RARA-AVIS: Hard-boiled or noir?

From: ejmd ( ejmd@cwcom.net)
Date: 22 Apr 2000

A propos the recurring hb/noir thread, I thought I'd repost an extract from an article on Cornell Woolrich that was in Crime Time a couple of issues back.

It might not suit everybody's take on the hb/noir theme, but I think it's a useful way to present the distinction.


***** Hard-boiled or noir?

Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain are the leading lights among what used to be called 'the tough guy writers'; this unholy trinity would now be recognised as forming the core of what we might call 'classic' hard-boiled fiction. Sharing some of the hard-boiled sensibilities of these exponents of the 'tough guy' style, but also diverging from them in several important ways, are a group of writers-I would call them a 'second wave'-that might be identified as 'noir' rather than 'hard-boiled'. Among this second wave one can include Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Cornell Woolrich.

The main difference between the 'classic' hard-boiled writers and the
'noir writers'-although James M. Cain has a foot in each camp-can probably be characterised by two tendencies: a tendency in hardboiled writing to paint a backdrop of institutionalised social corruption; and a tendency in noir writing to focus on personal psychology, whether it is despair, paranoia or some other psychological crisis. The two schools-if we can call these tendencies 'schools'-are by no means mutually exclusive: hard boiled writing can display elements of noir, and noir writing can be hard-boiled.

Institutionalised corruption is taken as given among the hard-boiled school: corrupt institutions (the police force, the judiciary, politicians), and indeed there are several 'bad cop' stories in the Woolrich cannon, just as there are elements of psychological development in the Hammett corpus (the Continental Op stories, for example).

By the same token, there are mean streets in the world of noir, though these streets are peopled by the psychologically insecure: psychological instability is the key characteristic of the protagonists of noir writing, if not the key characteristic of the noir writers themselves
(see, for example, 'Life's A Bitch: paranoia and sexuality in the novels of David Goodis' in Crime Time 2.1). Paranoid insecurity, doubts and fears about identity, sexuality and personal safety are the key fault-lines of the noir personality.

In Cornell Woolrich's noir world, one routinely finds these traits of despair. The fear expressed in Woolrich's fiction may be one of the ways in which he worked through his own psychological traumas, or Woolrich's writing might be thought of as a kind of social barometer, through which the pressures and tensions of wider cultural fears and anxieties are indicated.

In the post war era, ideas about masculinity had to be re-negotiated as women were reluctantly eased out of their wartime roles and persuaded by various means, including popular novels and films, to give up their newly found independence to return to their former domestic roles. Apart from the 'menace' of the independent woman, post-war America felt particularly at risk from the threat of communism. As America underwent the cultural revolution of McCarthyism, during which time Hollywood sought to 'out' the politically suspect, fears about individuals-or larger social groups-being 'taken over' by sinister unseen forces, sometimes represented as aliens or plants from outer space; or by chemicals, as characters are 'drugged' or otherwise lose control, were prevalent in popular fiction. It should come as no surprise then, that during the nineteen forties and nineteen fifties, at the height of America's cultural and political paranoia, Woolrich was at his productive peak.

# To unsubscribe, say "unsubscribe rara-avis" to majordomo@icomm.ca.
# The web pages for the list are at http://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/ .

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 22 Apr 2000 EDT