The 10 Most Underrated Neo-Noir Films of The 1980s

Neo-noir elements stayed relevant throughout the 1980s. It was everywhere from Brian De Palma’s mystery thrillers to Mamet’s “House of Games.” Even the decade took its start with Paul Schrader’s “American Gigolo,” John Cassavettes’ “Gloria” and Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City,” and they all had very rich noir traditions.

As typical with the other two lists, this one also will try to balance the much less known films that don’t even get talked about (only theatrical releases, so “Gotham” didn’t appear, but check that out) with those that are a little more known but still deserve more recognition by the general public because they have everything to appeal beyond the fans of neo-noir. Here are the 10 neo-noir films from the 1980s that deserve your attention. If you haven’t seen any of them, check them out.


10. Stormy Monday (1988)

Call it Stormy Monday but Tuesday is just as bad. An American developer named Cosmo wants to move into the port district of Newcastle in England. The owner of the Key Club, a jazz club, resists him. Cosmo’s plan to force Finney to sign a contract through his henchmen is thwarted by Finney’s young employee Brendan. Cosmo’s ex-girlfriend Kate starts a love affair with Brendan, increasing Cosmo’s anger.

This British thriller is engaging, and full of the right kind of noirish atmosphere with an impressive cast that includes Sean Bean, Melanie Griffith, Tommy Lee Jones and Sting. Yeah, the musician Sting, and who could be a better choice to play a jazz lover than him? Also he’s from Newcastle. Mike Figgis will later become a bigger name thanks to “Leaving Las Vegas” but in this early work of his, he creates just the right kind of atmosphere and skillfully plays around the conflict between working and capitalism. Not everything is money; there are other values in this world and one of them is music, which gets a lot of screen time for itself. “Stormy Monday” is a cool noir that deserves to be remembered.


9. Kill Me Again (1989)

Val Kilmer recently wrote a memoir on his life, career, and relationships. It’s a beautiful book and he’s got a good way of narrating stories. Not to mention, he had an impressive career despite all the “he’s difficult” talks and seemingly a fascinating personality. But the thing that can be disappointing with such books is often when they sometimes ignore some of the films you like, and here Kilmer ignored “Kill Me Again,” even though he co-starred with Joanne Whalley, whom he talks a great deal about in the book. It’s an early John Dahl film, a director who later on went to make much better neo-noirs in the ‘90s with “Red Rock West” and “The Last Seduction,” alongside other great stuff like “Joy Ride.” It’s one of his earlier efforts and a good one too.

The film is about a couple, Fay and Vince, who steals a million dollars belonging to the mafia. Vince wants to keep all the money to himself, after which Fay flees with the money. She assigns the dodgy private investigator Jack Andrews with the arrangement of her death. It’s not as strong as the director’s later work, but “Kill Me Again” deserves attention for using those Hitchockian and noir elements fairly well with a story that makes you feel entertained and surprised.


8. Absence of Malice (1981)

Absence of Malice

Megan Carter is an ambitious young journalist who is dying to get up. When a well-known union boss disappears without a trace, she immediately begins the investigation. She comes across businessman Michael Gallagher, who seems to be involved in the affair. What Megan Carter has no idea of is this: She is just a pawn, because the FBI leaked information to her and put her on the wrong track.

“I would say that 90 percent of what people read about me in the newspapers is untrue. Ninety percent is garbage. [Reporters] are expected to come up with something sensational every night of the week to keep their readers’ noses buried in the pages, and, well, you tell me. If nothing’s happening, what do you do? Well, in their case, they make it up.” Paul Newman made this statement around the time when this film was released, which is probably one of the best films about journalism that didn’t get enough attention or was not often mentioned among the best, while it probably is. The movie is an exciting and intelligent play on the ethics of the media. Outstanding lead performances further elevate the material.


7. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

This is probably cheating, but it’s nice to remember this film since we lost Carl Reiner. “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” was his second collaboration with Steve Martin, following “The Jerk” and Martin’s third lead part after that and “Pennies from Heaven.” Here, Martin shines once again as an actor with his great comic timing and how he balances the seriousness of his previous “Pennies” role with the comical side of “The Jerk” character.

As for the film, some can say it’s one-joke but it’s thoroughly entertaining. The film is both a parody and a homage to film noirs, but also partly a collage film, incorporating clips from 19 vintage films. The editing is impressive in this movie and so is the story they went with. They don’t disrespect the classics and they don’t create anything disgusting with them like they do with the modern-day spoof films, and even though the whole film works in this way, they manage to find hilarious jokes no matter where the story goes and whatever they make fun of. A similar concept seemingly inspired others as well to make films like “Kung Pow! Enter the Fist” and “La Classe américaine.” The movie is a sweet tribute and a very funny spoof both at the same time, and would be hard to resist for noir fans.


6. Fear City (1984)

fear city (1984)

You can call almost any Abel Ferrara film “underrated” and you’d be right. There are films that are better known among independent cinema lovers like “King of New York” and “Bad Lieutenant,” and some of his recent output like “Pasolini” and “Welcome to New York” also got attention among festival circles, but Ferrara’s films are definitely not for everyone.

“Fear City” is actually one of his most accessible films. The film follows a nightclub promoter (Tom Berenger) and a police detective (Billy Dee Williams) who are investigating a brutal serial killer targeting strippers in Manhattan. Ferrara can’t get enough of New York, criminals, exotic dancers, violence and sex, and as usual brings his own philosophy to them. Ferrara is concerned with the critical portrayal of big cities as well, never ignoring racism, gang wars, and violence. Visually it’s one of Ferrara’s finest works, with great characterizations and very well shot action sequences. Not sure if it’s the budget issues, but sometimes Ferrara’s ‘80s output like this and “China Girl” feel better shot than some of his later ones. He’s always fascinating though, and “Fear City” is a great one to check.