Fans of director Christopher Nolan will note his eight feature films prevailing noir tones. From Memento (2000) to the The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception (2010), Nolan is constantly imbibing his films with sheer mystery and suspense. As Nolan continues to cleverly deceive audiences, his ardent fans return to his first features and the start of his career to see the vision of a fledgling director who would become one of the most commercially successful filmmakers of his generation. It is these fans along with a small cult of admirers who would be familiar with Nolan’s debut feature Following (1998). The film has many trademark Nolan elements: a less than reliable narrator, an unstable sense of identity, and a non-linear chronology. Following, however, is an ingenious neo-noir worthy of more notoriety, a stunning throwback to the low to no-budget film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s.
Following tells the story of a young, unemployed writer – whose name may or not be Bill (Jeremy Theobald) – looking for inspiration by following strangers around London. Through flashbacks, beginning with Bill’s interrogation by the police, his descent into a sinister criminal world is revealed. Initially, he has strict rules about whom, when, and where to follow people: never follow women after dark, never follow the same person twice. These rules fall by the wayside once Bill spies a mysterious, well-groomed man in a dark suit (Cobb, Alex Haw). Having noticed he is being followed, Cobb confronts Bill and tells him that he is a burglar. Cobb then invites Bill to accompany him to various houses. Material gains from these burglaries are negligible, as Cobb’s sole purpose is to unveil unwitting strangers deeply personal lives and hijack their false sense of security and privacy. As Cobb explains, “You take it away and show them what they had.” Thrilled by this lifestyle, Bill makes the unfortunate decision to accompany Cobb on what turns out to be more than a mere tour of strangers’ apartments. In following Cobb, Bill becomes more than a shadow; he changes his appearance, his behavior, and ultimately becomes a scapegoat for Cobb and a manipulative woman known as The Blonde (Lucy Russell).
The characteristically noir non-linear structure is certainly at the core of Nolan’s filmmaking and features prominently in Following. In fact, the voice-over narration and opening scene of the film are straight out of classic noirs such as Double Indemnity (1944) or Out of the Past (1947). Nolan cleverly introduces the viewer to Bill – now in police custody – as he explains his “innocent” role in Cobb’s exploits. From this moment on, the entire film is told in flashback, interspersed with Bill’s narration. Following’s timeline follows several temporalities, all of which converge toward the end of the film. These time discrepancies may be easily differentiated by Bill’s changing appearance: from long to short hair; and before and after a violent encounter resulting in a swollen, black eye. As the film progresses, timelines merge – Bill cuts his hair, becoming much more like Cobb with alarming ease and glimpses the true Cobb in a bloody fistfight. One might question the necessity for such a convoluted structure, but this non-linear storytelling serves as a throwback to film noir, and Nolan’s clever withholding of information between timelines builds remarkable tension.
In effect this fragmented structuring means that, from the outset, the audience sees Bill as a man who has done wrong. Yet, at the same time, Bill serves as a figure the audience can relate to in the face of Cobb’s disturbing brand of burglary. The result is Nolan’s spin on the anti-hero, so prevalent in classic film noir. Bill’s character makes us question the notion of a concrete right and wrong. Initially, he is merely a naïve, lonely, uninspired writer, but a string of questionable decisions result in lies, theft, and even death. Here, we see Nolan hone in on one of the most interesting aspects of the film noir genre: morally bankrupt characters defined by their brutal actions. In this way, Bill may be seen as the quintessential morally ambiguous noir protagonist who does terrible deeds, yet still commands sympathy from his audience. Despite transforming into a burglar – and possibly a murderer – Bill remains the most upright and virtuous character in Nolan’s portrayal of London’s criminal underworld.
What distinguishes Nolan’s first feature film is its ability to overcome its shoestring budget of roughly £3000. Nolan and his cast and crew all had full-time jobs and little to no extra money to pay for a film. The result is a film designed to be as inexpensive as possible. Shot on 16mm, which was both a cheap option and Nolan’s preferred film stock, Following was filmed almost exclusively on location using natural light. Nolan also insisted that scenes be heavily rehearsed – months in advance of shooting – so that no more than two takes would be necessary per set-up. These monetary limitations produce a film that recalls the French New Wave in its guerrilla style of filmmaking as well as no-budget classic film noirs. Films such as Detour (1945), Gun Crazy (1950), and many noirs produced by Monogram Pictures were notorious for their lack of budget. With Following, Nolan continues the tradition of making brilliant noir from virtually nothing.
Following will likely always be a footnote to Nolan’s successful film career, but his achievement in contemporary no-budget neo-noir deserves recognition. Not many directors can attest to the strength of a debut film on which they were simultaneously the cinematographer, editor, writer, and producer. The genius of Following is in its immersive psychological mystery, lasting only 70 minutes, yet thoroughly engrossing thanks to an inherently suspenseful chronology.