Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Thomas Hibbs

Seeking with Groans

The moral universe of film noir.

"I don't want to die."

"Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I'm gonna die last."

That's a bit of romantic dialogue between two characters from Out of the Past, one of the films featured in the Film Noir Classics Collection. The fifteen films in these three box sets were originally released between the mid-1940s and the early 1950s. (A fourth volume, featuring ten films, is promised later this year.) They thus bypass the early period of noir, defined by such classics as Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, films whose viewing by French critics in the middle of the decade gave rise to the noir tag in the first place, but they include such gems as The Asphalt Jungle, The Set-Up, Murder My Sweet, Dillinger, On Dangerous Ground, and Narrow Margin. Clearly there's a growing contemporary interest, both popular and critical, in film noir. Book-length analyses of the historical, cultural, and philosophical roots and implications of film noir continue to multiply—including two noteworthy recent examples, Mark Conard's edited volume, The Philosophy of Film Noir, and John Irwin's Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them. Even this limited sample of films and books gives evidence of the rich philosophical resources in noir; its penchant for subversive, anti-Enlightenment themes; and its revival of a peculiar kind of quest.

As the discussion of the essence or nature of film noir in the books from Conard and Irwin indicates, critics seeking a unifying definition of noir as a genre have failed to achieve consensus. Still, the films grouped under the noir label exhibit what philosophers call family resemblances, including recurring themes (criminality, infidelity, get-rich-quick schemes, and seemingly doomed quests), dominant moods (anxiety, dread, and oppressive entrapment), typical settings (cities at night and in the rain), and peculiar styles of filming (sharp contrasts between light and dark and tight, off-center camera angles). Noir is certainly a counter to the optimistic, progressive vision of postwar America; subverting the rationality of the pursuit of happiness, noir turns the American dream into a nightmare. Noir also counters the Enlightenment vision of the city as the locus of human bliss, wherein human autonomy and rational economics could combine to bring about the satisfaction of human desire. Instead of Enlightenment progress, with its lucid sense of where we are and where we are going, noir gives us disconcerting shadows and a present tense that is incapable of moving forward because it is overwhelmed by the past. In the noir universe, progress and autonomy are debilitating illusions. The title Out of the Past is a synecdoche for much of the noir genre.

Noir films regularly focus on characters who manage, at least for a period of time, to lead decent, peaceful, domestic lives—until some chance event pulls them back into their past, and the history of violence repeats itself and engulfs the protagonist. One of the original models for this motif is Out of the Past, which scholar James Ursini in his commentary track calls a "perfect noir." The film opens with Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) living near an idyllic lake in the Sierras with Ann, his devoted girlfriend. Soon a stranger arrives and demands that Jeff come with him to see a gangster for whom Bailey had once worked in New York. On his way to the meeting, a long drive from the country to the city, Jeff confesses to Ann the details of his past. His current plan, it seems, is to return to the world of his past in the hope of re-emerging unscathed to continue his peaceful life with Ann. But when he visits his former employer, he also runs into Kathie (Jane Greer), an archetypal noir femme fatale, with whom Jeff has also had dealings. The plot is deliberately baroque in structure and requires multiple viewings to figure out its implications. What is clear up front is how acutely aware Jeff is of his own entrapment. "I think I'm a frame," he admits at one point, but he continues to submit himself to the manipulations of others, particularly the magnetic and deadly Kathie. The question hinted at in the lines quoted at the outset of this essay—who dies last?—is subordinate in the viewer's mind to a more fundamental question: can Jeff make it out of the past? Yet, since Jeff's quest never fully transcends self-interested curiosity, the film thwarts viewers' desire for intelligibility even as it manages to provide some negative satisfaction of the desire for justice—no one wins.

Yet other sorts of quests, less self-interested, populate the world of noir as well. As Irwin notes in his fine comparison of noir criminality with the "fair-play method" of traditional "analytic detective fiction," the clear sense of justice publicly affirmed or even a neat solution of the plot is absent from noir. Instead, what noir presents is a "puzzle of character" in a world where it is unclear even what the most important mystery is. Not the one-dimensional struggle between the detective and the criminal but that struggle intertwined with another and often more significant struggle, between the detective and himself: this is the focus of the labyrinthine plot structure of noir.

A number of these themes are on display in the most influential film from the first volume of the Noir Classics collection, The Asphalt Jungle, whose very title nicely encapsulates the world in which noir is most at home: the dark city with its tall buildings blocking out natural light and entrapping human beings in a labyrinth. That is precisely the setting for Asphalt Jungle, where the city is never directly lit by sunlight and the interiors are typically windowless. Although the plot itself is not all that complex or compelling, the film provides rich background stories on a number of individuals conspiring in a theft. The two most interesting characters are at opposite poles of the criminal world. An elderly and well-educated mastermind named Doc (Sam Jaffe), who has just been released from prison, orchestrates the plan for a heist. Doc, the brains, enlists the services of Dix (Sterling Hayden), the brawn, a man with a gambling addiction.

There is a sense of fatalism about the entire scheme; its failure seems inevitable. But this does not mean that justice is clearly or optimistically affirmed. In the world of The Asphalt Jungle, criminals abound partly because of the corruption of official law enforcement. Toward the end of this film, a bad cop is arrested and the DA proclaims, "without cops, the jungle wins." He goes on to describe the bad guys as men without feeling or mercy, whom the police will hunt down and bring to justice. That may be true of the cold calculations of Doc, but it is not an apt description of Dix. In an ironic and fitting twist on John Huston's observation (in an introductory bonus track) about each character having a dominant vice, Doc's petty lust proves his undoing. He nearly escapes at the end, but when he lingers to admire a young beauty dancing in a diner, the delay enables the cops to catch up with him. Meanwhile, an injured and bleeding Dix escapes with his girlfriend, Doll, from the city and into the light of country, to his childhood farm. In a genuinely moving scene, a rapidly fading Dix talks of his childhood and then dies with his weeping girlfriend by his side. The ending indicates that the official account of these individual lives would be wrong to see them as lacking every vestige of humanity. Dix may not be virtuous, but he is not unsympathetic either.

Because most noir films do not offer any clear way out of the trap, noir has with some regularity been decried as nihilistic, as a degenerate art form. Such pejorative evaluations can be traced as far back as the mid-1940s, when the French invented the phrase "film noir." In a seminal essay, Jean-Pierre Chartier expressed distaste for the new wave of dark American films because of their "pessimism and disgust for humanity," with characters who are "monsters, criminals" and who fail to "rouse our pity or sympathy." But that judgment is misguided even for a film as saturated with criminality as The Asphalt Jungle. Moreover, Chartier's pejorative appraisal fails to explain why noir has proven so popular and so enduring—indeed, many of Chartier's compatriots adored the genre.

What exactly Europeans were seeing when they admired American film noir is another question. In an essay in the Conard volume, "Film Noir and the Frankfurt School," Paul Cantor goes so far as to assert that noir as we have come to understand it is not really American but rather a "European projection." Cantor's thesis makes for provocative reading, but it doesn't stand up very well next to Irwin's account, which persuasively locates the development of noir out of the quintessentially American genre of hard-boiled detective fiction.

Of course it matters what films are included in the canon and what films are excluded. The loosening up of the categories defining film noir has led some, such as R. Barton Palmer ("Moral Man in the Dark City" in The Philosophy of Film Noir), to draw attention to unduly neglected films that deserve to be called redemptive—not in the sense that they advocate "cheap grace" or easy salvation but in that they depict an "authentically penitential" path of "difficult spiritual growth."

Only one film in the Noir Classics collection, Narrow Margin—a twisting train thriller—has an unabashedly light and decidedly happy ending. This does not mean, however, that more or less overt ethical endings are alien to noir. Unusually direct in its moral lesson, Crossfire is the story of an investigation into an apparently motiveless murder. The film makes ample use of the stock noir technique of flashback as the events surrounding the murder are retold from multiple points of view. Its ending lays bare the ugly anti-Semitism at the root of the culprit's action.

A lesser-known boxing film, The Set-Up, features Bill "Stoker" Thompson (Robert Ryan) as an aging boxer, "just one punch away" from success. Shot in real time, the film focuses on Bill's last-chance boxing match in (where else?) Paradise City. Viewers know what Bill does not, namely, that he has been set up by his manager to take a fall. Partly because of his victim status and partly because much of the action is communicated through the perspective of Bill's anxiety-stricken wife, the audience sympathizes with his plight. The ending of the film manages to combine physical brutality with the lingering possibility of love and fidelity; it suggests that, even in the midst of a corrupt world, a certain kind of integrity is still possible and that, in certain circumstances, defeat can be victory.

But the film in these collections that most closely fits Palmer's thesis is On Dangerous Ground, directed by Nicholas Ray with a score from Bernard Herrmann. The story centers on Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan again, in a superb performance), a cop whose residual commitment to justice isolates him from everyone else and sets him on a potentially self-destructive course of violence. In a seedy, urban setting where no one is trustworthy, Wilson uses force to accomplish his ends. To an informant who is not fully forthcoming, even in the midst of beatings, he says, "Why do you make me do it? You're gonna talk. I always make you punks talk." He calls another cop "garbage" and asks, "how do you live with yourself?" When Wilson is sent out of town, up north where the mountains are covered with snow and sunlight, he encounters a blind girl who eventually becomes a means of his moral and psychic regeneration, as he recognizes the possibility of living by a code other than brute force. In his useful commentary track, Glenn Erickson comments that, far from offering a superficially tidy resolution, Ryan's credible depiction of character transformation requires better acting than the standard fatalism of noir.

One of the emerging themes in noir criticism has to do with noir narration as the attempt to come to terms with a loss of clear moral codes, with a certain kind of absence—in short, with what Conard identifies ("Nietzsche and the Meaning and Definition of Noir") as the death of God. Conard's thesis overlaps in this respect with that of Irwin, who sees the noir detective as attempting to sustain an archetypal American ethos of doing over being, devoting himself to work in a world from which God has vanished, a world void of "hope or fear of an afterlife." But, as Irwin's exposition of the career of Raymond Chandler's detective Marlowe illustrates, this quest ends up "hollow and empty" (the words are Marlowe's).

This universal sense of defeat strikes a strange, democratic note, not because it reflects the noble Enlightenment mottos of dignity, rights, or autonomy, but because no one wins. Indeed, the anti-reformist bent of noir renders problematic the assumption that noir is a Marxist vehicle, as many critics have argued. Even where there is reform, it is personal, often outside the modern city, and decidedly apolitical. Clearly many of those associated with the Hollywood production of noir films were associated with communism. Not without reason has noir seemed to many critics to offer a Marxist critique of capitalism, of a mechanized humanity dominated by instrumental rationality, wherein the pursuit of happiness is reduced to the futile desire for wealth. The fake bird, the rara avis, that consumes the aspirations of the characters in The Maltese Falcon, for example, can be nicely interpreted as a fetish object, emblematic of capitalism's creation of false needs.

But noir has also a deeply conservative bent, which accentuates the inherent and ineradicable limits of the human condition. In classic noir, the violation of limits is rarely, if ever, successful, and whatever glimpse of redemption characters may have is always partial rather than revolutionary, personal rather than political. Moreover, noir exhibits an ethical thrust that transcends limited political labels: an ethics of discourse, a quest to discover a lost code, what scholar J. P. Telotte identified as the desire to "speak the truth about the human condition" or at least to narrate the "difficulty" of speaking that truth. Repudiating old-fashioned American optimism but never quite succumbing to despairing nihilism, noir's most captivating characters are those who, in the words of Pascal, "seek with groans."

Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University. He is the author most recently of Aquinas, Ethics, and Philosophy of Religion, forthcoming this summer from Indiana University Press.

Most ReadMost Shared