RARA-AVIS: More Thoughts on Noir?

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 21 May 2007

On May 20, 2007, at 3:20 PM, Kerry J. Schooley wrote:

> And I know others disagree with me, but I still think
> Maltese Falcon noir, in that the rules Spade developed for himself,
> and was forced to accept and live with, definitely precluded the
> transcendence through love or justice, despite the fact that he
> solved his case.

Yep. I think a P.I. novel or film CAN be noir. Not always, but it's not unheard of either. You can solve the case, but still fail to solve anything that really matters.

It's a cliche now, but there was a reason those old books often ended with the shamus reaching for the office bottle. Here's a hint -- it wasn't to celebrate.

Certainly both film and literary versions of OUT OF THE PAST qualify
(but not AGAINST ALL ODDS, which is simply "film nah"). And THE MALTESE FALCON III is definitely noir, as is CHINATOWN, MURDER MY SWEET, NIGHT MOVES, THE CONVERSATION, THE LONG GOODBYE and a slew of others. And they all revolve around P.I.s.

Still, I don't think a noir book always becomes a noir film -- or that a noir film has to come from a noir book. For example, I'm still not sure if the film version of THE BIG SLEEP truly qualifies as noir, but I certainly think the book, with Marlowe's closing "part of the nastiness now" soliloquy where he muses on his own damnation
(which Hawks' film deleted), is.

There's something about all the jokey jockey patter going on between Bogart and Bacall and the frequent nudge-nudge wink-wink that's more suited to an episode of MOONLIGHTING than true noir for my liking.

Doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it -- I did, and still do. Just that it doesn't seem particularly noirish to me.

(The one part of the lousy, let's-go-to-England BIG SLEEP remake that I actually enjoyed was them restoring the soliloquy at the end. What a voice Mitchum had. Imagine him reading Chandler on tape for audiobooks?).

No, Chandler's novel doesn't end with guns a-blazing and the world in flames -- it ends quietly, with a man, alone, realizing he's probably ineffectual and no better than the "nastiness" he rails against. It's sad and poignant and bittersweet, but also hard and dark, and it feels like noir to me.

Noir doesn't have to hit you over the head -- it can be subtle and still be noir. In fact, one of my problems with much of the so-called
(and often loudly self-proclaimed) new noir is its over-heated, almost cartoon-like reliance on selective noir trappings (and the more obvious, the better). There's a certain almost adolescent pleasure there in wallowing in the dark end of the trough, and they're always big on big, messy damnation, but too many of them seem on the emotionally shallow side, lacking any real soul.

Whereas the classic noirs I treasure most had soul to burn.


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