Noir: More Dark Than Black

I today re-read Jim Groom’s post on his BavaTuesday Blog about Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, and found issue with his comment that:

…Noirs seldom, if ever, focus on a figure of standing and greatness that is newsworthy for the life they lived, but rather for the crimes they committed. Noirs often focus upon the deranged, criminal, impoverished, or forgotten characters -a style of film dedicated to the unspeakable elements of society who spend their time moving from one boarding house to the next…

If we consider the great films noir, this view does not stand up to reasonable scrutiny. In great disparate noirs like, for example, Double Indemnity, Out Of the Past, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Heat, and even, Kiss Me Deadly, the protagonists are infinitely more complex and, paradoxically, their actions on many levels simply human.

As Billy Wilder said of Double Indemnity (1944):

“Well, he was just kind of a middle-class insurance guy who works an angle. If he is that tough, then there is nothing left for Stanwyck to work on. He has to be seduced and sucked in on that thing. He is the average man who suddenly becomes a murderer. That’s the dark aspect of the middle-class, how ordinary guys can come to commit murder.”

Update 16 July 2007: Many thanks to Jim Groom for his response to this post:

I think you make an excellent point here. When I was framing this I guess I was thinking Noir in relationship to a figure like Charles Foster Kane or some of the larger biopic pictures that have the great individual as their central character. Wilder’s quote frames these characters not so much as marginal as he does average or middle-class. Yet, I’m not so sure that Walter Neff comes across as your average Joe. I think the same can be said of the protagonists from Out of the Past and Kiss Me Deadly for sure, all of these protagonists are anything but everyday middle-class Americans. Think about Walter Neff, he isn’t married with a happy nuclear family, his apartment is rather modest, and his first encounter with Phyllis is a bit steamier and more dynamic than what you might expect from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” As to the complexity of these characters, I couldn’t agree with you more. What attracts me to the Noir is that it takes the marginal, or “middle-class,” figure and gives you a look at their inner-working in some really gripping ways. Also, it systematically demystifies any sense of their normality, or a concept of normality more generally.

In short, though, this is a great site and you have no idea how much I have enjoyed looking through your archives. I also want to thank you for engaging in a focused discussion about Noir -I can’t think of anything more worthwhile and entertaining. I have a bunch to say about both Out of the Past and Kiss Me Deadly, so I imagine their will be many more conversations to come!

I certainly look forward to Jim’s threads on Out of the Past and Kiss Me Deadly.

Regarding Jim’s reference to the Walter Neff character in Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray in this role I agree is as far removed as can be imagined than, for instance, his performance three years later in the Egg And I. But from what I have read, it seems Billy Wilder chose MacMurray for this noir role to build on his hitherto decent guy screen persona. Neff is seen as a loner yes, but he holds down a middle-class job, and is respected by his colleagues. When Neff falls for femme-fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson (the great Barbara Stanwyck in THAT wig), he is not only seduced by her allure, but by his loneliness. A man can fatally love a woman he does not quite trust, because he desperately wants to believe otherwise, and fears being alone again more than the fateful consequences of his attachment. Neff may rationalise the liaison differently but the sense of betrayal is deep:

She liked me. I could feel that. The way you feel when the cards are falling right for you, with a nice little pile of blue and yellow chips in the middle of the table. Only what I didn’t know then was that I wasn’t playing her. She was playing me, with a deck of marked cards and the stakes weren’t any blue and yellow chips. They were dynamite.

In Out of the Past, Jeff Bailey, tries to make a decent life for himself away from his corrupting city life, but his past cannot be escaped. The good woman in his life knows his essential decency, and it is the stuff of true tragedy that her memory of him is tainted by her being told the lie of his betrayal at the end.

Dave Bannion in The Big Heat, is an honest cop, pushed by desperation to almost committing murder. It is the gangster’s moll, Debbie Marsh, played by the incandescent Gloria Graham, who does the deed, with a gun casually tossed by Bannion onto a seedy hotel bed. Indeed, Debbie is the pivotal character in the movie. She lives an abased life yes, but she has an essential decency that is untainted by her circumstances. She ridicules her boyfriend’s toadying to his mob boss, and is not afraid to get cheeky with the capo himself. Her shooting of the corrupt cop’s blackmailing wife has a perverse moral integrity.

In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is a loner PI, sleeping with his partner’s cheating wife, but even after he falls for his partner’s killer, he never loses his essential moral compass.

And as I have said elsewhere, the Mike Hammer of Kiss Me Deadly, an erstwhile sleaze, is somehow redeemed by his quest to not forget the doomed Christina.

One Comment

  1. I think you make an excellent point here. When I was framing this I guess I was thinking Noir in relationship to a figure like Charles Foster Kane or some of the larger biopic pictures that have the great individual as their central character. Wilder’s quote frames these characters not so much as marginal as he does average or middle-class. Yet, I’m not so sure that Walter Neff comes across as your average Joe. I think the same can be said of the “protagonists” from Out of the Past and Kiss Me Deadly for sure, all of these “protagonists” are anything but everyday middle-class Americans. Think about Walter Neff, he isn’t married with a happy nuclear family, his apartment is rather modest, and his first encounter with Phyllis is a bit steamier and more dynamic than what you might expect from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” As to the complexity of these characters, I couldn’t agree with you more. What attracts me to the Noir is that it takes the marginal, or “middle-class,” figure and gives you a look at their inner-working in some really gripping ways. Also, it systematically demystifies any sense of their normality, or a concept of normality more generally.

    In short, though, this is a great site and you have no idea how much I have enjoyed looking through your archives. I also want to thank you for engaging in a focused discussion about Noir -I can’t think of anything more worthwhile and entertaining. I have a bunch to say about both Out of the Past and Kiss Me Deadly, so I imagine their will be many more conversations to come!

    Thanks.

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