I don't pretend to be any sort of scholar where film noir is concerned, but like most movies geeks of a certain age, I was bitten by the bug and went a little crazy. All of a sudden my Netflix queue was swollen with films by Jules Dassin, Robert Siodmak, and Anthony Mann. I must have gone through at least 50 titles, but my very favorite remains the first noir I ever saw: Otto Preminger's practically perfect Laura. As most old-school movie freaks can tell you, film noir generally deals with several key components: Crime, paranoia, sharp shadows, hard-boiled dialog, elaborate conspiracies, femme fatales, sudden violence, and a foreboding sense that fate is a cruel mistress indeed. (Like I said, I'm no scholar, but you can get a great noir lesson right here.)

But nowadays we don't seem to have much use for film noir, unless (of course) it's used as a stylistic choice in movies like Sin City and Watchmen. (Hey, I guess Frank Miller and Alan Moore dig film noir, so maybe you should too!) And then there are indie films like The Perfect Sleep, which aim to come across as both a traditional film noir and an affectionate homage / satire of the genre at the same time. If the flick is just a bit too clever for its own good on one or two occasions, well, I suppose that's preferable to most movies, because they're generally way too stupid for their own good.

Tailor-made for open-minded noir buffs who wouldn't mind seeing the beloved genre blended up with a dose of martial arts mayhem and just a touch of supernatural strangeness, Jeremy Alter's The Perfect Sleep takes a little while to warm up to. We open with whom we assume is our grizzled hero, just as he's about to get beaten up by a gang of wise-ass henchmen. Then we jump straight back into a slightly convoluted flashback structure in which all the essential rules and players are introduced before we end up back at square one.

And that's when things get really twisty. Anton Pardoe plays the unnamed protagonist, and while the flick (to its credit) never comes out and states that its reluctant hero is virtually immortal, it soon becomes obvious that the villains are just a little "extra cautious" when he enters the room. Plus, it turns out that the nefarious evildoers (something about an old grudge, a recent kidnapping, and a whole lot of bad blood) have a whole lot of martial arts experts on the payroll -- while our inscrutable, invincible anti-hero has a colorfully evil doctor as his only sidekick. All one need remember is that Ms. Roselyn Sanchez plays the femme fatale / object of multiple affections, and suddenly the various schemes, betrayals, and motivations make a lot more sense. (In other words, she's gorgeous.)

I could waste this paragraph explaining the densely-layered plot threads, the amusingly pulpy tough-guy banter, or Alter's unquestionable gift for throwing shadows and light together, but The Perfect Sleep is a fine little indie concoction that's best left for the viewer to sift through. Pardoe does a great job of delivering even the pulpiest of dialog, and the supporting cast is particularly excellent: Michael Pare pops up as a violent cop, and adds a lot to the proceedings when he does, plus we're treated to a wonderfully sick performance by Tony Amendola as a character best described as "Dr. Hitman." Amendola steals every scene he's in and left me wanting more of this bizarre lunatic.

Of course I had a few nitpicks (the narration is maybe a bit too self-aware, some sequences a touch over-stuffed, a small handful of lines perhaps a little too florid), but it's tough to notice a few speed bumps when you're riding along with a filmmaker who clearly loves the same sort of movies I do. The Perfect Sleep is an undeniably odd mixture of 80% noir, 15% action, and 5% random homage, but I suspect that the film fans it was made for will definitely appreciate it.

[ The Perfect Sleep opens on 3/13 in Los Angeles, with other markets to follow in a week or two. It looks like Magnolia plans to release it when DVD time rolls around, so that's good news for everyone. And here's a link to the film's official site. ]