There were dead bodies, stolen goods, knotty plots, amoral protagonists, and irredeemable villains. And no—we’re not talking about the film noir era of the 1940s and ’50s. From late 1989 to early 2001, noir made a stunning return to Hollywood, splitting off into different subgenres and producing some of the most compelling films of the era—from The Usual Suspects to L.A. Confidential, from Devil in a Blue Dress to Basic Instinct. Over the next six months, join The Ringer as we revisit the surprising reemergence, unexpected fracturing, and profound impact of the neo-noir movement in the ’90s.
A few years ago, the Oscar-winning filmmaker Brian Helgeland went to Warner Bros. with what seemed like a dynamite movie pitch: a sequel to L.A. Confidential, the 1997 Hollywood cop drama he cowrote with director Curtis Hanson. Helgeland had already secured a top-tier cast, including returning Confidential costars Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, alongside Chadwick Boseman, who’d be playing a young police officer. He’d developed a new story with L.A. Confidential novelist James Ellroy, one that would be set in the mid-’70s.
“We worked the whole thing out,” Helgeland says. “It was great. And Warners passed.”
The studio’s veto made for a downbeat, think-what-coulda-been ending—much like the conclusion of L.A. Confidential itself. But the rejection is especially surprising when you consider that, 24 years ago, L.A. Confidential was one of the most beloved entries in a genre beloved by executives and audiences alike: the neo-noir.
For a remarkable stretch from roughly late 1989 to early 2001, Hollywood eagerly churned out dozens of neo-noirs: salacious, deeply satisfying dramas featuring shifting loyalties and twisting turns, often with titles that could have been ripped straight from the pulp-paperback racks. The Last Seduction. Shallow Grave. Basic Instinct. The Usual Suspects. One False Move.
Some neo-noirs took place in a teeming corrupt metropolis; others played out underneath the scorching desert sun. But their embittered heroes—if you can even call them that—all shared a lust for money or sex (or both) and a malleable code of ethics: By the end of most ’90s noirs, there are no winners, just survivors. Consider the Midwestern squares in A Simple Plan, whose discovery of stolen loot leads to a series of gut-punching murders. Or the vengeful, forgetful amateur sleuth in Memento, trying to solve the mystery of his own blood-soaked past. Or the scamming matriarch in The Grifters, who’s willing to double-cross anybody, even her son, just to live to the next day.
All of these stories took place within the realm of film noir, that shadowy, expressive style whose definition can be as slippery as its inhabitants (though as Ellroy once noted, the best noirs all share a similar theme: “You’re fucked”). It’s a genre that first took hold in the United States after World War II, when Hollywood pumped out black-and-white crime tales marked by nocturnal lighting, desperate protagonists, calculating femme fatales—and gloomy conclusions. But film noir isn’t just a style; it’s very much a mood. The most effective noirs, no matter when they were made, convey a sense of murky amorality—a feeling that everything’s a bit cockeyed. “Even if a movie’s set in New York or L.A., the noir world is not the real world,” notes Helgeland, who also cowrote and directed the ’90s revenge noir Payback. “It’s a strange world that’s almost half in your head.”
That world somehow became an obsession for filmmakers throughout the ’90s, as noir invaded traditional genres and created new ones altogether. There was sci-fi noir (Dark City); superhero noir (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm); comedy noir (Zero Effect); New Queer noir (Swoon); Western noir (Lone Star); erotic noir (Wild Things); drug-drama noir (Deep Cover); even theological noir (The Rapture). Some of the ’90s noirs were upfront about their influences, like Pulp Fiction, which adopted many of the genre’s stock characters (the fight-fixing boxer, the middle-management hitman). Others were infused with noir in subtler ways, like the suspenseful Hollywood satire The Player, about a yuppie film exec whose life and career unravel after he covers up a murder.
Unlike other film movements of the decade, the neo-noir explosion didn’t get much attention while it was happening (though a few critics, like David Ansen and Roger Ebert, took note). Even some of the filmmakers involved were unaware they were part of a bigger, decade-long revival. “I couldn’t say whether we were consciously thinking of it,” notes Deep Cover co-screenwriter Michael Tolkin, who also wrote The Player and The Rapture. “But once you have long shadows, dark alleyways, and people with confused purposes, you’re in the territory of noir.”
And for a decade, that territory was lucrative for studio execs. Though few of the ’90s noirs were box office smashes, they were produced at the time when home video and cable were on the rise. If a knotty, modestly budgeted mystery had a grabby title and the promise of some violent twists and turns—not to mention a big star, like Denzel Washington (Devil in a Blue Dress), Nicolas Cage (Red Rock West), or Paul Newman (Twilight)—it had a decent shot at earning back its budget. And several noirs wound up landing on critics’ year-end lists, as well as on awards ballots: When those Warners execs turned down Helgeland’s L.A. Confidential follow-up, they were nixing a sequel to a film that had earned the studio nine Oscar nominations and two wins.
But the millions of moviegoers who watched these noirs throughout the ’90s didn’t care too much about Oscar buzz or critical raves. They wanted gnarly little stories about gnarly little people, some of whom were more relatable than viewers cared to admit. The ’90s noirs focused on strivers and outsiders, most of whom were simply doing their best in a busted system: the lovestruck, mob-crossing heroines of Bound; the schemer-dreamers of The Grifters.
All of these characters were compromised; some were downright doomed. But to moviegoers, their stories were a reminder that everyone was fucked, both on- and off-screen. Today, the ’90s are remembered by many as The Last Time Things Weren’t Terrible. But the noirs of that time are a reflection of what was actually a disorienting, destabilizing era, one full of economic stressors and prime-time traumas: the L.A. riots, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Gulf War.
“There are a lot of parallels between the ’40s and the ’90s,” notes writer and film noir enthusiast Nora Fiore, who tweets about film as the Nitrate Diva. “The ’90s starts out with Americans being broadcast as liberators—which is the same as the feel-good end of World War II, even though there’s so much darkness there. And they’re both thought of as eras of prosperity. But it’s prosperity that comes with a price.”
Halfway through the ’90s, when national morale was ebbing, president Bill Clinton took note of the ’90s malaise: “What makes people insecure is when they feel like they’re lost in the fun house,” Clinton said. “They’re in a room where something can hit them from any direction at any time.”
That’s how life felt to the characters trapped in the ’90s noirs—and to audiences watching them. For a decade, these stories confirmed our suspicions that we were all lost in the funhouse. And then one day, poof: The big-screen neo-noirs were gone.
Tucked high in the Hollywood Hills is a striking reminder of film noir’s first golden age: a white-walled, two-floor Spanish-style building surrounded by greenery. This is the home in which a lonely insurance salesman and his married lover hatch a murderous scheme in 1944’s Double Indemnity—still one of the most decorated and replicated noirs of all time.
Writer-director John Dahl, who’d go on to direct such essential neo-noirs as Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, first spotted the Double Indemnity house in the early ’80s, not long after moving to Los Angeles from the Great Plains. It wasn’t far from another still-standing noir landmark: William Holden’s apartment from 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. “I was going to the American Film Institute, watching movies and studying film in Hollywood—which was kind of mind-blowing for a kid from Montana,“ says Dahl. “It started getting to me that all these places were right around the corner from where I was staying.”
In Hollywood, where so many classic mysteries were set and filmed, noir has always cast a spell over filmmakers. The original noir boom—defined by such notorious entries as Detour (1945), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and In a Lonely Place (1950)—wound down in the late ’50s, as crime stories migrated to the small screen. Yet the style never went away, occasionally resurfacing in the ’60s with delightfully nasty entries like The Killers (1964) and Point Blank (1967). Those were followed by a pair of Nixon-era tales that found noir hitting new highs (and/or lows) of existential ennui: 1973’s The Long Goodbye and especially 1974’s landmark Chinatown, the latter of which found Jack Nicholson playing Jake Gittes, a jaded late-’30s private eye who sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong.
By the time Dahl was in film school, there were more than four decades’ worth of noir cinema to absorb. He’d first become interested in pulp fiction back as an aspiring graphic designer, drawn to the lurid covers of crime novels like D.O.A. and I Wake Up Screaming. But Dahl didn’t start thinking about trying out the genre as a filmmaker until he made his first car trip through Nevada. “It seemed like a great place for something bad to happen,” Dahl says. “I thought, ‘You know, I could make a noir.’”
For Dahl, noir seemed like the perfect entry point into filmmaking. After all, low-budget ’80s noirs like Choose Me and Blood Simple—the debut feature from the Coen brothers—had become critical hits. With a collaborator, David W. Warfield, Dahl began working on the script for what would become Dahl’s directorial debut: Kill Me Again, about a Nevada P.I. (Val Kilmer, then hot off Top Gun) who’s hired by an on-the-run drifter (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) after she steals a suitcase of cash from the mob and runs away from her vengeful husband (Michael Madsen).
Though released in late 1989, Kill Me Again is essentially the first ’90s noir, featuring all the hallmarks that would dominate the decade ahead: an A-list star, a B-movie title, and a generous amount of body heat and bloodshed (at one point, in a grisly warmup for his turn in Reservoir Dogs, Madsen playfully tortures a witness with a cigarette). But Kill Me Again is also emotionally devastating—in stark contrast with most other crime films of the late ’80s and their wiseacre cops and heroic vigilantes. By the end credits, Kilmer’s private detective has been shot, double-crossed, and left for dead. His future is uncertain, but it certainly looks unheroic.
It was the first hint of just how brutal the neo-noirs would become. Early-’90s entries like Romeo Is Bleeding (about a keyed-up New York City detective) and Light Sleeper (about a beaten-down New York City drug dealer) depict a modern America losing out to rot and despair. “A lot of the filmmakers of my era weren’t looking at noir,” notes Oscar winner Lili Fini Zanuck. “We were looking at a reality. And a lot of that reality was inspired by the movies in the ’70s, but wanting to take it further.”
Zanuck coproduced 1996’s bloody neo-noir Mulholland Falls, and directed the harrowing 1991 undercover-cop drama Rush—a film that may not strictly adhere to noir format, yet shares the genre’s bleak, no-heroes-here philosophy. She notes that many of the writers and directors working in the ’90s, including herself, took their inspiration from glum but exhilarating ’70s dramas like The Panic in Needle Park and Chinatown. “In the ’70s, there was freedom,” she says. “You could kill your leading man.”
There was another reason noir films were so appealing to studio execs and filmmakers: They were low budget, and relatively risk free. In the late ’80s, James Foley was a promising young director coming off what he calls “a fantastic flop”: the Madonna comedy Who’s That Girl. For his next project, he needed something cheap enough to keep studio execs off his back, but fierce enough to hold his interest.
The resulting film was 1990’s After Dark, My Sweet. And while it wouldn’t be Foley’s comeback commercial hit, it would become the decade’s first great neo-noir: Based on the 1955 novel by crime legend Jim Thompson, it follows a washed-up boxer (played by Jason Patric) who drops into a parched desert town, where he gets tangled up in a kidnapping plot organized by an alcoholic widow (Rachel Ward) and the menacing Uncle Bud (Bruce Dern). Thompson’s book never specified the location’s story, but Foley found a great place for bad things to happen: the California desert.
“I grew up in Staten Island, and the sunny Southwest, and the palm trees, was so seductive to me at a really young age, because it seemed clean and sunny,” says Foley, who’d later direct such films as Fear and Glengarry Glen Ross, as well as two Fifty Shades sequels. “And the little dirt-poor towns had that kind of minimalism I found very attractive.”
That middle-of-nowhereness gives After Dark, My Sweet an almost alien feel. Yet even though it traffics in so many noir tropes—the shifty ex-boxer, the menacing but podunk crime boss—Foley never thought of the film as a film noir until others started describing it as one. He was simply making a film about desperate, amoral characters who don’t yet realize how doomed they are—what he calls his “sweet spot.” “I had no idea it was noir until I read the reviews,” he says. “But I’m happy to have gotten away with it.”
Despite scoring with critics, After Dark barely registered with viewers when it premiered that summer (though according to Foley, it did find a fan in Hillary Clinton, who professed her affection for this harsh tale of sex and betrayal when they met in 2000). Instead, the neo-noir movement of the ’90s would be formally launched a few months later, thanks to a giddy shocker that outgunned and outsmarted everything and everyone in its path—even Jake Gittes.
The Grifters wasn’t supposed to be the decade’s first noir hit. In fact, the crime movie most people were talking about for much of 1990 was The Two Jakes. Nicholson’s sequel to the beloved Chinatown had been in the works for so long that, at one point, it had been declared “The Greatest Movie Never Made.” As the film’s August release date finally approached, speculation was rampant: Could this prestigious sequel be the start of a highbrow film noir franchise?
By the end of Two Jakes’ opening weekend, the answer was clear: Forget it, Jake. What was supposed to be the second coming of Chinatown was instead an overcooked, underwhelming bore that looked and felt immediately outdated. And it didn’t help that, just a few weeks after The Two Jakes’ release, audiences got their first look at The Grifters—a much leaner, meaner, and more modern version of the rough-and-tumble noir caper.
Based on a book by Thompson—and adapted for the screen by the equally notorious crime novelist Donald E. Westlake—The Grifters traced an unseemly triangle between a struggling con man (John Cusack), his equally unscrupulous mother (Anjelica Huston), and the dizzying hustler who comes between them (Annette Bening, in her breakout role). It was about as pitch-black as a mainstream crime movie could be in 1990: There are flirtations with incest, and the ending is so sudden and severe it feels churlish to spoil it, even 30 years later. The Grifters was an uneasy-feeling movie, one that arrived at an uneasy time—when the movie went wide in January 1991, its star-studded premiere coincided with the launch of Operation Desert Storm.
The sheer acidity of The Grifters didn’t stop it from earning a spot on The New York Times’ best-of-the-year list, as well as four Oscar nominations. But perhaps the biggest surprise at the time was the film’s pedigree. Huston had recently won an Academy Award; director Stephen Frears had just made Dangerous Liaisons; and Cusack was still in his rebellious-heartthrob phase. They were respectable, peak-power talents … and here they were, happily taking part in a nasty crime flick.
The Grifters was an early indicator that big-name actors in the ’90s would be willing to get down and dirty onscreen—a development that turned out to be very good for noir. Some performers did their best work that decade playing crooks, dicks, and insidious outsiders: Billy Bob Thornton’s heartsick accomplice in A Simple Plan; Kim Basinger’s homesick sex worker in L.A. Confidential; and Steve Martin’s classy manipulator in The Spanish Prisoner.
These were the kinds of intense, gray-shaded roles that actors of that era sought out—and, in doing so, helped keep noir alive. “In that period,” says Helgeland, “everything was driven by stars.” And if a script attracted the attention of a box office draw like Sean Penn (U-Turn) or Michael Douglas (Basic Instinct), it could often draw the attention of studios, too. “The advantage of those days,” notes Zanuck, “is that successful stars that were really actors—like Nic Cage—would go off and make these money films. And then they would feel like, ‘Oh my God, I need to go to work and not be ashamed of myself.’ So some of these movies were easier to get made, because you had an actor who had credibility, but who had been making big movies.”
At the same time, most noirs were cheap and low-risk enough that studios could build them around new faces. Don Cheadle had been acting for a decade by the time he showed up in 1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress, but his brief turn as an erratic gunman remains one of the great breakout roles of the decade. Jennifer Lopez’s early career was marked by turns in several neo-noirs, including U Turn, Blood and Wine, and her movie-stealing appearance in Out of Sight. And the casino thriller Croupier made a star out of Clive Owen, despite his character’s unforgivably dopey-looking hat.
Noir was also a gateway genre for directors and screenwriters—a way to break into low-budget filmmaking, just as horror directors had sneaked into Hollywood in the ’60s and ’70s. Christopher Nolan (Following) and Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave) were both introduced to audiences via their low-budget, heavily noir-indebted debuts. And in 1992, actor turned director Carl Franklin released One False Move, a stark cross-country noir that would serve as his breakthrough—even if it took a while for the film to reach its destination.
One False Move stars Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams, and Michael Beach as a trio of thieves from L.A. on the run, eventually running into an upstart Southern detective, played by Bill Paxton. Franklin’s film enjoyed a few successful festival screenings, but by summer 1992, it looked as though the film was being rushed to video.
That’s when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, then the country’s best-known movie critics, went on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and implored viewers to check out the film. Their endorsement helped bring One False Move back to life, and back into theaters. “In a left-handed way, it worked for us more than if it had gotten a traditional distribution,” says Franklin, who’d later direct Devil in a Blue Dress. “It was word of mouth: One exhibitor would find out about it, and then another would take up the cause.”
Throughout the ’90s, that sort of under-the-radar whisper campaign would be crucial to several noirs’ survival. Many wouldn’t find their audience until months afterward, when they arrived at video stores. The great noirs of the ’90s rarely got too big or overexposed, and movies like The Limey or Strange Days were viewed almost as semi-underground artifacts, to be discovered, adopted, and passed on to others. Being a fan of these movies was almost like being in these movies: It was like stumbling onto something illicit.
There’s another reason ’90s noirs made for such reliable Friday-night rentals: They were often remarkably explicit, in a way the traditional noirs had never been allowed to be. Classics like 1946’s Gilda or 1953’s The Big Heat were made when Hollywood was still ruled by the Motion Picture Production Code, making violence and sexuality difficult to depict on screen (though filmmakers of the era did their best).
The modern noirs, though, were made with far fewer restraints. When Body Heat was released in 1981, it demonstrated just how lusty a mainstream, studio-made noir could get (it remains, to this day, one of the sweatiest movies ever made). A decade later, things got even racier. And bloodier. Films like The Hot Spot, Lost Highway, and King of New York brimmed with skin and sin, more than earning their hard-R ratings. The script for the Wachowskis’ lovers-versus-gangsters caper Bound was so explicit, some actresses didn’t even show up for auditions: “We imagined that they’d read the script on the way over and get to the sex scene, and the script would go flying out the window,” Lilly Wachowski later recalled.
The Wachowskis eventually found Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly to play Bound’s salacious crime couple—who, by the film’s bloody end, have managed to outsmart the mob and drive off together, hand in hand. It was a conclusion that separated Bound, and so many other noirs of the era, from the morally pacifying dramas of the ’40s and ’50s. “The production code meant that wrongdoers—no matter how much we root for them, and enjoy their destructive behavior—had to be punished in the end,” says Fiore. In some of the ’90s noirs, however, “the miscreants aren’t really punished. Somebody gets away with it.”
That fate was especially surprising, Fiore notes, when it came to the decade’s two most notorious femme fatale tales. In 1992’s Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone plays a prime murder suspect who strings along the coked-up homicide detective (Michael Douglas) in charge of the investigation. And in 1994’s The Last Seduction, Linda Fiorentino dupes and double-crosses a series of men, including her husband (Bill Pullman), in pursuit of a bundle of cash. Unlike many midcentury noirs, in which the femme fatale is either sent to jail or to the morgue, Basic Instinct and The Last Seduction conclude with their antiheroines still on the loose (and both heading toward totally unnecessary sequels).
“In the end, she’s got all the cards,” says Fiore. So does Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects, and Tim Robbins’s murderous executive in The Player. In ’90s noir, sometimes you really could get away with murder. “It’s underscoring this idea that evil can never be truly defeated,” says Fiore. “Badness can’t be punished.”
It was a downbeat conviction, but one that took hold for good reason. The early-’90s noirs were produced during the hangover of the ’80s, and they serve almost as a rebuttal to the Reagan era’s manufactured cheer and myriad scandals: Deep Cover may be crowded with bad guys, but there’s no greater villain than the failed drug war. And in Light Sleeper, even a high-end coke queen played by Susan Sarandon looks down upon Wall Street and its denizens with disgust (“Too damned crooked,” she notes). Whether it was the Iran-Contra affair, the savings-and-loan crisis, or the crass 1988 presidential race, the unseemliness of the ’80s seeped into the early-’90s noirs—films in which once-reliable systems could no longer be trusted, and in which traditional rules no longer applied.
As the decade went on, though, the neo-noir films—whether intentionally or not—started to feel like specific rebuttals to the social ills and abuses that were threatening to consume the ’90s. The acquittal of four violent Los Angeles cops, and the riots that followed in 1992, were still on many Americans’ minds when Devil in a Blue Dress and L.A. Confidential arrived in theaters, both depicting the matter-of-fact racism that had girded Los Angeles for decades. The crippling effects of the recession, meanwhile, played out in movies like Red Rock West, in which an unemployed Marine played by Nicolas Cage fakes being a hitman for a measly 10 grand. And it’s hard not to watch some of the genre’s most nefariously sexist slimeballs—whether it’s Joe Pantoliano’s cruel boyfriend in Bound, or the leering cops in Basic Instinct—without thinking of the proudly-on-display misogyny that greeted Anita Hill and Hillary Clinton.
The ’90s noirs were far too economical and propulsive to address any of these topics head-on: These were, for the most part, adults-only joyrides that rarely took themselves too seriously. But the neo-noirs collectively captured a sadness and a skepticism that had taken hold in the final decades of the 20th century. And occasionally, they couldn’t help but wink at the era that had produced them. At one point in Blood and Wine, Nicholson—playing a slimy, adulterous, money-hungry jewel thief—holds up an elaborate diamond necklace he’s just stolen: “Now this is a thousand points of light,” he says, echoing the most cynical one-liner of the era.
Good guys, bad guys—really, what was the difference? As the decade went on, they’d all come to look and sound exactly the same.
By the late ’90s and early 2000s, the neo-noir genre was peaking: Movies like L.A. Confidential, The Usual Suspects, Memento, and A Simple Plan had racked up Oscar nominations (and a few wins). The Coens had just released The Big Lebowski, capping off a decade-long noir run that also included Miller’s Crossing and Fargo. And right before the turn of the century, David Lynch began work on Mulholland Dr., the indescribable, unsolvable 2001 surrealist mystery so hypnotic it even won over Roger Ebert, one of his harshest critics.
But the neo-noir era was about to enter the big sleep. While a few 2000s films would carry on the noir tradition—including Brick, Out of Time, Drive, Winter’s Bone, and Steven Soderbergh’s recent No Sudden Move—the genre’s popularity began a visible decline, at least among studio executives, thanks to the same culprit that slowed down the original noir streak in the ’50s: television. “One of the first TV shows that I did was Breaking Bad,” says Dahl, who’s directed several high-profile drama series. “I remember thinking around that time, ‘This would have been a movie in the ’90s. And now it’s a TV show.’”
Walter White, Tony Soprano, Veronica Mars, the Ozark clan: The noir figures who, years ago, might have been big-screen icons now largely live on television, where their stories can be told over multiple seasons. At the same time, the major studios began abandoning mid-budget dramas and thrillers—the types of tough-sell movies that need the support of A-list stars, whose numbers are dwindling every year. “The 90-minute well-told story is gone for good,” says Tolkin, who cocreated Showtime’s recent crime drama Escape at Dannemora. “The audience likes extending a story, sitting at home, and watching it.”
And, to modern audiences, some of the darker stories at the heart of the best noirs might now seem downright outrageous. In the ’90s, moviegoers were open to unsparing movies about disreputable characters, many of whom go unpunished. It’s hard to imagine how similar tales would be received in 2021—or whether they could even be produced at all. “People were trying to make [these movies] with a certain amount of integrity,” says Zanuck. “These were rebellious movies. And a lot of them worked because they were politically incorrect.”
That sense of outrageousness may be why the neo-noirs remain so pleasurable, even decades later: They felt lawless, and a little unseemly. And while the best ’90s noirs offered a brief escape from the modern world, they also quietly acknowledged the dark forces lurking underneath. These were cold, hard movies that delivered cold, hard truths—and managed to do so off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush.
Brian Raftery is the author of Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. His work has appeared in Wired, New York, and GQ.