The Shelf Is Half Full

An optimistic geek's blog on comic books, movies and professional wrestling.

Archive for the category “Film Noir and Neo-Noir”

Always On My Shelf – Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction is a 1994 crime drama directed by Quentin Tarantino, based on a script by Tarantino and Roger Avary. The movie also has elements of black comedy and neo-noir, but ultimately transcends genre to care its own unique identity in cinema. The movie is one of the most talked about films of all time, with many critics examining the film, attempting to figure out what it is trying to say and why audiences are so captivated by it. Is the film too over the top in its violence, and is that harmful to viewers? Is there ultimately any point to anything in the film? And what the heck is in that briefcase?

This is not an article seeking to answer any of those questions. Instead, I just want to shine a spotlight on the fact that we are still asking questions about Pulp Fiction over twenty years after it first hit theaters. Tarantino’s breakthrough hit is one that has left a mark on cinema and pop culture. It brought John Travolta back into the limelight and made stars out of Uma Thurman, Tim Roth and most famously Samuel L. Jackson. And despite a fair number of critics, it still stands as essential viewing for any dedicated fan of movies.

Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction has been dissected by almost every movie critic out there, and if you want serious in-depth analysis it is easy to find. For the sake of not being a Wikipedia article and to not give spoilers for those who haven’t seen it, I want to talk about my personal experience with the film and what stands out about to me. While I had seen and heard bits and pieces of the movie due to its cultural impact, I didn’t see it until I was twenty or so. And I’m actually glad that it took me that long to see it; film was a love that I discovered in college when I took an “Intro to Film” class and got an opportunity to learn about things like cinematography, composition and editing. While I would have always appreciated the acting, the characters and the dialogue, I wouldn’t have been able to fully grasp what makes Tarantino’s films stand out visually.

For me, what stands out most about this film is the way the characters talk to each other, and more importantly, what they talk about. We are introduced to the two main characters of Vincent Vega (Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Jackson) driving in a car talking about Vega’s recent trip to Europe, and specifically, the differences in how McDonalds markets their burgers for the European Market. Again, I won’t get into specifics here; if you’ve seen the movie you know the joke and if you haven’t I don’t want to spoil it. Vega later talks to Uma Thurman’s character Mia Wallace, the wife of his boss, about her brief acting career. Neither of these topics have anything to do with the plot of the movie, but they stick with audiences because it is in these frivolous conversations that we grow to understand the characters and their relationships with each other.

Mia Wallace

If this seems like an odd thing to bring up, I suggest watching this movie directly after watching another of my favorite movies: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). While that movie is my favorite Batman movie ever and has plenty of interesting themes, the dialogue is always driving the plot forward or blatantly psycho-analyzing the characters. While much of what is discussed is interesting, very little of it feels natural or organic. The characters are telling a story and that is all that matters. Tarantino is a director that understands that having characters that are both larger than life and very human is what anchors any good film. Pulp Fiction has some important plot points, twists and turns that drive the narrative. But the purpose of the plot twists is to put the characters into new situations where they can interact with each other and live their lives. That’s why they stick with us long after the movie is complete.

Pulp Fiction is also perhaps the best example of non-linear storytelling done well. There are a lot of movies that tell their stories “out of order” so to speak; there are times when it works (Christopher Nolan’s 2000 thriller Memento) and times where it is done so clumsily that it can derail a film (Man of Steel, for example). Pulp Fiction is carefully, meticulously constructed so that even when the film teeters on becoming confusing, we know enough the characters in the new situation that we aren’t totally lost. By the end of the movie everything comes together perfectly, and the film actually becomes more rewarding to watch the second time. With the benefit of insight into the characters’ lives, we find new layers in scenes that we couldn’t possibly know the first time we viewed the movie.


The last thing that stood out to me immediately was Samuel L. Jackson’s performance. While the shouting of a mangled verse from the book of Ezekiel is a moment that has become iconic, it is the re-visitation of this speech that really sticks with me. Sam is known for his charismatic and bombastic performances, but this quieter, more introspective scene may be the best acting of Jackson’s career. I really enjoy Jules’ arc as a corrupt man who finds his own version of faith and mercy, especially juxtaposed to Vincent’s cynicism and general apathy. On a larger scale, it impressed me that the themes of redemption and forgiveness were prevalent in a film known mostly for its violence. Those themes haven’t exactly been revisited by Tarantino in his other movies, and probably for good reason; he gets his point across well enough in this movie.

Pulp Fiction is not a movie that I would personally count among my very favorites, but it is one of the movies I respect the most. It is the definitive Quentin Tarantino film and one that deserves the legacy that it has. It isn’t perfect, but no movie is. In fact, I would argue that its the movies that overcome flaws that stand out most; it is more important to strike and emotional chord and challenge the audience’s perception of how movies can be made than to be a flawless, potentially lifeless film. And Pulp Fiction is anything but lifeless.


New On The Shelf – Nightcrawler

When I heard that there was going to be new movie in theaters called Nightcrawler, I got extremely excited. After all, what’s not to love about everyone’s favorite blue-furred, elf-eared, demon-tailed teleporting X-Man? I love that guy!

Kurt Wagner

Sadly, Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir crime thriller has nothing to do with mutants. Fortunately, it is one of the best movies of the year and one that I’m very glad that I went out of my way to see. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a character that I believe will come to be revered as one of the greatest villain protagonists in film history as the movie gains more awareness. Louis is one of the more unsavory characters I can recall in recent film; he is a thief, a manipulator and con-man, and a murderer. Sociopathic and narcissistic, he is a character that is incredibly easy to dislike, but Jake’s performance and natural charisma also make it almost impossible to keep one’s eyes away from Bloom.

The film is set in Los Angeles and has one of the more original plots that I can recall. When Bloom is unable to scrape by with thieving and cannot secure an honest job, he is suddenly hit with a bolt of inspiration when he sees a freelance film crew documenting a car crash. Their intent is to sell the footage to the highest bidding local news channel; after all, violence and crime draw people’s attention and thus ratings. Realizing that he can strike a goldmine with this method of self-employment, Lou steals a bike and sells it for a camcorder, cons a desperate young man named Rick into becoming his assistant, and starts his career as a “stringer”, or as the movie indirectly titles him, a Nightcrawler.


I think what sets this film apart from others is that it is unafraid to play against audiences expectations of morality. Generally, a protagonist is somebody who is essentially a good person; they may be rough around the edges but they have some line that they will not cross. Louis Bloom is the protagonist of this movie, but he is not a hero and not even an anti-hero. This is just a story about a horrible but captivating person who is willing to cross any line in order to be successful. That isn’t entirely new ground for a film, but I can’t think of many where a villain protagonist doesn’t endure any consequences whatsoever for his actions. Bloom is never arrested or killed and he doesn’t have anyone he cares about to lose; this is the story of his success. It’s just an ugly, reprehensible road to success.

The movie even cleverly uses swelling, triumphant music to manipulate the audience into rooting for Louis at his most vile moments. The film’s mood is established early on; it is clearly a neo-noir film that actually would probably be very effective if watched in black and white. Stylistically and narratively, it has most of the trademarks; only the femme fatale is missing because one of Lou’s defining characteristics is his own seductive nature. He’s able to coerce people into helping him and that just makes him all the more devilish. Watching Lou’s career as a stringer play out before us is not unlike the car crashes he is filming; horrible and tragic, but captivating in a morose way.


I do feel that Nghtcrawler is lacking in some critical areas though. As a character study, the main character is well defined and memorable, but most other characters are one dimensional and uninteresting, serving more like plot devices than actual people. It doesn’t ruin the film, but it is a noticeable flaw in the screenwriting and directing. Gilroy is a first time director and will likely improve in this category, but he should still be applauded for making a movie as good as Nightcrawler in his debut as a major director.

The one word that I would use to describe this film is “fresh”; it isn’t the best movie I have ever seen, but it feels new and different and is thus more engaging and thrilling than some other films that may be better put together. Gyllenhaal’s performance with the character is clearly the best thing in the film, and I feel that he was majorly snubbed by most award committees who should have at least nominated him. If you are in the mood for something different, or just want to see a great actor sink his teeth into a meaty role, Nightcrawler has you covered.

Always On My Shelf – Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity is a 1944 film noir directed by Barry Wilder and starring Fred McMurray, Barbara Stanwick, and Edward G. Robinson. While probably not a movie that most people of my generation have sat down to watch, it is one of the most important films of all time and a personal favorite of mine for many reasons. I was introduced to the movie in my “Intro to Film” class in college and I credit this movie for sparking my interest in older films that I would have largely ignored. This is an interest that has allowed me to bond with people of entirely different generations through our mutual love of cinema. My DVD copy of this movie was actually a gift to me from an elderly gentleman who I met at my work, and is something I will always cherish.


Outside of my own sentimental value towards the film, Double Indemnity is one of the first and perhaps the most defining film noirs ever created. Many tropes of the genre are on full display here; the black and white is obvious, but the use of shadows and lighting to set the mood and convey the feelings of the characters are also key. A common lighting effect throughout the film is the use of Venetian blinds to create the effect seen above, reminiscent of prison bars.

The film’s story has a similarly dark tone; the most simplistic way to explain the plot is that two adulterers commit a murder and plan to make a lot of money doing it. Walter Neff (McMurray) is an insurance salesman who falls in love with Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwick), the wife of a wealthy but cruel man. Though he is initially put off by her requests about knowledge about accident insurance, believing she intends to kill her husband, his fancy turns to an obsession that sets him on the road to committing the perfect crime. They will have Mr. Dietrichson sign up for accident insurance, then Walter will murder him on a train, making it seem like an accident and cashing in on the “double indemnity”, getting the woman of his dreams and a cozy $10 million.


This plot showcases two common themes of film noir. First is that the protagonist is a criminal who manages to earn our sympathy, and the audience almost finds itself rooting for Walter Neff to literally get away with murder. Phyllis is the “femme fatale”, a woman with evil intentions who tempts Neff’s darker emotions and leads him on a path of destruction. And make no mistake; this film does not have a happy ending for the two criminals. Another signature of film noir is that bad decisions have consequences. In this case, a web of lies and uncertain loyalties force Walter to constantly commit more crimes to save his own skin until he is trapped and doomed. As he tells us at the beginning, he “didn’t get the money and (he) didn’t get the woman.”

While these two are the films central characters, perhaps the best performance in the movie is that of Robinson, who plays claims adjuster Barton Keyes. Keyes is a close friend of Neff’s and has an unflinching moral compass; his job is to catch people in lies to make sure they do not unjustly get paid insurance. Talk about a thankless job. Neff finds himself in a chess match with Keyes as Keyes tries to prove that the death of Mr. Dietrichson was in fact murder; Walter’s actions cost him a very close friendship. Keyes is the moral center of the film and it is because of his actions that Walter is unable to get away with his crime. Watching Robinson go on long diatribes without missing a beat is truly a joy to watch.


Double Indemnity was a product of its time. Before World War II, Hollywood films tended to be more idealistic and censored. The plot of sex and murder would never have been approved in the decade before, but American audiences knew the world was a horrible place and were ready for films that tackled more adult films. This film was a commercial and critical success, being nominated for seven Oscars and sparking an endless parade of film noirs that were inspired or just flat out ripping off this original classic.

While it may not be as flashy as modern movies, Double Indemnity is proof of several things. Good acting is still good acting, a good script is always a good script, and good filmmaking will always be good. It is timeless and deserves just as much attention today as it did in 1944.

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