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Home | Library | The Film Noir Moment

The Film Noir Moment

September 21, 2009

Tags Free MarketsMedia and CultureThe Police StateEntrepreneurship

Film Noir is not riding any wave of popularity so it is the perfect time to anticipate a trend. These movies from the 1940s are not only brilliant and beautiful but also entertaining in their own right. They look completely different to us now from what they must have looked like then, and I don't mean merely to inspire a sentimentalism for days gone by.

These were times when Mises's was writing Human Action in English, Hazlitt was working at the New York Times, and Ayn Rand was marketing the Fountainhead to Hollywood. These authors, writing on manual typewriters and submitting the results only in hard copy, were the champions of markets and technological progress. They saw what others did not, namely, that the innovations of the time, as wonderful as they seemed, were only the beginning of what was possible under freedom.

The film noir of their period beautifully illustrates the strange way in which the operation of society itself was limited by the existing technology as compared with our own digital age. Because none of us can live two lifetimes, we depend on media like this to provide us insight in this area and many others.

Many of the plots of these hundreds of films turn on the ability of people to change identities and get lost in the thick of things, with tricks and turns that would be completely unimaginable today in the information age. What is especially interesting is that the actors in the movies are unaware that they are living in what seems like prehistoric times to us. For them, the ability to call house to house, to listen to the radio in the car, to communicate with others from phone booths might have been dazzling.

For us watching today, we see a society radically hobbled by the limits of technology, with people whose decisions and course of life is determined by this fact, even without their knowing it. The biggest limit concerns the absence of information about people's backgrounds and hence core character. Evildoers masquerade as respectable people, while respectable people turn to evil and are oddly successful at hiding it even from intimates.

The Detour, for example, is about a hitchhiker — talk about an anachronism! — picked up by a driver who hasn't contacted his parents in many years; nor do they have a way to contact him. The driver unexpectedly dies and the hitchhiker, fearing blame, dumps his body, takes his money and clothes, and assumes a new identity. He even plans to sell the car, since there was some disconnect between the owner and the car registration. The girl he picks up turns to him and demands to know where the body is, a terrifying moment simply because one person knows something that was previously hidden. The lack of communication and knowledge is the core of the plot device, so that information is the source of terror.

There are other features of this film that turn on technological limits. Many people seem strangely displaced without a known past, and they can float around from place to place with anonymity, appearing and disappearing from the social fabric. The newspapers were the way you heard the news, but gossip was generally more reliable. You had to be standing right by the phone to get a call. The phones were necessarily connected to the wall, so if you wanted to make a private call, you had to grab the phone and take it in another room. In Detour, when one person pulls on the cord to get the phone back, he inadvertently strangles a girl in the next room.

Not even credit checks are very efficient, which is why the lead in Quicksand was able to buy a watch on a borrowed $100 and resell it for $30 a little while later, so that he could return the $20 that he borrowed from the cash register at work, which no one would have noticed was gone until the weekly accountancy check. By the way, in this particular film, his misdeed is discovered, and he has to return the $100 the next day, which requires that he mug a drunk, which then leads to being blackmailed for $500 by someone who saw him do it, and so on until he is on the run for auto theft and murder. It's like a metaphor for financing the US government.

Sometimes the information asymmetry is extreme, as it is in Double Indemnity. An insurance investigator is checking into an exorbitant insurance claim with a partner who in fact is the perpetrator of the very crime he is investigating. The insurance man is romantically pursuing a woman, who he does not know plans to kill him once the scheme is complete. She is, in turn, married to a man who doesn't know that his current wife is the killer of his previous wife. And the daughter of the woman befriends the insurance man without knowing that he is the killer of her father. Meanwhile, the daughter's boyfriend doesn't know that her stepmother is lying to him and probably setting him up to take the fall for this grisly mess.

In The Man Who Cheated Himself, the entire plot turns on a confusion about whether the car that dumped a body at the airport is blue or green, a problem that would have been solved with a color camera at the scene of the crime.

In a personal favorite of mine, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, the details of a murder some 20 years ago had been forgotten so that a stranger in town has to go to the deepest archives of the local newspaper to discover that the heiress who runs the local industry conspired with her now-district-attorney husband to frame up an innocent man who went to the chair for a crime he didn't commit. This plot wouldn't have gone anywhere in an age of Google.

Nor would the scenario of The Scar, in which a gangster assumes the identity of a psychoanalyst by murdering him following a casino robbery gone bad, be plausible in the slightest today. Our looks are on the tiniest piece of our identities, and they count for very little as compared with our digital data trail. Nor would the crook be surprised to find that the seemingly respectable psychoanalyst whose identity he assumed was in even deeper trouble with the law than he was.

The naive bride in Dangerous Crossing would not have inadvertently married a man who planned to murder her to steal her fortune, which he believes should have been inherited by her father's brother. Nor would she have lost track of him on the cruise ship they boarded together on their honeymoon. And surely the doctor examining the sick passenger would have quickly figured out that this was the same man who was missing!

There are a series of strange apartment break-ins in I Wake Up Screaming. Several times, the plot turns on the uncanny way in which people can easily break locks on doors and windows. Not infrequently, people wake in the middle of the night to find someone standing over them asking questions. The absence of reliable alarm systems and secure locks gives the film a strange quality: everyone is vulnerable; no one is safe from prying eyes, whether they are doing good or evil.

So on the one hand, the level of privacy is far beyond what we imagine is possible today. Who today can disappear, sneak away, be out of touch for any length of time, much less change identities or travel anonymously? On the other hand, there is no security against physical invasion of one's home, car, office, or personal records, none of which are password protected and all of which exist only in the physical world. As much as people bemoan the absence of privacy today, the current inversion of the film-noir world is far to be preferred.

The ability to disappear and inability to be secure fosters the world of relentless suspicion and danger that is inherent in the film-noir genre. Women fall into two general categories: black widows whose secret pasts lie in hiding as they pursue their next victim in a nefarious plot, or fallen angels who pine for stability and get hooked up with bad men before being rescued from a life of desperation. Surely we have here a reflection of the deep anxieties of women in a time when men were being snatched away by the draft and sent away to foreign lands to kill and be killed.

In many plots, a moral ambiguity is pervasive, as one small and regrettable decision turns out to have disproportionately bad results, which then require an attempt at coverup that involves the further suppression of conscience and a further trip down the road to ruin. The viewer is never entirely sure when to stop sympathizing with the evildoer, who often seems to have bad choices imposed on him because of the imperfections of the world around him. The small steps towards dishonesty don't trouble us until we find ourselves traveling with him to perdition.

What's more, many of the small steps toward wrongdoing have a rationale rooted in a distrust of the justice system. The judge will never believe me if I say that I didn't commit this murder so I'd better make a break for it! The police will throw me in the slammer for decades for this petty theft so I'd better cover it up! and on it goes: no one quite believes that the state's system really works fairly and accurately. Despite the censor's attempts to bolster civic mythology in the final scenes of such movies, a deep distrust of all official institutions is their underlying political infrastructure.

And this fact is very striking given the portrayal of police and police investigators in the film, who don't seem to be entirely on the other side of the divide from mere civilians in film noir. They are not jack booted or heavily armed or otherwise tasing people for showing the slightest bit of resistance. They seem like people with different jobs to do, and that's about it.

And they always have time, as when the poisoned man in D.O.A. arrives stumbling into the investigations bureau and says, "I'm here to report a murder. Mine." He then takes a couple of hours out of the time of five officers to explain how he ended up being poisoned by a dangerous gang of racketeers.

It can sometimes be hilarious to our generation when the criminals are trying to head for the border, where presumably the law then cannot reach them. We know nothing of this strange assumption today.

Even if individual policemen themselves are decent and conscientious, these films are replete with cynicism toward law — toward the system, with lies leading to more lies and deceptions and coverups in all aspects of life. They were made in the 1940s, in a time we are all taught was defined by the great struggle between obvious good and obvious evil, embodied in the "greatest generation" that fought the "good war." How could these themes of deeply complicated moral ambiguity and official corruption really connect with audiences?

Well, reading Riggenbach's Why American History Is Not What They Say provides a richer picture of a time when people did not, in fact, trust government.

It was widely believed (or understood) that there was something fishy about that whole Pearl Harbor thing and the drive to war, widely believed that officials in Washington were just improvising during the Depression, widely believed that the expansion of the state and its vast new powers were not really about science but were rather a power grab.

In fact, one looks in vain for evidence from film noir that any viewers were predisposed to believe anything from on high.

In other words, there was a veneer of naiveté but growing distrust beneath the surface — times, in other words, very much like our own. It is in the writings of Mises, Hazlitt, and Rand that we discover the secrets to understanding the strange world of film noir. It is a feast for the eyes and ears, a look at how dramatically and sweepingly different our times are in so many ways, and yet how the themes of corruption, deception, and lies are persistent wherever public and private violence against person and property rears its ugly head.


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