BMD Picks: Our Favorite Neon Noirs

In anticipation of Aaron Katz's GEMINI, the squad picks their favorite fluorescent-tinged mysteries.

"Neon Noir" is effectively a riff on the mysteries of cinema’s “golden years”, only with some bright, harsh colors tossed in for good measure. Emerging mostly during the '80s, the style permeated other genres – think: the fluorescent-tinged aesthetic of Blade Runner's dystopian sci-fi, or gliding metallic animals in Michael Mann's Thief – allowing us to soak in all the sinister ambiance. Aaron Katz's Gemini is the latest idiosyncratic vision to bring a popping palette to your local picture house; an evolution of "mumblecore" dramatics that began to dominate aughts indie endeavors. Only Katz tightens and refines the looseness of those works into a rather intoxicating whodunit revolving around a thought dead starlet (Zoë Kravitz) and her trusty assistant turned Nancy Drew (Lola Kirke), who won't rest until the vagueness regarding her actress bestie's untimely demise is cleared up once and for all.

In anticipation of this upcoming thriller, the BMD crew got together to pick their own favorites in this "neon noir" subgenre, resulting in one of our most eclectic lists yet...


Who Framed Roger Rabbit? [1988] (d. Robert Zemeckis, w. Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman) 

Thirty years later (yes, thirty years), what impresses most about Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is not its technical achievements or the surprising mixing of IPs, but rather the way this supposed film for kids adheres so closely to classic noir tropes. The basic story - a down on his luck private eye gets embroiled in a vast conspiracy far above his pay grade - is remarkably close to the kind of thing Bogart excelled at. The only difference is The Big Sleep lacked a cigar-chomping baby who probably wouldn’t survive the #metoo movement.

So even with all the colorful animation and childhood favorites, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? stands among The Long GoodbyeInherent Vice and The Big Lebowski as titans of remixed noir. It had the guts to take a labyrinthine plot filled with sex and murder and say: “Here kids! You’re gonna love this!” We did, and many of us still do. - Evan Saathoff

Black Rain [1989] (d. Ridley Scott, w. Craig Bolotin & Warren Lewis)

Ridley Scott applies his wet, shiny neo noir tendencies to an actual neo noir – as opposed to futuristic sci-fi revolving around androids who dream of electric sheep. Black Rain is an ‘80s action movie gem, mostly due to the overwhelmingly immersive atmosphere Scott creates with this tale of an American cop (Michael Douglas) escorting a Yakuza warrior on an extradition trip to Japan. Motorcycles become horses for swordsmen, and neon-bathed clubs are a playground for Scott’s camera, as Douglas exists in a portentous miasma of smoke and violence. A pure genre exercise, this is a sadly overlooked slice of fish out of water buddy cop pulp (complete with a peak, suave Andy Garcia role), slathered in the usual attention to technical perfection we’d come to expect from Ridley in the decade since Alien (’79). - Jacob Knight

Crimes of Passion [1984] (d. Ken Russell w. Kathleen Turner, John Laughlin, Annie Potts & Anthony Perkins)

Ken Russell’s noirish Crimes of Passion, by turns gleeful and bleak and always lurid, is all about sexual dysfunction and repression. It hums on uncut, grade-A Catholic guilt, the stuff that Ken Russell flamboyantly snorted and spewed across his entire career.

Bobby Grady (John Laughlin) can’t fathom his dead marriage to Amy (Annie Potts). He claims she’s frigid; she’s sick of him acting like he’s 20, and tired of his dead-end electronics business. Bobby moonlights in surveillance, and his latest gig is to follow Joanna (Kathleen Turner), a power-suited designer suspected of selling work secrets. She’s innocent of that, but Bobby discovers her secret life working as a prostitute.

That discovery is a gateway to a glowing midnight fantasyland of eccentric johns and desires rarely reckoned with even when acted upon. As Bobby strikes up an increasingly complicated relationship with Joanna, Turner goes all the way in a “burn it all down” performance. Ken Russell never shied away from trashy and here he dives right into the bin, serving up Anthony Perkins as a street preacher of dubious provenance who pledges to “save” Joanna using a massive silver vibrator.

It’s a world of dirty, desperate artifice where no one can grasp what’s real because they can’t or won’t confront what they want. When a woman hires Joanna to give her dying husband one last thrill his raw honesty shocks the veteran sex worker into a rare glimmer of envy. “At least you’ve stopped pretending,” she admits, taking off her wig and leaving his money on the table. - Russ Fischer

Only God Forgives [2013] (d. & w. by Nicolas Winding Refn)

Silence and violence reign in Nicolas Winding Refn's nihilistic underworld. Casting a fluorescent haze over the city of Bangkok, Only God Forgives challenges the senses with vivid colors, brutal imagery, and a pulsating score. Abandoning dialogue to enhance the sensory experience, Refn’s visual palette makes ugliness mesmerizing by drowning it in neon light.

Ryan Gosling’s Julian leads us down claustrophobic corridors lit red with symbolism of repressed passion and rage. Just beyond his reach lies the metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel in the form of the girl he covets but cannot touch. Tormented by past sins and compelled by his malevolent mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge his brother’s death, Julian’s visions of the omnipotent Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) – a sword-wielding bringer of justice with a love for karaoke – invade his already broken psyche. Swaying between two opposing worlds, Julian must weigh his loyalty to blood against his own morality.

Dedicated to master of surrealism Alejandro Jodorowsky, the neon nightmare of Only God Forgives exists somewhere between reality and a dream. While silence may be golden in this hellish landscape, it is easily broken by savage violence and the deafening presence of Kristin Scott Thomas’ diabolical matriarch. Combined with the backdrop of Larry Smith’s remarkable cinematography and a forceful synth score by Cliff Martinez, Refn’s visual narrative illuminates the scars in Julian’s past, leaving us to read between the shadows and unspoken lines. - Emily Sears

Nightcrawler [2014] (d. & w. Dan Gilroy)

Neon noir is characterized by contrasting the bright exterior of the world with the dark seedy underbelly that actually exists at its center, and there are few films that capture that diametric quite as intently as Nightcrawler. Following the exploits of Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal), an entrepreneur trying to find his niche while stealing and selling scrap, Nightcrawler reveals itself to be a scathing critique of stringers, the freelance journalists who photograph nighttime car collisions and criminal activity. The morning news shows us sensationalized stories of crashes and violent crime through a glossy sheen of commercial salesmanship, but the truth of the matter is that these largely inessential stories are hunted down by opportunists looking to profit off people's morbid curiosity. Lou not only turns out to be naturally inclined toward the disposition of tracking these stories, but he approaches the task with an eerily enthusiastic bent, seeing the exploitation of human misery as a stepping stone for his career development.

Thing is, though, Lou isn't wrong. For as unsettling a personality as Lou is, he gets ahead not only by tracking grisly incidents and beating his competition to the punch, but also through sabotaging that competition and creating grisly circumstances of his own. Yet rather than portray these obviously perverse priorities as a mechanism for Lou's downfall, the score triumphantly swells as Lou reaches new lows of depravity and new heights of financial success. Under the fluorescent bulbs of the Los Angeles streetlights, we catch glimpses of a darkness that the local news industry willfully ignores, even praising those results as long as they don't have to look too closely at where they came from. The bitter irony of Lou's rags-to-riches story is that he succeeds because we don't want to know how the sausage is made, only to consume it with our daily breakfast as a sensationalized reassurance that the world is a scary place. Problem is that the scariest people might just be the people telling us to be scared. - Leigh Monson

Streets of Fire [1984] (d. Walter Hill, w. Larry Gross & Walter Hill)

Director Walter Hill is known for films about badasses: The Warriors, The Driver, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs, Last Man Standing, Red Heat, and more. So committed is Hill to his ruminations on the American tough guy that he even made one as a musical: 1984 cult classic Streets of Fire.

Billed as “a rock and roll fable,” Streets of Fire takes place in a world between genres and out of time, an intoxicating blend of grimy ‘50s’ leather and garish ‘80s neon. Its plot is a simplistic, Western-tinged showdown between former soldier Michael Pare and the biker gang (led by Willem Dafoe) that kidnaps his ex, rock singer Ellen Aim (Diane Lane). But while there's not much to Streets of Fire narratively, it's one of those precious movies where the style IS the substance.

Streets of Fire is so badass, even Rick Moranis gets to play a tough guy. It's set in a seemingly perpetual state of nighttime, its fictional city populated by greasy ne'er do wells. Walter Hill's eye for action is at full sharpness, with the film culminating in a sledgehammer duel between Pare and a never-wirier, leather-clad Dafoe. Punches land, windows smash, and motorcycles explode, all in a rain-drenched, rock and roll-fueled alternate reality.

An all-timer soundtrack gives Streets of Fire its musical backbone. Contemporary bands like The Fixx and The Blasters show up on the soundtrack, but it's the original songs that really carry the film. Stevie Nicks and Jim Steinman both contributed songs to be sung by Diane Lane's rocker character (albeit dubbed by multiple other singers). The two Steinman songs - “Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” - form the film's opening and closing numbers, bringing the house down in both instances. They're soaring, emotional rock and roll epics that should have become karaoke staples the world over.

So, Streets of Fire in a nutshell, basically. - Andrew Todd