Film noir evolved from the American crime thrillers that rose to pulp prominence between 1920 and 1940. Hollywood took those tales and put the focus on cynics, fall guys, sluts, heists, and murders most foul. The huge screens in movie theaters provided lurid masks for the resentments that pulse within Americana. Our hatred of the upper class and of goody-two-shoes morality got plenty of play. So did our repulsive puritanical troubles with sexual attraction, our reluctant but ultimate belief in the righteousness of force, and our tendency to answer life’s pervasive horrors with conspiracy theories.
Noir’s popularity was inevitable. How could American audiences resist the combative stance of an unimpressed hero whose ethos could be reduced to: “Is that so?” How could they fail to be lured by all of the actresses cast as Venus’ flytraps? Everything in film noir takes place at the bottom, in the sewers of sensibility. It holds that the force of the world is not only indifferent to, but obviously bigger than, the individual, which is why personal satisfaction, whether illegal or immoral, is the solution to the obligatory ride through an unavoidably brittle universe.
A black and white phenomenon, film noir is thought to have achieved its greatest heights between 1945 and 1950, though the apparent moment of final brilliance arrived in 1958’s Touch of Evil, directed with the heightened imagination of genius by Orson Welles. As a genre, film noir appeared as an antidote to the Hollywood conventions of pristine character and fulfilled romance because its creators sensed that “rah rah” was no longer the best prescription for the blues. Possessed of a shrewd aesthetic that was both meretricious and rebellious, film noir generously utilized sex and violence, firmly rooting itself in American culture.
A number of its most influential directors were European Jews like Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, and Billy Wilder, all of whom had escaped the Nazis. The enthusiastic support of the Third Reich by the German people had convinced such artists that conformity always had to be questioned, ridiculed, and perhaps resisted. Another assumption was that corruption hid behind images of a gilded civilization, high-class refinement, uplift, and thorough social improvement. So, in one sense, Adolf Hitler was a major player in forming the sensibility of film noir. That Austrian boy whom Chaplin accused of having made off with his mustache had done it again but, as usual, not in the way the paperhanger intended.
With the recently released two-disc DVD of 1944’s Double Indemnity and the three volumes of The Film Noir Classic Collection, one gets the essentials of the style and all of the information necessary to recognize the “school” that the French saw long before Americans did. Barbara Stanwyck, Claire Trevor, Jane Greer, and Peggy Cummins are each but separately the brilliant stars of Double Indemnity; Murder, My Sweet; Out of the Past; and Gun Crazy. They are the essential film noir amalgamations of Eve, Salome, and Carmen: there to bring men down through the pulsating syncopations of their glistening orifices. After but one night with any of them, men were not only willing to bay at the moon of homicide but snap at it with a determination that pushes a full circle of murder into the air.
Double Indemnity is the first film in which Billy Wilder’s impeccable talent as a director and a screenwriter came forward in full force. It is also considered the first pure film noir. Though Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray have been rightfully praised as the murderous lovers, they are nearly overmatched by the imperishable skill of Edward G. Robinson. Robinson’s extended speeches are delivered like dark, probing arias—they are full of wit, syncopation, and an intuitive recognition of the sinister that we learn is essential to being a great insurance detective. There is no better performance in all of film noir.
Claire Trevor, an adroit master of subtle vocal modulations, blooms downward in Murder, My Sweet, like a flower overladen with a working girl’s perfume. The actress appears lyrically jaded, but it is easy to see how she helped define the femme fatale in an era when only allusion was available. Opposite the spectacularly ominous Lawrence Tierney in Born To Kill, Trevor projects a sexual longing that is realistic but never overstated, compelling in its desperate but bungling confusion. Her performance gives a viewer the impression of eavesdropping on a soul excruciatingly barbed with tender and dangerous contradictions.
The noir conventions are reversed in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, as the women are summarily brought to despair by the criminal follies of their men in this matchless heist film. Its epic sense of class and ethnicity is both a noir turn on e pluribus unum and a cinematic homage to what Melville gave us in his famous whaling story. Every directorial choice and word of dialogue seems perfect, and the sheer humanity of its characters is often heartbreaking. There is a profoundly visceral quality to the grit and the details of being and feeling that are overshadowed by the sense of how we are all so simply made the victims of “blind accident.” One of the shrewdest elements of the plot is how easily the lower-class Jewish bookie is overly impressed and chumped off by the corrupt upper-class WASP lawyer, a secretly bankrupt dreamer who leads almost everyone in on the heist to a thoroughly painful defeat.
Robert Ryan, a singularly great talent, stars in The Set-Up, which may provide the most accomplished rendition of the carnivorous world that once surrounded a fixed fight. As the vicious bout takes place in real time, director Robert Wise uses deft cross-cutting to vary the pulse of the film and give it telling qualities of nuanced pacing and counterpoint. Ryan also portrays the Jew-hating murderer in Crossfire. With his exceptionally expressive eyes, rubbery face, oily tenor voice, and gangly athleticism, the actor brought out the mix of childishness, resentment, self-loathing, paranoia, and self-aggrandizement that so often underlies the rage of those who answer the world’s problems with a plastic bigotry that fits all sizes within the targeted group.
The collections also include compelling to breezy work by Robert Mitchum, whose low-slung eyelids, sauntering walk, bodyguard’s bulk, and voice that expressed disdain or attraction or menace with equal authority and shading brought a fresh personal extension to what we now consider “cool.” As the wonderfully paced confrontation with the crime boss in The Racket shows,Mitchum was one of the few actors whose masculinity could meet Ryan’s sweltering complexity nose to nose. In Out of the Past, when his fall-guy tells the elegant gangster played by Kirk Douglas not to foolishly trade blows with him, we believe Mitchum. His power seemed limitless but, like Ryan, so did his vulnerability. That was why he was an imposing romantic lead: Mitchum possessed an understated pound of delicacy for every pound of muscle.
One of the most characteristic elements of film noir is its avoidance of racist stereotypes. This is very different from the attitudes expressed in its pulp and detective-story sources. In a particularly brilliant reading of Raymond Chandler written for a 1995 issue of the New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates revealed to readers the phrases
that fall casually and frequently from Philip Marlowe’s lips: “nigger,” “shine,” “fag,” “queen,” “Jewess,” “Mex,” “greaseback,” “wetback,” “Jap.” In this Caucasian-macho landscape, “a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.” Marlowe’s wisecracks are sometimes indistinguishable from ethnic slurs: “[You’re] cute as a Filipino on Saturday night.” A minor character in The High Window is “a big burly Jew with a Hitler mustache and pop eyes.”
Conversely, the black actors of film noir are quite rarely expected to work their way through the greasy caricatures that have re-emerged in the contemporary minstrelsy now so common in rap videos and ethnic black comedy. In 1944’s Out of the Past, the black bit players seem to be people with individual dreams and individual lives, not human whoopee cushions ever ready to shriek and guffaw while being humiliated. That is another casual American victory that we can add to the celebration of the finest things in film noir.