A man leaking blood from his chest, staggering down an empty street, the wet black pavement mirroring the dim globes of streetlamps. The scissoring shadows of a backlit fire escape, of a spiral staircase, of prison bars. The clickety-clack of stilettos as a woman runs down a steep hill hugging tight her mink coat with white-gloved hands. The drawn gun; the eyes widening with terror. The fedora brim pulled low over the brow; the lounge singer’s dress pulled low over the cleavage.
The iconography of film noir is now as embedded in the American public consciousness as the cowboy hat, the apple pie, the string bikini. In the last ten years, as the genre has achieved an unprecedented popularity, noir has become an aesthetic, an attitude, the inspiration for magazine fashion spreads and costume parties. But the crimes depicted in the actual films are rarely glamorous. A film noir’s original act of violence is often an ugly mistake, committed out of desperation, or by accident. A quintessential example of the noir premise can be seen in Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). Detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews), a New York cop on probation for repeated acts of brutality, accidentally kills a robbery suspect with a right hook—the suspect, as it turns out, had a metal plate in his head, courtesy of a wartime injury. To prove his innocence and save his career, Dixon must commit a chain of increasingly criminal acts: coverup, frame job, conspiracy, murder. Things get only more difficult for Dixon when he falls in love with the daughter of the man he framed for the original murder.
In noir, it’s the desire to do good that drives men to do horrible things. This irony spurred the development of the genre in the early 1940s. Despite its focus on the criminal underworld, film noir did not come out of a desire to address real concerns about American crime. As such, it was a major break with the popular gangster genre of the 1930s, when Prohibition and the gangs that profited from it inspired films like The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932), and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). More subtly, the gangster films doubled as Depression-era Horatio Alger tales, in which a poor street kid using his wits ascends the ranks of the criminal underworld until, in the words of Ricco in Little Caesar (1930), he “gets to the top.” “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” screams James Cagney at the end of the noir White Heat (1949), playing on the reputation he made as the leading star of the gangster period. The gangster ultimately receives his comeuppance, but rarely does he regret the life he has chosen.
The subject of noir, however, is life on the bottom. Its heroes are doomed men who start low, only to sink lower. Noir heroes tend to look like they’ve just been peeled off the bottom of a shoe. It’s a slanty-eyed and poorly shaven cast of characters: the crooked beat cop, the mob henchman, the private eye, the convict who wants to reform his ways but is blackmailed into attempting one last score.
Or the veteran trying to adapt to square life, only to be haunted by the ghosts of war. For the real subject of early film noir is not crime in America, but war in America, specifically the shadow cast by World War II on American society in the 1940s and ’50s. In film noir, crime is used as metaphor to examine the darker impulses and anxieties that lay hidden beneath the boosterism of the postwar era—the sense that, despite the country’s military triumphs, we had suffered great, irredeemable damage. That we had learned ugly things about ourselves, that an urge to commit acts of violence lies within all men, and that man’s capacity for evil and greed has no limit. Faced with the enormity of the Holocaust and the nuclear bomb, previous standards of moral behavior seemed absurdly quaint. In film noir, the criminal act is often a last resort, the only option available to the alienated and dispossessed.
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