Directed by John Dahl
The United States of America
The term film noir is so readily thrown around today to describe films that it has almost lost its meaning. Certainly, there are certain characteristics of film noir that have entered the common knowledge: the film fatale, chiaroscuro cinematography, hard drinking and heavy smoking private dicks. But the heart of film noir is almost impossible to describe. People have even written books and devoted careers to defining the genre, and we are probably no closer now than we have ever been in figuring out what makes a film a film noir. Oh, it’s much easier when a film is sixty or seventy years old. There are certain tells: the aforementioned attributes, men escaping their pasts, moral ambiguity, and B-movie sensibilities. But trying to diagnose neo-noir films is a monster all of its own. The most basic definition of neo-noir are modern day films that feature elements from classical film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s and updates them with new themes, idea, and stylistic tendencies. Probably the two purest neo-noir films are Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), the latter a kind of remake of the classical film noir Double Indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder. But flash forward to the early Nineties. It was during this time that a slew of films came out that are probably the closest ancestors we have to the golden age of film noir.
Don’t be confused, I am not referring to films that borrow film noir characteristics for style’s sake. Films like Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Basic Instinct (1992) borrow heavily from classic film noirs. But at heart they are Hollywood A-movies. The same can be said of the works of the Coen Brothers. While their works, especially the pitch perfect Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998), are some of the purest distillations of film noir sensibilities ever committed to the screen, there is still a disconnect between them and the classic film noirs: they were well received by critics and audiences. That’s not to say that the classical film noirs were never well received. In fact, many of them were nominated for Academy Awards. But they were almost always meant to be cheap entertainment. They were only embraced as art once they were seen by Europeans, in particular the French. Humphrey Bogart once famously quipped that when he never considered his work in film noir to be anything other than B-movie material. So the best film noir were made not knowing that they were creating a new genre. It was only after they were lauded by international art critics that the great film noir were seen as anything other than cheap entertainment.
So now we go back to the Nineties. While the Tarantinos, Coens, Lynchs, and Manns were busy shooting homages to the great film noir classics, a new breed of movie appeared. They were a new generation of B-movies. Made by no-name directors and frequently starring actors that nobody has ever heard of, they were made on tiny budgets and pulled in even smaller profits. These are the true successors to the classic film noir. They were films like Miami Blues (1990) by George Armitage, The Hot Spot (1990) by Dennis Hopper, and the masterpiece After Dark, My Sweet (1990) by James Foley. Many were based off classics by the legendary noir authors like Jim Thompson, Charles Williams, and Elmore Leonard. Most of these films have been forgotten. And why not? Nobody heard of them, and even fewer went to see them. But many of them were genuine works of art that shared a kindred spirit with the works of Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, and John Huston. One of the best films that came out of this era was the devastatingly powerful Red Rock West (1992).
It stars Nicolas Cage as Michael Williams, an ex—Marine drifting through the Midwest looking for work. He has a bad leg left over from an attack while he was in the service that left him the only survivor of his unit. His bad leg prevents him from getting any work. So he stumbles into a small Wyoming town named Red Rock. It’s a small town where everything, even the beer, seems like it has a coat of rusty dust over it. He goes into a bar where the bartender (J. T. Walsh) mistakes him for a hit man that he had hired to kill his wife. Noticing his Texas license plate, he asks him if he is “Lyle from Dallas” and if he is there for the job. Desperate for work, Michael says yes. He is handed a stack of cash and told to off his wife. Not willing to have blood on his hands, he goes to his wife Suzanne (played by Lara Flynn Boyle) and warns her. After sending a message to the sheriff’s department about how the bartender, named Wayne, is trying to kill his wife, he skips town. Unfortunately he accidentally runs over a man by the side of the road. When Michael, good Samaritan that he is, brings him to the hospital, he is detained when the doctors find two bullets in his chest. The police arrive to arrest him. When they arrive, he is horrified to find out that Wayne is also the local sheriff.
Realizing that Michael isn’t “Lyle from Dallas,” Wayne takes Michael into the woods to execute him. The only problem is that Michael manages to escape and is picked up by a kindly man (played by the late, great Dennis Hopper) on the side of the road. The man seems friendly enough and warm to Michael when he discovers that he is a fellow Marine. But their friendship comes to a brief end when he drives to Wayne’s bar and announces that he is “Lyle from Dallas” and is looking for the owner. From here we follow Michael, Lyle, Wayne, and Suzanne in a four part cat-and-mouse game.
Half the fun of the movie is trying to figure out the different characters’ motivations and guessing whether or not they can be trusted. A good example is the dynamic between Michael and Suzanne. When Michael escapes from Wayne and Lyle, the latter of whom wants him dead because he “doesn’t like loose ends,” he goes to Suzanne’s house. He tells her the situation and she suggests that they flee to Mexico. They agree, but first they need to go steal some money from Wayne that rightfully belongs to her. We are led to believe that it is part of her life insurance money that Wayne tried to have her killed for in the first place. But we discover that not all is as it seems. It turns out that both Wayne and Suzanne are wanted criminals on the run with over $1.9 million from a robbery. We are stunned to learn that Suzanne’s affections have been the work of a cool, calculated femme fatale that would make Phyllis Dietrichson proud. For the rest of the film, we are unsure whether or not she is bluffing or telling truth when she says she wants to run away with Michael. We know she is manipulating him, but we don’t know what she will do with him once she is done.
So, innocent Michael is placed inside a situation that he cannot escape among people who, for various reasons, want him dead. I hesitate to give any more of the story away for fear of ruining it for those who haven’t seen it. One thing that I will divulge is that things get much more interesting when Lyle discovers that Suzanne and Wayne have almost two million dollars hidden away and decides that he wants it. From here, Hopper takes his performance in a totally new direction. While he had been pleasantly restrained for the first part of the film, the promise of two million dollars drives him to that special kind of madness and crazy that only Hopper can pull off. There is one scene where all four characters are in a car at gunpoint and Hopper makes them drive towards an incoming train…but I don’t want to give it away. Let’s just say that it defies convention in a scene that not even Hitchcock could have dreamed of.
But the heart of this film is the four characters and their relationships. The entire movie boils down to a scene in a graveyard where the money is supposedly stashed. At this point, Michael, and the audience, has been so battered and betrayed that we know that he can’t trust anybody. This scene is a masterwork of writing and editing as it switches between the different characters as they produce guns, knives, and impromptu weapons with which to threaten each other. The tables are turned so many times that their legs fall off. We don’t know who to root for. We just hope that Michael can get out alive.
So why is this film a perfect successor to the classic film noir? Well, let’s start with the story, a tale of contract killers, deceiving women, and hidden money. I could replace Cage in my mind with either Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. That isn’t to say that his performance was bad. It’s just that it so perfectly matches the persona that these men portrayed in their work. He is trapped with no way out. The only difference is that Bogart and Mitchum played characters trapped by their pasts. Cage plays a character trapped by his present. The story itself plays out like a great novel by Chandler, perfectly matching the classical noir style in terms of tone and content.
But there is another reason why this film is a true successor to the classical noirs: it was a low profile film that was quickly forgotten about. In fact, despite being well received at the Toronto Film Festival, it was released by Columbia-Tristar as a direct-to-video film. It later toured the US in various art houses, but that wasn’t enough to cement its legacy. But times have changed. With the advent of the internet, we can learn about forgotten films like Red Rock West. In fact, at the time of writing this it is being streamed for free online for Netflix members. For those who haven’t seen it, locate this film and watch it. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple of decades, film critics will look back at films like Red Rock West and proclaim that it was one of the best noir films of the Nineties. And it is so nice to be ahead of the loop, isn’t it? It would have saved Michael a lot of trouble, that’s for sure.