'Noir'-Style Movies Return to Vogue In Two Thrillers
Directors give contemporary twist to shadowy, obsession-driven dramas of 1940s
The fashion for ''film noir'' has grown so strong that a couple of different varieties are now competing for space on movie screens.
Both have roots planted firmly in classic noir of the 1940s and '50s, when Hollywood acquired its expertise at telling dark, shadowy tales through a dark, shadowy style.
But some noir revivalists like to give a contemporary twist to their stories. They mix tried-and-true ingredients -- plots full of irony and duplicity, images full of menace and gloom -- with innovative narrative devices, and place these stories in rural or suburban settings that little resemble the cityscapes of old noir yarns. John Dahl's recent efforts, ''Red Rock West'' and ''The Last Seduction,'' are solid examples of this new breed.
Others with a neo-noir sensibility also like to jazz up their pictures with new-fangled inflections, but still keep them aligned with the classics by recycling time-tested plots, characters, and ideas. Steven Soderbergh's new chiller, ''The Underneath,'' is a modernized remake of ''Criss Cross,'' dating from 1949; and Barbet Schroeder's latest melodrama, ''Kiss of Death,'' takes its title and story from a hard-hitting picture of 1947.
Both want to pass themselves off as blasts from the past and thoroughly modern movies. While they each have some success at this tricky task, Soderbergh's is by far the better effort.
The original ''Criss Cross'' was directed by Robert Siodmak, one of the European emigres who developed noir from German-expressionist origins more than 50 years ago. It's an ingenious tale of deceit, deception, and betrayal, all operating on the high-intensity level that has endeared noir to generations of moviegoers. Burt Lancaster plays a hustler who returns to his boyhood home, renews his relationship with his former wife, and cooks up a robbery scheme as a way of escaping the wrath of her new husband, played by Dan Duryea with a psychotic twist that's really quite scary.
In bringing this old yarn back to life, Soderbergh obviously hopes to renew the audience-pleasing reputation he gained with ''sex, lies and videotape'' a few years ago -- a reputation he promptly lost with ''Kafka,'' his next picture, and didn't quite recapture with ''King of the Hill,'' despite that movie's substantial merit.
With its ominous title and brooding atmosphere, ''The Underneath'' is his most gripping enterprise in a long time, conjuring up the menace of ''Criss Cross'' while adding new contributions of its own -- unpredictable editing, expressive camera movements, and a creepy color scheme that gives the tale a nightmarish edge.
The casting is also impressive: Peter Gallagher makes a strong main character, William Fichtner is appropriately wired-up as his unstable antagonist, and Alison Elliott makes a good showing in what used to be Yvonne De Carlo's role, a young woman caught between hopeless romance and brutal abuse. Such fine professionals as Paul Dooley and Joe Don Baker fill supporting roles, and Shelley Duvall shows up in the long hospital scene that gives the picture its center of gravity.
The original ''Kiss of Death'' was directed by Henry Hathaway, an action specialist who never quite reached the status of a full-fledged cinematic auteur. The new ''Kiss of Death'' is directed by Barbet Schroeder, a thoughtful filmmaker who's more at home with the art-film ambitions of ''Reversal of Fortune'' than the down-and-dirty diversions of ''Single White Female,'' which he also made.
As in 1947, the new ''Kiss of Death'' centers on a small-time crook who tries to go straight, gets caught while pulling one last job, and agrees to squeal on former accomplices in return for a visit with what's left of his once-happy family. Both the original and the remake get their biggest energy charge from a psychopath -- played by newcomer Richard Widmark in the original, now handled by Nicolas Cage with his usual gusto -- who makes even our tough-guy hero shiver in his boots.
David Caruso is compelling as the main character, which stands to reason, since he helped pioneer the TV version of noir-style grittiness in the ''NYPD Blue'' series. Michael Rapaport is excellent as the hood who tempts him back to crime, and Michael L. Jackson is fine as a wounded cop with a lasting grudge. Stanley Tucci also shines as a prosecutor walking the thin line between public service and private greed.
Despite this sturdy acting and a street-smart screenplay by Richard Price, the new ''Kiss of Death'' doesn't measure up, especially when it shows a steady preference for sadistic violence over psychological complexity.
To be sure, noir has never been a gentle type of cinema: Moviegoers who wax nostalgic over the good, clean fun of old pictures tend to forget films like the first ''Kiss of Death,'' which lived up to its grisly title when Widmark's smirking character pushed an old lady down a flight of stairs after tying her to her wheelchair. Still, that moment seems almost tame alongside some moments in Schroeder's remake, which seems more inspired by the mayhem-mongering of Quentin Tarantino than by noir stylstics of old.
The early noir masters knew how to temper violence with a deep-down morality that never quite got lost in the commotion. Some of their latter-day disciples need to relearn this skill.