A Shooting Star: The Noir Dialectic

Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of you
You were trying to break into another world
A world I never knew
I always kind of wondered
If you ever made it through
Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of you

Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me
If I was still the same
If I ever became what you wanted me to be
Did I miss the mark or overstep the line
That only you could see?
Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me

Listen to the engine, listen to the bell
As the last fire truck from hell
Goes rolling by
All good people are praying
It’s the last temptation, the last account
The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount
The last radio is playing

Seen a shooting star tonight
Slip away
Tomorrow will be
Another day
Guess it’s too late to say the things to you
That you needed to hear me say
Seen a shooting star tonight
Slip away

Bob Dylan – Shooting Star (©1989 Special Rider Music)

To my mind, if there is a noir dialectic it is Nietzsche vs. Redemption: the death of God vs. the rebirth of God; chaos vs. meaning.  A metaphysical tension between despair and hope. In one of the great noir novels, ‘High Sierra’ by W. R. Burnett, a shooting star is a metaphysical event.  Midway through the novel, the existential anti-hood Roy Earle,  a guy “just rushing toward death”[1], sees a shooting star one night.

They all stood up and stared. They heard people calling to each other in the little settlement beyond the court. A woman screamed shrilly. Low in the sky and moving slowly eastward, parallel with the earth, was a huge flaming ball of green and white fire…

“Look how slow it’s moving and how bright it is,” said Velma. “Do you suppose it will hit the earth?” She was standing close to Roy. He reached down and took her hand. Her fingers clung. “Oh, but it’s scary.”

“Now, don’t you worry, honey,” said Pa, his voice trembling slightly. “It will go right on past.” Then, with a laugh, he added: “I hope.”

Roy laughed, too, but he didn’t feel like laughing. His old sense of insecurity returned. This might be the end of the world. Barmy said that stars and planets sometimes smashed into each other and busted all to hell. Just a puff of smoke and you’d be gone! He held Velma’s hand tightly.

“Look,” said Pa, “she’s spluttering. Don’t I hear a noise?”

They all stood listening, straining their ears. There was a roaring hiss, then the meteor flared up and went out. They all waited for it to hit, but nothing happened. In a moment the meteor appeared again far to the east, very low on the horizon and moving much faster, vanishing finally behind a high point in the desert floor.

Velma took her hand away and laughed.

But Roy’s rush towards death is unchecked, and at the end Roy is shot dead by a cop’s bullet.

Finally he was at the summit. He sat down and put his back against a big rock. He waited for a long time with his machinegun held in front of him, but nothing happened. He relaxed and lit a cigarette.

“My God, what a place!” Roy muttered. He bent over to look, but jerked back suddenly as a wave of dizziness swept over him. A thousand feet below he had seen Sutler’s Lake, like a silver dollar embedded in green velvet. “Baby, am I up there!”

He heard a strange flapping sound and looked up. A huge bird was flying over him, headed toward the abyss—an eagle!

“Brother,” said Roy, watching the eagle’s lazy effortless flight over the terrible chasm, “I wish I had wings!”…

Time passed. The sun began to get low in the sky and the giant peaks turned golden, then red. The big eagle flew lazily back across the chasm, sailed over Roy’s head, then disappeared above him up among the rocks.

Suddenly a voice shouted: “Earle! Come down. This’s your last chance.”

“Nuts to you, copper,” said Roy, leaning forward.

There was a short silence, then far off to Roy’s right a rifle cracked.

At first he sat without moving. The gun didn’t even fall out of his hands. The rifle cracked again and the echoes rolled off sharply, bouncing from rock to rock. Roy stood up, threw the machine-gun away from him, mumbled inarticulately, then fell forward on his face…

… It was all over now. He was falling down that black abyss. Suddenly a huge green and white ball of fire swept across in front of him and a hand reached out and took his hand. But the hand was not little and soft as it had been that other time. It was lean and firm. Marie! The hand checked his fall.

[1] John T. Irwin, Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them: Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir (©2006 The Johns Hopkins University Press)  p.116

One thought on “A Shooting Star: The Noir Dialectic”

  1. High Sierra 1941 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_Sierra_(film)
    Note my quote from a NY review as a fitting end of a death in futility to the gangster genre of noir movies. He is heading toward an inexorable death
    As a matter of fact—and aside from the virtues of the film itself—it is rather touching to behold the Warners pay such a glowing tribute, for no one has made a better thing out of the legendary gangster than they have. No one has greater reason to grow nostalgic about the bad boys of yesterday who, as one of the characters in “High Sierra” reverently remarks, are “all either dead or doing time now in Alcatraz.” So, indeed, we are deeply moved by this honest payment of respects to an aging and graying veteran of the Nineteen Thirty banditti who makes his last stand his best. Somehow, it seems quite fitting.

    Of course, that is exactly the way the Warners and every one concerned intended it should seem. For the story which is told is that of a notorious hold-up man who is sprung out of an Illinois prison by an old gangland pal who wants him in California for a big job. But the gunman has got some ideas about freedom and the joy of living. He wants to marry a simple little girl he meets on the road heading West; he wants to do good things because, you see, he really has a good heart.

    Well, you know what that means. It’s just as old “Doc” Banton tells him (“Doc” being the quack who tends “Big Mac”). He says, “Remember what Johnny Dillinger said about guys like you and him; he said you’re just rushing toward death—that’s it, you’re rushing toward death.” And that’s the truth. For the big holdup job gets messed up by a couple of “jitterbugs” who are assisting on it, the girl turns out a great disappointment, the gunman is rendered a fugitive with a moll and a dog who love him and finally he is brought to bay on that peak in the High Sierras. And there he dies gallantly. It’s a wonder the American flag wasn’t wrapped about his broken corpse.

    As gangster pictures go, this one has everything?—speed, excitement, suspense and that ennobling suggestion of futility which makes for irony and pity. Mr. Bogart plays the leading role with a perfection of hard-boiled vitality, and Ida Lupino, Arthur Kennedy, Alan Curtis and a newcomer named Joan Leslie handle lesser roles effectively. Especially, is Miss Lupino impressive as the adoring moll. As gangster pictures go—if they do— it’s a perfect epilogue. Count on the old guard and Warners: they die but never surrender.


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