Bright Lights Film Journal

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.”

In 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 (1925), The Circus(1928), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936). 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 Chain Gang (1932),Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and Heroes for Sale (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 (1947). 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 Twice, 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 noir.

“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 (Hollywood). (Schrader).

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 Lang, 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 Fuller, Tay Garnett, Henry Hathaway, John Huston, Phil Karlson, Joseph H. Lewis, Joseph Mankiewicz, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Don Siegel, Frank Tuttle, Raoul Walsh, and Orson Welles.

Notions of noir as a genre present certain problems. Noir would appear to be transgeneric. There are noir westerns (Pursued, 1947; Ramrod, 1947; Blood on the Moon, 1948), noir melodramas (Mildred Pierce and Leave Her to Heaven, 1945), and even noir comedies (Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944; M. Verdoux, 1947; 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 (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), The Big Sleep(1978), Body Heat (1981), The 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 of sorts.

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 (USA, 1990), 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 (1944) 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 place.

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 viewer.

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 Kane (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 viewer.

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 significantly ends in their turning back to where they started.

Detour‘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 the road 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 the myth.

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 self-sacrifice.

An early screen tramp named Olaf, in Olaf, an Atom, is 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 gallantly 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 Petrified Forest(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) destruction.

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 explains, but “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 bank foreclosures.

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 road.

The philosophical, existential tramp, epitomized by Bill in A Man’s Castle, 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 (La 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 than self-sacrificial.

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.

Works Cited

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, 1955).

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, 1971).

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 1976).

London, Jack, The Road (London: Arco Publications, 1967).

Marcus, Steven, introduction to Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).

Neale, Stephen, Genre (London: British Film Institute, 1980).

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).

Originally published in issue 14 (1994) of the discontinued print edition.


  1. Tully, 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. []
  2. These 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. []