Out of the Past: Shedding Light on an Obsession with “Noir”

By Marc Beauchamp

In Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 movie Detour, hailed as a classic “noir” picture, the protagonist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is hitchhiking cross-country to LA to meet his fiancee when somewhere in Arizona he makes a fateful decision to accept a lift from a man driving a flashy convertible. Within days, Roberts is the suspect in the deaths of two people. We meet him—unshaven, angry, haunted— in a roadside diner as he tells the story in flashback.

“Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all,” he says. “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”

I love noir pictures—I love their high-contrast black and white photography, gritty locations, mature themes, femme fatales, and less- than-happy endings.

Orson Welles turned Lady MacBeth into a classic femme fatale.

I’ve watched scores of them on Netflix, YouTube or Amazon Prime—from classics like The Maltese Falcon, D.O.A. and Double Indemnity to obscurities like Pitfall, Wicked Woman and Money Madness. Orson Welles, my favorite director, made three films that critics rate among the best of noir— The Stranger, Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil—and five if you count Citizen Kane and Macbeth, (which I do).

“I’m a noir widow,” my wife joked to someone when the topic came up over dinner not long ago.

But I have trouble with the appellation “noir,” the French critics who coined it, and the notion that it somehow presents a coherent, if dark and fatalistic, worldview like that espoused by the protagonist of Detour, above.

To me, noir is more of a look or style, itself an outgrowth of advances in technology, than a genre. Faster black and white film stock and lighter, more portable cameras allowed postwar directors and cinematographers to shoot outside at night, in shadowy rooms and hallways and on location (the Angels Flight tramway and the gothic Bradbury Building in Los Angeles were staples in movies like Kiss Me Deadly, D.O.A. and Double Indemnity).The city was grittier and more real than studio sets, and a look was born.

Noir pictures are entertaining and diverting as heck. But I try not to overthink their significance or meaning or call them “art,”as many critics and film school academics do. We’re not talking Shakespeare here. (Then again I don’t think Shakespeare or many of his contemporaries considered plays “art” and the Bard would doubtless find the idea of Shakespearean scholarship hilarious.)

Above all, let’s not forget that noir was a product created to fill a commercial need, a niche market. In most cases it was cheap entertainment, often a short B-picture made to fill out a double bill. Typically it featured lesser-known stars and directors. Crime, gangsters and infidelity were recurring themes.

On this point I’ll defer to no less an expert than Robert Mitchum, star of several noir classics including Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 Out of the Past with Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer. Mitchum told film critic Roger Ebert in 1993: “We called them B pictures. We didn’t have the money, we didn’t have the sets, we didn’t have the lights, we didn’t have the time. What we did have were some pretty good stories.”

So here’s what I love about “noir” and what I don’t like about some of the armchair scholarship that’s sprung up around these pictures.

The look. Black and white absolutely rules. Almost all my favorite pictures are black and white. It’s a big reason why I loved Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s homage to growing up in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in the early Seventies— the high definition black and white photography was glorious to look at. Classic noir pictures feature high-contrast film, low angles, high angles and off-kilter images. The look was pioneered by German expressionist film makers like Fritz Lang in M, his 1931 classic about the massive manhunt for a serial child killer played by the uber creepy Peter Lorre. (Lorre also stars in a must-watch early noir, the 1940 Stranger on the Third Floor.) But the cinematic syntax of noir —the shadows, the flashbacks, voice-over narration, arty camera angles, the whole tone and style of noir—was on full display in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).

The locations. Watching noir pictures is a moveable feast, a time capsule of life and commerce in urban and small town America in the Forties and Fifties. It’s a world before chain stores and interstate freeways. Main Streets are a series of shop fronts—butchers, bakers, bars, barbershops, cafes, florists, pawnbrokers. There were working waterfronts and bustling markets (the scenes of San Francisco’s produce market in Jules Dassin’s 1949 Thieves’ Highway are a good example).There were cheap hotels and rooming houses. Out on the highway there were motor courts, gas stations and greasy spoon diners serving burgers, pie and black coffee, with music provided by juke boxes. Think of the gas station the Robert Mitchum character owns in Out of the Past and Nick and Cora’s gas station/diner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Watching noir pictures set in LA and New York, I scan street scenes for signs and read billboards, feeling nostalgic for a time I remember from the Fifties and Sixties in small town California, before cookie-cutter malls, Walmart and strip centers sprang up like mushrooms.

The dialogue. Staccato bursts from pulp crime fiction by ace storytellers like Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett. Knife-edged repartee. Working class wisdom. Prose poetry. So many great lines, so little space and time. Looking up classic noir pictures on IMDb, the “Quotes” section can go on and on for pages. A few examples: In On Dangerous Ground, script by the incomparable A.I. Bezzerides, Ida Lupino tells Robert Ryan’s character, “Sometimes people who are never alone are the loneliest.” In Out of the Past, Kathie (Jane Greer) is playing roulette and Jeff (Robert Mitchum) tells her: “That’s not the way to win.” Kathie: “Is there a way to win?” Jeff: “There’s a way to lose more slowly.” So cool and classy. In Touch of Evil, the corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) asks Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) to read his cards. “Come on, read my future for me.” Tanya: “You haven’t got any.” Quinlan: “Hmmm? What do you mean?”Tanya: “Your future’s all used up.”

The women: In many movie genres men dominate. In noir, women more than hold their own. Think of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyk) in Double Indemnity, Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in Postman, Vera (Ann Savage) in Detour, Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai, Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott) in Too Late for Tears and Billie Nash (the lesser-known Beverly Michaels) in Wicked Woman. Long before borderline personality disorder made it into the DSM, there was Veda (Ann Blyth) in Mildred Pierce. These women command the screen. You can’t keep your eyes off them.

Left to the imagination: Under the Hays Code, enforced from 1934 to the mid-Fifties, there were strict guidelines about how Hollywood could depict sex, crime, drug use, etc. There was no homosexuality or miscegenation. Bad guys weren’t to be glorified, crime never paid, adulterers were punished. Oddly enough, some think this made for better pictures. To quote director Edward (The Caine Mutiny) Dmytryk: “It had a very good effect because it made us think. If we wanted to get something across that was censorable…we had to do it deviously. We had to be clever. And it usually turned out to be much better than if we had done it straight.” Maybe it’s just me but I think we’d be better off with less gore and explicit sex in movies and on TV—not that I’m suggesting censorship, but that films are better when they’re more subtle and nuanced.

Ground-breaking topics: Despite the Hays Code, noir directors handled culturally sensitive topics. Dmytryk, for example, directed Crossfire (1947), a murder mystery about anti-Semitism that earned five Academy Award nominations, including one for Robert Ryan for Best Supporting Actor. And it was the first B picture to be nominated for Best Picture. In 1951, The Well told the story of a young black girl who goes missing, bringing the racial tensions in a small town to an explosive climax. Written by longtime collaborators Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene and co-directed by Rouse, it received two Academy Award nominations.

Imaginative techniques: Noir directors weren’t afraid to try new and different story-telling devices. Two examples: In The Thief (1952) director Russell Rouse tells the story of a nuclear scientist (Ray Milland) selling secrets to the Soviets in an 86-minute film without a single word of dialogue. It’s a tour de force. In Lady in the Lake (1947) Robert Montgomery stars in and directs a Raymond Chandler crime mystery all shot from the perspective of detective Philip Marlowe. We see what he sees, but we never see him, except as reflected in a mirror. It’s remarkable.

Subverted stereotypes: In many a noir picture the bad guy or bad girl fantasizes about taking their ill-gotten gains and escaping to “South America” or, more often, “to Mexico.” Otherwise, Latinos are largely stereotyped as lazy, comedic or corrupt. An exception: In Touch of Evil Orson Welles (somewhat improbably) casts Charlton Heston in the role of Miguel Vargas, an educated and ethical Mexican narcotics investigator pitted against Hank Quinlan (Welles), the corrupt cop with a perfect conviction record, in Los Robles, a fictional border town. (Beachside Venice was dressed up for the part). In one of his standoffs with Quinlan, Vargas says, “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.”

The unlikely villains: Something else cool about watching noir pictures is seeing familiar “good guy” TV characters like Raymond (Perry Mason) Burr playing villains or heavies. etc. Burr, for example, plays the bad guy in Andre DeToth’s Pitfall (1948) along with Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott and Jane Wyatt, in a plot vaguely reminiscent of Double Indemnity. Richard (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) Basehart plays a cold as ice cop killer in He Walked by Night (1948). In the 1948 Money Madness, Hugh (Leave it to Beaver) Beaumont plays a bank robber who poisons his bride’s aunt in a scheme to launder his money. Robert (Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D.) Taylor plays a mysterious man in The Second Woman (1950), a psychological thriller in the vein of Rebecca and Gaslight. It’s a truly creepy performance that keeps you guessing.

Here’s the fatal flaw of some noir criticism. I’ve watched a number of documentaries on noir. Memorably, in several the “experts” are asked to describe the “message” of noir pictures and the response is often “You’re f—-ed,” a reference to the idea that noir is all about fatalism. Or as Shakespeare put it: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods—they kill us for their sport.”

I get the appeal of fatalism in the Forties and Fifties, especially after the horror of World War II. That fatalism resonated with me as a teenager. I wondered how much of my life was predestined —fated—by my DNA and more specifically by my birth, in the early Fifties, to an upwardly mobile middle-class college educated couple. What if I had been born ten years or a hundred years earlier or later to someone else and somewhere else very different from rural northern California during the postwar economic and baby boom? Was it luck? Was it fate? I think I found fatalism alluring because it absolved me of personal responsibility. It took a long time for me to appreciate the amount of agency I had. A lot of agency, as it happened, and I needed to take responsibility for my actions and not blame the results on some trick of impersonal nature or nurture. That was too easy.

Noir pictures, like Detour, mentioned above, are often told in flashback by the protagonist/narrator. It’s a useful convention. But why should we always trust the narrator? Fact is, I don’t trust my own narrative of my life. We all tell ourselves stories to explain our lives and eventually we believe they’re real to the point we could pass lie detector tests. But how true are they? What if, Rashomon like, we asked a sister, a brother, an ex-spouse, a parent, a coworker? Would their narrative be the same?

Do I believe the Tom Neal character in Detour? Does “fate stick out a foot to trip you“ no matter which way you turn? Maybe, maybe not. In truth, Roberts has made choices—bad ones, even stupid ones as it turns out—and the results were disastrous. And yet he would have us believe it was all fate. I’m not so sure. That’s the chief problem I have with noir scholarship. It overthinks something that is basically simple entertainment, and great entertainment at that.

Otherwise, for all the reasons I’ve listed, I love these pictures and frankly prefer them to much of what’s come out of Hollywood in the years since.

In the end, while I have trouble accepting the word “noir” as a film genre itself it is a handy search tool on the Internet. If you’re at all like me, you’re going to like what turns up. These pictures are damn good American-made entertainment. And you don’t need to give them a fancy-sounding French name to binge-watch them, sans guilt.

Freelance writer Marc Beauchamp lives in far northern California. Among his former jobs he worked for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Kyodo News Service in Tokyo, Forbes magazine in Los Angeles, the Nasdaq Stock Market in Washington, D.C. and an electricity company in Hawaii. He is the programmer for the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival, which meets in July as part of FreedomFest.

FreedomFestForum is a publication of FreedomFest, the “world’s largest gathering of free minds,” held at Paris Resort Las Vegas July 13-16, 2020.  For ticket information, go to www.freedomfest.com.



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