March 15, 2007


Noir America: Cynics, sluts, heists, and murder most foul. (Stanley Crouch, March 15, 2007, Slate)

Film noir evolved from the American crime thrillers that rose to pulp prominence between 1920 and 1940. Hollywood took those tales and put the focus on cynics, fall guys, sluts, heists, and murders most foul. The huge screens in movie theaters provided lurid masks for the resentments that pulse within Americana. Our hatred of the upper class and of goody-two-shoes morality got plenty of play. So did our repulsive puritanical troubles with sexual attraction, our reluctant but ultimate belief in the righteousness of force, and our tendency to answer life's pervasive horrors with conspiracy theories.

Noir's popularity was inevitable. How could American audiences resist the combative stance of an unimpressed hero whose ethos could be reduced to: "Is that so?" How could they fail to be lured by all of the actresses cast as Venus' flytraps? Everything in film noir takes place at the bottom, in the sewers of sensibility. It holds that the force of the world is not only indifferent to, but obviously bigger than, the individual, which is why personal satisfaction, whether illegal or immoral, is the solution to the obligatory ride through an unavoidably brittle universe.

A black and white phenomenon, film noir is thought to have achieved its greatest heights between 1945 and 1950, though the apparent moment of final brilliance arrived in 1958's Touch of Evil, directed with the heightened imagination of genius by Orson Welles. As a genre, film noir appeared as an antidote to the Hollywood conventions of pristine character and fulfilled romance because its creators sensed that "rah rah" was no longer the best prescription for the blues. Possessed of a shrewd aesthetic that was both meretricious and rebellious, film noir generously utilized sex and violence, firmly rooting itself in American culture.

The normally savvy Mr. Crouch misses the point of noir entirely and that which makes it quintessentially American. The formula could hardly be more Old Testament: an ordinary man, tempted by a woman, decides he can get away with evil just this once but ends by being punished horribly for his transgressions.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 15, 2007 7:26 AM

. . . hatred of the upper class and of goody-two-shoes morality . . .

Spoken like a man who's spent too many evenings in beatnik coffee houses debating the finer points of Trotskyism instead of going out among normal people.

Posted by: Mike Morley at March 15, 2007 9:19 AM

He also forgets that in a good noir story evil is punished.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 15, 2007 11:36 AM

Maltese Falcon (Sam Spade): "That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you."

Posted by: Gideon at March 15, 2007 12:56 PM

"You killed Miles and you're going over for it."

Posted by: jdkelly at March 15, 2007 3:26 PM