The Noir Year in Review

I briefly thought I might try to review films daily for Noirvember. I admire those that did but it was too ambitious a plan for me. Maybe I’ll plan better next year. I saw some great noirvember threads on Twitter: Farran Nehme’s thread on British noir movies, Jen Johans’ general noir thread, Jed Ayres’ thread on first time watches. Time just got away from me last week.

So today, I’ll use this space to mention some of my first time noir watches. Noirs, noir adjacent, dark, or just plain interesting crime pictures I saw in 2022:

Noir Discovery of the Year: Yokohama BJ Blues

The first time I watched Yokohama BJ Blues I was immediately sucked into the world and the main character, by the second half of the movie I was enthralled and my brain was buzzing with all the narrative connections, when I finished it I was convinced I had just seen something special. I gushed out my thoughts and analysis on Letterboxd (partially quoted here).

Yokohama BJ Blues is a queer Japanese cousin to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. It starts off with deeply homoerotic story elements that are presented as sub-text. By the second half of the movie it has become quite an overtly queer movie. By the end of the movie it’s not out of line to think that that BJ, the main character, is a deeply closeted queer man. This isn’t queer coding or wishful thinking or applying a layer of queer interpretation. Instead it is a brilliant, subtly crafted story with a rising tide of realizations and revelations.

Strictly on a crime fiction/neo-noir level this movie is a blast. In the second half of the movie these elements come crashing together. The police are involved, there’s wiretapping, the past is connected to the present, old flames are possibly reignited, hard decisions are made, hearts are broken, and bad things happen. 

We’re talking about a movie here with Japanese leather daddies and the world’s scariest eye exam.

I’ve watched Yokohama BJ Blues three times this year and I can’t wait to watch it again. I am fully prepared to become an evangelist about this movie.

Availability: Yokohama BJ Blues has never had an official release in the west. But I have good news. It’s sitting right there on Youtube waiting for you.

A Close Second: The Beast to Die (1980)

A brutal, nihilistic, full dark, basement noir crazy film. The bank heist scene is crazy and the final moments of it left me gasping. There’s a scene on a train between the protag and a detective that is the most tense things I’ve seen in a long time with a window reflection casual reveal/moment that too had me gasping. Because of the fractured state of the protag’s mind, the ending is a little disjointed in an attempt to show his break from reality rather than simply tell the viewer. A very dark ending that is not spoon fed. 

Availability: Never available in the West and the current Japanese releases don’t have English subtitles. I had to resort to Other Means to watch it. The Beast to Die is basically tied with Yokohama BJ Blues as my noir of the year. The only thing bumping it down a place is the lack of easy availability. 

The Best of the Rest: Discoveries and reissues

Omar (Tubi) – Really effective Palestinian noir that thoroughly depicts a man squeezed by oppressive, systemic forces and the human emotions and relationships that complicate things even further. Was expecting more of a human drama with crime drama elements but instead got a fairly bleak noir.

Kafou (Tubi) – This Haitian movie has big early Tarantino energy. But I don’t want to send the wrong message since the Tarantino influence in the 90s can evoke certain qualities that I don’t necessarily want to saddle Kafou with. This has a 51 minute run time and is packed with so many left turns my head was spinning. Can’t wait to see what this director gets up to next.  

The Nile Hilton Incident (Tubi) – A noirboiled portrait of systems so thoroughly corrupt that Ellroy would be proud. It’s an Egyptian movie set days before the 2011 revolution (of course our characters don’t know that). Girl gets killed in a hotel, Sudanese cleaning lady immigrant is the sole witness. The girl might be connected to a dirty pimp. The case falls into the lap of a young policeman on the take. The case winds up reaching the political class and even the state. By the time our guy realizes it’s his ass hanging out there, it’s too late. There’s a kind of classic feel to it without being tropey and Amercanized. Partly because of the different culture and country but more importantly this is based on/inspired by a true event.

Operation Hyacinth (Netflix) – From 1985-1987 Polish Communist Police carried out the titular Operation Hyacinth which rounded up gay Polish men in order to create a national homosexual database. Approximately 11,000 men were registered.

Within this backdrop, someone is killing gay men. One of the detectives on the case, Robert Mrozowski, cultivates a young gay man as an informer. When his superiors, including his father who is the head of the secret police, tell him to close the case even though there are loose ends, he can’t let it go.

Where will the investigation lead and what truths will be uncovered?

Don’t watch the trailer. It gives up the ghost on a reveal, or more specifically s sub-plot, that comes part way through. The movie holds up if you know the reveal but there’s an effect to be had in letting it unfold in its own way at its own pace.

Superficially you might be thinking of Cruising but this is closer to a 70s crime flick.

Really well done period piece

A Certain Killer (1967)/A Killer’s Key (1967) – I watched these on Youtube but they appear to be gone. 

When I first watched Toru Murakawa’s 1980 film Target I was initially excited because it seemed to be following Richard Stark’s The Hunter and I thought I had stumbled onto some sort of unofficial Japanese adaptation. Target wound up only staying in that lane for the first 20 minutes or so but A Killer’s Key is much closer to the unofficial Parker adaptation I was hoping for.

A Killer’s Key is a sequel to A Certain Killer, with the hitman protagonist being brought in to do another job. At the end of the 1st act he is betrayed by his employers but survives and spends the rest of the film getting his revenge on the group and climbing to the top of who gave the order.

This is not a strict adaptation though but provides a good comparison point to draw people in. Hell, Point Blank came out in August ’67 (according to Wiki) and A Killer’s Key came out in Dec ’67 (according to IMDB) so it’s hard to even say if the director saw Point Blank and carried some influence over. Regardless, I think all fans of the Parker books and all of its various film adaptations will want to check A Killer’s Key out.

As I noted in the first movie there is a strong Jean-Pierre Melville vibe. I’m not fully comfortable calling it an influence just yet because Le Samourai came out in Oct ’67. Regardless, the last few months of 1967 saw some damned good, thematically and aesthetically related films come out. Could be a hell of a triple feature.

Burnt Money (2000) – A tragic story of doomed, messy Arentinian gays in the 1960’s that do crime and kill cops and go down in a blaze of glory. Watched on DVD

Two important Noir reissues:

On the Run (1988) – Arguably the greatest Hong Kong noir ever made. Out now as a region B Blu-ray from 88 Films

A Fugitive From the Past (1965) – A highly regarded Japanese classic finally gets a US release as an Arrow Blu-ray

Honorable mentions

Sunrise (2014), Report to the Commissioner (1975), Hand Rolled Cigarette (2020), Satya (1998), The Rendezvous (1972), Berlin Alexanderplatz (2020), Ardh Satya (1983), The Blue Knight (1973), The Man Without a Map (1968), The Beast Shall Die (1959), The Threat (1966), Kammatipaadam (2016)

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