Re-Focusing Film Noir

The Big Sleep

After some recent reading on film noir, I am re-focusing my approach to film noir, and this re-appraisal will influence my coming film noir reviews.

If we go back to the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, we find protagonists who are essentially outsiders with personas concerned not with redemption but with maintaining a stasis that is outside the mainstream in an existential sense.  Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are not concerned with money or status, conventional relationships, or necessarily following the letter of the law.  These guys are loners. Independent men above banal striving and ambition, but loyal to a code that not only guides but defines them.  While the PI works at the perimeter of convention, his realm goes beyond the dark sordid recesses of criminality to the rotten core of polite society.  Death-in-life is their métier, and integrity their salvation.  But this integrity and independence casts them adrift. They are of society but not anchored in it. Their alienation is knowing and desperate:  capitulation is existential death.  These guys are subversives as film noir is subversive:  a losing battle against chaos. Nietzche was wrong: superman is a ‘loser’. The loser is outside society, his alienation is a positive reverse-psychosis, he maintains his sanity in a crazy urban nightmare only by his detachment, yet he despairs of it.  Ambivalence and entrapment the cost.

9 thoughts on “Re-Focusing Film Noir”

  1. Hi! Tony,

    Tony said, “If we go back to the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, we find protagonists who are essentially outsiders with personas concerned not with redemption but with maintaining a stasis that is outside the mainstream in an existential sense. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are not concerned with money or status, conventional relationships, or necessarily following the letter of the law…”

    …”Ambivalence and entrapment the cost.”

    Tony, the comment (above) and the last five words in your post…sums up the protagonists’ (In the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) “persona” and the “consequents” of their choices to me at least.

    By the way, the screenshot is nice…because it compliments your piece and I like the additions to your sidebar for instance, the vintage poster, the vodpod and the ad(s)/promo for Auster and Demy.(Novels and films)

    Thanks, for sharing!
    DeeDee ;-D

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  2. how was Nietzsche was wrong? he predicts that “society” will label the superman (outsider, stranger, loner etc) a “loser”.

    remember the prelude to thus spake zarathustra – the people mock zarathustra- they egg on the clown, who leaps over the tightrope walker- the tightrope walker falls to his death. it is zarathustra who carries him out of the marketplace and the town and buries him with his own hands …

    its the “flies in the marketplace”, the clowns who interpret the hero as a loser…

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  3. This is great stuff, Tony. The Chandler hero has precedents in art — from the knight errant to the classic Western hero. Lone agents, with a personal moral code that often transcends the moral code of society, they wander rootlessly, helping others but unable to deliver themselves from isolation, to which they are condemned. They are in that sense sacrificial heroes, but still heroes. The post-war noir protagonist is distinguished from them by losing faith in his code, in any code — all meaning has become elusive. In short he has lost the existential”stasis”, or compass, you speak of, provided by his dogged commitment to *something*.

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  4. Well, I am out of my league here for sure, as this is hardly my specialty, but great that you’ve decided to go to the genre’s roots – existentialism, alienation,subversives, etc., and as always ambivalence and entrapment is the cost. This is what makes the form so captivating and complex in the first place, and it’s why it has such staying power and rewards repeat viewing.

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  5. Great stuff here – penetrating yet concise, as always, which I really respect. I am curious, though, what do you feel characterized your previous view of and approach towards noir, that you may be moving away from with a focus on the existential loners of noir?

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  6. Thanks Joel. A very fair question. I suppose previously my approach was to focus on the cinematic aspects and the narrative rather than seeing the movie as the expression of a subversive critique.

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