Saturday, 5 March 2011

Tough guys of film noir

I was talking to a young film buff about film noir, the genre spawned by The Maltese Falcon. I told him that Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, The Dark Corner and such were the movies I grew up with in the 1940s. “How wonderful,” he gushed, “to have lived through such an exciting period in cinema history!”

My friend will be disappointed to learn that in the 1940s no one ever said, “Hey, let's go to the Alpine and see a film noir!” We kids might buy the noir part, if you told us what it meant; but we didn't go to see films, we went to the movies. And movies were ephemera, part of the everyday parade of popular culture. Nobody, not even the grown-ups, knew from film festivals and retrospectives and auteurs. Once a movie had come and gone, you assumed, in those pre-television days, that you'd never see it again.

We couldn't always follow the plots, but it didn't matter. We liked these movies because they were dark and a little menacing. It was always night; nothing much seemed to happen during the day. Usually a gritty voice-over narration by the private eye, or the insurance investigator, or the ex-G.I. Lots of angles and shadows. Sultry dames. And cigarette smoke everywhere.

Radio picked up on the genre, big-time: Sam Spade, Richard DiamondThe Fat Man, Rogue's Gallery, Boston Blackie, Philip Marlowe, Michael Shayne, Nick Carter. On radio you couldn't get the cigarette smoke, but the shows retained all the other key features: the voice-over narration, the dame, the crackle of gunshots in the night. On many shows you knew at some point the hero would get sucker-punched into unconsciousness, punctually once a week.
Typical of the times was this hard-boiled character: Dude Hamilton, private eye. Missing is the cigarette that usually dangled from his slit of a mouth. Dude was the protagonist of a short-lived, limited-circulation comic book of the 1940s. One can easily imagine Zachary Scott playing the role in the movie version. Dude Hamilton was tough. Dude never smiled. Dude never got sucker-punched. Dude blasted his way through murder cases. Dude filled the screen with cigarette smoke. Dude was only seen in profile. (Some have speculated that this may have been due to the artist's technical limitations, but that's a matter for experts to decide.) Dude was noir personified.

What were the effects of over-exposure to film and radio noir? The specimen shown above, otherwise a peace-loving, non-combative sort, displays unmistakeable early symptoms of a rare disorder in which the victim believes he's a private investigator.

Here's the same condition in a more advanced form. By this time the tough-guy pose has become chronic. Note the studied drape of the hand, and the stance: cool and casual, but ready to spring into action should the need arise. Note the suspicious eye, the contemptuous curl of the lip. It's clear our subject has just seen Murder, My Sweet at the Alpine and is still feeling the after-effects.

Once, a few years ago, Brooklyn Girl was waiting for an elevator with a group of young men in their 20s, all dressed in black leather, with spiked hairdo's, and festooned to the gills with piercings and tattoos. They looked dangerous. When the elevator came, to BG's surprise, they politely stepped aside for her. She discovered they were pleasant, and quite ordinary, middle-class kids from the suburbs. In other words, it was a costume, an act, a pose.

As we used to say in the schoolyard: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


  1. Here’s one suggested caption for the Dude Hamilton image above: “Take this, Lefty! It’s coming to you C.O.D.” Any others?

  2. I think we've found our dialogue writer for "The Return of Dude Hamilton," coming soon to a theatre near you. You've got the gig, Dr. Jump. More, please!

  3. "Final score: Hamilton,1 -- Bad guy,DEAD!"

  4. Good one! How about: "Hungry? Taste some lead."

  5. “This public service announcement has been brought to you by Smith & Wesson.”

  6. "Next stop...ding,ding...City Morgue."