A Bright Guilty World
It’s Noirvember again, and I’m once more looking forward to a month of immersing myself into my all-time favorite film genre, with all its grubby shadows and lines that are sharp but never clean. When I was at the Chicago International Film Festival this year, I was intrigued by the offerings of their Film Noir program, but I couldn’t help but lament that most of its content was sourced from other countries. America didn’t name noir — that fell to our friends the French, who knew a bad thing when they saw it — but we invented it and perfected it, and it’s pretty sad how thoroughly we’ve abandoned it. If noir was nothing else, it was a cinema of the working class, and nowadays, even as the American working class becomes larger and more desperate than it’s been since the Depression — hell, since the Gilded Age — it is no longer the subject of motion pictures, which have become escapist fantasias literally beyond imagination.
I’ve talked about this before, and it’s scarcely an original idea with me: film noir was a cinema of the working class. What does this mean? It’s a question worth answering, as it helps understand why it existed in a particular moment in our film history, why it went away, and why it has only persisted outside of our borders as anything but a curiosity or a stylistic throwback. Aside from the obvious fact that many noirs were made by marginalized filmmakers on a shoestring budget by Poverty Row studios and tacked on as third-string features — that they were, as literally as possible for the billion-dollar entertainment industry, working-class productions — there are aesthetic and narrative reasons why the genre was such a great manifestation of proletarian struggle in American film, maybe the very last one.
Begin at the beginning: the people who made these films were more often than not situated on the left. Many of the directors were drawn from the ranks of European emigrés, and more than a few had been socialist or communist-sympathetic, driven out of their native countries by white terrors or fascist persecution. So, too, were many of the writers far more concerned with the issues of the poor and the desperate than the average Hollywood bohemian; it is not for nothing that the McCarthy-era red witch hunts ensnared so many writers and directors who had worked in noir. They had honed their craft during years when it looked like the tide might actually be turning towards a world more sympathetic to the left, but the carnage of World War II and the emergence of an American imperial project found them with unsympathetic funders and a hostile climate for their message. What was explicit became implicit; text became subtext and the communication of sophisticated ideas became a subversive act rather than the stated goal of the artist.
Noir protagonists were a varied lot; the tastes of their creators, the needs of the story, and the demands of the studio and the censors demanded a lot of flexibility. (There’s a reason that so many of them were involved in law enforcement, and it’s not because the filmmakers loved cops.) But if they had one common denominator, it’s that they weren’t rich. Whether they were detectives or lowlifes, cops or criminals, they shared the characteristic of not being able to buy their way out of the trouble that inevitably came their way. It’s so important to the way these stories were told that it’s irreducible: these were men who had few options to begin with, and when things started to go south, those options were reduced to zero. If they were in law enforcement, they did not enjoy the largesse of an inflated budget and the unlimited resources that seem to fuel our modern action heroes. They lived in dingy apartments, wore the same suits every day, and faced strangled circumstances. If they were criminals, they were not high-rolling mob bosses but desperate hustlers; they stole for need that edged into greed, but they killed out of grim necessity and not psychotic glee. The protagonists of noir ranged from itinerant musicians to cockroach capitalists, insurance agents to carny geeks, but they all had in common that they needed money, and they couldn’t get it.
There’s also the role of women in film noir. The debate will probably continue to rage forever about whether femmes fatale are misogynist (women as evil temptresses who lure men to their doom) or feminist (determined women who know what they want and don’t follow the rules about how to get it), or both at the same time. But whatever else you can say about them, unlike almost every other female leads in American film from 1946 to 1960, they had agency. If they didn’t control their own destiny — and in noir, no one ever does, really — at least they were trying. They weren’t just waiting around to be saved, to find love, to get married, or to crack wise before assuming their natural place as someone’s trophy; they were out there struggling. They were wise to the fact that, as members of the working class, they had been handed the shit end of the stick, and it was made all the worse because they were women. If they had to weaponize their sexuality or look for the most tender part of a back to stick a knife, so be it, as long as they had something, anything to say about it. Sherry Peatty in The Killing may have been as cold as an arctic cave and as dark as the bottom of the ocean, but at least she was in control of things — right up until she wasn’t.
It was this, the fatalism of noir, that was its great split with proletarian art, and its major divergence from its other grand cinematic manifestation, neorealism. Soaked in a thoroughly Protestant ethic and suffused with the stench of Calvinism, noir never allowed its protagonists, or those of us in the audience who rooted for them, to believe for a second that things would ultimately go their way. It was just a matter of time before fate sticks out that foot to tripe you, and the higher you reached to get above your station, the further you were going to fall. Noir was never utopian or even aspirational; its God was a vengeful one who prized order above all else, and would unleash unthinkable chaos rather than see that order disrupted. And its Devil was our Devil, the manalishi of moneymen and cops and bland men in suits telling you there was no way out; its Hell was our Hell, the abyss of knowing that all your striving can only result in being sent back to suffering and toil. Noir was the cinema of revolutionaries with no revolution in sight.