A poodle on the tarmac: The first of three reflections on noir

by Shannon Clute

The Killing (dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Granted, there are the shadows: the men lurking beneath fedoras, their faces split by darkness like their psyches; the women flickering like a candle’s flame against a black world, all warm glow and deadly heat.  (You know them so well they feel almost like family; like sweet Uncle Charlie, you invite them in, and realize too late they’ve concocted a makeshift gas chamber in your garage and they’re trying to off your kids.)  But there are also thieves dressed like children dressing up like cowboys, putting a bullet through a gumball machine just to show they mean business.  And there are poodles on the tarmac.

Noir is a world of dark streets, but it is also a world of absurdity and humor. To speak of the one without the other is to see half the picture: it is to see the shadow beneath the fedora but not the light, to see the torch singer’s danger but not feel her warmth.  It is to assume noir is as dark as we seem to want it to be, rather than to see it as it is.

We are drawn to noir because we want to feel bad, and noir let’s us do that—beautifully.  Never was heartbreak so heartfelt.  Never was danger so charged.  But we return to noir because it makes us feel something more.  Maybe that something is a sense of optimism (that sort of hope that can only arise from the lowest muck).  Maybe it is an existential laugh, bitter but meaningful because it is born at the moment we have nothing left to hope for or to fear.

I remember when I started to see both sides of noir.  It was a sun-drenched spring day in Moraga, California, on the campus of Saint Mary’s College.  The Japanese cherry trees were in blossom.  The whitewashed walls of the chapel shone impossibly bright against the emerald green hillsides.   I would say we stood in the shadow of that imposing chapel, but I don’t recall there being any shadow that day.

I was chatting with my friend and colleague Richard Edwards, a professor of film and new media, about our shared love of noir.  We did the sort of sparring academics do before having real conversations (and academic conversation usually stops at sparring): we offered each other a series of platitudes about noir cinematography and lighting, about German Expressionism and French poetic realism, about Siodmak and Tourneur and Wilder, about Chandler and Cain.  Little by little, it became a real conversation, and before we knew it we were offering up thoughts on Peggy Cummins shooting the matches off John Dall’s head in Gun Crazy, on Humphrey Bogart rubbing his ear in The Big Sleep.  And why the hell (just what one has to wonder in the shadow of the chapel) hadn’t anyone found a way to talk about both in the same conversation and in a way that might matter—as fluidly as films noir themselves managed to do?

Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy

Well, that did it.  Soon Richard and I were brainstorming, researching, talking.  And as you can probably guess by the length of this preamble, we’ve never stopped talking.  The result is a series of 50 (so far) podcasts on film noir (the Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir series) and 28 conversations with authors of hard-boiled, mystery and suspense (the Behind the Black Mask: Mystery Writers Revealed podcasts).

These podcasts are our answer to the questions raised by that fateful conversation.  They are our attempt to create a new brand of noir studies that can account for the deadly serious and the wickedly humorous aspects of noir, that is fluid in its medium and methodology so it can swerve quickly when the poodle crosses the tarmac (as it does in Kubrick’s The Killing) and thereby end up in a new and unanticipated place.

The poodle on the tarmac (The Killing)

We have dubbed our critical medium the “serialized academic audiobook,” and believe that ours was the first academic film and literature analysis podcast.  But that matters about as much as what sort of car Uncle Charlie cranked up in the garage that day.  What matters is that it has helped us to see noir in a whole new light.

What we have come to appreciate is that noir hides nothing in the shadows.  In fact, it lays all the evidence out on the table, so plainly that it is easy to overlook—like Poe’s “Purloined Letter.”  As the career inspectors buzz all around it, peering in shadows, roughing up the gees and laying bare the dames, it still sits right before our eyes, unopened.

What is its secret?  What does that letter say?  Well, I’m not going to presume we’ve gotten that far in the investigation.  But what I can tell you is this.  Noir is trying to help us be better readers of noir, even if it doesn’t want to give up it’s ultimate secret (just as is true of Poe’s purloined letter, or Henry James’s figure in the carpet).

By keeping our eyes open to what we see in the films (rather than to what we want to see or expect to see), what we can’t help but see is that noir is an extremely self-conscious film style.  It stages tribute shots that constitute a critical commentary on—an “auto-exegesis” of—the film in which they appear (think of Emmerich’s descent of the staircase in The Asphalt Jungle vs. Mrs. Dietrichson’s in Double Indemnity), it stages visual and aural puns that demonstrate an awareness of how it is telling stories and at whose expense (think of the closing echo between the author and the protagonist at the end of Touch of Evil, or that same film’s multi-layered sign for viewers that hangs in the blind shopkeeper’s store: “If you are mean enough to steal from the blind, help yourself”).

Noir constantly frames its own evidence and offers it up.  If we fail to weigh the evidence as we watch, or if we are so bound to one method(ology) for investigating that we fail to see that certain clues are offered up with a wink and a nod, then we’ll find we’ve found little (and will only discover too late that the joke’s on us).

We don’t claim to have the answers.  But we would argue that we have to stay flexible in our approach to noir: we have to find a method that embraces the passion and encyclopedic knowledge of fan scholars without rejecting the insights that come from the close critical reading practices of academics.  And above all, we have to appreciate that noir has already laid the goods on the table.  If we don’t try and see the way it is framing stories about reading, then we’ll find we’re the saps in the story—outguessed and outgunned at every turn.

If you want to know what all this talk means in practical terms, we’d invite you to listen to our podcasts.  We also have a book coming out in the fall that gathers together some of the insights we’ve gleaned through podcasting.  It’s called the Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism.  Here’s an entry from that book that gives you a taste of what we see in noir:

Touch of Evil

Heston in Touch of Evil

~ The Slightest Separation

Touch of Evil can be seen as, above all, a meditation on filmmaking. The final sequence of “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) trying to record the conversation between Sergeant Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) and corrupt Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), going through the muck and the oil rigs with a recording device, is ultimately a metaphor for filmmaking itself. On the set, these actors are being followed by filmmaking crews, and when Welles as Quinlan is standing on the bridge, and he hears the echo of the recording device, Welles the director is making a self-conscious pun on filmmaking. Welles knows the scene is actually double microphoned, because he is also recording the scene for us in the audience.  In the action and the mise en scène, he is exploiting these doublings and double entendres on every level in the final scenes of this film. –Richard Edwards

Ultimately the question is what options remain when a film becomes this self-reflexive? The self-conscious auteur of such a work has to write himself out of the picture in the end, for there is no where else to go.  The perfect moment of filmic punning, this double gesture both narrative and extra-narrative, is illustrated in the death of Quinlan. As Vargas follows them around, with a device to record their conversation, he gets closer and closer, until Quinlan hears a slightly delayed echo of his own voice from the device. In other words, the film stages the closing of the gap until there is just the slightest delay, the slightest separation in space and time, between Welles the director and Welles the actor, between the extra-narrative stuff of filmmaking and the narrative that is being constructed. At the moment these join, the auteur must die, and he right after he hears the slight echo of his own voice, Quinlan is killed. –Shannon Clute

17 Responses to “A poodle on the tarmac: The first of three reflections on noir”

  1. This is fascinating, Shannon! Can you explain, for those without a great memory, the setup for the poodle on the tarmac moment? (Humphrey Bogart’s ear tugging always fixated me–it feels so intimate)

  2. Good stuff. Listened to the “In a Lonely Place” podcast today. My first. Will hear more.

    Now I’ll mention the under-appreciated Dana Andrews just to see what happens. There’s something about that guy. Resignation, pain, I don’t know what it is, but he gets to me. LInda Darnell, too.

  3. Oh, Russell, I so adore him. Who wore pain more beautifully? It hurt you just looking at him. Love them both in Fallen Angel (with Alice Faye!).

  4. I was thinking of “Fallen Angel” today, and his sassy scenes with Darnell. I love the way he hurts in “The Best Years of Our Lives”. And what a voice he has.

  5. I am going to state that Lee Remick is the equal of Dana Andrews in the “wears pain beautifully” department. “Wild River”, “Baby, the Rain Must Fall”, “Days of Wine and Roses”. Adoration.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with regards to Dana Andrews. I would rank him as one of the most unjustly forgotten superstars of mid-century Hollywood, alongside Robert Ryan (who is one of my absolute favorite actors when it comes to conveying pain, and the one man I wish I could have seen in the role of Marlow).

    In response to Megan’s post, the poodle on the tarmac occurs very near the end of Kubrick’s “The Killing.” Sterling Hayden’s Johnny Clay seemed to have planned for every contingency for the heist, and has somehow survived all of the unbelievable and impossible-to-predict events that have transpired in its wake. He is on the tarmac, about to make his getaway despite all odds, when all of a sudden a toy poodle leaps out of a woman’s arms and forces the luggage train to swerve. Just like that Johnny’s suitcase hits the ground and the loot (i.e. Johnny’s dreams) are sucked up in a mad whirl towards the jet engines. It may be the best illustration of how noir fate tracks down those who transgress…the very topic I hope to tackle tomorrow.

    Thanks for the great comments, and thanks for listening to the podcast Russell. Hope you’ll enjoy others in the series.

  7. Such interesting stuff, Shannon! This ties in with something I’m always yapping about, which is the surreal (or maybe even mystical or ethereal–never sure of quite the right word) aspects of noir. Those odd little touches like the ones you’re talking about–my fave is the monkey’s funeral in Sunset Boulevard. Those crazy outfits in Born to Kill. Of course the ultimate example might be the dali-designed dream sequence in Spellbound. Is there a name for that?

  8. Trippy?

    I’m never quite sure how to describe these moments either. I think ‘surreal’ might be best: clearly that’s accurate for the Dali sequence in “Spellbound,” but in a larger sense it also applies to the bizarre and dreamlike qualities of the monkey funeral (or final descent of the staircase) in “Sunset Blvd.,” or the campy cowboy heist in “Gun Crazy.” I love these moments too, and think they’re just as integral a part of noir as the more recognizable character types or John Alton-esque cinematography.

  9. I think the term that describes these moments is “pulp surrealism,” a concept that Robin Walz examines (in the book of the same name) at its early-20th century Parisian source, but could easily be extended into a stylistic maxim for noir. 40s noir often attempts to transcend its pulpy origins even as it celebrates them–that odd discontinuity, along with the intensification of visual style and “sense of space”, becomes part of noir’s narrative strategy. When it loses that lingering quality, it’s just a crime film. Welles is still working with those types of visual ideas in Touch of Evil, so it retains those strategies even though it is considerably more brutal than any of his previous forays into noir.

  10. Good to see you here Don! I’m not familiar with Robin Walz’s work, but “pulp surrealism” strikes me as a very appropriate term. There is, of course, a big difference between early 20th-century Parisian pulp and mid-century American pulp. Both are very sensationalist, but it seems to me the existential stakes are high in mid-century America (which is the topic of my next post, coming this evening). I agree that this sort of surrealism is as much a part of noir’s narrative strategy as the obvious stylistic hallmarks. I would just add that I think it also has a self-reflexive quality, as I mentioned in this post. Thanks for these thoughts!

  11. Thanks guys, interesting thoughts and I will check out that book! I agree Don, for me, not to try to label things to finely but just in terms of what I myself like it isn’t noir unless it has that otherworldly quality–otherwise it’s just a crime film. Shannon, what exactly do you mean by self-reflexive (I’m slow, as you’re finding out) — do you mean like self-conscious?

  12. Sorry Sara, I should have been clearer. We’ve been revising the MS for months, and I’m used to using those terms in context, where I be a little fast and loose with them. Generally speaking, I do mean self-conscious, but to a high degree and in particular ways. When we speak of the “self-reflexive” qualities of noir in the book, we’re speaking of a self-consciousness that is carefully staged, and where the object of the self-conscious gesture is the film itself. Thus we like “self-reflexive” because it is as if the film is holding up a mirror to it’s own story, or to the narrative means it is using to tell that story, in order to make a meta-narrative commentary about noir storytelling. The example I posted from Touch of Evil give you a better sense of what I mean. That is not just a self-conscious film (though it is that). It is a film that stages the death of the “auteur” (for Welles is both the author of the action within the film, and the film’s auteur/director: his death in the narrative concludes the narrative and concludes his work as a director in Hollywood). Noir abounds with such examples. Taken together, they constitute a constant strain of self-critical reading that runs throughout noir, leading us to argue that noir is at once a narrative style and a critical meta-commentary on that narrative style, and if the critic fails to recognize and to study these “auto-exegetical” impulses in noir, he finds his criticism “plagiarized by anticipation” by the films. In our book, we offer the first extended example of a previously untapped form of criticism that tries to unearth these self-reflexive moments from noir in a way that allows them to read themselves–“Potential Criticism.”

  13. Interesting thread. In this last comment block, Mr. Sclute, you’ve given me a new way to think about or articulate something I’ve more or less unconsciously been doing in my own noirish writing. Of course. Self-reflexive. Thanks. Must read your book when it comes out.

  14. Thanks for the feedback Russell. It is a self-consciousness of such a particular sort: if you already had a gut feeling about it, and this thread strikes you as helpful, then I can only hope we’re onto something.

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