The “research” portion of writing Devine’s Providence invested countless hours of ingesting as many Noir-esque stories as I could—both old and new. From Robert Montgomery as Phillip Marlowe to Keanu Reeves as John Wick. From Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade to Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard. From Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential to Guy Pearce in Memento.
Most of these movies were awesome, and still hold up. Some were terrible; either too cheesy, full of gaping plot holes, or both. All were influential on the world of Harry Devine.
For your viewing pleasure, I’ve compiled a list of the films that most inspired Devine’s Providence. All of these I cannot recommend enough for your own entertainment, but most can also be categorized as “essential viewing” for any aspiring Film Noir buff. Enjoy!
#5 In Bruges (2008)
This is the movie that turned me into a Colin Farrell fan. Whether or not it’s true neo-Noir can be debated (I say it checks enough boxes), but what I took away from it the most is the overall tone. It expertly and seamlessly walks the line between black comedy and action thriller. The best comedies, it’s said, are the ones that are played straight, and In Bruges is a shining testament to that theory.
Farrell and the incomparable Brendan Gleeson play two hitmen on the run from their boss, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. They go into hiding in the picturesque Belgian town of…you guessed it, Bruges. Madcap action and hilarity ensues, naturally.
“There’s a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that’ll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I’d go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison…death…didn’t matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know…I wouldn’t be in f***ing Bruges.” –Ray, In Bruges
#4 Double Indemnity (1944)
No list of Film Noir standards, no matter how short, would be complete without mentioning Double Indemnity. Directed by Billy Wilder before he became known for comedies, it’s based on the novel by the grandfather of hard-boiled crime fiction, James Cain (who also wrote the very-similar-in-story The Postman Always Rings Twice). The screenplay was co-written by Wilder with none other than Raymond Chandler, arguably one of the wittiest writers outside of Oscar Wilde.
The plot centers around insurance broker Walter Neff, who falls in lust with steamy housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Together, they hatch a plan to murder Dietrichson’s husband and collect on his life insurance policy. Both prove to be untrustworthy even to each other, and Neff’s conscience soon gets in the way as he wakes up to the ramifications of his affair.
Neff is played brilliantly by the charming-as-hell Fred MacMurray, in a huge departure from the Disney-ish dads he’d become known for playing later in his career (My Three Sons, The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor). In fact, the only other movie I can think of him playing not a nice guy in is another classic from Billy Wilder, The Apartment.
Double Indemnity also brings another great character change out of Edward G. Robinson, who for once doesn’t play a gangster, but rather a good guy. He is an absolute joy to watch, with such a presence that steals every scene he’s in. The whole story turns out to be more of a friendship story between Robinson and MacMurray, instead of a love story between Stanwyck and MacMurray.
“How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” –Walter, Double Indemnity
#3 Chinatown (1974)
This is one of those unfortunate things where you have to appreciate the art with an asterisk that you do not condone the artist. Bill Cosby’s Himself is still one of the best stand-up specials ever filmed. Kevin Spacey’s performances in The Usual Suspects and House of Cards are still top-notch. And Chinatown still makes the list of any cinephile’s greatest films of all time, despite director/fugitive Roman Polanski being an accused child-rapist.
Anyway, Jack Nicholson plays J.J. Gittes, a Los Angeles private eye. There’s Faye Dunaway as femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray, and the legendary John Huston as her father and antagonist, Noah Cross. The story has become a blueprint for the now-tried-and-true plot device of “what starts as a simple murder case turns into a widespread conspiracy.” And for good reason: Despite all the great performances and style, it’s the writing that makes the movie.
The big mystery centers around corruption of a public utility service…namely, water. Following the success of Chinatown, two sequels were planned, each focusing on similar coverups with different public services—transportation and oil, respectfully. They were slow with their first follow-up, however, and had to abandon the initial plans when a spoof of Chinatown was released using the “transportation scandal” storyline (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which is the greatest film ever filmed, I’ll fight you on that).
A sequel did eventually make it to theaters sixteen years later with 1990’s The Two Jakes, but the writing (and reception) was lackluster compared to the original.
Devine’s Providence used Chinatown’s writing formula as well for the conspiracy part of its plot. I wanted to update it to modern times, an offset to Harry’s old-fashioned ways, and I figured the most modern public utility (kind of) would be information, and the data-mining scheme was born.
“You’re even dumber than I think you are.” –Jake, Chinatown
#2 Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
This movie is reportedly what secured Robert Downey, Jr. the coveted role of Tony Stark in 2008’s Iron Man, and it’s not hard to see why. His charm and likeability combined with the In Bruges-like mix of action and comedy make this film a wonderful love letter to the old dime-store detective pulp novels of another era.
Although 2005 doesn’t seem too long ago, there are just a few moments that don’t age well (The “it’s funny because he’s gay” schtick provides more cringes than laughs in 2020, and there are a couple of other gags that no longer hold water). That being said, Val Kilmer as Gay Perry delivers what just may be the greatest performance of his entire career.
The plot centers around an actor (RDJ) paired with a real-life private eye (Kilmer) for research on a role, and of course they get wrapped up in a murder. True to Film Noir standards, there’s a femme fatale, mistaken identities, high-stakes fight scenes, and a narrator with clever dialogue. Despite some of the datedness (it feels like a ‘90s movie…which is not, I assure you, a bad thing), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang remains pretty damned close to a perfect movie if ever there was one.
Oh! And Robert Downey’s character’s name?
Harry. How about that.
“It’s like the city can’t get enough of messing with people. Like putting a whoopie cushion on the seat of an electric chair.” –Harmony, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
#1 Sabrina (1954)
Okay, okay. Now before I get all the angry messages from film geeks, I assure you, I know. Sabrina is most definitely not a Film Noir. It’s a romantic comedy. I know. Just because Bogie’s in it doesn’t make it Noir. I’m not pretending otherwise. But hear me out:
This is a list of the most influential films for Devine’s Providence, which is a modern take on Film Noir stories. But although not a Noir, Sabrina has to take the number one spot on the list, if only because it’s referenced so much more in the book than any other movie. Devine’s Providence, I felt, is more than a mystery in-and-of-itself, and the movie (as well as Harry’s obsession with it) inspired the book’s romantic elements—or at least what Harry believes those romantic elements should be.
Don’t get me wrong…the movie has its faults. It’s corny as all get-out. Every single character is spoiled and vapid to the point of obnoxiousness. It has a real downright flip view of suicide. Humphrey Bogart was, by his own admission, too old for his role. But God damn if it isn’t so deliciously entertaining.
Audrey Hepburn does some of her best work as Sabrina Fairchild, torn between the competing affections of the two Larrabee brothers (although, as a caveat, I don’t know how good of a judge I am, as I admittedly despise both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and her most-famous character of Holly Golightly…a VERY unpopular opinion, I know).
Released over 65 years ago, the film still holds up. The jokes and gags are still funny (particularly Mr. Larrabee Senior’s attempt to fish the last remaining olives out of a jar for his martini).
I highly recommend Sabrina (the original) if you haven’t seen it. Much like Harry Devine, I admit I have not watched the 1995 remake with Harrison Ford, only not because of Harry’s stubbornness but for no particular reason. I hear it’s very good.
“A woman happily in love, she burns the soufflé. A woman unhappily in love, she forgets to turn the oven on.” –Baron St. Fontanel, Sabrina
What's your favorite Film Noir or detective story, and why? Let me know in the comments!