Back in film school (yeah, I'm one of those), my favorite class was a survey of film noir—that dark, quintessentially American genre of crime, double crosses, and femme fatales. Even though the noir period lasted roughly just a decade (the early 40s to the early 50s—and arguably even less), its influence has been seen in many movies since.
While a number of contemporary films certainly owe a debt to the films noir of yesteryear—via iconic characters, similar plot devices, and a penchant for moral ambiguity—very few capture the atmosphere and underlying feel of film noir as well as director John Dahl's pair of moody thrillers, Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. Both made their debut on cable television (HBO), where they garnered so much acclaim that they were eventually released in theaters in 1994.
In Red Rock West (written by Dahl and his brother Rick), Nicolas Cage plays a drifter with a bum leg who rolls into Wyoming, looking for a job, only to be mistaken for a hitman. His "client" gives him a bunch of cash to off his wife, and Cage grapples with what to do with his mistaken identity before a number of twists and turns threaten to do him in.
Because it's set in the present and shot in color, Red Rock West's film noir elements and motifs seem anachronistic—but delightfully so. It's at once nostalgic and contemporary, suggesting that some things don't change, that the dark side of everyday people is as prevalent now than it ever was. And perhaps its underlying message is glummer than those mid-century thrillers: look how little we've evolved after all these years.
Watch the trailer:
The Last Seduction, written by Steve Barancik, may not be as excitingly plotted as Red Rock West, but it features a fierce, funny, sexy, unforgettable, star-making performance by Linda Fiorentino, who plays Bridget Gregory, a femme fatale to end all femme fatales. Her performance really is the final word on the matter, and it's shocking to me that she isn't one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood. While she did win many accolades for this movie, The Last Seduction was disqualified for Academy Awards because it had premiered on HBO before its theatrical run. I remember when her snub created a bunch of hubbub back in the day, prompting many people to urge the Academy to bend the rules.
Bridget hides out in a small town after stealing a shitload of drug money from her lowlife husband (Bill Pullman) and spends a chunk of the movie trying to convince the big lug who falls in love with her (Peter Berg) to commit murder for her. In the course of two hours, she lies, cheats, steals, manipulates, schemes, and, because of her smarts and sexiness, controls everyone who falls into her path. You can watch the trailer here, but I think it gives away too much: