Friday, November 5, 2021

Noirvember: Richie Narvaez

To me, when the gunshot private eye shrugs off a bulletproof vest and wobbles away to help another client and have further shadowy, nicotine-stained adventures, that’s hard boiled film noir, and it’s lovely. But my favorite kind of noir is when the lead character ends up dead, arrested, or with a new status quo the opposite of everything they ever dared to hope. Call it noir film noir—akin to roman noir, where the plot is fatalistic and the protagonist is doomed. 

Here are some expected and, I hope, some unexpected recommendations of same. I would warn you about spoilers, but you know these are not going to end with sunshine, smooches, and allegro theme music.

Shield for Murder (1954) Film noir veteran Edmond O’Brien co-directed himself in this brutal tale of crooked cop Barney Nolan, who covers up a murder he commits and tries to abscond with 25 large. If the film had focused on the bland good-guy-in-pursuit, Sergeant Brewster (John Agar), you would still have film noir. But here Nolan is the desperate, sweaty protagonist we follow, and we know he’s as lost as Oedipus from the first scene. 

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) Murphy’s Law rules from the start in this pitch-dark French film about lovers (played by Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet), who plot to knock off her husband. The plan appears to go well until Ronet (as Julien) gets stuck in an elevator, a thrill-seeking couple steals his car, and Moreau (as Florence) starts worrying he’s double-crossed her. That’s the first 15 minutes. It’s a nail-biter, directed by Louis Malle and based on the roman noir by Noël Calef.

Fist of Fury (1972) You may think of this as only a martial arts action film, but look at the protagonist: Bruce Lee (!) plays Chen Zhen, a martial arts student whose shih-fu (master) is killed by rivals from a Japanese dojo in Shanghai. (The movie takes place in 1910, right between the two Sino-Japanese Wars.) Enraged by prejudice and bent on revenge, Chen punches, kicks, nunchuks, and kills, hanging three of his victims from lamp posts. This isn’t a Jack Reacher vigilante wet dream. Chen’s fate is sealed. (See also 1971’s The Big Boss.)

The Parallax View
(1974) By no means does a noir protagonist have to be a criminal. They just have to be someone who wants to change the status quo and who gets slapped down by their own flaws, or fate, or the Powers That Be. In this thriller (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer), Warren Beatty and his hair play an anti-authoritarian reporter who investigates a senator’s assassination and uncovers a conspiracy involving a multinational corporation. Now how can anyone win against one of those?

Carlito’s Way (1993) This Brian De Palma film may not usually be thought of as noir, but it’s got all the right ingredients: A cocky career criminal Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) who just wants to go straight and be happy with his dancer girlfriend (Penelope Ann Miller). Is the world going to let him do that? His flaw is not that he’s crooked or vengeful—but that he’s too loyal to family and his friends. They’re the ones who lead him where all the stitches in the world can’t sew him together again. Based on the book After Hours by Edwin Torres.

Richie Narvaez is the author of the historical YA mystery Holly Hernandez and the Death of Disco, and his latest book is the anthology Noiryorican.

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