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Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) play a cat-and-mouse game in Gone Girl.

A man wonders what his lover is thinking. As with the opening scene in The Lady from Shanghai, the camera looks closely at this woman, she whom the audience believes to be the object of the man's affection. The beauty of this fascinating siren frozen in the male gaze fills the frame. "It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window," Marlowe said of his femme fatale. In this case, the blonde is Nick Dunne's lovely wife Amy.

From here the David Fincher film Gone Girl unfolds in voice-over flashback narration, the supreme film-noir device used by every doomed anti-hero searching for insight into his fate – from the philandering husband accused in They Won't Believe Me to rueful, lovelorn patsy Walter Neff in Double Indemnity ("How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?"). The bemusement is the tipoff that there's something to be understood, in hindsight, even if it's just a doomed man trying to make sense of his fate. What's initially sustained in suspense and teased out is what and how Nick (Ben Affleck) is confessing. Could it be like Neff, who records his story into a Dictaphone as he bleeds out from a gunshot wound at his office? Or is Nick, a man with possibly murderous charm, as dead as Joe Gillis was, narrating while floating face down in the Sunset Blvd. swimming pool?

It seems ridiculous to talk about avoiding spoilers, since from this very first scene and line, the movie coyly conjures up the entirety of this rich tradition of twisting and double-cross plots.

The question of whether Nick has killed his cool, smart, missing wife, Amy, plays out in public opinion using the now-familiar and garish visual grammar of the 24-hour news cycle of recrimination and amateur accusation. Peel that layer off and this cinematic Gone Girl and its cohorts can only arise from the the pulp crime and cinematic noir tradition. The femme fatale? Dear reader, he unwittingly married her.

Contemporary noir renditions such as The Guest, The Other Typist and Gone Girl work as well as they do because their plots and stylistic conventions play on reader/audience expectations, relying on fragments and tropes lodged in our collective cultural memory of film noir, like 1952's Sudden Fear (in which socialite Joan Crawford learns her husband is planning to kill her for her fortune, and double-crosses him with a convoluted plot of her own).

The genre trappings are the same – adultery, fraudulent identity, greed, murder – but toyed with and revised of context. Gone are the nocturnal urban shadows and camera angles: The classic maze of cat-and-mouse clues and existential malaise is played out placidly in the bright, cold light of the tasteful veneer of a suburban Pinterest-perfect marriage.

Like Cornell Woolrich's early pulp writing, where the Depression figures as the economic catalyst, the 2008 recession sets Gone Girl's events in motion. The desperation is less one of impending financial ruin than of domestic complacency and contempt. Nick is a powerless anti-hero in an adulterous mess, in part, of his own passive making – albeit faced with a (sociopath) wife who would rather mete out preposterous punishment than admit romantic failure and divorce.

In Phantom Lady, Woolrich offers a protagonist who must convince others that he is innocent of his wife's murder, though like Nick he's over all not all that innocent – on the night in question he had picked up a woman at a bar (bringing with it all the aspersions that suggested back in 1942).

By 1955, Patricia Highsmith had invented a man deft at reinventing himself to suit his ends. Her Tom Ripley manipulated Dickie Greenleaf's father, and in this fall's stylized, eighties-style neon noir The Guest, Dan Stevens plays a former soldier who exaggerates his friendship with a family's dead son (he was no more than a passing wartime acquaintance) to insinuate himself into their home and lives.

Gone Girl's Amy plays roles too; before victim, she's the "cool girl" required to beguile Nick, and later strategically insinuates herself in various other personas that feed the contrived fable of her revenge plan. He's no angel either. Husband and wife's respective façades with each other are conveyed through repeated shots of their reflections in a mirror, the film-noir device to suggest a dual nature and duplicity. Neither of the two very different women Amy has befriended in her plot know who she really is, and even Nick's soulmate and actual twin sister doesn't know her brother as well as she thought.

As Ripley's obsession with Dickie (and the lavish lifestyle to which he's become accustomed) grows, so does Rose's obsession with high-living Odalie in The Other Typist, Suzanne Rindell's novel of two police stenographers who have a taste for the good life. Rose manipulates the written record of crimes and testimony until it's as self-serving and unreliable as Amy's diary of her marriage. Just as the dialogue of gumshoes like Philip Marlowe often reference themselves as reading lines from a preordained script, Amy, as a writer of quizzes for women's magazines, knowingly references the pantomime of contemporary courtship and its predictable arc.

The distorted records and memories are all a masterpiece of deception, contorting events and invented identity. In Gone Girl, Amy's own damning diary entries are narrated too knowingly by actress Rosamund Pike to be truly deceptive (she has Veronica Lake hair and Barbara Stanwyck's casually ruthless, sardonic mouth). Despite her homicidal tendencies, here at last is a femme fatale with agency: She bristles at being the cool-girl object of the male gaze and at the pressures of unrealistic expectations (denying oneself Kit Kats and bags of Fritos) – a delayed reaction to Scottie in Vertigo shaping Kim Novak into his specific womanly ideal. Neither woman ever really existed.

There is no satisfying, happy or just ending for any of the protagonists, but that too is necessary by the rules of the genre. In a final twist, Nick is trapped – the only possible way out is the very murder he was accused of in the first place. The dangerous loveless marriage, a corkscrew of the love-hate relationship often at the centre of film noir, is now, as blood swirls and disappears down the marital shower drain, a fate worse than the nuclear annihilation at the end of Kiss Me Deadly.