Bright Lights Film Journal

Noir Country: Alien Nation

“The problem, of course, is the goddamned Industrial Revolution!” – Monica Morgan, Dialogues on Backwater Capitalism

“All machines lie!” – Ann McKim, Lost Paradise

What is it about the ciy that encourages (or even creates) the idea of film noir? Why does every noir theorist agree on the city as a (the) fundamental element?

In the typical urban noir setting, working stiffs, small-time crooks, and particularly, financially strapped couples — the typical inhabitants of noir — are drawn into a life of crime and degradation. Noir attacks their hope, happiness, peace, complacency, and romance. Why? Here’s one possibility.

As society “progresses,” and the urban setting gradually replaces the pastoral, the human psyche is also forced to relocate, far from its pastoral and romantic and spiritual origins. As the setting changes, the spiritual needs of its denizens remain. The urge to cultivate our spiritual side, to experience the transcendent, remains; yet it now exists (as the person does) in an unspiritual, hostile terrain — the city. The combination of spiritual longings and dehumanized, poverty-inducing urban environments creates paranoia and self-destruction — i.e., the fallen world of noir.

An equation suggests itself:

Noir = industrialization + (thwarted) spirituality

Noir can be read an aestheticized protest against the concepts of industrialization, capitalism, and progress, created by (mostly) American and German/Austrian writers and filmmakers who were simply recording the inevitable decline of American capitalism that began in earnest between the two world wars. Even as it shows the manifold seductions of the city, with its simultaneous capacity to yank an individual out of the crowd into instant wealth (identity via consumerism), and to submerge the troubled personality in the sea of humanity, noir exposes the bruised, bleeding underbelly of industrial culture.

Noir derives from the broken promise of America’s transition from farm and field to city, from wilderness to development, from a rural, agricultural economy to industrialization. The average citizen is violently re-rendered from self-supporting — deriving tactile pleasure, and physical and mental vitality from the land — to state-supporting — a slave to the needs of a tiny, quasi-aristocratic elite. (Consumerism can be seen on one level as capitalism’s palliative and distraction from this wrenching dislocation and oppression.)

America has spent much of this century touting its approach to social organization to the rest of the world as the most intelligent and even nurturing way of organizing populations and resources. Beneath this propaganda an enormous underclass has arisen that capitalism could not account for and hoped to ignore. The forced movement of people from the source of their lives — the land — and their placement in the dehumanized environment of the brightly lit cities across the country ripped away the spiritual underpinnings that nourished them. The promise of the city as an exciting, pleasurable, profitable, and humane locale gave way to images of desperation and eventually horror as the city could not come close to fulfilling this promise for many of its inhabitants. Most of noir’s characters, individuals or on-the-lam couples (John Dahl and Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy, Ann Savage and Tom Neal in Detour) are driven by economic need and the depression that comes less from metaphysical maladjustment (though that element is surely there too) than from social chaos and financial deprivation. Sometimes these couples live out, briefly, the ultimate promise of the city — fantastic wealth, power, sex, and romance. Almost inevitably, they die violently, at the hands of the police.

Those who were hurled off the merry-go-round of progress became noir’s inhabitants, both onscreen (the paranoid book and movie characters who reflected the thwarted lives of real people) and off (the hard-boiled writers, scenarists, and directors who saw what was happening and described it for the rest of the culture).

This theory helps explain some of noir’s hallmark aspects: the country/city schism (e.g., “Kentucky” as a kind of unreachable Eden in The Asphalt Jungle, “the river” of a simple past in Written on the Wind) in which the memory of the pastoral ideal (Nature) drives so much of the action; visual motifs that show a ruptured world — literally skewed angles, forced perspectives, dominant darkness; the intoxicating lure of crime, which subverts the faceless cooperation and conformity that drives a capitalist society by having a character attack the state’s piled-up treasures of money and property, the ill-gotten gains of its exploitation of the worker; and the collapse of predictable and necessary firm gender roles, with the sexualized woman increasingly a source of paranoia for the disempowered postwar male and frequently his downfall. This is not to say that noir created, e.g., the femme fatale. This character exists as an archetype throughout myth and history, but noir situates her specifically in its anticapitalist schema, as a typically “twisted” growth in an inhuman culture. (Other sex-role deviances found in noir include rampant queerness — The Big Combo, The Maltese Falcon, Laura, — and even transvestism in The Killer Is Loose and most famously,Psycho.

We must ask ourselves, then, does noir pose primarily social or metaphysical questions? Is the darkness of noir the result of social forces or of unanswerable metaphysical horrors endemic to the human condition? It could be argued that the replacement by capitalism of a rural egalitarian society (or the dream of one) created social ruptures that exposed suppressed metaphysical questions. The problems of identity faced by an achingly real character like poor Al Roberts (Tom Neal) in Detour Are almost unimaginable outside a noir context, which leads us to assume that noir encourages such questions. The “fallen world” theory of noir (Roberts’ world is certainly fallen) is usually read as theological, but it seems just as reasonable to suggest that the world that has fallen is the actual world, not a metaphorical biblical one; that its fall is the perceived collapse of society, palpable and documentable, as engineered by the ruthless machine of capitalist progress and the psychic and physical movement from the land (life) to the city (death). Buried questions of point, purpose, and identity are forced into expression in noir, but noir itself is the result of tangible, destructive social forces.

Noirs origins have been much contested, but it seems reasonably easy to trace both its thematic (paranoia) and formal (chiaroscuro) elements back to German Expressionism. It’s no great leap from Fritz Lang’s M in 1931 to the same director’s Scarlet Street 14 years later. The American version — one wants to say the refinement — of noir, was inspired by Hollywood’s expatriate intellectual community of writers and directors(Lang, Ulmer, Siodmak, Wilder) who surely understood displacement and alienation more than they might ordinarily have because they were displaced and alienated themselves. That factor, coupled with their romantic-nihilistic view of human nature helped bring noir to its fullest expression in the 1940s and ‘50s.

What are noir’s couples on the run really looking for, once the superficial search (the Big Caper, e.g.) ends in failure? To escape from the city, its effects, to feed their spirit by finding again that pastoral ideal that hovers atavistically in their minds. In Gun Crazy, Peggy Cummins and John Dahl are typical in escaping only when they die, romantically and spiritually bonded, in an abstracted — i.e., de-natured — version of a natural setting, a marsh. This is one of the most powerful images in all of noir, the criminal couple dead, but together, in a curious mix of the pastoral and the artificial (the Hollywood studio-ized version of nature).

Some purists feel that noir ended in the mid-1950s, with Kiss Me Deadly representing a suitably apocalyptic ending to the genre. But as long as the the city, however enfeebled, is the primary unit of human organization in the industrial world, noirs must continue to be made. We can expect them to reflect ever more graphically the increasing dehumanization and violence of a declining society and there is plenty of evidence not only in neo-noirs (e.g., Mike Leigh’s Naked) but also the brutal urban action film that this is the case.