“I made a mistake, once”: The second of three reflections on noir

by Shannon Clute

The noir universe is often considered to be fatalistic, or more broadly nihilistic.  I believe it is more accurate to see that world as existentialist, for a simple reason that has vast implications: to be fatalistic is to accept one’s situation; to be existentialist is to recognize how one’s agency has created one’s situation.  It may sound like a razor-fine distinction, but the thinnest blades cut the deepest.

When we first feast our eyes on the abundant misery of noir’s drama, we see broken players, or players bending until they break.  For reasons I addressed in Tuesday’s post, we can’t help but revel in the particular pains of noir.  But over time that revelry would create a real hangover if there were no other nuances that kept us coming back.  Two of those I discussed already: noir’s overt self-consciousness and its deeply quirky, highly self-referential humor.

To these we must add a particular philosophical stance—one that is, once again, marked by profound self-awareness.  It is what distinguishes noir from westerns, war films, and straight domestic melodramas.  It is likely what made this dark body of films resonate so deeply with American viewers in the wartime and immediate post-war years.  Granted, it was easy for most to recognize they weren’t living the Technicolor suburban dream Hollywood was starting to feed them, and that alone might explain some of noir’s popularity .  But in the wake of two wars that scarred the world forever, everyone was feeling some measure of guilt.  Everyone felt complicit.  Noir let them suffer, and go on, in ways they felt they should.

A lot has been made of noir as a visual style—an outgrowth German Expressionism and French Poetic Realism, once immigrated.  These are compelling arguments that any fan of noir should explore.  Less has been made, by film scholars at least, of the equal contribution of American hard-boiled writing to the creation of noir.  That is a lacuna that must be filled, and one we have often addressed in our “Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir” podcasts.  The types of stories noir told, the idiom in which it told them, the characters that populated these stories—they were all distinctly American.  German Expressionism was just that until it ran smack into the pulpy world of mid-century America.

But in that collision was an alchemy that created a hitherto unknown essence, at once ethereal and very worldly (for more on the alchemical moment of collision, see the entry on The Killers at the bottom of this post).  I would maintain it is the very essence of noir.  It is noir’s philosophy, and it is surprisingly fleshed out, surprisingly nuanced.

For want of a better term, I have called it existentialist.  That’s a fairly descriptive term, as long as we understand what branch of existentialism we’re discussing.  In noir I don’t see Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or Heidegger.  I see something closer to Sartre and closest to Camus, and it’s probably no wonder French critics were the first to see coherence in this dark body of works coming out of Hollywood at the time, and to give it a name—film noir (a term they coined, we must remember, because of the well known imprint from Gallimard called Série Noire, which specialized in hard-boiled American fiction).

That brand of existentialism is unique for many reasons, but two seem particularly relevant to noir.  The first is Sartre’s explicit dictum “Existence precedes essence” (to paraphrase somewhat selectively and recklessly, nothing is anything before it takes action).  The second is the concept of the “absurde,” best articulated by Camus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus.  I like to think of Camus’s absurd as purposeful action in the face of meaninglessness, a recognition of the importance of one’s own agency in the act of ultimately changing nothing.

That, to me, is noir.  It is what keeps us from pitying noir heros who ultimately can’t change the world.  It’s what makes us love the scoundrels whose greatest virtue is to keep being scoundrels.  It is why femmes fatales don’t strike us as simply immoral, but as somehow determined and admirable in their recklessness.

I should say at this point that Richard Edwards and I, in our podcasts and in the book that those inspired (The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism, forthcoming from UPNE in the fall, as Megan was kind enough to mention), have studiously avoided the question of what “is” and what “is not” noir.  This leads us down the path of debating style versus genre, of establishing a noir canon, and so on—well worn paths in the world of noir studies that at this point have little potential to reveal new information about noir, or help us achieve new understandings.  But because this is a blog, and blog musings are by definition rather personal, I’ll step away from my co-investigator for just a moment and offer this contentious musing.

He Walked by Night

To my mind, films that don’t evince the philosophical stance above don’t ultimately feel very noir.  These would include, above all, any films where a character set up to be a moral force within the film counterbalances or corrects the agency of a character set up to be flawed: films gris such as The Big Heat; noir-styled westerns such as Blood on the Moon or The Naked Spur; noir-styled war films such as The Third Man (which unabashedly “borrows” John Alton’s sewer scene from He Walked by Night for its own climax)—none of them are, to my mind, truly or fully films noirs.  They have all the trappings.  They may even have the proper measure of misery.  But something is amiss.

The Third Man

In the films that strike me as most fully noir, protagonists recognize their mistake.  That doesn’t mean they give up, or turn themselves in (in fact, they usually go down swinging).  But they come to understand both their own complicity in the crime (sometimes the bigger Crime, existence itself) and the absurdity of their action as part of their inability to remain inactive.   They know they will be punished, but damn it, it won’t be by something as inconsequential as another person representing order or good.  It may be Law itself, or Fate, or Desire—forces we can only understand in caps, even if they occasionally appear in an embodied form—but nothing as small as just a man or woman.

Here’s an example of what I mean, drawn from a podcast conversation Rich and I had in which we began to formulate some of the thoughts I’ve expressed above:

~ A Frenchman’s Question and The Swede’s American Answer

The Killers

Near the beginning of The Killers, Nick (Phil Brown) runs to tell The Swede (Burt Lancaster) two men are coming to kill him.  The Swede says there’s nothing he can do about it.  Nick asks, “Couldn’t you get out of town?”  The Swede answers, “No.  I’m through with all that running around.”  What we see at play in this exchange is the fundamental question of the post-war era—the question Camus poses in his 1940 essay The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” In the Hemingway story that is the source material for The Killers, the only physical detail we have of The Swede, besides him being an ex-heavyweight who’s too long for his bed, is that he has a mashed-up face.  In a film, of course, we can’t have a protagonist with a mashed up face, for he has to have leading man good looks.  But as The Swede is gunned down and lays dying in his bed, he reaches up with his right hand to grasp the bed frame, and what we see is a prominent scar on his hand.  This is a very different sort of scar, because it doesn’t indicate that he has taken a beating.  It would seem to indicate that he has given a beating, that he has gone down fighting; and yet, he doesn’t go down fighting.   The Killers examines the story behind the scar The Swede bears; it is the story of the reasons for his decision not to fight any longer. –Shannon Clute

Sisyphus

Sisyphus

The film’s action alternates between present moments in which insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) tries to discover what happened to Ole Andersen, aka The Swede, and moments in The Swede’s past.  The film underscores the centrality of the question of suicide by making it an early plot point, and Reardon begins to really get interested in The Swede’s story when he realizes that the beneficiary of The Swede’s life insurance policy is a person who prevented his earlier attempt at suicide years before.  So the central thrust of the film is an investigation into what propels Ole to continue, or to give up.  In the post-war years, this really is analogous to the Sisyphean question.  Why does the Greek myth of Sisyphus exist?  The fate of Sisyphus, which most philosophers read as a very negative existence, is that he is doomed for all eternity to roll the rock up the hill without ever completing his task; just before he can push the rock over the top, it comes bounding back down Camus, writing from an Existentialist perspective, has an interesting take on this myth, which I think Siodmak shares.  Rather than focusing on the moment when the rock rolls down the hill, both pay attention to the instant at which Sisyphus decides to go back down the hill to get started over again—or in The Swedes case, decides not to. –Richard Edwards

This is the key part of Camus’s argument.  The absurde allows us to recognize, in the words of Camus, that “Our solitary effort, our day to day revolt, gives proof of the only truth.  Which is defiance.”  And so it’s at the moment that Sisyphus turns and looks back down at the rock that has crashed to the plains below, and decides to take that first step back down to retrieve it, that he becomes greater than his fate.  With this action, Fate is to some degree undermined.  Ole Andersen finally gets to a point where he’s just too tired to take that step. –Shannon Clute

6 Responses to ““I made a mistake, once”: The second of three reflections on noir”

  1. Shannon, I have so much to say about this wonderful post, but first of all, how much I LOVE the shift away from nihilism and this notion of the absurd at the (quivering) spine of noir. It seems to me to speak to the element in noir that always makes one part of our brain say, “Why would Walter Neff let that anklet lead him to such places? Doesn’t he know what she IS?” and the rest of us *know,* “Of course he must. He’s been waiting for that anklet and for this dance with darkness his whole life.”

  2. Utterly fascinating – makes me want to watch all these great films again, too. Do you think it means something that many of the directors associated with the birth of noir were European expats, like Ulmer and Lang and Dmytryk? As Americans we still seem to struggle with stories featuring moral ambiguity and downbeat endings.

  3. It’s funny you should mention that scene Megan, because it’s one of the moments that got me thinking along these lines. In this post here I focus more on audience reception–why viewers are drawn to this particular sort of heartbreak–but the same could be said for characters in the story.

    And to djtafoya’s question…I don’t think the European origins of many great noir directors are a negligible part of this equation, but I think the psychological weight of two world wars and the particular psychological disposition of American Pulp writing were equally important factors. It’s worth noting that these European directors filmed some of their darkest and most morally ambiguous works here in the States. I love this moment in American film history because we started to see new types of stories told by Hollywood–darker, more nuanced, smarter. Thanks for that comment!

    • Indeed, Shannon–I mean our audience reaction to the character–that desire to distance ourselves from his poor decision at the same time as we understand, under our skin, why he must, must, must!

  4. The more aware of the mistake, the more alienated the noir protagonist is/becomes. The range of choice in terms of acting upon that awareness, however, is wide.

    It’s just that none of those choices lead the protagonist to a different outcome, yes?

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