by Paul Batters
If there is one aspect of the noir universe which is a norm, it is the presence of violence and death. The dark streets are not only literal but metaphorical realities, where all manner of individuals become drawn into, seduced and even captured by the shadows of their own pathology. Anyone who has watched a noir film knows that there is a stark, cold fatalism with little empathy for those who test it. Everyone pays for their sins and indeed they may do so with interest. Like the loan shark who has their mark on a hook, the individual continues to pay and escape seems impossible.
There is another harsh reality that the only form of escape is ‘the big sleep’ – death. It is an inevitability that haunts all in the film noir universe and one that they are desperate to escape, despite this fatalist understanding. Having written on the nature of fatalism and futility in film noir before (see link here), this article will try to avoid these themes were possible and focus on the concept of death in film noir as also being a form of redemption – an understanding that sins must be paid for.
At the ultimate moment, it is arguable whether we seek redemption for past sins. There are enough stories of ‘death-bed confessions’ to fill a multitude of stadiums – and whilst on the face of it, such confessions seemed cliched, the truth is that such confessions are made during the last gasps of someone’s life. At the other end of the scale, even the most reticent to admit fault and seek forgiveness (at least in film noir) WILL pay the ultimate price.
Death as redemption in film noir is accepted at different stages in the arc of a character. Perhaps one of the most celebrated examples of this, is in a film noir classic and a template for its’ tropes, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Fatalism is evident at the start of the film, where a badly wounded Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) goes into the insurance office he works at, to spill his guts on the Dictaphone of his boss and close friend, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). His opening lines are clearly the beginning of a confession; a mea culpa which will drive the story right to the very end. Neff doesn’t look for excuses nor does he try to explain away his sins by blaming others. Walter’s sins are his own and he takes full responsibility for them. True, in the dying moments of the film after being discovered by Keyes, Walter asks his friend to turn his back as he makes his getaway. But the truth is that it’s a half-hearted appeal for mercy, like a man on the scaffold hoping against hope for a pardon. As Walter collapses at the doorway, Keyes stays with him. Smoking a cigarette (and a beautiful touch with Wilder reversing the motif of Keyes never having a match), Walter waits for justice and redemption to arrive.
The ending is slightly ambiguous in terms of the nature of that justice. The audience never learns Walter’s fate – does he bleed to death in the doorway? Or is he taken to hospital only to recover and be executed for murder? In a now famous image amongst classic cinema fans, Walter Neff stands grim-faced in the gas chamber as Keyes looks on outside. But the scene was cut and the audience is left with a far-better ending. Walter seems to accept his fate and the acknowledgement that he needs to pay for what he has done.
Out Of The Past (1948), one of the finest examples of film noir, employs a similar approach to death as redemption. Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is a private detective who has been hired by bad guy Whit (Kirk Douglas) to find his girlfriend Kathie (Jane Greer). But whilst Jeff initially believes he has found happiness with Kathie, he discovers the truth too late and that Kathie is a classic femme fatale, who has duped both Jeff and her former lover. In the end, there is a chance for escape but Jeff takes a different option. Rather than running off with Kathie and her former lover’s money, he instead betrays her to the police. Despite her threat that she will throw him under the bus as well, Jeff still betrays Kathie, who fatally wounds him with a bullet. It is Jeff’s moment of redemption; he has ‘done the right thing’ in the face of so many wrongs and paid the ultimate price. Kathie will now face justice but the irony of course is that he has been redeemed through her murderous act of revenge. As Mark Conard points out, Jeff has made a ‘presumably redemptive sacrifice’.
But for Jeff it is also the end of great misery and unhappiness. Tortured by his choices, death has now removed all his pain and misery as well. In The Killers (1946), the Swede (Burt Lancaster) is a former boxer whose story is one which sees bad decisions made to impress a woman. His involvement in a bank robbery, even after a stint in prison, further exemplifies how far he slides into the darkness. All he finds is incredible misery and the woman he loves, Kitty (Ava Gardner) has used and duped him as well. When death finally comes to him in the form of the killers, the Swede accepts his fate and indeed even welcomes it. There is a relief in death, as an escape from the pain he has endured. However, though he does not seek redemption per se, he doeshave regrets and acknowledges that he must accept the consequences for his choices. Whilst it may not be a question of a strict code of right and wrong, the Swede “got in wrong” and strayed from who he was. His death will now right that wrong, and again he will make payment for his crimes.
Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) is an excellent example of the protagonist finding redemption, and incidentally relief, through his own execution. Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is a man haunted by the murder he has committed for Cora (Lana Turner), the woman he loves. Their passionate relationship is one which is punctuated by betrayal, mistrust and sexual desire, and they are both riddled with moral corruption. Both will also pay for their sins – Cora through a car accident whilst Frank is driving and Frank as he sits on death row awaiting execution. Ironically, he is tried and convicted for Cora’s death and whilst initially protesting his innocence, Frank accepts that he has to pay for the murder he did commit. But of course, redemption runs deeper in the world of film noir. Frank believes that both he and Cora are paying for her husband’s murder and his acceptance of this acts as his redemption as well. Even more so, Frank is also devastated that Cora died not knowing how much Frank loved her and he prays that somehow her spirit will know this. In the end, Frank and Cora both pay and Frank’s final prayer is that by accepting his fate, redemption will mean that they are together in the next life.
In Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948), Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) escapes from prison with the help of his girlfriend Pat (Claire Trevor) but facing the complication of a dangerous mobster Rick (Raymond Burr) who wants Joe dead. In the finale, Rick and Joe, both wounded in a gunfight, with Rick thrown to his death. However, Joe also dies in the street with an acceptance of his fate and Pat noting that “This is right for Joe. This is what he wanted.”In essence, Joe’s dying face is not one contorted by fear, pain or panic but one filled with contentment. In some way he has found redemption, through the understanding that he needs to pay for his sins and that his death makes things right.
Of course, the deep-rooted cynicism of film noir would suggest that redemption is never available. The hard and bleak reality is that attempts at happiness (or perceived happiness) through crime are futile and hopeless. Yet an extension of that hopelessness and futility is a final desire for redemption and the desperate need for it. It also needs to be remembered that those caught up in the dark shadows are not necessarily professional criminals, gangsters and cops/private detectives (who are used to walking tough streets) but ordinary people who are drawn into the depths. In Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) is drawn into a world of crime because of his deep-rooted dissatisfaction in both his personal and professional life. At the very last second, he desperately realises what he has done but its’ too late to turn things around.
Ultimately, everyone pays a price. Femme fatales rarely walk away and even the innocent are wrongly accused or face prison or death. Yet death brings a finality which cannot be reversed. As a result, it brings a new dimension whilst drawing on tropes as old as religion – that redemption is possible, if the price is paid. In the world of film noir, that is the ultimate price.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.