Written By: Daniel Kinsley

With Rian Johnson set to release the STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI later this year, there is little doubt that his filmography is about to experience a major reevaluation by audiences who are unfamiliar with his work. A look back at his dazzling debut film.

In Post-WWII France, film criticism was undergoing big changes. French critics had long regarded the cinema as a significant part of the their culture, however, with the end of the war, this significance took on a much deeper meaning. Critics believed it was not only the responsibility of citizens, but of art, to confront reality and seek truths, so that no evil like the Third Reich would ever ascend unchallenged again.

At this time, most of Europe’s film industries were in ruin, though Hollywood had not ceased production throughout the war. There was a palpable need for the return of cinema to these war-torn countries, and Hollywood was to be their deliverance. French critic

French critic Nino Frank hoped that both American and French filmmakers would be able to overcome conventionality, paying less attention to technical accomplishments while searching for more complexity. He believed that what cinema needed was “a third dimension: a touch of substance, a touch of depth, the logic of cinema definitively replaced by the logic of truth”.

Shortly after the return of Hollywood films to France, Frank began to see what he believed to be a step in that direction. In 1946, Frank coined the term “film noir” in response to a new batch of American films; The Maltese Falcon (1941), Laura (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), and Double Indemnity (1944). These were part of a new wave of American crime films; morally ambiguous, driven by murder and deceit, drenched in shadow. These films capitalized on the post-war mood of anxiety and mistrust, and made for a stark contrast to Hollywood’s many musicals and screwball comedies. It was in this new wave of films that critics like Frank believed film could realize the potential of being fulfilling entertainment, while also confronting injustice and corruption.

Generally speaking, film noir is not so much a genre as it is a mood or a tone; paranoia, disenchantment, and pessimism were the hallmarks of the film noir. Stylistically, they were often dimly lit, pervaded by shadows and the threat of the unknown. Plots revolve around hard-boiled investigators, gangsters, or petty criminals; cynical and transient people often operating outside of convention or deep in the underworld. Narratively, the film noir is marked by complexity, often employing a non-linear approach or told (at least partly) in narrated flashback. Perhaps most significantly, both the films and the characters in them were marked by a sense of fatalism; thanks to their post-war boom, these films almost never end happily.

The classical age of film noir (the early 1940s through the late 50s) produced any number of all-time great crime films from legendary directors as notable as John Huston, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder. Many of the films were directly inspired or adapted from pulp crime fiction by genre stalwarts like Dashiel Hammett, James Cain, and Raymond Chandler; while visually, noir owes a considerable debt to the prewar German Expressionist movement [a la The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and M. (1931)].

Mileage will vary for each viewer as to what is the tops, but any genre fan will find an embarrassment of riches from the time period. For this writer, favorites include The Maltese Falcon (1941), Out Of The Past (1947), The Third Man (1949) and Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Film noir would continue to produce films well beyond its classical age, though the latter films were often referred to as neo-noir, using the basic structural elements in a more modern setting. Though many of these films remained set in the past [Chinatown (1974), L.A. Confidential (1997)] nearly as many updated many of the basic structural elements to a modern setting [Memento (2000), Drive (2011)].

In 2005, Brick a neo-noir written and directed by a young filmmaker named Rian Johnson premiered at Sundance, and was released into theaters a little over a year later. The conceit of the film is pure noir: Brendan (Joseph Gordon Levitt) receives a phone call from Emily, the ex-girlfriend he still loves (Emily de Ravin) telling him she is in trouble, but she is only willing to speak in code. Two days later, Brendan finds her body lying in a sewage tunnel. Armed only with hints from her final call, Brendan sets out to explore the seedy underworld and bring justice to Emily’s killer. The central conceit of the film adds another layer, however; it is an ostensibly modern film, set in a California suburban high school, filled with characters who speak as if they are from the 1930s (i.e. cops are “bulls, criminals are “yeggs”). It is sure to rub some viewers the wrong way, but make no mistake in thinking that it is a simple empty exercise in style.

After hiding Emily’s body in the tunnel, Brendan turns first to his acquaintance, The Brain (Matt O’Leary), which leads him to (another) ex-girlfriend, Kara (Meagan Good), stoner leader Dode (Noah Segan), the mysterious Laura (Nora Zehetner) and her hyper-macho boyfriend Brad Bramish (Brian White). As Brendan descends further down the rabbit hole, the film remains true to its roots, populated by manipulative women, rat-faced underlings and quiet bruisers. Thematically, it hews true as well, with the death of his doomed love, Brendan is faced with great pain whether he gets answers or not, and the closest thing to justice may only be revenge.

Joseph Gordon Levitt is excellent as Brendan, selling us on the world-weary gumshoe in the body of a teenager. The rest of the cast, filled with mostly unknown faces, mostly sells the punchy dialogue and manages to keep the viewer from feeling like these are kids playing dress up. Nora Zehetner (perhaps best known for her role on EVERWOOD) is the stand-out as Laura, as she goes toe-to-toe with Levitt and threatens to run away with the film at times.

It would have been easy for the film to play like an extended wink, self-referential and ironic, but Johnson is after something more deeper. There is humor to be found, but the stakes and the violence are real, and it is no less effective as film noir simply because of its setting. While some viewers will be put off, either by the dialogue or the oddity of it all, it’s an excellent example of blending the noir of the past to the present. For those that can dig into the film’s rhythms, there’s a new classic in town.

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