Noir vs. Crime: The Difference
You can go down a rabbit hole trying to craft the perfect definition of noir, but you can start by saying it usually involves literal darkness. And it mostly takes place at night, in dingy poolhalls or roadside motels, or in mansions where the windows are stained glass and lead sashed, keeping prying eyes out. Even when it takes place in sunny LA, there’s usually an eerie chiaroscuro effect at work, the sun contrasting against the shadows of imperial palms and yellow stucco. Granted, it looks better in black and white, but Michael Mann and David Lynch made it look pretty damn good in color, too.
Cynicism and despair hang in the air in noir. Relations between men and women—always complicated under the best of circumstances—are further corrupted by mistrust and opportunism.
Roger Ebert had his own succinct take on the subject, at the tail end of his review of the underrated Walter Hill neo-noir offering Johnny Handsome :
“Someone who didn't write a dictionary once described [it] as a movie where an ordinary guy indulges the weak side of his character, and hell opens up beneath his feet.”
The gambler who is in hot water gets out of it, but gets the itch again, and gets himself back into a hole, this one too deep to escape. The lush who kicks the habit has one more blackout bender and wakes up the next morning with a dead girl in bed beside him. Uncut Gems—the movie about the diamond merchant featuring Adam Sandler—definitely qualifies as neo-noir. For Sandler’s character actually does win enough to get out of hock, but has tried the patience of his shylocks so hard they still shoot him.
Barfly, the movie about self-destructive alcoholics dwelling in LA’s grungier bars, certainly is dark in terms of atmosphere, practically bathed in seedy neon light and cigarette smoke. But the film’s protagonist finds a kind of weird, ineffable salvation in the self-destruction. And, of course, since drinking lets him meet a beautiful woman, booze also leads him directly to true love.
Thus it ain’t quite noir.
One of the best of the neo-noirs doesn’t involve drugs or gambling or any kind of vice or even weakness leading to a character’s undoing. If anything, it’s the character’s strength that lets the cops catch and kill him. I’m referring to Heat, with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
Recall that near the end of the movie, after De Niro has almost gotten away with his crime, he veers on the highway, turns around. He could go to the airport and meet his girl and get the hell out of town with time to spare. But instead he wants to pay a visit to the man who betrayed his trust—a man who, by all rights and according to the code needs to be killed.
That’s the brilliance of this example of neo-noir, that the ostensible strength of the crim—his virtue in the inverted world of the demimonde—is actually a weakness. Like a weird kind of Rob Roy, he revels sanctimoniously, stubbornly, in doing what he thinks is right, or at least what needs to be done. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, but He moves slow and in mysterious ways, which provides the temptation for the slighted man or abused woman to do it themselves.
Fans of noir who know how Heat has to end still want to scream, Swallow your pride! Go to the woman, get out of town with the money! Be happy and free and sipping piña coladas on the beach for the rest of your life. But they also know that a happy ending would be a gross violation, its own sort of disappointing conclusion. This is the way things must end, with De Niro undone by his need to set his universe as he sees it to rights.
This suggests a paradox at the heart of noir. If, as Ebert says, a weakness of character, some flaw within the person, proves their undoing, then there is no “must,” nothing foreordained in noir. For “must” implies fatalism, or the intercession of the gods prepared to either torture or at least test the lowly mortal in their sights.
Jimmy Caan, for instance, gambles in The Gambler because he likes the high, not because Zeus or some God of Gambling has him selected for this fate.
Noir is much more existential, a matter of choices born perhaps of people’s nature, or the flip of a coin, or the simple arrangement of genes. But the choices are also born of randomly decided actions, dumb moves, total accident and coincidence. You get the sense that God might be smiling at some of the suffering—ironically or cruelly—but there’s no deux ex machina. Some noir protagonists are so emotionally closed-off and unreflective that there’s barely a man in the machine.
Crime films can involve an element of fatalism, but these offerings aren’t quite noir. Take, for instance, the masterpiece I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, starring Paul Muni as James Allen, a vet recently returned from the Great War.
In the beginning Jimmy seems happy to be home, and yet there’s a somber, restless cast to his dark, brooding eyes. He has a job all lined up for himself at the factory, but it’s no good. He can’t sit still at a desk. He must go a-wandering.
Eventually he ends up at a men’s shelter, on the verge of starving, when another hobo pulls his coat about a soft touch who might give them a free burger. James is skeptical, but goes along, only to find himself sitting at the counter when his supposed friend pulls a gun on the fry cook at the diner.
James tries to beg off, but the other bindlestiff forces him to shorten the register at gunpoint. Next thing you know, the cops grease the bum with the gun and send Jimmy up the river.
Is this noir? What weakness brought Muni’s character to this low state? Literal enervation from hunger, sure, but hunger’s not a vice. It might have been treated as one in the Social Darwinist milieu of early twentieth-century America, but it ain’t like gambling or whoring or drinking.
One could argue that if Muni had just stayed with his old factory job, content to slave it out as a factotum, none of this would have happened. But it wasn’t a cynical cast of mind that started him out on the road. It was a vague sense of wanderlust along with some undiagnosed shellshock. And since he was honorably discharged and even won the Croix de Guerre over there, you can’t even call him a picaro or a rake simply because he’s roaming. He’s the “forgotten man” the woman sings torch for in Gold Diggers after earlier singing her bubbly tune about “being in the money.”
If anything Muni’s a bit of an idealist, a sort of clearer-eyed proto-beatnik.
And that’s the difference between someone like Muni, and say, the guy on the bum in the later Poverty Row gem Detour. The man in Detour (who we’ll get to in a moment) must move, but for reasons entirely different than those that drive Muni.
Another thing that needs to be point out is that Muni’s character is a product of the Great War, not the Second World War, which makes all the difference.
Alright, you may say, but didn’t men emerge from that first great meatgrinder cynical and rudderless, cursing their luck and God? Yes and no. There was resentment that lingered long after the war, but there was also the sense that it may have indeed been the War to end all wars. Europe had been bled white, America had arrived on the scene as a great world power, the hunnish beast of Germany had been defanged and declawed. The first completely industrial war had been grisly, but maybe so grisly that humanity had learned its lesson, somehow found itself collectively chastened. And the calcifying hereditary regimes of previous centuries were giving way to less sclerotic, more parliamentary forms of participatory government. Every man a king! as Kingfish Huey Long liked to say, and mass literacy and the ubiquity of radio gave the world a strong, newfound sense of electrified interconnectedness. Science Fiction was still forward-looking (literally, as almost all time travel narratives of this period dealt with going forward, rather than backward in time.)
Americans didn’t mourn the destruction of monarchies, as their “origin story” as the kids call it, involved throwing off a royal yoke on the day of their very inception.
But World War Two was something else completely. And that it happened within the living memory of many who remembered the Great War must have weighed mightily on many a mind. Wasn’t the last one the ‘war to end all wars’?
And rather than just contending with the nightmare of Taylorism and Fordism put to brutal usage, as in the Great War, men in the Second World War found something even worse: massive death camps whose smell (as J.D. Salinger said) one could never forget; the very Ur-Stoff of the universe being tampered with to produce giant explosions of heretofore-unimaginable scale and devastation (I am become death); not to mention the global body count of a supposedly inconceivable war handily outstripping that of the first World War.
Noir has a bitterness to it, and a weariness to it. But it has those traits in common with the earlier crime stories in which men were framed rather than putting themselves in the frame through foolhardiness.
What really sets noir apart is a kind of postwar fatigue that metastasized into a literal free-floating psychosis. Kirk Douglas in Out of the Past is not some garden-variety sadist. He is all the way out to lunch, keeping his smoldering bloodlust barely suppressed. Ditto for the guy in Detour (or the protagonist in Black Wings Has My Angel, or a dozen Jim Thompson books.) These are men who stared into the abyss, and when the abyss stared back, kept staring until the abyss blinked.
It reminds me of something Charles Willeford talked about, and marveled at after the Second World War. All these men blowing off the heads of women peeking their eyes out of windows in Germany, cutting the gold fillings out of the mouth of dead men in Japan: they’re not going to go to jail when this is done. They’re going to sell used cars, and insurance. They’re going to be Rotarians and toastmasters and milkmen who tousle the hair of the local boy on their route. Think of it, a few million stone-cold psychopaths keeping it under wraps—sometimes just barely—by downing highballs in their offices and beating their wives in suburban bedrooms.
Is that too cynical?
If you listen to someone like Tom Brokaw washing the feet of a lot of old men gathered in a room with their chests filled with ribbons, maybe.
But listen to the guys who were actually there, knee-deep in blood, like Willeford or James Jones, and you come away with an entirely different picture.
This is not to say, however, that all of noir can be reduced to a collective expression of the psychic effects of the Second World War on American males. It can’t quite be reduced to any one causal factor, one theory (Jungian, Freudian, or otherwise), or even any one definition, as proven by this meandering post.
Even when trying to define it tonight, I stumbled on a liminal case that doesn’t quite fit in either broad category I’ve created just for this blog entry. Take Detour again (I promised I’d double back.)
For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a film about a man named Al bumming his way across the country. Most highway commuters ignore Al and his outstretched thumb, but finally a guy cuts him a break and slows down on the road’s shoulder to pick him up. This guy is a swell fellow named Haskell, who pays for Al’s meals on the road and isn’t chatty, preachy, or nosy. He even shares his smokes with Al. The only problem is that Haskell, who has some kind of heart condition, dies while behind the steering wheel.
The protagonist—knowing no one will believe he didn’t kill the dude—is forced to take the man’s identity, his car, and his cash. He’s no thief, but he’s not enough of a sucker to think the cops will ever believe the truth, either.
En route to California, Al makes the mistake of picking up a cute, fast-talking spitfire brunette. Only thing is, this broad knows this guy’s got a wallet, a car, and a name that don’t belong to him. It turns out that she hitched a ride with Haskell earlier, and knows this stinky, bedraggled wino ain’t him. She uses this info to extort and torment Al with a psychosexual needling so intense you’d swear they’d already been married a couple decades.
Now, for those who still remember my words about Muni’s character James in Chain Gang, you may be crying foul, thinking: hey, this guy didn’t break any rules, indulge any vices. He just had a run of bad luck, like Andy in Shawshank or something. In fact, Al’s only mistake was the Samaritan’s one, to show charity by letting the brunette dame ride with him.
No good deed goes unpunished is the kind of poor man’s proverbial subtext that appears in the more straightforward pulps, not the noirish ones. In noir, the Samaritan stopping to pick up the man would be seen from the perspective of the noir protagonist-hitchhiker, who maybe slept with the Samaritan’s wife.
Except (and here I return to Ebert), there’s something I forgot to mention, something I didn’t even notice until I read Roger’s review of Detour: the movie is a frame narrative, a story within in a story in which poor Al relates his bad break to us.
What’s the difference between a movie about a guy getting all the bad breaks and a movie about a guy telling you about the bad breaks he got?
Ebert, one more time:
“The jumps and inconsistencies of the narrative are nightmare psychology; Al's not telling a story, but scurrying through the raw materials, assembling an alibi. Consider the sequence where Al buries Haskell's body and takes his identity. Immediately after, Al checks into a motel, goes to sleep, and dreams of the very same events: It's a flashback side-by-side with the events it flashes back to, as if his dream mind is doing a quick rewrite.”
The subjectivity involved in Detour’s use of voiceover (a device Chain Gang lacks) means we’re not hearing a story in Detour. We’re hearing a plaidoyer in the court of conscience (and the unconscious, since dreams are entered into evidence), and it’s all furnished by a man representing himself at trial.
They say that only a fool has himself as an advocate, which might help explain why things don’t work out for Al.
He gets picked up by the cops, and presumably he fries after that.
Muni’s James Allen escapes from the chain gang, but ends up constantly on the lam, cursed with the peripatetic life like the wandering Jew. The one time he emerges from the darkness to visit his beloved, he does so skulking through the shadows, briefly, before disappearing back into the gloam once more.
The real man upon whose story Chain Gang is based actually did get a full pardon, and won his freedom, but only after the film appeared in theaters.
Crime pictures can have happy endings, or, in this case, can actually induce happy endings to occur in the real world just by presenting bleak depictions of gross injustice.
What about noir, though? Is there some good, some life lesson to be extracted from it, that can make it edifying, a Bildungskrimi companion to the Bildungsroman?
I don’t think so. I think good noir is more like a good war story, as described by James Jones. If you feel like you learned anything from it, or that it has any greater meaning, then that means the author lied.