feel-good noir

by Megan Abbott

Somehow, this has been New Republic week for me, but this essay on The Town (the Ben Affleck movie) and Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile by venerated (and unpredictable) film critic really intrigued me. He writes,

… the alluvial bond between the new book and the new movie is the current American taste for noir, and the hope that the warm mud of violence and criminality will pass for verities about life on the street. There are many things corroding America, and this endless cultivation of noir must be on the list.

Of course he’s really not talking about noir but what passes for it these days. And who’s giving it that free pass:  the “large, sedentary, middle-class, and crime-free audience (people alarmed by parking tickets or tax audits)” who get a taste of the semi-rough stuff in very palatable, safe form, with an ending we can all feel okay about it. It’s “feel good noir,” he says. A fantasy that “we” (re: middle class audiences) indulge in as we increasingly detach ourselves from what we’d rather not face, such as poverty. We can enjoy a movie about bank robbers with their heart in the right place as a way of turning a blind eye to the larger terror about what banks do, and get away with.

I’m not sure how this argument lines up the initial rise of the gangster movie  during the depths of the Great Depression, nor the glorification of public enemies–bank robbers, in particular. (And since when wasn’t there a whole strand of noir that wasn’t glamorous escapism? Cue Gilda, Out of the Past). Further, without getting too deeply into the semantics of “noir,” I don’t think either The Town or Lehane’s Patrick and Angie books qualify. “Hardboiled,” perhaps (Thomson seems to make no distinction)–but classic hardboiled fiction nearly always leads us to partial redemption in the end. The streets are mean, but we have our battered knight, at least. We can count on him.

Maybe instead, with Thomson’s example, we’re working far more closely in the palette of On the Waterfront;  individual conscience can in fact make a dent; heart does matter.

(Not for nothing, Thomson, in his “Have You Seen …?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Movies, enjoys On the Waterfront but notes its “tidiness” and, perhaps correctly, refers to it as a “a boys’ melodrama.” To which I say, what’s wrong with that? And Thomson would likely say “Nothing.” Maybe that’s what we’re seeing with The Town and its ilk.)

But it’s hard for me to argue with what Thomson says about his premiere example of true noir, Dashiell Hammett. In contrast to what he sees in Affleck or Lehane, who want their protagonists to be seen as “tough beholders of an ugly world,” Hammett was far rougher on his “heroes.” Thomson writes,

Dashiell Hammett knew enough about criminals to loathe and distrust them, and to insist on his detectives as hard, shabby, remorseless men. So in The Maltese Falcon, Spade sends Brigid to Tehachapi with a distinct relish. He takes women, but he doesn’t have to like them. And Hammett doesn’t want to make us admire him.

I have gripes with about five things in this short paragraph (beginning with Hammett’s clear delight in several of his “criminals”), but there certainly is something here that matters. One of the great gifts of Hammett is the hazard and dubiousness he bestows upon his protagonists. When we read Falcon today, Spade seems just as dangerous and self-serving as any of the criminals and occasionally more so. It crackles.

But I leave the article wondering about Thomson’s big claims about the culture and what they mean. Even if we accept Thomson’s view of The Town and Moonlight Mile, what does he do with a story that does revel in the thorniness and pathos of much contemporary life? What does he do with the novels of Daniel Woodrell? With The Wire?

5 Comments to “feel-good noir”

  1. that’s a cracking piece. i reckon there’ll be a few students out there thinking of taking that on as PhD fodder.
    far from corroding America, i’m sure noir is acutually galvanising it. in part, as a contrast to the messages of the Christian Right and the conservative wings of the middle classes, it allows people to understand that we’re all capable of doing bad things. if these are things that flash through individual and collective minds, it is surely a way of helping each to keep the brakes on by giving it some form of recognition. As you point out very well, by far the largest share of damage in the world is produced by those respectable folk at the top of organisations where morality is measured by the accumulation of cash. noir does many things for us – allows consideration of difficulty; points out inbalance in society; delves into the worlds of society’s victims; like a mirror offers us a true reflection of at least a part of ourselves; points out difficulties in getting by from day to day; reminds us of our good fortune when ‘there but for the grace of the forces of the universe go i; and it sure does entertain…so there i go strolling away from the point. back to my opening. that’s a cracking piece.

    • thanks, Nigel! I do think Thomson is quite right that there IS a strand of slick and vaguely condescending (especially about working class life) crime film now (and I’m not talking about his examples) that he’s calling “noir” when really all it is is ….slick, vaguely condescending and occasionally quite entertaining.

  2. I will avoid repeating my earlier comment about avoiding the NR being a swell way to avoid middlebrow douchebaggery, but I’m glad to have seen your little excerpt above. I am proud to be corroding America, and so should you be.

    • Except David Thomson is kinda awesome (any one who can appreciate the special brilliance of Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo is okay in my book), and I do think he’s kinda right, just not entirely right. And too sweeping. though I respect a man with sweeping judgments (e.g, douchebaggery!).

  3. Well, I think crime movies & novels are usually not, and rarely were, social commentary on actual criminals. Fiction is not documentary. I think the big role of crime in our narratives is metaphorical, not literal. Committing crimes and sleeping with the wrong people has always been a big part of our storytelling–see the Bible, Gilgamesh, Greek myths, etc. I don’t think Gilgamesh was supposed to give the listener or reader a “real” glimpse into the life of criminals like Enkidu (was that his name?). What is WAS supposed to do is a whole other question, of course…

    That being said, there is definitely something creepy about the lives of the working- and not-working classes so consistently being turned into entertainment for their wealthier neighbors. Growing up in NYC in the seventies and eighties it was definitely an interesting experience to see, say, Escape From NY on TV (something I will write more about one day!). But these things can be trickier than they seem, I think–Grant Morrison has spoken a bit about making his work like the Mad Cow protein–you eat the hamburger and you don’t know the prion has infected you until it’s too late…In other words, what you think is the message isn’t always (or ever) really the message.

    Wow, so much to think about here, megan!

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