Insomnia, dead of night, and film noir

This essay has been superseded in my thinking about film noir by my more recent critiques, especially the ones on Crossfire, Dark Passage, and especially Key Largo. I haven’t yet been able to spend the time to make a better effort of this piece, and it will remain here until I can.

Tinted photograph of Dashiell Hammett, an originator of the 'hard-boiled' genre of crime fiction, ca early 1930s.
Tinted photograph of Dashiell Hammett, an originator of the ‘hard-boiled’ genre of crime fiction, ca early 1930s.

Insomnia, I have discovered, can be put to good use if exploited the right way. Long hours of still darkness in which there is little to do but read, write, and … watch old films.

Some recent sleepless nights have been devoted to watching old American black and white films, each one proclaimed rather crassly as a ‘film noir classic’ on cheaply designed DVD jackets.

I became intrigued by the concept of a ‘black’ or ‘dark cinema’ and I broadened my ‘portfolio’ to include other films from the 1930s to the 1950s for which no such claims were made. Nevertheless, I came across a tangible but hard-to-describe common thread that linked a whole batch of these films by something other than genre, directors, actors or plot similarities.

One of the elements of this common thread was that many of these old films, though mostly devoid of special effects, colour or grand spectacle, were simply better than their contemporary successors. Somehow the stories seemed more meaningful, the visualisations more sophisticated, and the impact of the cinematography more powerful.

Another dynamic was that I thought I was beginning to get a somewhat deeper understanding of the psychology not only of the artists who made these films, but also of the imagined audiences they ‘spoke’ to with their art.

Underlying my thoughts on these dynamics was a deliberate search for common elements and patterns that I could apprehend as this elusive category of film noir.

That investigation was not as simple as it might have seemed, and ended up in a fairly personal survey of the films reviewed here.

As the word suggest, the term film noir is derived from French film critique. Canadian film academic Charles O’Brien, in his book Film Noir in France: Before the Liberation, traces the term back to French newspaper articles of the 1930s that used the words pejoratively to describe a French cinematic trend known as ‘poetic realism,’ which was condemned by ‘conservatives’ as degenerate and decadent. However, the contemporary use of the term derives from its use by French film critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier to describe a series of American films seen in Paris for the first time in 1946. These films included Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, The Maltese Falcon, The Little Foxes, Laura, Murder My Sweet, and Double Indemnity.

There is still debate about whether noir is a genre in its own right, a sub-genre of crime fictions, or a style of film independent of genre. Knowing something of the academic study of film noir is one thing, watching these films decades after their heyday is another thing entirely. It leaves an impression coloured by everything that has come and gone since, but it also beckons you to imagine what it was like in its own time. To imagine that setting, it helps to visualise yourself in that era.

America in the 1930s

Imagine you were born in the US in 1899. You probably grew up in a rural or semi-rural setting. The myths of the times focused heavily on legendary gunmen of the Wild West, some of whom were still alive.

You were 15 when the first world war broke out and the world outside the US first really entered your consciousness. When you were 17 the first of the doughboys returned from the bloody battle-fields of France, bringing with them stories of nightmarish slaughter and deprivation, but probably also of strange and mesmerising cosmopolitan lifestyles.

Just before you reached the age of consent, the Volstead Act of 1920 outlawed the sale and consumption of alcohol in what must have been a stiflingly prissy social environment. Unbeknownst to the wowsers, however, this legislation promoted the rise of ‘gangsterism’ in the United States by making bootlegging a hugely profitable business, tacitly supported by vast swathes of the population who patronized the speakeasies where ordinary folk rubbed shoulders with true gangsters, gamblers, tough guys, doctors, stock-brokers, lawyers, judges, police chiefs, prostitutes, musicians, junkies, reporters, actors, and artists.

You probably had your first drinks in a speakeasy, got laid by a girl you met in one, and encountered some real gangsters, second tier enforcers, third-rank associates, and would-be goons mingling in that environment.

Cover of Black Mask magazine in 1929, featuring the Maltese Falcon. An example of the pulp fiction of the times.
Cover of Black Mask magazine in 1929, featuring the Maltese Falcon. An example of the pulp fiction of the times.

Your sense of morality might have been strongly influenced by your perception that the bad guys weren’t really so bad to ordinary Joes like you — if you stayed out of their way. The ‘live and let live’ credo might have left an indelible impression on you and your peers.

You watched silent movies in awe of the technology and the world of imagination it opened up to you, and in 1927 or 1928 you queued up to see your first ‘talkie’. A true innovation in an, as yet, young medium.

No matter how you made your living, when you turned 30 your world was turned upside down by the 1929 Wall Street crash that ushered in the Great Depression of the 1930s – an entire decade of austerity, class division and ideological struggle that would lead to the virtual eradication of overt American socialism and communism in the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s that even you had to bow to in the end.

In 1933 the prohibition ended and the gangsters of the day founded new businesses, notably in ‘legitimate’ gambling, narcotics and organised labour. The lines between legitimate business interests and organised crime were becoming increasingly blurred, but at the same time, America was enthralled by the rise of a new kind of outlaw – the ‘modern’ armed robber as successor to the cowboy gun-men of the Wild West: John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Baker and her boys, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonny and Clyde, and others like them, became publicly notorious as the new desperados of the mid-West. Alongside them in the limelight were more sinister figures like Al Capone, Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel and their associates.

It almost seemed a normal part of life to track the latest exploits of gangsters in radio news broadcasts, Hearst newspapers or even movie newsreels. By the later 1930s these exploits had made it onto the silver screen as morality tales, making famous the likes of James Cagney, George Raft and Edward G Robinson. If you were a stage actor, you might have made the transition to the movies and aspired to playing some of these tough guys yourself.

By the mid-1930s America was awash with ‘pulp fiction’ featuring everything from detective and mystery stories to science fiction and horror fables. These translated readily to radio plays and cinematic adaptations, all visualised in the contemporary art deco and modernist design styles evident in everything from set design for stage and screen to advertising and magazine illustration, and from architecture to industrial design.

Raymond Chandler with Jake the cat at La Jolla, California, in 1948. Chandler is another originator of the 'hard-boiled' genre.
Raymond Chandler with Jake the cat at La Jolla, California, in 1948. Chandler is another originator of the ‘hard-boiled’ genre.

In 1936 Europe once again came into focus as an intrusive ‘other’ reality via the Spanish civil war in which the opponents of fascism included many vocal American and European intellectuals, and which cemented the reputation of war correspondent Ernest Hemingway as a leading literary light of his generation, exposing Americans to news about the spread of fascism in Europe in the process.

An exodus of European intellectuals to the USA brought in a strong wave of fresh thinking in the arts, including film, though these efforts were increasingly bent to propaganda purposes. Nevertheless, elements of German and French expressionism, along with an existentialist cynicism about the world and the people in it seemed particularly appropriate in those times.

When Europe was plunged again into catastrophic war in 1939 you were 40, and by the time Pearl Harbour was bombed and America became the major force against the Japanese in the Pacific and Nazi Germany in Europe, you were almost past your prime. If you happened to be a movie actor, your efforts were increasingly turned towards propaganda pictures deploring all things German and Japanese, portraying an American spirit of defiance, independence and self-reliance in the face of thinly disguised fascist ‘evil’.

By the end of the war you might have emerged as a major star. Your name might have been Humphrey Bogart. Film noir was your living, the noir outlook was your environment.

Through a screen darkly …

And there, in that last sentence, lies the basis of my own definition of film noir: it is not so much a genre as an outlook, mood or feeling, reinforced with expressionistic use of sets, lighting and camera angles to accentuate a darkly brooding atmosphere pregnant with the suggestion of sinister activities just out of sight, and raw human appetites for all the forbidden fruit tempting existential man.

This mood was uniquely suited to the ‘hard boiled’ style of detective fiction by the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but could be applied to almost any story illuminating the shadowy, forbidden realm of greed, power, lust, sex and violence. Its characters were inevitably urban, emotionally calloused types with a deep-seated cynicism about people and a pessimistic outlook on the world around them. They expect the worst and claim no sainthoods for themselves, but they are tough enough to stand their own and carve out niches for themselves, and they defend what they regard as theirs with tenacity and ingenuity, often emerging by way of their morally ambiguous but common-sense values as dependable in nature and vital of spirit. Exactly the sort of people you want around you in perilously uncertain times, but perhaps not the type to bring home to mother for Sunday dinner.

Mystery fiction editor Joyce Carol Oates wrote of her parents that their lives, somewhat shrouded in dark and taboo events, seemed

… to have sprung from a noir America that’s the underside of the American dream, memorialized in folk ballads and blues and in the work of such disparate writers as Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. (Oates, Joyce Carol, ed. The Best American Mystery Stories. London: Quercus, 2006, p xiv.)

The prodigious and tremendously readable contemporary hard-boiled writer James Ellroy has often alluded in his stories to the same sense of something of a hidden underside being just beyond normal perception. A past with skeletons in closets that noir protagonists are running away from or living in denial of. A quintessentially American sense of guilt about misdemeanours that are shameful only in the tight-arsed, prissy domain of the US East Coast establishment.

The noir protagonist is likely to be on the run, or hiding out far from ‘home’. He (and it is usually a man) may have secrets to hide, but is never all bad, and recognises at once a common bond with, and an existentialist alienation from, other people – the ‘other’ posed by the Cartesian cogito in its recognition of self.

This becomes the basis of reluctant heroes helping others in their causes while rejecting any sense of allegiance or obligation to these projects. A position not dissimilar to America’s Monroe Doctrine as applied in the 20th century, which saw Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration provide assistance to the Soviet Union and the British but baulking at taking a direct hand in the prosecution of the war until Japan, Germany and Italy forced the war upon it.

Women in noir have been the subject of much far fetched debate because of the almost compulsory ideological strictures of fatuous feminist critique. It would be remiss of me not to mention it here because it has affected my own subjectivity, even if only because I know about it.

Fortunately I am content to say that feminist critique has little to offer in defining the genre or enhancing the appreciation of noir films. Women do tend to be portrayed as sexually promiscuous, manipulative and duplicitous in noir cinema, but in being shown thus, I see people no better or worse than the men in the same stories. In short, the film noir ‘femme fatale’ is likely to be much more emancipated and head-strong than other female stereotypes of that or any other era.

These are people you’d much prefer to be around in tough times or a tight spot than prim and proper but immature and hysterical cry-babies. Besides, men have always liked ‘bad’ women (usually defined as bad by other women who regard themselves in the opposite), and the likes of Julia Kristeva or Luce Irigaray have no say in that matter.

The noir experience today

It is with this mind-set that I constructed most of the critiques in this ‘revue’. As such it may seem too ambitious in deriving layered meaning from what others see only as light entertainment. I don’t begrudge anyone that point of view.

However, I believe that there were intelligent and creative people at work making these films, and almost nothing that made it onto the silver screen got there by accident. It is on that basis that I beg to differ from a minimalist approach to an ostensibly two-dimensional and disposable entertainment.

On the contrary. As an observer of this body of work today, I am in the enviable position of being able to discern historical influences that might have been submerged in the here-and-now of the era for the contemporary audience of those times.

Whether you agree or disagree with my perceptions about the films I mention here, I sincerely hope that at least some of my words might beguile you to revisit the works I’ve chosen, and to look again with a keen and discerning eye at an art that has, as yet, no match in modern cinema.

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