5. one false move (Carl Franklin, 1991)
The 90s marked something of a return for what buffs call "film noir". French critics coined the term to describe hard-boiled violent American thrillers of the 1940s which seemed to conform to a familiar pattern, involving long shadows, guns, uncompromising criminals, daring language, femmes fatales (and men hitting them around the face), betrayal, terrible secrets and twist-filled plotlines. But the vagueness of the expression means that it has always been widened to catch diverse material.
The Usual Suspects (1995), the films of John Dahl, James Foley's After Dark My Sweet (1990) and Se7en (1995) were all characterised by American critics at the end of the 1990s as being part of a new movement of "modern noir". The most interesting and meritorious of the whole collection was also the one that least conformed to the classical parameters of film noir. Insodoing, One False Move manages to be the most accomplished representation of "modern noir" - just as an uncompromising criminal in the 1990s has little in common with one in the 1940s (and neither does a femme fatale) modern noir should not ape the classics but transfer their ingredients to the present.
Director Carl Franklin (right) doesn't update the genre so much as tell a modern story that seems to fall into it. John Dahl, (director of The Last Seduction (1994), Red Rock West (1992) and Kill Me Again (1989)) on the other hand, is clearly a big noir lover and he shows it in his films, which are highly stylised homages to Huston, Hawks, Aldrich and the other exponents of classic noir. The success of his films is partly rooted in nostalgia for the classics and partly in modern audiences discovering what made the classics so good.
But Franklin's film, with a phenomenal script by then newcomer Billy Bob Thornton (above left) who also takes the lead villain role, contains nothing theatrical or stylised at all. It is highly realistic, brutal and frightening portrayal of the effects of criminality which packs an emotional punch its rivals cannot compete with.
Bill Paxton, in his best ever screen performance, plays a sheriff in a lonely town in the mid west. A gang of criminals (Thornton, Michael Beach) just happens to be passing through, on the run from the LAPD after a messily failed robbery. Amongst them, Cynda Williams (left) who is Thornton's moll, has a connection with the town.
The characters in One False Move are trapped and they are clearly very frightened of what is happening to them. Events are punctuated by nervousness and unfold in chaos. A sense of order comes from the detectives from the City who are pursuing the gang - in what seems a feat of stunning originality, they are solid competent professionals, nothing flash, no wisecracks, just doing their jobs. The villains are vicious but also full of human frailty and weakness. The world being painted is noir, but the plot, which features a remorseless waiting game, belongs to classic westerns such as High Noon (1952) or Rio Bravo (1959). There is a tragic inevitability about the revelatory ending - so unlike a classic noir twist such as in The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946) or Farewell My Lovely (Edward Dmytryk, 1944) in that it really deepens our appreciation of the psychological dynamics of the characters involved.
Cinema marks itself out when it can be inventive and original within familiar parameters and particularly when at the same time that invention is suffused with cinematic intelligence, using subtelty and nuance in the service of telling a meaningful story. What sets Franklin's film apart from the modern and classic noirs, is its devotion to its characters, lost souls, each with their own pressures and problems, playing a game of cops and robbers. One False Move is a film of great beauty and significance, which looks like it's just passing through.
One False Move 105 minutes Director Carl Franklin Writers Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson Actors Bill Paxton Cynda WIlliams Billy Bob Thornton Michael Beach Jim Metzler Earl Billings Photography James L Carter Score Peter Haycock & Derek Holt
previous next full list