The Grit Of It

April 3, 2008

From Daschiell Hammett’s Sam Spade to Bill Waterson’s Tracer Bullet, we’re all familiar with the detectives of Noir. There are the usual trademarks: the trench coat, the fedora, the Colt .45 in a side holster designed by Smith and Wesson. There’s the stubbled chin, the half full bottle of hooch in the bottom right hand drawer, and the dame with the red lips and big knockers pleading for help.
There’s a lamp outside the window. Its glow filters through the lettered glass, reversing the name and projecting it as a distorted trapezoid on the far wall. There’s a sink with a dripping faucet in the corner. Above the sink is a grimy mirror…and when he looks in that mirror, the detective doesn’t like what he sees.
But Noir doesn’t necessarily envelope only the hard-boiled detective alone in his office; untouchable, unlovable, misunderstood. Noir is about darkness of character; the unlikable side of all of us…and we all have one. Film Noir doesn’t necessarily end well. The main character may succeed, but only at great personal cost to himself.
I offer as an example The Maltese Falcon (Daschiell Hammett). Sam Spade falls in love, but has to turn his woman over to the fuzz when he learns the dame is a cold blooded killer. Is Mr. Spade a knight in shining armor? Hell no. He’s flawed, terribly so. He’s had his secretary as a lover…and it’s clear he’d still take advantage of her on a mattress if the opportunity presented itself. And before his partner was killed, good ol’ Sam was boffing the Mrs.
So…No, Sam Spade wasn’t a knight in shining armor. But the movie is irresistible because he’s so flawed. And he does the right thing despite those flaws.
But, like I said, noir isn’t just about detectives. Take The Stranger, the 1946 film directed by and starring Orson Welles. It’s a film about a crazed Nazi living quietly in a small Connecticut town. His capture means the end of a young girl’s hopes and dreams for a happy future. Yet she does the right thing. A happy ending? No way. But a damn fine film. And there’s more misery where that came from. Check out 1950’s D.O.A., starring Edmund O’Brien and Pamela Britton. In this film, O’Brien consumes radioactive poison and has only hours to live, during which time he has to solve his own murder.
Maybe it’s the sick fascination we have with these undesirable characters and their situations, like being unable to turn away from a dead squirrel in the street, that makes us want to watch Noir. Or maybe it’s knowing we aren’t as bad as these characters are that keeps us watching…or maybe it’s knowing that, despite how bad we really are, there are some redeeming qualities in us that make us desirable to someone, somewhere. But that’s a little too poetic for my taste. Let’s just say….I like Noir…and leave it at that.

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