RARA-AVIS: Noir -- Penzler, Kerry, Brian, Jack and MRT

From: Frederick Zackel (fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 19 Aug 2010

  • Next message: jacquesdebierue: "RARA-AVIS: Re: Noir -- Penzler, Kerry, Brian, Jack and MRT"

    I have resisted … But when Albert Camus gets trotted out …

    Like a lot of folks, I love reading noir. Watching interesting people make one dumb decision after another. Like watching them falling down a staircase, going faster and faster until they go splat. Noir is Inexorable and doom is Inevitable.

    Methinks, a noir protagonist thinks with his willie, or rather lets his willie think for him, and that dooms him.

    Our society celebrates – DEMANDS -- male self-control.

    And noir is a morality tale about men who can’t control themselves.

    A man enters the Universe of Noir when he lets his willie do his thinking for him.

    Think Bill Clinton. Eliot Spitzer. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Mark Foley. Newt Gingrich. John Edwards. Jesse James.

    Tiger Wood anybody?

    Let’s look at The Maltese Falcon.

    Noir is about morality. The inevitability of the Denouement is, well, Judgment Day. I look at noir writers, and I see old-fashioned Old Testament religion oozing from them like January maple syrup.

    Dashiell Hammett was a former Catholic, James Cain was a gloating Catholic, Mickey Spillane created the Hammer of God, and so forth.

    The Maltese Falcon is not at center a whodunnit, but a novel about people -- about one man, Sam Spade, especially -- caught up in a world of crime. It offers a peculiar point of view to accompany this vision, the detached-viewpoint story, where we never get into the head of any character. We are simply floating, invisible observers, and the narrator has disappeared.

    We see and hear the events as they take place, as if we are present, but invisible in the room. This is not quite "the camera's eye." That's where the reader is allowed to see and hear only what a camera sees and a microphone hears. In The Maltese Falcon there are comments and interpretations. We become invisible observers in the room.

    In The Maltese Falcon, murder is still represented as a game of Good versus Evil (although most of the violence is off-stage). The gamester here is the Ace of Spades, Sam himself. The ambiguity of his character is central to the story. In this world where all is corrupt, where all can be corrupted, Sam Spade knows the score.

    "Most things in San Francisco can be bought, or taken."

    Hammett created Spade, a blonde devil. Spade is also Sisyphus before Camus tinkered with the myth. The Falcon begins with Spade in his office and ends with Spade in his office.

    And when Miles Archer, his partner, is killed, Sam Spade pushes himself squarely into the center arena and the struggle for the Black Bird. He wheedles and cajoles and threatens and lies and taunts and bluffs to find out who killed Miles Archer.

    Hammett's misdirection is marvelous. Archer's death very quickly becomes a subplot. Finding the Black Bird becomes the main plot. And yet once the Bird is found, Archer's death is resolved.

    Spade describes his dead partner Archer:

    "He was a sucker for women. His record shows that—the only falls he took were over women. And once a chump, always a chump."

    The leopard can't change his spots.

    Brigit O'S thought she was Cinderella. She thought all Prince Charmings are stupid fools who would walk up Burritt Alley with their tongues hanging out of their trousers.

    Spade -- the Blonde Devil -- The Warlock? The Gamester? The Trickster? -- almost fell for it too.

    Imagine Sisyphus with a gun.

    Is that a gun in your hand or do you love me?

    Camus wrote The Stranger after he read The Postman Always Rings twice.

    Spade's only moment of freedom is sending Brigit over. Archer was doomed; he thought with his willie. But Spade can transcend his willie. Temporarily.

    Brigit counted upon Spade being just another guy thinking with his willie.

    How smart was Spade fouling his own nest by balling his partner's wife? Spade is nuts about pussy but a real wussy around women. Anytime he needs advice, he asks Effie first.

    Spade KNOWS the only reason Archer died in Burritt Alley is because Archer talked faster than he did into taking on the new client and following her scent across the city.

    Spade goes after Archer's killer because he recognizes HE should been the poor dumb slob dead with his gun in his holster.

    Spade knows he is no match for a hungry Cinderella.

    He strip-searches Brigit to see if she's carrying weapons.

    Well, of course she is; all women got them.

    Sam Spade's comment at the end: "Next, I've no reason in God's world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you'd have something on me that you could use whenever you happened to want to."

    Oh, he's sweating, afraid, and desperate all right.

    The ancient Greeks had a story about the wolf and the farmer's dogs. The wolf comes by the farmer's place, sees the farmer's dogs all running wild and jumping around the meadow, having the time of their lives, partying like crazy. The dogs see the wolf, come running over. "See how free and wild we are," the dogs all tell the wolf. The wolf doesn't say anything.

    In truth, the wolf sees the collars on the dogs' necks.

    The last lines of The Maltese Falcon read:

    "Spade, looking at his desk, nodded almost impreceptably. 'Yes,' he said, and shivered. "Well, send her in.'"

    And the last thing Spade does in the book is "shudder" 'cause Archer's wife wants to see him. After that we get The Silence of the Lambs from Spade.

    I think it was Esquire magazine some years ago who claimed Sam Spade was murdered on the very next page. Iva, of course.

    Spade, the lone wolf. Thinking with his willie once too often.

    That's noir, man.

    Fred Zackel

    author of ...


    All (and more) are available on Kindle and smashwords

    In January 1978 Ross Macdonald wrote, "Fred Zackel's first novel reminds me of the young Dashiell Hammett's work, not because it is an imitation, but because it is not. It is a powerful and original book made from the lives and language of the people who live in San Francisco today."


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