Weekly Wire
Metro Pulse Foreign Noir

By Coury Turczyn

AUGUST 30, 1999:  American crime films from the '30s, '40s, and '50s compose one of the most influential genres in world cinema. Ever since French critics discovered and named "film noir," it has been a stylistic force in many foreign films. (In an Aug. 23 New York Times story, for instance, German directors were reported to be calling former femme fatales from classic noirs to offer them roles—not realizing that 50 years had passed since those films were made.) But can a foreign director really emulate such a distinctly American film style? If they fuse noir with their own culture's quirks, the results can be arresting, as seen in two Criterion Collection DVDs.

In 1965's Alphaville, French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard plops tough-guy detective Lemmy Caution (stone-faced Eddie Constantine) into the futuristic techno-slave city of Alphaville. His mission is to locate, and possibly eliminate, the scientist behind a super-computer that controls the city and the lives of its residents. With a minimal budget (there are no actual special effects), Godard manages to conjure a truly fascinating future world where tranquilizers are as ubiquitous as breath mints at hotels and citizens are executed if they reveal their passions. What makes Alphaville so distinctly French beyond all its noir trappings is Godard's infusion of, well, pretentiousness. Shot in B&W, the film is slow, ponderous, and chock full of artsy lighting and dazed speeches (not unlike those Obession TV ads that would appear 30 years later). Nevertheless, Alphaville's futuristic detective story is prescient—and replicated, to a certain degree, in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.

Seijun Suzuki is one of Japan's most singular film directors, and his Tokyo Drifter from 1966 is a prime example of why he earned the label "rebellious." Ordered by his studio to shoot yet another typical gangster B-movie, Suzuki instead created this day-glo pop meditation on honor and loyalty—with lots of go-go dancing thrown in. Tetsuya Watari stars as the powder blue-suited hit man in the cool sunglasses who whistles his own theme song. When his boss decides to go legit, Tetsu goes along for the ride—and gets stuck in the middle of a Yakuza battle for ownership of a building. Rather difficult to follow, Tokyo Drifter is still fascinating to watch, combining '60s mod style, weird dialogue, and gangsters decades before Quentin Tarantino hit on the formula. The sets are often lushly colorful and decorated to surreal effect, making for a truly one-of-a-kind picture that is still uniquely Japanese.

Of course, there are plenty of newer, retro noir pictures from American directors (like the recent L.A. Confidential); but for all their reverence, they don't feel any more authentic than these irreverent foreign productions.

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