The Big Adios

Because we all go a little crazy sometimes… meditations on all things noir and hard-boiled.

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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.

 

Ernest Hemingway

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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.

 

Willian Faulkner

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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.”

 

Dorothy Parker

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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.”

 

Chester Himes

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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.

 

Sigmund Freud

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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.

 

Albert Camus

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…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.

There’s something so distinctly British about the horror films produced in late 60’s and 70’s England. And no, that first sentence wasn’t brought to you by the Department of Redundancy Department. What I mean is that the films from this period were moving away from mainstream Gothic (with its castles and horse-drawn carriages) towards the modern Urban (and Rural) Gothic. Even films set in the historical past carried with them either contemporary concerns about British society or new aesthetic visual styles.  Horror in this era was more heavily influenced by twentieth century war, the sexual revolution, rising drug abuse, and sociopolitical unrest. Yet a distinctively quirky sense of British humor and irony rose to the forefront, counterposing  new levels of graphic violence with stiff-upper-lip sensibilities.  Below is a  list of the lesser known horror films produced by British studios during a time when horror was shifting gears from Gothic period pieces to the more contemporary grindhouse-style films,ost of the films came from outside the Hammer/Tyburn/Amicus trifecta of British horror studios. This is by no mens a complete list; just some of my favorites. What are yours?

RAW MEAT

A wonderfully grisly film regarding the last surviving descendent of a group of 19th century miners trapped in the tunnels of the London Underground who has to venture out to find more victims. Cannibalism, gruesome effects, a wonderful musical score with throbbing electro-jazz, and an impeccable performance by the great Donald Pleasance. This film was released a year before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and features a scene revealing the cannibal lair that more than equals Chainsaw’s gruesomeness. also known as Death Line.  A truly under appreciated gem!

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THE NANNY

Disturbing and frightening Hammer Films chiller directed by the great Jimmy Sangster. Bette Davis stars as the seemingly-sinister nanny hired by a couple to help with their 10 year-old son, who has just been released from an asylum for disturbed children. Did young Joey really kill his sister? Is the Nanny out to kill Joey and his family? The questions mount as the film ratchets up the suspense as well as a Hitchcock film. One of Bette Davis’ most chilling performances, she infuses every scene with tension and dread. A strong departure from the “Catsup and Cleavage” line of Hammer period horror films, this one still has the power to keep you on the edge of your seat until the conclusion.

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THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR

I have to admit, this is a pure nostalgia entry for me. I first saw this film on television as a child, and it gave me nightmares for weeks. Having just seen it again, I was impressed by the themes brought up by the film. A series of savage murders committed against British soldiers in uniform has galvanized the soldiers in a remote English garrison to full alert. Two aging sisters (Flora Robson and Beryl Reed) fear that their brother, kept locked in the basement of their farmhouse for the past 30 years, has escaped and is responsible for the gruesome killings. To say more would ruin your viewing experience, although it must be mentioned that this film uses the Gothic conceit of the madman locked in the basement to explore powerful themes of war and madness, PTSD, and the Freudian return of the repressed.

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WITCHFINDER GENERAL

Probably one of the better-known films on this list, The Conqueror Worm (originally titled Witchfinder General) presents one of Vincent Price’s most menacing performances as Matthew Hopkins, a lawyer dispensed to prosecute witches in England during the English Civil War. Set against the backdrop of Cromwell’s pursuit of loyalist to Charles I, this film is absolutely drenched with 17th century history set against the wonderfully atmospheric backdrop of the English countryside in autumn. Hopkins’ methods of torturing witches into confession are brutally displayed here, as he employs ritual after horrendous ritual with the assistance of his brutal henchman (played by Robert Russell). A fascinating and horrifying depiction of mass-hysteria, the corrupting influence of power, and religious mania, this film still has the power to make you squirm… but is also intelligent enough to make you think.

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THE ASPHYX

A strange, but oddly entertaining chiller in which a scientist with a fascination for the paranormal discovers that he can capture a ghostly image on film when photographing those about to die. This image, he later learns, is the Aspynx, a spirit from Greek mythology who appears at the moment of death to capture the dying soul. Fascinated, he begins to conduct a number of experiments… drawing the Asphynx ever closer to him. A wonderfully produced film with glorious elements of Steampunk aesthetics, this is a film very much ahead of its time.

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FRIGHTMARE

Also known as Cover Up, Frightmare is a cannibal-family film that deserves far more respect and viewing that it’s been given. An aging couple, having recently been released for an asylum where they were sentenced for murder and cannibalism, return to their old habits in a remote home in the Suffolk countryside. But their daughter is coming home with a new man, and she may just not have escaped the odd “tastes” of her family. Grisly gore, biker gangs, and a memorable scene with a power drill make this a seminal film for fans of 80’s horror (which drew heavily from this under appreciated film).

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THE SHOUT

An odd, atmospheric, and eerie adaptation of a short story by Robert Graves, The Shout is a film to be seen by all fans of cinema. A visitor at an insane asylum watches a cricket match between inmates when he is befriended by a rather bored-looking man officiating the match. The man tells the visitor a story of a man named Crossley, a drifter who glides into the life of a musician interested in experimental sound and his wife. The drifter has studied for years to learn aboriginal magic, and has gained the ability to kill merely by emitting a loud shout. After a devastating demonstration of his power at a lonely beach, he insinuates himself into the lives of the terrified couple. Is the tale true? Is the teller of the tale an insane inmate himself? Is he the man in his own story? Watch to find out! And look for an early role by Tim Curry as the visitor.

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DEEP END

A strange, absorbing film about a 15 year old boy’s descent into sexual madness. The plot may sound as simple as can be: a teenaged boy working in a London bathhouse becomes obsessed with a co-worker 10 years his senior, and soon turns from a distant adorer to a stalker. But this film is so much more. A strange combination of gritty Marxist realism and surrealism (owing, no doubt, to its being a British/West German co-production), Deep End emerges as a terrifying exploration of sexual awakening in a setting of sexual exploitation. John Moulder Brown brings true pathos as a young man who first learns of sexuality at an exploitative bath house, and his physcosis-induced stalking of Jane Asher is light years ahead of better-known films along this line that would appear a decade later. A perfect combination of the Euro-Art House film and the psycho-stalker film, Deep End will leave you gasping.

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NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT

This may be the least known of the many film pairings of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Out of print for many years, it is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime. Members of a British trust are being found dead, either by apparent suicide or accident. When a bus with the final surviving trust members goes off a cliff along with three dozen young orphans, police inspector Lee suspects something more sinister. A film full of red herrings and plot twists, Nothing But the Night begins as a police mystery but veers into the occult towards the end. Worth watching to see Lee and Cushing together again.

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PREY

Perhaps the strangest film on this list, Prey is a film you’ll never forget. The lowest of low budgets and a 10 day shooting schedule didn’t prevent director Norman J Warren from directing a horror/sci-fi exploitation film that is both disturbing and engrossing. An alien descends to Earth to see if humans will provide an adequate food supply for his alien cohorts. After killing and assuming the appearance of a man making out with his girlfriend, he befriends a lesbian couple and soon becomes a threat to their relationship. Bloody, erotic, intelligent, and deeply troubling, Prey is a sexploitation film that conjures deep questions about the politics of sexuality, the cultural connections between sex and violence, and gives you nightmares in the process!

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Walter Hill’s 1984 cult classic Streets of Fire might seem like an odd fit for a blog on film noir, but bear with me on this one. It’s a decidedly strange but deliriously frenetic neo-noir mash-up that blends iconic elements of film noir, rock and roll movies, motorcycle pictures, westerns, and teen action flicks. Long before Sin City, Se7en, Fight Club, and The Matrix, Hill combined genres and fashion from multiple decades to create the fictional Gotham-like city in which the film is set.  Desperately underappreciated upon its initial release, the film has not only found a devoted audience, but also influenced films to follow both in terms of its visual look as well as its hyper-aggressive editing.

The look of the film is clearly that of an urban hell. Rain perpetually drenches the city, yet fails to wash away any of the grime. Random gangs of young punks straight out of Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Ones rule the streets, only marginally kept at bay by the police, and the elevated trains overhead lend a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in both place and time. The cars and fashion are straight out of the 1950s, but the music and editing are pure 1980s, with some nineteenth century dime novel plotting thrown in for good measure. The hyper-aware,cliche-ridden dialogue alone could serve as a master class in noir tough guy banter, and is delivered with deadly earnestness by the cast.

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Out of this vertiginous sense of temporal displacement emerges a plot as standard as they come: restless mercenary Tom Cody is called back to the nightmare city by his sister to rescue ex-girlfriend Ellen Aim, a rising rock star kidnapped by a motorcycle gang led by sneering villain Raven. But Hill’s film is so much more about style over substance. What sets the film apart from a long list of other B pictures is its self-conscious and self-referential sense of irony. Rather than play the lines for laughs, the film allows the humor to arise out of the aggregate of genre pastiche. No double-takes or asides to the camera here. Hill, as he did in other classics like The Warriors and Southern Comfort treats the genres he blends with a respect that shows his deep knowledge of why genre films work by their own, internal logic, and by extension shows a filmmaker’s respect for his audience.

Other than the constant stream of banter, perhaps the most striking feature of the film are its visuals. The concrete and steel support columns of the elevated train bisect the rain-soaked streets, creating complex networks of vertical lines and crossed angles that are fully imbedded in the outdoor scenes, rather than marking the background. Drawing from the inner-city film noir tradition, the columns and Escher-like networks of pipes and steel-grate catwalks and stairs create a look that is as sharp and severe as the film’s characters.

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The cast of relative newcomers at the time includes Michael Pare, Diane Lane (playing the film’s femme fatale when she was only eighteen), Amy Madigan, Rick Moranis, Bill Paxton, and a young Willem Dafoe as the evil Raven. Deborah Van Valkenberg, from Hill’s earlier The Warriors, stars as Pare’s sister.

The film’s disappointing box-office was no real surprise, as Hill was working far ahead of his time here. Later films that blended graphic novel aesthetics and a vision of the city as a rain-soaked, post-industrial Hell of grays and greens would gradually find much better success with audiences, but Hill was there at the forefront, slugging away at a new visual and auditory style of filmmaking. Pity that his destiny, much like that of most film noir protagonists, was to crash and burn with this film… but he went down swinging, by God. He went down swinging.

 

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Burke’s existentially driven former New Orleans homicide cop and current Iberia Parish deputy Dave Robicheaux is one of the most compelling lost souls in American fiction.  An alcoholic suffering from PTSD from both his experiences in Vietnam and his penchant for violence as a police officer in and around New Orleans, Robicheaux is the quintessential self-made Job for modern times.

 

In this latest novel, Dave Robicheaux finds himself once again lost in a land of ghosts, recently widowed as a man with a history of drunk driving had caused his third wife’s death at a lonely intersection in New Iberia.  Coming out of an alcoholic blackout after a relapse, Robicheaux learns that he may have beaten the man to death with his bare hands, but has no memory of what happened. He finds himself it the Kafkaesque position of assisting in the investigating a murder that he honestly doesn’t know if he, in fact, committed. At one point in the novel, Robicheaux projects his own alcoholic self-loathing onto the New Orleans area as a whole:

 

“If anyone tells you he’s from New Orleans and doesn’t drink, he’s probably not from         New Orleans. Louisiana is not a state; it’s an outdoor mental asylum in which millions of people stay bombed most of their lives. That’s not an exaggeration. Cirrhosis is a family heirloom.”

 

The mystery that follows, blending old-school drug running, charismatic Southern figures, and the bloody legacy of the American South is a corker, but what reigns supreme in the novel is the twisted ways in which the historical become one with the personal.

 

Burke populates the novel with characters familiar to Robicheaux’s world: the beaten down and abused, the local mobster, the drunks, the corrupt cops, the rising politician with skeletons in his closet, the itinerant psychopathic killer, and those who just want to scratch out a living without arousing the interest of the predators who wait, like hungry sharks, to clamp their jaws around those who speak out of turn. Familiar characters Helen Soileau and Clete Purcell reveal new depths to their humanity as they fret over their friend’s potential crack-up while struggling with their own demons.

 

Perhaps out of this collection of the damned, the most rapacious villain to emerge in the novel is the past itself. It plays such a central role in the novel, that perhaps I should write it as The Past, granting it the fully-realized personification that it attains in the narrative. The Past, for Burke, is both the personal and the social, and following how he intertwines the two into a New Southern Gothic sensibility is one of the most rewarding features of his writing. Burke goes beyond the Christ-haunted South to blend it with the racial Gothic, political noir, and a Nightmare Alley-like vision of alcoholism and descents into madness.

 

But, as with all great novels that eclipse their genre, this book goes far deeper than the mundane treatment of plot and resolution to meditate deeply on the fleeting possibility of redemption, the strength of true friendship, and in the possibility…  a daily possibility if so chosen… of redemption for all seemingly lost souls.  Consider the two following quotes that highlight the novel’s ironic tension between violence and redemption as embodied by Robicheaux:

 

 

“How do you handle it when your anger brims over the edge of the pot? You use the shortened version of the Serenity Prayer, which is “Fuck it.” Like Voltaire’s Candide tending his own garden or the British infantry going up the Khyber Pass one bloody foot at a time, you do your job, and you grin and walk through the cannon smoke, and you just keep saying fuck it. You also have faith in your own convictions and never let the naysayers and those who are masters at inculcating self-doubt hold sway in your life. “Fuck it” is not profanity. “Fuck it” is a sonnet.”

. . .

“Mortality is not kind, and do not let anyone tell you it is. If there is such a thing as wisdom, and I have serious doubts about its presence in my own life, it lies in the acceptance of the human condition and perhaps the knowledge that those who have passed on are still with us, out there in the mist, showing us the way, sometimes uttering a word of caution from the shadows, sometimes visiting us in our sleep, as bright as a candle burning inside a basement that has no windows.”

 

Burke’s vision of America in the twenty-first century is as accurate and uncompromising as it could be.  We are a nation who has never learned Faulkner’s dictum that the problem with the past is that it even isn’t the past yet.  We continue to pay for our sins because we have never come to terms with them.

 

Dave Robicheaux stands as a character who doesn’t always deserve our sympathy, but because so, he represents a truly American figure… one who understands his function in an already-scripted role, yet rebels against that role when it counts. By far the most existentially deep of the twenty-one novels through which Burke has developed the Robicheaux character, this book reaches an apotheosis to which few authors can wish to ascend.  The best way I could describe the book is to ask you to imagine a word-processing cocktail shaker into which has been poured All the King’s Men, The Lost WeekendIntruder in the Dust, and a liberal sprinkling of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. Shake well, pour over ice, add simple syrup and a mint sprig, and enjoy.