by Matt Barry
As both a fan of Film Noir and an independent filmmaker drawn to the crime genre, I find a great deal of inspiration in the stories and characters of crime fiction that have endured over the decades. Much of that inspiration comes from how to tell these stories for the screen. This is where my love of low-budget Film Noir comes in. As a film genre, crime lends itself to being made with limited production resources. Unlike romantic comedy or musicals, which require big stars and elaborate settings to meet audience expectations, many of the best crime films take place in everyday locations, focusing on ordinary characters forced into taking desperate measures, enhanced by the use of light and shadow or voice-over to imply worlds off-screen.
My fascination with low budget Noir began after seeing Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour one evening at the Orpheum Cinema in Baltimore. Reading the blurb about the film on the poster, which included a note about its legendary tiny budget and short production schedule, I was intrigued, and knew that I had to see it. As soon as the film began, its main titles shown over process shots of the desert, the sparse nightclub set, and the nighttime street scenes crafted out of shadow and stage fog, I was transfixed by the world evoked on film with such limited resources, but so much imagination. As I watched the film unfolding on the screen, I found myself thinking of how I, as a 13-year-old aspiring filmmaker at the time, could draw on Ulmer’s examples of resourceful filmmaking for my own efforts.
In my filmmaking endeavors over the years, low-budget Noir has continued to provide an endless source of creative inspiration. Although I certainly admire the well-known classics of Noir, I find that it is the ultra low-budget films, the ones produced on the fringes of the Hollywood film industry, or those produced outside of it entirely, that I love the most, and that hold the most interest for me in thinking about making movies. Over the years I’ve watched many of these films, finding them on bargain-basement DVD collections or on YouTube and other streaming websites. These are the films I come back to for inspiration. If the glossy “A” studio pictures give me something to aspire to, it is the low-budget “B” films that show me a way to achieve it.
Here are a few Noir films that inspire me for their creativity on a small scale:
Gangster Story (1959)
This is an unusual little crime caper, directed by and starring Walter Matthau. The story goes that Matthau made this film because he was in need of some extra money at the time, and that it was produced with just a skeleton crew, working entirely in real locations to save on budget. The premise is simple: Matthau is a gangster on the run—both from the law, and from the fellow gangsters that he just double-crossed in their latest heist job. But what sets this apart from routine heist pictures is that Matthau seems to embrace the full absurdity of the situations, which include robbing a bank by pretending to be a film director shooting a bank robbery scene, and removing a safe from the manager’s office at a golf course in broad daylight. There is also a scene in a library that plays almost like a parody of the bookstore scene from The Big Sleep, that ends with Matthau eluding the gangsters on his trail by hiding behind a stack of books and slinking out of the library. His handling of the material transforms what could have been a routine film into one that is compelling for how it embraces and makes something memorable out of its limitations.
Blast of Silence (1961)
Another film by a director-star, Allen Baron, Blast of Silence is one of the landmark indie films of the 1960s. Baron recounted the details of the making of the film in his book, Blast of Silence: A Memoir. Both the film and the book are essential for anyone making a low-budget film of their own.
Baron takes a standard plot—a hired killer (played by Baron himself) who comes to New York City at Christmastime to pull off a hit against a mob boss—and explores it as an existential character study about isolation and loneliness. Baron uses a stream-of-conscious narration to accompany the shots of the hitman walking alone through the holiday bustle, an island among a sea of people. This economic storytelling device provides a stark contrast between the stoical, expressionless exterior of the stone-cold killer and the pain and loss expressed through his inner monologue.
Unmade Beds (1976)
Between 1976 and 1984, New York “No Wave” pioneer Amos Poe made several thrillers that owe much stylistically to the French New Wave. The creativity that came from the DIY aesthetic of the “No Wave” artists working in the downtown scene during that time would make his films of interest to me on that level alone. But it is Poe’s affinity for crime films, as influenced by the lens of the French New Wave filmmakers who came before, that gives his work a particularly rich perspective on the genre and makes them of special interest to me. His first film, Unmade Beds, is perhaps my favorite, because of how brilliantly he plays with the genre itself. The film starts from the premise of a young man in 1970s New York City, who lives his life as if in a ’60s French New Wave film and fancies himself a sort of Bogart/Belmondo-esque hood. Two particularly clever moments include using a toy service station and matchbox cars to suggest a busy highway and a very funny scene in which the Washington Square arch stands in for the Arc de Triomphe, only to be immediately undercut by the following shot with the Empire State Building clearly in the background. It is this kind of playfulness that makes Unmade Beds such a fun homage to the genre.
Dark Highways (2004)
Written, produced and directed by North Dakota-based filmmaker Christopher P. Jacobs, Dark Highways is an excellent example of regional cinema and how the unique locations that are ignored by Hollywood can provide such rich detail when used by people who know them well. Here, Jacobs uses desolate landscapes, sprawling highways, and a deserted farm house as the backdrop for a story about a group of office employees who become concerned when one of their coworkers goes missing after being stranded at a highway rest stop. Jacobs finds a sinister element in these locations, contrasting them with the nondescript, mundane atmosphere of the office and local bar where the rest of the action takes place. The way that Jacobs uses these spaces illustrates how low-budget filmmakers can bring out qualities in locations that function like a character in their own right.
The realm of online self-distribution has opened up new possibilities for low-budget films to reach worldwide audiences. A new generation of DIY filmmakers have embraced this method for getting their films out to audiences. No longer just the domain of short videos and clips, self-published content on YouTube has expanded to include feature-length films, and among these new films, the crime genre remains a highly popular one. One such film is Chlorine, directed by Daniel Lotz, which kicked off the “Folk Filmmaking” movement (low-budget filmmakers making feature films and releasing them for free on YouTube). Made entirely in an improvised approach, Chlorine draws on the genre elements of the crime film but takes an innovative approach in how to create and distribute a DIY film. The plot involves a retired hit man, working as a pool boy, who is given an opportunity to reconnect with his estranged sister if he agrees to come out of retirement to pull off one last job. What makes Chlorine stand out for me is the sophisticated visual look that Lotz achieves on its extremely low budget, and how Lotz utilizes improv techniques in the acting, the development of the plot, and the approach to the production itself. That Lotz made Chlorine in such a way demonstrates that ambitious directors will continue to find ways to put their ideas on screen even with limited resources. That he has managed to find an audience for the film on YouTube points the way to the future of filmmakers telling old stories in new ways, and the enduring appeal of the Film Noir as a creative influence for the next generation.
Matt Barry is an independent filmmaker and writer based in Baltimore, MD. His recent films include the crime thrillers Unknown Number (2020) and The Payoff (2021). His latest film is Forbidden Frames (2022), a dystopian satire about censorship and film preservation, available to stream on YouTube and Indie Nation Network.