||THE LATEST ESSAYS
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Film Noir & the Hard-Boiled Detective Hero
The Outer Limits of Film Noir
||The American hard-boiled detective film began to appear in the early 1940s, providing an alternative to the traditional murder mystery that had dominated detective films throughout the silent era and into the 1930s. These films represented an artistic effort to break the rules of the game laid down by countless movies about Sherlock Holmes and Philo Vance, and by the ongoing "Thin Man" series. Embracing the techniques and outlook of film noir, which the hard-boiled detective film would come to represent, the people who made these films set out to create on the motion picture screen a different kind of world, and to provide it with a darker, more cynical interpretation.
The makers of this new type of detective film seemed to recognize that if they were going to create a new cinematic view of the world, they also would have to create a completely new hero to exist in that world. Yet, they did not all create the same type of hero, nor did the film noir hero remain static during his entire run. Instead, the hard-boiled detective films of the 1940s supplied a surprisingly diverse set of heroes, each offering a variation on the common theme of crime and detection in the dark urban scene.
Although the new hard-boiled detective genre may seem to have emerged already fully developed in The Maltese Falcon (Warner Bros., 1941), many of the elements that in
combination would define this and later films can be found separately in earlier films. Probably the most obvious as well as the most influential example of early film noir is Citizen Kane (RKO, 1941). Among other contributions to the hard-boiled detective genre, it perfected and used on a grand scale such techniques as high-contrast lighting (revealing certain characters in bright, almost washed-out light, while casting others into almost total shadow, for example); low-angle camera setups (making the subject seem taller and more powerful); and deep focus (a new technology at the time, allowing the camera to maintain in focus objects and characters in both the background and foreground in the same shot). Citizen Kane, along with Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (United Artists, 1940), also used the narrative technique of introducing a central character after his death, then reconstructing the events of his life to develop his character through the rest of the film. Variations on this method would later be used in many of the hard-boiled detective films.
|Humphrey Bogart established the archetypal film noir detective-hero. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Another influential — if less celebrated — example of early film noir is Stranger on the Third Floor (RKO, 1940). This film centers around a newspaper reporter who testifies as a witness in a murder trial in which an innocent man is found guilty. Immediately after the verdict is delivered — following a trial in which one of the jurors is caught snoring during crucial
testimony — the reporter begins to doubt his own testimony and to wonder whether the convicted man might be a victim of circumstantial evidence and an over-zealous criminal justice system. When he later discovers that his next-door neighbor has been murdered, he realizes that he himself could be convicted of the second murder through circumstantial evidence. That night, he dreams that he is on trial for his life and that no one will believe in his innocence. But in the dream he recognizes the real killer (Peter Lorre), lurking in the back of the courtroom.
|Film noir takes shape with visual and social disorientation. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)
Of course, at the end of the movie, Peter Lorre is killed, living just long enough to confess to both murders; the innocent man is set free; and the reporter marries his sweetheart, who had been stalked by Lorre. In spite of its tacked-on happy ending, however, this film brought to the screen a previously unknown mood of cynicism and doom — particularly in its vision of the judicial system and of the dark streets and hallways that the characters inhabit — as well as a weird and terrifying dream sequence that rivals (and perhaps influenced) the more famous dream sequences in Murder, My Sweet (RKO, 1944), and Spellbound (United Artists, 1945).
It was in this atmosphere — with the airy-mannered amateur detective still going strong, and with early film noir beginning to question the legitimacy of this image — that first-time director John Huston adapted for the screen Dashiell Hammett's most famous novel, The Maltese Falcon. Hammett's novel had been filmed twice before, but neither movie had attempted to capture the full impact of the novel's bleak and uncompromising vision of urban America or the unheroic aspects of its hero. Indeed, the second version, Satan Met a Lady (Warner Bros., 1936), seemed incapable of deciding whether to be a screwball comedy or a murder mystery.
Huston decided to play it straight, and in the process created a new kind of detective hero for a new kind of film. The Maltese Falcon immediately became the archetypal hard-boiled detective film, and Sam Spade immediately became the archetypal hard-boiled detective. It may even be fair to say that every detective in later film noir was in some way a departure from Sam Spade.
The novel describes Sam Spade as looking like "a blond Satan," and although he is clearly the hero, he comes across as being nearly as amoral, ruthless, and greedy as the criminals he defeats. For the film, Huston, who not only directed but also wrote the screenplay, softened Spade's character somewhat, but left enough of the hard edge to make Spade's final act of heroism more complete and more poignant.
Yet, even in the film, Spade is a tarnished hero, at best. When he learns that his partner, Miles Archer, has been murdered, he shows no sign of shock or sadness — he even declines to examine the body for clues to the identity of the murderer. It turns out, in fact, that Spade has been having an affair with Archer's wife, and that he never really liked Archer, anyway. Spade's indifference toward Archer is emphasized further when, the day after the murder, he orders his secretary to have Archer's name removed from the office doors and windows and to have his desk removed as well.
Spade's lack of compassion and indeed his cruelty are further revealed in two scenes later in the movie. When Archer's widow, Iva, comes to see him, Spade appears to comfort her, but as the camera reveals the look on his face (which Iva does not see), the audience is allowed to see his insincerity. In another scene, Spade wrestles a gun away from Peter Lorre's character, Joel Cairo; after gaining the upper hand, Spade prepares to knock Cairo unconscious, but first he pauses, looks down into Cairo's face, and grins. He obviously relishes the violence that he is about to inflict.
Spade's heroism, therefore, lies not in any innate goodness or compassion or concern for justice — such qualities would be liabilities in Spade's environment — but in his personal code of loyalty, professional responsibility, and integrity. Spade likes his work, he's good at what he does, and above all he is loyal to his partner (despite his personal feelings toward Archer) and to his profession. Because of his cynicism and the violent and uncompromising nature of his environment, Spade has adopted this simple code as his highest — indeed, his only — ideal. It is his first and only line of defense against a hostile world — an artificial structure designed to provide some meaning and order to an otherwise chaotic existence.
This code of behavior — which harks back to the credo of the post-World War I Hemingway code hero — would become part of the standard equipment of later hard-boiled detectives in film. But while later detectives such as Philip Marlowe were capable of feeling compassion and a certain amount of empathy for other human beings, it is Sam Spade's personal code alone that makes him a hero and is, in the end, the source of his redemption. Indeed, the negative aspects of Spade's character make his ultimate sacrifice all the more affecting — despite his cynicism and his somewhat cruel nature, despite his negative feelings toward Archer, and despite his love for Brigid, he is determined to see that Brigid pays the price for murdering his partner, because his personal code demands it.
"When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. And it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. Bad all around. Bad for every detective, everywhere."
It should be noted that factors originating outside of the film itself also contributed to the effectiveness of Bogart's portrayal of Spade and the audience's appreciation of Spade's ambiguity as a hero. At this point in his career, Bogart had yet to play a genuine hero. He had been a star of the second tier for years, but he was best known for his portrayals of cold-blooded killers and gangsters, often being gunned down in the last reel by the star, such as James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson.
Only recently had Bogart begun to alter this image. In High Sierra (Warner Bros., 1941), Bogart again played a criminal, but this time his character's inevitable death at the hands of the police seemed more tragic than deserved. Therefore, in his portrayal of Sam Spade, Bogart brought something to the role that no other actor could have contributed: his image in the public's mind as a villain or, at best, as a criminal anti-hero. For anyone who had seen Bogart's earlier films, the moral ambiguity of Sam Spade became more believable merely because of the actor chosen to play the role.
The casting of the lead role and the prior screen image of the actor who would play that role also became an important factor in the first screen appearance of Raymond Chandler's
private eye, Philip Marlowe. In the early 1940s, Dick Powell was an actor known primarily as a singer and dancer in light-hearted musicals of the 1930s. But in 1944 Powell decided to break free of this image by attempting a completely different film role.
|Private Detective Philip Marlowe, "an eagle scout among the tough guys. Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Powell was turned down for the lead in Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1944) because the director, Billy Wilder, felt that the public would never accept him as a hard-boiled type, much less a murderer. But Powell did land the role of Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (RKO, 1944), and, far from making him an implausible Philip Marlowe, Powell's previous image actually may have helped him create a more effective portrayal. William K. Everson, in his book, The Detective in Film, suggests that:
Powell — because the realistic conception of the private eye was relatively new, and because Powell was totally new to it — became Marlowe far more easily than Bogart [in The Big Sleep (Warner Bros., 1946)], who had several other competing images working against him: the gangster image, Sam Spade, Rick from Casablanca. Powell tossed off the tired, contemptuous, yet biting Raymond Chandler wisecracks and insults with superbly underplayed style. (p. 230)
Powell's ability to make what are ostensibly throwaway lines sound convincing and natural added an element that was important to the character of Philip Marlowe and new to the hard-boiled detective — the element of sarcastic humor. Whereas The Maltese Falcon is remarkable for the tightness of its script and the crispness of its dialogue, Murder, My Sweet is full of quick, ironic comments and even gestures that add a great deal to the character of Philip Marlowe. At one point in the film, the camera cuts to Marlowe standing next to a statue of Cupid; Marlowe glances at the statue, strikes a match on Cupid's body, then gives the statue a second, quizzical look before lighting his cigarette, just as Ann Grayle, who is becoming Marlowe's love interest in the film, enters the scene.
Philip Marlowe appeared in three A-level movies in the mid-1940s: Murder, My Sweet (RKO, 1944), The Lady in the Lake (MGM, 1946), and The Big Sleep (Warner Bros., 1946). In all three films, Marlowe exhibits the code of personal integrity and professional responsibility (to paraphrase George Grella) that he shares with Sam Spade and that is crucial to his status as a hero. Whether he is played by Dick Powell (Murder, My Sweet) or Robert Montgomery (The Lady in the Lake) or Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep), much of Marlowe's motivation to go on with thankless and often dangerous investigations stems from his loyalty to his client and his profession and a certain innate regard for the truth.
In Murder, My Sweet, when one of the suspects tries to get him to drop the investigation (as they inevitably do in all hard-boiled detective movies), Marlowe explains that he feels obligated to finish the job that he started, even though his original client has been killed: "He gave me a hundred bucks to take care of him and I didn't. I'm just a small businessman in a very messy business, but I like to follow through on a sale." Yet, the makers of all three films seem to have agreed with Raymond Chandler that this "is not quite enough."
As mentioned above, Marlowe added a sense of humor to the character of the hard-boiled detective and actually integrated this quality into his personal code. In doing so, he made the detective a much more human and less severe character than Sam Spade had been, and, paradoxically perhaps, added a second line of defense against the viciousness of his world. More important, Marlowe added the quality of redemption that Chandler felt to be necessary "[i]n everything that can be called art."
Marlowe is not only loyal to his client and his profession, he also is able to sacrifice himself and actually rise above the level of his "messy business" for the sake of a greater good — often for a client toward whom he feels genuine compassion or even protectiveness. Edward Dmytryk, who directed Murder, My Sweet, recognized the difference between Sam Spade, who sacrifices his own feelings for the good of his profession, and Philip Marlowe, whose motivation runs much deeper:
After all, what is Marlowe? He's no Sam Spade. He's an eagle scout among the tough guys. He's a moral, ethical man, with a strong sense of responsibility. (from The Detective in Hollywood, by Jon Tuska, p. 307)
Still, in watching the Marlowe films, one senses that the detective's character has been softened a little too much. In all three films, Marlowe "gets the girl" in the end, and although this may add much to the movies' audience appeal (particularly in The Big Sleep, where the casting of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made any other ending unthinkable), it subtracts from the movies' effectiveness as film noir.
Disillusionment and perhaps even martyrdom are an essential part of the hard-boiled detective's heroism in fiction and in film noir. Marlowe's creator, Raymond Chandler, often imagines Marlowe as a modern knight-errant on a necessary but ultimately unattainable quest (as suggested by Marlowe's original name, "Mallory," and titles such as The Lady in the Lake). Yet in the film Murder, My Sweet, Philip Marlowe — unlike the knights of old — achieves the holy grail: Anne Grayle, whose love for Marlowe is established in the film's final scene. Because he gains the ultimate prize and seems to end his characteristic alienation from human contact, Marlowe's sacrifice is diminished, his "purity" as a film noir hero is diluted, and his redemption is not at all guaranteed.
Disillusionment and martyrdom are in abundant supply, however, in later film noir, which provides a subtle yet significant departure from the image of the detective hero in The Maltese Falcon and the Philip Marlowe films. George Grella has written that the hard-boiled detective in fiction is able to achieve only partial victories, and this seems to hold true for the earlier hard-boiled detectives, such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, on film. Spade willingly sacrifices Brigid in order to remain true to his personal code, and although the price is high and he is clearly moved and even changed by the experience, his sacrifice becomes a ritual re-affirmation of his code. Similarly, Marlowe, who suffers for his clients and defeats evil only on a relatively small scale, does manage to emerge with a partial victory — and with both his
cynicism and his compassion intact. The later hard-boiled detective films of this period, however, illustrate the increased pessimism and even fatalism of later film noir, where the hero becomes more deeply implicated in an all-inclusive guilt, and where even a partial victory over the evil and hostility of the world seems impossible.
|The detective-hero cannot escape the femme fatale from his past. Out of the Past (1947)
In Out of the Past (RKO, 1947) and The Lady from Shanghai (Columbia, 1948), the hero discovers an almost palpable evil in the world, embodied in both films by a beautiful woman with whom the hero falls in love. Both films use the narrative technique of reconstructing the past through the eyes of the hero, who narrates the events of the film, allowing the audience to share his growing disillusionment and the shock of discovery as he recognizes the evil of the woman he loves and attempts to extricate himself from the dangerous game that she is playing.
The hero in Out of the Past is a private detective, Jeff Markam, who is hired by gambler Whit Sterling to find Cathy Moffat, who has stolen $40,000 of Whit's money. Jeff finds her, but he falls in love with her and helps her escape from Whit. Whit hires Jeff's partner to find them, and when he does, Cathy murders him. Three years later, Whit hires Jeff for another job, but Jeff soon realizes that he is actually being framed for murder, and in the ensuing series of double-crosses, Cathy murders both Whit and Jeff, and is herself killed by the police.
Jeff dies attempting to make up for two sins committed in the past — his betrayal of a client, Whit, and his implication in the murder of his partner. Both incidents represent mistakes that Jeff made due to his love for Cathy and his inability to see the evil behind her physical beauty and her mask of innocence.
Jeff's situation in Out of the Past echoes that of Burt Lancaster's character, the Swede, in The Killers (Universal, 1946). Lancaster plays a former boxer who once became involved in a robbery and double-crossed his partners (for the sake of a beautiful woman, of course). Years later, he learns that two men have arrived in the small town where he is hiding and that they are there to kill him. When he is asked why the men want to kill him, he replies simply, "I did something wrong — once."
In these films, once is all it takes. The hero cannot escape from the evil of the world, nor can he win a complete victory over it.
He is able to defeat the evil only by sacrificing his own life, perhaps because he is himself implicated in the all-inclusive guilt of his world.
|Visually dominant and unrepentent to the end. The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
In Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai, the "badness" of the world acts almost as a fourth leading character. Welles plays Michael O'Hara, who falls in love with a married woman, Elsa Bannister, played by Rita Hayworth. In one scene, Michael promises that someday he will take Elsa away from her unhappy life to one of the far places of the world. Her response not only reveals much about her character, but also begins a dialogue on the nature of evil that continues throughout the film:
"Far pla—? We're in one of them now. Running away doesn't work. I tried it. Everything's bad, Michael. Everything. You can't escape it or fight it — you've got to get along with it, deal with it, make terms."
Later, as Michael is drawn unwittingly into a conspiracy to murder Elsa's husband, he begins to perceive the evil inherent in the world, and — as this film so often does — provides a concise statement of the dark, cynical, and ironic world depicted in later film noir: "There's a fair face to the land, surely, but you can't hide the hunger and guilt. It's a bright, guilty world."
In the end, all of the characters in this film are guilty, and yet all are in some sense heroic in that they are victims in an unwinnable struggle with evil. Elsa's husband uses money and power to control everyone in his orbit; yet, in the famous final sequence of the movie, when he and Elsa murder each other in an amusement park hall of mirrors, his final speech is still poignant: "Of course, killing you is killing myself. It's the same thing. But, you know, I'm getting pretty tired of both of us."
Elsa is similarly both a source and a victim of evil. She seems to be truly in love with Michael, but she plans to frame him for the murder of her husband in order to save herself and break free of the torture of her marriage. She recognizes the badness of the world, but she does not recognize that while one cannot escape from the badness or defeat it, one also cannot embrace it.
As he watches Elsa die — the victim of her own attempt to "make terms" with the badness — Welles's character shows just how far the film noir hero had come since Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. The hero recognizes the need to continue fighting the "badness," but he also recognizes the futility of a fight in which there can be no victory, only survival:
Michael: "You said the world's bad — we can't run away from the badness — and you're right there. But you said we can't fight it. We must deal with the badness, make terms. And [let] the badness deal with you, and make its own terms in the end, surely."
Elsa: "You can fight, but what good is it?"
Michael: "You mean we can't win?"
Elsa: "No, we can't win."
Michael: "Well, we can't lose either. Only if we quit."
Elsa: "And you're not going to."
Michael: "Not again."