Bright Lights Film Journal

Faulkner and Film Noir

“Some good pictures come out of Hollywood. God knows how, but they do.” – William Faulkner

In their movie Barton Fink (1991), Joel and Ethan Coen presented a character, W P. Mayhew, who was William Faulkner in very thin disguise. The image that lingers is a sad and disturbing one — Faulkner drunk and raving, wasting his genius and talent in the service of loudmouth producers of low-budget movies. But the Coens’ depiction of Faulkner as a hapless drunk being destroyed by the Hollywood studio system is misleading. Though he was an alcoholic and hit some very low periods in Hollywood and elsewhere, Faulkner did not drink himself “into an early grave between B movie scripts,” as one reviewer of Barton Fink concluded (Behrens, 25). In fact, Faulkner worked off and on as a scriptwriter for over 20 years, from 1932 to 1954 (even after receiving the Nobel Prize), and did not shuffle off this mortal coil until 1962. Far from destroying art and artist, it may be that film writing is all that enabled Faulkner to survive and get his work done. As his biographer Frederick Karl points out, “Faulkner not only survived, but thrived, some of his best work coming out of his early Hollywood years” (Karl, 483). It is also clear that Faulkner’s work as a novelist and scriptwriter had an important influence on the film noir style from which the Coens have taken so much inspiration.

By 1932, when he first signed a contract with MGM, Faulkner’s early novels, including The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Sanctuary(1931), had earned him an international reputation as a writer of genius. Nonetheless, his income from this work was insufficient to support his family. An offer of $500 a week to write for the studio was one he could not refuse. Initially overwhelmed by the huge difference between the quiet life in Oxford, Mississippi, and the MGM studio in Culver City, Faulkner disappeared for a week before he reported for work, claiming he had been “wandering in Death Valley” (Blotner, 305). Faulkner would always be ambivalent about his work for the studios, but he continued to do it for part of each year. In addition to MGM, he worked for Twentieth Century-Fox and Warner Brothers. He worked on over forty scripts and received screen credit for eight. According to Karl, although “Hollywood took its toll … the Hollywood stints nevertheless served many functions and cannot be dismissed merely as work in a very minor mode of a major writer” (Karl, 473).

Faulkner’s career as a novelist and scriptwriter is illustrative of the way in which the modern film and the modern novel have developed and interrelated. In his book Faulkner and Film (1977), Bruce Kawin sees the two facets of Faulkner’s career as mutually informing. “Faulkner’s novels are cinematic, and his screenplays are novelistic” (Kawin, 13). “Such techniques as montage, freeze-frame, slow motion and visual metaphor abound in his fiction” (Kawin, 5).

Like Howard Hawks, the director with whom Faulkner worked most extensively and successfully, Kawin sees Faulkner as an artist in both genres — “his two careers were integrated throughout most of his creative life, and the myth that he wrote films resentfully, sloppily and mercenarily deserves to be laid to rest” (Kawin, 125).

The two best-known Hawks films for which Faulkner received screen credit are To Have and Have Not (1944), the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall movie based on the Ernest Hemingway novel (screenplay by Faulkner and Jules Furthman); and The Big Sleep(1946), again with Bogart and Bacall, Hawks’ adaptation — from the script by Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Furthman — of Raymond Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe novel. Prior to working on this film Faulkner had expressed admiration for the authors of hard-boiled detective fiction, particularly Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (Karl, 704).1

That he wasfamiliar with and appreciative of this genre is not surprising. These writers were his contemporaries and had coped with and been shaped by the same historical, political, and economic forces — most notably two world wars and the Great Depression. The central concerns of the roman noir and film noir — the struggle between light and dark forces; the dark, inexplicable forces always at work just beneath the surface of everyday reality; their sudden explosion into violence — were central concerns in Faulkner’s fiction as well. Kawin points out that “his contributions to The Big Sleep build on the themes in The Sound and the Fury” (Kawin, 3).

The term film noirwas coined in 1946 by French film critic Nino Frank. Writers on the subject all point to its literary antecedents in the hard-boiled and tough-guy fiction of the ’20s and ’30s. The Serie Noire, edited by Marcel Duhamel and published by Gallimard (also Faulkner’s French publisher), presented the works of Hammett, Chandler, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, and Horace McCoy to the French public. “It is to the writers who paint it under the blackest colors that America owes today the worldwide reputation of its literature,” wrote Maurice Coindreau, Faulkner’s principal French translator, in a 1937 essay, “France and the Contemporary American Novel” (Coindreau, 13). Though he was familiar with the Serie Noire, it was Faulkner’s novels, Sanctuary, Light in August (1932), and As I Lay Dying that Coindreau primarily had in mind.

In a much more lavish prose style, and in much greater profusion and complexity, Faulkner dealt with the same moral and social issues as the noir writers. The South in Faulkner’s fiction functions much like the city in the noir film or novel — a corrupt place in which the drama of good vs. evil is acted out. The sense of doom that pervades film noirs is also essential to Faulkner, for whom “fate” and “doom” often become synonymous. Faulkner’s work, dealing as it does with the history of the southern U.S., is grounded in this bleak outlook, this sense of doom. The effect of the Civil War on Faulkner’s South is much like the effect of war and depression on the noir writer’s city — deterioration and decline. These lines from Faulkner’s story “A Return,” describing the fate of a southern family in the 1860s, could apply as well to 1930s Cornell Woolrich characters, caught in an inescapable downward spiral:

It was just one of the thousand repetitions through the South during that year and the next two, not of actual suffering yet but merely that attenuation of hardship, that unceasing demand upon endurance without hope or even despair — that excruciating repetition which is Tragedy’s tragedy, as if Tragedy had a childlike faith in the efficacy of the plot simply because it had worked once — an economic system which had outlived its place in time, a land empty of men who rode out of it not to engage a mortal enemy as they believed but to batter themselves to pieces against a force with which they were unequipped by both heredity and inclination to cope and of which those whom they charged and counter-charged were not champions as much as victims too … (Faulkner 1981, 551, 552).

Like the hard-boiled writers, Faulkner was searching for ways of coping with a world changed irrevocably by war and economic collapse. Like all good writers, he did his best to render this struggle into art. Part of his genius was to use the narrative form to paint a picture in which past, present. and future are seen as one inevitable whole. Again, this involves the sense of fate, or doom, so central to film noir. As Foster Hirsch says in The Dark Side of the Screen (1983): “Avoiding a straightforward treatment of time immediately introduces the requisite hopeless tone: the story, in a sense, is over before it begins, with the hero’s grim fate then hovering over the entire film” (Hirsch, 7). Picture the body floating in the pool at the beginning of Sunset Boulevard. Or think of a Cain narrator (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice) relaying the story of his inevitable demise.

The French fascination with American noir goes back to Edgar Allan Poe. In his book Dark Cinema (1984), which begins with a survey of classical tragedy, Jon Tuska defines noir fiction as that “which for subject matter concentrates on the dark, nightmarish side of life” (Tuska, 143) and points to Poe as one of its early and influential practitioners. Poe was much revered in France. Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and others of the 19th-century symbolist poets were strongly influenced by him. Faulkner in his turn was much influenced by Baudelaire and the other symbolists. The question Baudelaire raised in his biographical sketch of Poe might be the same one that much of Faulkner’s fiction (and noir fiction and film) set out to answer: “Is there then a diabolical Providence that prepares misfortune from the very cradle?” (Baudelaire, 12)

In the characters of Popeye in Sanctuary and Joe Christmas in Light in August Faulkner explored this question painstakingly and answered in the affirmative. These books had a powerful effect on Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, Albert Camus, and other French writers in the 1930s and ’40s. “For the young in France,” said Sartre, “Faulkner is a god” (Cowley, 24). Malraux’s famous line is: “Sanctuary is the intrusion of Greek tragedy into the detective story” (Malraux, 1966). And Camus, who called Faulkner “the greatest American novelist” (Camus, 319), wrote:

Faulkner’s style, with its staccato breathing, its interrupted sentences, its repeats and prolongations in repetitions, its incidences, its parentheses and its cascades of subordinate clauses, gives us a modern and in no way artificial equivalent of the tragic soliloquy. It is a style that gasps with the very breathlessness of suffering. An interminable unwinding spiral of words and sentences that conducts the speaker to the abyss of sufferings buried in the past (Camus, 313, 314).

The French translation of Sanctuary appeared in 1933 and, according to Coindreau, “was more audacious and morbid than any of the romans noirs published up to that time” (Coindreau, 79). Sanctuary reads as if Faulkner deliberately set out to out-noir the noirs. From early in the novel — “He smells black, Benbow thought; he smells like that black stuff that ran out of Bovary’s mouth and down upon her bridal veil when they raised her head” (Faulkner, 1985, 184) — images of darkness, shadows, gloom, and blackness are all but overwhelming. It’s like a dark dream, a nightmare — feet sinking in the sand, running and making no progress. There is a murder, and a mystery, but the book is not a murder mystery. The mystery is life and all the inevitable human roles and comings and goings. As Malraux says, this is tragedy, like Sophocles or Shakespeare. Amidst confusion and macabre violence the reader, like the characters in the novel, longs for some sort of justice but doesn’t really expect it. In the end it’s all accepted, all inevitable. Tragedy.

Though not nearly so heavy-handed, Light in August continued in this vein with lines such as, “He seemed to flow into the dark kitchen: a shadow returning without a sound and without locomotion to the all mother of obscurity and darkness” (Faulkner, 1985, 568). This novel is again strong with Faulkner’s sense of doom, and with what Kay Boyle, comparing him to Poe, has called his “fanatical obsession with the unutterable depths of mankind’s vice” (Karl, 609).

It seems likely that the French welcomed the dark visions of Faulkner and other American writers as one way of dealing with the aftermath of World War 1, which Faulkner’s biographer Joseph Blotner calls “the war they had survived physically but not psychically” (Blotner, 278). Perhaps this pulling up of dark material from the collective unconscious, and from the recent past, was something they were not yet ready to do for themselves. What better salve for the wounds of history than a powerful artistic affirmation of the inevitability of tragedy?

In 1925 and ’26, Faulkner had traveled in Europe, spending several months in Paris. Kawin speculates that the “montage aesthetic” of Faulkner’s fiction (Kawin, 127) may in part be the result of exposure to the ideas and films of D. W Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein (who is mentioned in Faulkner’s The Wild Palms), and other contemporary directors.2 (Later in life Faulkner spoke of Jean Renoir as “the best of contemporary directors” [Blotner, 46S].) Or it could be that the lessons he learned from the symbolists bear a natural relation to the techniques of filmmakers who learned some of these same lessons from the same teachers. Says Coindreau: “Every time Faulkner wishes to achieve a powerful effect he replaces words with images and facts with symbols. He no longer narrates, he suggests” (Coindreau, 27). This sounds a lot like what Francois Truffaut has said about the films of Renoir: “His work unfolds … to escape any notion of the definite and the fixed, so as to create a semi-improvisation, a deliberately unfinished ‘open’ work that each viewer can complete for himself” (Truffaut, 36).”3

By 1945, both Renoir and Faulkner were working in Hollywood. Renoir was at work on The Southerner (1945). Upon learning that Faulkner had expressed admiration for his work, he arranged (clandestinely, since Faulkner was under contract to another studio) to have Faulkner help him with the script. Faulkner was later to say that he considered this the best screenwriting he had ever done. The movie, which won a Grand Prize at the 1946 Venice Film Festival, was about sharecroppers in the American South. In Fiction, Film, and Faulkner (1988), Gene D. Phillips writes: “Such a story could have been drawn from Faulkner’s own novels about the South and he understandably was pleased to have the opportunity to deal with material so close to his heart” (Phillips, 51). It’s interesting to speculate that this happy collaboration of two great artists may have been set in motion one hundred years earlier when Baudelaire first read Poe’s “Le Chat Noir’ in a Paris newspaper.

In his excellent article “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir” (1976), Robert G. Porfirio broadened the discussion of noir fiction beyond its hard-boiled core to include Ernest Hemingway, B. Traven, and “proletarian” writers such as Albert Maltz, Daniel Fuchs, and A. 1. Bezzerides who later worked for Hollywood studios.4 Though he held that, “It would be untenable to assert that the American film noir was directly affected by the writings of the European existentialists” (Porfirio, 214), he nonetheless showed how their ideas were part of the rich creative mix of Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s. This seems to me a step in the right direction, part of the “critical reappraisal” that Porfirio called for. If we free ourselves from the kind of thinking that equates B movies with B fiction; if we credit the best of Hammett, Chandler, and Cain, as Camus and Andre Gide did; and if we agree with Porfirio and Paul Schrader that, “Film noir was an immensely creative period, probably the most creative in Hollywood’s history” (Schrader, 12), then we start looking for its literary antecedents in the best fiction of the time. To do this is to credit the genius of directors like Orson Welles and Fritz Lang to their familiarity with leading currents in literature and philosophy. Kawin points to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom (1936) as primary influences on Citizen Kane (1941) (Kawin, 145, 146).5 In this view, then, Faulkner is a key figure, an essential link in a chain from Poe to the symbolists to American film noir and its French theorists and, as Kawin has convincingly shown, to the French New Wave (Kawin, 144–156).

To gct back to the Coenbrothers, I can only agree wholeheartedly with Richard Jameson’s statement about Barton Fink: “Mayhew, written as artist-sellout foil to Fink, is such a careless mélange of Faulkner-bio minutiae and libelous distortion that this comparatively minor character provokes major doubts about the Coens’ sense of fealty to their art and forebears” (Jameson, 26).

Though he railed against it at times, Faulkner’s work as a scriptwriter, far from being inimical to and destructive of his art, helped him survive financially and psychologically. “He wrote screenplays much as he wrote stories for magazines,” says Kawin, “with an awareness of market and audience yet without significantly departing from the themes that concerned him in his major fiction” (Kawin, 143). His wonderful visual sense and his ability to write scenes made him a valuable asset to producers and directors who appreciated his talent. (Hawks praised him as “a master of his work who does it without a fuss” [Phillips, 301.]) Like roman noir writers and film noir directors, his work dealt with the violent struggle between light and darkness. His genius, when applied to the collaborative art of filmmaking, involved understanding and sympathy for the individual alone in the darkness of the theater, seeking the possibility of meaning, of revelation, in the seductive images of light and darkness juxtaposed on the screen.

Works Cited

Baudelaire, Charles. 1971. “Edgar Allan Poe, His Life And Works.” In Edgar Allan Poe, Seven Tales.Edited by W. T. Bandy. New York: Schocken Books.

Behrens, Michael A. 1992. “Cinema Brats: The Coens and Their Scripts.” San Francisco Review Of Books, vol. 17, no. 1 (Spring), pp. 25, 26.

Blotner, Joseph. 1991. Faulkner: A Biography. New York: Vintage Books.

Camus, Albert. 1968. Lyrical and Critical Essays. New York: Knopf.

Coindreau, Maurice. 1971. The Time of William Faulkner. Edited and translated by George McMillan Reeves. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Cowley, Malcolm. 1966. The Faulkner-Cowley File. New York: Viking.

Faulkner, William. 1961, Uncollected 5tories of William Faulkner. Edited by Joseph Blotner. New York: Vintage Books.

—. 1985. Novels, 1930-1935. Corrected text edited by Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk. New York: The Library of America.

Hirsch, Foster. 1983. The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. New York: Da Capo Press.

Jameson, Richard T. 1991. “What’s in the Box.” Film Comment, vol. 27, no.5 (Sept./Oct.), pp. 26–32.

Karl, Frederick R. 1990. William Faulkner: American Writer. New York: Ballantine Books.

Kawin, Bruce F. 1977. Faulkner and Film. New York: Frederick Ungar.

Malraux, André. 1966. “A Preface for Faulkner’s Sanctuary.” In Robert Penn Warren, ed., Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Phillips, Gene D. 1988. Fiction, Film, and Faulkner: The Art of Adaptation. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Porfirio, Robert G. 1976. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir. Sight and Sound(Autumn), pp. 212–217.

Schrader, Paul. 1972. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Comment, vol.8, no. 1 (Spring), pp. 8–13.

Truffaut, Francois. 1978. The Films in My Life. Translated by Leonard Mayhew. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Tuska, Jon. 1984. Dark Cinema. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

  1. In the autumn of 1931, Faulkner had met Hammett and Lillian Hellman in New York. They spent time together with much drinking and discussion of life and literature. Faulkner also met Nathanael West in New York that fall. (See Blotner, 293, 294, and Karl, 463–468.) Chandler’s influence on Faulkner can be seen primarily in the stories collected as Knight’s Gambit (1949). The adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1945) was one of the many scripts Faulkner worked on without receiving screen credit. []
  2. See also Kawin’s article, “The Montage Element In Faulkner’s Fiction,” in Faulkner Modernism, and Film. Edited by Evans Harrington and Ann J. Abadie (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1979). []
  3. My suggestion is that Faulkner and Renoir drank from the same source, which, through them and others, went on to nurture American film noir. Truffaut points to Toni (1934) as “a pivotal film … the painstaking narrative of a truly random deed, told in an objective tone” (Truffaut, 38). He also discusses La Chienne (1931), remade by Fritz Lang as Scarlet Street (1945), and La Bête Humaine(1938), remade by Lang as Human Desire (1954). []
  4. Albert Bezzerides was one of Faulkner’s closest friends in Hollywood. At various times he collaborated with Faulkner, housed him, drove him to work, and nursed him through drinking binges. Bezzerides scripted the 1980 television documentary William Faulkner: A Life on Paper (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1980). []
  5. Porfirio points to the importance of Citizen Kane (which first played in Paris in 1946, the same year the term film noirwas coined): “Welles’ film not only invigorated a baroque visual style which was later to characterize the period, but also provided a new psychological dimension, a morally ambiguous hero, a convoluted time structure and the use of flashback and first person narration — all of which became film noir conventions” (Porfirio, 213). []