Cinefile is a random reference guide to help explore the vast catalog of films available on Netflix instant viewing, with special emphasis on the interesting, the unusual, and the ones that got left behind. Here are two film noirs — Union Station (1950) and Brick (2005) — that couldn’t differ more from each other, yet together they show the versatility of this enduring genre.
Union Station doesn’t follow the usual film noir setup — no soused private detective, no femme fatale digging for gold, no plot full of red herrings. Instead, it’s about a policeman (William Holden) trying to find a sociopathic kidnapper at a train station. The depiction of the disturbed antagonist is more menacing then I would have thought possible for the era, but even more menacing is the casual depiction of the police beating and torturing a suspect for information. The film takes place in trains and train stations, and by shooting in almost documentary style, it captures a lost other world. In 1950, film noir wasn’t a self-conscious genre but an inspired reaction to the low budget/on-location post-WWII European style of filmmaking. Union Station is part of a sub-genre of film noir that could be called a “police procedural,” which influenced everything from French gangster films to the film French Connection to the TV show Law and Order. In Union Station, the focus isn’t on mood but on extremely fast-paced storytelling. The film may look dated at first, but it was ahead of its time and is still quite exciting.
Brick is the opposite, as it accepts all the obvious film noir archetypes yet transposes the story to modern day high school: a trench coat mafia type as the bitter, idealistic detective, the popular girl as the femme fatale, the weird upperclassman drug dealer as the antagonist, and the vice principal as the intrusive police goon. This setup could be comical by being played so straight, yet director Rian Johnson keeps the story believable and yields transcendental results. By focusing on our hero’s emotional loss for his dead girlfriend, the film captures the dark, romantic apocalypse of high school. The film came and went in 2005, but it is one of the most interesting genre mashups in several, several years. The soundtrack is amazingly atmospheric, and the story moves mysteriously forward toward the unnerving last scene when the truth is finally revealed.