Sunday, November 18, 2018

Notes on John Dahl, film director

Like most (if they’d even heard of him), I’d forgotten all about John Dahl – until I saw his name come up recently as director of a few episodes of Amazon Prime’s Outlander series. Could it possibly be the same John Dahl who directed a a string of superb but criminally underrated neo-noirs in the 1990s then seemed to vanish without trace? Yup, the one and only.

The original film noir (a term coined by French film critics retrospectively) was a certain type of thriller made post-war and up until the mid-50s, tapping into America’s pessimism and cynicism. Defined by expressionist lighting and shadows, starring laconic anti-heroes and fabulous femme fatales, with convoluted plots worthy of Shakespeare, some of the best include Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep and Kiss Me Deadly.

In the 60s and 70s film noir came out from the shadows and into the L.A. sunshine with Polanski’s Chinatown and Altman’s The Long Goodbye, two of the best films of the 70s; Penn’s Night Moves, however, as the title suggests, kept things in the dark.

Like John Dahl, Alan J Pakula directed a trilogy of classics in the 1970s: Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men all contain elements of noir, fuelled by political paranoia and corruption in the States during the period. (Pakula died in noirish fashion, aged 70, when a metal pipe smashed through the window of his car and into his head in Melville, an affluent New York suburb. French director Jean-Pierre Melville was a master of the laconic noir; his masterpiece is Le Samouraï.)

Since the 1980s there's been a smattering of classic neo-noirs including Cutters Way, One False Move, Blood Simple, Fargo, LA Confidential, Brick and Mulholland Drive.

John Dahl's first three films – Kill Me Again (1989), Red Rock West (1993) and The Last Seduction (1994) – all inhabit noirish worlds, full of duplicity and desire, and smouldering femme fatales. Kill Me Again stars Val Kilmer as a private eye hired by Joanne Whalley, escaping abusive boyfriend Michael Madsen, to fake her death. Red Rock West contains perhaps Nicholas Cage's least manic performance – well, he's up against Dennis Hopper for a start. Cage plays an out of work drifter who gets mistaken for a hitman, and goes along with it to make $5000. Things start to get complicated when the real hitman – Dennis Hopper – turns up.

The Last Seduction is the best of the three, with Linda Fiorentino as the most socipathic femme fatale ever to grace the screen, running rings around husband Bill Pullman and lover Peter Berg. Still slightly shocking is the scene where she sizes up if the guy in the bar (Berg) who hits on her is really 'hung like a horse', and the sheer fact that she's pure evil throughout, and gets away with it. As Roger Ebert says, 'This woman is bad from beginning to end, she never reforms, she never compromises, and the movie doesn't tack on one of those contrived conclusions where the morals squad comes in and tidies up'.

Dahl returned to the world of noir with 1998's Rounders, starring Matt Damon as a high-stakes poker player. Joy Ride (which spawned two inferior sequels), his 2001 thriller with a noirish, B-movie feel, is a tense, roller coaster of a movie, with two brothers travelling across the States to pick up a girlfriend. En route, one of the brothers, playing around with his CB radio, teases a truck driver who turns out to be a psycho killer. Imagine Spielberg's Duel, with teeth.

Most of Dahl's films received critical acclaim – there's even been a book written about his first three – but fared badly at the box office (I think it's because they all had awful posters), picking up fairly well on video later. His first three are nelgected classics: tense and steamy, with sizzling dialogue, lashings of black humour, an atmospheric sense of place, fine performances and labyrinthine plots. Everything a film noir should be.

No comments :