By Loren Means


"Film noir" is a term which is usually applied to high-contrast black-and-white American films. The term originates in the French Serie Noir of the Thirties, which published translations of American "hard-boiled" pulp fiction. While the foreign noir films were often adaptations of American writers (Wim Wenders= American Friend is Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game, and Bertrand Tavernier=s Coup de Torchon is Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280), the stunning noir author Georges Simenon, a Belgian who wrote in French, lived for a time in the U.S. Noir writers and directors have often worked together (as when Howard Hawks hired William Faulkner to write the screenplay to Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not). Perhaps a definitive definition of the Noir sensibility would be this comment by Jack Webb (his 1954 Dragnet feature is an underrated color noir classic with a terrific script by Richard L. Breen) regarding his film Pete Kelly's Blues: "Things were good, and they'll be good again. The only trouble with the world is that it's right now."


From the first, film noir has entailed a gnarled interchange between the films and literature of the United States and France. At the same time the detective story was being invented by Vidoq and Edgar Allan Poe (who wrote of a French detective in Paris), the novel of harsh reality was generated by Emile Zola and Eugene Sue. It is possible that the first modern crime story was "The Killers" by Ernest Hemingway, an American in Paris, in the days when popular novelists won Nobel prizes. The first films noirs were written and directed by Frenchmen, and one of the first American noirs, John Cromwell's Algiers, was a remake of Julien Duvivier's Pepe Le Moko. But in the Forties, when the French were basically out of the film-making business, the Americans made noirs with a vengeance, and most of the best noir novelists were also screenwriters, including James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Steve Fisher, Jonathan Latimer, Horace McCoy, Jim Thompson, and especially Dashiell Hammett, who for a time was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. The French got back into making noirs with the New Wave, shooting films by American writers (Francois Truffaut said his favorite writers were Cornell Woolrich and William Irish, who turned out to be the same person) including Woolrich, David Goodis, Patricia Highsmith, Richard Matheson, Jim Thompson, and Charles Williams. At the same time an underrated school of French noir novelists had emerged in the tradition of the tough, psychological Simenon, including Herve Bazin, Boileau & Narcejac, Pierre Lesou, and Sebastien Japrisot. Interestingly, while the contemporaneous French New Novel was a high art manifestation, New Wave films reflected a love of a popular fiction which has now become academically respectable in the United States, but not in France. (Try to find a serious critical study of French hard-boiled fiction.) Noir is still a vital manifestation in film, although it is probably an even more dominant force in literature, especially in terms of an emerging battalion of female writers charting the adventures of hard-boiled female detectives.

PART TWO--The Shamus and the Sleuth


Agatha Christie's mysteries epitomize the "drawing room" school of detective fiction which Raymond Chandler claimed (in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder") that Dashiell Hammett had rescued literature from, returning crime to the "mean streets" where it tended to get committed in real life. The essential meaning of the Christie school of mysteries is the violation of our expectations, the gap between expectation and actuality, which is the basis of what we find funny in jokes. We don't expect the denizens of English mansions to be murderers or bad lots of any sort, so we are shocked and surprised when blood is let on fancy furniture.

The "hard-boiled" school purports to deal with reality, rather than the artificiality of the drawing room mysteries, giving us realistic crimes performed by truly fearsome and obviously despicable villains. The emphasis is less on the intellect in hard-boiled mysteries, more on the emotional aspects of violence and passion. While the hard-boiled school is probably dominant in the marketplace at this point, as a result of its incorporation into the film noir genre of movies (with noir pulp writers like Jim Thompson reissued in expensive editions), the drawing-room school is still alive and well in the pages of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which carries on the tradition of Christie's leading American exponent of the refined mystery of deduction, and on television, in the persons of detectives like Columbo and Mrs. Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote.

As is pointed out in David Madden's Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, published in 1968, the detective in the hard-boiled mysteries was the inheritor of the pioneer tradition that opened up the American west by constantly moving away from the decadence of urban civilization. As Chandler points out, the "shamus" (only he used that term) is a loner because his morality is more stringent than that of the society around him, including the corrupt officials of the law. The shamus need not be overly deductive or even intelligent (although Chandler's Marlowe is), as long as he is capable of a kind of moral toughness. The drawingroom detective (henceforth to be referred to as "sleuth") is an eccentric rather than a loner, and can be seen as one with the society in which the crime is committed, as espousing the essentials of the European decadence which the American hard-boiled mystery repudiates. The denizens of the drawing rooms tend to be members of the leisure class, while the sleuth earns a (good) living at detection, but the sleuth and the criminal tend to share the same values and sense of decorum. The shamus, on the other hand, usually is economically unsuccessful because of his rejection of the false values of the society in which he lives. The shamus is alienated, whereas the drawing-room sleuth is essentially integrated into the elite. The sleuth does not want to destroy the elite, he just wants its members to behave with a bit more decorum, in terms of refraining from committing murder.

Because the shamus is more emotional than the sleuth, he is vulnerable to the temptations of the flesh to an extent that is not the case with the sleuth. The concept of the femme fatale, so essential to romans and films noirs is absent from drawingroom mysteries, since the sleuth would be impervious to the blandishments of such a jezebel. The famous speech which Sam Spade makes to Brigid O'Shaunessey explaining why he is sending her to prison even though he loves her could not occur in a drawingroom mystery. Poirot converses with an attractive young woman alone on a train. If the detective involved were Spade or Marlowe or the lubricious Mike Hammer, there would be definite sexual tension in the situation. With the sexless Poirot, such a concept is absurd. Perhaps even more outlandish is the concept of Poirot shooting the naked villainess in the belly as Hammer does in I, the Jury. Poirot does not engage in sex or shooting, he simply reasons. It is as though Poirot is pure intellect, whereas the shamus is closer to being an integrated human being, albeit perhaps leaning a little more toward the visceral. The hard-boiled mystery puts the body back into the body of detective fiction.

Hard-boiled fiction tends to deal with questions of fundamental significance. Hammer takes it upon himself to find the person who killed his disabled friend in cold blood. Spade avenges the death of his partner. These are questions of honor involving them personally. Marlowe refuses to talk to the cops, even though they beat him, because he doesn't like their corruption and because he must maintain his reputation for personal integrity, since it is all he has. The sleuth is not personally involved in the mysteries whose outcomes are deducted. The solution of the mystery is simply an intellectual exercise. If the mystery is not solved, the sleuth loses nothing except on the professional level. The shamus tends to be personally, existentially involved in the outcome of the mystery, and tends to execute the murderer personally, as individual revenge. The sleuth is a professional, and is universally disinterested, a dilettante at life. We tend to care about what happens to the shamus, while the sleuth has little private life to get interested in. The epitome of this is the corpulent Nero Wolfe, who never leaves his home. This is not a man, this is a computer, the ultimate representative of an effete society which the British system of taxation has all but obliterated along with the servant class which went with it.

Chandler's The Big Sleep is essentially a parody/repudiation of the drawing-room mystery. Marlowe is invited to the mansion of General Sternwood, and has meaningful interactions with the butler. But before he can see the General, young Miss Carmen Sternwood throws herself into Marlowe's arms (he later forcefully ejects her from his bed). The General reveals himself to be suffering from the ravages of a debauched life, and implicitly hires Marlowe to unravel the disappearance of a petty hoodlum who is the General's paid companion and surrogate son. (Marlowe is ostensibly hired to scare off a blackmailer, but that=s a red herring.) Marlowe likes the General, but feels morally superior to him and his family. The mystery which Marlowe is hired to solve is not even a murder, although several murders follow in short order. In the process of attempting to solve the original mystery, Marlowe is captured by gangsters who brutalize him to the extent that he retaliates by shooting them, the only time that Marlowe kills anyone. None of this action takes place inside the mansion, and none of the characters (with the exception of the unusually streetwise butler) are the type who would appear in a drawingroom mystery--they are all too sordid. None of this is imaginable in a Christie mystery. Poirot not only does not touch women or guns, but he is not slapped around by villains. His sparring is only verbal, and he is never placed in physical danger. His immaculate person is in sharp contrast to that of Marlowe, who is beaten and drugged to extreme degrees in The Big Sleep, Lady In the Lake, and Farewell, My Lovely (which might say something about the masochism and guilt complexes of Raymond Chandler).

Another aspect of the hard-boiled mystery which is absent from the drawing room is the darker side of the detective. Since the hard-boiled mysteries purport to a greater degree of realism than the drawingrooms, the shamus tends to be more fleshed out as a character than the sleuth. As such, he has failings as a person, whereas the sleuth merely has enthusiasms. Besides such major vices as sex, violence, and vigilantism, the shamus is also guilty of such minor vices as alcoholism and poverty. But the shamus is also subject to a moral ambiguity which does not effect the sleuth. The supreme moralist tends to see himself as above the corruption of the administrators of the law, and it is a short step from there to a feeling of being a law unto oneself. As the ultimate existentialist, the shamus redefines morality according to the situation. Poirot does not do this, rather it is the group in Murder on the Orient Express who does so. The focus of the drawing room mystery is on the solution of the murder as an intellectual exercise. The focus of the hard-boiled mystery is rather on the moral dilemmas of the shamus.




Many films noirs use the narrative device usually referred to as voice-over, either as a framing device at the beginning and end of the film or within the course of the narrative to introduce and comment within a flashback. When the voice-over begins at the film's opening, the narrator who is speaking can be an anonymous announcer or an actual character in the fiction to be presented. If the narrator is to be depicted as a character in the fiction, this is usually made obvious by a more intimate, less stentorian tone of voice than the anonymous announcer would have, and a statement of the character's name and perhaps the kind of particulars that would feature in any social introduction. Rather than furthering verisimilitude, as the announcer tends to do, the character voice-over serves to overcome the audience's resistance to the unreality of the fiction, through identification with the character's point-of-view.

Voice-over can be utilized in film narrative in one of four ways:

1. As a "framing" device, with voice-overs providing an introduction and a closing statement (the closing statement is sometimes omitted). The framing device can be ignored throughout the rest of the film, with point-of-view established by the camera as in classical narrative.

2. Framing with frequent insertions of voice-overs throughout the film, to continually re-establish the point-of-view of the narrator.

3. Flashbacks without framing. The flashback is always narrated by a character in the film, and sometimes entire narratives are presented in flashback, in some cases narrated by multiple characters, who may or may not be the protagonist.

4. Framing with flashbacks. This device sets up interesting temporal ambiguities, since voice-overs automatically put the narrative into the past tense. A flashback within framing then becomes past tense within past tense. This concept is milked for comedy in such films as Has' Saragossa Manuscript, in which flashbacks are narrated by characters in previous flashbacks.

In literary narrative person is usually established immediately and maintained throughout. In third person, the author is omniscient, so events can be narrative from the point-of-view of many different characters, or none. If first person is used in literature, however, that "I" is in most cases consistently presented as the only point-of-view, and consequently only events of which that character is aware can be presented, and they must be presented from that character's perspective. Person is much more fluid in film than in literature. Spectators tend to identify with the point-of-view of the character followed by and favored by the camera, irrespective of whose point-of-view is represented in voice-over narration, and this visual identification can shift often in films without causing undue audience discomfort. In many cases sequences are presented which could not have been witnessed by the narrator, and often could not even have been known to that person.

Voice-overs and flashbacks put the narrative into the past tense (because they are spoken in that tense), whereas films that do not use these devices take place in the present tense (as screenplays are written). Film tends to resist being forced into the past tense, since it is by nature unfolding in real time (whatever time considerations may be depicted). Consequently, the film placed in the past tense will tend to sneak back into the present tense unless the voice-over narration is constantly returned to.

Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil is narrated by its protagonist, Joe Morse, who speaks at both the beginning and end of the film. There are no flashbacks in the film, but Joe's point-of-view is reinforced as he returns in voice-over within the narrative, at one point commenting on action (Joe walking with his sweetheart, Doris) as it takes place, in lieu of presenting the dialogue. This sets up provocative conflicts between the intimacy of Joe's first-person narration and the documentary aspects of the actual New York locations in which the scene is shot, on the one hand, and the past tense of the narration as opposed to the present tense of the action unfolding.

The unities of narrative person are violated often in the film, a typical example being the sequence depicting the kidnaping of Joe's brother and the murder of the bookkeeper, which could not have been observed by Joe, since he was not aware of these facts later in the narrative. The voice-over at the end, when Joe is descending to the beach to find his dead brother's body, is unusually literary for a noir screenplay, although the artiness is of the twentieth-century "realist" school, repeating the common words "down" and "there" as a litany, a poem of common speech. .

Otto Preminger's Laura is structurally unusual in that it features a shift in point-of-view and narrative tense midway through the film. The film is introduced in voice-over by Waldo, who is not the protagonist, and about a quarter of the way into the film he begins narrating a series of flashbacks, between each of which Waldo's point-of-view is re-emphasized by returning to the present for a closeup of him before he launches into another reminiscence. After the last flashback, Waldo's narration is abandoned and the point-of-view shifts to the real protagonist, the detective Mark, through identification and spatial attachment. Thus Laura shifts from the first-person past-tense point-of-view utilized in Force of Evil to the classical third-person present-tense point-of-view exemplified in The Window. Laura's first-person narration differs from that of Force of Evil and other films noirs, however, in that the narrator, Waldo, is not the protagonist.

Waldo, in fact, eventually proves to be the villain. This revelation is jarring, since the viewer is still inclined to try to see the narrative from Waldo's point-of-view, especially since he also narrates the flashback in which the supposedly dead Laura is first seen. Even more jarring is Waldo's death, since the viewer eventually realizes that the film was being narrated by a dead man. The film is rife with these temporal and person anomalies, which might be viewed as either tantalizing red herrings or plot ineptitudes. Waldo's opening voice-over speaks these lines: AI shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her. I had just begun to write Laura's story, when another of those detectives came...@

Thus begins a tale told by a dead man who faints when he finds out that the woman he thought was dead is alive. Ultimately the viewer is left to ponder if the narration is a posthumous voice transcription, like the radio transcription of Waldo that Laura listens to, thinking him to be broadcasting "live," while he is stalking her. The ambiguity of the point-of-view shift is exacerbated by the fact that Waldo's final words (and the final words in the film), "Goodbye, my love," are spoken off-screen, and can therefore be interpreted as either being spoken as he dies or as the closing of his original voice-over introduction.

The temporal location of Waldo's various utterances is at issue from his first words on the sound track. Even though Waldo's voice-over disappears, his point of view hovers over the narrative like Laura's portrait.

The shift in point-of-view from first-person past-tense voice-over by a non-protagonist to third-person present-tense identification with the protagonist is unique to Laura. The novel by Vera Caspary on which the film is based is narrated first by Waldo, then by Mark, then by Laura. Caspary chose this technique after reading Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, a novel written in 1868 with multiple narrators. Darryl Zanuck, the head of the studio at which the film was made, objected at the outset of negotiations to the narration by Laura as slowing down the story's action. However, Preminger recorded voice-over narration to be used in the second part of the story, but it was decided to drop all narration except for Waldo's in the first part of the film. There was even narration by Mark intended for the famous scene in which he returns to Laura's apartment... Thus the structural anomaly that makes Laura so provocative was arrived at not by intent, but through the give-and-take and compromise between studio head, producer/director, and the three groups of writers brought on at various stages in the film's progress.

Gordon Douglas' Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is narrated in flashbacks by multiple non-protagonists. In this respect the film is similar to Welles' Citizen Kane as well as Siodmak's The Killers, but in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye the identity of the narrator at any given point in time is tenuous. While most of the film is told in flashback, the flashback is punctured on two occasions by a return to the courtroom testimony of different characters than those testifying when the flashback began.

While unusual as a narrative approach, this technique of narrator ambiguity is rather artificially applied in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. Because the identity of the narrator of the flashback is not specified for most of the sequences, the audience tends to adopt Cotter's point-of-view, especially since he is presented utilizing spatial attachment and he is present in nearly every scene. (The actor who portrays Cotter, James Cagney, is also the only "star" in the film.) It seems reasonable to speculate that the courtroom flashback device was tacked on in an attempt to weaken the spectator's identification with Cotter in an acquiescence to the Hays office similar to the obligatory killing of the criminal protagonist in gangster films. This would also explain the somewhat unusual narrative device of having the protagonist be dead as the film begins. The fact that the protagonist is spoken of throughout the film would invite opportunities for the witnesses to contradict each other in their portrayal of him, but this opportunity is not exercised here.

Laura, Force of Evil, and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye all have beginning, during, and ending voice-overs. In all three films, who is telling the truth is at issue, as are the unities of what sequences the narrator-protagonist would know about.