In this guest post, mystery author Jack DeWitt examines the basis of noir films, comparing them to dark movies of other periods. DeWitt’s diverse writing background includes a study of hot rodding, “Cool Cars, High Art: The rise of Kustom Kulture” and several books of poetry. He wrote an irregular column, “Cars and Culture” for “ The American Poetry Review” for a number of years. He taught at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia where he is now professor emeritus.
Noir is an attitude, a mood, a genre, a style or it can be just a set of values. The name came from French critics writing about the raft of dark-themed movies that emerged from Hollywood during and just after WWII, movies like Out of the Past, The Big Sleep, Murder My Sweet, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. They were films of the night shot in black and white on mean streets in dark shadows that gave the genre its name.
But it is hard to find a war that didn’t leave noir elements in its wake (even the Odyssey has it noir moments). The aftermath of World War One’s stupidity and senseless slaughter produced the Lost Generation and Hemingway’s alienated heroes. The Vietnam era produced its own versions of darkly paranoid heroes trapped in equally dark and threatening worlds in films like The Parallax View, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Conversation, and Death Wish. The year 1982’s John Rambo in First Blood could have been a classic noir hero if he weren’t pumped with so many steroids and if the film weren’t just silly.
It is notable that even a “good war” like WWII left the West suffering a crisis of belief—the horrors of Fascism were matched by the equal horrors of the atomic bomb and communist expansion. The competing systems of thought– Fascism, Capitalism and Communism–all seemed bankrupt in the late 40’s. Noir films dismantle the innocent enthusiasm that characterized so much of the war effort—GI-Joe has PTSD and Rosie the Riveter has become a femme fatale. It is a bleak and hostile world.
As an almost universal response to war and periods of economic dislocation, noir features men, mostly, disillusioned by war, crippled by guilt, fueled by lust, and trapped in a universe of malevolent forces. They are victimized by sheer chance and their own limited capacity to act. They are betrayed by friends and enemies, wives and lovers, and crooks and cops. In noir the moral underpinnings of the world have been stripped away and the hero/anti-hero can, at best, rely on only the bare bones of a personal code–like Spade’s refusal to accept his partner’s murder despite the fact that he disliked him and was sleeping with his wife—or on the base human drives of greed, desire and revenge.
“Gi-Joe has PTSD and Rosie the Riveter
has become a femme fatale.”
It is not surprising after two recent failed wars, we find a re-emergence of noir themes embodied in alienated yet amazingly skilled men and women who, even when cybernetically or genetically altered, are just as alienated and morally ambiguous as the drifters, con-men, psychopaths, thieves, private eyes, and outsiders that populate the classic noir of the Forties.
Today we see hit men, trained assassins, ex-GI or CIA, computer hackers all caught up in a dangerous world where the enemy is as likely to be the US Government or a major corporation as a foreign terrorist organization or an enemy state. This contemporary noir is very dark, paranoid and disillusioned, but it differs from the classic noir in that it still holds the possibility of effective action by the individual hero. Agent 47, Bourne, Hannah, Wolverine, Nikita, and Marv of Sin City—all triumph against impossible odds. But they are pumped up, genetically or mechanically manipulated, trained and equipped with exaggerated cartoon-like skills. They are products as much as persons. They dispatch the villains, derail the plot, expose the conspiracy, get revenge and then retreat to the sidelines until the next threat appears.
There is a lot of retro-noir available like LA Confidential, Hollywoodland, The Black Dahlia, Mulholland Drive, and, the best, Chinatown, that preserve the classic elements of the original noir while adding increased sophistication and better production values.
I prefer classic noir because it resists the appeal of the final triumph—the satisfying resolution. Its heroes or anti-heroes are never super-men or women. Much contemporary noir is what I call comic book noir whether or not the hero is a superhero or derived from a comic book. For me these heroes are too skilled, too competent and too lucky to compel my interest for long. My own hero, Varian Pike (Delicious Little Traitor), who takes cases in the 40’s and ‘50’s, is a very human investigator. He often makes mistakes and frequently finds himself in over his head. Even when he solves a mystery involving the power elite, things change very little. He is a limited man in a limited world that is frequently out to get him. But he does have a code. And it’s a good code.
Delicious Little Traitor A Varian Pike Mystery will be available on Amazon, iBookstore, B&N, and from BlackOpalBooks.com, on Jan. 10.
Visit DeWitt at: www.jackdewitt.com