Thursday, January 20, 2005

Let them eat Noir

Most humans are at least vaguely aware of "noir", having watched The Maltese Falcon, or parts of it, during late night brew or chronic sessions. And Bogie as Sam Spade is classic noir; as are Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet as the villains. Dashiell Hammett, the author of The Maltese Falcon was perhaps the American master of noir fiction, and his own life was quite dark --he was imprisoned in the early 50's for some time after refusing to rat out some of his pals suspected of being communists. Hammett's noir is as to the point as a Dempsey jab, with no frills, though with touches of irony and absurd comedy ( Lorre does the comic villain well); lit. types might classify it as "urban realism", but there is much more to it than mere realism.

Noir is a 20th century phenomena, really, perhaps foreshadowed by Poe in his non-supernatural tales such as the Purloined Letter and Murders of the Rue Morgue or Conan-Doyle's stories of Holmesian deduction; it's not about spooks, it's dark but not ghoulish. The noir of Hammett or Raymond Chandler is, however, much more gritty and "hardboiled" than Conan-Doyle's somewhat sentimental Edwardian tales. The language of Hammett or Chandler is pared down from Poe or Conan Doyle's more literary and elegant style; it's sexier, cocky, and with less gloss. Sam Spade is no British gentleman as was Holmes, and he's able to handle himself in a street fight. ( And remember to never mistake noir for dull, pissy English murder mysteries set in manors or european railroad stations).

Hemingway also wrote some noirish stories ( the Killers, the Battler) and Chandler shows some Papa-like influence, though I suspect that Hem. was also influenced by the noir writers. Like Hemingway the diction of noir is simplified, often macho--the speech of cops, lawyers, detectives, criminals, floozies, waitresses, losers. Jim Thompson is another classic noir writer though a bit more primitive than say Chandler. His book The Grifter's is a great story of losers and racetrack creeps, and a decent movie; After Dark, My Sweet is another Thompson fave, and the movie, with Jason Patric, is really superior to the book. In bad noir hacks such as Spillane the cliches can, however, become ridiculous, and obviously Ho--wood churns out bad noir year after year.

The cinematic productions of noir fiction have not been so faithful to the text. Chandler's books--say The Big Sleep--were distorted and if you read the book with any understanding you might find Bogart as Phillip Marlow a bit miscast. Bacall seems to do the heiress well, but Marlow is a big guy--200 lbs, 6 ft. or so. Bogie is a great Sam Spade, but as Marlow he seems ineffectual. Mitchum does Marlow very effectively in Farewell, My Lovely.

Though noir might be thought of as macho , it's also romantic; Chandler's stories usually feature some hot if conniving starlets or washed-up, uh, courtesans. The traditional heros and villains of literature are absent in noir; there are antiheroes, women are not always angels or whores; there's a note of modern ambiguity. The white hats and black hats of westerns are gone, as are the saloon gals with the hearts of gold; or perhaps as in some of Chandler's more bitter visions such as Red Wind, everyone seems to be a black hat.

Though noir is often categorized in the "pulp" file, many scholars are coming to realize that Chandler and Hammett's visions are as worthy to be called "literature" as well, say Fitzgerald or Hemingway's writings. Noir presents the urban spectacle unsentimentally, and at its best without some obvious moral--and in Chandler, corruption, amorality and nihilism are the central motifs. Yet there is more than a hint of a leftist vision to Hammet and even to some of Chandler's writing. In the world of Noir--say in Farewell, My Lovely--corruption extends from the dives and shacks of Burbank to the mansions of Bel Air, and it seems about everyone is on the ol' payola.

James Ellroy is a modern noir master, though his writing is far more graphic, violent, and yes obscene than Chandler or Hammett's; the movie LA Confidential was made from one of his novels. Nonetheless Ellroy's wildly discordant visions of LA-- sort of Ornette Coleman with say Stan Kenton--have a flavor of authenticity to them, and a note of real tragedy....

Noir influenced the Beats, as any discerning reader of say Kerouac's "The Subterraneans" realizes; "cyberpunk" writers such as PK Dick and William Gibson also owe much to Chandler's keen style--and Gibson's crisp noir prose in Count Zero or Virtual Light is a refreshing change from the dull wooden language of earlier sci-fi such as Heinlein and Asimov.

Noir : c'est la vie

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