Inception: Nolan Film Noir

nolan film noir


I’m starting to realize that Nolan Film Noir is just another way of saying “Nolan film.” Walk with me: in almost every scene of Inception, someone changes their mind or tries to change someone else’s mind. In koine Greek, metanoia “change mind” is often translated “repent.” That’s the film: face your inner demons to face your outer demons. Twelve levels compose Cob’s subconscious – twelve memories of regret. That makes twelve things to change, histories to rewrite, regrets to repent from in the deepest parts of his mind.

nolan film noir

Architects of dreams in Inception world create and perceive simultaneously. Let’s go with one of the other interpretations: Inception symbolizes all film. “Inception” injects the theme of the movie into the mind of the audience. That’s what stories do. Plato once called for the immediate ejection of all storytellers in Athens out of fear and not boredom. He knew stories threatened his philosophy with alternative ideas. Every storyteller hold an idea they believe and hope to prove unequivocally to you, the audience member. For the sake of argument, call it inception. This question might follow: what’s Inception’s theme? If all storytellers practice inception, then what’s Nolan saying?

Life conquers death when we change our mind about our own regret, even in our old age.

Repentance over our regret takes work, hard work, even dying to ourselves. Most often in the film when people wake up to reality, they’re dying or doing something that could also function as dying. Cob’s first kick immerses him in a bathtub. The whole group could have drowned in the communal baptism via van bridge jump. A building explodes. A knife buries deep into a sternum. A bullet sears through a subconscious. Everytime someone wakes up, there’s death involved, even with Cob. In fact, my original thoughts about Ariadne came close – she leads Cob out of the labyrinth of his own regret. Moll takes on Satanic quality in those moments, especially the “throw yourself down and you will be rescued” scene. Part Judas, part Lucifer, Mal terrified me. Here’s the irony: Cob needed to die to himself to wake up to reality. So did Mal, but she let regret win out and actually died to embody  Cob’s own regret – all twelve floors of it.

I could get into the symbolism of “twelve,” of the freight train, of “the foolish man build his house on sand” scene – towers on the beach and all – but there’s a more important question: if Inferno influences the film in some secondary or subconscious way, why the layers?

Let’s take a look at Nolan’s first work, Doodlebug:

Notice anything? Here’s my checklist:

  • Black and white
  • 1940’s phone
  • 1940’s clock
  • time ticking away
  • someone calling, we never find out who
  • drowning the outside world
  • stomp out a “roach”
  • layers upon layers of Russian-doll men
  • bizarre twilight-zone feel

Why are these important?

nolan film noirBecause every single film the Nolans have made feels similar. This short film borrows from classic film noir tropes. We can place all of his work either the neo-noir or the noir category. Film noir typically involves a convoluted plot, some morally ambiguous character (detective or self-made detective), often an amnesiac, caught between corrupt law enforcement and criminals who got into crime as a product of environment. This detectivish character often walks the line between cops and criminals under the influence of some femme-fatale, a dangerous seductress dating back to the fae who made men insane via pleasure and sirens who sang to sailors until their ships dashed against the rocks. The femme-fatale may or may not end up good, but she gets the “detective” into trouble. White and black show up in alternating patterns, most often in that venetian blinds cliché that blocks incoming light to look like prison bars. The worlds of noir paint pessimistic portraits of life or at least show the desperation involved in attaining idealism. Layers show up often, as in the Doodlebug short, since there’s always another deeper, darker layer of paint on the old underbelly of society. Odds stack against the protagonist, beating the living snot out of him or her.

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Common characters: hardboiled/morally questionable detective, jealous husbands, claim adjusters, down-and-out writers, anyone smoking

Common settings: urban, labyrinth, bars, lounges, nightclubs, gambling dens, opium dens, visually complex/industrial sets for the climax

Common plots: crime investigation by concerned amateur, murder, greed, jealousy, false accusations, betrayal, double-crosses, conspiracy, amnesia (last three lists via Wikipedia)

Now drag his career through some of those filters:

All of them appear dark with stark shades of white.

Femme Fatale:

Detective-like Protag:

  • Lenny, a claim-adjuster “detective” with anterograde memory loss (Memento)
  • Batman, hardboiled “detective” (Batman Begins)
  • Robert Angier, a morally flawed & hardboiled magician-detective (Prestige)
  • Batman again (Dark Knight)
  • Cobb, an alienated & down-and-out “extractor” aka “detective” (Inception)


  • Urban, drug-deal sites, bars, nightclubs, crappy hotels (Memento)
  • Urban, nightclubs, gambling/drug dens, industrial, factories (Batman Begins)
  • Urban, bars, lounges, visually complex climax/industrial (Prestige)
  • Urban, gambling dens, lounges, etc. (Dark Knight)
  • Urban, LABYRINTH, lounges, visually COMPLEX (Inception)


  • Investigation by amateur, “amnesia,” murder, false accusation (Memento)
  • Crime investigation by “amateur,” greed, betrayal, conspiracy (Batman Begins)
  • Investigation by amateur, murder, greed, jealousy, double-crosses like the plague (Prestige)
  • Conspiracy, jealousy, murder, false accusation, con game (Dark Knight)
  • Murder, greed, jealousy, false accusation, betrayal, conspiracy, amnesia (Inception)

I excluded Insomnia and The Following to cut down on word count and because I haven’t seen either yet. Two quick thoughts:

  1. I’ll follow up next week on how this helps us interpret his films
  2. This works well with Batman, but unless you rewrite Superman mythology, it clashes with his character. Burrows and Wallace from Gotham:

A later Batman editor perspicaciously noted, Gotham is New York’s nourish side—‘Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at 3 a.m., November 28 in a cold year’—whereas Superman’s Metropolis presents New York’s cheerier face, ‘Manhattan between Fourteenth and One Hundred and Tenth Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year.’

No wonder they filmed the Batmans in Chicago. I wish luck to them for Superman and to the creators of the new Spiderman. At best, those films will be difficult.

Thoughts? Questions? Libelous allegations?


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