Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film has been a hit with critics and audiences. It’s a comical drug-infused film noir set in the aftermath of the death of the sixties. Surfbands are trying to keep up with the breakthrough of psychedelia in popular culture, the use of mind-expanding drugs has lost any remaining sense of innocence and the terms ‘peace’ and ‘love’ are used more often to justify egotistical behavior than to explain one’s stance on political matters.
As he did with ‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘The Master’, P.T. Anderson displays his greatness at capturing a certain period in history mediated through a personal and honest portrait of a man.
In Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, we are presented with a short episode in Larry “Doc” Sportello’s life that consists of an intricate knot made up of some of Doc’s ties to his past. Doc’s ex-girlfriend, Shasta, comes by to ask him to do some private-eye snooping in order to help her new beau, Mickey Wolfman. Sloane, Wolfman’s wife, is hatching a scheme against Mickey together with her younger lover.
Shasta approaches Doc to help her out because Doc works as a private investigator, and maybe also because she knows that he cannot really say no to her. At around the same time, Doc is asked by a client to investigate the disappearance of one of Wolfman’s bodyguards. The motion is set for a whirlpool of mystery and deception. Through a THC-driven psychedelic journey into the schemes and intrigues of California’s beachside jet-set we find out about Doc, his past and maybe his future in the town of Gordita Beach.
The universe that Pynchon wrote out and that P.T. Anderson visualizes is reminiscent of movies made in the era the story is set. Many neo-noir films of the seventies share the following characteristics. The one who is doing the private investigation is often either not a professional investigator, it is someone highly unlikely to be a private investigator or it is someone who has certain characteristics sculpted after the classical ideal of the ‘Private Dick’.
If the latter, we are confronted with how this kind of man (because it’s never a woman) is out of touch with the times, which brings us to the second theme. These movies present us with noir stories set in a society that has gone through the hope and disillusionment of the mid- to late sixties. Things seem to have gotten a lot more complicated on a social, political and cultural level. The people that live in this society are trying out new things and this gives rise to new problems and more complex relationships, social phenomena and, in the end, mysteries to solve.
This aspect is often spelled out with references to distinctive cultural phenomena associated with these changes, such as references to music, drugs, sexual liberation, politics, etc. Lastly, the main characters are often really just as much in search of themselves as they are trying to solve a mystery, which is made more explicit in some films than in others.
Pynchon lived in Manhattan Beach in the sixties, which serves as the inspiration for Inherent Vice’s fictional Gordita Beach. Pynchon is also known to be a marijuana enthusiast and a TV- and movie buff. While he most likely drew inspiration from his personal life, it is also very likely that Pynchon must have seen some of the movies on this list.
Anderson’s adaptation also seems to be set in the same groove as these original neo-noir movies. Some of the following ten films may have inspired Pynchon and Anderson; in the least, these are ten movies that are definitely worth watching if you enjoyed the story, the atmosphere or the setting of Inherent Vice.
1. Blow-up (1966)
Antonioni’s seductive and swinging mystery film is one of the first American-produced European films that marked a turn in Hollywood filmmaking. As the sixties progressed, a growing part of the American public was able to just stay at home and watch TV in order to be entertained. Movie theaters became more of a place for the hip young crowd to go and check out the latest European films and, in a way, the cinema theater was given back to Cinema.
Hollywood responded to this change in the demographic of movie-goers by investing in new and independent film makers. While not produced or set in the seventies, Blow-up (or Blowup) marks a turnaround that was behind the production of many of the other movies on this list as well.
Blow-up is set in sixties London and follows a successful young professional photographer called Thomas (David Hemmings). Thomas is working on a new photography book in-between his work as a fashion photographer. In the first scene we see Thomas coming back from an overnight photo shoot in a flophouse for his new book. He is late for the photo shoots that were scheduled in the morning and it is obvious that he is bored and annoyed with doing the fashion shoots.
In his annoyance, he abandons his studio and crew and drives around London to visit an antiques shop where he buys an antique propeller as a photo shoot prop. In the same neighborhood, Thomas walks into a public park and starts taking pictures of an amorous couple, much to the dismay of the woman. By the time he gets back home to his studio, the woman of the park arrives and demands him to give her the role of film. Thomas gives her the wrong role and she gives him a false phone number.
As he is making blowups of the pictures he took in the park, he sees a man who is hidden in the bushes and who appears to be pointing a gun in the direction of the couple. Intrigued, Thomas goes back to the park that evening to find a dead body. Thomas does not have his camera with him, he is scared off, and he goes back home.
What follows is Thomas’ coming to grips with what he just witnessed and his own inactivity towards the event. Swinging London sets the backdrop for Thomas’ internal struggle, featuring cameos of different sixties counter-culture symbols including The Yardbirds, whom we see playing at a club in front of an immovably cool crowd of young hipsters.
The film presents us with a culture that is marked by an ethos of style-over-substance and a man who is trying to figure out just what exactly he did see happen and what he is supposed to do about it. Towards the end of the film, we are faced with some scenes which suggest that Thomas might change his current approach to his job and his life in general.
2. Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971)
This time we go to New York, 1970. We meet Georgie Soloway (Dustin Hoffman), a songwriter who specializes in writing love songs for rock artists and who is experiencing an existential crisis now that he is making lots of money. It’s obvious that Georgie is lacking any real interaction with other human beings, which is most probably a consequence of his success on the monetary front.
For example, Georgie has been trying to establish a relationship with his father by giving him checks in the hope that his father will use them to fulfil his long-time dream of opening a bigger restaurant. His father won’t accept the checks, however, and Georgie feels unable to reconcile their bond in any other way. In wake of his loneliness, we encounter Georgie daydreaming about committing suicide by jumping off a building.
Even more so, Georgie suffers from insomnia and his only way of falling asleep is by having his accountant read-out his earning statements, only to then dream of committing suicide again. In an attempt to overcome his depression, Georgie tries to find the right woman to fulfill his life.
Every time things seem to be going his way, however, a man called Harry Kellerman calls up Georgie’s prospective girlfriend and tells her horrible lies about him. Georgie is at a loss and goes out to investigate who this Harry Kellerman is (and why he is saying those terrible things about Georgie).
Georgie epitomizes the successful young professional who has the world at his feet. Problem is, however, that he doesn’t know what to do with it and is consequently suffering from a depression. Georgie thus falls into the category of Blow-up’s Thomas; the world sees him as a winner, while much of his personal success seems lost to himself.
Opposite to Marlowe and Doc, who are deemed losers by others, but who themselves are actually quite content with who they are. The journeys these characters undertake in their investigations face them with their own identities and results in some sort of catharsis.
This movie is more experimental than the rest in this list. There are, for example, some very Fellini-like fourth-wall-breaking scenes and transitions. It is not as much a film noir but nevertheless, it is still a mystery story and it does present us with the same internal conflicts concerning identity and morality that are also present in the other films, be it more implicitly.
Moreover, it is set in the same time-period where ideals of love and peace come together and clash with the reality of a money-driven society. Who is Harry Kellerman presents us with a more artistic take on the neo-noir theme, both when it comes to the main character and the director’s approach.
3. Cisco Pike (1972)
Cisco Pike (Kris Kristofferson) is a musician; well he is also a poet and a picker, a pusher and a prophet, as Kristofferson’s song goes. And it is to the pushing that Cisco usually resorts in order to make ends meet. But no more, as Cisco just quit dealing. However, Cisco is forced into selling one major last batch by the corrupt and pretty crazy police Sergeant Leo Holland (a magnificent Gene Hackman again).
Granted, the deals, the characters (and the weed) all look ridiculous, but that is part of the charm of this movie. Another big part is its setting. We are given splendid vistas of seventies Venice and Hollywood and those who inhabit it, and at times it is not hard to imagine seeing Doc somewhere scrounging in the background for clues, or maybe some Thai-stick.
Regardless of the relaxed, be it at times gritty, environments, Cisco is in a pickle and he needs to do some serious planning if he is to sell that big bunch of weed before Leo Holland’s deadline passes. This is where some of the themes similar to the other films in this list come in.
Cisco is making his way through different sub-cultures of 1970s Los Angeles while having to stay on guard to such a degree that his acute awareness balances on paranoia. We meet musicians and street characters but also those that inhabit the higher spheres of Hollywood. Lighter than most movies on this list, it also coincides with Inherent Vice when it comes to its atmospheric tone.
4. The Long Goodbye (1973)
In this detective story directed by Robert Altman, Elliot Gould plays the most laid-back incarnation of Philip Marlowe to ever hit the screen. He is a chain-smoking bachelor who lives alone with his cat in the Los Angeles hills next to a group of young women that we see having funky parties, doing new-age stretching exercises and making brownies. Like Doc Sportello, Marlowe is asked by a long-time friend for a favor.
Terry (MLB pitcher Jim Bouton) asks him for a ride to the Mexican border. Upon returning home, Marlowe is confronted with two police detectives who tell him that Terry murdered his wife. Marlowe is reluctant to believe what they tell him and refuses to give them any information, for which he sent to jail.
Mexican authorities pass on the information that Terry committed suicide in Tijuana and the Los Angeles police take this as conclusive proof of Terry’s culpability. Marlowe is released and goes on to investigate the case by himself, as he believes his friend to not have murdered his wife.
Just like Doc Sportello, Marlowe is also asked by a client to investigate another case that is closely related to the murder of his friend’s wife, namely the disappearance of a Hemmingwayesque alcoholic writer, who happens to have been neighbors and good acquaintances with Terry and his deceased wife. At the same time, Marlowe is also visited by a gangster and his goons. The gangster claims that Terry ran off with $35,000 that belongs to him, and for which he holds Marlowe accountable.
We are presented with a web of lies and intrigues related to affairs, murder and money-business set in the high-life communities of Malibu and Hollywood. The movie is spiced with understated Altmanian comedy and Gould plays the coolest and funniest version of Philippe Marlowe imaginable.
As in Inherent Vice, we get glimpses of upper-class Californian beach life in the early seventies set to the story of a laid-back detective whose little trust in humanity and friendship is being challenged in face of the moral changes happening in early 1970s America. Like Doc Sportello, Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe seems quite unsure of what is right and wrong in these tumultuous times and his reluctance to merely side with self-interest makes him ‘a born loser’ according to the world around him.
5. The Parallax View (1974)
Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) is a reporter who gets sucked into a conspiracy following his report of a senator’s assassination. His colleague and friend, Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) comes to him in fear of her life. She tells him that all the other reporters that witnessed the assassination have died. The cool Frady dismisses her worries, until he is asked to identify her body at the morgue.
The film starts with a press conference given by the court committee that was appointed to the assassination case. They announce that the assassin was a lone wolf and that there is no reason to speculate on a conspiracy plot. With Carter dead, Frady is the last one remaining of those who saw that there might have been a second shooter at the assassination.
Very much the same thematic premise of Three Days of The Condor, we are shown that nobody is safe in a country where its new beacons of hope are shot down in broad daylight and where the governmental agencies do not seem to be of much help when it comes to either helping those in danger or letting the truth come to light.
Rather than presenting us with a hard-nosed detective with an anachronistic sense of morality, we are shown the frailty of one man who is trying to find out what is really going on, presented through a paranoia-inducing search for justice that takes us from Seattle to the rural backwaters of Washington state.