The Irresistible Rebellious Irreverence at Noir’s Heart ‹ CrimeReads
A lot of people are fans of the noir genre, but there’s often some debate about what it really is.
What exactly is the enduring appeal of a noir-style story or film? Is the urban environment dangerous? The moody black and white lighting, the harsh and demure dialogue?
Perhaps one way to try to understand black stories is to consider who created them first and when many of them were written. Looking at the genre from the perspective of its creators and their times, Noir seems to be simply a highly stylized human drama with a Great Depression for post-WWII setting and attitude of American blue-collar workers.
It began when non-“mansion-born” American blue-collar writers like Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich began writing stories for the masses with an eye to the concerns and dreams of American blue-collar workers.
For in the darks, the human dramas on the edge of your seat that played out only along the castle ramparts in Shakespeare’s day now took place in places recognized by ordinary working-class Americans, like on the docks or the train or in restaurants.
With the arrival of pulp fiction, readers of Joe Six-Pack suddenly began to sit a little straighter as the action, adventure, thrill and suspense seemed far more familiar and possible. and therefore much more interesting for them. As a result, blue-collar America began to feel its own confidence and power. Look at this wonderfully exciting and interesting place, time and country that we all build, create and live in, the pasta seemed to say. Where everything is so smooth and masculine and cool and powerful and elegant, from the sharp felt hats to the art deco skyscrapers and the 20th Century Limited steam train.
Noir was a way, perhaps for the first time, to allow non-aristocratic people to express themselves and themselves through literature. One of the reasons for this could be technology; namely, the introduction of the mass-produced portable typewriter. The portable typewriters created by the Royal and Underwood companies in the early 1900s allowed a ham-and-egg regular to turn their own thoughts and concerns into fanciful-looking newsprint.
Eventually, from the darker sections of cities and even from other sides of the trail in small town America, manuscripts began to be created and sent for review for publication in the pulp magazines that began to appear.
Coming from such kind of humble origins certainly seems to be the case with the great pulp master Charles Willeford, who actually rode the rails as a penniless kid during the Great Depression and then, desperate to find work, lied about his age to sneak into the Army Aviation. Staying in the army long enough to see his ordeal switch from horses to tanks, he would win medals in World War II as a tank commander. Another legend, Ed McBain, born and raised on the streets and alleys of Harlem and the Bronx, also made his way through the war, as did the son of a Brooklyn bartender, Mickey Spillane.
When we realize that these writers spent their formative years in competitive scrabble environments and army barracks, we can begin to see where the short, quick, ruthless, fun, to-the-point, and cutting-edge dialogue from their stories come.
Seen in this light, we can understand where the supposedly “cynical” attitude of these stories comes from – from the truth of the mean streets themselves. This tough attitude, otherwise known as street smarts, is just the realization, compounded by hunger, struggle and poverty (often at a very young age), than what people say – especially what the establishment elites say – and do is quite often at odds.
And if the search for justice is often a theme of these stories, it’s because justice is something the lower echelons of society are a little more aware of. Because if you think about it, people on the dirtiest side of the tracks run it back and forth.
On the one hand, they are the ones who get attacked and harassed the most by the gangs and mafias that thrive in the tough neighborhoods of the city. And on the other hand, if they find themselves caught up in a crime (a much stronger temptation for the other half as their pockets are often empty), they soon see that the justice system seems to have two levels – one for the poor unconnected suckers who get thrown into the jingle for stealing a candy bar and one for the rich who can hire the former district attorney to be their defense attorney to skate again with a gentle tap on wrist.
And yet, despite the lucid knowledge that the game seems to be stacked in a rigged game, big blacks like Jim Thompson, Ed McBain, Mickey Spillane and Charles Willeford showed that the little guy could still act like a man, could still push back and fight for his piece of the pie. With his fists if necessary.
And that even in an ultimately doomed fight against a corrupt town hall, the courage to step into the ring anyway and try to navigate America’s often seedy underbelly was still the free act of a free man and of a noble and heroic type of self-winning.
When we look at black through this lens, we can suddenly see it not just as a new genre, but as a true empowering point in artistic history. In Old World Europe with its austere caste system of aristocrats and commoners, it was the aristocrats for whom most, if not all, of the literature, theater, music and art was created. Even to be an artist, you needed social ties, a golden invitation to the salon.
Note how even up to the mid-1900s many of Britain’s most famous writers – Orwell, HG Wells, Aldous Huxley, Kipling and Graham Greene – were all very much personally connected to the still mighty aristocratic British Empire. This is further demonstrated by noir’s predecessor, the drawing room mystery, where wealthy British aristocrats sat around landed estates sipping sherry as they pondered slowly and pompously, who was it, old man, who could have disturb Colonel Mustard with the fireplace poker in the library? But in America, a country created by and for commoners, soon new, faster, more muscular and more energetic art forms were created by and for commoners.
Once that happened, low and lo and behold, the people of the world saw how truly cool and smart and capable and funny and sexy and lively and adventurous we humble peasants were! With the influx of catchy, fun and thrilling American stories and movies, the world has suddenly shown that ordinary people are often in fact Following attractive than pampered, slow, pampered arrogant aristocrats.
Hardened by the fight against poverty and the work and fight of war, tougher and irreverent heroes, wearing fedoras, never lifted their hats and said ‘ello govna’ to an aristocrat. Instead, black heroes like Sam Spade didn’t care who you were, mate, or who your dad was. If you didn’t get out of their way, they were going to punch you in the jaw.
Soon, in the imaginative mind of the West, changes began to be made. Opera came out and rock and roll came. Prom dresses are out and blue jeans are in. The fox hunt is out and the surfing and motorcycling has arrived.
Suddenly, being cool was even more important than being rich. And anyone could at least try to be cool. Maybe it was true that non-blue bloods could never be kings. But meek Blue Bloods could never be a smiling cowboy like Clark Gable, could they? Or a friendly, well-behaved one-acre street like Jimmy Cagney. Thus disappeared the idea that only an aristocrat could be part of an epic or a tragedy. Instead of only a king or prince being stuck on the horns of a chilling life-or-death dilemma, two-bit boxers could now find themselves in it or even flat-footed insurance salesmen.
In sum, black was the artistic illustration of the rise in power and confidence of the American middle class. He highlighted the potential and allure of the human mind and imagination when unfettered by the burdens of barbaric and unjust social traditions that kept the mass of illiterate peasants in the mire and only the mansion-born aristocrats able to eat, drink, read, write, paint, dance, sing, and be merry.
With this exciting and energetic new meritocratic rather than American aristocratic outlook, it makes sense that German Expressionists like Fritz Lang and English directors like Hitchcock come to the United States. And that even French literary novelists like Camus would be inspired to join black novels like the stranger which Camus wrote after being inspired by Cain’s Immortal, The postman always rings twice.
And if there is an embodiment of this artistic aristocrat versus commoner cultural tension, perhaps it can be shown very distinctly in the classic 1988 noir action film, die hard, where the irreverent and funny NYPD hero John McClane, dressed in a bloody and muscular wife-beater t-shirt, is opposed to the elegant arrogant Savile Row, the tailor-made prissy aristocrat, Hans Gruber. The global acclaim and success of this film proved the winner of this class battle for imaginative supremacy. The world said, let cultured aristocrat Hans toss about in the warm night air above the black capital of Los Angeles, searching for his Swiss watch and floating bearer bonds (whatever they are) as he crumbles back to his death from the pretentious let-them-eat-cake tops of globalist multinational corporations. Brave underdog Mr. McClane and his band of wise, funny, smart American blue-collar workers (a washed-up, twinkie-eating, daddy-bod LAPD patrol cop and a funny young limo driver) come from behind to claim victory Americana Christmas Triumph.
So the next time you’re popping popcorn and watching your favorite old black in black and white, understand that what’s being shown to you is something uniquely wonderful, uniquely human and uniquely American. . An energetically rebellious work of artistic human freedom of the people, by the people, and above all, for the people.