The guy with a dead cigarette dangling from his cynical half-grin—a loner—drifter? detective? hitman?—wonders if muscling in on his boss’s wife is more hassle than it’s worth, or just let all that innuendo go to waste.
Sam Spade, private eye, is the quintessential Film Noir antihero. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade (Humphrey Bogart), makes a calculated business decision to avenge his business partner’s death. Filled with existential angst in a society he mistrusts, he comfortably inhabits an underworld despite his law-abiding excuses. He turns in the broad, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, in the end, for killing his business partner. The optics of his job were the thing—not the moral outrage of the murder. He didn’t actually like his partner anyhow.
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... Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. It's bad all around-bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. — Sam Spade
Smart is Essential: With His Brains, You Stand a Chance.
“Hard-boiled” and “tough” describe noir leading men. Seems more like smartassery when Spade responds to one of the many crooks—trying to dupe him into their criminal scheme of double-crosses for the coveted bejeweled Maltese falcon statue.
Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation ready.
Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?
Chandler, Hammett, and Spillane—the cleverness of the authors brings that sharp dialogue to noir. Clipped dialogue, abrupt angles like the edge of a raked fedora—noir scenes unfold at night in the slick streets, peppered with cheap dive seductions or criminal gangster shootouts.
The world is an unsafe place and noir men know how to play the line between law and crime—torn between those worlds, those twin attractions—like the blonde and brunette of a man’s dreams—each with their own reasons. Noir man is both outcast and wily insider. He is wary yet attracted to the action—hankering for the wild but clever enough to escape the double-crossers, killers, and corrupt lawmen. Love, too, is elusive. Noir men see the traps—mostly by those women who lure men into dull domesticity or the dark underworld.
Noir men, like all of us, are flawed, and range from simply realist to cynical, bitter, or suffering. They are the picture of what is unredemptive in us.
What are we looking at, if we’re Sam Spade or one of the other noir men? We, the antisocial, tarnished men. Who are we eyeing? It’s the femme fatale—the spider woman hip to her own powers of seduction and manipulation. She saunters through dive doorways into the shadow, waiting for the next lover-savior to free her from an abusive or loveless marriage. In her fractured mind, the only way out is murder.
Her tools of persuasion—we can’t look away—are love, sex, and dark secrets. She is both ruthless and pitiful in her distress. The dame—loyal or crafty, goodie home-girlish, sultry, hard-hearted, wholesome or damaged. She gets what she wants by duping men and lusting after power, money, revenge, and widowhood. And we want her.
Noir Men Were Underdogs, With the Scars to Prove It.
The outsiders of Film Noir, popular in the 50s, rode the underbelly of society. They are disillusioned, confused, and morally ambivalent, all fighting a system rigged against them. They’re fighting the morally repugnant fight, killing another man for money or love, or battling corruption against purveyors of soulless capitalist schemes.
But the men of noir faded with the causes that created them.
When our fathers and grandfathers returned from war in the 40s, they no longer fit in either the wartime or peacetime world. They were torn—men in between—like Sam Spade.
They returned to unease at home, worried about fidelity and their wives, who had gone to work, for the first time ever, when they had gone to war. They now had a taste of the world—like the femme fatale.
They knew war and violence. They knew camaraderie—with other men who knew the same things. Now, they were men estranged, in a peacetime society that could never understand their need and their pain.
Film noir cuts open the infected wound, so we can think about the tenuousness of being a man with a woman, a man in an unwelcoming world—of being a man who has known the thunder and fire of hard experience where doing your job is bloody, brutal, and thankless. Spade and men like spade slide between the illicit and licit working worlds—cop, private eye, detective, or wanderer.
In a world where a man no longer fits, he makes his own rules and lives by his own creed. The fundamental unrest, even in love, between a man and woman, plays out in nameless places of shifting struggle.
Sticklers say film noir ended in the 1950s. The French coined the term film noir to describe the dark movie themes in the Nazi era, but the idea translated to similar American post-war malaise and later in the neo-noir films. Strains of the genre’s mood infuse French and American films still. Leon the Professional (Studio Canal) opens with a scene that has that noir feel: “Come stai, Leone? Bene.” Then Tony asks Leon if he's free to go visit a man on Tuesday. Leon drinks his milk. And says yeah.
We all know the verse, verbiage, and vocabulary of Coppola’s The Godfather. There’s also Polanski’s Chinatown and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. You talkin’ to me? In the 80s, Blade Runner, with its dark and morally ambiguous theme had a disillusioned cop pursuing the bad guy, only to find he may be the bad guy (classic noir trope). Both are outsiders. Nearly anything (modernly) by the Coen Brothers has the shady characters, the violence, bleakness, and crime cast in chiaroscuro and suspense. But these are merely the trappings.
Film Noir is the Story of Men and the Frailty of Men.
Film noir is the story of men. Men—despite the interesting women driving the plots. Men are the necessary antiheroes. Noir men are rugged individuals at heart—confident in their own way of doing things.
The noir man is cool and collected, suave, yet human. Noir man harbors doubts and insecurities—his mind and heart are visible—he is tough enough to let his feelings show but his mind drive. He is a man of action—not one who stews over his lot in life. He is not usually a man of books but has lots of street smarts.
The single cop for hire who once walked the beat, rough and calloused but wounded. The scarred ex-GI who came back for a girl who, faithless, wasn’t there. Now he walks the wet streets alone by lamplight, doing work he knows how to do. He could have had a different life, but the world is the world, and he’s not going to cry about it. His innate desires, but also his awareness of social ills, are the lens of his story.
The names say it all. Mike Hammer, Rip Murdock, and Sam Spade, these are manly men. The women are just Christina, Velda, and Cora, sometimes with last names, other times with false names. The tragedy of noir is built on great women that could have been. Women we’d have liked better and remembered longer. Women who fill our dreams or, if we still don’t remember, could have done. Play it again, Sam.
If we have any other regret, it’s that we needed their voices, but we didn’t let them talk. It’s that their lines, too often, were just straight invitations for our own punchlines, as we took the whole stage:
Brigid O'Shaughnessy: I haven't lived a good life. I've been bad, worse than you could know.
Sam Spade: You know, that's good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere.
Nonetheless, The Dames Turn our Lives Upside Down, and We Let Them.
After O’Shaughnessy (posing as the mysterious Miss Wonderly), hires Spade, his whole life turns upside down, beginning with the murder of his partner. The murders don’t end, and the story unfolds of a priceless falcon statue that inspires a desperate pursuit. Spade outsmarts them all—even the police who suspect Spade murdered his partner.
Hammet’s Maltese Falcon is the classic noir prototype—not only the ex-cop but it’s cool, handsome, and hard-nosed with just the right amount of vulnerability. Spade didn’t pretend to be a man by being invincible. It seems written for Bogart. He reeks confidence, hiding an underbelly of uncertainty and nausea. His wit is just a front. He knows his job well and can out-clever the cleverest.
Noir Men Come in Different Makes and Models—Ford and Cadillac.
Frank Chambers is a drifter who goes to work for Nick Smith, owner of a California roadside truck stop. The book (and two films) is James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Seduced by the beauty of Cora, Nick’s wife, Nick is doomed. The two fall in love, kill Nick, grab his money and car, and leave town. But they fall into the inevitable human trap—not guilt or remorse—they get sick of each other. The thrill of the road and even the sometimes sado-masochistic passion dissolves into disillusioned bickering.
Cora: Love, when you get fear in it, it’s not love any more. It’s hate.
When Cora’s killed in a car accident, Frank is convicted for her murder and sentenced to death. Nick’s murder is unpaid for. That’s the first ‘ring’ of the postman, and the ring goes unnoticed. The second ring (because the Postman ALWAYS rings twice) is Frank’s good looks and good luck running out. You can’t ignore the second ring. The Postman will be heard.
Once again, a woman is noir man’s downfall:
“Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, that’s larceny.”
The noir man is unredeemable. No matter how clever, handsome, daring or passionate a lover of his dame, he wins big and loses big. He can’t escape. He is who he is.
Cora: We’re just two punks, Frank. God kissed us on the brow that night. He gave us all that two people can ever have and we just weren’t the kind that could have it. [I]t’s a big airplane engine, that takes you through the sky, right up to the top of the mountain. But when you put it in a Ford, it just shakes it to pieces. That’s what we are, Frank, a couple of Fords.
Frank is a Ford, but Philip Marlowe is a classic Cadillac.
The Big Sleep, from Raymond Chandler’s novel, puts Bogey back in dice.
Marlowe, private eye, is salty but tender-hearted, hired to solve the case of General Sternwood’s daughter. He discovers who blackmailed the daughter but wonders about the missing family chauffeur. In the end, the complex twists and turns of blackmail, murder, gambling, gangsters, and love triangles do not drive the plot so much as the love intrigue between Sternwood’s daughter, Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) and Marlowe. With characters named Eddie Mars, the gambler, and Canino the killer, and lines like “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts,” The Big Sleep hammers home the noir beef—dames are dangerous playthings as Marlowe reflects upon meeting Vivian:
Tall, aren't you? she said.
I didn't mean to be.
Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.
Marlowe is a hard-boiled PI, but Mike Hammer in Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly is tougher.
Spillane thrusts him into an insane plot to solve a murder that ends in unfathomable twists and turns, tied up in an explosive ending—a literal explosion. From the start, the book and movie are straight-up action thriller. A beautiful, barefoot, trench coat clad woman forces Mike Hammer to slam on brakes after she steps in front of his car one night. Christina Bailey has secrets that get her killed and nearly Hammer too as his sports car is pushed off the road—with him in it. The mysterious murder and attempted murder-trail lead him to riddles, murders, and women: beautiful and irresistible to all but Hammer.
Women are worse than flies, he snarls.
The ending is spectacular, evoking the deep anxiety and horror of the atomic 50s. Boom! And the movie is over. The long camera angles and crazy plot twists of director Aldrich’s cinema noir, though not the last noir film, is a befitting end to an era.
Film Noir ended in ‘59 when color came on the scene, leaving indelible black and white impressions. Enough movie directors and producers didn’t get the memo. Filmmakers, ‘noir-ing’ their camera work, settings, characters and plots, still self-consciously exploit the genre—part parody, part tribute. The results are clever infusions of the noir vibe into modern technology and themes.
The Sam Spades and Mike Hammers have morphed into philosophical hitmen, alcoholic detectives, corrupt sheriffs, and plain old grifters in the neo-noir movies of the last few decades—like Martin Scorcese’s The Grifters, HBO’s series, True Detectives, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple.
The neo-noir men carry the same burdens: a soul-breaking past, a penchant for the wrong side of the law, complicated misogyny, and unrelenting sublimated fear that casts them into action and dizzying plot twists. Cameras and themes cast long shadows on men trying to figure shit out. As Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle in True Detectives concludes:
This is a world where nothing is solved. You know, someone once told me time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.
Crime stories never go out of style. Nor do men and dread.
These are men of dread. The fundamental dread we carry and don’t confess, except to the dark, at the point of the spear as the Postman rings a second time. We all have this, and these are human traits—true of the species. Our unique experiences stand in contrast to a generic life. But the evolution of noir confronts us with the questions—of whether we have to be cool to be sexy, hardboiled to be strong, hide our fears under a tilted brim, or violently oppose whatever brushes up against our personal code.
Different times bring different answers. A caricature belongs in a movie, not on the evening news. If we’re noir people, we have our own darkness to work out.
What’s your noir story? Real or the one that raised the hair on your neck when you read it? What film keeps you awake, like the glare from a neon sign streaming in from a tiny window in the dark, as you stare at the ceiling and the last ash falls from a stale cigarette?