Film Noir Makes a Comeback

Brooding, '40s style seen in `The Two Jakes' and other releases

HOLLYWOOD is supposed to be a forward-looking place. But as the '90s crank into high gear, no trend stands out more than the revival of film noir - a style that first flourished during the 1940s, when studios churned out dark, sinister pictures on dark, sinister subjects. Film noir has never gone completely out of fashion, but lately it's gathering unusual strength. ``The Two Jakes'' is full of noir touches, just like ``Chinatown'' before it. Also gaining renewed popularity are the works of novelist Jim Thompson, a veritable fountain of noir ideas. During his lifetime, his books didn't sell in respectable stores; they were pulp fictions with titles like ``The Grifters'' and ``The Killer Inside Me,'' aimed mostly at cut-rate paperback stands. His reputation has grown since his death 13 years ago, however - one commentator called him a ``dimestore Dostoevsky'' - and 1990 is bringing three new movies based on his novels.

The first to arrive, ``After Dark, My Sweet,'' is pure Jim Thompson and also pure film noir. The story is about a down-and-out boxer named Kid Collins; a beautiful woman named Fay; and a shifty character named Uncle Bud, who's cooked up a scheme to kidnap a little boy and hold him for ransom. Their life in crime doesn't go very smoothly: Fay is a drunk; Uncle Bud is a chiseler; and Kid himself is fresh out of a mental institution, although he may not be as crazy as he sometimes seems. The kidnaping goes hopelessly wrong, and the characters find themselves dodging each other as well as the law.

This is a sordid yarn, containing more explicit sex and violence than any noir of the '40s. Yet its plot and style place it squarely in the noir tradition. It throws you off balance with quick flashbacks and unexpected twists; it puts helpless people into bizarre circumstances; it's fascinated with psychology; it even uses the key noir conventions of crucial phone calls and a ``spider woman'' who lures the protagonist into an inescapable web. The only thing that doesn't fit is the overall look of the movie. Real noir films are dark and shadowy, but despite its title ``After Dark, My Sweet'' takes place mostly in daylight - a move Alfred Hitchcock would have loved.

``After Dark, My Sweet'' is directed by James Foley with a strong sense of pace and atmosphere. It's also well acted, especially by Bruce Dern as the creepy Uncle Bud and George Dickerson as Kid's psychiatrist, one of the weirdest characters in the picture. Coming soon in the Jim Thompson revival are ``The Grifters,'' directed by Stephen Frears, about a small-time con man and his equally crooked mother; and ``The Kill-Off,'' directed by Maggie Greenwald, about the murder of a gossipy woman. Other projects based on Thompson novels are also in the works. They should be hitting theaters in the next couple of years. Meanwhile, his books - which have a mood of wobbly menace all their own, judging from those I've read - are increasingly visible, even in respectable stores.

``The Two Jakes'' is screenwriter Robert Towne's long-awaited sequel to ``Chinatown,'' a neo-noir classic that galvanized audiences in 1974 with its tale of murder, sexual intrigue, and real-estate manipulations in Los Angeles during the '30s. The new picture is directed by actor Jack Nicholson rather than auteur Roman Polanski, leading movie-world observers to expect a star vehicle rather than an art film. To some extent, however, Mr. Nicholson has sprung a surprise. ``The Two Jakes'' is as leisurely and brooding as its predecessor and more complicated to follow, as it unfolds its unexpectedly dense narrative.

Nicholson again plays Jake Gittes, a decade older (the time is 1948) but still working as a barely respectable private eye specializing in divorce and infidelity cases. One of his jobs suddenly mushrooms into a murder case, drawing him into the world of West Coast oil-well development - a natural follow-up to the water-rights chicanery that ``Chinatown'' probed - and calling up unwanted memories of the woman he loved and lost.

Mr. Towne's screenplay for ``The Two Jakes'' is more intelligent than anything he's done since ``Chinatown'' and ``The Last Detail,'' far surpassing ``Personal Best'' and ``Tequila Sunrise,'' not to mention ``Days of Thunder,'' his latest clunker. Although some moviegoers complain that it's more complex than coherent, I found it reasonably absorbing and (aside from a few unfortunate lapses) somewhat more tasteful than Towne's usual work, even when it revives the incest theme that played a central role in ``Chinatown.''

Nicholson's directing shows a good grasp of noir-type visual style, helped by Vilmos Zsigmond's rich cinematography; and the performances (especially Nicholson's own) are generally marked by skill and conviction. Still, the picture has an unsteady pace that dilutes its impact. This is most disastrous in the last portion, when two essential moments fall amazingly flat. One is the literally explosive climax, which takes so long to arrive that audiences may be scrutizing their watches more carefully than the screen. The other is a tearful speech (by Harvey Keitel) that goes dead because we haven't gotten to know the character well enough - even though he's one of the two Jakes in the title!

If pictures like ``The Two Jakes'' and ``After Dark, My Sweet'' fare reasonably well at the box office, the film noir revival can be expected to pick up more momentum, prompting the question of why this 1940s style is resonating with moviegoers just now. The answer could be that audiences of the '90s, like those of the '40s, feel a sense of instability and unpredictability in the world around them - qualities that are readily expressed through the menacing and often fragmented images that punctuate noir pictures. It will be interesting and perhaps revealing to chart the course of what could become a major new turn in American filmmaking.

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