What Makes A Noir Character Noirish?
What has always fascinated me about film noir characters is that they are defined not by what they are, but by what they are not: what they don’t do, what they don’t have and what they never say. There is a reason for this: censorship. During the era of Nazi terror in Europe, many film directors, writers and producers fled to the U.S. and began practicing their craft in Hollywood. Many of these were intellectuals, leftists and atheists, but censorship in the 1940’s would never allow atheists to be represented as heroes or anti-heroes in films for mass distribution. Clever scriptwriters and directors got around these restrictions by creating characters who were defined by the three cardinal noir negatives: they never went to church, never prayed or mentioned god (except to curse) and never, ever had children (too much baggage).
True noirs are utterly selfish, ruthless and driven by purely base greedy motives (altruism not allowed) for personal gain, usually at the cost of others. In other words, just like most of us, only they are more honest about it and are often quite self-aware. In “Double Indemnity” Barbara Stanwyck’s character tells Fred MacMurray “I’m rotten, rotten to the core. But you’re rotten too, that’s why we belong together!” Then she proves it by plugging him… and he plugs her in return. Another favorite line comes from Robert Mitchum’s character in “Out of the Past” when he tells the femme fatale “I don’t want to die either but if I have to I’m gonna be the last one!” Then he kills her in a car crash and is the last to die. Or when Jan Sterling demonstrates her noir bona fides with an acrid smack down line in “Ace in the Hole” after someone asks why she doesn’t pray for her dying husband: “I never go to church! Kneeling bags my nylons”. Later she fatally perforates Kirk Douglas with a dagger, establishing her place in the pantheon of classic femme fatales. (True femme fatales always kill off the anti-hero males, thus the ‘fatale’ modifier). After that he no doubt went to church—in a coffin. I would have married her.
The first American noir film is generally considered by film scholars to be “The Maltese Falcon” from 1940, followed by many other 40’s B&W entries like “Double Indemnity,” “Out of the Past,” “Laura,” “Gilda” or “Casablanca.” TCM (the Turner Classic Movie cable channel) invests heavily in the restoration of these classic gems, which were mostly made with degradable nitrate film stock. Latest restoration is “The Maltese Falcon” with Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet (in his film debut as The Fat Man) and a wonderfully intense, popeyed Peter Lorre (who was addicted to heroin). Some memorable lines are when The Fat Man gives up protege Wilbur to take a murder rap: “It’s true that you’ve been like a son to me, Wilbur. I can always get another son… but there’s only one Maltese Falcon!” Pure classic, greedy and ruthless noir. Gotta love it! Or Bogart’s unforgettable reply at the very end when a gumshoe cop asks him what the falcon statue is: “The stuff that dreams are made of.” Fade to black… I mean noir.
I really miss the old B&W noir films from the 40’s and wish they still made stylish films that way. They had class and character and crassly self-interested anti-heroes who would plug, stab or otherwise perforate anyone who interfered with their greedy, self-obsessed and ruthless motives. Pretty much like the rest of us… only we don’t like to admit it.