“Noir films with non-urban settings exploded the idea that escape into a safer or healthier world was possible, showing how temptation and violence can attack anyone, anywhere.”
Far from the mean streets, a lake dazzles through thin mountain air. On the shore a couple is lazily fishing; in the bright winter sun the fish aren’t biting. “Every time I look up at the sky, I think of all the places I’ve never been,” the girl says. “And every time you look up they’re all the same,” the man replies wearily. For Jeff Bailey in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, places form and dissolve like perfect smoke-rings. He drifts through them like a sleeper through a series of fitful dreams: pristine lakes and dim Mexican bars, offices and apartments and jittery jazz clubs in cities where it’s always night; a mansion at Lake Tahoe, a cabin off a dirt road in pine-dark woods, and the town of Bridgeport, California. This bleak cluster of white frame houses dwarfed by high, bare mountains might be the main street in a Western, except that the stranger blowing into town wears a black fedora and drives a convertible.
Under the credits of the quintessential film noir, rugged wilderness is framed in serene snapshots worthy of Ansel Adams. The irony of this sequence recalls the title of a Raymond Chandler story full of corpses and lies: “No Crime in the Mountains.” Out of the Past proves that the stain of noir can be found anywhere. It’s in the ominous signs the deaf boy flashes to Jeff, standing in a bleached field as the sky clouds over; in the fishing nets draped like warnings on the beach where Jeff falls into Kathie’s web; in the broken shadows of tree branches projected onto Jeff and Ann’s bodies as they meet secretly in the leafless woods; in the rushing, icy river where Joe Stefanos falls to his death, his gangster’s overcoat snagged by a fishing line.
The Dark City is a synonym for noir: high heels on wet pavement, beatings in black-shadowed alleys, feet banging on fire escapes outside tenements and warehouses, the shriek and roar of elevated trains, dim greasy bars and sleek nightclubs where the big wheels have their offices up flights of carpeted stairs. But look outside the city: at the apple orchard in Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway, the beach-side hamburger stand in Edward Dmytryk’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, the bleak snowbound country of Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Desert ghost towns, tourist lodges in the mountains, fishing villages, New England hamlets, mansions in Beverly Hills have all been settings for films noirs. These movies weaken the argument of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle: that the city itself is the corroding force, that if only men stayed on the farm where horses graze in green fields, they would never turn to crime.
Noir was born from the mating of American pulp fiction, which came of age during the Depression with hard-boiled tales of sordid and desperate lives, and German expressionist cinema imported to Hollywood by immigrant directors, many fleeing Hitler. Pulp writers supplied gritty settings, tortuous plots, and unsentimental dissections of American society and character, while European filmmakers contributed stylized, dream-like imagery that took viewers inside the troubled minds of the characters on screen. Together, these influences distorted and undermined the classical objectivity of evenly lighted, smoothly constructed 1930s Hollywood cinema. Noir pervaded American movies in the postwar years, exposing the underside of victory and prosperity: the submerged horrors of combat; the anxiety of the nuclear age and the Cold War; tension between the sexes heightened by pressure on women to return to domestic roles; stresses imposed by conformity and materialism; and a general weakening of faith in objective truth and human goodness.
The postwar period also saw an exodus from cities, a rejection of urban life in favor of the suburban ideal: a new ranch house with a lawn, a garage, and a tire swing. Tight-knit communities gave way to isolated nuclear families; trains gave way to cars and theaters to television. Film noir went along with the zeitgeist by depicting cities as anonymous, crime-ridden jungles indifferent to their inhabitants, places anyone would want to flee. But noir films with non-urban settings exploded the idea that escape into a safer or healthier world was possible, showing how temptation and violence can attack anyone, anywhere. The fifties ideal of wholesome family life was mocked by stories illustrating how thin a line separated the middle and upper classes from an underworld of crime, danger, and illicit pleasures.
America, through the lens of noir, appears as a country where no one can be trusted, where selfish and predatory behavior is the norm. Depression-era movies often evoked a sense of shared struggle and working-class unity. World War II films showed men from all walks of life pulling together to act as a team and fight for their country, while women and children back home displayed loyalty and support for their neighbors. After the war, such “share and share alike” attitudes could prompt suspicions of communist sympathies.2 Compared with unifying challenges like the Depression and the war, the problems of the postwar era were often submerged or unacknowledged, finding expression in crime films usually made cheaply as second features and marketed as mere sensational entertainment. Film noir filtered many social issues through its visceral stories, and it relentlessly uncovered the atomization of American society. Healthy, functioning groups don’t exist: even gangs and criminal “organizations” break apart because their members are out for themselves, ready to betray each other for a payoff or a bigger share of the take. Noir paints postwar America as a lonely place. The new interstate highways carry people with no roots, always on the move, pursued by their pasts or too dissatisfied to settle down. They discover that, as Robert Mitchum declared prophetically in his first major role, in William Castle’s When Strangers Marry: “Places are all alike; you can’t run away from yourself.” The real dark city is the human heart.
Caught: Small-Town Noir
When James Mason, saturnine in a black overcoat, enters Joan Bennett’s parlor in The Reckless Moment, he looks like he might stain the carpet and upholstery of her tidy middle-class home. She lives in Balboa, a housewife with two children and a diplomat husband, and she has recently disposed of the body of a man killed by her spoiled teenage daughter. The death was accidental and in self-defense, and the man was a worthless sleazeball, so Lucia Harper feels little compunction about dumping his corpse in the bay at dawn to spare a public revelation of her daughter’s affair. But now Mason’s Martin Donnelly appears, a melancholy Irish blackmailer demanding money for her daughter’s letters to the man she killed. He is a threat to Lucia’s safe, comfortable family life, but before long the set-up turns inside out. Her family and neighbors — oblivious, ubiquitous, demanding — come to feel like enemies, while the soft-spoken crook who knows her secret becomes the only one she can trust, her confidant, almost her lover. Donnelly is sexy and sinister, but also thoughtful and mournfully kind. While Lucia devotes herself to her family — an annoying motormouth son, a sullen and snotty daughter, a husband reduced to a voice in long-distance phone calls — only Donnelly thinks of her, treats her like a woman instead of a mother and a housewife. Even the way he says her name, Lu-see-a instead of Loo-sha, grants her a touch of glamour and romance.
Donnelly is almost too attractive and sympathetic, especially when contrasted with Nagel, his vicious boss, who senses that his agent is too soft and takes over the case himself. In the end Donnelly turns on Nagel and gives his life to protect Lucia; her grief is her first full admission of how strongly she is bound to the blackmailer. The Reckless Moment was the last of Max Ophuls’s three American films, and Donnelly’s elegant, weary, guilt-stricken compassion tastes of the Europe he yearned for, stranded in a noisy, vulgar, simplistic America. Yet we see Lucia herself through Donnelly’s admiring eyes: harassed and confined but also capable and brave. For him she represents the settled life from which he’s shut out, while he represents a kind of grown-up honesty lacking in her world. Towards the end of the film, Lucia goes to downtown L.A. to arrange the payoff; the city is seedy and threatening, but it’s there that she clearly recognizes Donnelly as her savior. When he dies, she is left entirely alone, with not merely a secret but a secret self she can share with no one else. Forced to put on a cheerful front for the family Christmas, she finally breaks in tears.
Women in postwar America were caught in a double bind: while they were discouraged from pursuing careers and hence denied independent lives, they were also resented as golddiggers and husband-hunters out to trap men into supporting them. The femme fatale was not, as has been suggested, an expression of anxiety about empowered working women,3 but a nightmare caricature of what ambitious women become when they live off men. In contrast to the tough, competent, yet still alluring female professionals celebrated by films of the thirties, the femme fatale is a throwback to the traditional image of women as temptresses that reflects societies in which women have only their sexual wiles to rely on. Femmes fatales rarely hold jobs. They are wives and mistresses, monstrous because they exploit men to satisfy their avarice but reject domesticity, failing to fulfill their side of the postwar woman’s bargain.
But film noir is also full of nice women trapped in domestic jails. Ophuls’s second American film was Caught, the story of a working girl determined to marry a millionaire, who winds up a prisoner in the mansion of a wealthy psychopath. Valentina Cortese in Robert Wise’s The House on Telegraph Hill, Joan Crawford in David Miller’s Sudden Fear, Barbara Stanwyck in Anatole Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number are all married women menaced by their husbands in their own luxurious homes — an ironic inversion of the “security” for which women were supposed to marry. Stanwyck marries for security in Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night and feels so stifled by a housewife’s lot that she betrays her kindly husband with his cynical, misogynistic best friend.
Though Clash by Night is a melodrama rather than a crime movie, it illustrates the basic noir theme that violence is latent in everyday life and ordinary people. The calm sea full of fishing boats and lounging seals gives way to crashing breakers; and Jerry, a teddy bear of a man, almost strangles Earl in a rage, calling the lovers “Animals! Animals!” Jerry’s mooching uncle Vince lectures him that women are all no good and must be handled with the whip, while Mae’s sullen, possessive brother warns his strong-minded girlfriend against copying Mae’s behavior. As Monterey must reek of the fish from the boats and the cannery, the film reeks of hostility between men and women, of jealousy, lust, disappointment, and resentment. They still seek each other because “everybody is lonely, lost.” The battle of the sexes that in thirties Hollywood had been a lively, bantering competition of equals was reduced in film noir to a grim equation: women want money, men want sex, and they will use and hurt each other to get them.
Barbara Stanwyck strode through the 1930s as a gloriously independent woman, but by the forties the world was closing in on her kind. In Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity, she nailed the ultimate femme fatale as Phyllis Dietrichson in another housewife determined to escape a home and husband she hates. Stanwyck’s steeliness began to work against her; in cages too small to hold her she resorted to violence and deceit where once she had used charm, wit, and sex appeal to get her way. In Lewis Milestone’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, she is both the most powerful woman in a Midwestern mill town and the most helpless. She is the heiress of Iverstown’s steel mill, but as an orphaned child she hopes to escape her cruel aunt by running away with Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), a streetwise boy from the wrong side of the tracks. When she strikes and kills her aunt, her life is taken over by her aunt’s attorney, who controls her fortune and coerces her into marrying his son Walter by holding the threat of exposure over her head.
When runaway Sam returns eighteen years later, he finds Martha grown into a confident, glamorous businesswoman who has improved and modernized the mill “all by myself,” as she tells him with grim satisfaction. But she is miserable in her marriage to Walter (Kirk Douglas), a weak, ineffectual alcoholic who goes along with her father’s plans because of his hopeless love for Martha. He can hold onto her through their shared guilt — they prosecuted an innocent man who was executed for Martha’s crime — but knows she is unfaithful and has never loved him. In turn she controls him like a ruthless hypnotist, and his frustrated love approaches masochism: “Even pain at your hands . . .” he sighs as she puts iodine on his cut hand. In his debut role, Douglas is brilliantly miscast: while a weaker actor would come off as merely a milquetoast, Douglas’s intensity and virility give a perverse tinge to his abject character. Stanwyck, meanwhile, demonstrates her ability to simultaneously bring the audience to her side and make our blood run cold.
Martha and Walter both believe that Sam knows their secret and has returned to blackmail them; Martha carries a torch for Sam and hopes to seduce him into rescuing her by killing her husband. Another drifter, a gambler and casual opportunist, Sam thinks he’s seen it all, but has never encountered anything like Martha and Walter’s toxic marriage. “Don’t look back, baby,” he advises Martha, remembering his Gideon bible, “You know what happened to Lot’s wife.” But here, as in so many noir stories, the past is inescapable; one mistake, one “reckless moment” seals her fate. As Martha never leaves the big house where she was raised — at the end of the film, Walter tumbles drunkenly down the same stairs that killed her aunt — or the town that bears her name, she can never get away from the consequences of her childhood act. Sam, rootless and free, motors out of town at the end, telling his girlfriend Toni, “Don’t look back, baby, don’t ever look back.” Martha and Walter’s pact with desire, fear, greed, and guilt is the spectacle of ruin, the Sodom and Gomorrah, that he flees. But Walter says it’s no one’s fault, and speaks for all of noir’s trapped citizens: “It’s what people want, and how much they want it, and how hard it is for them to get it.”
In a wrenching scene, Danny almost strangles the helpless, retarded Billy Scripture, whom he has always protected, because Billy has a piece of evidence that can condemn him. In the end Danny escapes into the swamps and finds his way to his ancestral backwoods cabin, where his grandmother tells him the truth about his father’s crime. When he emerges from the swamps to give himself up, he finds Gilly looking like an angel of mercy in her white trench coat. Moonrise was Borzage’s only contribution to the noir canon, and it ends with his usual tribute to the redemptive power of love. But it is also about the persistence of hate and the way people can be robbed of their humanity by degrading treatment. Danny’s best friend is a black man named Mose, a wise but embittered loner who has “resigned from the human race” and who calls his hunting dogs “Mister” because “there’s not enough dignity in the world.” Dane Clark, with his fist-clenched fighter’s stance and dark, wounded-animal eyes, grippingly portrays a mind haunted by the past, a man poisoned by the way others see him.
If noir cities are dangerous and bewildering because of their anonymity, small towns in noir are oppressive for precisely the opposite reason. Everyone knows you, and knows what you did, and is determined to keep you confined in the smallest of lives. There are films, like Orson Welles’ The Stranger, in which a small town is merely a wholesome backdrop for a dangerous intruder. But more often the towns themselves are menacing, full of shared secrets and bullying and eyes peering from behind curtains, like the vicious, isolated desert town in John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock where Spencer Tracy uncovers the murder of a Japanese-American farmer by local bigots. Even the pretty New England town in Robert Siodmak’s The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry represents the stifling limitations surrounding the title character, a man infantilized by his devoted sisters, unable to have a normal, grown-up love affair. Rather than simply move away, he plots the murder of his jealous, clinging sister. Imprisoned by the ubiquitous barred shadows of Venetian blinds and stairway banisters (even a crib becomes a jail for Van Heflin’s unhappy child in Act of Violence), men and women in film noir smash up their lives in their efforts to escape.
Love Is Fugitive: Road Noir
They take to the roads: traveling by night, sleeping in cars or tacky motor lodges, hocking jewelry, robbing banks or smashing the windows of drug stores to steal medicine for wounded companions, dodging roadblocks, meeting opportunists who either help them for extortionate fees or turn them in for the reward, never able to rest as they race for the border. Jeff and Kathie finally make this move in Out of the Past, heading back to Mexico to escape the trail of bodies Kathie has left. By this time Jeff would rather be dead than with his former love and he calls the police himself, ensuring that they will die together in a car at night.
Other fugitive couples are bound by loyalty that belies the pervasive noir themes of betrayal and selfishness. The template for all couple-on-the-run films was set by Fritz Lang’s pre-noir (1936) You Only Live Once. It’s not until the last quarter of the film that Eddie and Jo (Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney) flee, after Eddie escapes from prison and kills a priest. They are hardly Bonnie and Clyde, though they are publicized as such and blamed for crimes they never committed. Far from enjoying the profits of a spree, they sleep miserably in a dilapidated car and retreat to a backwoods cabin when Jo gives birth. When Eddie apologizes for depriving her of a home, Jo replies, “Maybe anywhere is our home.” She’s wrong: nowhere is their home. However transcendent their love, they are exiles from society, gradually losing touch with civilization. When Jo’s sister asks the baby’s name, she responds: “We just call him ‘baby.'” She leaves the child with her sister in order to stay with Eddie, and they are shot down as they run through the woods, trying to cross the border. Their death is presented as a release from the prison of an impossible life.
Like Eddie and Jo, Bowie and Keechie in They Live by Nightare united by their exile. They are younger and more innocent than Lang’s couple, and their isolation goes beyond the consequences of a specific crime: they were “never properly introduced to the world we live in.” They embody director Nicholas Ray’s romantic vision of alienated youth, outcasts not because they are guilty, but because they are too pure for a corrupt world. Bowie was sent to prison as a young teenager for a crime in which he was barely complicit; naïve and unformed, he dreams of holding hands with a girl in a movie theater. Keechie has a tougher shell, having grown up in the company of older, criminal men. Her plain, grubby, wary face softens, becoming prettier and more feminine as she matures into a wife. Neither has ever been loved; they don’t even know how to kiss. The scene in which she tends his wounds and first touches his bare back is an intense yet delicate moment of adolescent awakening. Like Romeo and Juliet, Bowie and Keechie are doomed not by their own actions but by the callousness and violence of the adult world — a world where “love, if it exists at all, would be fugitive.”4
As Bowie and Keechie, Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell are so pretty, young, healthy and normal-looking, their banishment from society suggests an inversion: that society is the guilty one. The title of the Depression-era novel on which the film was based, Thieves Like Us, suggests an equivalence between the bank robbers and society, but not the superiority of the former, as the movie seems to. When they spend one day in public, “just like other people,” the young couple observe everyday activities like anthropologists among baffling natives. They go to a nightclub where a black woman sings “Your Red Wagon,” a song about minding your own business and keeping troubles to yourself, because no one else will care or help. (“Your business is your red wagon . . . So don’t load it up with troubles / ‘Cause you’re draggin’ it all alone.”) In the men’s room of the nightclub, Bowie is confronted by a local crook who gives him an hour to get out of town, because “business is good” and he doesn’t want “a lot of trigger-happy hillbillies” heating things up. There is no sense of loyalty in the underworld, or honor among thieves. In the end, Bowie is betrayed by the sister of one of the men with whom he broke out of jail, in exchange for the release of her own imprisoned husband. The irony of one woman’s love destroying another’s spells out that while trust and intimacy can exist between individuals, it doesn’t create larger family or community bonds.
Like Bowie, Bill Clark (Steve Cochran) in Felix Feist’s Tomorrow Is Another Day, has lost most of his life to prison. Sentenced at thirteen for killing his abusive father, he is released at thirty-one to face the world with no friends or family. A child in a man’s body, he is sweetly innocent but also sullen and paranoid, easily resorting to violence. Like Rip Van Winkle, he wonders at the unfamiliar cars, orders three slices of pie in a diner, forgets that Prohibition ended the year he went to jail. With no idea how to relate to people socially, he is insecure and truculent. It turns out that he’s right to be wary: his first day out, he is befriended by an inexplicably helpful and sympathetic man who turns out to be a reporter merely using him to get a story on the release of the “State’s Youngest Murderer.” After attacking the reporter in a rage, he flees to New York and wanders around in a daze of loneliness. Having “just heard about dames, that’s all,” he visits the dime-a-dance Dreamland, where ten cents buys sixty seconds of feminine company, and promptly falls for a hard-boiled bottle blonde named Catherine (Ruth Roman), who gets a wristwatch out of him and gives him her perspective on city life: “You live in one trap and work in another.” When Bill gets into a fight with her sugar daddy, he’s knocked unconscious; Cathy panics and shoots the man, a police official, and later tells Bill he did the killing while blacked out.
Feeling guilty, she agrees to run away with Bill, and the film turns into another saga of a couple on the lam. The scenery is familiar: cars, diners, truck stops, the Shady Nook Motel. As they travel west the couple changes, and so does the movie’s mood. Cathy becomes a brunette, and both don jeans and leather jackets to hop freight trains. Hitchhiking, they are picked up by a Joad-like family, the Dawsons, headed for a lettuce-picking camp in the Salinas valley. There Bill and Cathy become farm laborers, living in a cabin and befriending their wholesome neighbors. But then a True Crime tabloid alerts their new friends to Bill’s real identity, and Mr. Dawson is immediately thrilled by the prospect of turning him in for the reward. Think what they could do with that money! he cries, his eyes alight. His wife talks him out of it, but when Dawson is badly injured in a car crash and needs expert medical care, she’s the one who calls the police. As Bill and Cathy are led off in handcuffs, Mrs. Dawson and her little boy quarrel and then cry, ashamed and tainted by their act of betrayal — like the reporter from the opening scenes, who refused to let Bill be arrested for assault, explaining to the cop that he deserved it.
If Bowie and Keechie are doomed despite their love for each other; Bart and Laurie in Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy are doomed because of theirs. Like Bowie and Bill, Bart is weak-willed, not a criminal by choice but easily led. The three men start out on the margins of society, marked by their prison records or, in Bart’s case, by his single-minded obsession with guns and a stint in reform school, where he was sent as a boy for stealing a revolver. Like the others, Bart misses crucial formative years of his life and emerges dangerously immature and aimless, at odds with the mainstream.
The long prologue to Gun Crazy establishes that Bart’s love of guns is fundamentally innocent. He loves shooting but not killing; holding a gun makes him feel like “somebody,” but he has no intention of using that power to harm others. To prove this, one of Bart’s school friends recounts how they went on a camping trip in the mountains and Bart refused to shoot a mountain lion or allow his friends to shoot it. But can a passion for gunplay really be anything but destructive? Bart’s becomes radically less innocent when he meets Annie Laurie Starr, a carnival sharpshooter — his dream woman enters his life with pistols blazing, and invites him to try his skill against hers. As the two use each other for target practice, lighting matches on a crown worn by each in turn, Bart’s pleasure in his marksmanship is flagrantly sexual, a flaunting of potency that succeeds in impressing the baby-faced but hard-eyed Laurie. They go together, he says, “like guns and ammunition.” If Bart’s obsession was previously harmless, it is now loaded.
Laurie wants only two things, money and excitement, and gets both from robbing banks. She manipulates Bart, threatening to leave him if he won’t do things her way, and she repeatedly panics and kills during their escapes. “Why can’t you let them live?” Bart pleads, seeming not to grasp that he has made himself a public enemy who must kill or be killed. Despite Laurie’s ruthlessness, she is not merely using Bart; she too is captive to their amour fou, as they discover when they try to split up for safety. They drive off in opposite directions, but their cars swing around, almost colliding, and they leap out to embrace in the road. Like guns in the movie, cars seem able to participate in their passion. Gun Crazy not only equates sex with violence, it vividly exposes America’s love affair with guns and cars, both machines that deceptively symbolize individual freedom and power. For one of their heists, Bart and Laurie wear their carnival cowboy gear to blend into a Wild West festival, exploiting America’s romantic fondness for gun-toting frontier outlaws.
“Home is where you come when you run out of places,” as Mae Doyle says. Bart and Laurie return to his home town, vainly imagining that his sister will take them in, but ensuring instead that Bart’s childhood friends — the ones who wanted to shoot the mountain lion — will be the ones to kill him. Driven away from the house, Bart takes Laurie into the park where he used to camp as a boy, and they crash through the underbrush chased by dogs. In the eerie final scene, they wake in a silent, fog-white marsh at dawn and listen to the faint rustle of their pursuers. They are finally riddled with gunshots, their bodies pierced by the bullets that whizzed safely past them at the carnival, making them feel invincible.
Being on the run brings lovers closer together — most of the time. For contrast, consider noir’s sickest couple, the concussed Dr. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) and psychotic Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue) in John Farrow’s Where Danger Lives. They take to the road in a mad dash for the border after Margo’s husband is killed in a scuffle with Jeff — but not before braining his wife’s lover with a poker. They drive through an endless desert where the radio brings only static and Jeff falls asleep at the wheel, to be woken by bloodcurdling screams as Margo has a hysterical episode. Speaking for many of noir’s confused heroes, Jeff explains that due to his condition, “I may talk rationally, but my decisions may not make much sense.” His gradual slide into foggy paralysis is mirrored by the couple’s journey into squalor and absurdity.
The Mexican border is an essential noir locale: a no-man’s-land populated by fugitives and those who prey on them. Characters flee to Mexico in Out of the Past, Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (a couple-on-the-road movie, but in the form of a light-hearted, treasure-hunt buddy film), Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential, and John Farrow’s His Kind of Woman! Mexico is a lawless land for Americans, easy-going but treacherous, rife with smugglers, drug dealers, exiled gangsters, holed-up criminals, and egregious tourists. Touch of Evil turns the border into a baroque phantasmagoria of corruption, festering with drugs, violence, and sexual menace. Anthony Mann’s Border Incident lays bare the vicious world of immigrant smuggling, with illegal workers left to die in the desert and government agents slaughtered with farm machinery. Whichever side you’re trying to get to, the border is a mirage of safety.
There is no escape: even the wilderness, which appears to offer refuge, is ultimately just a place to die. Beautiful and unspoiled but pitiless, the mountains and woods where fugitives make their last stand offer no hope of freedom. Bart and Laurie become something less than human — hunted animals: Roy Earle, holding out in a cave halfway up a bare mountain in Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra, is picked off by a sharpshooter, as if he were a coyote or a mountain lion. Cities and towns, society itself, may be corrupt, but there’s no survival outside them. In film noir the desert represents the ultimate extremity, the place where city dwellers come face to face with the raw facts of human nature, with their physical vulnerability and moral weakness, on the “naked shingles of the world.”5
Fear in the Dust: Desert Noir
The final scene of Von Stroheim’s Greed presents the ultimate spectacle of human reversion to savagery. In a fight to the death over a sack of gold, one man ends up handcuffed to the corpse of another in the wasteland of Death Valley. Parched under a fatal sun, the landscape of rock without water or any sign of life pushes the brutal, nihilistic vision to delirious heights. Westerns found a sculpted beauty in the stark, arid landscape of the American southwest, a hard country fiercely loved by its settlers for its pure air, space, and freedom. Film noir, which exploited the proximity and cheapness of desert settings, offered something closer to Greed, or to Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which uses a sterile, poisoned country to symbolize spiritual emptiness and infertility. Where the farmers and ranchers, settlers and lone gunmen of Westerns are part of their landscape, working the land, conquering and transforming it, the men and women in mid-twentieth-century noir films are always out of place, unprepared to survive in a hostile environment that shows them “fear in a handful of dust.”6
Perhaps only a woman — director and co-writer Ida Lupino — could so pitilessly dissect the dynamics of masculine competition. Roy and Gil are full-grown American males robbed of their independence and self-respect, two of the least heroic heroes in classic cinema. Myers gives orders, telling the men when to move and where to put their hands, and taunts them with their helplessness. Sadistic and obsessed with asserting his superiority, he forces Gil to shoot a can out of Roy’s hands, and tells them if they weren’t foolishly loyal to each other one would have gotten away. With one eye that never closes, so that they can never be sure if he’s asleep, Myers presents himself as a superman who needs no one. “You guys are soft . . . you’re suckers. You’re afraid to go out on your own,” he torments his captives. “No one ever gave me anything, so I don’t owe nobody.” Why does Myers keep the men alive so long? Perhaps, for all his boasts of self-reliance, he needs an audience, needs the presence of weaker men to make him feel strong.
Roy, the more hot-tempered and macho of the two men, is goaded to the breaking point by Myers, and falls for his line of reasoning. “From now on we’re each on our own,” he tells his buddy, and makes a futile run for it, only succeeding in spraining his ankle. In the end it’s calm and compassionate Gil who overpowers Myers, but Roy beats him savagely once he’s handcuffed. In the film’s last line Gil tells Roy, “It’s all right now, boy, it’s all right,” but the words only accentuate a feeling that for Roy at least, it may never be all right again: his identity has been permanently damaged.
The Hitch-Hiker belongs to a marginal subset of noir films glorifying law enforcement: Anthony Mann’s T-Men and Border Incident are prime examples. In their simple black and white morality, these cops-and-robbers thrillers lack the ambiguity and pessimism essential to the noir vision; only the extreme violence and ravishing, stylized camera-work of John Alton lend them a noir atmosphere. (In Border Incident, the desert on either side of the Mexican border is a no-man’s land devoid of humanity — but it’s also, through Alton’s lens, utterly gorgeous.) Instead of showing the whole society as corrupt, these films depict forces of order battling an underground society of criminals. But the police procedural element of The Hitch-Hiker is secondary to a narrow focus on the psychological struggle between captive and hostages, and the story of “a man, a gun, and a car” ends on a bleak note: all that really matters is who holds the gun.
In Dick Powell’s Split Second, two escaped criminals take six hostages and hold them captive in a ghost town in the Arizona desert. While they are threatened by outlaws who take advantage of their isolation, the hostages are also threatened by civilization itself and the crown of scientific progress: the atomic bomb. They are trapped within the range of a test site where a bomb is due to be detonated at dawn. Lost Hope City, already an uninhabited ruin, hauntingly evokes the cities and towns that could be destroyed by nuclear warfare. The scientists and military men seen planning the test at the control center are benign, even comforting figures, taking every precaution against killing innocent bystanders. But the purpose of their work is destruction and death on a scale beyond the wildest dreams of the sociopathic ring-leader of the escapees or his mute, trigger-happy, comic-book-loving henchman. Everyone on earth is captive within a potential blast zone.
Sam Hurley, the escaped killer, is a veteran who “hates heroes,” despises the cause he fought for, and “doesn’t think much of anything.” Like Myers, he holds onto his hostages for no very good reason, explaining sarcastically, “I’m afraid to be alone.” His only loyalty is to Bart, the prisoner with whom he escaped, but even Bart finally turns against Sam, pulling a gun on him as they argue over whether to kill or release the hostages. In a “happy” ending, the atom bomb destroys the guilty (including the faithless woman who throws herself at Sam to save her life — even the ruthless killer calls her “a real bad dame”) while sparing the virtuous. But when the survivors crawl out to survey the charred, smoking wasteland, one says grimly, “Let’s take a look at the world of tomorrow.”
Paul Schrader identified an “over-riding noir theme: a passion for the past and present, but also a fear of the future . . . Thus film noir’s techniques emphasize loss, nostalgia, lack of clear priorities, insecurity . . . ”7 The past, in noir, never goes away, while the future is often “all used up,” as Marlene Dietrich tells Orson Welles in Touch of Evil. The birth of a child is overshadowed by a failed and decayed community, another Lost Hope City.
The big city, from which so many flee, is a beacon to others lost in America’s wide-open spaces. In Ace in the Hole, both Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling are so eager to escape from the “sun-baked Siberia” of New Mexico that they callously exploit the plight of a man trapped in a cave. “There are three of us buried here,” the unscrupulous reporter tells the man’s wife, arguing that his rescue can be their own release. Billy Wilder’s film is one of the most misanthropic ever made: the impromptu tent city that springs up around the trapped man, a literal media circus, is a community of parasites and hypocritical gawkers. Their superficial compassion is set to music in the bouncy, inane ditty played non-stop to comfort the victim: “We’re Coming, We’re Coming, Leo.” Dying alone in a cold, dusty cave, hearing this song and trusting the deceitful reporter, Leo Minosa is the most pitiful of noir’s innocent victims.
Like Leo, or the little girl in the iron lung at the beginning of Where Danger Lives, many noir protagonists are profoundly isolated, beyond reach and beyond help. Some are natural loners, like the small-time gambler Mitchum plays in His Kind of Woman!, “a lone wolf without friends or relatives, a man who’s made it his business all his life to keep under cover.” In Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse, Gagin, the man in a suit who arrives in a New Mexico fiesta town on a mission of personal vengeance, is described as a “man with no place,” and says, “I’m nobody’s friend.” Others suddenly find themselves cut off by a crime, a mistake, or a false accusation.
- In this long-running debate, a majority of writers have concluded that noir should not be defined as a genre. One dissenter is Foster Hirsch, in his monograph Film Noir: the Dark Side of the Screen (New York: Da Capo Press, 2008): “The repeated use of narrative and visual structures which soon become conventional, depending on a shared acknowledgment between the filmmakers and the audience, certainly qualifies noir as a genre, one that is in fact as heavily coded as the Western.” (p. 72) He has a point, but using a generic definition strikes me as unhelpful, encouraging time-wasting quibbles about whether films are in or out of the canon. [↩]
- Ginger Rogers, a staunch Republican, objected to dialogue like, “Share and share alike, that’s the American way,” in the war-time weeper Tender Comrade, in which Ginger lives communally with a group of war brides. The film was introduced as evidence when writer Dalton Trumbo and director Edward Dmytryk were investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. [↩]
- Foster Hirsch writes, “Passed through the noir filter, the ‘new woman,’ forced by social circumstances and economic necessity to assert herself in ways that her culture had not previously encouraged, emerged on screen as a wicked, scheming creature, sexually potent and deadly to the male.” But the “new woman” was a creature of the inter-war years; after the war the old woman, limited to the role of helpmeet, returned with a vengeance. [↩]
- Oliver Stone, in the DVD featurette “They Live by Night: the Twisted Road,” speaks of how the movie explores “the concept of blighted destiny, the concept that love, if it is exists at all, would be fugitive.” [↩]
- In Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” nature itself reflects the loss of faith, a world where there is “neither joy, nor love, nor light / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain . . . a darkling plain . . . where ignorant armies clash by night.” [↩]
- “Come in under the shadow of this red rock, / And I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” (T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”). [↩]
- Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” in The Film Noir Reader, ed. by Alain Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight, 1997), p. 58. [↩]