THE GOOD DIE YOUNG (Dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1954)

Released in 1954, Lewis Gilbert’s The Good Die Young, a neglected British-American hybrid noir, relates a post office robbery through a series of flashbacks in which we are introduced to the four central protagonists who collectively come to signify a masculinity in crisis; a new post war malaise. It is worth noting that Gilbert’s noir preceded Kubrick’s The Killing, a film which is considered to be far superior and more revered. And in some respects, Gilbert’s film likely influenced The Killing expressly in the ending where the last of the four protagonists meets his death on the airport tarmac while clutching banknotes in a heavy handed symbolic gesture. Kubrick repeats this doomed ending but with greater clarity and imagination.

While the flashback structure in The Killing is resolutely mechanical and the fatalism resonates with a tangible brutality, Gilbert’s approach bears an equivalent pessimism about post war Western society, much of it amplified through the slimy figure of a posh playboy and sociopath essayed by Laurence Harvey with a venal, rascally delight. With a strong cast populated by the likes of Stanley Baker and Richard Basehart, Gilbert’s noir holds its own against classic noir films such as The Killing and could arguably be shoe horned into a cycle of films that preceded the British New Wave film movement that was to emerge in the late 1950s.

BLACK WIDOW (Dir. Bob Rafelson, 1987)

The enigmatic Debra Winger was a reluctant film star who maintained a low public profile, evading the gaze of the media, perhaps to the detriment of longevity. A career restricted to just one decade, Winger seemed to fade out of view by the early 1990s. With a tightly written script by Ron Bass, steely cinematography by Conrad Hall, Black Widow is a finely nuanced 1980s neo noir thriller, a late entry in the career of director Bob Rafelson, an auteur associated with the Hollywood new wave of the 1970s. In many respects, what makes this work quite exceptional is a script tailored for two women, a highly polished star vehicle for Winger and Theresa Russell, something of an anomaly in Hollywood mainstream cinema.

A complex study of the limits of obsession is exemplified in the concept of mirroring, a thematic convention that typifies some of the best noirs. Green, both luminous and sickly, becomes an abiding colour, repeated throughout, a key, unifying visual design that symbolises the jealousy of Winger while the intertextual allusion to Vertigo reminds us of the underlying influence of Hitchcock. The interchangeable roles of the government agent and man-killer cross both ways, mutating and blending with a psychological playfulness that emerges as resolutely character driven piece in which there is a disinclination to moralize.

If you look past the outmoded eighties décor, Black Widow is a distinctive and richly satisfying modern noir, crafting a narrative dénouement that pays homage to the traditions of film noir, the woman’s film and melodrama.

NARROW MARGIN (Dir. Peter Hyams, 1990)

This uncomplicated hot garbage from solid genre filmmaker Peter Hyams who often gets overlooked in the oeuvre of competent Hollywood mainstream cinema plays more like an updating than a remake of Fleischer’s original 1950s noir. Hyams is careful not to stretch this out, steering clear of letting it become a two hour overcooked melodrama, which it clearly could have morphed into. The premise is paper thin and overly conventional; an incorruptible, hard ass DA has to protect a witness from getting murdered by the mob on a train. However, what ensues for roughly ninety minutes is a hypnotically enjoyable cat and mouse thriller in which Gene Hackman foils the efforts of two sinister hitmen who roam the train carriages in cowboy boots with semi-automatics.

The weak link is the presence of Anne Archer who was pretty rubbish in most of the things she starred in and the zero on screen chemistry with Hackman. None of that really matters though considering Hyams, also on camera duty, succeeds in creating a sense of real time action, along with the idea of a narrative deadline taken to its natural extremes while dispensing with dialogue in large parts of the film. In some respects, where the film falters is when the script is allowed to speak, reiterating a litany of clichés. Moreover, the final sequence in the courtroom seems unnecessary, tacked on simply to let Hackman’s earlier gag regarding the ‘tightening of shirt collars’ come to fruition with a ridiculous visual confirmation. A diligent, underrated exercise in the economy of genre.

THE GOLDEN CHILD (Dir. Michael Ritchie, 1986)

Not strictly vintage Murphy, The Golden Child was made at a time when he was the biggest film star in the world. Undeniably a star vehicle for Murphy’s loud mouth antics, when the film was released back in 1986, the poster deliberately alluded to Beverly Hills Cop, and was pitched in a similar vein by the marketing execs. Of course, all of this couldn’t have been further from the truth since The Golden Child was essentially an expensive B-movie pastiche, that shared a lot in common with another decorative Oriental Hollywood hybrid released in the same year – John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little Chinatown. Unlike Carpenter’s tongue & cheek cult film, and which is endlessly watchable, The Golden Child is a bloated relic of the 1980s with some of Murphy’s lamest gags and Charlotte Lewis as a bot who is undeniably boring, lifeless and severely miscast.

The film was released with a PG rating, and sort of strange today, considering Murphy’s mischievous star entrance sees him eavesdropping on an overweight businessman perving at a porno mag titled ‘Chunky Asses’ and to which Murphy reads out loud ‘Butt Pies’. Moreover, the shot of blood seeping through a pan of porridge is one of many sickly images that conjure a latent tone of dread, subversively so, that often resided in many Hollywood films that were supposedly aimed at children. Charles Dance as a demonic shapeshifter would be joyfully resurrected and parodied in McTiernan’s sublimely overlooked The Last Action Hero.

With hooey allusions to the Dalai Lama, a contemptuous product placement of Pepsi complete with a musical skit, the film’s limited pleasures rests largely on one quite vivid dream sequence in which Murphy’s sarcasm is deconstructed in the presence of a live audience, a self-reflexive gesture. Not terrible, just underwhelming.