Two Overlooked Noir Films That Are Worth Seeing

Think of good movies as being part of your education. That’s how I look at cinematic art.

One of the joys of the cinematic experience is stumbling on some forgotten gem that may have unfairly tarnished with bad reviews. Good movies can catch us on a bad day, and vice versa. I’m a fan of old-school, dark noir films, and I thought readers would want to hear of a couple suggestions that are worth their while.

If you find yourself saying, “There just aren’t that many good movies out there now,” I’d recommend you check these two out.

Cutter’s Way (1981)

Director: Ivan Passer

Cast: John Heard, Jeff Bridges, Lisa Eichhorn

No one has heard of this tense and unsettling study of obsession, self-destruction, and class distinctions. When it was first released in 1981, the studio chose the remarkably inept title Cutter and Bone, and (unsurprisingly) people thought it was a comedy about surgeons.

Bad marketing didn’t help things. To add insult to injury, the studio inexplicably (United Artists) spent only about $60,000 on promotion before the film’s release in New York City. Even in those days, this was a paltry sum.

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As a result, critics got the impression that the studio lacked confidence in the movie. Their reviews reflected this, and were almost uniformly bad. Sometimes critics just like to torpedo a movie, for the fun of it. But it’s amazing what a few decades can do. This is a great film. It’s dark vision of humanity matches the mood of our own times much better than the world in 1981. It has, as one might say, come of age.

The plot: Cutter (John Heard) is an alcoholic, crippled Vietnam vet who believes he has witnessed a crime. His suspect is a rich, yacht-owning party boy named Bone (Jeff Bridges). The pair also happen to be friends.

The film is awash in ambiguity, and this is one of its strengths. Cutter’s wife may be having an affair with Bone; Bone may in fact be a criminal; and Cutter may be clinically insane, a man with a death wish. We are just not quite sure. Everyone uses words to conceal his true feelings, and everyone is nursing some hidden agenda.

But Cutter’s rage is real, and it escalates with coordinated precision: this is a masterpiece of sustained tension. At the same time, these characters are not just cardboard cut-outs: they are believable, and their struggles resonate with us. Cutter is on a downward spiral, and knows it.  Everyone around him seems to know it as well, and yet no one really does anything. This has the ring of truth:  in real life, we often just go with the flow, and the consequences can be deadly.

This being a noir film, we know it can hardly end well. Paranoia, delusion, and repressed rage make for a toxic mix, and this is a masterful study of the dark corners of a wounded psyche.

Night Moves (1975)

Director: Arthur Penn

Cast: Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Melanie Griffith, James Woods

The 1970s were a golden age for American film. Gene Hackman came into his own with The French Connection and The Conversation, and continued his winning streak with this dark little detective story.

Has there ever been a better film noir set-up than the detective story? The hapless investigator who is lied to, and sent off on a quest that ends in the darkest of revelations? This is classic noir, but told with a 1970s twist. We know the detective formula, but we still can’t resist watching.

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The Plot: An obnoxious former football player (Gene Hackman) becomes a private detective. He is plunged into a murder mystery whose outlines are fuzzy and whose characters are all bottom feeders.

Hackman, of course, plays a flawed character driven by his own inner demons. In his case, he has an explosive temper, likely compounded by frustrations at having had to quit his athletic career. He seems to hate everyone and everything; this, of course, just makes things worse. Hackman is best at playing characters with volcanic temperaments, and this makes him perfect for this role.

And herein we have one of the classic noir motifs: a wounded protagonist unable to connect with the world, driven by internal demons, and hurtling towards ruin. He knows he has issues, but lacks either the will or the capability to reach out to others for help. This is why noir resonates so well in today’s environment: it is the perfect way to express the modern man’s frustration, confusion, and alienation.

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Hackman is on a quest to find a runaway daughter (a very young Melanie Griffith in her prime). Hackman may, or may not, be a voyeur; but he seems to spend a lot of time chasing down his father and spying on his ex-wife. James Woods also appears in one of his first film roles.

As often happens in private eye noir films, the plot is just an excuse to probe the psychological motivations of the characters. And that is what we get here. As in Cutter’s Way, dialogue does not so much reveal intentions as it does conceal them.

The ending is, in many ways, far ahead of its time. It anticipates the empty futility of the 1980s and 1990s, and strikes the viewer as far more intellectually honest than most of the overly optimistic films of the era.

Read More: How Bad Logistics Can Ruin Your Game

40 thoughts on “Two Overlooked Noir Films That Are Worth Seeing”

  1. Touch of Evil – by Orson Welles
    (the only one I cant find on YT)
    The Reckless Moment – by Max Ophuls

    Jigsaw – by Fletcher Markle

    Kansas City Confidential – by Phil Karlson

    …and one few have seen outside of a class:
    Detour – by Edgar Ulmer

  2. Fuck yeah. I can always empathize with PTSD stuff. Another good one I recently watched: The Machinist. Fucking scared the hell out of me, because it pretty much reflected a large part of my emotional world to an A. Aside from the fact that I am not as outwardly impulsive as the character.

  3. Not noir but I always enjoyed Wong kar wai films my favorite being fallen angels . I’ll check these out too .

    1. Good movies by Kar-Wai wong.
      Two good ones for showing men the blue pill to red pill journey: In the Mood For Love and 2046.
      It shows how the character was pretty naive before “waking up” to women.

        1. A good point…but I don’t know. I like how it shows the change in the main character…how he is transformed from one to the other after discovering his special snowflake isn’t so special. It’s interesting to see those movies now versus back when they were made…and the time they represent (50s, 60s). You see all of the changes versus now (and how the dynamic between men and women have changed).

        2. Those films are open to interpretation, but I always thought the point of those films had nothing to do with red pill philosophy. In 2046 the man is emotionally stuck in the past. Instead of committing emotionally to a new woman, he just fucks them and moves on when it suits. At the end he manages to somewhat reconcile his past with his present and is ready to move on.
          Or perhaps I have totally misinterpreted it myself.

        3. I don’t know. I always saw the two films as a journey that a man takes…the train in the second one is the vehicle. Either way, the two are pretty interesting. Anyone watching has to watch them both.

  4. The Incredible Shrinking Man.
    Perhaps an allegory for the diminished role of men as providers in the late 50s. Near the end of the film his wife thinks hes dead, he fights for survival in the basement of his home with primitive weapons…regressing to base animal instincts.
    The ending also poses philosophical questions about atomic level physics and suggests early concepts of quantum mechanics.
    Utterly fascinating film on so many levels. No “Hollywood ending” either…dark shit.
    Written by the same man who did I Am Legend…Richard Matheson

      1. The Will Smith movie sucked. Omega Man (Charlton Heston) was the first adaptation of I Am Legend.
        Both movies failed to capture Matheson’s 3rd act…(SPOILER ALERT)…the protagonist realizes he is actually the antagonist. The reason “he is legend” is that the creatures tell stories of a “monster” who hunts them, since they are the inheritors of earth with no homosapians remaining, they become the next step in evolution.
        Perhaps another allegory of man’s diminished role in society post 1950s. Matheson was ahead of his time. Most of his work has this reoccurring theme.

        1. I’ve read the book a couple of times, but DAMN MAN; a spoiler alert is a requirement when discussing the ending of that book.

        2. Spoiler alert added, my bad, but there should be a statute of limitations for media over 5 years old.
          Just saying

        3. Chuck was the man. Fucking Moses and with quotes like “from my cold, dead hands” he really rocked the house. “Damn dirty apes!”: it just goes on. I like Will Smith (we are sort of peers. . in age if not fame and wealth) but he is not Charlton Heston.

        1. The book I Am Legend was not copied from Omega Man. Other way round. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t called Omega Man by accident.

        2. Ah, I learn something new every day. Though omega man caused movie production teams to rethink the possibilities of music’s role in film. The scene with the spear was quite the game changer.

        3. The first adaptation of the Matheson’s novel is an Italian version “L’ultimo uomo della terra” with Vincent Price (1964).
          Very similar to the novel but settled in Rome.

  5. “No one has heard of this tense and unsettling study of obsession, self-destruction, and class distinctions”
    Cutter’s Way is one of my favourite movies – I only ever saw it because it was on the telly late at night many years back. Haven’t heard of it it since then. The actor who plays Cutter is fantastic and imbues the film with this intense drive for justice that leaves you the viewer personally involved in the film in a way that rarely happens. The only performance I can think of that compares with this (in kind) is perhaps Brad Dourif’s portrayal of another crazed veteran in John Huston’s / Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. It’s also a kind of fun movie with a fine ending. Great choice

  6. I happened to read one of the few good reviews of Cutter’s Way, went to see it (had the place to myself), was blown away by it.
    The plot is more like Cutter trying to get Bone to believe that he has, in fact, witnessed a murder. The film is a slow tense climb from something half seen in the night to a chase across a bright landscape lit up with sun and rage.
    See it, everyone. Its more than just a thriller, its about the conflict that we are all in.

  7. I dig these posts about which flicks to watch!
    A good modern noir movie is “The Killer Inside Me”. Its based on a Jim Thompson novel (he also wrote “The Grifters”).

    1. That’s a damn great movie! I couldn’t believe the places they went with it. I mean, punching someone to death and then later slipping in their urine. So many times I was like “did they really just do that?”

  8. Cutter’s Way is a really good film. It’s bleak as fuck. I think it failed when it first arrived on the scene because it felt like a hangover from the 70’s (in a good way).
    Contemporary noir aren’t made particularly well, but I liked The Man Who Wasn’t There by the Coens.

  9. I will have to seek out Night Moves because it has a stellar cast. I was a movie extra on Welcome to Mooseport (a complete crap movie, but whatever) and had the pleasure of meeting Gene Hackman and Ray Romano. Protocol was such that I could not interact with them, but I observed. Romano is a very funny guy in person. Hackman is a class act.
    .
    We were shooting at a school, on the weekend, but there were kids running about outside. During a break I wandered outside and so did Hackman. Some kids were in the playground and one had a mess of french fries that he offered to Hackman. Gene took one, said thank you and walked away. The kid turned to his buddies and said: ” GENE HACKMAN JUST ATE ONE OF MY FRENCH FRIES!” It was fucking hilarious.

  10. My red pill movie recommendation is, “A Shock To The System.”
    Michael Caine has rarely turned in a better performance. If you like dark comedies, check it out.

  11. Noir is one of the last refuges of unabashed realism in American art. To be convincing, it must have an accurate awareness of human nature, to include racial and class distinctions. As far as some good noir reading, I’d recommend James Ellroy, particularly The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz (in that order). Thanks for these recommendations.

  12. American culture doesn’t want the truth about its own society, which is why noir films remain obscure in modern America.

  13. Have not seen Night Moves. But Cutter’s Way ran on HBO all the time in the early eighties. I recall it as similar to Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Jios here, accurately compares it to a hangover. I have never had a good hangover.
    If you want early good James Wood, I recommend The Onion Field. And why not Once Upon A Time In America? Another good noir is True Confessions. Which is a riff on the Black Dahlia case. DeNiro was hammered for dullness, which is simply the part, if you ask me, but Robert Duvall is blazing alive as a man seething with self hatred.

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