by Paul Batters
‘Murder’s never perfect. Always comes apart sooner or later, and when two people are involved it’s usually sooner’ – Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) Double Indemnity (1944)
Film noir was not a specific reaction to the glamour of Hollywood but an organic creation, evolving over time and stemming from a variety of creators. There have been numerous arguments, discussions and essays written about how film noir can be qualified – whether it is a genre, a style or a combination of both. Perhaps the best approach is to see film noir as R. Barton Palmer describes it – as being a ‘transgeneric phenomenon’ as it has existed ‘through a number of related genres whose most important common threads were a concern with criminality . . . and with social breakdown’. Purists suggest that film noir is a classic period from a specific time frame. Others have suggested that film noir is ever present in cinema or the very least, many of the conventions of noir are. (Yes, I appreciate the irony of using the term ‘conventions’).
However, it is beyond dispute that film noir is meant to disorient, challenge and subvert. Our sense of morality, the desire for truth and meaning and especially the very human sense of hope are all on trial in the innermost courtrooms of our minds. It achieves this in numerous ways – all which stir up powerful emotions in the audience, drawn from our own experiences with the characters. The aim of this essay is not to particularly examine how this is done but to consider what is evoked and examined in film noir – in particular the elements of fatalism and futility.
Humanity’s deepest desires are to escape our ultimate fate, find our dreams and realise our greatest hopes. However, as the title suggests film noir does not seek to comfort its’ audience and suggest that dreams can come true. In this dark and non-linear world, cynicism, alienation and despair are dominant. People do good things for the wrong reasons and vice versa. This is a world of insecurity and the people who live in it are not straightforward or recognisable in terms of classic narrative structures. They are broken, twisted and damaged – yet we travel with them on their doomed journeys. Their own hopes are not dissimilar to ours – security, stability, freedom and even love. But they seek it in far different ways – through graft, betrayal, crime and murder. Whilst film noir does not strictly intend to be a morality tale, the very nature of that world results in the protagonists being doomed to failure. As Aeon J. Skoble points out in his essay ‘Moral Clarity and Practical Reason in Film Noir’, ‘killers are killed, cheaters are busted, and thieves go to prison’. Film noir is a world where the grip of fatalism around the protagonists is firm and unrelenting and all pursuits are bound and defined as exercises in futility.
Even the titles of films in the world of noir are highly suggestive of the inherent fatalism that all will not end well for the protagonists. The Killers (1946), The Big Sleep (1946), Born To Kill (1947), Kiss Of Death (1947), Force Of Evil (1948), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Touch Of Evil (1958) speak for themselves. The Asphalt Jungle (1948) insinuates a hard and harsh world, populated by wild beasts fighting for survival. I Walk Alone (1948) Abandoned (1949) and In A Lonely Place (1950) evokes isolation and alienation from the larger world. Detour (1945) suggests that one’s path is never straight and that bad choices lead to doom – of course the actual story itself is ambiguous when looking at the concept of choice, with the protagonist/narrator stating that fate has determined his path. The Big Steal (1949) evokes the heist film or money chase but also suggests a finality that is ever-present in film noir; that one last job will set the protagonists up for life. Black Angel (1946), Blonde Ice (1948) and Black Widow (1954) are naturals in announcing the femme fatale, as well as the all-pervading motif of darkness and danger. There’s even a hint of sadism and that love and sex bring death – again in some of the aforementioned titles as well as Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Beware, My Lovely (1952).
Fatalism in film noir is particularly evident through the narrative technique of the protagonist as narrator. As they tell their story, the folly of their choices become more than evident in the tone, language and wisdom allowed through the retrospect of the telling. The protagonist often does so whilst facing their eventual demise either through death or a prison sentence, with a total acceptance of their fate and realisation of the futility of their actions. Dying from a bullet wound, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity (1944) sits alone at night in his office recounting his story on a Dictaphone to his boss and friend Keyes, with only a desk light effectively illuminating the scene. The fatalist overtones are clear and frank, with Walter stating his crimes and motivation, in short and simple language:
NEFF: I Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.
As the story is told, the audience watches his slide into the darkness and despite his own initial repulsion and awareness of what is coming, Neff knows he will be seduced by what he should run from. Again, the fatalist overtones are clear and Neff is astute enough to recognize the danger once he is in too deep:
NEFF: Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.
The first person narrator channeling fatalism and futility can be found elsewhere in film noir. Frank Chambers (John Garfield) in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) is sitting in a prison cell awaiting execution. In Detour (1945), Al Roberts (Tom Neal) sits at a roadside café, awaiting his fate. In D.O.A (1950), Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) is an accountant dying from being poisoned, telling the police that he’s been ‘murdered’. There are even protagonists who speak from the beyond! Think of the corpse of Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating in a pool at the end of Sunset Boulevard (1950). As an audience, we are prepared for the inevitable but our interest is powerfully aroused and there is always room in our collective curiosity as to whether the protagonist will worm their way out or somehow escape their fate.
Fatalism and futility are perhaps most present in film noir, where the protagonists try to leave past sins behind, start afresh and live a normal life. In Kiss Of Death, former crook and informant Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) seems to find happiness with his wife and two children, living in a modest home and working in a modest job. Yet Nick’s past, personified by the maniacal Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) searches him out for ‘ratting’ on him. Threatening his newfound harmony, Nick must face the challenge if he and his family are ever to find peace. In Act Of Violence (1948), Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a war veteran and former Nazi collaborator facing a similar dilemma, desperately wanting to leave behind a cowardly past and move forward only to be menaced by Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), who suffered at the hands of the Nazis after Frank informed on him. In both cases, a price needs to be paid yet as often happens in film noir, the questions emerge – what is that price and how often must one pay? Again, the futility of finding peace and stability is emphasised and escape from one’s sins is extremely rare. As Al Roberts (Tom Neal) prophetically states in Detour, ‘whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you’.
Crime Wave (1954) is a solid example of the former criminal trying to ‘make good’ but Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) is an ex-con who has gone straight, supported by an understanding and loving wife Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) and his parole officer. One fateful night, some former criminal associates seek him out for refuge after pulling a job. He wants no part of them and bitterly ruminates over his life, that no matter how hard he tries, his past will never let him rest. Sure enough, things get worse when a tough cop Detective Lieutenant Sims (Sterling Hayden) hauls him in, despite all the protestations from his wife and parole officer. Sims’ philosophy is ‘once a crook, always a crook’. Steve accepts his fate, despite knowing he’s innocent and even tells his wife to get out of town. Walking a fine line between his criminal past and a more secure and peaceful future, Steve does find his way out of trouble. It is not entirely a rare moment in film noir for the protagonist to find peace but that does not mean he or she will not be sorely tested by fate and be overwhelmed by feelings of despair and the forces of futility.
Despite a world heavily populated by criminals and defined by crime, violence and questionable morality, it would be a mistake to assume that they shape and form the key protagonists in film noir. Indeed, many of the central characters in film noir are ‘average people’; they are by definition the audience themselves – people with families working everyday jobs and often existing in mediocrity and anonymity. The concept of the ‘everyman’ comes to the fore – and even the private detective reflects this. It is this aspect of film noir that is perhaps the most interesting and highlights how fatalism and futility both render their omnipresence. What fascinates us are two fundamental questions – how did they end up in such a bad way and what pushed an average nobody into a darker and dangerous world? In Detour, Al Roberts is a piano player travelling to Los Angeles to meet with his singer girlfriend and accepts a ride on the way from a man named William Haskell (who as in all things noir is not what he appears to be). However, his driver is killed in a freak moment and afraid of the consequences, Al not only covers up Haskell’s death but he also assumes the dead driver’s identity and acquires his car. The hand of fate delivers Al into a terrible situation and his poor choice at that crucial moment will lead him to his doom. At the moment Al imagines he has gotten away with it, the woman he is giving a lift to, Vera (Ann Savage) reveals she knows what he is up to and takes him on a more devastating ride than he would have bargained for. Like a harridan, Vera is vengeance personified but she too will be at the centre of the second freak event, which will seal Al’s doom. As the narrator telling his story in retrospect, fatalism is at the very core of the story from the very beginning of its’ telling and Al recognises the futility in trying to beat the hand that is dealt by fate. Again, Al’s discovered wisdom rings like a death knell as he says ‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all’.
Likewise, Sorry Wrong Number (1948), which highlights both elements of fatalism and futility, is a taut crime story peppered with deeper psychological tropes. Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) is married to bedridden heiress Leona (Barbara Stanwyck). Coming from a poor industrial town, with a bleak childhood, Henry’s life has been non-descript and as he points out to Leona after they first meet ‘there’s nothing nice about my life’. There is an edge to Henry that suggests he wants more but sees no way of getting out of his situation. This changes after he marries Leona and a new world opening up for him. Despite his domineering father-in-law making Henry vice-president of the Cotterell pharmaceutical company, Henry wants to be his own man. He makes a number of legitimate attempts to do so but they are all ridiculed and thwarted by his wife and father-in-law. But burning with ambition, he turns to crime and he talks about ‘dreaming big’, finally corrupting one of the company’s employees to assist him in his endeavours. Though not explained explicitly, Henry is dealing in drugs, stepping into a far darker and dangerous world, specifically because he is in business with mobsters. Biting off more than he can chew, Henry even goes so far as to plan his wife’s murder for the insurance payout in order to appease the mobsters he has tried to double-cross in the process of his loftier ambition. Henry’s dreams have pushed him into a nightmare of his own making. Not only have his actions been futile, so too have they drawn others into their own doom, including Leona and the employee he has corrupted.
Perhaps most interesting in Sorry Wrong Number is the minor but crucially important character of the corrupted employee, Waldo Evans. Close to retirement, the meek, unassuming and respectable chemist is the model employee who has worked for Cotterell for years. The bespectacled and quiet-spoken Waldo also has his dreams – to finally retire comfortably in his homeland of England, with a small property where he can enjoy some horses. He admits to having tempted fate, speculating savings but failing in the attempt, and accepts that the best way to reach his goal is put a little away each week until he retires. Waldo perhaps represents us as the audience more closely than we imagine. We, too, can be tempted by the occasional gamble in the hope of escaping mundane jobs and achieving financial security for life, as Waldo admits to doing. Yet he also finds himself corrupted and is nudged into the shadows, succumbing to the seduction of serious money. Unlike Henry, however, there is a stoic recognition of the futility of his choices and the finality of what is to come. There is no hysteria or desperation in Waldo and he gives his final address as the ‘city morgue’, knowing full well that death is coming, with a calm and even formal acceptance. As he relays his finals whereabouts on the phone, Waldo is completely enveloped in darkness, indicating the finality of being pushed out of the light and that he is lost to his black fate.
Al Roberts, Henry Stevenson and Waldo Evans are three very different characters with different motivations. However none of them are crooks, gangsters or conmen who are used to lives of violence and crime. Yet what unites all three is that they are men who have made very poor choices and are going to pay the price.
Likewise, we find ourselves puzzled how intelligent, educated and socially conservative characters find themselves lured into a personal hell. In The Woman In The Window (1944), late middle-aged Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson), who is happily married with a family, finds himself taken by the portrait of a beautiful woman and seeks her out. The combination of sexual allure and romantic idealism draws the Professor into a terrible nightmare, which he desperately seeks to escape. In D.O.A, Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) is an accountant, poisoned by an unknown assailant at a bar. There is no antidote to the poison and Frank races the clock to find his murderer and his motive. Waldo Evans in Sorry Wrong Number is a chemist. In Where Danger Lives (1950), Dr. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is a doctor who runs away with a dangerous femme fatale. Even those who should ‘know better’ are not immune from human frailty, and discover that stepping into the shadows will result in failure and eventuate their own downfall.
Yet within film noir there are characters that do embrace the futility of life and accept the fate that life has dealt them – to some degree. There are two narrative conventions, in terms of character, that best embody this. Neither are explicit staple characters in film noir but they certainly are the most recognisable.
The first is the private detective – perhaps the most definitive character in film noir. A ‘knight in tarnished armour’, the private detective is cynicism at its’ best. Life seems to have no meaning or purpose and whilst there is some element of moral code still present within, the private dick’s key drive is to serve his client and get paid. His morality is ambiguous and his decisions are even questionable. In The Maltese Falcon (1941), Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is not the stand up guy we would like him to be – he’s been having an affair with his partner’s wife. Early in the film, he even shrugs off the death of his partner, although he does admit a sense of code that the murder of his partner means that he ‘supposed to do something about it’. He also has no qualms in eventually turning his lover Brigid (Mary Astor) over to the police. Admittedly, he considers all the elements and decides to do the right thing but perhaps more of out of pragmatism and prudence. Spade reasons that Brigid would always ‘have something over him’ and that ultimately she could one day turn on him. Not wanting to play ‘the sap’, as Spade calls it, sees him revealing the sublime understanding that not only is trust an unrewarding virtue but love is an exercise in futility. Indeed, trust is a certain path to betrayal and perhaps even death. Staying alone, guarded and isolated is far safer than ending up as a ‘sap’. The moment he falls in love is the moment that he is doomed. In film noir, the private detective usually escapes this fate but is destined to remain a loner. There may be the occasional and casual sexual liaison, as exhibited when Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) engages with the bookshop attendant in The Big Sleep and he will even partake in romantic involvement with a client. But a loner shall the private detective remain. He even drinks alone, with alcohol acting as both escape and armour, in response to a world he views with a deep cynical guardedness, passing as casual acceptance of life’s futility. For the private detective, there are no pretences or need for social graces and, more importantly he doesn’t care what others think. As Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) states in The Big Sleep, “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings”. Sarcasm is part of the armour but far more important is his detachment – a sure-fire example of his isolation. Jerold J. Abrams uses the brilliant analogy of the world of noir being a labyrinth. It’s a maze from which there is no escape, even if the Minotaur is slayed and ‘the hard-boiled detective knows as much—and self-consciously accepts his own isolated fate…’ Futility and fatalism are fused into one powerful entity in this instance.
The second is the femme fatale – the other definitive character in film noir. As the title suggests, this is a woman that is dangerous, poisonous and seductive; indeed, ‘fatal’ to men. All misogyny and feminist interpretation aside, the femme fatale, like the private dick is cynical in the extreme – forgoing love and relationships, outside of using her sexuality to secure stability. Love has long been forgone and she is always looking for the next ride, once she has tired of the one she is on. Trust is something she will never respect or embrace – one, because she, herself, is deeply untrustworthy and two, because she too has often been betrayed and any belief in trust has long soured. Marriage never means long-term security, as husbands are disposed of and new lovers are seduced, usually in the process of doing the disposing. However, unlike the private dick, she keeps looking for ‘happiness’ and there is a futility in this, as the femme fatale is doomed to never find it – mainly because she has no idea what she is looking for. Her road to happiness is strewn with wrecked men and the remnants of her own damaged psyche, and in the end she never finds happiness, as her lies and crimes find her out. The femme fatale is doomed to failure and here the fatalist nature of film noir is particularly evident. Interestingly enough, the femme fatale is also doomed when she falls in love. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) uses manipulation and murder in a long existing pattern that her lover Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) eventually discovers. Not only are both wrapped up in the murder of her husband but also in an investigation by the insurance company that Walter works for. Playing it safe and being cautious, Walter warns Phyllis they need to be careful. Yet Phyllis will have none of it, even warning Walter that ‘nobody is getting off’, paraphrasing an earlier statement by Walter’s boss and friend Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Phyllis seems to accept that they are doomed, although there are other machinations she has put into play, which will see Walter pay. But for Phyllis, the unthinkable happens during a climactic moment when she shoots Walter. Her mask drops and truth spills from her, admitting to Walter that she’s rotten to the core and that she loves him. It’s a moment of rare honesty and Phyllis exclaims with incredulity that ‘I never thought that could happen’. Not only does this reveal the regularity of her games but more importantly, love has stripped Phyllis of her armour and weaponry. The femme fatale is no more and Phyllis begs Walter to hold her, as he pushes the gun into her and fires.
It is easy to assume that the Production Code would have enforced filmmakers to afford ‘bad endings’ to the protagonists who do ‘bad things’. There is certainly a truth to this and film-makers could simply not escape this reality of the film-making process during the era of the Code. However, this misses the point of what underpins film noir’s dark world. They are not necessarily intended to be strict morality tales, even though an audience may learn as much from film noir. ‘Crime doesn’t pay’ is a cliché that may pervade storylines in film noir but beyond the surface glance of this statement exist depths and nuances that are far more interesting. Fatalism and futility are firmly attached to this concept, as those about to face their demise, often do so with little or no resistance. Escape from retribution may be futile but connected to this is something far graver – the pointlessness of existence. Waldo Evans in Sorry Wrong Number calmly awaits his death. Ole Andersen (Burt Lancaster) in The Killers (1946) hardly bothers to heed the warning of his coming assassins and knows he will be killed. The Maltese Falcon finds this idea permeating at every level – the hard-boiled Sam Spade is never fazed not because he’s a tough guy but because he recognises the futility of all pursuits and is guarded in his choices. The final discovery that the Falcon, which all the key players have been chasing, is a fake, best exemplifies the concept of ‘crime doesn’t pay’ wrapped up in thick layers of fatalism and futility. The chase has all been for nought, with a ridiculously huge price to pay and even Spade chuckles to himself, acknowledging the futility of it all. An inverted world of crime and darkness does seek to find balance not in terms of conventional morality but by its’ own rules and codes. ‘Rats’ and ‘welchers’ need to get what’s coming to them, with vengeance and retribution personified by maniacs (Tommy Udo in Kiss Of Death), hitmen and cold, business-like gangsters (Morano in Sorry Wrong Number). The femme fatale serves justice to those foolish enough to trust her and fall in love with her – and especially those who reject her. That does not mean that conventional morals, values and norms have no place in film noir – of course they do, as is evident in a number of films. But the protagonists usually find doom and death, not because of the Production Code demanding it in the last reel, but because in the world of film noir, nobody escapes the fate of those who step into the darkness.
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.