The private eye, lit by a solitary street lamp, tailing crooks down dark alleys and asking questions in sleazy nightclubs has become the poster boy for Film Noir but it is a mistake to think that all noirs are detective movies. As I said in my previous post, the genre is not defined by plot or setting. Film Noir is more about style, mood and a set of shared themes. As such, there are several mini-genres that can be discerned within noir’s gloomy shadows.
The Detective Movie
Let’s start with the obvious choice. Detective stories have been around since Poe wrote about Auguste Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle perfected the genre and Agatha Christie led the way in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction; a period in the 1920s and ’30s where novels about people bumped off for money in wealthy country houses were extremely popular. But Film Noir took its cues from the Hardboiled fiction of the pulp magazines rather than the cozy parlor whodunnits of the inter war years. Hardboiled detective yarns generally don’t invite the reader to join in the puzzle and are less concerned with ‘whodunnit’ than ‘why they dunnit’. This interest in the psychological (and often sexual) motivations over murder for profit is inherited from the gothic novel; the 19th century craze for brooding anti-heroes and characters with dual natures.
In The Maltese Falcon (1941) Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) pursues the titular gem-encrusted bird through a murky San Francisco, encountering gangsters and lowlifes including the ever creepy Peter Lorre as a psychopathic homosexual foreigner (nobody said these movies were politically correct). That the bird eventually turns out to be a fake doesn’t matter. It’s the dealings between the four double-crossing competitors that holds the viewer’s attention, not the recovery of the titular MacGuffin.
Laura (1944) perfectly showcased the switch from the romantic pre-war films of upper class elegance to the downbeat, blue collar tone of Film Noir. Visually, Laura isn’t particularly noirish but the plot involving a detective’s developing obsession for the dead woman whose murder he is investigating is a twisted and dark tale that surprisingly got past the censors.
Out of the Past (1947) is mostly told in flashback as a brooding gas station attendant’s murky past catches up with him. Once a private detective Jeff (Robert Mitchum) fell in love with a gangster’s runaway moll only to be double-crossed by her. Now the gangster has tracked Jeff down and blackmails him into doing one more job for him. The triple-crosses and veiled vengeance make this one of noir’s finest detective movies.
In my next post I’ll be taking a look at things from the other side of the law…