About Me

My photo
"We need to make books cool again. If you go home with someone & they don't have books, don't fuck 'em."--John Waters

I'm the author of more than twenty novels including SHADOW SEASON, THE COLD SPOT, THE COLDEST MILE, THE MIDNIGHT ROAD, THE DEAD LETTERS, and A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN. Look for my next one THE LAST KIND WORDS due out May '12 from Bantam Books. Contact: PicSelf1@aol.com

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What is Noir?

Over on Shocklines, uber-horror writer Douglas Clegg and I have been discussing fiction/film noir a bit. He says, "It seems to me that in noir, there is a sort of Fata Morgana or Lorelei aspect -- in that a woman leads men to their doom at the center of the story, whether she wants to or not. " He goes on to ask, "If I'm wrong let me know -- my reading and movie-viewing in noir has been limited. Has there ever been a noir where a man lead women -- or a woman -- to her doom, and still could be called noir? Are there specific parameters to noir in fiction? How would you define it?"
Here's my shot at an answer:

Well, in film noir the Femme Fatale is certainly a central figure. More than anything, I think that noir can be defined as a "date with doom." Characters know that they're making mistakes, missteps, tempting fate, but for whatever reason they're drawn to doing so anyway. Usually by a woman but not always. They step out of the average life and step into another life that they seem to have been destined for, a kind of surreal or hyper-real existence.

Take for example my fave noir SUNSET BOULEVARD. William Holden is an average joe just trying to escape from the repo man when he drives into the world of Norma Desmond, who lives in that bizarre mansion where she watches only her own old films, holds a funeral for a dead monkey, has her own ex-husband/former director for a man-servant. Even when Holden has a chance to escape and find true love with his best friend's girl he gives her up because he knows she's better off without him, and he re-enters Norma's world to find only sorrow and death. There's no way out. He was fated to meet his demise, and he more or less knew it.

Another great noir is ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW starring Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan. Ryan is a vicious racist who's thrown together with Belafonte to pull a bank heist. Belafonte is deep into debt with the mob so even though he knows he shouldn't be working with this prick, he's forced to do so. The entire movie he's aware that the score isn't going to work out. But he has to go forward. And of course, things end...explosively.

Step by step characters knowingly move to their own demise.

Charles Willeford wrote a fine noir novel called PICK-UP. I don't want to give the twist away but it's about a woman who falls for a guy and she eventually is led to her doom. He loves her, and she loves him, but for a twist reason (that you don't find out until the last line of the book...it's really just a big shaggy dog story) they're fated for destruction.

Jim Thompson's THE KILLER INSIDE ME can certainly be considered noir, full of nihilistic despair. Lou Ford is a sociopath deputy sheriff, a genius pretending to be a bumpkin. His "sickness" as he calls it forces him to murder. Two women love him and, as you might guess, two women end up doomed, as does Ford himself.

Cornell Woolrich wrote THE BLACK ANGEL, about a woman who's husband is leaving her for another woman. When the other woman is found murdered, the husband is found guilty. The wife believes he's innocent and searches for the real killer, invading several men's lives, making them fall in love with her, and then shattering them and casting them aside when she gets whatever information she needs. In point of fact, she's the femme fatale, but it's her blind love for her husband that sets her on her mission. So in one regard, she's as much a victim as the others.

In BORN TO KILL Lawrence Tierney plays a homicidal psychopath who murders his casual dates when he finds out they're seeing other men. Claire Trevor finds one of the victims and boogies out of town on a train, the same train that Lawrence happens to be on. When he figures out that she's a witness and she realizes he's a murderer they do what comes naturally...fall in love! They have a hot and heavy relationship even after she brings him home to her wealthy family. Of course, the inevitable happens and they kill each other and die in each other's arms.

That sense of fate, inevitability, highly romanticized-energized living before tragedy, the flame burning brighter before it burns out is the essence of noir, I think.
So how about you folks? How do you define noir?


pattinase (abbott) said...

PICKUP made me a huge Willeford fan. How different it is from the Hoke Mosely books though.

Ray Sawhill said...

Great blogging, fun to read. Here's a posting that's a complement to yours.


Wayne C. Rogers said...

I can't talk about the novel or the original film version with Lana Turner, but The Postman Always Rings Twice with Jack Nicholson and Jessica seems to fit the bill. Jessica Lange's character is kind of a femme fatal, but rather than bringing about Jack's death after the murder of her husband, she unexpectedly dies in a traffic accident, leaving Jack's character kneeling alongside the road, crying over her body.

Kent said...

Those are good examples, Pic.

To me, and to keep it simple, it's not noir if there's any sort of a happy or even "things will be all right" type end. To really earn the tag of noir, it has to be one way street with a dead end.

KentAllard said...

In William P. McGivern's The Big Heat, no less than four women go to their death as the result of the actions of the police detective who is the protagonist, but some would argue the noirness of it.