Spirited #5 [Noir Generation]
by Mitch Hampton
“The Nightmare of flawed souls with big dreams and the precise how and why of the all time sure thing that goes bad. Noir is Out Of The Past when Robert Mitchum takes one look at Jane Greer and knows he’s gonna throw his life away for her and he’s happy to do it”.
Noir is at once a cleanly distilled descriptive noun, and one of the most overused, exaggerated, and superficial epithets in modern culture. It is an elegant descriptor that is also used to indicate anything just slightly left of suburban banality, including narrative, psychological, and design details: lone detective in fedora and trenchcoat, unusually seductive femme fatale, underworld evils that must be ferreted out and defeated, and so on. Noir is also misread as a stylistic mode that is devoted to simple darkness – blanket cynicism, possibly dissolution.
Noir as a genre was created not by an artist, but a critic: one French critic Nino Frank, who in 1946 attempted to isolate some features common enough to qualify certain works as a genre. As James Ellroy remarked, there is indeed a fascination in Noir with and analysis of the subterranean and underlit aspects of the human soul. The sense of things gone bad, a world of anti-heroes facing conspiratorial and unrelenting evil: these are part of Noir. But a mere list of thematic elements might conflate Noir with the Gothic, which I believe to be at heart an adolescent mode, imposing simplistic dualities of good and evil, and abnegating any sense of human agency. Noir on the other hand is one of the great expressions of human maturity: romance, sexual difference, and profound questions of economic and political injustice are all brought to bear.
In the world of Noir – much like adulthood – you get on with life no matter how bad it gets, and preferably with biting wit. Noir is a mode of utmost maturity and moral seriousness, where issues are confronted naturally rather than evaded supernaturally. In this sense, noir is a misnomer. We are not facing blackness exactly, but the widest variety of grey.
Rather than acknowledge this subtlety, we often reach for misleading lessons. Take the concept of the Femme Fatale. Noir certainly includes a sexually alluring and powerful female figure; her power can certainly be exercised to negative effect upon male heroes. But if we look at Noir as an Ethic, as mature wisdom, the femme fatale is a red herring. Both man and woman give as good as they get, and the femme fatale achieves a remarkable balance. Her mutual dance or play with the male shows that sex differences are important, but cannot erase personhood or agency. Biological gender and cultural humanity form a symbiosis, for you cannot have sex appeal without intelligence and essential humanity, and vice versa. Though a man meets his ruin in the femme fatale, both parties experience extraordinary passion and equality of will along his descent. In The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) the ongoing repartee between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is both sublime and astonishing. This sense of gendered relation – where biological difference holds actual value – is a lost art in many of today’s representations. Noir is an inquiry into that part of particular (and peculiar) male and female heterosexual relations that is, to use an unfashionable formulation, natural, even eternal. It is a compensatory reminder of the one-sidedness of the more androgynous culture of today. The women of noir – Rita Hayworth, Gloria Grahame, Barbara Stanwyck, and Veronica Lake, to name but a few – are both powerful and sexy. But it is deeper still: such figures embody a kind of hybrid world, between icon and everywoman – a stylistic mode at once mythic and naturalistic.
Countering the Femme Fatale is the Private Investigator. He is, at base, a figure who seeks the Truth. Whether deeply flawed or idealistic and heroic, the P.I. offers a point of philosophic interest and identification for the audience, with inquiry into matters of social justice, for example. Glenn Ford in The Big Heat (Fritz Lang) Harry Moesby in Night Moves (Arthur Penn), and Jack Gittes in Chinatown (Roman Polanski) are all expressions of what may be called positive alienation. In this concept (which I borrow from political philosopher George Kateb), an investigator is a kind of traveler. While conversant in the various language games of all the manifold, competing subcultures that comprise a complex Democracy, this figure is beholden to none of them. He can blend in, but remains outside: a continuation of eighteenth century disinterestedness into a post-Romantic age of rampant and consuming interests on all sides. Even when the investigator is a public figure representing Law, there is a sense that he wields the power of an outsider. Real evil is often battled here. In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson’s character fights both public corruption in the state of California and sexual abuse in the home. Only an alienated and disinterested figure could confront such evil.
Yet the P.I. cannot be called a pure truth-seeker. My favorite “revisionist Noir” is Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) with Gene Hackman, which pushes the boundaries of the conception. Hackman’s Harry Moesby is decent and ethical (he even refuses the advances of an underage and sexually precocious Melanie Griffith), but he is also insensitive, uncommunicative with his wife, overtly attached to football, and oblivious to obvious clues. The evil he confronts – (the case involves bringing a runaway girl back to her mother – shades of John Ford’s The Searchers) is borne out of the heart of the American family, and its Noir setting faces us with an uncomfortably intimate picture. Moseby is generous and decent, but an utter failure. Evil is not exteriorized as merely institutional but interiorized as a banal stain within the human soul itself. This is Noir stripped down – without stylization or glamour. It is Noir as John Cassavetes might render it.
Noir has great reach. From the great Pottersville/ Jimmy Stewart breakdown scene in Frank Capra classic It’s A Wonderful Life, to David Lynch’s unique fusion of Noir with the Gothic. Even Miles Davis created perhaps the greatest piece of Noir music ever in his score to Louis Malle’s From The Elevator to the Gallows.
All styles are codes and signs of meaning – sometimes of philosophy and Ethics as well. Noir is a way of understanding who we are; meeting ourselves as we are, free of illusions, and dogged in determination to find some scrap of Truth – even when it tells us that our best aspirations are marked with the dark limitations of human nature.