The Mercifully Godless Universe of Film Noir

A little while ago, seeking sanctuary from the grotesque displays of religious fervour at the Olympics, I hopped, skipped and Ali shuffled my way to the haven of my DVD collection to immerse myself in the mercifully Godless universe of film noir. But I soon discovered that there were parallels between the transcendent attitude to gold, silver and bronze of the victorious olympians and the criminals of noir. As the machinic circuits the athletes formed by alternately fondling medals and genuflecting before God soon became pegged to the lustrous materiality of the dollar and the promise of real wealth in exchange for these ‘precious’ metals (in the shape of professional careers and sponsorship deals), the taut bond between money and transcendence exhibited the Olympians in their true colours as noir-like con artists. As one voice-over tells us: “The weapon behind all weapons, the American Dollar” (Southside 1-1000, Boris Ingster 1950). Such ignominious forging of bonds between shiny objects and divinity reminds me of the great French word for the kitsch marketing of religion: Sulpicienne, a term derived from the name of the Saint-Sulpice church in Paris, around which there are a host of shops selling Catholic icons in the form of baubles and bangles.

At least when God is drafted into sport in this manner, it introduces the idea of Fate into the equation.  As the boxing lady at the Olympics said: “without Him I wouldn’t be sitting with this medal around my neck. I am there but for the grace of God. I serve Him. I am nothing without Him.” And, emblazoned on her robe was: “The Lord is my shepherd and my shield.” 70 years ago, another form of popular entertainment examined this idea of a world sans individual agency and responsibility and did it without, to quote Peter Finch in Network (Lumet 1976), “the God bullshit.”

Film noir is an anti-religion since the shepherding force it portrays is now a malevolent one and, if it is the case that the events of our lives are predestined, and it’s merely a matter of finding the true path to walk on, then that path leads nowhere if not to the gas chamber up in San Quentin (to paraphrase Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity [Billy Wilder 1944]).

Famously, Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer 1945) is the film noir that foregrounds the theme of Fate and perfectly sums up the noir philosophy: “Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” Through hundreds of films (not all great but few without some interest) Noir explores all the ramifications of this world-view and in the process lays the groundwork for most of the significant themes of American cinema to come. If individual lives in Noir are often felt by the protagonists to be pre-ordained, then the character needs merely to slot into the series he’s part of and not try to buck the system. One step outside of his series can lead to ruin and degradation if not to death. If the serial killer film develops out of Noir it’s grounded on this: the serial killer is precisely the one who can’t accept the series around him and in particular the one he is a part of. He must create an ideal series of his own through killing. And each murder will invariably occur when he spots something anomalous, someone who’s stepped out of their own series and into the killer’s new one.  A wonderful example is in Follow Me Quietly (Richard Fleischer 1949) where rain is the aberrant element that in falling incites the criminal: ‘You Must Kill, Now!’

The Anti-Bible

World War Two really opened up this issue of a Godless world with its anti-biblical reversal of the sixth commandment. Just as soldiers were being told ‘you must kill! (as opposed to the conventional) Thou shalt Not Kill!,’ Noir is asking why? why must you kill? “Why do you have to murder people? why can’t you just let things live? complains John Dall’s character Bart to Peggy Cummings in Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis 1949). The ramifications of this wartime ‘license to kill’ when the soldiers are back in the civilian world becomes a major issue in film noir: “When you hit you didn’t have to run” says Burt Lancaster recalling his wartime freedom in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster 1948).” “We don’t know what we’re supposed to do, we don’t know what’s supposed to happen” (says the war veteran in Crossfire [Edward Dmytryk 1947]).

Noir is the most nebulous of genres. Perhaps the best way to define Noir is in the way Augustine defined of Time: “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

In most minds noir is an atmosphere: dark, dangerous, erotic, Godless; its a series of amorphous sounds and images: rain-soaked cities at night, voice-overs conjuring dubious flashbacks; humdrum lives and inadvertent entries into the criminal underworld; the moral confusion that follows; futile attempts to escape the labyrinth you’re trapped in.

But few films contain all of these elements, Noir is an aggregate of themes, problems and stylistic strategies in crime films during a determinate time-period. It has no absolutely pin-pointable beginning: Stranger on the Third Floor (Boris Ingster 1940)? The Maltese Falcon (John Huston 1941)? Double Indemnity? or ending Gun Crazy? The Big Heat (Fritz Lang 1953)? Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich 1955)? Touch of Evil (Orson Welles 1957)? It all depends on the component you focus on. What’s wonderful about noir is that each problem it introduces is present more or less implicitly or explicitly in all examples of the genre but there’s always one film that alone takes a problem to its limit and becomes associated with this single issue: Fate in Detour, random violence in Gun Crazy, jealousy in Gilda (Charles Vidor 1946) police brutality in On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray 1952), disability in Champion (Mark Robson 1949) and so on.

Second Thoughts and Idées Fixes

To focus here on the problem of Fate in Noir, we’ve already seen that it is linked to the problem of Transcendence. The genre explores the relationship in two ways. One is the negative epiphany (the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ model):  a  second thought or a second glance at the wrong moment will set you on a treadmill swiftly sliding towards the electric chair. The other is premised on a longer-term fixation on a transcendent object that will most likely lead to your destruction (the ‘moth to a flame’ model): the Femme Fatale being the exemplary promise of transcendence, offering sex and an otherwise exhilarating hoist up out of the mundane. But sex too is soon revealed to be a currency, of no more value than any other exchangeable commodity.

If there’s a case for Stranger on the Third Floor as inaugurating the noir cycle it has less to do with the expressionist lighting and incredible 8-minute nightmare sequence than with it being a pre-eminent example of the ‘second glance’ model, the form operative from the very outset of noir: “Why did I have to look across the street?’ regrets the protagonist. So many noir characters will wish that they hadn’t cast that second glance and had walked on by (If we name Stranger on the Third Floor as the first noir then, interestingly, the genre would kick off without one of its key ingredients, the femme fatale. Her entry will take place in the following year in The Maltese Falcon). The correlate of this noir element is the problematizing of inquisitiveness and motivation: if you no longer buy into the religion that paradoxically shepherded your every move while ensuring your free will then this will give rise to a new interest in other people’s behaviour; everyone’s at once a stranger and a revenant. Being with an other and not knowing how to ‘read’ him/her becomes essential to one’s survival. The hitch-hiker, the door-to-door salesman, the cop on the beat; all types provided with ample opportunities for the chance encounter and for observing the other as if a different species: ‘I’ve always wondered what goes on in another person’s mind…’ muses Mickey Rooney’s character in Drive a Crooked Road (Richard Quine 1954). In noir a common way to react to another is to kill him, a less permanent solution is to stalk him: in Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur 1957) cop Fraser says of the suspect Vanning “I know his every move, I’m his shadow.” Individual’s become inter-penetrable, and this porousness between selves makes it easy to plant an idea in another’s mind (the modus operandi of the femme fatale): it’s a contaminative view of human relationships (“I know how it feels to find someone to take the crimes of your life on his head, in his hands” [Force of Evil Abraham Polonsky 1948]), and, typically in noir, literal and figurative mappings out of a problem exist side by side: alongside Edmond O’Brien’s iridium poisoning in D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté 1950) and the plague plot-line of Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950) we have the metaphorical infusion by femmes fatales of murderous schemes into the brain’s of eager lovers (Minnelli will pick up on this idea of being trapped in another’s dream or nightmare and take it elsewhere, most famously into the joyful world of musicals, but also into the melodramas which retain the noir sense of paranoia).

Floating Sounds and Images

Paranoia of course is endemic in noir, it’s the mission of both the killer and the femme fatale to provoke it everywhere: ‘the look in her eye, how can you believe she loves you’ asks the bewitched lover: certainty, truth, belief are all swept up in a maze of falsity (the end of The Lady from Shanghai [Orson Welles 1947] and its hall of mirrors providing the iconic sequence for this entire generic obsession). The following exchange from House of Strangers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1949) says it all: ‘What do you want, lies? What else is there?” As for loyalty ‘you can buy it at any pet-store’ (The Web [Michael Gordon 1947]). The fundamentals of personal identity are thrown into doubt, hence the proliferation of amnesiacs and other ‘nameless’ characters throughout the noir universe.

The abandonment of the moral faculty leads to a shake-up of the other faculties; perception, understanding, reason all become suspect, can no longer be trusted. Perception becomes hallucinatory; images and sounds begin to float, not only in the sense of shadows, mirror reflections and the dreams and drug-induced head trips of films such as Murder, My Sweet/Farewell, My Lovely (Edward Dmytryk 1944) and Dark Passage (Delmer Daves 1947) but as voices or figures from the past, images entering into a new relation with the increasingly complex structure of the floating voice-over. In Paul Schrader’s words, the voice-over has become “intravenous, by-passing reason”, recalling Susan Hayward’s perfume which ‘gets in the brain like chloroform’ as Richard Conte puts it in House of Strangers. There’s a general gnawing feeling that ‘somewhere somebody said something’ (The Enforcer [Bretaigne Windust 1951]) that you can’t fix in time or space.

Thinking becomes “untidy, like most thinking today’ in Murder, My Sweet’s diagnoses of the situation. Even memory, the core of an individual’s identity, is an object of suspicion: ‘memories have a way of getting stuck together, like the pages of a book’ (Somewhere in the Night [Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1946]). At its extreme, the subject is now a placeless, faithless, memory-less black hole to the point where, as Alan Ladd puts it to Veronica Lake in this Foucauldian line from The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall 1946), “you’re trying to run out on yourself, like me.” As a result, the body is subject to a re-organisation to the point where Crime Wave (André de Toth 1954) can offer a very Nietzschean piece of psycho-social diagnostics: “murder always starts down here [the stomach]!”

Another influence on the noir world-view was the advent of actuarial thinking and the scattering of individual responsibility that it brought about (themes explored not only in Double Indemnity but in an ironic manner in Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman 1946) where Clifford Odets beautiful script contains a refrain beginning with the words “statistics tells us…” ) Schemes such as the national insurance programs of the New Deal and the increasing establishment of statistical norms in place of other forms of the social bond were interpreted by some as working to the detriment of individuals’ self-determination. The insurantial as a way to control things, especially the future, is seen to leave in its wake individuals without centre or purpose: “You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.” (Mitchum in Out of the Past [Jacques Tourneur 1947]). It’s as if the only way a guy can activate ‘his own power’, as Fred McMurray puts it in Double Indemnity, is during the long walk to the gas chamber (restriction in noir isn’t only spatial but physical, bio-political, one of the reasons for the symbolic presence of disablement in so many of the films). Individuals are separated from their capacities – ‘it’s not what a man wants to do but what he has to do’ becomes a refrain of the genre.

There is a problem of spatial and temporal presence in film noir, an issue with ‘thereness’: “I remember what was the last time, not when or where – says Lancaster in The Killers (Robert Siodmak 1946) – which might be a reason why noir is often said to be existentialist or Heideggerian. Characters are in constant need of reassurance that they are present in the world: ‘I don’t know where I am’ says Heston in Dark City, ‘you’re here’ replies Lisabeth Scott. In Crack-Up (Irving Reis 1946) Pat O’Brien screams:  ‘if I say I’ve been somewhere, I’ve been somewhere’. In the magnificent final sequence of Force of Evil, the idiosyncratic repetition of the word there in its insistent desperation  problematises concrete existence in a way that works for all of film noir: “…I was feeling very bad there as I went down there I just kept going down and down there it was like going down to the bottom of the world to find my brother… I found my brother’s body at the bottom there…like an old dirty rag…


Money, says film noir, is what equalizes, especially as a motivator when all motivation has gone. It allows one to quantify in a world devoid of proportions (it’s a fatal error in noir to believe there’s more than one type of money, “there’s only one type of money”). This accounts not only for the scalar imbalances of the noir style but for the still shocking acts of disproportionate violence throughout the genre – one thinks of Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway 1947), Charles Bickford in Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger 1945) or Lee Marvin in The Big Heat (although the brutal ‘boiling coffee in the face’ action first appears in Nocturne [Edwin L. Marin 1946] seven years before Lang’s masterpiece). There is a general de-territorialization and un-hinging of social forces and norms (another reason why physical disability is ever-present in noir: the literalisation of the notion that “everything is out of shape, soiled” as Rooney puts it in Drive a Crooked Road?). The desperate search for anchorage of any kind leads down some peculiar routes such as the problematising of faith in the Hippocratic Oath as some kind of last bastion of moral integrity (especially in Decoy [Jack Bernhard 1946]).

The notion of the idée fixe or more specifically the amour fou, of which the obsession with the femme fatale is the great paradigm, lends a machinic aspect to Fate: “the gears had meshed” as Double Indemnity puts it; there’s an inevitability that’s truly written in the stars and befits the transcendent allure of the objet of desire: “I feel I’ve known her all my life” muses Alan Ladd in The Blue Dahlia, and later says to Veronica Lake: ‘Every guy has seen you before somewhere, the trick is to find you’. Every man in noir is prepared to give it all up for the Ideal of the Eternal Feminine but eventually discovers that the belief in her as representing some kind of higher truth is a lure and that seeking the truth of sex and the truth of all existence in sex proves to be another calamitous snare. Hence the disillusionment exemplified by the main character in Ride a Pink Horse (Robert Montgomery 1947) “Dames, they’re dead fish with a lot of perfume on ’em”. The question of quantity is again operative here: how much must a man pay (emotionally, ethically, financially – all intertwined) for a brief moment of transcendence? Yes these men persist in their search for the Absolute: why? Because of the terrifying mundanity of ordinary life. It’s no coincidence that in Pitfall (André De Toth 1948) Dick Powell’s expression of contempt for the routine of the everyday is expressed in biblical terms: ‘I feel like a wheel within a wheel within a wheel’ (a reference to EZEKIEL 1:16) “Christmas, thanksgiving, every other Tuesday” rages Wendell Corey against his mapped-out future in The File on Thelma Jordan (Robert Siodmak 1950).

Time and Technology

This black hole of everyday existence (which David Lynch will later pick up on) is related to Time. Again, there are two poles, the short-term and the longue durée. The latter involves endurance, like waiting 30 years for a cop’s pension and unable to hold out that long. Short term time is the time of events, the present, the city and the contemporary. It’s the clash of these two temporalities (the ‘too much time’ and the ‘too little’) that gives birth to the noir universe.

If Technology plays an enormous role in film noir it’s because images and sounds are floating freely throughout the noir city and can only be channeled, territorialised by means of technological devices. Noir gives us all kinds of inventive uses of new and old technologies such as the surveillance films and projected mugshots mulled over by cops and T-men and the listening devices planted in homes and offices. This may be another consequence of the aforementioned porousness of the individual as explored in noir matched now by the permeability of walls and buildings brought about by developments in information technology. In Paul Virilio’s words: ‘[In modernity] the urban wall has given way to an infinity of openings and ruptured enclosures …’ and ‘… the surface- boundary becomes an osmotic membrane.” The city’s buildings contain “not only workers but ‘apparatus for abolishing time and space’ – telephones, cables and wireless.” (McKenzie Wark ‘On Technological Time: Cruising Virilio’s Over-Exposed City’).

How many plot-lines of these films turn on a technological dispositif of some kind, from the primitive (the dictaphone or ‘record your own voice’ machine) to the sophisticated (Edmond O’Brien’s hot-wiring of the city in 711 Ocean Drive [Joseph M. Newman 1950], a kind of ‘minoring’ use of a ‘major’ governmental surveillance apparatus)! The city is well on its way to becoming that labyrinth of technology and surveillance that the ‘critical cinema’ of the 70s (Coppola, Lumet and so on) will examine. Another example of non-governmental use of the latest technologies comes in Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway 1948) where newspaperman James Stewart employs the gigantic magnification of an image to save Richard Conte from the chair.

There are some wonderful discursive moments concerning temporal matters in film noir, for example this line from Kansas City Confidential (Phil Karlson 1952): ‘Professor Einstein, there is just so much time and every moment gone is a moment gone somewhere). One of the great speeches about time in any film comes in the Joseph L. Mankiewicz film Somewhere in the Night. Josephine Hutchinson’s (Mrs. Townsend from North by Northwest) character Elisabeth delivers one of Mankiewicz’s two great speeches about Time (the other is in The Honey Pot 1967): ‘Things change in time but time doesn’t change. It goes on and on and doesn’t change. I know, because I’ve watched it. Nights, days, nights, always the same. Dawns are always grey, and the days can have different colours, but the nights are black, they’re all empty. No, only people change, they grow old and ugly and pitiful…I’ve made believe for so long…that I wasn’t alone…afraid, that I wasn’t dead, that I was alive.”

Such a massive unleashing of anarchic forces in the cinema could hardly go unchecked.

Therefore several strands of noir begin to co-exist beyond the first great wave of films. On the one hand, The Naked City (Jules Dassin 1948) will inaugurate a series of films that present the viewpoint of government agencies expressed through a shift from a subjective voice-over to the omniscient voice of authority describing the action in all its scientifically-based procedural ‘objectivity’. There are signs throughout the genre of a desperate need to abolish contingencies: the narrator of Shield for Murder (Howard W. Koch, Edmond O’Brien 1954) proclaims confidently: “All that city out there…if a man wanted to hide in it, he couldn’t do it.” A new banality is imposed on the criminal world, the ambiguities of behaviour that flourished in diffuse light give way to a clearly delineated black-and-white world of cops and robbers filmed in a bright, documentary-style. Technology and surveillance-driven procedure is used as a way of re-stratifying the city and re-territorialising the genre in a manner that will lead directly to the House Un-American Activities Committee. There’s a case for saying that the mobster film developed as it did (right up through the Godfather films) as an alternative solution to the noir problem and its anarchic delirium. Just as America changes into a more stratified society as the 50s progress, so its cinema develops a new set of rules for portraying the criminal world. There is no room for the fickle finger of Fate in the new regime. The gangsters too buy into the new world and mirror the authorities’ means of controlling the future. “I’m building an organisation along scientific lines” says Widmark’s character in The Street With No Name (William Keighley 1948). From cops acting like criminals which gave birth to noir to criminals following police models: “bright boys thinking only they can play at being cops” (Widmark). Concomitantly, there’s a partial re-oedipalizing of the genre beginning as early as The Dark Past (1948): “every time you kill it’s your father”. This is as far from Richard Conte’s “I murder to kill time” (House of Strangers) as it’s possible to get. Furthermore the 1950s religious revival demands wholesome family entertainment and imposes sentiments on the film world that creep into every genre, even noir.

But every re-territorialisation gives rise to a new de-territorialisation. Even a film like Fingerprints Don’t Lie (Sam Newfield 1951) is already questioning forensic technology and portraying it as a matter of interpretation. And of course the rich extremism of late ’40s noir (the demented Born to Kill [Robert Wise 1947] and Gun Crazy) doesn’t disappear but continues to transmute subterraneously, eventually giving birth to late noir (perhaps post-noir) classics as diverse as The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis 1955), Naked Alibi (Jerry Hopper 1954), Pushover (Richard Quine 1954), Kiss Me Deadly, Touch of Evil, Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner 1958) and The Line-Up (Don Siegel 1958).

Of course there is great humour to be found in the dark despair of the film noir universe; my two favourite moments of hilarity are, firstly, in Born to Kill when Elisha Cook Jr tries to reprimand Lawrence Tierney’s psychopath: “You can’t just go around killing people when the notion strikes you” provoking this oddly touching response from Tierney: “Why Can’t I?” And, in Gun Crazy, John Dall’s outburst: “two people dead, just so we can live without working.” I’ve often wondered if Thatcher’s nazi-like ‘get on your bike’ campaign against the unemployed in the 80s might have been kick-started by a viewing of Gun Crazy: did she believe she might soon be confronted by 3 million serial murderers?