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 fixation on its products seems less a matter of style or meaning than of the fetishizing of a particular moment in time. For whatever reason, the trappings of 1947 coalesce into a language of desire.
Media technology feeds the impulse by making it possible to resurrect a lost year to one’s exact specifications, selecting precisely the recorded music and filmed images that fit the fantasy. The past is culled, re-edited, and intensified to produce an alternate and more satisfying version. This uncanny survival after death informs any art to a degree. Before photography, when painting was still perceived as a recording device, the ruffles and antiquated hairstyles of a seventeenth-century painting—coupled with the almost tangible presence of the long dead model—doubtless exerted the same kind of haunted fascination, the beckoning presence of the vanished. Recent technology merely fine-tunes the illusion.
Perhaps out of a need to counteract the irrational power exerted by old movies, film critics and historians prefer to peg their assessments on something more solid and demonstrable than nostalgia and personal obsessions. For the chroniclers who have set about pigeonholing these movies of the late Forties and early Fifties, the films acquire significance essentially from their connection to a larger historical narrative. This anchors them to something that really happened; it also supposes that by watching the movies the film student gains privileged insights into the era when it was made. But a glance at some of the standard accounts indicates the peril of projecting movies back onto history: the past itself becomes a movie.
Film noir, we read, flourished in an era of “millions of disillusioned soldiers returning home with a harsher view of life, coupled with the new apocalyptic presence of the atom bomb” (Scott and Barbara Siegel, The Encyclopedia of Hollywood1 ); the films “carried postwar American pessimism to the point of nihilism by assuming the absolute and irredeemable corruption of society and of everyone in it” and “held up a dark mirror to postwar America and reflected its moral anarchy” (David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film2 ); they created an atmosphere of “tense nervousness” and focused on “cynical, disillusioned, and often insecure loners” (Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia3 ) or on “central figures…filled with existential bitterness,” constituting “a true cultural reflection of the mental dysfunction of a nation in uncertain transition” (Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style4 ).
Disillusionment, apocalypse, pessimism, nihilism, corruption, nervousness, bitterness, dysfunction: Are these really what most viewers of these movies have experienced, either in the 1940s or since? Even with the most luridly perverse and pessimistic melodramas—Out of the Past, Criss Cross, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers—it may well be asked whether spectators were any more devastated by the destinies of the doomed lovers and killers than viewers of Knots Landing or Dallas. They had come to the movies for excitement, and were more likely to be entertained than crushed by the spectacle of a comfortably vicarious emotional showdown. In the world of film noir, words like “dark” or “empty” or “desperate” refer not to real-life experiences but to movie experiences: they describe certain sub-varieties of spectatorial thrill. The movies’ actual effects might more accurately be described in terms of exhilaration, gaudy invention, tight and jaunty choreography, cocky self-assurance. They practice an aesthetic of flamboyant exhibition, reveling in exuberant sexuality and hip self-parody.
Noir might more realistically be considered not so much a “universe” or a “sensibility”—and certainly not the “movement” that one writer calls it—as a particular sheen, a slick new variety of packaging, faddish at the time and subsequently much prized by connoisseurs: a nexus of fashions in hair, fashions in lighting, fashions in interior decoration, fashions in repartee, fashions in motivation. What late-coming aficionados prize are the incidental graces that conclusively date the piece: the distinctive patinas achieved by cinematographers like Nicholas Musuraca, Joe MacDonald, John Alton, George Diskant; the theremin wails and minor chords of a Miklos Rozsa score; cameos by Elisha Cook, Jr., or Gloria Grahame.
And then there is the dialogue, a free-floating anthology of stylized vernacular, most of it still waiting to be transcribed. A crook’s moll, alluding to the clutter of perfume bottles on her dressing table: “I like to stink myself up.” A small-time gangster asserting himself in the face of imminent catastrophe: “I’m no soda jerker! I’m not one of these broken-backed dummies that come into your soda store!” Another moll, asked where she’s heading: “As far as twenty bucks and a mink coat’ll take me.”
It all came about for dozens of different reasons: because Orson Welles had made Citizen Kane and opened up a whole new box of optical toys; because in Double Indemnity Billy Wilder had demonstrated how a whiff of illicit sex could rejuvenate the ailing murder mystery, hooking the audience from the moment Fred MacMurray watched Barbara Stanwyck walk downstairs and fixated on “the way that anklet of hers cut into her leg”; because of the steady popularity of writers like Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich; because wartime restrictions on setbuilding made it imperative to get maximum mileage out of lighting and composition (Welles had already pointed the way with his nonexistent set for the main living room of Xanadu); because a host of European exiles with a flair for post-UFA stylistics had settled in Hollywood; because the kids who grew up on Charlie Chan and the Falcon had come of age and craved a slightly more adult version of the same brand of excitement; because successful movies engender imitations.
It was always a hybrid: the point was to get the best package by mixing together the selling points of as many genres as possible, Warner Brothers gangster movies and Universal horror movies, Eric Ambler-style foreign intrigue, femme fatale melodramas from Rain to The Letter, sophisticated whodunits, Gothic shockers, hardboiled private eye capers. The most characteristic effects often rely on the unexpected commingling of disparate elements: Lauren Bacall making a wisescrack about Proust; a murderous gangster terrified of catching a cold; Rita Hayworth hiding out at the Chinese opera; a criminal on the lam talking philosophy with a derelict rummie. The fundamental disparity is between rawness of subject matter (murder, torture, corruption, madness, urban decay) and beauty of presentation (the sculpted lighting, balletic tracking shots, and rich symphonic schmaltz). The archetypal film noir resembles a Walker Evans-Flo Ziegfeld coproduction of a Philip Marlowe mystery, or Dick Tracy rewritten by Clifford Odets and directed by the ghost of F.W. Murnau.
If the movies will never again exercise quite the same power, it’s because they have been torn from their original ritual context, like a fresco severed from a church wall. Movies, for those most entranced by them, were once initiatory rites which could be undergone only at unpredictable intervals: visions emerging out of darkness and then sinking, perhaps irretrievably, back into it. We waited for the chance to see certain rare movies like astronomers waiting for unusual planetary conjunctions. There was no telling where they might show up—at the Cinemathèque Française or for one day only at Dan Talbot’s New Yorker on the Upper West Side, badly dubbed on the Times Square grind circuit or chopped up but still recognizable on an early-morning TV show called Dialing for Dollars, which consisted of old B-pictures interspersed with a phone-in quiz show hosted by Rosemary De Camp. You might walk into a makeshift theater in Guayaquil and there it would be: the Alexander Korda movie for which you had been waiting half a lifetime, materializing with Grail-like insistence. Inevitably, the movie took on the weight of the years invested in the quest for it.
Video has changed all that. I recently watched back-to-back an assortment of old movies which it might formerly have taken a decade or more to track down. As reels of film they were elusive treasures; as videocassettes they are mass-produced pellets of software tossed into a bin along with a thousand others. In an effort to bring in new customers, the distributor lays on a bit of tired ballyhoo: “It was a time when men were men and women were dames!” But presumably most of the buyers either know them or know of them: a nostalgia crowd, analogous to the markets to which reissues of Alice Faye musicals or Perils of the Darkest Jungle or episodes of Car 54, Where Are You? are directed. On Dangerous Ground may not equal the unit sales of Robocop 2, but the overhead is low. You have to wonder how much interest future generations will have in such items. What use if any will the denizens of the midtwenty-first century, in their altered landscape, have for Alice Faye, or Humphrey Bogart, or Orson Welles? Or will all that tape ultimately be recycled to inscribe spectacles yet unfilmed, like the classical parchments from which Sapphic odes were scraped to make way for the homiletics of Saint Jerome?
Facts on File, 1990; Avon, 1991, p. 149.↩
Norton, 1981; 1990; pp. 467, 471.↩
Crowell, 1979, p. 418.↩
Overlook, 1988, p. 6.↩