23 August 2011

Out of the range - a Cowboy Noir round-up

Set in Southwest USA, 'Cowboy Noir' cinema shows that smalltown or wide open settings can be as close as crowded cities

Cowboy Noir
Watching Kill Me Again (John Dahl, 1989) once more, I was reminded how much I like a certain group of films.

These films appear to be a genre, but it had escaped me if anyone had identified them as such. I was going to call them 'Cactus Noir' but a little digging meant I found out they have already have a name – Cowboy Noir. 

A Cowboy Noir film may well start with a sap rolling into a small town. When travelling there he will be hitchhiking a ride, driving either a stolen car or one running out of gas, or be ticketless on a train.

After he arrives, one of his first stops will be at a bar. The guy behind the counter will either ignore him, despite him being the first customer of the day, or silently appraise him as a contender for a con he's considering.

The atmosphere in a Cowboy Noir is languid. They would have no need of a thermometer that goes below 75. If the film isn’t based on a Jim Thompson book, it 's from not far away. Actors called Walsh - J.T or M. Emmet are often in supporting roles.

Right from the get-go, the guy knows he should drink up and move on, even if has to tackle the surrounding desert on foot. But he never does, because the femme fatale walks into that bar or his his motel or just bends over in the street, right in front of him, to re-tie a strap on her strapless sandals.

And from early on you know he’s not going to walk away from the forthcoming heist, scam or murder into which he is being ensnared. He won’t walk away, even though it’s clear to all (including him) that it will end with his mugshot in the newspaper that will report his conviction or killing, whilst she gets over the border.

The Cowboy Noir films have some roots in the 40s films where the femme fatale is first seen approaching the frosted glass door of a private eye’s rundown office. But these movies eschew San Francisco or New York for some small town in South West USA.

After Dark, My Sweet (James Foley, 1990) is one of the best. There are several points in the film where you just will Jason Patric’s sap character to move onto to the next town but, a kidnapping and  murder later, it’s clear he's only going to be leaving that town if its cemetery is full and they have to bury him elsewhere.

Cowboy Noir films seem to have the ability to get the best out of actors who you may think should have only ever made it onto the small screen.

Nicolas Cage raises his game considerably in Red Rock West (John Dahl, 1992).
Don Johnson delivers in The Hot Spot (Dennis Hopper, 1990). Johnson here avoids the usual fatal bullet or knife and ‘escapes’ to a life, not with the woman he loves, but alongside the femme fatale who is going to make every moment from then on feel like he is living under the gun.

Kill Me Again (John Dahl, 1989) is perhaps the runt of the herd. Neither Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, Val Kilmer nor Michael Madsen can really lift the film although Whalley-Kilmer (all the way from Stockport to sandy deserts) flounces around in Film Noir style dresses. Unusually, the sap (Kilmer's character), gets to keep the money after Whalley-Kilmer’s character has made the usual about turn and taken up again with the thug (Madsen's character) whom the sap saved her from in the first place.

Some films bubbling around the edge of the genre include The Last Seduction (John Dahl, 1994) which has many of the features, but not the location as well as both The Getaway (Roger Donaldson, 1994) and Blood Simple (Joel Coen, 1984) which both have the location but with plots that may be beyond the limits of the genre. Grifters (Stephen Frears, 1990) glitters brightly but in a neighbouring constellation. 

Clive Power

(photo - Philippe Leroyer, http://www.flickr.com/photos/philippeleroyer/3410179696 Some rights reserved by Philippe Leroyer.)