Watched The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941, US). Was like looking through a window to a time when films were rendered in shades of silver, the stories had twists and America knew how to make them well. ‘Noir’ has always attracted me, it has a kind of bodily honesty to it. Love is mostly painful and very rarely works out, corruption is the norm (as opposed to a deviation) and our ‘heroes’ are always just trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer deals with it, far as I can tell, by dealing bloody vengeance to those who murder his friends – of which he has many, and happens often. At the other end of the spectrum is Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe who in the labyrinthine The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946, US) is more interested in solving a riddle – and, ultimately, getting paid. When I use the word labyrinthine I mean that I’ve watched the film innumerable times, read the novel and still couldn’t tell you what actually happens in it (except that a kid is murdered and left in a car, there’s a porn racket involved and one of the babes did it).
What’s mostly interesting about these films though, isn’t the plots (though they do hold plenty of attention). It’s the characters and the wonderful dramas that play out in their relationships. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950, US) tells the story of a young writer, Joe, trying to make ends meet – who through luck or misfortune finds his way to wealth and attention of a famous actress. What’s fascinating about Sunset Boulevard however, isn’t really the plight of Joe but rather the obsessive dreams of the indomitable Norma Desmond. It’s Norma Desmond’s fascination with the limelight, celebrity and the glamour of the silver screen that takes the focus of the tale, and the form in which her dream is eventually realised which is the film’s destination.
Historically, these stories were part of an economic recession in America. Which may partly explain why themes of love, fame and fortune are always coupled with pain, heartbreak and corruption. There are no clear heroes in this genre, hell, Mike Hammer borders on being a homicidal maniac and Spillane’s handling of morality is about as subtle as a sledgehammer through plate glass (and his prose carries about the same momentum too).
If you want a British example of the Noir anti hero you need look no further than Ian Fleming‘s James Bond. Written during the same era, the novels follow the same dark, earthy, violent sense of adventure; the only difference being the lush, opulent settings – though always hiding a dark and perverse heart. It’s that Noir heart of 007 that defines Daniel Craig’s incarnation of James Bond, it’s just a shame the writing and the characters fail to live up to the standard that defined the genre 70 years ago.
Anyway, I’m rambling! Plus, I need to save something for when I get round to seeing the new entry to the James Bond franchise.
The intention of this post was to recommend The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Boulevard. If you enjoy reading and don’t mind a little violence here and there, I particularly recommend you read I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane (available on Kindle or as part of the Mike Hammer Omnibus on Amazon).