“I don’t need other people. I don’t need help. I can take care of me.”
A wolf howls in the distance, lonesome as a train whistle. Hearing the sound, an innocent girl tells a hard-bitten cowboy, “You have to like people, otherwise they won’t like you and you’ll always be lonely — like him.”
“Maybe he likes to be lonely, ever thought of that?” the cowboy responds. “He never asks for any favors because he can take care of himself. He doesn’t trust anybody, so he doesn’t get hurt. That’s not a bad way of living.”
The cynical misanthrope is played by James Stewart, and by the end of Anthony Mann’s The Far Country he will see the error of his ways and understand why he must help and be loyal to other people. Hollywood loved lone wolves but loved taming them even more, so the Bogart who declares “I stick my neck out for nobody” becomes the Bogart who sacrifices love for a cause larger than “the problems of three little people.” But no matter how often movies taught the lesson that selfishness must give way to altruism, they kept reviving the unreconstructed original, the man who lives by the creed Stewart snarls: “I don’t need other people. I don’t need help. I can take care of me.”
He’s a cowboy or a private eye, a gunslinger or a ship’s captain, a criminal or a drifter. He trusted someone once, now he knows better; he minds his own business and resists forming ties. He is always a he; women who are tough and selfish, who reject domesticity, are not romanticized but demonized as femme fatales: destructive, amoral and crazed with self-love. Men, on the other hand, are supposed to be independent, even if they have wives and families. John Updike wrote that it is natural for men to “oscillate in their moods between an enjoyment of the comforts of domesticity and the familial life, and a sense that their essential being is a solitary one – to be found in flight and loneliness and even adversity. This seems to be my feeling of what being a male human being involves.”1
The most idealized version of the loner is found in westerns, where the self-reliant man without roots or ties is often a friend to families and communities, even though his violence dooms him to a solitary existence. In film noir, the private detective plays a similar role as a morally ambiguous (though usually honorable) free agent who solves other people’s problems while remaining aloof. But in the years following World War II, film noir introduced a new vision of American loneliness: a cocktail of existential isolation, anti-social self-interest, pervasive distrust of other people and pessimism about human nature.
Film noir had aspects of a genre – most movies in the noir canon were originally labeled crime dramas or thrillers – and it was also a visual and narrative style with roots in German expressionism, American hard-boiled fiction and gangster movies. But more than anything else, noir was a mood of disillusionment and anxiety, a dark inversion of American ideals. Freedom suffocated in webs of entrapment and fatalism; the pursuit of opportunity and self-improvement turned into a contest of greed and violence; communities of equal citizens were poisoned by aggression, corruption and betrayal. In cities and small towns, in the wilderness or on the road, it was every man for himself, and every woman for herself. Film noirs were contemporary and often topical, but the noir mood spread to other genres, and when it infected the western it stained some of the most romantic images of America.
At first glance, the western and the film noir seem too far apart to overlap: wide-open spaces versus labyrinthine cities, color versus black-and-white, mythic grandeur versus claustrophobia, moral clarity versus ambivalence, a robust and hopeful portrait of America versus a sour and skeptical one. But westerns have always encompassed more complexity than the simplistic “oaters” made for children’s matinees,2 and after World War II some westerns took on a new tone, borrowing the themes, plots and look of film noir. One of the first and purest examples of the “noir western” was Raoul Walsh’s Pursued, from 1947, starring Robert Mitchum. Here the western’s elegiac mood – westerns were born to celebrate a world already vanishing – shades into noir’s obsession with the past and its oppressive, inescapable hold on the present. The vast magnificence of the southwestern landscape becomes, through the inky lens of James Wong Howe, a brooding nightmare of rock, both empty and claustrophobic, dwarfing the vulnerable characters. The independent hero becomes a man who lives with a family he can never fully join and which he may be fated to destroy; a man whose foster mother gives him these words of bleak comfort: “We’re alone, each of us, and each in our different ways.”
As a fifteen-year-old hobo, actor Robert Mitchum sent a poem on a penny postcard to his mother, concluding, “No love beckons me save that which I’ve forsaken / The anguish of my solitude is sweet.” In his memoir Them Ornery Mitchum Boys, John Mitchum wrote that he initially saw his brother Bob’s penchant for “running off” as a weakness of character, but came to admire the way he “simply released himself from emotional bondage.” Jeb Rand in Pursued was Mitchum’s first lead in an A picture, and also the first full expression of his persona as the eternal outsider, a man who can never fit into a family or community. “All my life I’ve known I didn’t really belong,” Jeb tells his foster mother (Judith Anderson). “I couldn’t love. I couldn’t return your kindness. Is there something wrong with me?” Uninterested in steady work, adrift from conventional morality – though he has his own code, and a tender heart hidden away – the Mitchum hero is distrusted, disapproved of and envied by other men. He’s a gambler, willing to risk whatever he has (here he loses his stake in the family ranch on a coin toss) not out of greed to win so much as an ability to let things go. He knows that in the end the best he can hope for, as he says beside the roulette wheel in Out of the Past, is “to lose more slowly.” From the start Mitchum appeared curiously comfortable in his doom-haunted alienation, relaxing into his peculiar blend of lucklessness and invincible self-assurance.
Pursued gives new meaning to the term “horse opera.” Written by Niven Busch, who also penned the famously overheated Duel in the Sun, it’s a stylized, sometimes turgid blend of Freud and Greek tragedy, rescued from camp by straightforward direction, crisp acting, and an ominous yet contained mood that feels like an approaching thunderstorm. Like other forties melodramas (Spellbound, The Locket), Pursued simplifies Freud into the notion that a twisted psyche can be explained by a single traumatic childhood event. Jeb Rand is scarred by an elusive memory of violence, but can’t recall what happened the night a family quarrel between the Rands and the Callums erupted into murder. He was rescued and adopted by Mrs. Callum, whose affair with his father was the source of the feud; she atones by raising him but keeps her secret. Confused and unassimilated, Jeb fights constantly with his foster brother Adam, who sees him as an interloper, while he and Thorley (Teresa Wright) develop a very un-sibling-like attachment. These three young people become puppets in a violent ritual, controlled by forces they don’t understand, shadowed by the secret known only by Ma and her sinister brother-in-law Grant Callum.
There is no freedom for anyone. Every action feels fore-ordained. The heightened emotions – hatred, envy, desire – feel almost impersonal, assigned to the characters like arias. In some spots, this is merely the result of an unconvincing script. When Thorley and even Ma Callum turn implacably against Jeb after he kills Adam in self-defense, there seems to be no explanation except that “blood is thicker than water.” They have both known and loved this man all his life, so how can they not believe he wasn’t at fault? When Thorley decides to marry Jeb and kill him on their wedding night, the film starts tipping toward the ludicrous. But the scenes in which they act out conventional courting rituals have a sick, chilling tone, a joyless mockery of their former romance. Jeb’s love for Thorley seems to be a yearning to latch onto her rooted normality, to be fully accepted; but the disturbing, incestuous overtones of the relationship make it an unlikely vehicle of salvation.
Other actors might have worked harder to depict the mental torment, the waking nightmares that haunt Jeb Rand. Mitchum instead plays him with a numb, somnambulistic remoteness, as an emotionally paralyzed man who has never been able to connect with anything. In this cauldron of passions, he is set apart not only by his sense of being pursued (“I’ve always got a feeling something’s after me, a bad feeling”) but by his lack of ordinary reactions, his refusal to take sides or responsibility. He kills two men – Thorley’s suitor and Adam – without wanting to, and feels no apparent guilt. He marries Thorley knowing that she plans to shoot him – he even offers her a gun. Jeb Rand is a noirish mutation of the classical western hero: stoic reticence becomes neurotic passivity, and the code of never shooting first turns a quick draw into an unwilling murderer. The west itself offers no liberty, no space for new beginnings. It is a place entirely consumed by the past, a vast petrified ruin. At the heart of the film is the charred, dilapidated cabin where Jeb takes refuge from a lynch mob, which turns out to be the childhood home where he witnessed his father’s killing. In this desolate, decayed place, where bones jut out of the dirt and bare twisted tree branches offer a hold for hanging-ropes, Jeb narrates the film as a long flashback. It leads up to a conventional, saved-in-the-nick-of-time ending, but the overwhelming flavor of ruin remains.
The concept of the noir western is almost unthinkable without Robert Mitchum, who started his career as a heavy in the amiable, low-budget Hopalong Cassidy series (he got “$100 a week and all the horse manure I could carry home,” he recalled) and went on to be hailed as the “soul of film noir” for his world-weary pessimism and cool, doomed aura. Two years after Pursued he starred in Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon, a western unequalled in its literal darkness: more than half the scenes take place at night – not filtered day-for-night but an enveloping murk that obviously symbolizes the difficulty of seeing anyone’s true nature.
The plot is quintessential noir: a man down on his luck is summoned by an old partner to be cut in on a big deal. When he finds out the deal is crooked and his friend is an irredeemable bastard (“I’ve seen dogs wouldn’t claim you for a son,” is how the hero puts it), he has to decide whether to accept his slide into villainy or fight to maintain his honor. The scheme just happens to involve cheating a man out of his cattle herd rather than some urban racket. Blood on the Moon eschews most western clichés: there are no rowdy dance halls or comical drunks, no steely sheriffs or portentous ballads. The mood is somber, tense and restrained – though it is punctuated by cattle stampedes and gunfights and one of the most brutally realistic brawls on film, as Mitchum and Robert Preston wrestle, stagger, and roll scuffling around an empty barroom by the twitching gleams of firelight.
Preston plays Riling, a smirking cad with an oily face and a plaid jacket, who not only schemes to steal a rancher’s herd but seduces the man’s daughter to get information. When Jim Garry (Mitchum) arrives on the scene, he doesn’t realize that he is merely a hired gun, or that he’s been hired by the wrong side. At first he doesn’t seem to care much. He’s a man with nothing: in the opening scene his few possessions are destroyed by stampeding cattle, as he sits miserably drying his wet, mud-caked socks by a small fire on a rainy night. (When Walter Brennan saw Mitchum in his elegantly rugged costume, he declared, “That is the goddamndest realest cowboy I’ve ever seen!”) When Garry asks for compensation and is told it was his fault for being so far off the beaten tracks, he replies, Mitchum-like, “There’s no law says a man has to stick to the wagon road, is there?” He quickly realizes that he’s walking into a charged situation, but displays no shock, shame or offense as he is labeled a mercenary. He just stands by and watches quietly, riveting in his very inactivity, recalling the tribute Lee Marvin paid his one-time co-star: “The beauty of that man. He’s so still. He’s moving. And yet he’s not moving.”
Jim Garry never smiles. He’s contained, laconic, conveying a deep inchoate sadness held at bay by dry humor. Once again he shows a willingness to lose that goes past passivity into self-abnegation. His first instinct is to simply run away rather than be forced to take a stand. Mitchum’s detachment and neutrality, his disaffected aloofness, are so attractive that one hardly notices how they can turn into a wholesale abdication of moral responsibility. In Blood on the Moon he reluctantly decides to fight for the rancher and his allies, inspired partly by growing fondness for the man’s daughter (Barbara Bel Geddes – she and Mitchum meet cute by emptying their rifles at each other), but mostly out of disgust at Riling, whom he seems to recognize as the man he could have become.
Robert Mitchum often seemed to be making a single, career-long movie called Out of the Past. Even as a young man he seemed haunted – by things he’d seen or by things he’d done. In Richard Wilson’s small, austere 1955 western Man with the Gun, Mitchum is a grey-clad mystery man, a “town-tamer” who may be more dangerous than the outlaws he battles. As Clint Tollinger, he gets romantic close-ups and wistful, lonely-hero theme music, but creates a disturbing, frightening character. Ostensibly he’s a good guy: he’s on the side of law and order, he’s courteous and gallant and a protector of the underdog. But he’s also cold, ruthless and sick with hate; he doesn’t clean up towns because he wants to aid the spread of civilization but because it gives him the license to shoot bad guys like clay pigeons. He deliberately goads men into drawing on him, knowing he can outdraw and kill them. His cool, imperturbable toughness has a nasty, chilling edge, an almost sociopathic refusal of emotion. His estranged wife (Jan Sterling) warns him, “Don’t try to change now. You’ll find that even feeling a little can hurt a lot.”
He takes the job of taming Sheridan City only as an afterthought; he has come to track down his wife and find out what happened to their infant daughter. Once so upright that she disapproved of dancing, she has become the local madam, a tight-lipped and joyless woman living off sin. There is none of the yee-haw vitality usually found in westerns here; the whole film is plain, grim, unadorned, befitting a hero who walks into the bar at exactly the same time every evening to drink one whiskey by himself. When his wife finally tells him the truth – that their daughter is dead – Mitchum freezes as though doused in liquid nitrogen. He storms out of the house, and his wife runs after him calling, “You’ll never be human! You have no pity!” Needing to take revenge on the sinful world, he burns down a dance hall and kills Frenchy, the suave Cajun manager. You can see his sadistic enjoyment as he shoots down a fancy chandelier to start the fire, then slowly walks away, just waiting for Frenchy to throw his bowie knife so he can turn and shoot him. As the blaze runs out of control and the townspeople rush to fight it, Mitchum stands rigid against a wall, watching the fire as though looking into his own hellish mind.
Though its story has conventional, even formulaic aspects, Man with the Gun is radical in the way it muddies the distinction between good and evil. A gun is a gun, and violence is violence, no matter the character or motive behind it. Sheridan City is “rotten ripe,” as one inhabitant describes it; in the opening scene a thug on horseback shoots a dog in the street just for fun. He can do so with impunity because the area is ruled by an elusive, omnipotent cattle baron who sends his goons to attack anyone who tries to build on his land. The craven townspeople are willing to turn to Clint Tollinger, giving him carte blanche to clean up the place his way. Only a few object, one recalling that in another town Tollinger operated on, “the patient lost a lot of blood.” Once bodies start clogging the streets, everyone turns against their savior, gossiping and nervously complaining. Surely there must be some option between inertia and brutality, some way of confronting evil without mirroring it – but the movie doesn’t suggest any.
Westerns kept facing this problem, wanting to condemn violence but unable to imagine a world without it. Clint Tollinger’s trigger-happiness is explained by the fact that as a boy he watched his father, a peaceful man who refused to carry a gun, murdered in cold blood. Man with the Gun loses its nerve at the end, allowing Clint to solve the town’s problems with a single bullet, reconcile with his wife and renounce his career, paying for his sins with a symbolic, non-fatal wound. But the western never resolved its ambivalence. Men like Shane and Ethan Edwards make life possible for peaceful families and communities, but pay for their violent ways by riding off alone at the end, eternally solitary wanderers. These endings are ambiguous: do they condemn the gunmen, or the communities for relying on violent justice that they are unwilling to mete out themselves?
In The Man from Laramie, Stewart rides into a small town searching for the man who sold repeating rifles to the Apache who massacred his brother, and finds the place tyrannized by a powerful rancher (Donald Crisp) and his unstable, psychotic son. A mama’s boy who knows his father puts more trust in his foster brother, the heir tries to prove his manliness through sadistic violence, equating strength with blind force. When he accuses Stewart of trespassing, burns his wagons and kills his mules, the scene plays like a senseless, fascist atrocity.
The scarcity of law enforcement left the west under the control of the men with the most money and the most guns. (And what law enforcement there was depended entirely on firepower.) Ranchers became despots of the range, killing or terrorizing anyone who tried to challenge them. Man in the Shadow, a contemporary western, explicitly compares a powerful ranch-owner played by Orson Welles to Mussolini. One of the most chilling of such figures is Frank Ivy in Andre De Toth’s lean, tough-minded Ramrod. A quiet maniac, played with deadly minimalism by Preston Foster, Ivy is the self-styled “god” of a rock-rimmed valley. Released in 1947, the same year as Pursued, Ramrod has the look as well as the mood of noir. The rocky cliffs are as vertiginous as the towers of a city, and the night scenes are some of the darkest and most effective of the decade. The film opens with Ivy humiliating and driving out a man who tried to set up a rival ranch. The exile’s fiancée, Connie (Veronica Lake), whom Ivy wants to marry, bitterly vows to achieve what her lover was too weak to carry out. She takes over his abandoned ranch and hires Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) as her foreman or “ramrod.” A principled man struggling to recover his dignity after a bout of alcoholism, Dave is determined to fight clean and keep the law on his side. But when Ivy kills the aged and respected sheriff, Dave decides to destroy him by any means necessary – short of shooting a man in the back. Most westerns unhesitatingly accept the rule that killing is fair as long as the victim drew first, but Ramrod – while hardly a pacifist film – is a little more honest about the eye-for-an-eye system of justice in which a man can pick a fight and then claim self-defense. It is also unusual in featuring a strong-willed, ambitious woman who is in many ways a classic femme fatale. Connie tells her father that she intends to make her own life, and that “being a woman, I won’t need to use guns.” Instead she uses underhanded schemes and her sexual wiles. But she is a complex character, unscrupulous and selfish, yet fighting on the right side against a bully who has intimidated all the local men.
A recurring theme in westerns is the fighting over vast, kingdom-like ranches ruled by uncrowned monarchs like Donald Crisp in The Man from Laramie or Walter Huston in Mann’s The Furies. They are self-made men, but the power they have amassed inspires fear and greed in all around them. Like the usurping kings in Shakespeare who know their thrones are vulnerable to men like themselves, the cattle barons who rose through force and theft know they are never safe. In places where no one’s roots go back more than a generation, newcomers are distrusted, frequently told, “You’d better keep traveling, stranger,” or more briefly, “Drift.”
The eponymous man from Laramie is another rootless loner who says he “can’t rightly say any place is my home.” When a woman tells him that “everyone should have a place to remember, and feel they belong to,” he replies, “Well, I always feel I belong where I am.” The iconic image of the wanderer suggests that restlessness is part of what it means to be an American man. (Women too may move around, but they are expected to make a home in each place, and to urge their husbands to settle down.) He is not defined by property, family or place in a community, but solely by his strength, skill and character.
The traditional western celebrated the bravery of pioneers, seen cutting down trees to build cabins, gathering to raise barns and churches, celebrating their new communities with dances and other rituals of civilization, making places where decent women can live and bring up children. Westerns with a darker cast show feuding families, corrupt communities, lynch mobs and anti-social loners. They suggest that American life is inherently violent and lonely. Because they have the power of myths, it’s not surprising that westerns became a vehicle for criticizing American society. In the nineteen sixties, revisionist westerns openly attacked the conventions of the genre, turning outlaws into rebel heroes, looking sympathetically at the plight of American Indians and skeptically at the narrative of manifest destiny. In the fifties, the craven towns in High Noon, or Dalton Trumbo’s B western Terror in a Texas Town, are obvious allegories of McCarthyism, their inhabitants sheep-like, timid and self-centered. John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock needs no veil of allegory; it uses the familiar motif of a mysterious stranger arriving in an isolated, hostile town, but sets the action in the postwar present. The secret guarded by this poisonous community is the murder of a Japanese-American farmer by bigots eager to steal his land.
By the nineteen forties, films with western settings – whether contemporary westerns, melodramas or film noirs – hardly needed to allude openly to the themes of the genre: the landscape of the west evoked them so irresistibly. In Gun Crazy, John Dall and Peggy Cummins start out as carnival sharpshooters in fancy western duds; after being married by the roadside “Desert Justice” and honeymooning in Yellowstone, they take off on a spree, donning their cowboy costumes to rob banks. In Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal, an escaped convict fleeing through the rugged pine woods of the Northwest happens to take refuge in the same isolated cabin as a lone lunatic gunman hunted by a posse of police. In Raoul Walsh’s White Heat, a gang that has robbed a train hides out in a desolate, freezing farmhouse, playing games of madness, betrayal and revenge. In Leave Her to Heaven, Gene Tierney rides on horseback along a canyon ridge at dawn, scattering her beloved father’s ashes in defiant handfuls, her face set as stone. The images that most commonly introduce film noir – the New York skyline, shadowed city streets – suggest the corrosive effects of money, ambition and urban poverty; the dangers of organized crime; the loneliness and menace of the anonymous crowd. The western landscape suggests a different kind of isolation and lawlessness, another brand of violence and passionate conflict; a blend of harshness and beauty, rootless freedom and deep attachment to place, raw newness and haunting nostalgia. The west is where the idea of America gets pushed to its furthest extreme.
Everyone wants to control gorgeous young Paula Haller (Lizabeth Scott), whose mother Fritzi (Mary Astor) owns the glittering Purple Sage Saloon & Casino and runs the Nevada town of Chuckawalla. Rich and domineering (“The wages of sin – are very high,” she gloats), Fritzi can buy her daughter everything except respectability or social acceptance, and the pampered girl bounces out of every school she is sent to. Stifled by her mother’s possessiveness, Paula is stubborn and rebellious; when she’s warned and then ordered not to get involved with a racketeer named Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak), who is rumored to have killed his wife, she defiantly pursues him. The mysterious Eddie lives with a man named Johnny (Wendell Corey) who keeps house for him, and whose jealousy of Paula is so ferocious that he threatens to kill her if she doesn’t leave them alone.
The overheated intensity of these two same-sex relationships has earned Desert Fury cult status. Mary Astor, in slacks and waving a cigarette holder, appreciatively surveys the stunning Scott, commenting, “You look good, baby . . . Gimme a kiss.” During a violent thunderstorm, Fritzi reminds Paula that when she was a child “You were always afraid of storms. I used to have to sleep with you. If you want me to I’ll . . .” And the film ends with mother and daughter – not the girl and her fiancé – kissing on the lips. Meanwhile, the two men have “been together a long, long time,” ever since Johnny picked Eddie up in Times Square and took him home. Eddie orders Johnny around like a servant and slaps his face (as Fritzi slaps Paula’s), but the sinister, subservient Johnny insists Eddie will never leave him because “I come in too handy” (just as Fritzi insists Paula will never leave, because “she needs me.”) Though the suggestion of homosexuality is startling for the time, it is something of a red herring; the men’s inseparable, mutually dependent relationship turns out to be something far stranger and more disturbing.
The only character free of sexual ambiguity is Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster), the local deputy sheriff, and for much of the film he is the least interesting figure, a principled hero who loves Paula and wants what is best for her. But when he gets his hands on Eddie he becomes a brutal bully, abusing his authority to arrest and beat his romantic rival. (Lancaster gives a glimpse, unusual for this early in his career, of how scary he could be.) Tom Hanson is a former rodeo champ, “all busted up inside” but still addicted to breaking horses. Applying the obvious metaphor to Paula, he tells Fritzi that the girl should be given “a long rope,” warning that if she keeps pushing her daughter around she’ll lose her. He is disgusted when Fritzi offers to buy him a ranch if he will marry Paula and thus gain her acceptance from the locals. (Tom is the only native westerner on the scene. Fritzi rose from working in the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey to marry a bootlegger and run a speakeasy, before moving west as a widow to make a new life for herself and her daughter. Eddie is from Brooklyn, part of the migration of mobsters involved in gambling and other criminal enterprises in Las Vegas. He disdainfully calls the desert, where he has come to rest up after some scheme gone awry, “this cactus graveyard.”) As a man, Tom wants to earn his own money and do his own proposing; but he is just as interested in taming Paula, if by more subtle means. Undeveloped country, wild horses and beautiful girls must all be “broken.”
Everyone in the film is obsessed with power and control. Tom tells Paula that what she’s looking for is the feeling he used to get from riding in the rodeo. Fritzi is so used to the power of her money that she believes it has no limits, that she is above the law and that everyone can be bought. Paula becomes fascinated by Eddie when she notices that he orders her mother around the way Fritzi orders her around; but she revolts when he turns the same tone on her. Paula, who likes to “be alone in the desert, with the sagebrush and the sky,” yearns for freedom and believes in independence. She tells Johnny that “two people can’t fit into one life,” but he disagrees: “Why should there be part of me apart from Eddie?” Everyone suffers from Fritzi and Johnny’s fanatical need to control the objects of their love, and the knot of relationships becomes even more snarled when it’s revealed that Eddie was once Fritzi’s lover. There are also murky hints about Paula’s uncanny resemblance to Eddie’s late wife, who died under mysterious circumstances.
Sullen and nasty, Eddie seems to hate his clinging partner, and abandons him to elope with Paula. But she takes pity on her stranded enemy, and they give him a lift as they leave town. In a diner where they stop for hamburgers, Johnny, who says he’s been “tied up too long to go on alone,” finally reveals the truth. Eddie has been merely the front man in their partnership; his reputation has been built up because he has the looks and personality, but Johnny has the brains and strength. He has done the dirty work, taken the raps, been the real force behind a savage but weak man who “couldn’t do anything alone.” He even forced Eddie to kill his wife, who knew too much about their crimes: “Sure I made you do it. I made you do everything. You couldn’t tie your own shoelaces. People think they’re seeing Eddie and all the time they’re seeing me. I’m Eddie Bendix.”
In his film debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Kirk Douglas speaks a line that could find a place in almost any film noir. He accounts for a murder, the execution of an innocent man, a forced and loveless marriage, with a simple formula: “It’s nobody’s fault. It’s what people want, and how much they want it, and how hard it is for them to get it.”
Even more than by the desire for money, men and women in film noir are driven by the desire to “be somebody,” to escape from mundane and dreary lives into a more glamorous, exciting, luxurious world. In this they should be comprehensible to everyone sitting in a movie theater watching them – since Hollywood movies themselves offered an escape from mundane lives. Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is consumed by desire to regain the success he once had as a big-city reporter and to escape the sleepy “sun-baked Siberia” of Albuquerque. (If Mitchum epitomizes the passive hero, the man who wants too little, Douglas is the quintessential driven hero, the man who wants too much.) Tatum is an exile, brought down by his own lack of scruples and discipline, but far from repenting he brims with contempt for the small ambitions and simple virtues (“Tell the Truth”) of the people around him. It is impossible not to enjoy his flamboyance as he paces the offices of the Albuquerque Star Bulletin (“Even for Albuquerque, this is pretty Albuquerque,” he scornfully tells the paper’s publisher), ranting about the glories of New York (“Give me those eight spindly trees in front of Rockefeller Center any day. That’s enough outdoors for me.”) and the deprivations of a backwater where he can’t get chopped chicken livers or garlic pickles.
But Tatum is not just a lovable scoundrel. He will do anything to get his old position back: he will not only exploit the story of Leo Minosa, a man trapped in a cave, but scheme to keep him trapped there so the story will last long enough for him to ride it back to New York. He gets the sheriff on his side by promising him support in the upcoming election, and the victim’s wife by showing her how to make a killing selling food, drinks and souvenirs to the tourists who gather around the cave, and charging them escalating rates to camp near the site. More parasites arrive to make a buck off the gawkers, setting up carnival rides and peddling sheet music to a topical song, “We’re Coming, Leo.”3 The song, played incessantly by a country-western band, allows the crowds to feel that their presence is comforting to the trapped man, that in some way they are helping to free him.
“Living in fifties America,” James Harvey has written, “was in many ways like living in a public space that’s suddenly emptied out, a theater after closing, or a classroom after school. The emptiness could feel liberating, but it could also make you feel blank and vaguely nostalgic.”4 Disasters often bring people together and create a sense of unity and common purpose. In Ace in the Hole, strangers, tourists and passersby form an impromptu community, wanting to be vicariously involved in an uplifting rescue. But the movie portrays them as tacky rubberneckers, hungry for sensation and attention – the Federbers, the only family individually identified, proudly defend their claim to be the first attracted by the crisis. The film endorses Tatum’s cynical disdain for his readers, suggesting that compassion and interest in one’s fellow man are just disguises for morbid or prurient curiosity. There is a melancholy shot of the Federbers packing up their camp after the news of Leo’s death; for a moment, the film almost allows them to have real emotions. Or is it holding them up for further ridicule because they never dreamed that the instructional, inspirational experience they hoped to offer their son could turn into a grotesque tragedy?
The caustic brilliance of Ace in the Hole is irresistible, but where do its real feelings lie? It asks us to condemn Tatum – who dies at the end, after making a public confession – yet forces us to enjoy his biting wit and brazen cleverness. It stacks the deck by surrounding him with people stupider and, in some cases, even more callous than he: the crooked sheriff who carries a pet rattlesnake in a box, and Leo’s wife, whose utter indifference to her husband’s fate disgusts Tatum. Leo himself is pitiful and gullible, trusting blindly in his wife’s affection and the reporter’s sincerity. Then there is the Indian woman seen kneeling, weeping and praying before a shrine. She is muffled in a shawl, a faceless symbol of grief, inserted to prick Tatum’s defective conscience (and ours?). The film’s presentation of her feels at once sentimental and condescending, little better than Tatum’s attitude as he greets Albuquerque residents with a cigar-store-Indian “How!” and dresses up his story with a phony legend, “the Curse of the Seven Vultures.” (The real vultures, of course, are Tatum and his allies.) Leo Minosa ends up trapped in the cave because he has gone looking for Indian pots to sell; Tatum spins this into a tale of spirits angered by the theft of relics, as though Leo were guilty of the kind of exploitation he practices himself. Tatum obviously subscribes to the “print the legend” school of journalism, which has shaped and colored the history of the west.5 But he has another, equally trenchant motto: “Bad news sells best, because good news is no news.” The most compelling stories are about people in trouble, and the most dramatically satisfying are those in which that trouble is at least partly their fault. Film noir meets both these requirements.
Far more covertly subversive than the era’s “message movies,” noir managed to smuggle a disenchanted, even despairing vision of postwar life into mainstream entertainment. Pessimism, cynicism and nihilism, outrage at social injustice, world-weary melancholy and amused, astringent misanthropy all found their way into unpretentious thrillers largely overlooked by critics. Plenty of films in the noir spectrum offered only cheap thrills, or had cop-out endings or moralizing frameworks, but as a rule noir films held up a staggeringly unflattering mirror to their viewers. Unlike the gangster movies of the thirties, they were less likely to focus on professional criminals than on ordinary men and women gone astray. As Michael F, Keaney writes, “Watching film noir was like watching your neighbors and friends indulging in illegal or immoral behavior.”6 Noir implicated its audience in the sickness it diagnosed. It was not calculated to make people feel good about themselves or the country they lived in.
How did filmmakers get away with this at a time when the studios’ only interest was in producing an accessible, lucrative product, and when the Production Code (which was weakening by the mid-fifties but very much in force in the forties) mandated films that clearly distinguished between good and evil, that showed respect for authority and institutions, that never created sympathy for criminals or lowered the moral standards of their viewers? Noir followed the letter of the law but not the spirit. It showed that crime doesn’t pay, and that the wages of sin are death, but along the way made audiences identify with flawed or unsavory characters. The enjoyment of noir films lies in a peculiar blend of empathy and schadenfreude. There is always a sense of “it could happen to you,” but also the security of taking a bus tour through the grittiest, seediest, most dangerous part of town.
James Agee defended crime movies by pointing out that “for many years so much has been forbidden or otherwise made impossible in Hollywood that crime has offered one of the few chances to get any sort of vitality on the screen.”7 Crime has always been (and always will be) used by filmmakers for the excitement and suspense it immediately creates. But film noir offered something more, a vision of the world in which crime is not an aberration or a marginal profession, but a temptation lurking in every heart. The pleasure of noir is the pleasure of knowing the worst, of feeling that one can’t be fooled, that one has moved beyond illusions, naiveté, sentimentality. It’s a sharp, bitter, adult taste, an antidote to the suspicion that you’re being lied to for your own good. It’s not the whole picture, but it’s the part of the picture that’s usually left out of Hollywood movies and other popular art.
In their most conventional form, westerns showed Americans what they wanted to see, romantic myths about their origins. Film noir showed them where they were and where they were going, like it or not. But the dichotomy was not always so simple; some westerns could be as radically skeptical as noir – or even more so. They went beyond addressing postwar problems or expressing anxiety about modernity to trace the roots of certain persistent neuroses in the American character to our cherished myths and archetypes. They led audiences not into the sunset but into the darkness beyond.
- Quoted in the New York Times, Jan. 28, 2009, “Intuitive and Precise, a Relentless Updike Mapped America’s Mysteries,” by Michiko Kakutani. [↩]
- In the silent era, William S. Hart and Tom Mix established the two ends of the Western spectrum: Hart’s films were dark, savage, gritty and austere; Mix’s were lively, simple, action-based entertainment. [↩]
- When I first saw Ace in the Hole in 2003, I couldn’t help thinking of the souvenir vendors at Ground Zero selling twin tower snow globes and commemorative t-shirts. It was easy to be offending by such tasteless keepsakes and the people who sold them, and even by the tourists who put Ground Zero on their sightseeing itineraries. But I was never inclined to doubt the sincerity of their wish to “pay their respects,” to have some direct experience of the place that had dominated national discussion for so long. Newspapers, radio and television create a virtual community of people reading, watching and hearing the same stories while having no actual contact with the subject matter or each other. The result, it seems, is an almost mystical belief in the significance of being present to “witness history.” [↩]
- James Harvey, Movie Love in the Fifties, Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002, p. 216. [↩]
- From John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.” [↩]
- Michael Keaney, The Film Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classic Era, 1940-1959, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003, introduction. [↩]
- In a review of The Killers, Black Angel and The Dark Corner in The Nation, Sept. 14, 1946. Agee writes, “The idea keeps nagging at me that more and more people who think of themselves as serious-minded, and progressive, thoroughly disapprove of crime melodramas.” [↩]