top of page

Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn” takes a ‘50s film noir twist

Updated: Jun 5, 2022


Edward Norton as canny private detective Lionel Essrog, who tries to piece together a mystery that involves Laura Rose, played by English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

(Click an image to scroll through the larger versions)


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2019; R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: Writer/producer/director/actor Edward Norton’s feature commentary

EDWARD NORTON’S second directorial feature was in the works even before Jonathan Lethem’s award-winning 1999 novel appeared in bookshops. Norton bought the movie rights based on the book’s galleys.

His screen adaptation takes major liberties with the time period and plot points of Lethem’s story, with the author’s approval, but both versions share its quirky protagonist. Norton stars as Lionel Essrog, a canny private detective who manages to do his job while struggling with symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome, as well as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. His conditions cause him to explode periodically into verbal outbursts, often in rhyme; to perform repetitive motions, such as tapping people incessantly on the shoulder; and to insist things be in a particular order, such as having the bills in his wallet face in the same direction.

The novel takes place in 1999, but Norton chose to go full noir with the movie, setting it back in the 1950s and inserting political and social issues that occurred in New York City at that time. Just as in many films noir, the story is convoluted, with a few red herrings and “MacGuffins,” deliberately leading viewers in the wrong direction before revealing true motives and identities. Part murder mystery, part inner-city housing scandal, and part love story unfold against rich period atmosphere and a sizzling jazz score, “Motherless Brooklyn” is an intelligent, absorbing testament to Norton’s many talents.

He also assembled a terrific cast of veteran actors, including Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones and Fisher Stevens, as well as new young standouts England’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Michael Kenneth Williams.

(1-3) New York City and its striking 20th-century architecture the backdrop for "Motherless Brooklyn." Lionel Essrog and Gilbert Coney (Ethan Suplee) are stationed as a backup for their boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Three or four guys are meeting Frank in a third-floor apartment. Lionel, with amazing recall, will be listening from an open phone line. "If you hear me say, 'We have a problem' hustle over," says Frank. (4) Like any good film noir story, nothing goes as planned.



Norton and British cinematographer Dick Pope (“The Illusionist,” “Mr. Turner) captured this meticulously retro-looking film on 3.4K digital cameras (1.85:1 aspect ratio), then mastered in 2K. Warner provides an exclusive digital 4K release with HDR toning creating a smoky and textural grittiness with a believable ‘50s vibe. Overall sharpness with both formats is extremely sharp and detailed.

Norton calls Pope, who shot all of Mike Leigh’s films, one of the “great cinematographers of the modern age.” The two met on Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist.” By using old lenses combined with digital cameras, Pope “achieves a present-day reality while making you feel you’ve gone into another time.”

The HDR10 and Dolby Vision provides natural skin tones, while muted colors and dingy sets still offer plenty of shadow detail. Bright touches, such as the blue overcoat worn by Mbatha-Raw’s character Laura, appear all the more striking in contrast. Overall the 4K provides a slighter darker palette and richer colors.


The Blu-ray has the uncompressed six-channel DTS-HD Master soundtrack, while the digital 4K is coded with the lesser compressed audio. The Blu-ray is excellent and well-balanced, with realistic sound effects. The gorgeous jazzy score was composed by Daniel Pemberton and bolstered by Thom Yorke (Radiohead), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), and Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, among other fine musicians. Dialogue is clear and centered.

(1) Frank Minna ends up shot and rushed to the emergency room where he dies. (2) His wife Julia (Leslie Mann) doesn't seem surprised. (3) Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale) will oversee the private detective business L&L Agency and keep Julia in the loop. (4) Lionel lives in an apartment at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.



The bonus features are especially rich on the 4K digital and Blu-ray, which includes deleted scenes and a worthwhile making-of documentary. But Norton’s articulate commentary is a special treat, and conversational enough to seem like you’re sitting in his living room watching the movie with him. Despite his insistence on calling collaborators “geniuses,” and his repeated use of “Star Wars” allusions, Norton’s intimate three-pronged connection with the material provides a unique perspective into all aspects of the film.

He asserts his love for “gum shoe noir movies,” the conventions of which he wanted to stick with (such as Essrog’s voiceover), but also wanted to “upend them” by making him the antithesis of the “smooth-talking detective.” The plots of noir films, adds Norton, “always put you deep into the murk,” so the audience needs to “sit back, and eventually that little walk through the shadows will make sense.”

Norton discusses casting in great detail. Getting Bruce Willis (“always the coolest guy in the room”) resulted from Willis having seen a play of Norton’s and telling him he wanted to work with him one day. Willis’ “commitment from the get-go was literally a reason (“Motherless Brooklyn”) got made,” Norton says.

Most of the cast is comprised of New York theater actors whom Norton previously worked with and, he says, that history gave them an “easy shorthand” with each other on set. He tells a funny story about Michael Williams’ commitment to his role as a jazz trumpeter. Marsalis actually played what you hear onscreen, but Williams insisted he had to really blow into the horn for it to look authentic. The result, says Norton, “sounded like someone killing a swan.” The director had to admonish the other (real) musicians in the jazz band not to laugh during the shoot.

(1) Lionel starts his own investigation from what he heard on the phone the day Frank was killed: Color girl, Committee, Horowitz, Report, Hamilton, Signature, Father Vet, Harlem club, Week from Thursday. He ends up making photographs at the entrance to the Committee Against Racial Discrimination in Housing. (2) Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones) speaks at a public hearing against the Hamilton Housing Plan. (3) Center, the new mayor of NYC (Peter Gray Lewis) and his good old boys. (4) Lionel gets vital information from Paul (Willem Dafoe) after buying him dinner. (5) Lionel's back at The King Rooster jazz club as actor Michael Kenneth Williams plays the jazz trumpeter. American virtuoso Wynton Marsalis provides a Miles Davis sound.


He praises Dafoe’s ability to do a very wordy scene in one take so as not to squander the half-hour of good light left on a location. Norton describes acting with the spontaneous Dafoe to “walking into a buzzsaw.” Regarding a monologue by Alec Baldwin, Norton says Baldwin was “so fantastically in command of the scene,” that even the crew was riveted.

Much of the location shooting was done in New York City, where there is still construction from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, as well as the same Long Island toll both used in a famous “Godfather” scene: “The ghost of Sonny Corleone is in that tollbooth!” Norton references other film inspirations in his commentary such as “French Connection” and “Apocalypse Now,” as well as still photographs by Vivian Maier and paintings by Edward Hopper. Norton says he finished writing the screenplay in 2012, but much of the corruption in the story that related to “power, money and privilege,” as well as an “ugly, exclusionary view of America … became a lot more timely in 2019.” Norton predictably ends his commentary by thanking everyone who, he says, “worked for scale,” and modestly describing the job of director as someone who basically “marshals other people’s talents.”

— Peggy Earle

(1) Lionel comforts Laura after the killing of her step-father. (2) He tells her "Pretty soon, you're gonna hear his voice in your head. He's gonna tell you to pull yourself together and get movin'. And when you do, you're gonna feel him smilin' at you again, I promise." (3) The 4K/HDR toning provides excellent highlights and shadows as Lionel heads to a locker at Penn Station. (3) Paul leaves his apartment above a hats store. (5) The truth is revealed during a meeting between Commission Moses Randoph (Alec Baldwin) and Lionel.

Lionel and Laura meet at Frank's Point Lookout beach house. "Still lookin' out for you, after all. Funny how things turn out," she says.





bottom of page