Aside from the classic mirepoix of Chandler/Cain/Hammett in the stew pot of literary influences on film noir, plenty of other writers were stirred into the heady filmic mix. Some, of course, wrote hard-boiled detective fiction, but philosophers, American Modernists, and others found themselves added for spice and depth. Moving from the more to less obvious, here are a few who found themselves, intentionally or otherwise, influencing the genre.
No discussion of film noir would be complete without bringing up “The Killers,” both the Hemingway short story and the Robert Siodmak film. Hemingway’s brutal, minimalist dialogue is like a Master Class on tough-guy banter and mounting tension. The entire short story is interpolated practically word-for-word into the opening scene of the film, which stands as a monumental example of characters bantering around the edges of a topic without making direct threats. Later scenes in films such as the chilling coin flip in No Country for Old Men owe a debt to Hemingway’s penchant for creating exchanges of dialogue in which the true meaning is buried beneath the absurdity of small talk and misdirection.
Faulkner is best known to film noir as being a screenwriter for MGM, contributing to the noir classics To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. But in his novels and stories prior to his signing on as a $500 a week gun-for-hire studio writer had a deep influence on the dialogue and underlying fatalistic philosophy of film noir. 1931’s Sanctuary, perhaps his most directly influential novel, is the story of Popeye, one of the most terrifying villains in the literature of the time and tragic femme fatale Temple Drake as they consort with moonshiners, sex-slave traders, privileged college kids, prostitutes, gangsters, and Old South gentry.
The themes of debauchery, sexual violence and perversion, and revenge masquerading as justice are played out in a jarring stream of consciousness that underscores the existential crisis of searching for meaning and unity in a world that is fractured, indifferent, and absurd. As Albert Camus wrote of the world inhabited by Faulkner’s characters, they came from “a land empty of men who rode out of it not to engage a mortal enemy as they believed but to batter themselves to pieces against a force with which they were unequipped by both heredity and inclination to cope and of which those whom they charged and counter-charged were not champions as much as victims too.”
Not a name that generally pops up in discussions of film noir. Parker’s penchant for sharp rejoinders delivered with an acid tongue influenced the development of the femme fatale character as it evolved in the films. The femme fatale, in the best of the noir films, was far more complex than may appear at first glance. She negotiated a violent and uncaring world of petty and desperate violent men, balancing the unstable power dynamics of violence, sex relations, and class, creating a fast-talking and shrewd counterpoint to the masculine world of petty crime and possessiveness.
Some of Parker’s best quips could have been delivered by femmes fatales in any number of films:
“It’s a small apartment; I’ve barely enough room to lay my hat and a few friends.”
“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think”
“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
“I like to have a martini, Two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.”
“I require three things in a man: he must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.”
“Look at him. A rhinestone in the rough.”
Himes had more of an influence on the neo and race noir films that emerged in the decades that followed the era of classic noir, but his tough-talking and uncompromisingly violent novels in the decade following WW II sent out tendrils that spread over time. 1945’s If He Hollers Let Him Go brought a gritty and grisly realism to the protest novels of the day, blending the rage of living in a perversely racist society with the existential vacuum of a seemingly meaningless existence in an absurd social system. The novel’s main character, Bob Jones, sees his idealistic dreams of a new life free from racial and class oppression systematically demolsihed by the pervasive racism of the post-war U.S, leaving him only with impotent desires for violence and rageful destruction.
His later crime novels, filmed in the early neo-noir period included Cotton Comes to Harlem, Come Back, Charleston Blue, and A Rage in Harlem helped develop detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones as well as criminals Goldy, Big Kathy, and Easy Money into icons in African American noir films.
Any discussion of noir without reference to Freud would be incomplete … in a very Freudian way. Film noir’s undercurrents of repressed sexuality (think Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death), impotence (Edward G. Robinson wearing his domineering wife’s apron in Scarlett Street), mother and father complexes (Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep), and the uncanny backdrop of urban decay and crumbling social foundations are firmly rooted in Freud’s writing.
Perhaps his long essay “The Uncanny” had the most profound influence on noir, with its explanation of repetition compulsion, the return of the repressed, and hopeless faith in the omnipotence of thought. Everything in noir is uncanny, the familiar, yet hauntingly unfamiliar: Dutch angles and plays of shadow and light that alter landscapes, con men and psychopathic killers, childish faith in the gun, the elusive big score, and crosses and double crosses that leave viewers with a vision of the world as a space devoid of governing rules and master narratives.
…and speaking of the absurdity of existence and the absence of master narratives leads us back to Camus, one of the most influential existential philosophers of the noir and post-noir era. And yes, you knew we would have to circle back to the French, eventually, right? After all, French critics were the first to observe that coherent movement emerging in cinema that Nino Frank first named film noir back in 1946, long before American critics took up the term.
Perhaps the existential absurdism Camus lays out in his 1942 essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” is the best starting point for the philosophical underpinnings of film noir, from its visual look to its substantive narrative. The question of suicide as a reaction to the dizzying meaningless of life provides the starting point from which Camus asserts that, “When he rebels, a man identifies himself with other men and so surpasses himself, and from this point of view human solidarity is metaphysical. But for the moment we are only talking of the kind of solidarity that is born in chains.”
Solidarity born in chains could well be a good summation of the predicament in which film noir characters most often find themselves. Rebelling against social codes, against a rigged system, against gender, class, and racial oppression gives protagonists a code by which they can function in attempting to live a life without compromise, even if that code only offers death as an alternative to submission.