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Jazz, fedoras and dames

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Detective noirs are making a comeback says CONSTANTINOS PSILLIDES

It’s a rainy night. Smooth jazz fills the air as the protagonist narrates in a gruff, almost gravelly voice to set the tone. Location changes as we are transferred inside the detective’s office, him sitting at his desk typing, a half-empty bottle of cheap whiskey next to him. He wears a white shirt, suspenders, and tie, his trusty fedora casually thrown on the desk. Suddenly the silhouette of a woman appears outside his door, followed by a gentle knock. He looks up from his typewriter, at the familiar silhouette and the promises that come with it. He lights up a cigarette and tells her to enter. After all, the devil can only come in if invited…

Welcome to the intro of almost every single detective noir ever made! The genre that has been with us since the first days of cinema is making a comeback, with series set in the 1930s or neo-noir detective shows borrowing those same tropes and revamping them to fit today’s world.

 

Perry Mason (HBO Max)

The criminally underrated Matthew Rhys delivers yet another fantastic performance as Perry Mason, a broken former soldier turned private investigator. Mason lives on his dilapidated family farm just outside LA and would have drowned long ago at the bottom of a whiskey bottle if he wasn’t employed as an investigator by elderly lawyer EB Jonathan. Everything changes when Mason and Jonathan find themselves in the middle of a media blitz following the high-profile case of the murder of an infant. Rich tycoons, crazy cults and corrupt police officers all come together in an explosive courtroom drama.

What immediately stands out is how masterfully the post-Depression era has been captured. The scenery, costumes and props really bring the 1930s to life, from large set-pieces to minor mannerisms, such as Mason always hiding his cigarette behind his palm, a habit he picked up while fighting in WWI so the enemy wouldn’t see him at night.

Perry Mason is an origin story, unfolding at a time before the firebrand orator became a successful defence lawyer, as he was depicted in the 1950s-1960s famous series.

Perry Mason is currently in its second season with a third surely set to follow.

 

Babylon Berlin (Netflix)

Switch those Lucky Strikes for a pack of Gaulois and let’s head to the other side of the Atlantic! Babylon Berlin is the most expensive series ever made in Germany, telling the story of police inspector Gereon Rath who is transferred from his office in Cologne to chaotic Berlin during the years of the Weimar Republic.

Running for four seasons, Babylon Berlin captures the decadence of the era and juxtaposes it with the seedy underbelly of a Germany struggling to survive and being primed to usher in extremism and set the world on fire. Again, extensive care has been given to recreating the era, allowing for a fully immersive viewing experience.

Unfortunately, while Netflix acquired the rights to the series, it only shows in America, Australia and New Zealand. Maybe some day we will get rid of the ridiculous geo-blocking restriction that pushes people towards illegally downloading series and studios losing out on potential subscribers.

 

Luther (Netflix)

The detective series Luther premiered in 2010 and concluded in 2019, telling the story of troubled police detective John Luther, a man obsessed with bringing criminals to justice and breaking as many laws as he could in doing so. Starring Idris Elba, the series’ success all but guaranteed a future film, one that the busy Elba would have to fit in between demanding shooting schedules. I’m pointing that out because to be perfectly honest, Luther: The Fallen Sun, which premiered last week, needed more time in the oven.

It looks and feels like a first draft that somehow made it to the editing room. When you have Elba playing against a villain portrayed by Andy Serkis and the best response you can elicit is a “meh”, you know you did wrong. Luther fans will definitely enjoy seeing their hero riding once more, and those into neo-noir will find what they love here but as for the rest, well, meh.

 

Boardwalk Empire

While not a detective noir as such, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire is one of the first modern TV series that brought the 1920s and 1930s to life. Produced by Martin Scorsese, it tells the story of Nucky Thompson, a famous real-life bootlegger in Atlanta who turned politician later in life.

The accurate portrayal of the era, along with compelling characters and a landmark performance by Steve Buscemi as Thompson make Boardwalk Empire a stand-out series and one you should absolutely watch if you are fascinated with the roaring 20s!

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