The Noir City: Manhattan Transfer 1925


“Dusk gently smooths crispangled streets. Dark presses tight the steaming asphalt city, crushes the fretwork of windows and lettered signs and chimneys and watertanks and ventilators and fireescapes and moldings and patterns and corrugations and eyes and hands and neckties into blue chunks, into black enormous blocks. Under the rolling heavier heavier pressure windows blurt light. Night crushes bright milk out of arclights, squeezes the sullen blocks until they drip red, yellow, green into streets resounding with feet. All the asphalt oozes light. Light spurts from lettering on roofs, mills dizzily among wheels, stains rolling tons of sky.”

– John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (NY 1925)


Noir Poet: Marc Cohn

Strangers in a Car – Marc Cohn

There’s a stranger in a car
Driving down your street
Acts like he knows who you are
Slaps his hand on the empty seat and says
“Are you gonna get in
Or are you gonna stay out?”
Just a stranger in a car
Might be the one they told you about

Well you never were one for cautiousness
You open the door
He gives you a tender kiss
And you can’t even hear them no more
All the voices of choices
Now only one road remains
And strangers in a car
Two hearts
Two souls
Two lanes

You don’t know where you’re goin’
You don’t know what you’re doin’
Hell it might be the highway to heaven
And it might be the road to ruin
But this is a song
For strangers in a car
Baby maybe that’s all
We really are
Strangers in a car
(Driving down your street)
Just strangers in a car
(Driving down your street)
Strangers in a car

The French have a name for it: noir

Farewell My Lovely aka Murder My Sweet

PI Philip Marlowe has the poet’s eye for the softer edges of existence while enmeshed in the hard reality of greed, corruption, and criminal passions.  The smell of places, dirt and dust, smog, rain, the sun on baking asphalt, the twilight that has no sunlight lit by dull incandescent bulbs that throw shadows in bars where angst is held at bay for as long as a shot of  booze does its job. A respite from the desperate loneliness of men and women in big cities where ethical conduct and loyalty are not rewarded but ridiculed, and get you into trouble, and deep.  You give up on true relationships and, well, love, it just doesn’t bare thinking about.

 “I watched the cab out of sight. I went back up the steps and into the bedroom and pulled the bed to pieces and remade it. There was a long dark hair on one of the pillows. There was a lump of lead at the pit of my stomach. The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase a for everything and they are always right.  To say good-bye is to die a little.”

– [Raymond Chandler, ‘The Long Goodbye’]

Noir Poet – Kenneth Fearing: “appeals urged across kitchen tables and the fury that shouts them down”

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)


She sleeps, lips round, see how at rest
how dark the hair, unstrung with all the world
see the desirable eyes, how still, how white, sealed
to all faces, locked against ruin, favor, and every

Nothing behind them now but a pale mirage
through which the night-time ragman of the street
below moves in a stiff and slow ballet
rhythmic from door to door, hallway to curb and
gutter to stoop, bat’s eyes bright, ravenous,
ravenous for the carrion found and brought by
tireless fingers to unreal lips

Her hand relaxed beside the enchanted head, mouth red,
see how at peace the human form can be, whose
sister, whose sweetheart, daughter of whom,
and now the adorable ears, coral and pink
deaf to every footfall, every voice
midnight threats, the rancor stifled in rented bed-
rooms, appeals urged across kitchen tables and
the fury that shouts them down, gunfire,
screams, the sound of pursuit
all of these less than the thunderous wings of a moth
that circles here in the room where she sleeps

Sleeps, dreaming that she sleeps and dreams.


-From ‘Dead Reckoning’, A Book of Poetry by Kenneth Fearing (Random House, NY, 1938)



Marlowe: “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.”

The Big Sleep

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

– Raymond Chandler, first paragraph of  The Big Sleep (Published 1939)



Noir Nation: International journal of crime fiction

The people behind the Noir Nation project have produced two excellent promotional videos which augur well for the quality of the publication…

I came across the Noir Nation project on this evening.   The people behind the project are seeking pledges for a new eJournal of crime fiction offering high quality prose fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, and visual arts.

The people behind the project have produced two excellent promotional videos which augur well for the quality of the publication. But their funding deadline of July 6 looms and pledges are nowhere near the target of US$10,000.  Any venture capitalists with big bucks should check out the site.

One of the videos is embedded here:


Still Cause for Alarm

Noir lifts the veil of normality to reveal the chaos below

Noir is subversive.  Noir lifts the veil of normality to reveal the chaos below. The underbelly of reality.  The insanity of sanity.  The furtive destructiveness of obsession. The truth behind the lies.  The disaster of success.  The ‘ghost in the machine’.

Many of the artists of the classic noir cycle, from the writers of the hard-boiled fiction of the 20s, 30s, and 40s to those involved in the making of the films noir of the 40s and 50s, were ‘subversives’.  Artists whose art was a politic statement, a social critique, a thesis on the nature of freedom and social responsibility.

Novelists like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ira Wolfert, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler.  Screenwriters like Dalton Trumbo, John Paxton, A. I. Bezzeridis, and Carl Foreman. Film-makers and actors like Abraham Polonsky, Jules Dassin, Orson Welles, Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott, Joan Scott, John Garfield, and Marsha Hunt.

A number of these artists were vilified and their careers destroyed during the ‘red menace’ years of HUAC and the blacklist.  What was ignored then and largely forgotten now is that these men and women were united and largely animated by a common cause: anti-fascism.  These liberals and leftists were warning of the dangers of fascism well before the outbreak of WW2, when many of the rightists that later prosecuted the anti-communist hysteria of the immediate cold-war period were apologists of fascism.

Eric Ambler was a thriller writer whose best work was written during the late 30s and early 40s.  His novels Journey into Fear (1943) and The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) were made into films noir during the war.  In 1938 Ambler published ‘Cause for Alarm’ – not related to any movie with the same title – a story about a British munitions engineer, Marlow, haplessly caught up in espionage in Fascist Italy.  The protagonist is aided in his escape from fascist death squads by a mysterious American, Zaleshoff, who may be a Soviet spy but is definitely a socialist.  Caught in a snow storm just before crossing into Yugoslavia to freedom, the pair is given shelter for the night by an artist and her elderly father.  It transpires that the father is a mathematician, a Professor Beronelli, whose career was destroyed after he refused to pledge a loyalty oath to fascism.  The trauma has plunged the man into insanity.  The two fugitives discover this after a reviewing the professor’s notes on a perpetual motion machine, and after they realize the daughter is helping them even though she is aware of their fugitive  status.  After the old man goes to bed, Zaleshoff says to Marlow:

‘Sure! That’s right. What a tragedy! We’re horrified. Hell! Beronelli went crazy because he had to, because it hurt him too much to stay sane in a crazy world. He had to find a way of escape, to make his own world, a world in which he counted, a world in which a man could work according to his rights and know that there was nobody to stop him. His mind created the lie for him and now he’s happy. He’s escaped from everybody’s insanity into his own private one. But you and me, Marlow, we’re still in with the other nuts. The only difference between our obsessions and Beronelli’s is that we share ours with the other citizens of Europe. We’re still listening sympathetically to guys telling us that you can only secure peace and justice with war and injustice, that the patch of earth on which one nation lives is mystically superior to the patch their neighbours live on, that a man who uses a different set of noises to praise God is your natural born enemy. We escape into lies. We don’t even bother to make them good lies. If you say a thing often enough, if you like to believe it, it must be true. That’s the way it works. No need for thinking. Let’s follow our bellies. Down with intelligence. You can’t change human nature, buddy. Bunk! Human nature is part of the social system it works in. Change your system and you change your man. When honesty really is good business, you’ll be honest. When rooting for the next guy means that you’re rooting for yourself too, the brotherhood of man becomes a fact. But you and I don’t think that, do we, Marlow? We still have our pipe dreams. You’re British. You believe in England, in muddling through, in business, and in the dole to keep quiet the starving suckers who have no business to mind. If you were an American you’d believe in America and making good, in breadlines and in baton charges. Beronelli’s crazy. Poor devil. A shocking tragedy. He believes that the laws of thermodynamics are all wrong. Crazy? Sure he is. But we’re crazier. We believe that the laws of the jungle are allright!’

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