Sunday, April 19, 2009

Two Forms of the Film Noir Protagonist

I've been working through the noir genre in my quest to experience film history, and I'm building a basic understanding of the structure of the genre. It's really fascinating, a case study of how an aesthetic category comes together from regional and historical influences, popular and artistic conventions, ideologies, narrative themes, and technical devices. In noir, I've discovered a compelling storytelling tradition, woven through a golden age of cinema and culminating in the brilliant, experimental contemporary heritage of neo-noir and crime cinema.

I think I've identified some essential characteristics of noir, and even though this subject has been turned over endlessly in critical literature, I'm going to shamelessly advance my own hypotheses. First, noir film always follows a primary protagonist whose most importat weapons are information and the ability to handle intrigue and interpersonal politics. Second, film noir is always threaded through with themes of law and criminality. Third, film noir is always constructed within a cynical framework, where motives are generally selfish, or at least self-preserving. Thus, although criteria #2 engages film noir in a discourse of right and wrong, criteria #3 always prevents it from being reduced to simple manichean moralism. The ethical complexity and moral ambiguity of the genre is built right into its framework.

There are some narrower "genre staple" aspects of noir that are key to its formative staples. These include the labyrinthine urban setting, the presence of a "femme fatale," and hasty dialogue shot through with jargon and innuendo. The absolute essential film noirs are those that exhibit all of these characteristics... in this central genre-defining role I'd place The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, and Sunset Boulevard. However, the genre has expanded far beyond its core examples. This is why I've offered the "necessary condition" definition in the previous paragraph... these characteristics can be identified even in genre outliers, like Night of the Hunter (such an awesome movie) and Touch of Evil, the "last golden age film noir."

One of the most interesting aspect of noir, which I've seen developed over the whole course of the genre, is the need to place a heroic central character in an amoral universe. This has given rise to the darkest, most fascinating anti-heroes in modern cinema... people like Sam Spade, Marge Gunderson, and Philip Marlowe. It's the nature of their heroism that I'll be discussing for the rest of this blog post, in relation to both traditional noir and neo-noir.

I've discovered two basic strains of noir heroes: the moral outsider, and the doomed lover. Almost every film in the noir tradition seems to give us one or the other of these archetypes; in the prototypical four films, both forms are established, and in the most compelling neo-noir films, the form is loyally reproduced, whether intentionally or simply as a symptom of the genre structure.

The moral outsider is the character who navigates a universe of intrigue from the outside, penetrating and deciphering a web of deception. This character is always in control, and is generally distinguished from his prey by his moral sensibility, whether its a compassionate impulse or a sense of civic duty. Humphrey Bogart always seems to play this moral outsider, as both Marlowe and Spade; he has been succeeded by Margie in Fargo, and by Brendan in Brick. Film noirs with moral outsiders as their central figures bring an ethical grounding to the genre... the world is always cynical and jaded, but in The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Brick, and Fargo, there is a sense of justice being carried out... at least a spark of moral potential, no matter how much it is shown to struggle.

The alternative to the moral outsider is the doomed lover, the character who is led to their downfall by their manipulative counterparts. The doomed lover is prototyped in the films of Billy Wilder, whose Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity provided the formula for the upstanding guy led astray. Walter Neff is an inspiring compliment to the stronger "moral outsider" of other noir films... he's the criminal, drawn into a web of intrigue that he can't handle by a woman he can't resist. Joe Gillis's fate may be even more frightening -- he tries to manipulate a woman lost in her own fantasy, and realizes too late that her madness is ready to draw him in and devour him. These characters have their own contemporaries, in the forms of J. J. Gittes (Polanski's Chinatown) and the hapless Ned Racine of Body Heat.

I've only run across one film so far that genuinely tries to combine these noir archetypes, and it's a truly experimental outsider entry into the noir genre. This is Le Samourai, directed by 60's French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville. It's the story of hitman Jeff Costello, played by Alain Delon, who acts according to a Samurai Code of professional conduct, and who knows how to navigate the intrigue at the intersection of crime and law enforcement. Costello is not easily manipulated or in over his head, like those doomed lovers discussed above; for the majority of Le Samourai, he is indeed the moral outsider, exhibiting a strange sense of duty in spite of the cynicism around him. However, this sense of duty leads him to ruin, just as Neff and Gillis were led to their deaths by obsession and naivety.

Just as Le Samourai is a truly unique film noir, with its 60's mod stylings and its skewed minimalism, so its protagonist, Costello, is a unique case within the genre. He is not the victim of a femme fatale... moral outsiders such as himself are never victims of strong women... but it is a woman who leads him to his demise. Costello's sense of duty to his employer collides with his moral sensibility, and he can't bring himself to carry out his last job. Thus, ultimately, he is a tragic hero, led to oblivion by his own convictions. Costello is the hinge of two film noir traditions, and in combining them, he brings a new spirit to an entrenched storytelling tradition.


Unknown said...

Interesting article. I only have a few small bones to pick. The simplest one to mention is that the last true golden age film noir was not "Touch of Evil." It was "Odds Against Tomorrow." That, and film noir is not a genre, in my opinion. Neo-noir is a genre, but thats a longer discussion.


Anonymous said...

i like what you're got here but film noir is a style not a genre

Jesse M said...

Eek, nitpicky comments! Thanks for making some observations, but on those particular points, I was simply writing from general knowledge. Roger Ebert called "noir" a genre today... not that it makes me right, but it justifies my shoulder-shrug, which says, "I don't really feel guilty about calling noir a genre."

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