Jack Nicholson Chinatown
Jack Nicholson in 'Chinatown'

The noir since 1960 is like pornography: it's hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. With "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" in theaters, it may be time to tackle the question more directly. To paraphrase Paul Schrader, what is a (modern) film noir?

In 1972, Schrader, now known for his work as a screenwriter ("Taxi Driver") and director ("American Gigolo"), penned the classic essay "Notes on Film Noir" for Film Comment. It's an ideal introduction, laying out film noir's influences, aesthetics, and themes in terse, colloquial language. He argues that the American movies of the Forties and Fifties that French critics labeled "film noir" -- defined by hard-boiled writing, chiaroscuro lighting, oblique compositions, and disillusionment with the postwar order -- constituted not a genre but a movement, more like German Expressionism or the French New Wave than the gangster film or the Western. And so, like any movement, it ended: Schrader calls "Touch of Evil" (Orson Welles, 1958) "film noir's epitaph."

To purists, then, the "modern noir" is impossible; it simply does not exist. And, by Schrader's definition, the purists are right. No film made since can ever replicate the particular collision of high style, historical context, and studio system that created the likes of "Double Indemnity" (Billy Wilder, 1944) or "Kiss Me Deadly" (Robert Aldrich, 1955). The modern noir, by contrast, is film noir unbound. It might be made in 1971 or 2005, sketched in blizzard white or dusky pink; it might not even be American. It might be deadly serious or seriously funny. With such diffuse characteristics, such loose adherence to tradition, noir since 1960 is tough to pin down -- though, as Schrader admitted, so was the original artifact.

If classic film noir was a movement, modern film noir is more like a genre, treating private eyes, femmes fatales, dark shadows, and evil itself as conventions to be played with rather than symbols of a specific historical moment. As is true in other genres, the modern noir pays homage, critiques, or parodies, unwilling, indeed unable, to shoot straight. Schrader describes film noir as a reaction, in part, to wartime idealism, but "disillusionment" presumes the existence of an illusion. The war in Vietnam forever put to bed the notion that any American war was just simply because it was American: while classic noir lamented the failed promise of World War II, modern noir argues that every promise is a lie to begin with.

What connects these distinct forms of noir, to quote Schrader, is "a passion for the past and present, but also a fear of the future." In applying a form so rooted in the postwar city to the Japanese boardroom, Brighton boardwalk, Minnesota countryside, or suburban high school, the modern noir is, in this sense, the film noir par excellence. In modern noir the styles of the past meet the politics of the present, and the future holds only an unhappy ending. Indeed, Schrader's "Notes on Film Noir" sometimes reads as a presentiment of how we live now. "In such a world style becomes paramount," he wrote. "[I]t is all that separates one from meaninglessness." - Matt Brennan
Read our (by no means exhaustive) list of 15 must-see modern noirs after the jump.