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…

Published by

Matt Berger

I am a data geek, writer, investigator and film noir devotee with academic training in political science (Yale BA, Harvard MA), biostatistics (Boston University SPH MA) and epidemiology (Boston University SPH PhD). In January 2021, I finished writing Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History...and My Own for which I seek a publisher. In Chapter 6: So...What Is Film Noir, Again?, I analyze my film noir database, which contains 4,825 titles. My musical holy trinity is Genesis, Miles Davis and Stan Ridgway. I am a liberal Democrat who understands a thriving democracy requires at least two mature political parties. I grew up just outside Philadelphia, and I live just outside Boston, where my wife and daughters keep me happy, sane and grounded. Please ask me anything else you want to know.

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