David Mamet recently discussed how, as a young man, he was inspired by reading crime fiction: “That’s what I did instead of going to school, and one of the genres I read was the California novelists—Dashiell Hammett and Joseph Hansen and Raymond Chandler, who was wonderful, and then Ross Macdonald. There was always something weird about the California story, as opposed to the New York story, which was about some guy trying to find himself. And Chicago noir is about some guy trying to get ahead in the world. But the story of California seems to be the story of people who are lost and have no identity, and they find out what they thought they were wasn’t really who they were, and their father wasn’t their father, and their uncles were schtupping them and impersonating somebody else. And the noir films, all the guys getting out after World War II with nothing to do and no money except an idea and the Pacific Coast Highway—they’re all the story of what happens now? They were all very influential in my upbringing.”
The noir films to which Mamet refers were part of an organic cinematic movement that flourished in the years following World War II, with Hollywood as its epicenter. Simply put, it was born of a combustible mix of hard-boiled American fiction, popularized in 1930s pulp magazines and realized on-screen in a darkly alluring style brought to Southern California by, largely, European directors who’d fled the Third Reich. The films were considered crime thrillers or murder dramas. Noir came later, a tag first applied by French cinephiles.
While many film scholars contend that the movement had waned by the early 1950s and was all but dead by the end of the decade, I see a continuum. The three examples of California neo-noir presented here are based on novels that owe a debt to authors and filmmakers of the original noir era. All three evoke a sense of paradise lost unique to California-based crime stories. Each is inspired by a different type of noir-stained narrative, and each features a protagonist with a very different reason to escape.
None of these films have received the recognition they deserve.
CUTTER’S WAY (1981)
This neglected classic, directed by the late Czech new wave émigré Ivan Passer, uses the spine of a crime story to explore the spoiled hopes and paranoiac hangover of the 1960s. Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is drowning in ennui, living the life of a louche coaster in sunny Santa Barbara. He mooches a couch off his buddy Alex Cutter (John Heard) and Cutter’s eternally patient and stoned wife, Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). Cutter is a maimed Vietnam vet, short an arm, a leg, and an eye—but with a surplus of savage wit and a bitter take on existence tamed only by massive amounts of booze. Cutter and Bone both rejected the “program,” but with zero prospects their lives, and Mo’s, are circling the drain.
Then Bone, driving home one rainy night, sees what turns out to be a woman’s body getting dumped in an alley. He doesn’t get a good look at the culprit. He doesn’t report it. But at a holiday parade, Bone recognizes the killer—“That’s him!” he exclaims, pointing out a man on horseback imperiously moving through the throng. When the man is revealed to be industrialist J.J. Cord, Bone’s sketchy ID is good enough for Cutter. He becomes the Avenger, spiritual descendant of alienated vets in dozens of classic noirs who got the short end of the stick after saving the world. Cutter seethes because he sacrificed himself for nothing—so Cord becomes his locus, responsible for all the pain he has endured. But is Cord actually guilty? Does it matter? Cutter draws the aimless Bone into his quixotic crusade, demanding payback from a ruling class that always gets away with it. Cutter’s Way artfully combines two staples of noir—it’s a revenge story wrapped in a mystery.
Screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin splendidly adapted Newton Thornburg’s 1976 novel, Cutter and Bone, giving the film a “cinematic” climax that initially felt forced and false. Time, however, has revealed it to be the perfect finale—desperate, gallant, and doomed—for an acerbic eulogy to the Vietnam era. United Artists had no idea how to market the film, bungled its release, and buried it without fanfare. A shame, since Heard, Bridges, and Eichhorn all deserved recognition for career-best performances. When you watch it today, there’s an extra layer of sadness—in 1981, even Alex Cutter could afford a spacious Craftsman on a verdant hillside in Santa Barbara.
THE MINUS MAN (1999)
A small town on the Pacific Coast is the locale for this quiet, offbeat adaptation of the 1991 novel by Lew McCreary. Screenwriter-director Hampton Fancher—known primarily for writing Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049; this is his lone directing effort—relocated the story from Massachusetts, and the switch reverberates for anyone familiar with the blissful combination of sunlight and sea spray that marks California’s oceanfront communities. Into this idyllic setting drives Vann Siegert (Owen Wilson), a drifter with nothing to his name but a pickup truck and a disarming manner that wins the trust of everyone he meets, including the day-drinker (Sheryl Crow) in a roadside tavern who bums a ride with him. He kills her with poisoned amaretto from his hip flask and arranges her corpse to look like a heroin overdose in a restroom off the interstate.
Vann’s psychopathy is fully explored in the novel, which, like an update of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, is narrated by the perpetrator in a loopy stream of consciousness that rationalizes his murderous deeds. Fancher keeps the first-person voice-over (“I feel like a light in the dark. They come at me like moths because I shine”) but gives Vann no backstory: the devil just shows up one day—and silently revels in altering and ending lives while cannily avoiding detection. (The only cops who hound him are those in his imagination.)
The story is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 masterpiece, Shadow of a Doubt, in which urbane Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) visits his relatives in bucolic Santa Rosa, California, and only his savvy niece suspects that her beloved uncle might be the notorious Merry Widow killer, who has left a trail of matronly bodies behind him.
No one in The Minus Man, however, catches on to Vann’s villainy—partly because they’re too self-absorbed and Vann has mastered the ruse of listening quietly, letting people reveal themselves. He’d be a great therapist if he weren’t so…judgmental. A married couple, Doug and Jane, take him in as a boarder while their daughter is (they say) off at college. Doug (Brian Cox) embraces Vann as a surrogate son, even getting him a job at the post office. Jane (Mercedes Ruehl) is warier, sensing that Vann’s numbskull demeanor might be an act. In the novel, whenever Vann suspects that Jane is getting wise, he gives her “the smile”—and here the casting of Wilson pays dividends: his toothy rictus-grin is ultra-creepy, because we know what lurks behind it. With his lank blond hair and surfer-dude vibe, Vann is the forgotten Beach Boy, broken out of the attic where they kept him locked for years.
Vann’s facade is so benign that no one perceives him as a threat, even when an autopsy of one victim—a high school football hero—reveals traces of a toxin specific to the Pacific Northwest (Vann has said he’s from “up north” when asked about his origins). Until this killing, Vann has justified his murders as helping wounded souls reap their final reward. The football player, however, reveals him to be petty and jealous—merely a murderous psycho, no angel of mercy. As in many a noir story, the villain also reflects what is seething within the “normal” characters; once the real story of Doug and Jane’s daughter seeps out, it leads to the death of a major character. Vann realizes he may not be the only killer in town.
The women in The Minus Man are isolated, solitary, and all potential victims. There’s Irene (Meg Foster), a bohemian artist whose paintings, fortuitously, scare Vann away; Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo), an affable coworker drawn to his vulnerability and odd sense of humor; and Jane, who eventually confides that her marriage to Doug is on the shakiest of foundations. None of these women know one another, and they share a justified distrust of men. Fancher tips his hand, subtly but effectively, by having the lone cop who sniffs something wrong be a female trooper (Alex Warren). She braces Vann upon his arrival in town—and gives him a parting once-over, smiling no less, as he drives off scot-free at the end. In neo-noir of the post–Hays Code era, a villain can drift into the night, free to roam and kill again.
DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (1995)
Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel, Farewell, My Lovely, begins its procession of colorful Los Angeles locales in a second-story club on Central Avenue. The detective Philip Marlowe, who is tracking a stray husband through what he describes as a block “not yet all negro,” has been drawn there by Moose Malloy, a hulking brute soon to be a client. In the course of their conversation, Marlowe refers to a resplendently dressed Black customer with a dismissive pronoun: “It had slick black hair. It kept its mouth open and whined for a moment. People stared at it vaguely.”
In 1990, Walter Mosley turned Chandlertown inside out, placing a facsimile of that second-story club in the opening chapter of his debut novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, and making one of its patrons, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, the reluctant private eye hero of a 1948-set crime story bristling with racial tones: overtones, undertones—race is its raison d’être. Mosley’s radical reimagining of the classic Los Angeles PI resulted in Easy becoming the central character in a 14-book series that is now a landmark in American crime fiction.
Easy Rawlins is a California transplant. He migrated from Louisiana to work in a defense plant during the war but was fired for insubordination—sassing a racist foreman. Easy accepts a job from a shady white operator who’s trying to locate Daphne Monet, a woman with connections to Los Angeles power brokers and a purported fondness for Black men. Easy gets involved grudgingly, only because he needs to make the mortgage on his modest home, to which he devotes every spare moment.
Unlike the protagonists of Cutter’s Way and The Minus Man, Easy is not a lost soul, nor is he alienated, delusional, or psychotic. He’s a stand-up guy in a compromised world and wants nothing more than the camaraderie of friends and neighbors, a steady job, a home of his own, and some small measure of peace and security. He does, of course, suffer constant anxiety and paranoia—the justifiable state of a Black man surrounded by white cops, white gangsters, and white burghers who run roughshod over everything, especially Easy’s middle-class Watts neighborhood.
Written and directed by Carl Franklin (a Black film and TV director from Richmond, California), the movie version of Devil in a Blue Dress should have been the first installment of a franchise, with Denzel Washington, at the height of his sex appeal, perfectly cast as Easy. Unfortunately, the timing was off. Soon, detectives could no longer launch film franchises, and the further adventures of Easy Rawlins remained book-bound.
What resonates in Franklin’s film isn’t the plot, a predictable tangle of low company in high places; it’s experiencing the genre’s tropes through the eyes of a Black man. Familiar scenes, like cops teaching the private eye to mind his own business, assume a fearsome urgency when race is injected. When thugs invade Easy’s home, he conveys a boiling but stifled rage unknown to white detectives. These scenes have even more impact today—at least for a white viewer—than when the film was released. Walter Mosley and Carl Franklin were a couple of decades ahead of the cultural curve, depicting the racism of the police toward the Black community they are assigned to protect.
Devil in a Blue Dress also features something rare in noir—a well-earned, genuinely upbeat ending. After sorting out the mystery of Daphne Monet and eluding the treacherous malevolence of white cops, crooks, and politicos, Easy retreats home to bask in the glow of the California dream fulfilled—beautiful weather, a home of your own, fruit trees in the front yard, and friends to watch your back.
It’s a blissful vision, albeit always temporary.
Eddie Muller is the author of several books and the founder and president of the Noir Film Foundation. He is a second-generation San Franciscan.
Read more from Alta‘s Fall 2020 Noir Special Section.