Why Noir Culture Continues to Fascinate Us
There is no escape from the hard twists of fate, the dark shadows, the cold light streaming in through horizontal blinds. It's a hard-liquor world, where beautiful women are waiting for the right moment to turn on you, where bad men with big guns will leave you bleeding in a doorway, dying a lonely death, never knowing why. In this world, you are born to die.In the archetypal Greek tragedies of Sophocles, the protagonists had no control over their destiny. They were merely puppets whose strings were held by vengeful gods. There was no self-determination -- everything was preordained, the hands of fate molding every action.The characters in these plays recognized that they had no control over their actions -- Oedipus killed his father and married his mother because the fates willed it. It was both the ultimate cop-out and the creepiest plot twist: Your book already has been written, and you're just reading along until you run out of pages.In this sense, the literary and film style known as noir is as old as the ruined amphitheaters of Greece. Hundreds of years of secular literature had thrown out fate as a plot device, preferring characters with self-determination. But, in confusing, paranoid times, times of intense social upheaval, the fates seem to have more of a hand in the way things turn out -- or, at least, we think they do.And noir rears its cynical head. In noir, as in Athens, there is a pervasive feeling that destiny is not our choice, and the cards are being dealt from the bottom of life's deck.Recent years have seen noir, French for "black," enjoying a significant comeback. The timing is perfect: With so many people believing that basic institutions are corrupt and that conspiratorial forces are controlling society from behind the scenes, it is no wonder that readers and viewers are enjoying and relating to noir again.Of course, the reason for noir's resurgence might not be so deep and sociological in nature -- it might just be that audiences are tired of being treated like idiots. This fall, "L.A. Confidential," a film based on the excellent, hard-boiled novel by neo-noirist James Ellroy, debuted to rapturous reviews. The film's tangled storyline, based around true events from the Fifties that occurred in that noirest of cities, Los Angeles, has audiences returning to pick up on plot twists they might have missed the first time. In an age of mindless event films, "L.A. Confidential" comes as a welcome respite.The basic story centers on three cops of decidedly different temperaments and natures. Lt. Ed Exley, the son of an LAPD legend, wants to play by the rules, but is finding it difficult to be a straight-arrow in a rotten department. Officer Bud White is a tough guy with a disturbed past, often used by the police as a heavy during off-the-record interrogations, and Sgt. Jack Vincennes is a show-off, with a television consulting deal and a taste for graft.In the course of the story, the three men visit some dark places in their souls as they discover that corruption in the LAPD runs deeper than any of them imagined. From beginning to end, it is noir in its purest sense, fatalistic and thematically correct, right down to the presence of a classic femme fatale. It's style is neither wink-wink or painted in broad strokes. What makes it so special is that it doesn't try to be noir; it is noir.OK, so noir is driven by fate and is inherently convoluted in nature. But what is it, really? In the Sept. 21 edition of the Washington Post, film critic Stephen Hunter put it as well as anybody could."Here's the answer from someone who once taught a course in it at a prominent educational institution so elite that it would never have admitted him as an undergraduate: I don't know."Note that I don't say, 'I have no idea.' In fact, I have too many ideas. This would all make much more sense if I knew less about it, but it's all so confusing."Then Hunter delivers the kicker, the definition nearly every source material on film noir uses."Like pornography, you know it when you see it."Film noir has its roots in German Expressionism, beginning with the early silent film output of Fritz Lang, possibly best known for his silent science fiction epic, "Metropolis." His 1931 classic "M," starring a young Peter Lorre as a child molester on the run, established many of the visual exponents of film noir: Shadowy photography, night scenes, harsh contrast.The imagery perfectly fit the tone of the Weimar Republic, but when that society gave way to Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party, some of Germany's finest Jewish filmmakers -- notably Lang, Robert Siodmak, Max Ophuls, Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder -- escaped to Hollywood to continue their unique vision. In Los Angeles, these directors found a town as glamorous -- and as sinister -- as Berlin.At the same time, American authors were prolifically churning out the laconic, twisted detective novels that became known as "hard-boiled," "pulp" or serie noire novels. On the more literary end of the spectrum were Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe, heroes of "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Big Sleep," respectively. Chandler and Hammett essentially had created the same character for their individual serials, a hard-as-nails, driven-but-troubled private dick, and when these characters were portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in film versions, they became even more interchangeable.Lower on the food chain at the time but later recognized for masterful, psychological noir thrillers were James M. Cain ("Double Indemnity," "The Postman Always Rings Twice") and Jim Thompson ("The Grifters," "After Dark, My Sweet.") At the bottom of the pile was pulp novelist Mickey Spillane, who, despite dubious literary talent, produced one of the most successful recurring characters in cinema and television, Mike Hammer, sort of a low-rent Spade or Marlowe. To use a standard, hard-boiled literary construct, Spillane was so hard-boiled, his yolk could shatter a windshield.When it came to film, hard-boiled authors were more than happy to play ball with Hollywood. They all allowed their novels to be adapted for the screen (even Thompson, whose novels did not find their way to celluloid until after his death, co-wrote Stanley Kubrick's 1956 noir, "The Killing"), and they often produced original screenplays for film.Chandler wrote the screenplay for 1946's "The Blue Dahlia" and 1951's "Strangers On a Train," and Hammett signed to write the screenplay for 1951's "Detective Story," but later bailed out. There was no snobbery toward the film industry, and the authors' involvement in the films often resulted in better adaptations.It must be pointed out that no one considered what they were writing or filming as "noir" until it was labeled as such in 1946. In separate analyses by French film critics Jean Pierre Chartier and Nino Frank, the genre was termed film noir, or "black film," and it stuck like a cheap, rubber sole on hot asphalt. The problem is, no one has developed a good, working definition of film noir, and it is doubtful anyone ever will.However, it is generally agreed that classic noir contained common elements, such as the expressionistic shadow imagery. Its protagonists are cynical but basically good men who have lost their idealism and, on some level, would like to regain it. They encounter alluring, dangerous women who could lead them to their downfall. And that downfall could happen at any time, for no reason."The general sense of jeopardy in life exists in all film noir. Circumstances around you become more and more unendurable, and yet you must endure," said Misha Nedeljkovic, professor of film studies at the University of Oklahoma. "Great noir poses the question, 'Why me? Why is this happening to me?' And the very dark answer to that is, 'For no reason at all.' "The narrative tends to weigh heavily on the side of misogyny, an aspect some analysts ascribe to the post-World War II attitude that Rosie the Riveter needed to go home, bake cookies and have teas. Elements of the stories, or the entire stories, are told in flashback, often with a voice-over narration, and certain fateful aspects might not even make sense on a surface level. But Nedeljkovic said that normal logic need not apply in a good noir."The noir idea is that we don't know what's going on, but we know that something bad is out there, controlling the events," he said."For me personally, the great noir films are about fall guys, a person caught in a net, and the more he struggles, the more tangled he becomes."The heyday of film noir was preceded and influenced by the gangster films of the Thirties, themselves a reflection of the romanticism of crime figures during the Great Depression. Elements of that genre slowly were folded into noir, and the first classic noir came in 1941 with director John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon."Although its characters were woefully undeveloped, it had all the underpinnings of noir. Spade's partner is killed, and a mysterious woman, Brigid, tells him a man named Thursby killed his partner and is threatening her as well. He is attracted to this femme fatale and vows to help her. Through a series of events, he learns that Brigid and a group of shady criminals are in search of the Falcon, a gem-encrusted figurine. In the end, Brigid is revealed to be the true murderer, the bird is a fake and Spade turns her in as she frantically professes her love for him.In short, everything is a lie."The Maltese Falcon" is something of a cultural icon, but it did not immediately inspire more film noir. After all, there was a war to be fought, and Hollywood largely turned away from such cynical pursuits in favor of the jingoistic war films of the period. Still, there were a few major releases, such as Wilder's 1944 adaptation of Cain's "Double Indemnity." But the genre truly took off with 1946's "The Big Sleep."Adapted by William Faulkner from Chandler's novel during his drunken final days as a screenwriter, "The Big Sleep" covers much of the same territory as "L.A. Confidential": A high-class porn ring, gangsters, crooked cops and dangerous women. The plot was so convoluted, Faulkner had to call Chandler several times to have certain murders in the story explained, and Chandler was either unwilling or unable to help very much. However, it is the first pairing of Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose dialogue is textbook noir: Witty, hard-boiled and full of often-salacious double entendres.From there, most of the improvements in the genre came in the form of narrative techniques. Wilder's finest moment, 1950's "Sunset Boulevard," begins with a shot of an out-of-work screenwriter, played by William Holden, dead and floating in a swimming pool. In a voice-over, the dead man tells the story of how he died, a result of his encounter with Norma Desmond, the unraveling former silent film star played by Gloria Swanson. The entire film is told in a flashback, which ultimately forms a cul-de-sac leading back to the swimming pool.Flashbacks were used to even greater effect in "The Killing." Kubrick and Thompson tell the story of a robbery, using flashbacks to detail each character's involvement. Once each character is thoroughly established, the focus jumps back to the beginning, concentrating on another individual. By the end, all elements of the crime, as seen through the eyes of all the characters, come together like a puzzle.Depending on whom you ask, the classic period of film noir ended either with 1956's "Kiss Me Deadly," a Spillane adaptation, or 1958's "Touch of Evil," directed by and starring Orson Welles. According to "Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style," by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, around 300 film noir works were produced during the classic period -- some were exemplary and, as one would expect, many more were crude and nearly unwatchable.But, even though production of film noir tapered off considerably, it continued to be a stylistic influence, spurring numerous parodies and homages and some viable, even excellent, latter-day additions to the noir canon.After the heyday, most attempts to revive the genre seemed stilted or self consciously attentive to nostalgia. For example, 1969's "Marlowe," starring James Garner in an adaptation of Chandler's "The Little Sister," tried to place the detective in Vietnam War-era Los Angeles -- an entirely different city.Robert Altman had better luck transposing Marlowe into a later period in 1973's "The Long Goodbye," but the modern setting still was jarring. In contrast, 1975's "Farewell, My Lovely," starring noir veteran Robert Mitchum as Marlowe, was so faithful to the visual elements of noir, it was like watching a misty-eyed tribute instead of a movie that could stand on its own merits.On the other hand, there were bright spots for latter-day noir. The middle Seventies was a ripe time for a noir revival: As a nation, America was cynical as ever, haunted by recent memories of Vietnam and Watergate. As a result, two original noirs, Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" and Martin Scorcese's "Taxi Driver," both served as successful reinterpretations of the genre by tapping into the national feeling that our major institutions were falling into corruption."Chinatown" featured a hard-boiled detective, Jake Gittes, embroiled in murder and malfeasance during a Los Angeles drought in the Thirties. Although it was a period piece, "Chinatown" never seemed intent on drawing attention to that fact, and Jack Nicholson played Gittes without affection for any hard-boiled private dicks that came before him. Sinister and complicated, "Chinatown" is a high point in neo-noir.Both Scorcese and screenwriter Paul Schrader are noir scholars, and "Taxi Driver," a thoroughly modern film noir, captures the spirit of the genre without resorting to blatant homage. The film's psychopathic protagonist, Travis Bickle, fits the basic profile of a noir hero: Scarred, but still carrying a sense of what is right. In the film's bizarre twist of a climax, Bickle becomes a hero, but he pays for it with his sanity.Nedeljkovic cites Ridley Scott's 1981 "future-noir," "Blade Runner," as well as Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train" and Quentin Tarantino's first two films, "Reservoir Dogs" (a clever reworking of "The Killing") and "Pulp Fiction," as the best new noir films. He said "Pulp Fiction" serves as the best possible statement on the genre as a whole, since it lifts liberally from some of noir's greatest hits."It really takes everything from everybody," he said."But if you are artistic enough to put a real twist on what you take, then there is real genius, and Tarantino is a genius. He gives it the touch of genius and brings it to another level."But despite Tarantino's obvious affection for the genre -- his new film, "Jackie Brown," an adaptation of neo-noirist Elmore Leonard's "Rum Punch," will be released this December -- his work is shot through a haze of pop culture. In his essay on noir, Hunter explains the difference between the work of revisionists and the original films from the classic era."The film noir we have been seeing lately -- films by directors like (John) Dahl and Tarantino and Schrader and (Lawrence) Kasdan -- are different from the films that came before them chiefly because they are aware of them," Hunter wrote."By now, noir has been codified into a certain look, a certain set of thematic concerns, a certain philosophical stance, a certain set of permitted permutations, and those are played with endlessly. . . they are, in other words, post-film-school noirs, noirs made by men who love movies more than they love stories and themes more than they love characters."Although noir is ripe for co-option and abuse, recent appreciation of noir seems to go well beyond mere stylistic affectation. The rediscovery of Jim Thompson's novels by a new generation and the adaptation of two of them -- James Foley's 1990 version of "After Dark, My Sweet" and Stephen Frears' production of "The Grifters" the following year -- show that not all appreciation of noir is tied to nostalgia.In some cases, there might be a tenuous tie to pure fashion. The swing clubs, musical groups such as Royal Crown Revue, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Mighty Blue Kings and concept albums such as k.d. lang's "Drag" and Carly Simon's questionably conceived "Film Noir" might foster an interest in noir as an exponent of hipster cool. But the appeal of noir in its purest form reaches far deeper than that.Ellroy's novels, including "American Tabloid" and "L.A. Confidential," are raw explorations of human nature, and in his most recent book, "My Dark Places," Ellroy reveals himself as no simple acolyte of Thompson but a character in his own truly noir life. In the book, Ellroy re-examines the unsolved murder of his own mother, a barfly in late-Fifties L.A. As he pulls back the layers of time to reveal the world in which his mother lived, noir becomes not just a literary or film style, but a crucial element in all of us.It is our dark place.It is that feeling that the world is encroaching on you, and there's no way to escape. It's the feeling that brings one to desperate realizations, the kind that made Bradford Galt, the protagonist in 1946's "The Dark Corner" say, "I feel all dead inside. I'm backed up in a dark corner, and I don't know who's hitting me."