Oh Brother, Where Art Noir?
In the years immediately following World War II, the American myth curdled and darkened. On-screen, heroes no longer saved the day and got the girl and walked into the sunset at the end, their white hat spotlessly clean, their soul cleansed. In the late 1940s, celluloid heroes grew cranky. They wore fedoras that shadowed their whiskered, paranoid faces, and they usually lost everything by the closing credits. In the 40s and 50s, heroes became cynical, jaded, wounded, flawed, traumatized, and most of the time….doomed.
The French call this cultural cycle “Film Noir” – don’t ya just love the French and their names – and the term has come to be associated with the look of these flicks more than anything else. The low-key shadows, the smoke curling from cigarettes, the ubiquitous Venetian blinds, and the wet, dead-end streets. But the subtext of these motion pictures was as poignant as it was telling.
In DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) the movie begins with Fred MacMurray already bleeding, shot in the gut, terminal… and he slowly dies while he narrates. In D.O.A. (1950) Edmund O’Brien, already full of poison, stumbles into a police station at the outset and says, “I’d like to report a murder… mine.” At the start of SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) we see William Holden floating face-down in a pool, already dead, the recipient of a scorned woman’s bullets… and Holden narrates the rest of the story from the grave.
Why so glum? Were we still stinging from the blood and treasure lost in the War-to-End-All-Wars? Was post-traumatic stress putting the squeeze on Hollywood’s heart? At the core of all the great Noir films was pessimism, true, but maybe beneath the pessimism was a perverse form of schadenfreude – don’t ya just love the Germans and their names – a lovely word which refers to the pleasure we take in observing someone else’s demise.
I submit, in the pits of our latest economic calamity, we should make more Noir! It’ll make us feel better… or at least convince us there are folks out there with problems worse than ours. I’m talking about stories of people double-crossing each other, stealing, spying on their neighbors, lying, betraying their best friends, having affairs with each others’ wives, taking bribes for nefarious deeds… but enough about the U.S. Congress.
Let’s drag our cinema down into the gutter as well.
We need to see Adam Sandler gut-shot and bleeding at the fade-in… we need Steve Martin with a body in his trunk… Sandra Bullock with a nine millimeter in her fanny pack… Hugh Grant with a time bomb shoved up his keister.
It’s the American way… the comfort of knowing it could always be worse.