Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Miscellaneous: Neither Here Noir There

Steve Lewis, the man behind the indispensable Mystery*File, posed a question in the comments yesterday:

(T)he guys over at (hardboiled/noir mailing list) Rara-Avis are always saying that if there’s a happy ending, it can’t be noir. Do you go along with that? If not, or even if so, what’s your take on what Noir is?

Steve’s not the only one to put this headscratcher to me. At a Seattle International Film Festival noir double-bill earlier this year, I chatted with my friend and game-show competitor, critic Tom Tangney. Tom said, “What’s with you noir guys? I thought you were all about the downer endings but in a lot of the movies I’ve seen, things work out OK.”

Solving the what-is-noir riddle accounts for a hefty slice of the traffic on R-A. It gets brutal at times. Lives have been lost. Worse, feelings have been hurt. You think I’m going to wade into that contentious debate here?

OK, I will.

The safest play would be to punt, to Potter Stewart the question and say I know noir when I see it. I’m not a purist when it comes to definition. There are some who insist that “noir” can only refer to the original canon of authors published by the Série Noire line in France, or films made between 1940 (Stranger on the Third Floor) and 1958 (Touch of Evil). I don’t want to watch a movie like The Money Trap or Memento and think, “Jesus, that’s as noir as can be. Too bad it didn’t come out in ‘52.”

The recent explosion of noir films on video clouds the matter further. Steve’s question was prompted by two titles in Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 4. Over the weekend I caught up with another movie in the set, 1955’s Illegal. Politically ambitious D.A. Edward G. Robinson discovers he sent an innocent man to the electric chair. He resigns, hits the skids, then reinvents himself as an unscrupulous criminal lawyer allied with the crime boss he was once determined to bring down – until his former assistant is indicted for murder.

Entertaining? You bet. Noir? Not really. Sure, it has its share of noirish elements, but it’s the second remake of the 1932 melodrama The Mouthpiece. The first remake, 1940’s The Man Who Talked Too Much, is about two lawyer brothers squaring off on opposite sides of a case. I’d say every iteration of this movie belongs in your video store’s “Hambone” section – a genre to which I am also partial. So why include it in a film noir collection?

A definition I picked up at Rara-Avis is known as The Bludis Heresy, after author Jack Bludis, who coined it. It states that hardboiled fiction is about characters who go into a cold, unfeeling world with no illusions, while in noir those characters are doomed to be crushed by said world. Or, as Bludis puts it with admirable economy:

Hardboiled = Tough
Noir = Screwed

I like that a lot.

Eddie Muller, a man I always listen to on this subject, said that all noir stories are about “people who know what they’re doing is wrong, but they do it anyway.” He also said that the genre’s ethos was perfectly encapsulated by Walter Neff’s explanation of his actions in Double Indemnity: “I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money ... and I didn’t get the woman.”

So what do I think?

I think noir, by definition, is about losers, the perpetual short-stickers of life. I think fate plays an active role. Look no further than Detour. Tom Neal, the poor bastard, never stood a chance. In the movie and in the real world.

It’s not darkness for its own sake. Too many contemporary writers branded with the noir label seem to wallow in misery, to enjoy torturing their characters. Noir is not about bad things happen to marginally good people. It’s about poor decisions boomeranging back with a vengeance.

True noir shouldn’t end on an upbeat note. But I’m willing to give the movies some leeway on that score. The powers that be in the business have always been reluctant to send the audience out feeling blue. Besides, happy endings, unlike Tolstoy’s happy families, are not all alike. At this year’s Noir City screening of Nightmare Alley, I heard some grousing that the closing scenes went too easy on Tyrone Power’s Stanton Carlisle. Sure, if hitting rock bottom is to be preferred over the long plunge down.

The French may have given the genre its name, but noir is a fundamentally American invention. Which is as it should be, because noir’s message cuts straight to the heart of the American dream. In a nation obsessed with winners, there are bound to be losers. And not only should their stories be told, they’re invariably more interesting.

Miscellaneous: Links

Steve Lewis keeps on giving. He sent me Wired’s list of unlikely movie scientists. And via BoingBoing, we have a stunningly thorough comparison of Simpsons scenes and the movies they pay homage to.