RARA-AVIS: Re: Lehane/Stasio on noir

From: JIM DOHERTY (jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 17 Nov 2009

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    Re your invitation to me to "have at it" on the comments below:

    "In his introduction to BOSTON NOIR, Dennis Lehane advises us not to judge the genre by its Hollywood images of sharp men in fedoras lighting cigarettes for femmes fatales standing in dark alleys. Offering his own definition of noir as 'working-class tragedy,' he writes persuasively of the gentrification that has eroded 'the tribalism of the city' and left people feeling 'crushed, attenuated, castrated' by 'the Machine.'"

    That is, by his own admission (at least, so I infer), HIS definition, not THE definition.  And any definition that excludes large numbers of stories, novels, and films that are commonly recognized as being examples of noir must, logically, be incorrect.

    Because if, as Lehane's definition has it, noir depends on the erosion of "The tribalism of the city," for example, it follows that any story with a rural setting can't be noir, which means that Nicholas Ray's ON DANGEROUS GROUND isn't noir.  And if it invariably involves "working class tragedy," it follows that any story dealing with the upper class (like the film LAURA, one of the films pointed as an exemplar of film noir in one of the articles in which that term was coined) or the lower class (like the Harlem crime novels of Chester Himes, originally written specifically for Gallimard's Serie Noire line) is automatically excluded.

    And that's just silly.

    "But that's really a definition of good regional crime writing rather than the noir sensibility, which has more to do with a loss of faith, hope and outer direction so profound that the alienated antihero is moved to renounce all society and live entirely by his own moral code."

    And that's YOUR definition, not THE definition.

    There are all kinds of noirs that have heroes, not anti-heroes. All kinds that have characters who are moved by faith, hope, and a commitment to making society better.

    But what they have, despite characters who are heroic, who are keeping the faith, wand ho have not let hope or commitment die, is a dark, sinister atmosphere.

    Your definition excludes such stories from the fold. Therefore, your definition is also wrong.

    And, once more, unlike either you or Lehane, I'm not imposing my own values on the term. I'm not declaring what I think noir should be, or what I want it to be. I'm merely looking at the vast array of novels, stories, films, etc., that are commonly accepted (by others, not by me) as being under the "Big Tent" of noir, and trying to discern what the common elements are.

    Granting that my perceptions might be flawed, what they all seem to have in common is a dark, sinister atmosphere.

    If you think there's another element that I've missed, YOU have at it. But it has to be an element that you can find in the police procedural HE WALKED BY NIGHT as easily as you can find it in that classic tale of doomed, adulterous murderers Walter and Phyllis, DOUBLE INDEMNITY. It's got to apply to Chandler's private eye novel FAREWELL, MY LOVELY as much as it applies to Thompson's THE GRIFTERS. It's got to be an inherent element of LAURA as much as it is of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE.

    Because if it doesn't cover all those disparate works, and hundreds and hundreds more besides, it's simply not correct to describe it as a defining element.



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