The Seventh Victim
The Dark Mirror
The Street With No Name
Follow Me Quietly
Panic in the Streets
The Underworld Story
Try and Get Me
The Narrow Margin
On Dangerous Ground
Pickup on South Street
Kiss Me Deadly
For spectators who grew up during the postwar period and its aftermath, there existed an internalized movie whose characters circled warily around each other in a world of night clubs and truck stops, a backlit theater of memory where women’s faces disappeared in cigarette smoke and the world was erased by the blare of rumba bands. All men were named Steve and hadn’t shaved in three days, had been wounded in battle or betrayed in the bedroom, stopped off for coffee but couldn’t get that tune out of their heads, had been out of work since they got back from the war, took no satisfaction in anything but a grim, worn-out lucidity of purpose. The women were isolated, cynical, haunting, ruthless, frightened, doomed. Their intentions were crucial but definitively illegible. The rest of the world—cops, soda jerks, small-time hoods and con artists, rubes on the town flashing their wads, hatcheck girls dreaming of movie careers, cunning drunkards, eccentric night clerks—didn’t care anyway. The el rumbled by, indifferent to the lovers dying in its shadow.
As the Forties turned into the Fifties the smoke thinned out, the dense shadows got flatter and the camera setups more rigidly boxlike, the period slang and juicy poeticisms gave way to a more rudimentary Basic English (“Sergeant! Come here!”), the war vets and private eyes became cops and federal agents, the racketeers metamorphosed at times into Red agents, and the femmes fatales in the center of the frame withdrew, diminished, to its margins. Suddenly it was 1958, and the haunting movie of one’s dreams had become a television show, Dragnet or M Squad or 77 Sunset Strip, its central characters reduced to third-generation photocopies of the original mythic presences.
But the miracle of media culture is that nothing goes away. The movies—by now filed under the rubric film noir simply because a French critic was the first to take note of their common traits—were there to be rediscovered, and those of us born a little too late to have seen them the first time around experienced a sort of tribal rite of rebirth by steeping ourselves in Out of the Past and Criss Cross, Detour and The Lady from Shanghai, Force of Evil and They Live By Night. Not only were these our genuine classical heritage, the late-model, gum-chewing equivalents of The Revenger’s Tragedy or Un Ballo in Maschera, but they were new enough not have cooled off yet: here was the authentic poetry of a culture we still, just barely, inhabited. There was an energy in the movies that could still be appropriated.
In subsequent decades it certainly has been appropriated on a grand scale, fomenting an endless round of increasingly hackneyed remakes, spinoffs, homages, and retro modishness, and the wholesale plundering of stock characters and plot devices by everyone from student film makers to writers of the most abstruse metafiction—not to mention the mass production of academic books and articles on the significance of film noir. As the original period recedes, the…
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