic in his single-minded quest for revenge. But Scorsese’s Cape Fear is a remake of a classic-era-ish film noir. And I have never felt a cold chill go up my spine like I did when I first saw Kevin appear in the doorway to Goldie’s bedroom, eyes hidden behind shiny glasses. Learning he is panther-like quiet, strong and fast—and a sadistic cannibalistic religious zealot—was my primary takeaway from Sin City. Elijah Wood has seriously dark depths.

Jef Costello over Alex Forrest. Forrest’s character gets a raw deal, full stop.

John Doe over Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill. These are the twin nightmares of this category. In one corner is the unnamed serial killer who haunts the unnamed city of Se7en, dispensing divine retribution for violation of the seven deadly sins—even to the point of mutilating and punishing himself. In the other corner is the serial killer of The Silence of the Lambs who kidnaps, tortures and murders women to build a new skin for himself. The one key difference is that while both men die at the end of the film, Doe remains in control of the situation even after that. In fact, he is in control for the entire movie.

Anton Chigurh over Jules Winnfield. They are the yin and yang of hired assassins. Chigurh is quiet, patient and slavishly devoted to the toss of his coin. Winnfield is loud, impulsive and given to misquoting Biblical passages. Both are extremely effective, terrifying and survive the film. But Winnfield has a legitimate redemption arc, however incomplete—and he thwarts the coffee shop robbery.

Travis Bickle over Louis Bloom. I agonized over this match-up almost as much as Matty Walker versus Suzie Toller. This process began when I marveled at Jake Gyllenhall’s emaciated performance in Nightcrawler. Coincidentally, I noted the strong resemblance between these two lonely outsiders who prowl the night city, feeding off its dark criminality—and understanding that their perception is distorted, a half-view of reality. Both men survive at the end of the film, though while Bickle, despite being hailed as a “hero,” has not grown at all, Bloom now has a thriving, expanding video news production business. Two things elevate Bickle, however: Taxi Driver’s iconic status and the number of people he kills himself (Bloom does not directly kill anybody).

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Moving on to Round 2

Corrupt Power

Noah Cross over Ras Al Ghul. Al Ghul genuinely thinks the League of Shadows are helping Gotham City by destroying it—and it is he who first trains Bruce Wayne. Compared to the narcissistic and greedy Cross, Al Ghul is downright sympathetic.

Harry Angel over Alonzo Harris. Harris is corrupt, but Angel borders on pure evil.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter over Stansfield. This was not as obvious as it might seem. In the context of Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter assists law enforcement in the pursuit of the Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill. Stansfield, by contrast, is the unequivocal villain of Leon: The Professional, ritualistically popping pills and psyching himself up with classical music. Leon, the hired assassin, is the sympathetic character. This should actually elevate Stansfield over Lecter. However, Lecter is only able to help Clarice Starling because he is locked in his cell, or masked and bound. He is a violent cannibalistic psychopath—WHO ENDS THE FILM ON THE LOOSE. Stansfield is blown up at the end of Leon.

Dudley Smith over Tom Farrell. Farrell is contemptible, a Russian spy embedded deep within the American government, but he is not the killer being sought in No Way Out. Smith is a cold-blooded killer, determined to erase anyone—allies and foes alike—who prevents him from seizing full control of organized crime in Los Angeles. Yes, he dies at the end of the film, but Farrell is captured, making it a wash.

Crime Boss

The Joker over Don Logan. Joker’s ability to strategize, his nihilism and his disinterest in material gain elevate him over the admittedly-petrifying loose cannon that is Logan.

Frank Booth over Neil McCauley. McCauley is a master criminal willing to cut social ties to save himself, but he is not inherently bad. Booth is.

Keyser Soze over Jack Carter. Carter is vicious, relentless and fear-inducing—but in the context of Get Carter, he is the hero: we want him to succeed. Soze makes other hardened criminals scared of their own shadows.

Marsellus Wallace over Tom Stall/Joey Cusack. After all of his deranged violence—violence he neither sought nor wanted—Stall has a final tender, wholly silent scene with the family he loves. When last we see Wallace, he is about to, you know, get medieval.

Cunning Manipulator

Catherine over Matty Walker. This is another upset, a 9 seed eliminating a 1 seed, though it was close. Walker goes through the machinations of killing her husband once, but Catherine does it at least three times. Walker gets away with her crimes, but Catherine is defeated. The difference is that Catherine is motivated by more than simple greed. She is a serial killer, titillated by the careful planning, and—unlike Walker—will keep being the black widow indefinitely.

Leonard Shelby over Lilly Dillon. What sets Shelby apart from Dillon, professional con artist and thief, is his willingness to “forget” all of his previous crimes. He chooses to be a serial killer because, like Catherine, some part of him enjoys it.

Tom Ripley over Peter Cable. Ripley is simply more devious and deviant—and vastly more interesting.

Catherine Tramell over Woo-Jin Lee. I nearly went the other way on this, but I know too little about Lee to be confident in my decision. And, reviewing the plot of Basic Instinct, Tramell is far more deadly and dangerous than I had recalled. Lee ruins one life—well, two—but Tramell kills early and often.

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin

Vincent over Rorschach. This also was not obvious. Vincent feels nothing for his fellow humans; Rorschach drips with contempt for them. Vincent kills because he is paid to do so, and his brilliance allows him to do so effectively and lucratively. Rorschach kills because he wants to clean society of its filth, and because he was severely traumatized as a child. But, despite being a nominal “superhero,” it is difficult to root for him. Yet, root for him we do—and we are genuinely upset when Dr. Manhattan kills him at the end of Watchmen. We are not remotely upset when Vincent dies at the end of Collateral.

Kevin over Loren Visser. The cannibal serial killer eliminates the hired assassin.

John Doe over Jef Costello. The zealot serial killer eliminates the hired assassin.

Anton Chigurh over Travis Bickle. Chigurh is evil at its most banal: indifferent, patient and calculating. But for his coin, he would kill many more people. Moreover, by OAP, No Country For Old Men is the post-1966 most often cited as “film noir.” Bickle, by contrast, is less evil than deeply troubled, unable to cope with his surroundings. He does not kill for money or sport, but to “cleanse” society by rescuing a single child prostitute. And he is the nominal “hero” of Taxi Driver.

And with that, the Not-So-Sweet Sixteen is set.

Figure 2: Worst Character in Neo-Noir, Not-So-Sweet 16

It is now time to vote on Twitter, so please find me there @drnoir33! I will keep early votes open longer, but not more than 36 hours or so.

Until next time…be safe and careful…and please get vaccinated!

Finding The Worst Character In Neo-Noir: Setting The Brackets

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!!

[Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this post, I neglected to include Woo-Jin Lee in my Cunning Manipulator list, so I correct this post by adding him and removing Hedra Carlson]

In a previous post, I used two metrics—POINTS and Opportunity-Adjusted POINTS (“OAP”) to identify 96 films most often cited as “neo-noir”: the 95 films in Table 3 plus The Detective. Within that group, I identified a 17-film core: Blade Runner; Blood Simple; Body Heat; Chinatown; Devil in a Blue Dress; Farewell, My Lovely; The Grifters; L.A. Confidential; The Last Seduction; The Long Goodbye; Memento; Night Moves; Point Blank; Pulp Fiction; Se7en; Sin City and Taxi Driver.

From these films, we can now begin to construct a preliminary list of the worst villains in neo-noir. Before we begin, though, I establish the first ground rule:

Ground Rule #1: Remakes of classic films noir are excluded.

This leaves out Jules Amthor, Velma Valento or Moose Malloy from Farewell, My Lovely. It also excludes anyone from remakes of The Big Sleep (1978), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and D.O.A. (1988). I will, however, make an exception for Max Cady from Cape Fear (1991). The original film was released in 1962, three years after the “traditional” 1959 endpoint for classic film noir, which is likely why Max Cady—played with villainous zeal by Robert Mitchum and Robert DeNiro—was excluded from the Noir Alley “March Badness” competition; that, and Mitchum as already represented by Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. I also exclude The Two Jakes because it is a lesser sequel to Chinatown. Finally, I consider “The Driver” from The Driver (1978) and Drive (2011) to be the same character, as well as homicidal police officer Lou Ford in the 1976 and 2010 versions of The Killer Inside Me.

Returning to the core 17 films—minus Farewell, My Lovely—in most of them, the character to select is obvious:

  • Loren Visser, the relentless hired assassin in Blood Simple,
  • Matty Walker, who arranges the death of her husband in Body Heat—and gets away with it,
  • Noah Cross, the power-hungry landowner who rapes his own daughter in Chinatown,
  • Lilly Dillon, world’s worst mother and professional grifter in The Grifters,
  • Captain Dudley Smith, who uses the arrest of Mickey Cohen to set up his own crime and drug empire in L.A. Confidential,
  • Bridget Gregory, who uses her new lover to kill her abusive husband—and get off scot free—in The Last Seduction,
  • Terry Lennox, manipulative murderer in The Long Goodbye,
  • Leonard Shelby, a man who uses his anterograde amnesia to fool himself into becoming a serial killer in Memento,
  • John Doe, the religious fanatic driven to exact divine retribution in Se7en,
  • Any number of villains in Pulp Fiction (most notably Vincent Vega, Marsellus Wallace, Jules Winnfield) and Sin City (most notably Kevin and Marv)

And we begin to see distinct types of bad actors: the corrupted powerful (Noah Cross, Dudley Smith), the psychotic loner/hired assassin (Kevin, John Doe, Leonard Shelby, Vincent Vega, Loren Visser, Jules Winnfield), the cunning manipulator (Lilly Dillon, Bridget Gregory, Terry Lennox, Matty Walker) and the crime boss (Marsellus Wallace and, arguably, Marv).

But…there are also difficulties distinguishing who the true villains are. For example, Daphne Monet cleverly manipulates events in Devil in a Blue Dress, but solely to be with her lover. Societal racism is the true villain here; we exclude Ms. Monet. The same applies to replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner, whose actions are effectively in self-defense. The Tyrell Corporation, which orders the blade runners to terminate the replicants, is the true villain; we exclude Mr. Batty—and all other replicants. Night Moves is so convoluted, it is impossible to identify any single villain; we exclude everyone from it.

This brings us to a genuine conundrum: not being to distinguish the badness of the nominal hero from the putative villain(s). Walker and Travis Bickle are the protagonists, respectively, of Point Blank and Taxi Driver, but they are arguably the most terrifying characters in their respective movies. Plus, both fit perfectly into the psychotic loner/hired assassin category. As a result, I establish the second ground rule:

Ground Rule #2: The protagonist can be selected.

To review, we have identified 16 worst neo-noir character—not villain, per sé—candidates, divided into four categories, to which—based on what I wrote in the previous post—I add Louis Bloom from Nightcrawler and Suzie Toller from Wild Things. I also add The Driver, Max Cady and Lou Ford:

Corrupted Powerful

Noah Cross, Lou Ford, Dudley Smith

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin

Kevin, Walker, Travis Bickle, Louis Bloom, Max Cady, John Doe, Leonard Shelby, Vincent Vega, Loren Visser, Jules Winnfield, The Driver

Cunning Manipulator

Lilly Dillon, Bridget Gregory, Terry Lennox, Suzie Toller, Matty Walker

Crime Boss

Marv, Marsellus Wallace

Selecting two hired assassins from Pulp Fiction, only one of whom is not killed on-screen, is redundant, so I remove Vincent Vega and establish the third ground rule:

Ground Rule #3: No more than two characters from any film will be considered.

This leads to a corollary, which is the fourth ground rule:

Ground Rule #4: There is no limit on how many selected characters an actor or actress may portray.

And, upon further consideration, Leonard Shelby is not psychotic—he suffers from a traumatic brain injury—nor a hired assassin, so I move him to the Cunning Manipulator (“CM”) category.

Corrupted Powerful (3)

Noah Cross, Lou Ford, Dudley Smith

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin (9)

Kevin, Walker, Travis Bickle, Louis Bloom, Max Cady, John Doe, Loren Visser, Jules Winnfield, The Driver

Cunning Manipulator (6)

Lilly Dillon, Bridget Gregory, Terry Lennox, Leonard Shelby, Suzie Toller, Matty Walker

Crime Boss (2)

Marv, Marsellus Wallace

The marked imbalance in the four categories means it is time to consider additional neo-noir characters.

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Films ranked #1 and #6 by OAP—No Country for Old Men and Collateral—introduce two remorseless, cold-blooded assassins in Anton Chigurh and Vincent, respectively, in the PLHA category. Rounding out the top 10 with The Dark Knight, we have The Joker. By extension, we also have Ras Al Ghul/Henry Ducard from Batman Begins at #54; the former is PLHA, the latter is Corrupted Power (“CP”). I considered excluding both because they are “cartoon” characters, but the powerful performances of the late Heath Ledger and Liam Neeson elevate them.

At #15, we have the first of three David Lynch films, Mulholland Drive (#15), with Blue Velvet (#40) and the underrated Lost Highway (#79) also in the top 100. While the character alternately called Betty and Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive is a classic manipulator, she mostly deludes herself, then pays the price at her own hand. The same applies to Fred Madison in Lost Highway, though Renee Madison/Alice is also a manipulator, but primarily in Madison’s “Pete Dayton” fantasy; ultimately, she is more victim than criminal. As a result, I exclude all three characters—as well as Edward Daniels/Andrew Laeddis from Shutter Island; his “worst patient” status mostly applies to his time on the titular island. The terrifying Frank Booth from Blue Velvet, however, is one of the worst villains in any genre, and is a clear selection for the Crime Boss (“CB”) category.

The same applies to Boston mob boss Francis Costello from The Departed (#17) and, I would argue, the character variously known as Tom Stall and Joey Cusack in A History of Violence (#20). Technically Carl Fogarty and Ritchie Cusack are the “villains” in the latter film (not to mention corrupt Staff Sergeant Colin Sullivan in The Departed), but Viggo Mortensen’s Joey easily defeats them, with psychotic glee—all while the audience roots for him. Sullivan, meanwhile, may be corrupt, but he is also at the mercy of both Costello and his superiors. Thus, I exclude Fogarty, Ritchie Cusack and Sullivan.

Rounding out the top 20 by OAP is Black Swan (#16). Arguably, there is no true villain in this movie—except the obsessive desire for perfection in Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers—so I exclude it.

At #26, we find the second of three Quentin Tarantino films, following Pulp Fiction (#19), the groundbreaking Reservoir Dogs. While this movie is almost nothing but villains, the standout is clearly “Mr. Blonde” (aka Vic Vega), whose sadism ruined Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” for many viewers. Meanwhile, at #65, there is Jackie Brown, whose survivor title character lands squarely in the CM category.

This brings us to two related films: The Black Dahlia (#27) and True Confessions (#90), both based on the still-unsolved January 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. Because the “killer” in both films is the “actual” killer of Elizabeth Short—not an original character—I exclude them, leading to the fifth ground rule:

Ground Rule #5: Characters based on real people, however loosely, are excluded.

This also rules out the “Scorpio” killer from Dirty Harry (#37)—though not the vigilantist Harry Callahan himself—and anyone from Zodiac (#43), because both films are based on the crimes of the real-life The Zodiac. This also means we skip over the marvelous Hollywoodland (#36), since it never truly resolves the unusual circumstances of actor George Reeves’ death—though it is tempting to add Adrien Brody’s scumbag private detective Louis Simo to the list. The Bank Job (#44) is based on real events in 1971 London. Indirectly—and sadly, because it is one of my favorite films—this eliminates anyone from Hammett (#75), a fictionalized account of author Dashiell Hammett’s life in San Francisco containing elements cribbed from The Maltese Falcon. If I were consistent, this rule would also eliminate Costello from The Departed, given his loose modeling on Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, Jr. The resemblance is just superficial enough, however, that I keep him for now.

As wonderful as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (#28) is, we skip over it, because the villainy is almost beside the point. I argue this exclusion logic also applies to El Aura (#38), The Conversation (#52), The Cooler (#87), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (#94), because these are character studies more than anything else, along the lines of Jake Gyllenhall’s portrayal of Robert Graysmith in Zodiac).

The second of John Dahl’s three titles—after The Last Seduction (#13)—is at #29: the too-often overlooked Red Rock West. Once again, Dennis Hopper plays a psychotic gunman (“Lyle from Dallas”), but he is essentially a less interesting version of Frank Booth, excluding him. And it is Lara Flynn Boyle’s Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord who manipulates everyone, landing her on the CM list. As for the third Dahl film, Kill Me Again (#58), I simply note Michael Madsen was clearly warming up to play the far more interesting Vic Vega three years later, while Joanna Whalley’s Fay Forrester is weak sauce as the manipulative woman—both are excluded. The Hot Spot (#68), directed by Hopper, is also weak sauce, so I exclude it as well.

At #30, however, we find the astonishing The Usual Suspects—and elusive criminal kingpin Keyser Soze. Similarly powerful and/or psychotic crime bosses are Neil McCauley in Heat (#35; DeNiro’s third character selected), The Pin in the imaginative high school neo-noir Brick (#39), drug lord Alain Charnier in The French Connection (#60), the counterfeiter Rick Masters in To Live and Die in L.A. (#66), genius sadist Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn in One False Move (#69) and icy hot Jack Carter in Get Carter (#77). Looking just beyond these films, we find Liam “Leo” O’Bannon in the Coen Brothers film Miller’s Crossing (7.0 POINTS, #100) and the truly terrifying Don Logan in Sexy Beast (5.0, #111). However, as charming as Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (7.0, #109) is, Carl Reiner’s Field Marshall VonKluck is too parodic to take seriously.

Meanwhile, at #31 is the model for contemporary erotic thrillers, Basic Instinct, featuring one of the supreme manipulators in Catherine Tramell. Others in the CM category include Peter Cable in Klute (#32), Andy Hanson in Before the Devil Knows Your Dead (#41), “Catherine” in Black Widow (#47), “Mike” in House of Games (#48) and Mavis Wald in Marlowe (#76). Digging far deeper down the list, there is the jaw-droppingly sadistic Woo-Jin Lee from Oldeuboi (Oldboy, 3.0, #154). I considered these characters from two terrific Coen Brothers films: Jerry Lundegaard from Fargo (#59) and Ed Crane from The Man Who Wasn’t There (#61), but they are too hapless to include; that goes for every other villain in Fargo. And Uncle Bud from After Dark, My Sweet (#49) and Laure/Lilly from Femme Fatale (#53) are a bit too generic.

I confess I do not know enough about San Taam (#42), Femme Fatale (#53) Croupier (#73), De Battre mon Coeur s’est Arrete (#80), I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (#88) and In the Cut (#89) to make an informed decision about whether any character from these films is a worthy selection, so I exclude them…for now. I also exclude anyone from every “reimagined” film except the superior Body Heat: The Deep End (#45), Against All Odds (#46), China Moon (#91) and The Underneath (#92).

That leaves only a handful of films to consider, beginning with the coolly beautiful Le Samourai at #50. The quiet assassin Jef Costello is perhaps Alain Delon’s signature role, clearly in the PLHA category. Arguably, this is a late 1960’s French reimagining of This Gun for Hire, meaning I am violating the spirit of Ground Rule #1, but the sheer quality of Le Samourai compels me. Looking much further down the list, we find the titular Leon of the blackly charming Leon: The Professional (4.0, #248). I thought long and hard about including him, but ultimately decided his redemption arc was too strong. The sociopathic Drug Enforcement Agency officer Stansfield, however, is the very picture of corrupted power. As, in a more cartoonish but no less terrifying way, is Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (6.0, #199).

Returning to the psychotic loner archetype, we have two extremes: the wholly unsavory Harry Angel/Johnny Favorite/Johnny Liebling from the surprisingly-good Angel Heart (#57) and the sympathetic Frank—the titular criminal in Thief (#64)—who just wants to make his photo-collage a reality. In the former, we are led to believe Louis Cyphre—a play on “Lucifer”—is the true villain, but DeNiro’s suave portrayal subtly upends our expectations. And Leo, the mob boss in Thief, is too cookie-cutter to be interesting. Returning to the devil for a moment, we look to one final Coen Brothers film—the surreal Barton Fink (3.0, #>500)—for…whatever Charlie Meadows is. Psychopathic serial killer? Devil incarnate? It does not matter, John Goodman’s performance is riveting, and on the off-chance he is more supernatural than natural, I classify him as CP.

Speaking of sociopaths, we at long last arrive at Manhunter (#67) and The Silence of the Lambs (#86). The brilliant cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most terrifying characters in fiction, period. However, he is also on the side of law and order in that he helps track down other serial killers in both films: The Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill; I place him in CP. I have little interest in the former, but the latter is the stuff of nightmares, even if he is loosely modeled on both Ed Gein and Ted Bundy, meaning I again violate Ground Rule #5 by including him.

Jumping ahead a bit, I again break the spirit of Ground Rule #1 by selecting the fascinating Tom Farrell from No Way Out, denoting him a clever Cold-War-era spin on corrupt power. Meanwhile, given how many characters have already been selected, we skip over some otherwise decent crime films from the late 1960s through the mid-1970’s: Hustle (#51), Madigan (#62), Hickey & Boggs (#93), The Outfit (#95) and The Detective (#116)—and the third Carl Franklin film, Out of Time (#63). One reason is that I have not yet seen these films. Another is that The Outfit, at least, seems like a less interesting version of the superb Charley Varrick (6.0, #219); the primary villain in the latter film, mob assassin Molly, is not different enough from “Lyle from Dallas” or Loren Visser to include. Varrick himself, while a thief and a brilliant schemer, is far too sympathetic to include.

This leaves only five films among our original 96: Bound (#70), Insomnia (#71), Death Wish (#78), Fatal Attraction (#81) and Dark City (#74). Going in order, we have the schemers Violet and Corky, and Violet’s money-laundering husband Caesar. The latter, while violent, is generic and easily manipulated by his wife and her new lover. Violet and Corky upend expectations by riding off into the sunset together, and the entire film has a charming tongue-in-cheek quality to it, so I exclude it. In both versions of Insomnia, the villainy becomes so entangled it is hard to decide who to select…so I select nobody.

Paul Kersey, meanwhile, the architect who turns violent to “avenge” the death of his wife at the hands of street thugs in Death Wish, is simply Harry Callahan without a badge. He arrogates the power of life and death unto himself, making him a clear CP. Jumping ahead to the magnificent and gorgeous Dark City—like Blade Runner, Se7en, and Sin City, film noir pushed to its logical extreme of corrupt night city—I select Mr. Hand, the most clearly villainous The Strangers. I almost excluded him because he is an alien, but if I am including comic book characters and cartoon villains, that ship has long since sailed. Along those same lines, I invoke editorial privilege and select two characters from Watchmen (1.0, #520 when including POINTS<3.0): the corrupted powerful Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias and the psychotic vigilante Rorschach. The former believes—like Ras Al Ghul, like The Joker, like John Doe, like Travis Bickle, like Judge Doom, like Harry Callahan, like Paul Kersey—that the only way to “save” a society is to destroy it, in this case by forcing (in an alternate timeline) the United States and Soviet Union to deal with a nuclear weapon destroying New York City. Rorschach, meanwhile, is a sociopathic force of nature, the vigilante’s vigilante, willing and able to take on an entire prison by himself.

Finally, I was genuinely conflicted over including Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction. There is a good argument to be made she is as much victim as villain, though, on balance, her murderous rampage is…extreme. I thus put her in the PLHA category. This gives us 60 total selections, somewhat more evenly split between the four categories, though there are still 18 in PLHA.

To round out the total to 64, with 16 in each category, I add the following names:

  1. Master of identity theft, Tom Ripley, from The Talented Mr. Ripley (5.0, #125) among other titles; CM
  2. Master of chaos Tyler Derden, aka The Narrator, from Fight Club (4.0, #212); CP
  3. Corrupt cop Alonzo Harris from Training Day (4.0, #113), CP

And I move Frank and The Joker from PLHA to CB, creating four categories of 16 characters:

Corrupt Powerful (16)

Harry Angel, Harry Callahan, Noah Cross, Tyler Derden, Judge Doom, Tom Farrell, Lou Ford, Ras Al Ghul/Henri Ducard, Alonzo Harris, Mr. Hand, Paul Kersey, Hannibal Lecter, Charlie Meadows, Dudley Smith, Stansfield, Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin (16)

Kevin, Vincent, Walker, Travis Bickle, Louis Bloom, Max Cady, Anton Chigurh, Jef Costello, John Doe, Alex Forrest, Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill, Loren Visser, Jules Winnfield, Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega, The Driver, Rorschach

Cunning Manipulator (16)

“Catherine,” “Mike,” Jackie Brown, Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord, Peter Cable, Lilly Dillon, Bridget Gregory, Andy Hanson, Woo-Jin Lee, Terry Lennox, Tom Ripley, Leonard Shelby, Suzie Toller, Catherine Tramell, Mavis Wald, Matty Walker

Crime Boss (16)

Frank, Marv, Frank Booth, Jack Carter, Alain Charnier, Francis Costello, Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn, Don Logan, Rick Masters, Neil McCauley, Liam “Leo” O’Bannon, Keyser Soze, Tom Stall/Joey Cusack, Marsellus Wallace, The Joker, The Pin

Using the product of POINTS and OPA, I will “seed” each character 1 to 16 within each category…and in the next, and final, installment, assess each matchup so that only 16 characters remain—four in each category.

After that, let the voting begin.

In the meantime, watch your back…these characters are some of the worst of the worst.

Until next time…be safe and careful…and please get vaccinated!

Finding The Worst Character In Neo-Noir: Establishing The Films

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!!

On March 16, 2021, Noir Alley—TCM’s weekend film noir screening hosted by Film Noir Foundation Founder and President Eddie Muller—launched its “March Badness” competition. Mimicking NCAA Men’s and Women’s College Basketball March Madness, pairs of villains from 16 classic-era films noir were pitted against each other in a series of 15 votes on Twitter. Phyllis Dietrichson, chillingly portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, emerged as the top villain of classic film noir.

But who is the top “villain” of neo-noir, which arguably began with Point Blank in 1967?

**********

A few weeks ago, needing a break from querying literary agents about my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own, I began to watch movies late at night. By which I mean, early in the morning. Wanting a change from older black-and-white films, I sought out far more recent titles I had been meaning to watch, like the 2014 thriller Nightcrawler, starring a skeletally-creepy Jake Gyllenhall.

It was this film, an astonishing two-part review of Taxi Driver, and a second viewing—maybe two months ago—of the criminally-underrated Wild Things, that got me thinking about the worst of the worst among neo-noir characters.

Just as an aside, while it is not remotely neo-noir, I was absolutely, profoundly and completely blown away by the 2014 film Predestination. As a rule, I never want to watch a movie soon after seeing it for the first time, but I watched it again within a week with my wife Nell. She had the same reaction. It is that good. Bonkers, and utterly nonsensical, yes, but…also beautifully filmed, incredibly tight in its storytelling, pitch perfect dialogue and featuring some of the best acting—Sarah Snook holding her own, if not more, with the always-reliable Ethan Hawke—I have seen in years. 

Of course, asserting Predestination “is not remotely neo-noir” implies the existence of a universally-accepted definition of neo-noir. It does not exist. Instead, there are writers and other “experts” who declare certain films noir, and we accept those declarations. To put it another way, this is how I conclude Chapter 6 (So…What Is Film Noir, Again?) of Interrogating Memory:

For the final time…what is film noir?

Glibly reprising Peter Wollen, a film noir is any film listed in my research database, especially the 514 categorized as Universal [Ed. Note: It has at least 12.0 POINTS, out of a maximum 67.5]. That is, a film is labeled “noir” only because at least one reputable expert has so labeled it; my research simply takes this “definition” to the logical extreme by combining a wide range of lists into a “weighted” list. Glibness aside, however, Wollen’s “definition” highlights a basic tautology: in saying a film noir is any film listed in the Panorama, he was saying it was any film Bourde and Chaumeton found on someone else’s list with a few selections of their own. Later analysts repeat this process: begin with oft-listed titles then add a few “new” titles of their own. Indeed, 12 LISTS include at least 20 titles which appear only on that LIST.

[…]

Nonetheless, a consensus definition could be constructed given sufficient agreement upon the set of films to assess for commonalities of plot, characterization, setting, style and cinematography. Attempting this in my film noir class, I landed on three key ideas—the fateful decision, criminality as critique of capitalism, and existential nihilism—along with the adjectives alienated, brutal, cynical and obsessive. I could easily have added “chiaroscuro cinematography” because film, as already noted, is a visual medium.

From the latter list, “alienated” jumps out at me. If anything ties together both film noir—with its morally-ambiguous anti-heroes, doubling/mirroring, critique of the prevailing economic and social order, and gender and sexual anxieties—and the stories I tell in this book, it is “alienation.”

Despite not appearing in my database, Nightcrawler absolutely qualifies as neo-noir, or just plain film noir. Bloom is every bit as alienated from society as Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle, and he turns to “nightcrawling,” freelance videography of crime scenes sold to local stations for their morning news broadcasts, because he cannot find gainful employment. There is just something…off…about him. The world he inhabits is unspeakably brutal, cynicism pervades the entire broadcast news infrastructure, and his obsession with internet-driven “self-help” strategies replaces whatever conscience he once had; morally-ambiguous is an understatement. And while Bloom is the film’s protagonist, he is not a hero as Joseph Campbell would define it. Well, OK, he does kind of follow the “hero’s journey”—but we barely ever sympathize with him. This journey is a damning critique of our economic and social order, and while there may not be direct mirroring/doubling, Rene Russo’s TV producer clearly suffers because of her gender—a woman who needs to be ruthless to survive in a “man’s world.” Finally, Robert Elswit’s cinematography sublimely captures a nighttime Los Angeles awash in harsh neon and emergency vehicle lights—or inside a darkened TV video room. His photography allows Bloom—using the harsh light of a videocamera instead of flash powder—to become a 21st-century Weegee.

In short, Nightcrawler is a neo-noir, not only for this exercise, but by any reasonable definition.

**********

Following the example of Noir Alley and spurred on by my thoughts about Louis Bloom, I decided to design a “Neo-Noir Villain” competition. Realizing simply brainstorming characters from memory was insufficient, I turned to my database for help. My Excel film noir database contains 4,825 titles—produced, at least in part, in 66 nations and released between 1912 and 2015—which at least one reputable writer has labeled (explicitly or implicitly) “noir.” There are 2,171 films released in 1967 or later; the median year of release of these latter films is 1993, with an average release year of 1991.3 (compared to 1961.0 and 1968.6 overall).

I devised two measures of how often each film is cited as noir by reputable writers. LISTS is simply a count of appearances on 32 publicly-available lists of at least 120 titles. POINTS adds to LISTS some form of additional recognition on the original 32 LISTS and appearance on one of 13 publicly-available lists of fewer than 120 titles. The categories Universal, Debatable and Idiosyncratic are based upon cut points of 12.0 and 5.0.

Table 1: Films Released 1967-2015 with 8.0 POINTS or more

TitleDirectorRelease YearLISTSPOINTS
ChinatownRoman Polanski19742032.0
Point BlankJohn Boorman19672025.0
Taxi DriverMartin Scorsese19761622.0
Body HeatLawrence Kasdan19811622.0
LA ConfidentialCurtis Hanson19971421.0
The Long GoodbyeRobert Altman19731419.0
Farewell, My LovelyDick Richards19751618.0
Night MovesArthur Penn19751518.0
Blood SimpleJoel Coen19841418.0
Se7enDavid Fincher19951218.0
The Last SeductionJohn Dahl19941317.0
Blade RunnerRidley Scott19821117.0
KluteAlan J Pakula19711116.0
Reservoir DogsQuentin Tarantino19921515.0
Dirty HarryDon Siegel19711415.0
The GriftersStephen Frears19901315.0
Pulp FictionQuentin Tarantino19941115.0
MementoChristopher Nolan20001115.0
Basic InstinctPaul Verhoeven19921114.0
Devil In a Blue DressCarl Franklin19951014.0
Le SamouraiJean-Pierre Melville19671014.0
Red Rock WestJohn Dahl19931313.0
The ConversationFrancis Ford Coppola19741213.0
The Usual SuspectsBryan Singer19951113.0
Sin CityFrank Miller2005913.0
HustleDon Siegel19751212.0
The French ConnectionWilliam Friedkin19711212.0
MadiganRobert Aldrich19681212.0
Blue VelvetDavid Lynch19861112.0
HeatMichael Mann19951012.0
After Dark, My SweetJames Foley19901111.0
Black WidowBob Rafelson19871011.0
House of GamesDavid Mamet19871011.0
Against All OddsTaylor Hackford19841011.0
The DriverWalter Hill19781011.0
Mulholland DriveDavid Lynch2001911.0
CollateralMichael Mann2004811.0
The Postman Always Rings TwiceBob Rafelson19811010.5
Angel HeartAlan Parker19871010.0
Death WishMichael Winner19741010.0
Kill Me AgainJohn Dahl 19891010.0
ThiefMichael Mann19811010.0
MarlowePaul Bogart1969810.0
Get CarterMike Hodges1971710.0
The Big SleepMichael Winner197899.5
One False MoveCarl Franklin199299.0
The Hot SpotDennis Hopper 199099.0
ManhunterMichael Mann198699.0
Hickey & BoggsRobert Culp197299.0
The Friends of Eddie CoylePeter Yates197399.0
HammettWim Wenders198299.0
The OutfitJohn Flynn197699.0
FargoJoel Coen199689.0
To Live and Die in LAWilliam Friedkin198589.0
Cape FearMartin Scorsese199188.0
The Silence of the LambsJonathan Demme199188.0
The Two JakesJack Nicholson 199088.0
D.O.A.Annabel Jankel198888.0
Fatal AttractionAdrian Lyne 198788.0
No Way OutRoger Donaldson198788.0
The DepartedMartin Scorsese 200688.0
The DetectiveGordon Douglas196888.0
A History of ViolenceDavid Cronenberg200578.0
Jackie BrownQuentin Tarantino199778.0
BoundLarry Wachowski 199678.0
True ConfessionsUlu Grosbard198178.0

Of the 66 films listed in Table 1, five were released in the 1960’s, 17 in the 1970’s, 18 in the 1980’s, 20 in the 1990’s and six in the 2000’s; as of this writing I have seen 50 of them. The exceptional Chinatown is the only one of these films in the overall top 100 by POINTS, with Point Blank, Taxi Driver, Body Heat (a reimagining of the James M. Cain deadly love triangles in Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice) and L.A. Confidential also in the top 250. Overall, 30 of these films are Universal. Five of these films—Farewell, My Lovely; The Big Sleep; The Postman Always Rings Twice; Cape Fear and D.O.A. are remakes of classic films noir—while Against All Odds is a reworking of Out of the Past and No Way Out is a clever modernization of The Big Clock. The Two Jakes is a sequel to Chinatown, while Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs both feature genius cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Michael Mann has four films on this list, while three directors appear three times: John Dahl, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino; seven directors appear twice. In general, these films employ the same characters and plots as classic film noir—corrupt power and crooked cops, private detectives and government agents of questionable ethics, professional thieves and criminal organizations, men and women manipulating other people (or, in Memento and Mulholland Drive, themselves) for their own gain, psychotic loners and hired assassins, and complex mysteries that—most famously in Night Moves—often chase their own causal tail without satisfactory resolution. In fact, what truly distinguishes these films from their “classic” ancestors is the creative use of color film stock, bigger budgets and higher-quality productions, and the abolition of Hays Code restrictions on what can be shown on screen. The sex and violence are on vivid display, right down to the buckets of blood in Reservoir Dogs and the murder scenes in films like Bound (featuring an explicit lesbian romance), A History of Violence and True Confessions. The utter depravity of films of Se7en, Sin City and, to a lesser extent, Pulp Fiction would have defied the creative genius of even the best classic film noir directors; the unique visual style of Sin City would have been a challenge as well. But perhaps the single biggest difference is the number of putative villains who get away with their crimes in these films, not least in Chinatown, Taxi Driver and Body Heat. This was the one Hays Code stricture classic film noir did not violate: their wrongdoers were invariably punished, either by imprisonment or death.

Across all 4,825 films, meanwhile, average LISTS and POINTS are 4.0 and 4.5, respectively, while films released in 1967 or later average 2.0 on both; median values are 2 and 2.0 for all films and 1 and 1.0 for all films released in 1967 or later. Curiously, the median release year for the 66 films in Table 1 is 1987 (five of these films were released that year), while the average is 1985.0, much lower than values for all 2,171 post-1966 database films.

This is not surprising, actually, given that there are fewer “opportunities” for these films to accumulate LISTS and, by extension, POINTS: of the 32 LISTS, 27 contain films released after 1966, 16 contain films released after 1999, and only seven contain films released after 2009. Thus, while I officially classify The Killer Inside Me and Shutter Island (2010; 3 LISTS, 3.0 POINTS), Black Swan (2010; 3, 4.0) and Drive (2011; 4, 5.0) as Idiosyncratic, their appearance on about half of possible LISTS sources elevates their neo-noir status closer to Universal.

Thus, a better way to identify the most-often-cited neo-noir films is to examine what percentage of possible POINTS a film has; this has little effect on earlier films since only a few of the 45 sources for LISTS and POINTS could potentially exclude them. Table 2 shows maximum POINTS by release year, based upon the most recent release year for films included in a source.

Table 2: Maximum POINTS by Release Year, 1967-2015

Release YearMaximum POINTS
196753.5
196851.5
1969-7450.5
197546.5
1976-7945.5
1980-8343.5
1984-9241.5
1993-9538.5
199637.5
199735.5
1998-9933.5
200031.5
200125.5
200223.5
2003-0421.5
200520.5
200619.5
2007-0910.5
2010-119.5
20128.5
20135.5
20142.0
20151.0
2016-???0.0

Maximum possible POINTS declines relatively steadily over time, with two notable exceptions: a drop of 6.0 from 2000 to 2001 and a drop of 9.0 from 2006 to 2007. Returning to the four films from 2010 and 2011 cited above, the percentage of possible POINTS for The Killer Inside Me and Shutter Island is 31.6%, for Black Swan is 42.1% and for Drive (itself a reimagining of 1978’s The Driver) is 52.6%, roughly on par with films ranked in the mid-50’s overall.

Applying this methodology to all 2,171 films yields Opportunity-Adjusted POINT (“OAP”). Dividing 12.0, the Universal cut point, by 67.5 suggests 17.8% as the cut point for “Universal Neo Noir.” If I exclude 16 films with POINTS<3.0, there are 95 such films. The 13 films with OAP≥42.7%—the equivalent of 29.5 POINTS, or Top 100 overall—are in boldface, while films appearing in Table 3 are asterisked.

Table 3: Films Designated “Universal Neo Noir”

TitleDirectorRelease YearPOINTSOAP
No Country for Old MenJoel Coen2007766.7%
Chinatown*Roman Polanski19743263.4%
Sin City*Frank Miller20051363.4%
L.A. Confidential*Curtis Hanson19972159.2%
DriveNicolas Winding Refn2011552.6%
Collateral*Michael Mann20041151.2%
Body Heat*Lawrence Kasdan19812250.6%
Taxi Driver*Martin Scorsese19762248.4%
Memento*Christopher Nolan20001547.6%
The Dark KnightChristopher Nolan2008547.6%
Se7en*David Fincher19951846.8%
Point Blank*John Boorman19672546.7%
The Last Seduction*John Dahl19941744.2%
Blood Simple*Joel Coen19841843.4%
Mulholland Drive *David Lynch20011143.1%
Black SwanDarren Aronofksy2010442.1%
The Departed*Martin Scorsese2006841.0%
Blade Runner*Ridley Scott19821739.1%
Pulp Fiction*Quentin Tarantino19941539.0%
A History of Violence*David Cronenberg2005839.0%
Farewell, My Lovely*Dick Richards19751838.7%
Night Moves*Arthur Penn19751838.7%
The Long Goodbye*Robert Altman19731937.6%
Devil in a Blue Dress*Carl Franklin19951436.4%
The Grifters*Stephen Frears19901536.1%
Reservoir Dogs*Quentin Tarantino19921536.1%
The Black DahliaBrian De Palma2006735.9%
Kiss Kiss Bang BangShane Black2005734.1%
Red Rock West*John Dahl19931333.8%
The Usual Suspects*Bryan Singer19951333.8%
Basic Instinct*Paul Verhoeven19921433.7%
Klute*Alan J Pakula19711631.7%
The Killer Inside MeMichael Winterbottom2010331.6%
Shutter IslandMartin Scorsese2010331.6%
Heat*Michael Mann19951231.2%
HollywoodlandAllen Coulter2006630.8%
Dirty Harry*Don Siegel19711529.7%
El Aura (The Aura)Fabian Bielinsky2005629.3%
BrickRian Johnson2005629.3%
Blue Velvet*David Lynch19861228.9%
Before the Devil Knows You’re DeadSidney Lumet2007328.6%
San Taam (Mad Detective)Johnnie To2007328.6%
ZodiacDavid Fincher2007328.6%
The Bank JobRoger Donaldson2008328.6%
The Deep EndScott McGehee2001727.5%
Against All Odds*Taylor Hackford19841126.5%
Black Widow*Bob Rafelson19871126.5%
House of Games*David Mamet19871126.5%
After Dark, My Sweet*James Foley19901126.5%
Le Samourai*Jean-Pierre Melville19671426.2%
Hustle*Robert Aldrich19751225.8%
The Conversation*Francis Ford Coppola19741325.7%
Femme FataleBrian De Palma2002625.5%
Batman BeginsChristopher Nolan2005524.4%
The Driver*Walter Hill19781124.2%
The Postman Always Rings Twice*Bob Rafelson198110.524.1%
Angel Heart*Alan Parker19871024.1%
Kill Me Again*John Dahl19891024.1%
Fargo*Joel Coen1996924.0%
The French Connection*William Friedkin19711223.8%
The Man Who Wasn’t ThereJoel Coen2001623.5%
Madigan*Don Siegel19681223.3%
Out of TimeCarl Franklin2003523.3%
Thief* Michael Mann19811023.0%
Jackie Brown*Quentin Tarantino1997822.5%
To Live and Die in L.A.*William Friedkin1985921.7%
Manhunter*Michael Mann1986921.7%
The Hot Spot*Dennis Hopper1990921.7%
One False Move*Carl Franklin1992921.7%
Bound*Larry Wachowski1996821.3%
InsomniaChristopher Nolan2002521.3%
The Big Sleep*Michael Winner19789.520.9%
CroupierMike Hodges1998720.9%
Dark CityAlex Proyas1998720.9%
Hammett*Wim Wenders1982920.7%
Marlowe*Paul Bogart19691019.8%
Get Carter*Mike Hodges19711019.8%
Death Wish*Michael Winner19741019.8%
Lost HighwayDavid Lynch1997719.7%
De Battre mon Coeur s’est Arrete (The Beat That My Heart Skipped)Jacques Audiard2005419.5%
Fatal Attraction*Adrian Lyne1987819.3%
No Way Out*Roger Donaldson1987819.3%
D.O.A.*Annabel Jankel1988819.3%
The Two Jakes*Jack Nicholson1990819.3%
Cape Fear*Martin Scorsese1991819.3%
The Silence of the Lambs*Jonathan Demme1991819.3%
The CoolerWayne Kramer2003418.6%
I’ll Sleep When I’m DeadMike Hodges2003418.6%
In the CutJane Campion2003418.6%
True Confessions*Ulu Grosbard1981818.4%
China MoonJohn Bailey1994718.2%
The UnderneathSteven Soderbergh1995718.2%
Hickey & Boggs*Robert Culp1972917.8%
The Friends of Eddie Coyle*Peter Yates1973917.8%
The Outfit*John Flynn1973917.8%

This list better represents all 2,171 post-1966 database titles: average and median release year are 1991.1 and 1992, respectively. Fully 32 of these 95 titles (33.7%) were released after 1999, with the most recent being Drive; seven were released in 2005 alone, topped by Sin City, which jumps from #25 to #3 after adjustment. An additional 25 (26.3%) were released in the 1990s. Mann is now joined by Joel Coen (working with brother Ethan), Christopher Nolan and Scorsese with four titles each. In fact, the Coen Brothers are responsible for the new #1: No Country for Old Men—winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director—which just edges out Chinatown and Sin City; with adjustment, the film jumps all the way from a nine-way tie for #84. Nolan, meanwhile, has two of the top 10: Memento and The Dark Knight; the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple just misses being a “Top 100 equivalent,” as does David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Lynch, Carl Franklin and Mike Hodges join Dahl and Tarantino in the three-title club; seven directors have a pair of titles in Table 3. And the list is now a bit more international: five British films (the classic Get Carter plus The Bank Job, Croupier, The Big Sleep, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead), three French films (the classic Le Samourai plus Femme Fatale, De Battre mon Coeur s’est Arrete), Hong Kong’s San Taam and Argentina’s El Aura. Nolan’s Insomnia is an American remake of a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, while The Killer Inside Me was first filmed in 1976. The Deep End, China Moon and The Underneath reimagine The Reckless Moment, The Man Who Cheated Himself and Criss Cross, respectively.

For all that, though, POINTS and OAP are broadly similar, with a correlation of +0.78. The only film in Table 1 not to appear in Table 3 is The Detective, which dropped to #116 after adjustment. Seventeen films appear in the Top 25 on both lists, suggesting these titles comprise the very core of neo-noir, according to reputable writers on the subject:

Blade Runner

Blood Simple

Body Heat

Chinatown

Devil in a Blue Dress

Farewell, My Lovely

The Grifters

L.A. Confidential

The Last Seduction

The Long Goodbye

Memento

Night Moves

Point Blank

Pulp Fiction

Se7en

Sin City

Taxi Driver

It is with these films we being our search for the worst character in neo-noir.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…