Years ago I found a copy of the early James Ellroy mystery Because the Night in a used bookstore. “DEAR READER,” Ellroy had scribbled on the frontispiece. “NIGHT SHREIK [sic], DEATH SPEAK: A WARNING: THIS IS THE DARKEST NOVEL IN THE ‘NOIR’ CANON!”Wow, you might think. “The ‘Noir’ Canon.” What’s that?
After going through The Noir Style and New York Noir, not to mention various of the seemingly countless volumes on film noir published in the last twenty years–Geoffrey O’Brien’s entrancing 1981 Hardboiled America, say, or David Thomson’s 1985 Suspects, as unnerving at the end as it is coy in the beginning; The Movie Book of Film Noir, an anthology that both lightens and darkens almost every film it takes up; fun non-books like The Little Black & White Book of Film Noir (quotations in a 2-by-3-inch package: “Some people are better off dead. Like your wife and my father, for instance”–Robert Walker to Farley Granger, in Strangers on a Train1951)–you might be better off not asking. Since its arrival in the ‘4os and ‘5os, film noir has so expanded as a concept that it can take in almost anything: German Expressionist silents or F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) as precursors; all the Clint Eastwood movies where he kills someone; everything by Fassbinder; early Godard and Truffaut; the Steve Martin version of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven (1981); the ’50s TV show Peter Gunn; or the Nixon administration.
Attempting to define the question, the authors of The Noir Style tie themselves into knots right off the bat. Silver and Ursini quote critic Raymond Durgnat: “Film noir is not a genre, as the Western and gangster film, and takes us into the realm of classification by motif and tone.” Without bothering to wake the reader, who might reasonably have been expecting a kickoff with a little more punch, they go on to say that “almost all critical commentators would agree that style is a key element in understanding film noir.” Funny, one might have thought that to the degree that style comes into play, it would have more to do with the making of a noir film than with the understanding of it. But the authors only hang themselves twice in the introduction before other critics are brought in to argue that “the root of film noir style” is in the “anti-social,” though still others “call the same phenomenon ‘anti-traditional.'”
Never mind. “I like to hear you talk,” Joan Crawford says to Jack Carson in Mildred Pierce(1945). “Yeah, so do I,” Carson says. “Something about the sound of my own voice fascinates me.”
Film noir is, by now, a frame of reference. When it works, when it goes all the way into itself and comes out the other side–as in Detour, (1945), Citizen Kane (1941), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), certain scenes in Murder, My Sweet (1944), the first half of Gun Crazy (195o)–it’s a mode of being: not a way of life, but, for as long as the spell lasts, a way out of it. Film noir is about throwing it all away, then running for your life to get it back. The adventure produces glamour; the setting produces the smell of corruption. Film noir heroines sometimes glow with a sheen that would be ridiculous in romantic comedies or straight drama, and the trap that’s sprung on the hero is always the perfect crime, too perfect to stand the light of day.
Silver and Ursini capture all this with the first illustration in the body of their book: a man and a woman standing at the entrance of a hangar, seen from behind, silhouetted in night fog–a shot from the end of The Big Combo (1955). It’s an image that so fully realizes the power that can be contained in a cliché that it can only stand on its own; the slightest attempt at analysis turns it into pure corn. So the image is turned into corn (“The fog separates them from the physical reality of the world outside the hangar”), and the book begins, or rather ends, right here. The Noir Style is a travesty, not only as a study, which it halfheartedly pretends to be, but as a coffee-table book, which is what it really is. It’s an oversized volume of glossy black-and-white prints with explanatory text, and neither the pictures nor the words communicate anything but a failure of taste. “Hey, that’s a nice perfume,” Lee Marvin says to Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat (1953). “Something new,” she says. “Attracts mosquitoes and repels men.”
The almost exclusive use of production stills–pictures taken on the set both for publicity purposes and as a record of the actual filming–rather than frame enlargements is fatal. Everything is gloss and sharp focus; there’s no sense of emotion or tension, of fright or jeopardy. The actors are not caught in the act; they’re posing, often holding extreme expressions until their jaws get stiff and they’re reduced to mugging. The gross enlargement of the images to fill whole pages increases their vapidity and falseness instead of magnifying their power–which is what usually happens when you blow up a photograph. Worst of all, the stills turn any moment of uncertainty into an instance of predictability, any moment of drama into a record of melodrama. In other words, they don’t make you want to see the movies.
There are many bows to cinematographer John Alton here, and lots of talk about lighting, but how can you see a film’s lighting in a still? From Christmas Holiday (1944), the book offers Deanna Durbin confronting her worthless husband Gene Kelly at a party. In the still, she’s so ludicrously overlit that she looks less human than wax; other people stand in the background, trying to contrive expressions of concern. From This Gun for Hire (1942), Alan Ladd holds a crouching position next to Veronica Lake. He looks bored: Can I put the gun down now? From Out of the Past (1947), Robert Mitchum and Virginia Huston cuddle by a lake, looking very pensive, and–you can’t help noticing when the image is spread over a huge page and a half–very clean. Apparently they don’t have dust in this countryside. What movement in film hides–the fact that a movie does not happen, but is made–a still like this reveals. Film noir is about what Raymond Chandler called “the smell of fear”; in The Noir Style fear is replaced by images drawn as if against their will toward camp.
Silver and Ursini like groupings: They’ll put up a gallery of jail-door shots to show that bars cast shadows and have effects. A pairing of Edward Hopper’s Drug Store 1927, with a scene from Thieves’ Highway (1949)–the image here apparently not from a still, but a frame–works not because it illustrates a motif, but because it brings you into a common mood, a sense of desolation. The interior of a store in the movie and the exterior of the store in Hopper’s painting share a certain visual smear, an insistent lack of clarity, a dankness, a darkness–a darkness that is itself indistinct and unclear, as opposed to the high-contrast darkness of the stills in the rest of the book. But then turn the page and our tour guides are informing us that Hopper’s Nighthawks, 1942, was inspired by Hemingway’s 1927 story “The Killers.” As evidence, the authors offer a still from the first, 1946 film version of The Killers, with Charles McGraw and William Conrad sitting at a diner counter and trying to look tough under their fedoras, both of them utterly lifeless. You have no idea what will happen between the figures at the counter in Nighthawks; you know nothing can happen here. “If you want fresh air,” Anthony Caruso says in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), “don’t look for it in this town.”
As opposed to the artificial, staged clarity of The Noir Style, the shock of New York Noir is in its dirt: the irreducible filth of violent death. The dead people in this book don’t look human because they no longer are; as Yossarian discovers in Catch-22, they’re matter, inert, without will or a failure of will–in a word, dirt. It’s not the blood dripping out of a skull, off a sidewalk, and into a street. It’s the physical transformation of movement into something to move out of the way. In New York Noir you are looking at pictures that appeared in a daily newspaper: suspects brought into the station with their faces horribly cut and swollen, all of them beaten by cops; a whole family slaughtered in their house by a father who then killed himself, a baby flopped on the floor like one of its old stuffed animals; the dead eye of a beauty queen looking at nothing.
They’re shocking for many reasons. We no longer see such pictures; papers don’t print them, and in some circumstances photographers can no longer get them. Just as in the ’50s, when the bare breasts of African women in National Geographic were OK but those of white women in Playboy weren’t, today we can see the absolute ugliness of violence in pictures from Kosovo or Sierra Leone, but not from our own cities. This is a kind of violence–the humanity, if there is any left, covered with layers of moral and physical grime–that no movies, never mind mere film noir, have shown, except for Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1925), and there only in censored footage. The murdered wives from that film sleep in the same graves as the dead in New York Noir. Despite the obvious influence of gangster movies on gangsters that is evident in New York Noir (as well as on a local prosecutor, who with his white fedora and big cigar looks like a Jewish mobster the week before his head was blown off), the book confirms that film noir and real crime took place in different worlds. They had nothing to do with each other. They liked it that way. “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years,” Burt Lancaster says in Sweet Smell of Success (1957).
The closest The Noir Style gets to the dead weight sprawled all across the pages of New York Noir is in a still from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), showing three corpses tumbled over furniture. The picture is powerful; if it takes you back to the scene as it played in the film, it’s even more so. But nothing can be left alone in this book, and so the authors take up the task of, so to speak, scrubbing death clean. “One body lies face down on a sofa,” we are told, “head buried in the fabric and legs askew”; and of another, “Two streaks trail down each cheek, as if he has wept bloody tears.”
Can you produce a book about a style when you have none? When you can write, “He is lighting a cigarette, another icon of noir and of the period”? When your idea of style is like those pages in People or In Style that show ten actresses parading the same costume in the same month? “The progression to director Don Siegel’s 1964 remake of The Killers is a short one,” the authors note, writing of Eli Wallach’s hit man in Siegel’s The Lineup (1958). “Charlie (Lee Marvin) wears the same dark suit and tie and carries the same caliber handgun with a slightly larger silencer.” And then, as with the bloody tears, the grace note: “But even as he dies, the laconic Charlie understands that rewards require risk and eventually everyone loses.”
Looking at New York Noir, you can’t believe anyone could use its material for entertainment. When you think of the great entertainments that did–Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972)–the news photos remain, insisting that such tales spun around their corpses are only kidding, and they’re not. Looking at The Noir Style, you can’t believe that in the remake of The Killers the viewer has to pay for taking pleasure in its violence–to pay in disgust and self-doubt. Both of these books suggest that “The ‘Noir’ Canon” has gotten too big, gone too far, expanded to the point where all anyone can say is that he or she got the joke–a joke that is now on noir itself as a frame of reference that can produce such exegeses as “eventually everyone loses.” They suggest that it’s finally time to bury the term “film noir” and look movies and pictures of dead people in the face, without catchphrases that let us think we know what we’re talking about. As Richard Widmark’s thief in Pickup on South Street (1953) said when an FBI agent asked him, “Do you know what Communism is?”– “Who cares?”
BookForum, Winter 1999