Film Noir's Knights of the Road
"The black sheep of the family, noir's tramps are the tin-age antithesis to Chaplin's golden-age thesis."
the American cinema of the 1920s through the 1940s, the figure of the tramp
changes from a comic to a misanthropic type. In the 1920s and 1930s, the
tramp is epitomized by Charles Chaplin
's sentimental, romantic, free-spirited,
comic adventurer: the "Charlie" of The Kid
(1921), The Gold Rush
(1928), City Lights
(1931), and Modern Times
There is, of course, a new wave of Depression-era tramps in the 1930s,
whose downbeat misadventures in films such as I Am a Fugitive from a
(1932), Wild Boys of the Road
(1933), and Heroes
(1933) stem from the advent of hard times. But these forerunners
of the 1940s tramps of film noir remain merely disconcerting exceptions
to the rule of Chaplin's more commanding (and endearing) king of the road.
As Winston Churchill once observed, Chaplin's tramp was uniquely
American in his upbeat, cheerful outlook. Unlike the "spiritless and hopeless"
English tramp, Chaplin's tramp traces his origins back to the freedom-loving
American hobo of the turn of the century who "was not so much an outcast
of society as a rebel against it" and who "hated the routine of regular
employment and loved the changes and chances of the road." (Churchill,
74) In short, Chaplin's tramp was highly spirited, optimistic, and defiant.
In the 1940s, however,
even Chaplin traded in the familiar baggy pants, cane, and derby of the
tramp character for the stylish, upper-middle-class, semi-elegance of the
bureaucratic bluebeard and cynical serial killer, M. Verdoux
Like the Chaplin persona itself, war- and postwar-era screen tramps changed,
becoming hard-boiled, world-weary, and misanthropic. The typical tramp
resurfaces in the 1940s as an iconoclastic anti-hero; he is an embittered
drifter whose comic potential has been rewritten and recast in the more
tragic, self-destructive personae of John Garfield (The Postman Always Rings
1946) and Tom Neal (Detour
, 1946). The source
of this transformation of the forward-looking, romantic persona of the
tramp into a reflective, resentful outcast is a phenomenon known as film
"Film noir" remains a somewhat contested concept. Everyone
agrees as to its literal meaning, which is "black film." But film historians
disagree as to its status as a cinematic phenomenon. Critics such as James
Damico and Foster Hirsch consider it a genre with conventional plots involving
murder, crime, and detection, and character types such as hard-boiled heroes
and femmes fatales. (Damico and Hirsch) Raymond Durgnat and Robert Porfirio
map film noir into a family tree of thematic concerns, including sexual
pathology (the Clytemnestra plot), psychopathic behavior, alienation and
loneliness, existential choice, meaninglessness, purposelessness, the absurd,
infernal urban landscapes, and other "unhealthy" subjects. (Durgnat)
Janey Place and Nick Peterson define it in largely stylistic
terms, such as low-key lighting, off-angle compositions, deep-focus cinematography,
wide-angle shots, and framing devices. (Place and Peterson) Paul Schrader
views it as an aesthetic movement, similar to German expressionism or Italian
neorealism, that is identified with a specific time (1941-1958) and place
Film noir remains indebted to hard-boiled fiction; adaptations
of hard-boiled novels constitute nearly 20 percent of all film noirs made
between 1941 and 1948. (Bordwell, 76) But 80 percent of film noir comes
from other sources. Noir is also greatly influenced by German expressionism,
French poetic realism, and other foreign elements. Fritz
, Billy Wilder
Edgar G. Ulmer
, and other European-born filmmakers loom large within the
noir pantheon; but the majority of noir directors were born and bred in
the United States. They include Robert Aldrich
, Edward Dmytryk, Sam
Tay Garnett, Henry Hathaway, John Huston, Phil Karlson, Joseph H. Lewis,
Joseph Mankiewicz, Anthony Mann, Nicholas
, Don Siegel, Frank Tuttle,
, and Orson
Notions of noir as a genre present certain problems. Noir
would appear to be transgeneric. There are noir westerns (Pursued
, 1947; Blood on the Moon,
1948), noir melodramas
and Leave Her to Heaven
, 1945), and even
noir comedies (Arsenic and Old Lace
, 1944; M. Verdoux
His Kind of Woman,
1951). Hollywood regularly conceives of films in
terms of genres; but no one who wrote, directed, produced, or acted in
a film noir deliberately set out to make a film noir at least not in
the same way that they set out to make a western, melodrama, or comedy.
If genres are "systems of orientations, expectations and conventions that
circulate between industry, text, and subject," then film noir is/was not
a genre. (Neale, 19) Neither filmmakers nor audiences had and/or observed
any expectations or conventions when it came to film noir. As Borde and
Chaumeton suggest, film noir deliberately violates orientations, expectations,
and conventions in order to produce "a specific malaise" in the viewer.
(Borde and Chaumeton, 5, 15)
Proponents of noir-as-genre insist that a number of films made
in the 1970s and later are film noirs. If film noir is a genre, this assertion
would make sense. Thus, Chinatown
(1974), Farewell, My Lovely
(1976), The Big Sleep
(1978), Body Heat
Postman Always Rings Twice
(1981), and others would be considered film
noirs. These films employ noir stylistics (low-key lighting, romantic voiceover
narration) and plot and character types associated with noir; indeed, several
are remakes of classic film noirs, complete with Chandleresque detectives
and femmes fatales. But they are not noir at least not in the same way
that films of the 1940s and 1950s are. As deliberate attempts to duplicate
film noir, these recent films treat noir as if it were a genre, like the
western or gangster film. By turning noir into a genre, these films conventionalize
it. Film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s did the opposite they frustrated,
twisted, and transgressed genre conventions.
Made during the (re)discovery of film noir in wake of
the publication of Paul Schrader's seminal essay, "Notes on Film Noir"
in 1972, these "pseudo-noirs" appropriate the styles and themes of postwar film
noirs in an attempt to capture the noirish mood of a disillusioned post-Vietnam,
post-Watergate America. Thus, film noir became a representation mode that suited
the needs of a new generation of filmmakers, who turned it into a genre
Film noirs are genre films, but film noir is not a genre.
That is, every film noir contains within it certain conventions and character
types that derive from established genres. But these conventions and character
types come from the detective film, the crime film, the melodrama, or the
western that is, they come from "some other" genre. These films are noir
inasmuch as they play with, deform, and violate the typical conventions
and character types which serve to "stabilize" the viewers of traditional
genre films. In other words, film noirs are genre films, but the genre
to which they belong is not that of film noir, but that of the detective
film, the crime film, or whatever other genre from which it draws its conventions.
If noir is defined purely thematically, it loses any specificity.
It belongs to no particular time or place. Given a thematic definition,
any film with a femme fatale or an unhappy ending could be seen as a film
noir. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
(Germany, 1919) is threfore noir,
as is Ossessione
(Italy, 1942), The Grifters
or Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
(USA, 1988). Such loose definitions
of film noir serve little or no purpose.
Stylistic definitions of noir, though compelling, have
similar restrictions. The problem is that film noir cannot be collapsed
into a single stylistic device, such as low-key lighting, or into a group
of such devices, such as night-for-night cinematography, canted framing, distorted
wide-angle shots, and/or disjunctive editing. For example, a number of
classic film noirs contain sequences shot in the high-key lighting style.
Many of these scenes merely provide contrast to the more typically noir
sequences, as is the case with the many daylight exterior sequences in Out
of the Past
. But high-key scenes can be just as "noir" as low-key see, for instance, the high-key scenes in Jerty's Market in Double Indemnity
when Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck)
plan the murder of her unwanted husband in the baby food aisle. Here, the
banality and the public nature of the setting (as well as the visibility
of mundane consumer products in the background) give the scene an uncanny
eerieness that is more disturbing than most of the film's low-key sequences.
Noir need not literally mean "black."
The most compelling definition of film noir comes from Borde
and Chaumeton, who regard it as a purely affective phenomenon that is, it
disturbs viewers; it disorients them; it produces a profound uneasiness
in audiences. And it does this by whatever means possible. The historical
nature of film noir derives, in large part, from its attempts to disturb.
Film noir succeeded in creating a malaise in its audiences by refusing
the stylistic and thematic conventions of classical Hollywood cinema. That
is, noir arose in the 1940s as a response to and rejection of 1930s Hollywood
cinema. In certain films, this refusal of 1930s cinema takes the form of
a single scene or shot that violates the norm, such as the tight close-up
of an unidentified hand firing a gun at Sam Spade's partner, Archer, near
the beginning of The Maltese Falcon (1941). (This act of violence
sets the mystery in motion and the film does not conclude until the identity
of that hand is established.) One or two film noirs, such as Kiss Me
Deadly (1955), remain disturbingly noir from the first shot/scene until
the last. In other words, film noir is, as Schrader contended, not a genre
but a mode of filmmaking practice that belonged to a specific time and
Borde and Chaumeton remain silent on exactly how film noir
induces anxiety and insecurity in the spectator. However, a closer examination
of how the noir period transformed certain genres, such as the detective
or the road film, makes clear that noir films undermine the more traditional
modes of visual representation and narration that historically precede
them. The classical editing Andre Bazin associates with the American cinema
of the late 1930s and which he refers to as "invisible" seeks to mask processes
of narration and to observe temporal and spatial continuity, unobtrusively
reading events for the spectator. 9 (Bazin, 31-32) Thus, the classical
editing of Stagecoach (1939) breaks down events according to the
logic of the drama and to a presumed flow of interest on the part of the
spectator. In one scene, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) asks the Ringo Kid
(John Wayne) what happened to Ringo's brother, whose arm he had once fixed.
The film cuts to Ringo, who announces that he was "killed" and then interpolates
a reaction shot of Dallas (Claire Trevor), whose family (we later discover)
was, like Ringo's, also killed. The editing deftly reads the scene for
The more novelistic, intrusive narrative consciousness found
in film noir manipulates and even distorts time and space through complex
flashback structures, voice-over narration, fragmented lighting setups,
and disjunctive editing, making the spectator's reading of the film often
as complex a process as the deciphering of unknown hieroglyphics. Citizen
(1941) emerges as the prototypical film noir in its refusal of
invisibility and in its difficulty as a "readerly text."
The shift from the easy readability of the typical 1930s text
to the more difficult narrative processes of the typical 1940s film can
best be seen in the detective film, which, as a genre, overtly deals with
the reading of events." (Todorov, 42-52) The Philo Vance or Charlie Chan
whodunits of the 1930s present an omniscient detective who successfully
reads the mystery and solves it for us, often reconstructing it for us
and for a roomful of suspects in the film's penultimate sequence. But in
the Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s, our
and the detective's reading of the mystery is frustrated by the detective's
limited awareness and exaggerated vulnerability.
The confused Marlowe of Edward Dmytryk's Murder My Sweet (1944)
falls repeatedly into "black pits" and drags us there with him; he is drugged
and finally blinded. Mike Hammer fails to unscramble the mysterious identity
of the great atomic whatsit until it virtually explodes in his face in
Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly. Aldrich's reliance on exaggerated
camera angles, extreme close-ups, extreme long shots, low-key lighting,
comic-strip graphics, and anti-analytical editing constitute a narration
as apocalyptic as its subject matter and thoroughly disorienting to the
Similarly, the rigorously linear structure of the road film which takes its protagonists directly from Florida to New York in It
Happened One Night (1934) or from Oklahoma to California in The
Grapes of Wrath (1940) develops twists and turns in Detour, whose
very title gives some indication of this trend, or The Postman Always
Rings Twice, whose central characters traverse the same bit of narrative
ground twice (that is, there are two attempts to kill the husband, two
car accidents, etc.) and their one bid at hitch-hiking away together sngificantly
ends in their turning back to where they started.
's credit sequence consists of a reverse tracking shot of
an empty desert highway that rapidly recedes from the camera (mounted
on the rear end of a car). This sequence succinctly characterizes noir's
inversion of the traditional iconography of the road and reverses the meaning of that iconography: in Detour
lies behind us, not in front of us; the road is associated with a past that is being fled rather
than with a present or a future to which the film and/or the film's characters look forward. The
credit sequence reveals a space that closes off rather than opens up possibilities.
Detour and Postman rely on a flashback
structure employing voice-over narration. Like most flashbacks, the flashback
narration in these two films is, like the films' roads, "closed." It does
not go forward but backward. But the tone of the narrations differs. The
first-person commentary of the central characters possesses none of the
authority or omniscience associated with more "classical" or traditional
flashbacks. They lack the distance and informed objectivity of the narrators
of films such as How Green Was My Valley (1941), which the central
character narrates from the vantage point of decades later, or The Magnificent
Ambersons (1942), which is narrated by a (nondiegetic) third-person
observer (the familiar radio voice of Orson Welles).
In film noir, voice-over narration is restricted, confused,
and limited in its knowledge. The narration of Postman is peppered
with Garfield's "guesses" and plagued with self-doubt and hesitation. Caught
up in the heroine's and his own confused desires and intents, he doesn't
exactly know what happened or why. His narration does not serve the function
of clarification or explanation but more that of a murky self-justification.
In Detour, the narration is similarly driven by a compulsion to
justify what has happened in terms of outdated, pre-Christian notions of
destiny and fate. As explanation, the hero's commentary fails to convince a problem of which even the hero seems quite aware. Most importantly, in
film noir the narration is regularly limited to the constricted consciousness
of an untrustworthy narrator.
The narrations of Detour and Postman are typical
of film noir in that they are "disorienting." The voice-overs are either
dramatically motivated by the script nor located with any spatial precision.
Even the voice-over narrations in other film noirs, such as Murder My
Sweet (1944) or Out of the Past (1947), have narrative justification.
They are "confessions" told by the film's hero to the police and to the
heroine, respectively. In both cases, the speaker and his audience are
dramatized. At the same time, the narratives are spatially defined. We
see where the confessions occur (in a police station and in a car on a
journey to Lake Tahoe, respectively).
However, in Detour, the narration is not narrativized.
It is "set" in a diner in Nevada, but it is addressed to an undramatized
figure (the viewer) and is told mentally rather than verbally; that is,
Roberts "thinks" the narration but does not speak it out loud. More dramatically,
in Postman the audience knows neither to whom the hero is speaking
the narration nor from where that voice comes (until the last scene, if
then). We do not see Garfield telling the story and can only presume that
it is being told, under sentence of death, from his prison cell at the
end of the film.
Tone, as well as narrative structure, provides a barometer
of the postwar reaction to prewar narratives. The 1930s detective drama,
epitomized in Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man (1934), bears a closer
relationship to its own period's screwball comedy than it does to the private
eye films of the noir period. A comparison of John Huston's bitterly romantic,
noirish The Maltese Falcon (1941) with another, earlier version
of Hammett's novel William Dieterle's Satan Met a Lady (1936) dramatically
underscores the all-important difference in tone that characterizes the
genre during these two periods. Dieterle plays the story for light comedy,
Huston for misanthropic cynicism and hard-boiled irony.
Much as the 1940s detective film darkens the romantic and
comic character of the 1930s predecessors, the road film and its tramp
protagonists undergo a similar transformation. The romantic comedy of It
Happened One Night (1934) becomes perversely inverted in the sinisterly
bleak melodrama of Detour. The "meet-cute" of Frank Capra's handsome
couple leads to cross-country courtship, adventure, marriage, and the promise
of sexual union. Thrown together by a malevolent fate, Ulmer's couple argue
their way across a barren desert, restlessly pace up and down in a claustrophobic
room, progressing from distrust to hate, betrayal, and murder.
The watershed film that marks this transformation is, of course,
Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels
(1942). The film begins as a
Chaplinesque celebration of the adventuresome nature of the road. The hero's
journey starts out with a slapstick chase sequence between a Hollywood
studio's "support" van and the famed Hollywood comedy director Sullivan,
who flees in a souped hot rod. This chase looks back to the chases in Mack Sennett's
Keystone Kops films and concludes with a cross-country, boy-meets-girl
love story reminiscent of It Happened One Night
. But mid-way through
its course, Sullivan's Travels
abruptly plunges its move-director hero
(and the audience) into the grizzly nightmare of I Am a Fugitive from
a Chain Gang
. Sullivan is arrested for vagrancy, and sentenced to forced labor
on a Southern chain gang.
As a genre, the road film becomes noir for us through its
subversion of the genre's mythology. The noir period finds the tramp-film's
traditional concerns for freedom and for rebellion against the straight-jacketing
forces of the law, the family, and society to be turned inside out. Freedom
exists only in its absence and rebellion consists not in flight from society
but in criminal activity directed against it. Frank Chambers and Cora Smith
in Postman act against the family; she kills her husband so she
will not have to nurse his sick sister and so she will be free to live briefly
outside of marriage with Frank. The rise and fall of "The Great Stanton"
in Goulding's Nightmare Alley (1947) from tramp to star to carnival
geek is a far cry from Chaplin's sacrificial matchmaker, who achieves success
through his own efforts. Stanton works his way to the top by wooing, then
betraying, women who help him in his career.
Film noir's tramps, though few in number, do enough damage
to tarnish the soft-hearted image of the tramp popularized by Chaplin and
others in the 1930s. The black sheep of the family, noir's tramps are the
tin-age antithesis to Chaplin's golden-age thesis. Their existence provides
a tacit critique of the mythical archetype. But in order to put film noir's
ironic subversion of this mythic type in context, we must first explore
Romanticized as a "knight of the tic and rail," the
tramp emerges from popular representations as a chivalric figure perpetually
in search of a uniquely American grail freedom. He might, along with
hobo poet Harry Kemp, proclaim, "Freedom is the one God I worship." (Bruns,
76) But that freedom comes at a cost: homelessness and isolation. Images
of the tramp in literature and film from O'Henry's "Whistling Dick,"
J. Stuart Blackton's "Happy Hooligan," the "Weary Willie" films, D. W Griffith's Knights
of the Road (1911) and Outcast Among Outcasts (1912), and Tony
O'sullivan's Olaf, an Atom (1913) to Charles Chaplin's tramp surround
the figure in an aura of romantic pathos, dramatizing the consequences
of a freedom from family that makes him an outcast.
At the same time, his role as an outsider opposes the tramp
to dominant ideology. What Jack London refers to as "his antagonism to
organized authority" endows his lifestyle with a political dimension that
can be characterized as "radical." (Widmer, 5) Eulogized by Wobbly songwriters
like Joe Hill, the tramp may not, like Tom joad, know what a Red is, but
he sympathizes with his similarly disenfranchised brethren, dreaming with
them of banding together to form the ideal "One Big Union." (Bruns, 152-54)
But most of all, the tramp is an adventurer. A postindustrial
pioneer, the hobo or tramp recaptures the restless spirit for adventure,
for new experiences, and for movement that guided America's westward expansion. A pathfinder
in the tradition of Cooper's Natty Bumppo, the hobo similarly exists in
a state of perpetual flight from the civilization of which he is a product.
But unlike his predecessors, the hobo has nowhere to go. In 1893, Frederick
Jackson Turner declared the frontier to be closed, and the modern tramp
was born. As a consequence of the end of the frontier era, the tramp is
forced to reinvent his own frontier; he substitutes a quest for existential
experience for the more geographical manifest destiny of his predecessors.
The terms of the tramp's existence reflect the
new world into which he/she is born. "In hobo-land," as Jack London writes,
"the face of life is protean an ever-changing phantasmagoria, where the
impossible happens and the unexpected jumps out of the bushes at every
turn of the road. The hobo never knows what is going to happen the next
moment; hence, he lives only in the present moment. He had learned the
futility of telic endeavour, and knows the delight of drifting along with
the whimsicalities of Chance." (London, 77)
Though London's description is designed to characterize the
tramp, it could just as easily portray the perspective of hard-boiled detectives
such as Sam Spade. And if the "delight" with which London's tramp regards
his or her experience is replaced by the word "terror," the tramp becomes
a prototype of the antihero of film noir; a paranoid outcast from society,
he/she inhabits an irrational, treacherous, and hostile world.
In Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, Kingsley
Widmer views the tramp as a prototype for the hard-boiled characters found
in the work of writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway." (Widmer,
3-4) Adapting himself to the unexpected, a proletarian tough guy like Hammett's
Continental Op learns to survive in a Hobbesian world of "universal warfare,"
"anarchy," and "mistrust." (Marcus, xxiii-xxiv) Like the mythic knight
of the road, Hammett's lone-wolf detective embarks on an investigation
that takes the form of a journey from event to event, from clue to clue,
and from character to character, hitch-hiking his way (as it were) to the
resolution of the mystery. But Hammett's hero goes armed with a sense of
professional identity and an inflexible moral code and is thus able to
survive and even triumph over this Hobbesian world. The tramp's triumph
remains less clear; whatever success or accomplishment he achieves emerges
not as a product of his moral superiority but as a consequence of a self-destructive
An early screen tramp named Olaf, in Olaf, an Atom,
typical of this role.The drifter Olaf performs a service for a family;
he rescues their abducted child and returns it to them. But he then withdraws
and resumes his nomadic life, like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) at the end
of The Searchers
(1956). Chaplin's tramp in The Circus
gives up the girl to another, "more suitable" male hero and trudges off
down the road alone. In Jim Tully's Beggars of Life
(Wellman, 1928), Oklahoma
Red, a hobo, engineers the escape of the young lovers and dies in the process.1
The tramp's status as a sacrificial figure in the 1920s foreshadows
that of Leslie Howard's noble painter-poet, Alan Squier, in Robert Sherwood's The
(Mayo, 1936). The toughness and self-sufficiency Widmer
associates with the tramp seen in Red, Squier, and in Spencer Tracy's
Bill in A Man's Castle
(Borzage, 1933) conceals a romantic chivalry
that will ultimately redeem them. But in noir road films such as The
Lady from Shanghai
(1949), Orson Welles' tramp seaman is so gallant
that he almost plays the fall guy for Rita Hayworth
's femme fatale. In
film noir, the chivalry of its tramp/heroes leads to their own (potential)
Hoboes and tramps in the films of the 1930s are, more often
than not, sacrificial lambs on the altar of the Depression; they are products
of its economic and social injustice. Paul Muni's unemployed veteran in I
Am a Fugitive
and Richard Barthelmess' morphine-addicted former soldier
in Heroes for Sale
represent a new breed of tramps who do not choose
to be tramps but have this status thrust upon them by external social factors.
They literally owe their misfortune as domestic refugees to the war and
postwar factors of 1920s America (the time in which their stories are set) to a faulty judicial system and economic and social unrest. But they are
figurative products of the Depression era in which their stories are told.
They are not tramps, as the hero of Heroes for Sale
"ex-servicemen," and their condition is merely an extension of a wartime
role that unites them against a new common enemy economic hard times.
The Wild Boys of the Road
are driven into vagabondage by Depression-era
unemployment: their parents lose their jobs and cannot afford to feed their
families, so the boys hit the road in search of work. Settling in makeshift
camps near the railroad yards, they must await the quasi-divine intervention
of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the NRA before they can return
home, Like the earlier war veterans, they are not tramps by choice; they
constitute a "social problem" that is created and that will hopefully be
eliminated by the state.
The image of the romantic, self-sufficient tramp-as-philosopher-poet
that dominates popular mythology, literature, and film of the 1910s and
1920s was based in part on the real-life exploits of artist-tramps of the
late 1890s and early 1900s, such as Jack London, Vachel Lindsay, Harry
Kemp, and Josiah Flynt. This carefree, solitary figure gives way in the
literature and cinema of the 1930s to mass trampdom, as in The Grapes
of Wrath (1940), in which entire families and communities take to the
road, forced out of their homes by national disasters such as drought and
The images that introduce Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) in John
Ford's film show a small, solitary figure walking and trying to hitch a
ride at a truckstop at a desolate crossroads in the flat landscape of the
dustbowl. The images of Tom near the end of the film recall these initial
ones; we see his silhouette, in extreme long shot, against the California night sky as he climbs uphill on
his way to join others out there in the dark, to continue the fight so
that hungry people can eat. These idealized images look back to the lonely
outcast of the Chaplin films and to the individually wronged, angered outlaw
of I Am a Fugitive. But these images exist in context; they are
subsumed within surrounding images of caravans of migrant families, of
successions of sharecropper camps, and of an entire community forced onto
The philosophical, existential tramp, epitomized by Bill in A
could work but chose not to, pursuing instead individual
freedom. By the late 1930s, this tramp now shares a Hooverville with
hundreds of others who desperately want to work but cannot find a job.
A comic variation on this scenario appears in My Man Godfrey
Cava, 1936). Godfrey is rescued from anonymity (and unemployment) through
the agency of a decadent socialite, who retrieves him or rather "a
forgotten man" to win a scavenger hunt. His spirit rekindled, he then
seeks to transform Hooverville's wasteland into a nightclub and restaurant
for the rich; he launches a WPA-like project designed to employ his former
comrades, who once lived in the city dump.
What characterizes the tramps in 1930s films is a certain
kind of narrative logic their situations make sense; there is a clearly
defined reason for their tramp status. They have, like Bill in Man's
Castle or like Muni in Fugitive, either chosen or been forced
by circumstances to become itinerant outcasts. The narratives in which
they appear establish and explore the reasons for their status. Newspaper
headlines refer to economic disasters; montages of banks failing and factories
closing show the supposed source of the problems that have made them tramps.
They are shown within the larger context of the Depression. Their plight
is naturalized in that it is shared by hundreds or even thousands of others.
In Fugitive, Muni's behavior is motivated by economics: he starts
to hop freights in search of work. He is driven to his outlaw status by
the inflexibility of a vindictive penal system. Though horrifying and outrageous,
his plight is at least explained. But in film noir, the reasons for a character's
wanderings remain obscure or irrational. They are invisible in that they
have no source in the characters' social or economic environment.
Film noir's tramp is a
victim of accident, chance, fate, destiny, or whatever name is given to
the invisible author of his or her misfortunes. In Detour, for example,
Al Roberts (Tom Neal) accidentally kills Charles Haskell, the man who gives
him a ride; he then accidentally kills Vera (Ann Savage), film noir's most
celebrated (and only?) female hitch-hiker/hobo, after she blackmails him
and then threatens to betray him to the police. Roberts' fatalistic voice-over
narration actually names his so-called nemesis: "Fate," he explains, "or
some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason
at all." Roberts constructs a paranoid explanation of his troubles that
repudiates the realistic motivations and logic of 1930s cinema.
Sullivan's Travels (1941) functions as a transitional
work. It shifts, in its narrative logic, from the naturalistic to the uncanny.
Sullivan's environment changes by a freakish accident from the economically
motivated breadlines, soup kitchens, and flop houses of the Depression
to the nightmarish world of convict tortured by a sadistic prison warden.
Sullivan is struck on the head, his wallet and identification are stolen,
he impulsively strikes back when a railroad bull shoves him, and, while
in a mental haze throughout his trial, is sentenced to forced labor on
a chain gang. One source of Sullivan's problem is psychologically motivated he
has a bout of amnesia during and after his trial. This "psychological" motivation amnesia looks ahead to the traumatized and/or shell-shocked amnesiacs
who populate the film noirs of the 1940s, such as Spellbound (1945)
and Somewhere in the Night (1946), films that reject the more tangible
sources of motivation characteristic of 1930s cinema.
The concrete, spatially precise images of the road seen in
1930s films become more abstract and spatially disorienting in the noir
films of the 1940s. The map montages that trace (with animated arrows and
dotted, moving lines) the wanderings of Muni in the early sequences of Fugitive lend
geographical specificity and a sense of purpose to these peregrinations.
But noir films like Detour present these montages only to subvert
them. Al Roberts' trek from New York City to Los Angeles begins with shots
of maps of New York, New Jersey, and the Midwest (Chicago) superimposed
over shots of Roberts' feet and intercut with images of him hitch-hiking.
These montages fragment and abstract his linear progress through space.
The film provides no arrows or dotted lines, just the unreadable and unread
image of the map. The camera's "westward" pans are the only indication
of the direction of Roberts' travels.
After the map montage, the journey continues with shots of
Roberts hitch-hiking from the wrong side of the highway and with cars driving
on the wrong side of the road.2
Though the direction of Roberts' movements remains
consistent, the logic of his actions and that of the traffic around him
do not. The map montage ends in Oklahoma moments before Roberts thumbs
a ride with Charles Haskell that will detour him from his initial goal
(Sue in Los Angeles) and take him into uncharted territory. There are no
more maps and the remainder of the film plays against the traditional road
film's notion of destination by interposing Roberts' own halfbaked sense
of "destiny," which condemns him after Vera's death to wander aimlessly
in a geographical limbo until he is picked up by the police in the very
last shot of the film.
The road in 1930s films such as Modern Times and The
Grapes of Wrath (released in 1940 but dealing with a 1930s subject)
leads somewhere. At the end of Modern Times, Charlie and
the gamine (Paulette Goddard) march off into a world of promise and toward
a new start somewhere else. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) looks ahead to a proletarian
utopia in which the people triumph over the rich because they "keep a-comin'" and
because they are "the people who live." The road in Detour turns
back on itself. Like the circular imagery of the coffee cup, the record
in the Nevada diner's juke box, and the drum in the Break O' Dawn club,
the flashback narrative leads circuitously back to the past.
Even in Postman,
a film noir that, like Tay Garnett's
1930s One Way Passage
(1931), looks ahead, the future remains that
of unfulfilled desire and the road becomes associated with a destiny that
is purely self-destructive. After hitching a ride with a man (Leon Ames)
who turns out to be the local district attorney (and who will vindictively
pursue him throughout the film), John Garfield's Frank Chambers points
to a Man Wanted sign hanging on a gasoline pump and appropriates it as
his future. Cora (Lana Turner) has an "inadequate" man (her husband, played
by Cecil Kellaway) and thus wants a man; Garfield responds to the ad, picking
up the sign and, symbolically, throwing it on a nearby fire, burning it
and thus sealing not only his claim on the job but his fate.
Killing a man to get his wife and faking a road accident to
cover the crime, the pair get away with the murder but are subsequently
involved in a genuine road accident in which she is killed. The road, a
divine arbiter, settles everything. Charged with her murder, Chambers pays
through a crime he did not commit for one he did. Caught on author James
M. Cain's tortuous "love rack," Chambers dies hoping to satisfy through
death the desire left unquenched in his life." (Cain, xii)
The difference between the forward movement into the future
that concludes Grapes of Wrath and that which ends Postman lies
in the pre-ordained inevitability that characterizes the latter. Chambers
knows that the postman always rings twice (i.e., that things happen twice)
and waits expectantly for the second ring (i.e., a kind of destined occurrence).
He and Cora know they cannot get away with killing her husband (they tried
before), but go ahead with their plans nonetheless, tempting their own
fate. Ma joad's knowledge remains more indefinite than definite; the future
she describes remains more ideal than real. It is a fate she must work
toward, not one that will be thrust upon her.
Film noir's tramp participates in a fatalistic system of events
that make him an outlaw. But unlike outlaw tramps of the 1930s such as
Muni, whose tragic victimization only confirms their essential innocence,
film noir's outlaw tramps are innocent men who, by design or accident,
become genuine criminals. The twisted road they follow leads to crime and
to the promise of future punishment for that crime. Artisans of their own
tribulations, film noir's tramps pursue a path that is more self-destructive
If we exclude outlaw-couple films such as They Live by
Night (1949) and Gun Crazy (1950), and road films in which
tramps do not appear, there are only a handful of noir tramp films. Yet
these works are crucial to an understanding of film noir because the
situation of their central characters is archetypal, shared by all noir
protagonists. Pursued often by the police through a nightmarish landscape;
deprived of home, family, friends, profession, and often even of a name,
they are the victims of forces beyond their control, of forces that corrupt
and destroy them. They represent the terminal stages of an American myth that
of the frontier which, though once flush, has now, for them at least,
become bankrupt. In a bleak gallery of film noir's characters, they are
the elite of the maudit. An index of their special status is their disappearance
in the post-noir period. Though the detective genre continues beyond Kiss
Me Deadly, the tramp film is born and dies, as it were, with Detour.
Revived in nostalgic, period biopics (Bound for Glory, 1976, Boxcar
Bertha, 1972, and The Emperor of the North Pole, 1973), these
1970s tramp films, like 1970s pseudo-film noirs in general, constitute
resurrections of a figure and genre long dead, not the latest developments
of the noirish traits present in Al Roberts and Frank Chambers. Film
noir is less a milestone in the tramp's evolutionary growth than a tombstone
marking his decadent demise.
Film noir represents the nadir of the knight-of-the-road's
descent from aristocrat to commoner, from outcast to outlaw, from utopian
visionary to memory-haunted cynic, and from strong-willed fashioner of
his own fate to passive victim of circumstances. These are the signs of
mortality and corruption that, coupled with his inability or lack of desire
to survive, make the tramp noir for us.
Bazin, Andre, What Is Cinema? Vol. 1, ed. and
trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).
Borde, Raymond, and Etienne Chaumeton, Panorama du film
noir Americain (1941-1953), (Paris: Les Editions de minuit,
Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical
Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1985).
Bruns, Roger, Knights of the Road: A Hobo History (New
York: Methuen, 1980).
Cain, James M., preface to Three of a Kind (New
York: Knopf, 1944), xii.
Churchill, Winston, "Everybody's Language" in Focus on
Chaplin, ed. Donald W. McCaffrey (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall,
Damico, James, "Film Noir: A Modest Proposal," Film Reader (February
1978); Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir (San Diego:
A. S. Barnes, 1981).
Durgnat, Raymond, "Paint It Black: The Family Tree of Film
Noir," Film Comment 10, no. 6 (November-December 1974); Porfirio,
"No Way Out: Existential Motifs in Film Noir," Sight and Sound (Autumn
London, Jack, The Road (London: Arco Publications,
Marcus, Steven, introduction to Dashiell Hammett's The
Continental Op (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).
Neale, Stephen, Genre (London: British Film
Place, J. A., and Lowell S. Peterson, "Some Visual Motifs
of Film Noir," Film Comment 10, no. 1 (January-February 1974).
Schrader, Paul, "Notes on Film Noir," Film Comment 9, no.
1 (Spring 1972).
Todorov, Tzvetan, The Poetics of Prose, trans.
Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977).
Widmer, Kingsley, "The Way Out" in Tough Guy Writers of the
Thirties, ed. David Madden (Carbondale: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1986).
who romanticized the tramp figure in his newspaper columns and feature
stories in the 1920s, reportedly ghost-wrote several of Chaplin's films during
that decade. Beggars of Life was dedicated to Chaplin.
inconsistencies may be attributed to the vagaries of low-budget, B film
production, but the film turns these limitations into productive elements
in the creation of an unsettling disorientation.
John Belton is a professor of English and Film at Rutgers University. Winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Kraszna Karusz prize, and other works, he is the author of five books on film, including Widescreen Cinema and American Cinema/American Culture, a textbook written to accompany PBS's American Cinema series. The editor of a series of books on film and culture for Columbia University Press since 1989, he is an associate editor at the estimable journal Film History.
November 2006 | Issue 54
Originally published in issue 14 (1994) of the discontinued print edition.
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