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Universal Darkness

On the definition of film noir.

Stanley Fish is the presidential scholar in residence at New College, Florida. He is author most recently of Law at the Movies: Turning Legal Doctrine into Art (Oxford, 2024).

Next year I shall be teaching a course in film noir for the first time, and I thought it might be useful to set down my thoughts about the genre. Definitions and lists of characteristics are not hard to come by. Many websites will tell you that film noir movies were shot in sharply contrasting black and white, made liberal use of flashbacks, and flourished between 1940 and 1958 with a number of “neo-noir” films, some in color, appearing even to the present day; that film noir heroes or anti-heroes are cynical, world-weary, bitter, and vulnerable to the seductive wiles of sensual and duplicitous women; that these men and women play out their doomed lives in a landscape of corruption, betrayals, double crosses, and plans gone awry; that everyone and everything in the film noir universe is at the mercy of chance, accident, and a general, even miasmic, malevolence; that these movies were especially appealing in the context of the pessimism generated by World War II and a post-war malaise brilliantly documented in a film that is not noir but has noir touches, William Wyler’s masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

But for my money, this list of noir elements casts too wide a net. As far as I am concerned, it’s not noir unless at its center is a moment when a line is crossed and someone, almost always a man, starts on a path that leads inevitably not only to his own destruction but to the destruction of everyone and everything he touches. It is tempting to speak of this moment as a choice, but it is better characterized as a slide, a slide from what had been a more or less ordinary existence to a toboggan ride down to hell with no hope of a reversal of motion. Edward G. Robinson’s Barton Keyes (Double Indemnity, 1944) puts it best when he says of the lovers-murderers he has not yet fully identified, “It’s not like taking a trolley-ride together where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they’ve got to ride all the way to the end and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.”

In many noirs the cemetery is crowded. In A Simple Plan (1998), a late neo-noir in very muted color, two brothers and an oafish friend discover a crashed small airplane. The pilot is dead and by his side is a bag containing more than four million dollars. One brother, a respected member of the community, wants to turn the money over to the police; the other two want to keep it. In the end, they don’t decide definitely to keep it and they don’t decide definitely to give it up. In the space opened up by that hesitation—this is the moment of line-crossing—events pile up on one another and before the final scene an innocent bystander is beaten to death, the two brothers kill their friend and his wife, a drug dealer pretending to be an F.B.I. agent kills the local police chief and is killed in return, and the stable family-man brother shoots his sibling. He is the survivor and burns the money (now revealed to have been marked) despite the objections of his wife who initially had been for giving it back.

The main characters in A Simple Plan meet and fail their moment when they see the money; one look and their moral compasses are spinning. In other noirs, men meet and fail their moment when they see a woman. In Double Indemnity, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) doesn’t even see her whole; he just glimpses a braceleted ankle coming down a stairway and he’s gone. In Pushover (1954) the same Fred MacMurray, this time playing a policeman conducting a surveillance, is instantly undone when the object of his spying turns out to be a twenty-one-year-old Kim Novak. Within hours (minutes on the screen) he has killed her boyfriend and one of his partners and is shooting it out with two other partners, one of whom is his best friend. In The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), John Garfield, a noir favorite, is a drifter with nothing much on his mind when a vision in tight shorts, a bare-midriff blouse and a turban—all white—appears in the person of Lana Turner just as he is deciding whether to take a job at the hamburger joint owned by her husband. “I should have walked out of the place,” he tells us, but “I just couldn’t do it.” 

In fact, he does walk out of the place more than once, but always returns, a moth to Turner’s flame; and in the course of his comings and goings, he kills the husband (it takes two tries), rats out her to the police, marries her for legal convenience, beats up two would-be extortionists, betrays her with another woman, and enjoys a brief, perhaps twenty-minute, reconciliation with her before she dies in an automobile accident for which he is blamed. He is executed for killing her, the one crime in a long series he did not commit. In Roadblock (1951), Joe Peters, an honest insurance detective (played by Charles McGraw, who was born to do film noir) meets beautiful Diane in a chance encounter. She tells him that some day (actually this day) “You’re going to want something nice and expensive that you cannot afford . . . like me.” Almost instantly he decides to get whatever it takes to buy her. He teams up with her mobster suitor and agrees to betray his office and his best friend by providing information that will facilitate a robbery. Flush with the promise of cash, he persuades her to marry him. She finds to her surprise that she really loves him and doesn’t care about the money. But it is too late; the train has left the station; and once again Barton Keyes proves prophetic. It is a one-way ride, and the last stop is the cemetery.

Fatalistic is too weak a word to describe the world noir characters inhabit. Fatalism tells us that what must be will be; there is nothing we can do to evade or alter our fate. Noirism tells not only that we can’t evade it, but that its shape will be unpredictable; life’s purpose is to trick us into thinking that we understand even a small part of it and then to take an unexpected turn, dashing all our hopes; you thought you knew what you were doing but you didn’t. Rose Balestrero (Vera Miles), the wife of the world-tossed hero (Henry Fonda) of Alfred Hitchcock’s docudrama The Wrong Man, puts it perfectly: “Every time we get up, something knocks us right down again.” That something is not a visible and opposable entity like a big corporation or a political conspiracy or a corrupt municipality (although there is some of that in This Gun For Hire, 1942, Hell or High Water, 2016, and Chinatown, 1974); rather it is a universe indifferent to the hopes and ambitions of its inhabitants who have dreams, some of them modest, some of them venal, that will always be undone by circumstances they could not predict and cannot control. 

In the opening scenes of Out of The Past (1947), all Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) want to do is go fishing with his girlfriend and run his gas station in a small California town. Then a figure from his past shows up and he is caught, or re-caught, in a web of theft, sexual obsession, blackmail, and murder. He never gets back to the gas station. In Fritz Lang’s Human Desire (1954), Jeff Warren (Glen Ford) is a veteran happy to be back working at his old job of train engineer. Enter Vicki Buckley (played by Gloria Grahame, the undisputed femme fatale queen of noir) and before you know it (even before he knows it) he’s lying to investigators, knee-deep in an adulterous affair and a moment away from committing murder. In the end he is pulled back into the ordinary life he was once content with, but only because Graham is strangled by the insanely jealous husband (Broderick Crawford) she had asked him to kill. Jeff’s salvation, if it is that, has nothing to with any action of his; it’s just that the vehicle of his weakness has been removed. He recrosses the line as accidentally as he had crossed it. A happy ending with nothing inside it in a world with nothing inside it.

In the noir literature that world is often said to be existentialist: untethered to “stable and enduring sense of truth and meaning,” we are “adrift and confused, unsure of which path to take;” all alternative courses of actions seem equally groundless and “absurd” (I am quoting from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Those who inhabit re-assuring routines which are, they believe, underwritten by a set of stable values, live in a fool’s paradise; the foundations of their complacency are built on sand and can collapse in a moment when the nasty reality of things makes itself apparent. Listen to Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotton) as he delivers that lesson to his once-adoring niece (Teresa Wright) in Hitchcock’s Shadow of A Doubt (1943). “You’re just an ordinary girl living in an ordinary little town. . . . You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares.” The nightmare he brings her is the growing suspicion—the doubt that spreads over everything—that her favorite person in all the world (she calls him her twin) is a serial killer who preys on fat widowed women wearing opulent jewels. That shadow eclipses everything—her family, friends, neighbors, librarians, police officers—until the only possible way to preserve Santa Rosa as a sanctuary of the ordinary and the good is to expel the malevolence that threatens it, which young Charlie does by blackmailing her uncle into leaving. Of course, by doing so she reveals herself as already infected and she seems not to care about the other towns her twin will be free to infest if she allows him to escape this one.

Expelling the malevolence is more difficult, indeed impossible, in William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951) featuring Kirk Douglas in what was already his signature role, the hard-driving obsessive whose frenetic energy barely hides a diseased soul. Douglas is a New York police detective (Jim McCleod) who describes himself as someone who has “always lived only according to principle.” The principle he lives by is that the word is black and white and mostly black. You are either on one side or the other. No shades of gray; no mix of good and bad motives; no gradations, just total rectitude or total depravity; clean all the way through or dirty all the way through. Dirty all the way through is what McCleod sees in his police precinct where a parade of characters from the noir repertoire—thieves, murderers, rapists, back-street abortionists, shoplifters—receive from him a pitiless and withering judgement. He is able to avoid the abyss of total cynicism only by clinging to the image of his beautiful and loyal wife Mary (Eleanor Parker) who in his mind stands for everything good and true. But then he discovers that years ago, before they met, she had an affair with a married man which led to an abortion performed by the same doctor he has been trying to put behind bars for years. 

For Jim it’s all or nothing, and now that his wife is revealed to be all too human, it’s nothing. When his impossible requirement of purity is not met—“I thought you were everything good and pure!”—he cannot find it within himself to respond to her plea for understanding, for the empathy one frail creature can extend to another. The noir darkness completely envelops him, or, rather, emanates from him, as in fact it always has. He knows what he is doing to himself—“I’m drowning in my own juice”—but he can’t help it. Mary knows too. “You’ve a rotten spot in your brain,” she says as she leaves, and in the end it’s just he and his rotten brain together waiting to die, as he does in the penultimate scene.

Jim dies in the company and arms of his fellow detectives, all of whom share his experiences, and all of whom—especially his best friend played by William Bendix—counsel Jim to accept Mary and the world for what they are and “not make everything so black and white.” Why are these men able to exist in the noir universe without being overwhelmed by it? How do the citizens of Santa Rosa manage to live their comfortable and ordinary lives while Charles Oakley, who says that beneath its surface the town is a “stye,” walks among them? Is it just chance that none of them, as far as we know, has yet yielded to the wayward impulses we all harbor? Or is it ignorance and the artificial and paper-thin security of a small town that keeps them, at least for now, from crossing the line from which there is no return? Is the noir descent waiting around the corner for everyone? Or do some men and women just happen to have an inner resource they can turn to in a world that offers them neither guidance nor reassurance? These questions are raised repeatedly in noir films and occasionally answers are provided, but by and large they are unconvincing. A police commissioner will make a little speech about the honesty of most officers (The Asphalt Jungle, 1950) or a character will walk away unscathed in a closing scene (Jules Dassin’s Night and The City, 1950) but when all is said and done the spirit of the genre is captured in the final line of The Dunciad: “And universal Darkness buries All.”