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Entries in Dashiell Hammett (1)

Tuesday
Dec032013

Hammett and the Roots of Film Noir

Let's start here, with a clip from the 1947 film CROSSFIRE, with Gloria Grahame as hard-boiled Ginny Tremaine and Robert Young as the homicide detective.

The genre of noir (nwahr, French, meaning "black") is truly an American original: gritty, extra-dry wit spackled over loneliness and alienation, always with a crime element of some sort in the plot. Seedy characters in black-and-white cinematography. Striking femmes fatales in tight dresses. Mush-mouth criminals. Cool, abrasive, but polished detectives. And little to no musical score, as if the emotional distress doesn't need underlining with harmonic cues.

Although we mostly think of noir as a film genre, and although the movies are mostly set in California (or more specifically, in L. A.), it's important to remember that its roots are in New York City. And its creative genesis lay with writers like Dashiell Hammett (and the man who followed closely in his footsteps, Raymond Chandler).

In the end, noir is indeed a literary genre, even on the screen. The words are the thing, the patter of sense over rank senselessness. The scenes play out in novelistic conventions: small conversations among few players, telling (sometimes too telling) symbolism (THE MALTESE FALCON, anyone?), and the misdirected dramatic irony common among crime novels (that is, we know as little as the characters but we think we know more).

And that most novelistic of all subjects: love. Or lust. There is no line between the two. It's simply the old romance that somehow escapes the patter. Check out this clip from the 1954 film PUSHOVER with Fred Macmurray as our intrepid detective and Kim Novak, for my money the best actor in the genre:

Noir betrays its New York roots in a recent adaptation of the genre: sci fi noir. Think BLADE RUNNER (1982). Or GATTACA (1997). Or MINORITY REPORT (2002). Or TWELVE MONKEYS (2005). Here, the landscape is definitely Manhattan recomposed as a futuristic, dark, urban nightmare.

For me, noir comes to its apotheosis in one of the greatest movies ever made: VERTIGO (1958). Many would argue it's not a noir film--it's in color, after all, and fully scored, and the crime is mostly the torment within--but the cool, mannered surface, the polished, novelistic dialogue, and the talent of Kim Novac put it over the top for me. It's Hammett boiled down beyond the hard-crack stage: to mere residue, the almost chemical composition of despair.