Ladies of the Noir

Meg Ryan makes the Noirvember cut.
Meg Ryan makes the Noirvember cut.

For Noirvember, Marya E. Gates shines the spotlight on five underappreciated neo-noir films directed by women. 

Women have long been part of the noir genre in the form of the femme fatale, a trope itself often misunderstood. These dames subverted an idea of goodness that was unfairly projected onto them. They pushed against societal norms, twisted unsuspecting men around their fingers, and stopped at nothing to get their way. 

Yet femme fatales are not the only way women had an impact on the genre. Take Ida Lupino, for example, who perfected the art of the character type in films like 1941’s High Sierra and 1948’s Road House, while also directing one of the best films of the classical noir period: 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker

While women and non-binary directors are still finding it difficult to achieve parity in genre filmmaking, the fact is there are contemporary films in this genre helmed by women, and there always have been. And since it’s Noirvember (my personal movie Christmas), I have hand-picked five underseen films from my slowly growing list of noir and neo-noir films directed by women, which show how these directors have made an impact in the noir space over the past three decades.

Many of these films were unfairly maligned upon their initial release, but these subversive flicks deserve a reassessment with fresh eyes. We’ve got the expected detectives, murder and eroticism, but we’ve also got women fighting against systems of oppression. And a film that includes Samuel L. Jackson at, in my humble opinion, his absolute hottest. Intrigued? Good.

Cathy Haase been a bit bad with her married barfly lover. 
Cathy Haase been a bit bad with her married barfly lover. 

The Kill-Off (1989)

Written and directed by Maggie Greenwald, from the novel by Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson is one of the most adapted pulp-crime writers, with more than a dozen films based on his work, including The Getaway, After Dark, My Sweet and The Grifters. Only one of those adaptations, however, has been helmed by a woman: Maggie Greenwald’s The Kill-Off

While Greenwald’s film transplants the 1957 source material to a contemporary setting, her stripped-down approach pairs sublimely with the depraved vibe of Thompson’s text. Set in a seedy New Jersey nightclub, gossip turns to murder when the owner Pete (Jackson Sims) hires exotic dancer Danny Lee (Cathy Haase), who starts up an affair with barfly Ralph (Steve Monroe), much to the chagrin of his bedridden wife, Luanne (Loretta Gross). 

Getting creative with her low budget, Greenwald and cinematographer Declan Quinn utilize careful camera angles and slick lighting to drape the film in a claustrophobic haze. Writing on Letterboxd, crime writer William Boyle describes the film as “gritty, raw, and weird as hell.” Brotherdeacon agrees agrees, calling it “deviant, sketchy, violent, corrupt and as unafraid to wallow in the mire as any worthwhile pulp piece.”

With fewer than a hundred logged views on Letterboxd, The Kill-Off is a true hidden gem, badly in need of a restoration, and not currently available (save for some VHS copies floating around on eBay and YouTube).

Not currently available on DVD or streaming services.

Theresa Russell on a quick bodega run to satisfy her vices. 
Theresa Russell on a quick bodega run to satisfy her vices. 

Impulse (1990)

Directed by Sondra Locke, written by John DeMarco and Leigh Chapman

Actress-turned-director Sondra Locke only got one shot at the director’s chair, due to ugly legal battles with ex-partner Clint Eastwood and his home studio, Warner Brothers. Locke’s neon-soaked noir, Impulse, stars Theresa Russell as Lottie Mason, an undercover vice cop under investigation by internal affairs while constantly fighting off sexual harassment by her superiors.

Forced to see a psychiatrist, Lottie reveals that she gets off on the idea of one day losing control, of leaning into the darker parts of the human experience she’s signed up to police. After an impulse decision gets Lottie mixed up with the mob, she must fight to keep her life from falling apart.

Unique for a cop-focused film at the time, Locke told the LA Times she was more interested in Lottie’s psychology than the film’s action, noting that the nature of what she does in the story puts Lottie “in jeopardy of being unlikable, so to keep her vulnerable was very important”. Locke’s unconventional take on familiar material didn’t seem to resonate with critics at the time, judging by its ratings on other aggregation sites (on Letterboxd, Impulse has a very noir-ish 2.9 out of five stars).

Lucinda urges justice for the film, writing that “Lottie is a compelling character and Locke creates a world around her that is thrilling and glamorous.” Sydney sees Locke’s story as commentary on the plight of heterosexual women, surmising “basically being a heterosexual woman means clinging to naïve power fantasies before finally giving up and settling for the first slightly less shitty man you encounter because you're exhausted.”

It seems perhaps the themes at the center of this film were ahead of their time, but it is never too late to catch up.

Impulse is available on DVD from Warner Archive Collection, and to rent from most VOD services.

Dread to think what happens when nobody believes Samuel L. Jackson.
Dread to think what happens when nobody believes Samuel L. Jackson.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001)

Directed by Kasi Lemmons, adapted by George Dawes Green from his own novel

After her breakthrough 1997 debut film, Eve’s Bayou, actress-turned-director Kasi Lemmons collaborated once again with star Samuel L. Jackson for 2001’s The Caveman’s Valentine. This time, rather than directing an original screenplay, Lemmons worked with novelist George Dawes Green on an adaptation of his 1994 novel of the same name.

Part noir, part psychological horror, audiences and critics alike didn’t know what to make of the film, which follows houseless paranoid schizophrenic Romulus Ledbetter (Jackson), a trained Julliard pianist, who one day finds a dead body outside the Inwood Park cave in which he lives. The police write off the death as an accident, but Ledbetter is convinced famous photographer David Leppenraub (Colm Feore) committed the crime and is determined to prove it.

Despite fine cinematography by Amelia Vincent, who bathes the film’s star in the most flattering lighting of his career, and an Independent Spirit Award-nominated performance from Tamara Tunie, the film currently holds a 45-percent critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes. On Letterboxd, where it has an average rating of 2.9 out of five stars, Niko agrees with me that Jackson has never looked better, sharing that they “enjoyed watching Samuel check his ass in the mirror,” while Pond feels the film’s pulp roots are evident, but that, “Kasi Lemmons really works with the goofiness that comes with.”

The Caveman’s Valentine is available on DVD and streaming on Starz and Tubi.

Things are about to get a bit Ruffalo for Meg Ryan. 
Things are about to get a bit Ruffalo for Meg Ryan. 

In The Cut (2003)

Directed by Jane Campion, written by Jane Campion, Susanna Moore, and Stavros Kazantzidis from a novel by Susanna Moore

Jane Campion spent five years developing the psychological thriller In the Cut with author Susanna Moore. Meg Ryan stars (in a role originally intended for Nicole Kidman, who later received a producing credit) as Frannie, an English teacher who finds herself drawn to a beguiling homicide detective (a sizzling, mustachioed Mark Ruffalo) who is investigating the gruesome murder of a woman whose limbs were found in Frannie’s garden. Campion is a master of erotic cinema, deftly weaving violence and passion in this unconventional crime romance. 

Demonstrating the types of challenges women face in the industry, In the Cut was critically maligned upon release, infamously receiving a Metacritic ‘F’ score. The buzz at the time put a lot of focus on this being the first instance of America’s Sweetheart Meg Ryan going nude since her 1988 Sundance breakout Promised Land, and Campion’s film unfortunately contributed to Ryan’s decade-long breakup with Hollywood. This is a real shame because this film is H-O-T.

Annet Rangel agrees, with their succinct Letterboxd assessment: “~big horny energy hour~”, while Ally notes that Ruffalo “has never been so hot and so scary”. Titlenga nails Campion's strength, stating: “my soft spot is when feminism takes subversion on film genre and reclaims its power.” Letterboxd members are ahead of the pack in reclaiming this essential erotic thriller; In the Cut’s rating currently sits at 3.1 out of five stars, a steady growth from the 2.6 average it carried in the platform’s early years.

In the Cut is available on DVD, streaming on Netflix and Criterion Channel, and can be rented on most VOD services.

Fishing for clues with Sophie Lowe and Mary Beth Connolly. 
Fishing for clues with Sophie Lowe and Mary Beth Connolly. 

Blow the Man Down (2019) 

Written and directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy 

After its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival (where it was one of Letterboxd’s best of the fest), Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole’s Blow the Man Down was picked up by Amazon Prime. The streamer held on to the atmospheric noir until the spring of 2020, dropping it just as the world went into lockdown. While it is the film among these five with the most logged views with us, it still feels under-seen.

Set in the fictional Maine town of Easter Cove, the film follows sisters Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth Connolly (Morgan Saylor), whose mother has just died. Still reeling from her death, the two soon become entangled in web of murder, mayhem and lies. Featuring a stellar supporting cast, including Annette O’Toole, June Squibb, and the always mesmerizing Margo Martindale, this is one of the most stylish debuts in recent memory. 

In his Letterboxd review, filmmaker Sean Baker called it an “impressive indie with some nice twists and turns,” comparing it to the mysteries of the Coen brothers and John Dahl. Robyn the Art Teacher wishes they “had four die-hard grandmas to help me cover up murder”, and Mrmattenlow feels it has “just the right amount of murder and sea shanties.” Perhaps those shanties are why Ally Knighton writes that it has become their “new first date movie”.

Krudy and Savage have a clear cinematic vision, something to say, and the skills to pull it off. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Blow The Man Down is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Happy Noirvember 2021 to everyone joining me in the muck and the mire this month!

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