The year is 1941. John Huston releases The Maltese Falcon, one of the first examples of a film noir crime story, complete with a chain smoking detective, a femme fatale, and photography that leads the viewer in and out of darkness. And no one can play Sam Spade quite like Humphrey Bogart can. In 1946, The Killers hit the screen. Film noir will never be the same after such an intricate play between good and evil, darkness and light, and the archetypical femme fatale, Ms. Kitty Collins. In 1958, Orson Welles tried his hand at the genre with Touch of Evil, and as is typical of Wells, it is executed with a level of perfection and grace. We are shuffled between the seedy underbelly of a Mexican dystopia and a corrupt American world, with a do-gooder Charlton Heston stuck in the middle. By the way, if you have not seen these films, go out and see them right now. After Welles, film noir loses its steam. It fades away into a familiar reference, even an object of parody. Every one can instantly recognize the detective sitting behind his desk, cloaked in shadows and cigarette smoke, and the sexy "dame," desperate for help. Except for a few exceptions here and there, the big screen saw very little of film noir in its classic context after 1960. Enter Brick: a 2005 release which takes all the elements of the classic noir film and throws it into a high school setting. Think that can't work? It does.
Brick follows Brendan as he attempts to discover the circumstances surrounding his ex-girlfriends death, and as is typical of crime noir, "break some deserving teeth." The film noir influence on this film is exceptionally clear. The dialogue is quick and reminiscent of the 50s, it has an ever twisting plot, and it has the full cast of characters, including the femme fatale as stunning and as deadly as Kitty, the overambitious muscle and the smart character on the inside appropriately named "The Brain." Though the film is in color, it stylistically remains loyal to its genre. In other words, the composition reflects the world. The colors are, for the most part. In a few scenes, a tunnel looms in the background, and as characters run in and out they fade into oblivion. Because of his limited budget, Johnson was forced to do all his special effects with camera tricks instead of in post. This decorates the film with an older, much more raw tone. Though the effects are well done, the smoothness that results from CGI is altogether lacking, making the effects themselves gritty. But, and this is important, it is not that director Rian Johnson copies film noir. For an example of this, see The Black Dahlia. Instead, Johnson takes the essence of noir and makes it relevant in our time. In the past 50 years, there has never been a better time for a noir comeback then right this instant.
In the 40s and 50s film noir just plain worked. After all, the conditions were perfect. Americans were coming out of the worst depression in history, and the economic disparity hadn't quite gone away. They were involved in a tiring and globally devastating war that touched every single citizen's life. There was a turn towards a socialist/communist agenda and an overreaction from certain sections of government. All in all, Americans were feeling hopeless. Directors began to realize this, and they wished to reflect this in their films. They didn't want to throw false hope at their viewer in an attempt to make them feel better, they wanted to give them biting reality. It was the only way to deal with what was at stake. The rest is well known. America bounced back and film noir got left on the back burner. So why is it relevant today? Well, let's check the list. A period of extreme economic strife and recession?...check. A long and tiring war?...double check. A turn towards socialism and a backlash? Read Obama's stimulus plan and listen to some GOP governors comment on it. Americans are feeling hopeless again. The romantic comedy isn't quite going to do it anymore. We need darkness, we need the anti-hero, we need a world where good is rewarded with punishment. The best part is, we already have a working model, just ask Bogart or Mitchum.
Of course, the film noir of old, copied and cloned, isn't as relevant as it used to be, the world has certainly changed. Let's return to Brick. What sets this apart from any film of its type is that it is set in high school. Admittedly, this is a strange pick for a crime drama. Brendan, our protaganist, paces back and forth on a brick wall, throwing a Rubik's Cube at "The Brain," shooting questions at him about his ex-girlfriend, Emily. "Who's she eating with?" is the one most important to him. Who doesn't remember the intimidating atmosphere of the high school cafeteria. The cheerleaders all sat together, and the nerds had their own table. The jocks sat with the jocks, and I just plain didn't. It had simple rules and a simple structure. Even, however, in this simplistic setting, hopelessness resides. Throughout the film, the characters have to simaltenously deal with raging and unpredictable hormones and a complex drug ring and multiple murders. There is no escape, no innocence. This is the world we currently live in. What is the future of these kids? Many are thinking bleak, at best. The American people are ready to face this kind of gloom on screen. Noir serves as a reflection of its audience, almost a mirror into their own world. And why try to hide the truth, disguise it behind beautiful faces and unattainable standards. That's not life. Films should strive to reach the maturity of the noir of old, much like Brick did. They should try to expose life for what it is, especially in these trying times where Americans in particular can't afford to ignore what the world is like.