By David Corbett
First, I want to say that I’m flattered to be invited to join the Murderati Cabal. The folks who run this joint are not just some of the finest writers but some of the nicest people in the biz. I promise to do my best not to soil the linens, or leave too many surprises in the punch bowl.
To that end: I’ll launch my life as a Murderatero with something I’ve been chewing on for some time, and have written about in one form or another before—on the peculiar perils of being deemed a writer of “noir.” (Don’t worry. It won’t hurt much. Just a tiny little sting.)
The term “noir ” has become so universally misused—like other vague descriptives such as “Freudian,” “post-modern,” and “cute”—that it’s virtually a cipher, obscuring more than it clarifies.
Ask three different people if a certain writer is “noir,” you’ll get three different answers. (Yes. No. Go away.)
Is Charles Willeford “noir?” James Elroy? Lynne Cheney?
This is sloppy, it’s wrong, but mostly it’s annoying—especially when the marketing flacks at major publishing houses slather the term on a book jacket to scare off the pious scoutmasters, breathless virgins and hysteric spinsters whom the publisher fears will fall into palsied seizures in the bookstore aisles if they mistakenly crack the cover.
I speak, sadly, from experience.
If words, like people, can be known by the company they keep, then “noir” might benefit from a higher class of friends. You never seem to see Our Friend Noir without his sidekicks Gritty, Brutal, Grim or the ever-faithful Uncompromising. Throw in Brooding, Dark and Relentless, you’ve got one mean set of dwarves.
And never, never, never be so simple as to believe that calling a book “noir” will boost its sales. One might as well just slap DEPRESSING! on the cover. The only thing conceivably worse than being labeled “noir” is to be considered “political.”
I speak again, sadly, from experience. But I digress.
Getting back to our original question: What exactly is this thing called noir?
To answer these and other questions, I turned to Dark City by Eddie Muller—the “Czar of Noir.” I was particularly struck by his distillation of the noir protagonist’s philosophical dilemma: He can’t choose the world he lives in, only how he intends to live in it. (This leaves out, of course, the question of rent.)
In a way, this formulation calls to mind Sartre’s immortal, “Each of us gets the war he deserves.” Mention of Sartre in turn evokes existentialism, everybody’s favorite easy credit. I have sometimes wondered if the noir protagonist is in fact nothing but the existentialist hero—alone against “the benign indifference of the universe,” stripped of certainty and even a knowable self, burdened by guilt—or, if he plays his cards right, a full-blown psychosis.
Or, put it this way: Maybe the noir protagonist is simply the existentialist hero inserted into—get this— a crime story.
I know. I’m so bright my mother calls me Sonny.
Concerning protagonists: Sophocles is credited with the invention of the tragic hero and he used the word deinos as a descriptive. It is normally translated to mean “terrible, wondrous, strange,” and his heroes were seen as both repellent and admirable.
The Sophoclean hero was also unique at that time for his isolation, especially in relation to the gods, who were largely absent. This absence of divine guidance resonates with the “benign indifference of the universe” I already mentioned (the coinage is from Camus).
Euripides, a contemporary of Sophocles, went one better. His gods weren’t absent, they were regrettably all too present: petty, callous, vengeful.
In many of the plays of both Sophocles and Euripides, the protagonist faces a crisis in which disaster can only be averted by a compromise that, in the hero’s view, would constitute betrayal of something he or she holds to be supremely important. The hero refuses to make this compromise and, as a result, is destroyed.
Put otherwise, the great bulk of Athenian tragedy can be synopsized with: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. In case you were wondering why Sparta won the Peloponnesian War.
Aristotle, writing a century later in his Poetics, argued that the best tragic protagonist was neither a righteous nor villainous man, but “a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, [but] whose misfortune . . . is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment.”
Or, once again seeking to encapsulate the point in a pithy bon mot, Aristotle considered the major premise of most great Greek tragedy to be: Oops.
But what does any of this have to do with noir, I hear you cry.
Let us review: We have before us a form of drama in which a psychologically and morally complex hero, who is both repellent and admirable, neither pre-eminently virtuous nor just, prone to error, stands alone in the face of an indifferent if not actively hostile universe, confronting a choice between two alternatives, neither of which is acceptable and the one ultimately chosen leads to destruction.
If I may: What’s not to noir?
A great deal, as it turns out. In noir, one often finds a protagonist whose misfortune is brought upon precisely by vice or depravity—his own. Think Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Think George Neff in Double Indemnity. Think any number of Thompson’s or Willeford’s or Woolrich’s or Goodis’s protagonists. The strength of this approach lies in its ability to submerge the reader in a treacherous, unforgiving world she would normally never visit and, I would argue, a world which the authors believed pretty much resembled what modernity had to offer.
The limitation is thematic: Bad things happen to bad people. Crime doesn’t pay. These motifs are hardly startling, but it isn’t so much the destination as the journey that delivers the pay-off. And besides, as I’ve already mentioned, you can reduce the theme of even the greatest drama of all time to a caustic one-liner.
And though it shares a lack of sentimentality with tragedy, noir discards the necessity for “the moral nobility of suffering” one often finds in tragedic drama. In noir, even nobility is seen as sentimental. And here again the existentialist influence returns. “Existence precedes essence,” the great bumper-sticker slogan of existentialism, means we’re making it up as we go along, there is no transcendental meaning to be had, and there’s nothing inherently noble or degrading about anything. (To borrow a line from Zen: The situation is neutral.)
But another thing noir and the Greek tragedies have in common is their matriculation in the course or the aftermath of a lost war. The “neo-noir” films of the late 1960s and early 1970s—The King of Marvin Gardens, Scarecrow, Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and, of course, Chinatown—are a case in point. Though America had not yet “lost” Vietnam when some of these movies appeared, there was an overwhelming sense that it had lost something. And this was true of noir as well even after victory in World War II. Battle-scarred veterans recoiled from the notion of themselves as heroes because they knew all too well that pitiless luck and certain varieties of “vice and depravity” were what it took to survive combat.
Then again, maybe this is all just a bunch of cynical—and therefore, sentimental—hooey. “Like all dreamers, I mistook disillusion for the truth.” That’s jolly old Jean-Paul Sartre again. How come nobody ever calls him noir?