If you were to draw up a list of the 100 best American movies, most of them would be genre films of one kind or another. That’s not surprising, or shouldn’t be. Hollywood is a purely commercial enterprise, meaning that it plays it safe. At the same time, most filmmakers are artists (or wish they were), meaning that they long to take chances. Genre films are rule-bound and therefore predictable, which makes them safe—but the fact that their makers play by those rules can have the paradoxical effect of stimulating their creativity. Rules, even arbitrary ones, delineate the finite space within which imagination flourishes. Why does a sonnet have fourteen lines, or a guitar six strings? In the end, it doesn’t matter. As Igor Stravinsky said, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”
It may seem a long leap from the composer of Symphony of Psalms to the makers of movies about tough guys who run afoul of dames with rods, but I can’t think of a better example of the liberating power of convention than the brief yet striking vogue of the cinematic genre known as film noir. Criss Cross, Double Indemnity, Gun Crazy, In a Lonely Place, Night and the City, Out of the Past, Pickup on South Street, Pitfall, Raw Deal, Scarlet Street—these, along with such broadly similar non-noir films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train, rank high among Hollywood’s finest product of the 1940s and 1950s. Yet most were made quickly and on modest budgets, and virtually all were overlooked by the big-name critics of the day. They were seen as entertainment, pure and simple—but the fact that they were entertaining does nothing to diminish their deadly seriousness.
The rules of classic noir are as follows:
- A film noir is always shot in black-and-white.
- Most of the action takes place in a city at night.
- The protagonist is a flawed but basically well-intentioned man who finds himself confronted with a moral choice, often involving a shopworn, sexually alluring woman.
- He makes the wrong choice, in the process breaking the law.
- Disaster follows, inexorably leading to the death or imprisonment of the man and/or woman.
Sounds like an old-fashioned parable, doesn’t it? Yet the moral aspect of film noir is almost always overlooked by most critics of the genre. Instead, they prefer to emphasize the social context within which noir protagonists are forced to maneuver. The anonymous cities of film noir are dark caverns of disillusion, places where things are seldom what they seem and the right thing is far easier said than done, especially when it involves a woman. The tacit assumption is that the closed world of film noir is too corrupt to admit the possibility of upright conduct, and the viewer is invited to further assume that his own world—postwar America, in other words—is pretty much just like that.
This interpretation of the moral landscape of film noir is often plausible and sometimes on the mark. Many of the earliest films noirs, including Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil and Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire, were made by left-wing writers and directors (not a few of whom were card-carrying Communists) whose purpose was to suggest that in capitalist America, the deck was ever and always stacked against the regular guy. But the socially conscious films noirs are the weakest examples of the genre, painfully obvious in their political purpose and occasionally heavy-handed to the point of unintended comedy.
The films noirs that remain watchable, by contrast, are the ones that revolve, as do the great Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s, around the problem of individual responsibility. A case in point is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, a tale of two murderous adulterers that was arguably the first full-fledged film noir, in which Raymond Chandler’s cyanide-coated dialogue leaves us in no possible doubt that it was the devil, not society, who made Fred MacMurray do it: “I’m not trying to whitewash myself. I fought it, only maybe I didn’t fight it hard enough. The stakes were $50,000, but they were the life of a man, too, a man who’d never done me any dirt.”
It’s telling that these dramas of moral choice never make anything other than passing reference to religion. They are set in fallen worlds whose desperate occupants are ignorant of the spiritual dimensions of their despair. In Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, the most psychologically penetrating of all films noirs, Humphrey Bogart plays a washed-up screenwriter whose violent, uncontrollable fits of jealousy bring him frighteningly close to murdering Gloria Grahame, the woman he loves. “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me,” he says despondently, unaware that such love, however strong, cannot pull him out of the abyss of his nihilism. The fate of his soul hangs in the balance—and we know it.
The idea of noir has left a deep impression on any number of younger directors, several of whom have made such postmodern homages to the genre as Robert Benton’s Twilight, Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, Lawrence Kazdan’s Body Heat, and Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely (the last of which starred Robert Mitchum, the quintessential noir fall guy). Some of these neo-noir films were blatantly derivative, others less so, and a few were genuinely impressive. Only one, though, transcended the limitations of retrospective homage to win recognition as a major work of cinematic art.
Chinatown, written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski, might well be the best movie to have come out of Hollywood in the 1970s. In many ways it is scrupulously faithful to both the spirit and the letter of film noir. But Towne and Polanski depart from their closely observed model in one crucial respect. Their protagonist, Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), is a coarse-spirited, seemingly soulless private detective who unexpectedly finds himself regenerated by romantic love. As a result, he makes the right choice—but it leads to disaster and death as surely as the wrong one would have.
As the end titles roll, Gittes is standing in the middle of Los Angeles’s Chinatown, alone with his blasted hopes. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” a friend tells him, as if to say, with Marlowe’s Mephistophilis, Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. Rarely has the difference between modernity and postmodernity been epitomized more tellingly than in this scene. The antiheroes of classic film noir may have lived on the outskirts of hell, but at least they knew how to find the road out of town, even if they never took it. Not so in Chinatown, where there are no roads and no right choices, only the comfortless words of Noah Cross, the evil millionaire who is Jake Gittes’s nemesis: “Most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of …anything.” Anything, that is, but redemption.