Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption
by Thomas S. Hibbs,
$27.95 hardcover, 2008
Early postwar French critics trumped all others in identifying and taking active critical interest in the specifically American genre that they dubbed “Film Noir.” Nino Frank, Raymond Borde, and Etienne Chaumeton pioneered the criticism, the latter two collaborating on their 1955 study, Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953. It took outsiders to the Hollywood scene to discern as a particular inflection of the American artistic genius what seemed to ordinary movie goers a mere formulaic staple of the standard double-feature playbill, often occupying the “B” position on the marquee. The “B” picture normally came from a second-line studio where the producer afforded the director no budget. The economic constraints of “B” movie production drew from directors a type of grim inventiveness, just as tight production schedules entailed sound-stage urgency that often found its way into the story.
The directorial auteurs of Noir were, of course, quite aware of what they were doing. Some were European émigrés and almost all knew and respected the German Expressionist style of Weimar period cinema. They were educated men and conversant with intellectual currents of the day. One classic and seminal item in the noir catalogue, director John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle (1950), based on a novel by W. R. Burnett, offers something close to a genre-paradigm, not least in Huston’s European literary ties. Huston began collaboration in 1947 with none other than Jean-Paul Sartre on a film about Sigmund Freud, only to see the project collapse when Sartre fell out with him and demanded to have his name removed from the endeavor. The Asphalt Jungle qualifies as pure Huston, but it is also, despite its American literary roots, washed with the bleakness of Sartre’s novelistic existentialism. Shot in black and white, largely urban and nocturnal in its settings, The Asphalt Jungle assembles its cast of criminal anti-heroes to pit them in their jewel-heist scheme against an uptight and oblivious bourgeois world that, in comparison to them, measures up as inauthentic. Insofar as law and order prevail it so happens not because police work succeeds or morality asserts itself in the robustness of its conviction but rather because contingency undermines the plot and the perpetrators, despite their cold bloodedness, fail.
Thus Huston makes Dr. Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the mastermind of the caper, an epicure-ironist who enjoys expensive cigars and jests with his captors when they apprehend him in a highway diner; and he makers Riedenschneider’s backer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) likewise an esthete who, despite his being middle class and a player in the legitimate system, takes Bohemian lawlessness to heart. The gunslinger Dix (Sterling Hayden) proves to be a country boy who, after taking a gunshot, only wants to get back to the farm to see his birthplace once more before he dies. One might see in Dix a mute and ineffective attempt to return to lost innocence. One or two peripheral characters articulate conventional moral ideas that the failure of the heist seems formally to endorse—Emmerich’s mistress (Marilyn Monroe) in her confession to the police and Dix’s girlfriend—but such characters measure up as feeble compared to the lawbreakers, whom Huston portrays as admirably goal-oriented and alluringly beyond good and evil.
One can see why a film like The Asphalt Jungle appealed to French intellectuals of the 1950s, steeped as they were in Sartre, Camus, and Althusser. As Technicolor became more and more the norm for commercial film, and as commercial film became less and less challenging to the movie-going public, the black-and-white, Sartre-like narratives about rebels against the perceived insipidity of everyday life could be taken to advocate for antinomianism. The noir world of criminal authenticity and atheistic carte blanche vindicated an ideological penchant for random, often violent acts, for heightened egotism, and for indifference to the worries of those whom Sartre called derisively les salauds—bluntly, “the shits.” Someone like Chaumeton could see the American noir filmmakers as fellow subversives in the struggle to undermine a vile middle class existence.
Thomas Hibbs, author of The Arts of Darkness, stands somewhat apart from the French interpreters of noir, even as he liberally adjusts a strict and more or less canonical definition of the generic term to suit his own purposes. Far more sympathetic to social norms than previous commentators, Hibbs makes a case, sometimes persuasive in context, that noir can encompass Technicolor production, teen-oriented television serials, and science fiction thrillers, and that it need not endorse the positions of Sartre-like hopelessness and cynicism. For Hibbs, Noir indeed gives voice to an anguished religious need that reflects Blaise Pascal’s Christian anthropology, than which none could be more appropriate to the distorted age of which modern people are the heirs and in the labyrinth of which they exist. According to Hibbs, following Lucien Goldmann and Sarah Melzer, Pascal presciently diagnosed the ills of modernity, such as the reduction of life to market activity, the loss of self in diversion, and the dissolution of a moral framework rooted in faith even while a need to believe in something persists. Pascal sees in man the creature “doomed to seek with groans,” as many noir characters do even without fully grasping that their lives have become so many keening quests. “Of course, Pascal’s goal,” Hibbs writes, “is to exhibit the fit between that dark conception of the human condition and the Christian doctrine of redemption.” For Hibbs,noir, while displaying the surface features of a prevalent atheism, nevertheless takes life from a deeply seated and essentially religious faith in the reality of transcendence. It is enough, in Hibbs’ analysis, for a noir character simply to become aware of his perdition to tilt the genre in the direction of affirming actual morality.
The Arts of Darkness surveys six decades of noir to support Hibbs’ evaluation of the genre and illustrate its internal variegation. To assimilate contemporary films, Hibbs deploys his coinage “neo-noir,” which he applies to such disparate and rather unobvious items as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) and Punch Drunk Love (2002), Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004), Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Quentin Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill Parts I and II (2003, 2004), and Joss Wheadon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2004), the last a long running Gothic horror for television. Scott’s Blade Runner clearly deserves to keep company with classic noir movies like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The Post Man Always Rings Twice (1946), and The Killing (1955), because Scott makes so many blatant allusions to them; and in his story a routine detective procedure, the stock of noir, does become a genuine moral quest following what amounts to the protagonist’s conversion.
Phenotypically, however, entries like Magnolia and The Passion of Christ, not to mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer, make for a more difficult argument. For one thing, as Technicolor films, they belong to the insurgent commercial esthetic against whose swift rise to dominance the noir directors of the 1950s stubbornly held out. For another, the stark chiaroscuro of noir cinematography would seem inseparable from the idea of a dark quest in shadowy realms of evacuated certainty. Hibbs argues for the inclusion of certain color movies in the noir canon because, despite appearances, these movies function as noir functions in his definition. “Noir’s disturbing vision awakens us from our dogmatic slumbers, from our comfortable sense that all is as it should be.” In the very brutality and shamelessness of the noir landscape there lurks a hidden occasion for disappointment so deep that it can sunder apocalyptically the unquestioned routine of misspent desire.
In its severe chastisement of suburban emptiness in a consumer society, American Beauty, for example, certainly conforms on its surface to Hibb’s noir rubric. Thus the film’s personae are so many salauds, of the American variety, ineligible for any kind of redemption, but one could easily indict director Mendes for having over-determined his characters tendentiously, and then for having knocked down what amounts to straw men of his own construction. In fact, American Beauty seems quite doctrinaire in a PC, Hollywood-liberal way, making just about every predictable gesture in the left-wing repertory of social prejudgments: one character, a gay-bashing ex-Marine who stands for right-wing hypocrisy, turns out (naturally) to be a closeted homosexual; the same character’s dope-dealer son is a natural-born philosopher full of untaught wisdom (how could it be otherwise); the protagonist’s wife, a materialistic real-estate agent, trades her body in an ugly affair the way she hopes rather ineffectively to trade in houses; and finally Mendes presents the protagonist’s last-minute reluctance to consummate sexual union with an underage friend of his teenage daughter as a moment of moral heroism, after which, having made him run himself to exhaustion in his midlife crisis, he has him commit suicide.
American Beauty struck the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences as incisive and profound; they bestowed an Oscar on it. The film strikes a keener viewer as pat and predetermined. Only in Hollywood does affirming a normative sexual taboo count as extraordinary exertion. Stanley Kubrick’s black-and-white flashback story of Lolita (1962), which Hibbs never mentions, fits better as noir than Mendes’ effort. Aware of American Beauty’s flaws, and perhaps also its tendentiousness, Hibbs’ hedges his moderate praise with a few reservations. On the suicide that bloodily ends the narrative,he remarks that the director arbitrarily and cheaply absolves his protagonist of any responsibility to act on his partial insights. He also recognizes that “the film embodies the incoherence at the root of much leftist criticism of capitalism.” Yet Hibbs devotes nearly ten continuous pages to American Beauty, a charitable gesture, maybe, towards an attempt at art that itself stands in sore need of redemption. Even though they never quite convince, no one should think that those ten pages lack interest.
On other films, Hibbs achieves plausibility more convincingly than in the case of American Beauty. His reading of Proyas’ Dark City demonstrates how certain science fiction tropes of the 1950s and 60s resemble certain other hard-boiled detective tropes from the crime fiction of the pulp era, so that the noir narrative can dress itself in science fiction attire without too much jarring viewer sensibility. Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), based on a Mickey Spillane novel, had already crossed generic lines with its story of criminal machinations to gain possession of “the Dingus,” a nuclear device that destroys everyone who touches it. Proyas, like Scott, intends his film in part as homage to noir, but this is not the case in the Philip K. Dick-derived Tom Cruise vehicle Minority Report (2002), directed by Steven Spielberg. No other director is as slick, colorful, or commercial as Spielberg, yet in drawing on Dick, a quirky Bohemian Existentialist whose early education consisted in his voracious reading of the pulps, he finds, as Hibbs notes, a powerful liberation from the shallowness of his splashiest productions. Hibbs writes: “Contemporary sci-fi neo-noirs make explicit and prominent themes that remained mostly implicit and marginal in classical noir,” for example, “the machine-like character of human life, action, and desire in the modern world.”
Hibbs notes that classic noir “exhibits a fascination with the technology of the city, while “sci-fi neo-noir exacerbates classic noir’s sense of entrapment in a technological dystopian.” Minority Report might, in its Spielbergian visual brilliance, shortchanges the gray atmosphere of Dick’s story, itself thoroughly noir, but in its thematic development it satisfies Hibbs’ thesis that “by resisting the return to everydayness, noir avoids Hollywood sentimentality and fends off malaise.”
In The Arts of Darkness, the one case that a reader would expect to call for the greatest pleading turns out to be among the most convincing of candidates for election to the noir canon—Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For non-cognoscenti, Buffy concerns a high school cheerleader who, having none but the usual ultra-banal adolescent ambitions, suddenly and unwillingly finds herself selected to be a vampire-slayer in the eternal metaphysical war between the powers of good and evil. Like The X-Files, Buffy ran for too many seasons to sustain its often darkly comic and sometimes genuinely tragic Gothic vision of contemporary life as taking place on a Manichaean battlefield of the terrible existence of which ninety-nine per cent of people have no inkling. In its first three seasons, however, the series kept up its underlying seriousness even while its creators indulged in deliberate camp and self-mockery. (A measure of self-directed humor also surfaced healthily in The X-Files.) For some episodes of The Vampire Slayer one might even be willing to risk the description “the passion of Buffy,” as the serial protagonist must endure the excruciating burden of her unbidden moral responsibility.
Like Sam Spade or Mike Hammer, Buffy knows that sometimes, for moral reasons, one must meet violence with violence. She must inure herself to the cost of fighting for the good. Hibbs comments: “For Buffy, the lesson of Faith is that the slayer mustresist the temptations to power, lust, and jealousy in herself… Buffy’s realization of her destiny is not a matter of conformity to an abstract and impersonal code of duty; rather it is for the personal good of others, indeed for her own good,” using the phrase in the moral sense.
Hibbs knows that filmmakers might adopt aspects of the noir esthetic because to do so has become chic. The noir vocabulary, plagiarized for a superficial appeal, is vulnerable to such debasement. “Abandoning the task of communication,” writes Hibbs, “many neo-noir films are simply decadent, conveying the aristocratic nihilism of the amoral superhero or wallowing in a surrealist dream world.” At its best, noir represents film in a serious engagement with moral issues in a distorted modern context. Arts of Darkness is a “must” for any serious student of film, but it will also have much to teach the curious amateur.
Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches classics in translation, literary theory, and courses in popular culture and film at SUNY College, Oswego; he holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature.