John R. Dahl shot to fame with a trilogy of mid-budget thrillers which have done much to renew the
interest of cinemagoer and video renter alike in the neglected thriller subgenre of film noir. Dahl's
works are mix 'n' match concoctions invested with many of the themes familiar to followers and fans
of such cult movies. But what makes a modern film noir? Here's some of the basic ingredients:
A change or case of mistaken identity for one or more characters - and the casual use of false names for the purposes of dealing with officialdom and authority figures.
Fraudulently obtained monies that may run into thousands of dollars... or a stash of banknotes, acquired by extralegal means, that everyone is eager to get their hands on.
Premeditated, first-degree murder - usually planned and executed as the perfect crime... Of course, sometimes they even get away with it!
A good man turned bad - often unwittingly - by his involvement with, and desire for, a treacherous femme fatale - blonde, brunette or redhead... it makes no difference, she'll happily ruin the naive hero and/or wreck his marriage.
A complex web of deceit and betrayal. In the murky world of film noir, almost nobody is who or what they appear to be - so they can't be trusted, and nice guys invariably finish last.
A clutch of revelatory plot twists in the suspenseful final reel, as dark secrets of the pivotal characters are revealed in - often nightmarish - flashbacks.
Dahl was born in Montana, in 1956, and attended the state university to study film production for a B.S. His feature debut was The Death Mutants (1980), a student film that reportedly spoofed the whole sci-fi/horror genre. In 1982, he held a fellowship position at the American Film Institute, and later moved into music videos and commercials. As an artist, Dahl did the storyboards for Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1987), and Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (1986) and Married To The Mob (1988), before co-writing (with David W. Warfield) and directing Kill Me Again.
Bad-girl, Fay (Whalley), hires private eye Jack (Kilmer), to help fake her own death so that she can evade the pursuit of her homicidal boyfriend, Vince (Michael Madsen), and escape with a cache of money the pair have stolen from Mafia gangsters. However, Vince disregards the evidence of Fay's apparent murder, and so the chase is on with a Mob fortune at stake for the winner.
Veering uneasily between gripping thrills and low rent sleaze, Kill Me Again is most successful in making the glitz of a Las Vegas-type gambling Mecca appear tawdry and yet enticing. The intricate plot twists and turns like a rattlesnake in heat while, of the cast, Madsen - in particular - is memorably nasty as the psychopathically twisted villain of the piece. Unfortunately, the rather nihilistic sudden-death climax is too obviously cribbed from the end of John Hough's Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974).
Red Rock West (1992) was co-written by John Dahl and his brother Rick, both self-evidently thriller fans heavily into cult movies who really know their stuff. For this offering, like many a noir classic of the 1940s, has an electrically charged air of menace with brutal violence simmering beneath the surface of its apparent normality. Some of director David Lynch's films have explored this eerie darkness, too, but Red Rock West is a fine example of how such brooding psychological weirdness can be employed for mood and colour - without alienating all but the art house crowd.
Into the small Wyoming town of Red Rock, comes a specimen of that most endangered species - the honest man. Michael (Nicolas Cage) is looking for work. He stops off at a local bar where the owner (J.T. Walsh) seems to have been expecting him. He is offered a job, and accepts before he knows what he's letting himself in for. It readily becomes clear that Mike has somehow been mistaken for a hired killer, and Walsh's cuckold bar-keeper proffers a large sum of money as advance payment for Mike to murder the man's adulterous wife (Lara Flynn Boyle).
Inevitably, the real killer - "Lyle, from Texas" (Dennis Hopper on top form) turns up, arriving in time to stir up this already seething hot spot of malice and duplicity, and soon enough the players are double-crossing and backstabbing, sneaking about and climbing over one another to steal away with the haul from a major robbery. All this is underscored by the script's razor-sharp sense of humour, and director Dahl's willingness to fulfil audience expectations. Although, at times, it all seems rather like a rerun of the Coen brothers' unforgettable Blood Simple (1983), Red Rock West is deserving of your attention - if only for its excellent cinematography.
Dahl's third homage to film noir, The Last Seduction (1993), was scripted by Steve Barancik, and stars the sexy Linda Fiorentino (probably best known prior to this film, for her supporting role in Scorsese's surreal comedy After Hours, 1985). Fiorentino portrays Bridget Gregory, the ultimate New York femme fatale, with a vengeance. Bill Pullman plays her medic-husband, Clay, who has stolen and sold off a load of dope on the streets to pay off his loan shark. When Bridget runs off with the cash, he hires a private eye to track her down.
Bridget, meanwhile, hides out near Buffalo in the one-horse town of Beston. Adopting the alias of Wendy Kroy, a yuppie with attitude, she gets her claws into hapless local guy Mike Swale (Peter Berg, from Monkey Shines) - who, after enduring a number of her persuasive manoeuvrings, attempts to murder Clay.
In what may be the definitive moment of the film for its characters, there's a dialogue scene establishing that it's Mike who needs a proper loving relationship, while Bridget/Wendy only wants him as a sex object! Fiorentino's stunning performance in The Last Seduction made her actress of the year, back in 1993 - no contest. Her role as the cunning manipulator of every foolish and weak-willed man that she encounters makes the scheming bitch played by Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct seem like a simpering Julie Andrews clone. Tightly plotted, and shot through with a venomous wit like Hitchcock on speed, The Last Seduction is certainly a handsomely stylish beast and should not be missed.
Dahl's latest film, Road Kill, opened in British cinemas last month (April 2002).
VideoVista ratings: Kill Me Again - 6/10 Red Rock West - 8/10 The Last Seduction - 10/10
Other films by John Dahl: Unforgettable (1996), Rounders (1998), Road Kill (aka: Joy Ride, 2001).
an earlier/shorter version of this article was previously published in Strange Adventures #55 - October 1994
See also: Top 10 Noirs - listing by Richard Bowden