As mentioned in the introduction to our previous article on the best neo-noir films of the 1970s, arguments will always exist over what films should be called horror films, suspense thrillers, classic film noir and neo-noir.
Those disagreements aside, the milestone cinema decade of the 1970s produced some classic neo-noir films and the 1980s kept the dark crime ball rolling with many gems in the subgenre that possess the same dark heart found in the classic film noir pictures of the 1940s and 1950s. As is the nature of genre labeling, it should be noted that a number of films mentioned in this article could also be classified in other genres such as heist film, suspense thriller of moral confrontation or even psychopath horror in some cases.
Excluded from consideration were films that take place in a period setting either historical or futuristic which eliminated Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner (1982) from contention. Also excluded were films that despite the presence of modern noir elements actually fall firmly into the suspense thriller category such as William Tannen’s underrated Flashpoint (1984).
Note: The films are in chronological order by release year.
1. The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie, 1980)
Screenplay by Barrie Keefe
The Long Good Friday is on a short list of the greatest British crime films along with such titles as Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971) and Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (2001). The superb screenplay is brought to life by an outstanding cast led by Bob Hoskins as a crime boss whose world is violently torn apart by unknown assailants. Hoskins recently retired due to health reasons and his acting here deserves to be at the very top of any list of his notable performances.
2. Cutter’s Way (Ivan Passer, 1981)
Screenplay by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin based on the Newton Thornburg novel “Cutter and Bone”
The witness to the aftermath of a murder and a bitter Vietnam veteran team up to investigate a powerful local millionaire they suspect is involved in the crime. Barely promoted during its initial release, Cutter’s Way’s reputation as an overlooked neo-noir gem has justifiably grown over the years. One of the keys to the film’s quality is the incredible performance of John Heard as the abrasive Vietnam veteran Alex Cutter. While better known as the father in the Home Alone films, Heard’s performance here is the finest of his career.
3. Nighthawks (Bruce Malmuth, 1981)
Screenplay by David Shaber and Paul Sylbert
Along with Ted Kotcheff’s excellent First Blood (1982), Nighthawks is one of the two best films Sylvester Stallone has ever been involved in. Stallone stars as a New York cop assigned to an anti-terrorist unit who ends up on a collision course with a ruthless villain played superbly by Rutger Hauer. Hauer, with highly accomplished performances in this film, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986) was the greatest portrayer of villains in 1980s cinema.
4. Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)
Screenplay by Mann based on the Frank Hohimer novel “The Home Invaders”
James Caan delivers one the great performances of his long career as an expert thief who tries to establish a normal life for himself against all odds. Caan’s character is an ex-convict who adopts a highly disciplined approach to his criminal lifestyle, creating a less refined version of Robert DeNiro’s Neil McCauley character from director Mann’s 1995 Heat.
5. Bad Boys (Rick Rosenthal, 1983)
Screenplay by Richard Di Lello
Bad Boys was heavily influenced by Alan Clarke’s two versions of the film Scum starring Ray Winstone. Sean Penn, showing the intensity that would become his career trademark, stars as a teenage criminal sentenced to a brutal juvenile correction facility after a disastrous and deadly robbery attempt. The great character actor Clancy Brown can also be seen here as fellow inmate with a score to settle with Penn’s character.
6. Blood Simple (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1984)
Screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen
A love affair between a married woman and a bartender results in murder in this critically lauded debut of the Coen Brothers highlighted by the incredible performance of character actor M. Emmet Walsh as a lethal private investigator. Having previously done an outstanding job as a parole officer in Ulu Grossbard’s Straight Time (1978), the veteran actor is usually found in smaller but memorable roles such as Deckard’s boss in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).
7. To Live & Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985)
Screenplay by Gerald Petievich and Friedkin based on Petievich’s novel
A federal agent played by William Petersen becomes obsessed with taking down a deadly counterfeiter brilliantly played by Willem Dafoe. Not a box office success in its day, To Live & Die in L.A. holds up over time much better than Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971). The late character actor Steve James can be seen here in a supporting role. James also appeared in Friedkin’s later collaborations with Petievich on the entertaining but almost completely overlooked television films C.A.T. Squad (1986) and C.A.T. Squad: Python Wolf (1988).
8. 52 Pick-Up (John Frankenheimer, 1986)
Screenplay by Elmore Leonard and John Steppling based on Leonard’s novel
By far the darkest film adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel ever produced, 52 Pick-Up stars Roy Scheider as a businessman being blackmailed by a trio of ruthless criminals unforgettably portrayed by John Glover, Clarence Williams III and Robert Trebor. The acting across the board is excellent but Glover’s intelligent and twisted ringleader is one of great villains of 1980s cinema.
9. At Close Range (James Foley, 1986)
Screenplay by Elliott Lewitt and Nicholas Kazan
Christopher Walken delivers one of the best performances of his legendary career as a rural Pennsylvania crime boss who welcomes his son played by Sean Penn into his illegal business in this film based on real-life events. Despite being a box office failure in its day, At Close Range is an American classic highlighted by superb acting.
10. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
Screenplay by Lynch
Much has been written and discussed about Lynch’s unique story of a college student drawn into the dark world of brutality that lies beneath the wholesome façade of his hometown. Dennis Hopper’s driven performance as the twisted kidnapper Frank Booth should have netted the actor an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Instead, Hopper received that accolade for his work that year in David Anspaugh’s Hoosiers, the far more safe and Academy-friendly choice.