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Black Magic

The gritty film noir genre cast a powerful spell over the year’s hippest films

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Film noir: a type of crime film featuring cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting and an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and foreboding background music — Merriam-Webster

Sure, the calendar said 2001, but not since the ’50s have deadly dames and twisted grifters inspired such a cinematic salute. The Coen brothers went the classic Innocent-Man-in-Peril Noir route with the black-and-white The Man Who Wasn’t There. David Lynch provided Weird Noir in Mulholland Drive (yes, there was a dwarf). Todd Field’s chilly, New England tale of revenge, In the Bedroom, might be termed WASP Noir, and Tilda Swinton had her own niche — Soccer-Mom Noir — in The Deep End.

And the mind behind the biggest indie hit of the year, the $26 million-grossing Memento, dubs his movie Modern Noir. ”It’s going back to the roots of crime fiction: The characters are defined through action,” says director Chris Nolan. ”The audience has to look at who’s doing what to whom within this very noirish — that is to say claustrophobic and psychologically intense, and somewhat melodramatic — sphere.”

Noirs don’t have happy endings, and therein lies their attraction to filmmakers caught in an era of studio meddling and focus group-approved plots. The central message of a noir: Your life can go rotten in a wink. Consider Billy Bob Thornton’s stoic haircutter in The Man Who Wasn’t There. One minute he’s clipping a crew cut, the next he’s on the path to ruin. ”It’s the downward spiral,” says Scott Greenstein, head of USA Films. ”The movie is a warning — even a seemingly normal barber can get hung up. One thing leads to another and it’s like, Wow, how’d we get to a murder?”

And it’s no coincidence that 2001’s boom was rekindled among the indie crowd. Noirs are built for small budgets, since the settings demand mediocrity. ”Look at film noir of the past, such as Double Indemnity — it has a scene in a bowling alley, scenes in a supermarket,” Nolan says. ”[People] forget how gritty and banal the reality being examined by that genre was. So in Memento we were very keen to shoot the film in the appropriate locations: concrete gas stations, strip malls, motels.”

Practically all of the year’s noirs have generated Oscar buzz. Both Swinton and Bedroom’s Sissy Spacek have Best Actress potential. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who cast the slick shadows for The Man Who Wasn’t There, seems a shoo-in nominee for his category, and Memento and Mulholland Drive should get nods for screenwriting. So, as far as Oscar prospects goes, the film noir genre seems poised for a happy ending.