Why I Love Noir
“See Mr. Gittes most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything.”
Noir is about the fatal flaws in a character that lead to their destruction, whether physically or spiritually. This does not have to mean death. It can mean the isolation of a person from those who would love them or losing the life you thought you would lead. Noir says that everyone, given the right circumstances can cross over that line and become a monster or simply the slow realization that in your heart, you are rotten. In my dreams I do terrible things. I look at myself and can't recognize myself. There is evil somewhere in my heart and if I ever let it into my waking mind, it will be the end of me. Some people claim that they have no dark side. I don't believe them. Everyone has the capacity to do evil. It is only by acknowledging this that we can prevent it from happening. This is what Noir is: the act of exorcising all of our evil shit and putting it in its proper place. It is a healing experience. It is a spiritual confrontation of the blackness of our souls and an attempt to put things right.
There are so many Noirs I could mention but I will stick to a few of my favourites. The first is the great Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, written by Robert Towne and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. This is perhaps the greatest Noir ever produced, with the greatest of Noir twists. A victim of rape by her father, Faye Dunaway plays Evelyn Cross Mulwray as a woman trying to hold together a life that has been all but destroyed by an act of evil. She tries to protect her daughter/sister from this evil with all her heart. Jack Nicholson was never better, standing in for the audience who like him are appalled by the secrets that they uncover. As someone much better at film criticism than I, said, it is a beautifully ironic thing for a Private Eye to nearly get his nose cut off.
Noir's wheelhouse is in mystery, in confusion, in skewed morality. Chinatown's power comes in how it takes a soulless character in J.J. Gittes and gives him a soul by exposing him to love, corruption and fierce evil. He will no longer be happy to make a quick buck off of wives cheating on their husbands or vice versa. He has seen beyond the curtain and he has taken the red pill. Noir is about this process of realization and the great toll that it takes on the human spirit. Still, if we want to wake up and live in reality rather than a comfortable fantasy, it is what we must do.
I loved Noirs from an early age. My first exposure to their deep mysteries came through my father, who showed me Polanski's masterpiece, as well as the great Humphrey Bogart classics, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Here I must humbly suggest that Otto Penzler's definition of Noir in The Best American Noir of the Century edited by Penzler and James Ellroy, while compelling in the main, is lacking in certain details. These details are when Penzler insists that Raymond Chandler's work cannot be considered Noir as Marlowe never meets his end at the barrel of a gun, or otherwise tumbles into destruction. This is a simplistic way to define what is or is not Noir. Not all characters in Noirs are evil, or twisted. More than that though there is more than one way to lose what you prize.
Marlowe is less corrupt than most people in his stories, but he's still not straight. His strange moral imperative means he can never fit in with the crooked people that populate his world, yet he is equally unsuited for the straight arrow world. This is best seen in Robert Altman's classic Neo Noir, The Long Goodbye, adapted from the novel by Raymond Chandler. Altman may change the ending and flip the conventions of Noir - instead of a narration, Marlowe mumbles to himself, instead of suggestive dialogue there are naked women everywhere - but he stays true to the soul of Chandler's characters. Marlowe is a sucker, being played by those who he thinks love him. He will always be alone. As he says, "I am a loser, even my cat left me." This is why Penzler's seductive but false definition does not do justice to the fine details of the genre. Not everything has to end in death to be true black cinema. Sometimes living is worse, as we shall see in a moment.
In a Lonely Place is the best work ever done by Humphrey Bogart. In it he plays Dix Steele a troubled screenwriter, in a similar tone to that other classic Noir Sunset Boulevard. If you are guilty in your heart, you are guilty for real. That is what In a Lonely Place tells us. There is a chance for love and happiness and then along comes doubt and mistrust. We lose what we love most because we are afraid. This is something that Noir is obsessed with. It is a very old style religious take on our capacity to do evil. Take Strangers on a Train, where the lead Farley Granger plays a man who wishes his wife was dead. Sure, he'd never do it, but that's because he is scared, not because he's a good man. When his wife is killed, he is relieved. He is happy. He might as well have done it. Back to In a Lonely Place. Here Dix Steele is accused of killing a woman he was last seen with. Did he do it? Well, we don't know. He certainly could have done. He has it in his heart. In a Lonely Place is a desperately sad and violent movie about the central themes of Noir: the corrosive quality of fame, the insidiousness of doubt and the line between guilt and innocence. That line is very thin. It is a stunning performance by Bogart, full of rage and confusion and guilt that comes not from a murder but from the capacity to murder. This is Noir.
If there is one writer though who I would call the greatest Noir writer alive today, it would have to be James Ellroy. He has written, among other great novels, The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential, turned into a sublime and dead on film directed by Curtis Hanson. No-one has a better handle on the mind of the corrupt, murderous, sleazy world of Los Angeles in the middle of the 20th century. This can be traced back to the murder of his own mother, as detailed brilliantly in the shocking and good memoir My Dark Places. Ellroy has much darkness in him. He used to be a full time creep, homeless, drug addled and prone to breaking into women's houses to rifle through their personal belongings. It is no wonder that someone who has seen so much of the dark side of life has the rare gift to be able to translate that to the wider public. He lives Noir, every damn day.
Ellroy writes beautifully, in daring, direct and unpretentious prose. He venerates women and God, in a somewhat surprising turn for someone so prone to the low down. His greatest novel is The Black Dahlia, somewhat disappointingly adapted by the otherwise great Brian DePalma in 2006. In it, the murder of Elizabeth Short in January of 1947 in Los Angeles, is explained with distressing clarity and insight. That he became so obsessed with this murder, where the body was cut in half and drained of blood, is not surprising given the fate of his mother. That he is so adept at imagining the reasons behind this abhorrent murder is more unexpected. Look at great modern Noirs like True Detective and see a huge influence from Ellroy, particularly The Black Dahlia.
I will close by saying that I love Noir because I know that there is something rotten in me. Maybe I'm the exception. Maybe I just feel this way because I am worse than other people. I think though that it is more likely that what is apparent in my mind and heart, is something common between us as human beings. This is why, I think, Noir resonates so strongly with us, and why we wish to dive deeper and deeper into it, looking for some way out of ending up like the characters we see on the screen. Fated destruction is the look out. The desolation of our small lives for a few dollars more, or for a quick thrill. Keep your eye on the road. There's a slow train coming.