From Double Indemnity to Heat — How Film Noir Created Christopher Nolan
Christoper Nolan’s long awaited Tenet finally arrives in cinemas next week (in the UK at least), and looks set to be his most mind-bendingly time-warped film since Inception (2010). At this point, Nolan is practically making films set within his own universe — one of temporal twists and blue-green colour palettes.
But take a look back at his first three feature films: Following (1998), Memento (2000) and Insomnia (2002), and the influence of film noir in his early career is unmistakable. Double-crossing femme fatales, hard-boiled detectives and brooding voiceovers from unreliable narrators. Nolan deployed classic noir tropes to root these films within a recognisable movie landscape. But quite apart from being full-blown homages, these films are also where he began developing his own unique cinematic style — one he’d soon use to reinvent the modern superhero movie.
And while his subsequent Batman and sci-fi epics retained traces of film noir elements, it was his first three, low(er)-budget features that saw Nolan rise from indie-darling to Hollywood juggernaut.
Made over the course of a year for only £6,000 and shot entirely in black-and-white, critics were quick to tag Following as a ‘neo-noir’. Nolan himself referred to it as “sort of a film noir”.
A character known only as The Young Man opens the film with a guilty admission, but to what is initially unclear. This is a striking and not entirely accidental mirroring of the opening of Double Indemnity (1944) — arguably the iconic film noir text. Both films unfold via flashback before returning to the opening scene in the climax — in which plot threads are tied up and motivations are revealed.
The Young Man slots neatly into a common noir archetype: the hapless drifter — akin to Tom Neal’s character, Al Roberts, in Detour (1945). Both men have to some extent found themselves rejected by the society they live in, but find purpose as they’re drawn into a dangerous and unforgiving criminal underworld. But while Al Roberts drifts along desolate, mid-western back roads, The Young Man drifts through the bustling streets of London.
As Following’s plot unspools it also begins to resemble Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945). The Young Man is a meek, amateur writer, while Scarlet Street‘s protaganist Chris Cross is a meek, amateur painter. Both are ultimately conned by an alluring femme fatale and her conniving male accomplice.
As per the rules of noir, femme fatales inevitably meet a sticky end. This is no different in Following although Nolan’s Young Man is only framed for a climactic murder that any true noir protaganist would’ve committed themselves. This subversion of genre expectations would quickly become one of Nolan’s calling cards.
If Following is only “sort of a film noir” then Nolan moved comfortably into full blown neo-noir territory with his next film, Memento. Double Indemnity once again proving to be a solid reference point. Both films’ leads work in insurance and their respective femme fatales, initially sympathetic, are of course later revealed to be cold, calculating, manipulative baddies. Both films were shot on location in hot, bright locales of southern California — making for sweaty, beaten brows in both colour and black-and-white. Both films also take a turn when moving indoors, with their interior spaces contrastingly dark and claustrophobic.
In an interview on Memento’s DVD release, Nolan acknowledges that: “Double Indemnity is certainly a film that there are things from in Memento.” But for him it was an exercise in bringing noir up to date: “We talked a lot about not referencing too obviously the cinematic idea of what film noir is. If you look at a film like Double Indemnity, there are scenes set in a supermarket, there’s a scene in a bowling alley, it’s actually a very everyday, very ordinary reality. If you’re going to do that now you have to be very contemporary and not have guys walking around in fedoras.”
Although Memento, like Following, contains an opening scene that is recontextualised at the film’s climax, Nolan continued to move away from more obvious genre trappings and towards his own distinctive style. No ‘classic’ film noir ever played with reverse chronology the way Nolan did in Memento. His obsession with a character’s subjective experience of time would soon become his primary preoccupation — but not before making a film that exemplifies the look of twenty-first century noir.
Nolan’s first feature for Warner Bros. (the studio he’d make all his subsequent films with), was a remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller of the same name. The action transposed from Tromso in the Norwegian Arctic to the remote Alaskan town of Nightmute, where the sun never sets.
Al Pacino plays world-weary L.A. homicide detective, Will Dormer. Sent to investigate the murder of a teenage girl, he finds himself locked in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with the killer, Walter Finch, played with skin crawling creepiness by Robin Williams. Dormer’s circadian rhythm is rapidly disrupted by the relentless glare of the midnight sun. Early on, he fatally shoots his partner during a botched stake-out. In attempting to cover up his apparent error, Dormer finds himself ‘befriended’ by Finch. So far, so noir.
But as you might expect at this point in his career, Nolan ensures that Insomnia wears its genre influences lightly. The grisly detail of the murders, set to a backdrop of lush, bright and wide-open vistas, was described by one critic as: “negative noir”. A term that soon evolved into ‘Nordic noir’ in describing the similarly bleak-but-beautiful look of various Scandinavian crime procedurals such as The Killing (2007–12) and The Bridge (2011–18).
Unlike in his two previous films Nolan held back on the directorial sleight of hand in Insomnia, instead allowing the action to unfold in a more traditionally linear fashion. The result being more akin to a nineties cop thriller than a forties private investigator noir. It’s less The Big Heat (1953) and more, well… Heat (1995).
Batman and Beyond
Michael Mann’s Heat, itself a neo-noir, could easily be argued as the most influential film on Nolan’s work. In The Dark Knight (2008), Nolan applied Heat’s central idea that cops and criminals are two sides of the same coin to his version of Batman and the Joker. The masks, gunshot sounds and roving hand-held camera of The Dark Knight’s opening bank heist owes much to the robbery sequences in Heat. As a nod of recognition to this Nolan even cast William Fitchner, whose pernicious banker is robbed during Heat’s opening heist, as the Gotham City bank manager targeted by the Joker.
Since The Dark Knight, Nolan has also stamped his mark on science-fiction and the war epic with Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017). Tenet’s marketing even teases a sci-fi inflected take on the Bond movie. Despite never wearing his influences too far from his sleeve, as with his early neo-noirs, Christopher Nolan continues to find ways to subvert and exploit our cinematic expectations.
Originally published at https://www.jamesrmcandrew.com on August 20, 2020.