American Noir Notes
As its name suggests, noir (French for “black”) is shrouded in darkness and inhabited by tough guys and seductive dames with binge-drinking, chain-smoking ways. Noir romance ends with a “Goodbye, baby” and a bullet; the promise of America, “land of the free, home of the brave,” is notably absent. Writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, movies like Double Indemnity and Laura, destroy that dream, replacing it with a stylish nightmare. Herewith, the gumshoe footnotes.
Alcohol saturates noir characters—and their creators. Dashiell Hammett drank martinis until he was too sick from drinking to keep drinking (though during his final year, his longtime love, author Lillian Hellman, served him a martini a night). Hammett also wrote detective novels. He wrote characters like the hard-boiled Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon (1930), and the paunchy, ruthless Continental Op, in Red Harvest (1929). The Op visits a corrupt town named Personville—the locals call it Poisonville—and proceeds to tear the place apart, pitting crooks against one another. Along the way he drinks bottles of bootleg liquor. After one all-night binge, he gets a call for a dangerous meeting and pours himself another drink, to avoid feeling “alcohol dying in him.”
Raymond Chandler, often dubbed Hammett’s noir successor, drank gimlets. His signature character is private eye Philip Marlowe, who also drinks gimlets (and is slightly gentler than Hammett’s antiheroes). Marlowe became so successful that Chandler was called to Hollywood as a screenwriter for noir films. While writing the script for The Blue Dahlia (1946), he insisted he be kept drunk. Producer John Houseman acquiesced. In the film, a character orders “bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser.”
Dashiell Hammett and William Faulkner met in New York City during the 1930s. Faulkner liked Hammett, and he liked listening to Hammett’s life stories, the basis for much of Hammett’s fiction. In his early 20s, Hammett worked as an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, tracking down thieves and embezzlers. He broke up mining strikes and was even asked to murder a unionizer. (He declined.) His fictional detectives were inspired by real ones, and Red Harvest, which depicts a mining town torn apart by greed and corruption, can be read as a criticism of the antiunion actions he witnessed. Later, in 1951, Hammett was jailed for refusing to cooperate with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. Faulkner also attacked social injustice through fiction. His novel Light in August (1932) unearths the deep-rooted racism of the South.
Like Hammett, Faulkner loved to drink. He drank mint juleps, or hot toddies when he was sick. At one of publisher Alfred Knopf’s parties, Hammett drank until he passed out, and Faulkner drank until he collapsed and couldn’t move. They drank like noir characters but reacted like writers.
William Faulkner couldn’t make ends meet as a novelist, so he took jobs writing screenplays for Hollywood. He did not appreciate the gig, however, thinking he would “lose whatever power I have as a writer.” On top of that, he didn’t like writing the snappy dialogue the genre demands, preferring his famously long, stream-of-consciousness passages that zigzag through the minds of his various characters. His screenwriting collaborator Leigh Brackett said Faulkner wrote lines that “did not fit comfortably the actors’ mouths.”
In 1944 Faulkner, Brackett and Jules Furthman adapted Raymond Chandler’s crime novel The Big Sleep (1939) for director Howard Hawks. Chandler didn’t care overmuch about plotting, and The Big Sleep is even more convoluted than most of his books. During the filming, Hawks and the screenwriters began to argue about who actually kills the chauffeur character, Owen Taylor. Nobody could figure it out. They wired Chandler. He had no idea either. So this scene remains ambiguous, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many critics agree The Big Sleep has one of the most indecipherable plots of any film, leaving viewers to unravel for themselves why they enjoy it so much.
Originally, Charles Brackett was set to pen a screenplay from James M. Cain’s 1935 novella Double Indemnity. But after reading the pulp story about a woman who seduces a man into killing her husband, he backed out in disgust. Director Billy Wilder called Raymond Chandler, who said he could write the screenplay in less than a week (despite never having worked on a film). Wilder was shocked. He informed Chandler they would be working together for 14 weeks.
Shut up in a small room, the two men quickly came to despise each other. They argued about everything from who should close the venetian blinds to Wilder’s phone conversations with women. Chandler, then in a rare state of sobriety, was also annoyed that Wilder drank in front of him. In a conciliatory effort, the director stopped drinking and calling women, but Chandler began drinking again, sneaking swigs of whiskey whenever Wilder took a bathroom break. Despite such a contentious relationship, the pair managed to finish an Academy Award–nominated screenplay. Wilder subsequently praised Chandler’s writing skills. Chandler said the whole affair shortened his life. He can be seen in a brief cameo, 16 minutes into the movie, looking very grumpy.
The femme fatale is one defining aspect of noir. The spider woman, the black widow, she seduces men into dangerous dark-alley scenarios. The films Double Indemnity and Laura, both released in 1944, present two versions of such women. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) woos Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) with sultry looks and quick wit. “There’s a speed limit in this state,” she teases about his flirting. “How fast was I going?” he asks. “I’d say around 90,” she responds. When Walter first meets Phyllis she wears only a towel—a daring wardrobe choice at the time, considering film censors’ intolerance of even suggested nudity. But before long she’s dressed in disguise and meeting Walter for clandestine conferences in the supermarket. They’ve killed Phyllis’s husband.
Otto Preminger’s Laura warps the idea of the femme fatale. Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is obsessed with Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), whom he encounters during a murder investigation—hers. He falls in love with her beautiful portrait and imagines life back into her by reading her diaries. He doesn’t need to see her naked. In fact, the film’s only nudity is that of sleazy old columnist Waldo Lydecker, first shown in the bath.
When crime writer James Ellroy was 10 years old, in 1958, his mother, Geneva, was brutally strangled to death in El Monte, California. The killer was never identified. In 1996 Ellroy published My Dark Places, a memoir and an investigation into his mother’s murder. He recounts how, after her death, he became obsessed with investigations of murdered women, including the gruesome Los Angeles “Black Dahlia” case of 1947 (he wrote the best-selling novel The Black Dahlia in 1987). “Dead women owned me,” he claimed.
Detective Mark McPherson’s love for a dead woman in the film noir Laura obviously caught Ellroy’s attention. In his memoir, he defines “the Laura syndrome,” a romantic cop fantasy of loving a crime victim. Alleged murder victim Laura turns out to be alive—and not only that, she falls in love with McPherson. But for Ellroy, that’s just fiction; the only life he can give his mother is to write a book about her. He addresses her in brief second-person passages scattered throughout My Dark Places: “I want to give you breath,” he writes in the first. “You’re gone, and I want more of you,” he sighs in the last.
The word pulp refers both to the processing of wood into paper and to something having low character or debased moral fiber. In the first half of the 20th century, noir-style novels were published on cheap paper as “pulp fiction,” a genre that was exploitative, violent, heavily plotted and gritty. Raymond Chandler regretted the pulp formulas of his books, claiming his publishers’ expectations tainted the final product. His novels follow the adventures of private eye Philip Marlowe and are set in Los Angeles, depicted as a dirty city filled with criminals and sleaze. Marlowe is a knightly figure. He’s morally incorruptible, no matter the tempting femmes fatales and bribes.
James Ellroy—with sentences short and smarting as gunshots—doesn’t just provide the pulp; he throws in the rind. His book American Tabloid (1995) opens, “America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over.” It gets grittier from there. Like Chandler, Ellroy sets most of his novels in L.A.’s underbelly, but Ellroy’s characters miss Marlowe’s integrity by a pretty penny. The heroes of his L.A. Confidential (1990), for example, are three cops who rat out other officers, beat suspects for information and leak stories to tabloids.
William Faulkner claimed the only novel he wrote for money was Sanctuary (1931). The story concerns an impotent, murderous Mississippi bootlegger named Popeye. The book is Faulkner’s most violent and disturbing (which says a lot—many Faulkner novels could make a tree trunk squirm like a jellyfish). Faulkner is known for his Southern grotesque style, which illuminates horrible, ugly characters who do horrible, ugly things to each other. In Sanctuary, which combines the grotesque with ultraviolent noir, he creates a hybrid genre replete with such monstrous acts as Popeye raping a woman with a corncob.
In Winter’s Bone, author Daniel Woodrell replaces Faulkner’s bootleg liquor with crystal meth and his Mississippi with the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri. Teenage protagonist Ree Dolly maneuvers through a backwoods meth community, searching for her missing father. She encounters a part of America that is washed-up and dangerous, where the only way to survive is to tan oneself an equally tough hide. In short, she discovers noir America. Woodrell’s writing is often compared to Faulkner’s: Both compose lyrical, lush, atmospheric prose that brings to life a rough, lurid South. Woodrell calls his fiction “country noir.”