Framed for Noir: Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ and Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick’

By  · Published on January 30th, 2017

How the two best examples of Neo-Noir respect the aesthetics of their father genre.

Film Noir is the only genre that comes with temporal parameters. Yes, there are genres that have had their heyday in specific eras – Musicals, in particular, Westerns – but none are actually dependent upon the time in which they were made like Film Noir. True Noir comes from between 1944 and 1954, a response to wartime pessimism and postwar fear and uncertainty. The general senses of doubt, mistrust, and fatalism Film Noir emits are emotional consequences of the era, and thus unique to it.

Yet there’s Noir outside of Noir. That’s because Film Noir is a genre represented by its atmosphere and aesthetic more so than its narrative or characters, meaning it can exist outside its natural context and time period. The most basic qualifications include character design and narrative – an investigative thriller of some dark crime – that allow for the atmosphere mentioned above, and an aesthetic that uses camera angles, composition, and most particularly, lighting, to reinforce said atmosphere. But just because you’ve got a story about a dicey dame with mysterious motives and the grizzled gumshoe trying to sort it all out without getting shot in some chiaroscuro alleyway in the dark heart of the naked city doesn’t mean you get to call yourself Film Noir. Those days are done and gone. Nowadays if you make a film that fulfills these qualifications, you’re Neo-Noir.


And as the name shift would suggest, Neo-Noir doesn’t have to stick to the traditional tenets of Film Noir; after all, it’s already broken the main one by existing after the mid-50s. The thriller is what replaced Noir, and since that time it has assumed its own narrative and aesthetic facets, the former of which are broader and less specific than Noir, and the latter of which are lesser in their particularity as well, more common, and not necessarily unique to the genre. This means that being Neo-Noir is more than being just another thriller, or even another crime film, it’s being one such that applies the specific aesthetic of Film Noir to itself. By employing standard genre shots, angles, lighting schemes, and framing to these newer films, the Noir atmosphere is instilled subconsciously in an audience, allowing for the variations that make Neo-Noir its own genre.

To illustrate this point I’ve made the following video comparing the aesthetics of the two films I consider the best examples of Neo-Noir, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Rian Johnson’s Brick, and how they reflect and respect the genre to which they are paying homage. One, Chinatown, is more typically Noir than the other because it is set closer to the actual Noir era (1937), but both are built on Noir principles with Noir techniques, and both represent perfectly, in my opinion, what Neo-Noir should be: simultaneously adherent and independent, respectful of the old ground while cutting new trails. The shots have been paired using similar narrative scenarios to best illustrate the commonalities, but this should not suggest that either are mere copycats of older films, nor is it meant to suggest any connection, narrative or aesthetic, between Chinatown and Brick other than their existence in the same genre. These are simply two excellent films that succeed at honoring their origins while also pushing to new boundaries.

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