The philosophy of Existentialism reached the United States during the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. Existentialism has already been discussed in a specific lecture (see Existentialism). Despite the low expectations of the leading French existentialists concerning American understanding of the philosophy, American popular culture embraced Existentialism with enthusiasm. Here are some of the doubtful statements with regard to American thinking by important Existentialists. “There is no pessimism in America regarding human nature and social organization,” said Jean Paul Sartre in 1950. Simone de Beauvoir wrote that Americans had no “… feeling for sin and remorse,” and Camus was derisive about American optimism and materialism.
Historians such as George Cotkin disagree. Cotkin and other scholars point out how readily Americans began to participate in the conversation of Existentialism. There is, according to Cotkin, a rich American tradition of thinkers, such as Jonathan Edwards, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and William James, among others, who concerned themselves with “existence and the contingency of the world.” Despite the popularity of Existentialism among American intellectuals, writers and film makers, the philosophy was largely bypassed by professional philosophers. American academic philosophy of the time was more concerned with professionalism and logical analysis. There are scholars of film noir, or black film, such as Robert G. Porfirio, who make the claim that America developed its own Existentialism from its hard boiled school of fiction. There is some belief that without the hard boiled school of fiction, film noir may not have come into existence.
Existentialism concerns itself with being and existence. Individuals who are perceptive realize that they exist in a world which is chaotic, indifferent and made up of random causality. Their awareness of the meaninglessness of life offers such individuals great freedom, but freedom also engenders dread and anxiety. Many people will never achieve the individuality existentialists believe leads to authenticity, the highest goal. Instead, many frightened people will fall back on conventional behavior, received opinion, accepted morality, religion, and in a few extreme cases, suicide. They have avoided choice, but avoiding choice is obviously still a choice. They have constructed a trap for themselves rather than a path. Existentialist philosophers maintain that it is essential for individuals to take up the heavy burden of understanding the meaninglessness of life and to emerge from the struggle freely and joyfully as complete human beings. People who are aware must accomplish this task despite the muddle and pain they perceive and make ceaseless efforts to choose their individual paths and projects. Existentialist philosophers believe that embracing life and making choices creates authentic being.
This lecture will examine the hard boiled American novel of the 1940’s and 1950’s and the American movies that were first labeled by French critics as films noir. Both art forms dealt with the meaninglessness of life, random happenings, and choices that doomed their protagonists. However, the practitioners of both schools emphasized the negative exigencies of the world and the moral ambiguities of its protagonists. There is a sense of the hero being trapped in the world’s web of lies, plots and counterplots, betrayals, lack of love and trust, and a reality that is sordid and desolate. There have been almost no hard boiled heroes or anti-heroes of films noir that have achieved authenticity and a complete sense of life in the face of an incoherent world and the non existence of god. The world of the hard boiled characters and the protagonists of films noir is a resolutely secular one. There is little mention of religion, and when it exists in the plots, it is most often characterized by crooked cults, phony religious leaders and hypocritical fakes. Religion is absent from both art forms, or characterized in negative terms. The characters of both styles are too aware of the randomness of life to believe in any sort of intervening power.
Experiencing films noir and the hard boiled American novel is a great pleasure and education for many people, particularly those who embrace a secular stance concerning the world. The works deal with the dark side of American society, the side that was, and continues to be, denied by much of contemporary literature, film and the various media. When the reader or viewer enters the world of a film noir or a hard boiled novel, one finds a reality that makes no mention of god, or a belief in a god. Indeed, some of the protagonists express doubt concerning the existence of any higher power. There are some novels and films that mock the naivete of those taken in by belief systems. Organized religion is not depicted as a protection or comfort in the face of the evil men and evil actions that so often threaten the world of the characters.
One hesitates to characterize the main protagonists of the original films noir and hard boiled novels as the heroes of the plots, as they are often morally ambiguous and lack a firm ethical or sensible point of view with regard to the outcome of their actions. They often undertake plots and romances with women who are merely deceitful appearance, without firm substance. Women lack real personalities in these art forms, and are characterized as “beautiful” women who are classic femme fatales. They appear to be in love with the protagonists, who suddenly become credulous and trusting in the women’s good intentions toward them. The femme fatales appear to be trapped in dull or frightening marriages or relationships, and desirous of the anti-hero’s love and help. The male characters rush to begin romantic affairs with the women, often agreeing to kill their husbands or lovers and/or to embark on a crime caper which will quickly go wrong. The anti-hero is often killed, or if he has the “luck” to survive, finds himself in prison, on death row, or on the skids, still in love with the deceitful woman and lamenting the end of their love affair.
Both art forms end on a note of hopelessness that is made more intense by their filmic beauty or lyric novelistic style. They indicate that there is no way out of the fallen world except for death. But there are a few anti-heroes of the hard boiled novel who do show signs of surmounting the dangerous and seedy world they inhabit. They will be discussed later in the paper. Films noir anti-heroes never prevail over the doom they so often bring on themselves, or that is visited on them by evil people and exigent circumstances.
Both styles of film noir and hard boiled novels need to be discussed and analyzed before this paper turns to examining the attempt of some writers to create a hero who selects personal choice and who attains an authentic self. As has been mentioned, a study of films noir does not find that their protagonists show any sign of becoming complete persons.
On the contrary, the film noir style is more useful in determining the presence of the dark underside of American culture. There is literally “no way out” for the anti-heroes of this art form. There are few women in the films other than the stereotyped “femme fatale.” The protagonists will either love or be obsessed with such charismatic women until a bullet stops them or until they are escorted to the electric chair or hangman’s noose by the law. The men are caught in a dark American nightmare, one of crime, evil and deceit.
The film noir style is characterized by paranoia, despair, and a sense of entrapment and impending doom. As critics have pointed out, the anti-heroes of this filmic style are ironically alienated from their past, yet are led to a doomed confrontation with that past. The barren urban setting of the films reinforce the viewer’s sense of darkness and alienation. The shots consist of gloomy streets and rooms half hidden by dark shadows.
The noir character is surrounded by lies, deceit, betrayal and alienation. Fear is predominate in the plot. The web is often so tight that the protagonist is unable to find his way out of it. He cannot break free of the weave that he has often entered by himself, even if not completely willingly. He seems forced into dangerous, often fatal, circumstances by some inner volition. The trap is always baited with the prospect of rich rewards but instead offers impending doom. There are other plots in which the anti-hero is trapped by circumstances so exigent and serpentine that he in unable to extricate himself even when he most desires it. Most of the characters of films noir are drifting and morally astray when first seen at the beginning of the movie. Many are contemplating finding a shady way of “making a financial killing.”
Noir protagonists are at loose ends and easily enmeshed in circumstances that will turn them into outlaws, then into murderers, and finally into hunted men. But despite the moral failings of the characters, the thread that runs through the plots of most films noir is that life is meaningless per se, that such meaninglessness is not merely confined to one person at one time, or by reason of limited circumstances. As Steven N. Sanders maintains: “.. . every noir film thrusts its protagonist into crisis because of the very character of life itself.”
Here are some of the lines from films that describe the fate of noir characters caught in insuperable dilemmas. The corrupt detective in “Touch of Evil” (1958) is told by a brothel madam/fortune teller when he asks her about his future that: “You haven’t got any… your future is all used up.” Freddie Rico, in “The Brothers Rico” (1957), is told by his sibling, Eddie: “Maybe I’m gonna die. You’ve got an even bigger problem- you’re gonna live.” The musician in “Detour,” (1954) who fatally responds to the accidents that condemn him, says: “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”
Some of the best films noir depict the protagonist in the last stages of extreme circumstances. In the 1949 “DOA”, an accountant has drunk a poison with no antidote and is dying. He has done nothing but unknowingly notarize an illegal piece of paper. He must confront his murderer and explain the plot to the police before his death. In the 1950 “Sunset Boulevard,” the lover/gigolo narrates his own corruption and the tragic turn of events to the audience. He is already dead, seen from the film’s opening face down in a swimming pool.
The plot of “Vertigo” (1958) is more complex. The leading man falls in love with a woman he loses to her (false) suicide. He is nearly destroyed by the “phony” event and then repeats his own suicidal obsession by trying to turn the deceitful shop girl who played the original woman into the image of his imagined lost love. The irony is that the image he worships was a “fake”. The woman he tries to reinvent originally played the part of the woman he lost. She dies as a result of his discovery of her participation in a murder and his fragile psyche is irreparably destroyed as well. In the 1947 “Out of the Past” the ex-private detective tells his fiance about his crime ridden past, only to go on in the present to repeat the same mistakes that he had determined on before.
Many critics of film noir agree that the movies are based on a particular style, and that film noir should not be characterized as a genre by itself. Here are some of its defining stylist characteristics as delineated by Paul Schrader. Most of the films are lit for night. The anti-hero or detective is not bright lit, but is often seen in dark places and in shadows. The style looks back to German Expressionism, with oblique and vertical lines used more than horizontal ones. Such lines render the screen images unstable and unnecessarily busy. Character authority, as well as stability of environment, are overwhelmingly undercut by such a technique.
The space of the protagonist and his environment is continuously stabbed and cut into pieces by the unstable light. Stairs and other objects throw shade on the characters in the shape of bars, prison bars. The viewer becomes aware of the foreshadowing of disaster. The environment of the noir character is often given equal lighting when he is on camera. Such a film style gives the viewer a sense that the city’s bleak and corrupt visage will outlast and defeat the best efforts of the characters. There is a great deal of compositional tension in the style, with the scene arranged around the actor rather than him controlling it by physical action.
Paul Schrader goes on to point out attraction to water as characteristic of film noir style. He maintains that even scenes set in Los Angeles contain empty noir streets “glistening with fresh evening rain.” He notes that the rainfall tends to increase in direct proportion to the drama. Alleyways, docks and piers, dark and threatening with rainfall, are popular meeting points in many of the films.
The narration of the doomed protagonist, as he mulls over past events, even when already dead, is typical of the style of many films noir. The past is seen as irretrievable and the characters caught in a fate that they cannot alter. It is a recitation of a hopelessness that the narrator seems to relish at times, as it is part of his doomed past. A convoluted time sequence is often employed by the film style, which reinforces the effect on the viewer that she is seeing a convoluted world where how seems to be more important than what. Style seems to be all that remains to separate the film from the meaninglessness it encompasses.
Many currents of thought converged to produce the public acceptance of films noir by Americans used to more optimistic and “happy ending” films. The ameliorating tendencies of movies made during the Depression and during the very early years of World War II seemed to lose some cache with American film goers in the aftermath of the war. Much of the optimistic propaganda shown at home and overseas was made for audiences that would be soothed by upbeat endings. The films were meant to keep the audiences’ spirits up and to depict America as a place where hard work, taking advantage of good luck, and conventional attitudes to life ended in worldly success and personal happiness.
But when the war was over, American audiences were ready for a more realistic picture of American life. Housewives, factory employees for a brief time, were returned to homes where their lives narrowed. Small businessmen felt the pain of the shrinking profits of a peace time economy, and soldiers returning from the war who found societal vacuity and difficulty obtaining employment became cynical and disillusioned. The society they had fought for seemed less worthy of their sacrifice than they had believed. The influence of the American hard boiled novel on films noir will be discussed later in this paper. The ground work had been laid for Americans to be drawn toward films and novels that were more realistic and that reflected their own encounters with the dark side of the culture.
Vulnerability, loss and the awareness of loss typifies the attitude of many male anti-heroes of films noir. However, a few characters, like Sam Spade in John Houston’s 1941 “Maltese Falcon,” manage to transcend several conventions associated with the film noir protagonist. Spade is not vulnerable. Robert Edenbaum describes Spade as “…a daemonic tough guy. ” “…He is free of sentiment, of the fear of death, of the temptations of money and sex.” Spade is an existential hero at the core, but he is not the fully realized character, the authentic person visualized by the French Existentialist philosophers. Spade has cut himself off from love and hope. He lives by his own code in an estranged state from any sense of community.
Spade will be discussed later in the section on hard boiled American novels. His original creator, the novelist, Dashiell Hammett, is considered one of the most important crime authors of the 20th Century. His character, Sam Spade, does embody many existential characteristics, but never reaches full authenticity because of his alienation. Nevertheless, Robert Porifirio points out that Spade is an existential hero, the type of character about whom Albert Camus calls “a man without a memory, free of the burden of the past.” Spade is nearly as amoral as his antagonists but he lives by a code he refuses to violate, even while he eschews conventional morality.
The fatalism of film noir corresponds to one half of existentialist tenets. Films noir stop short of full existentialism by their continuous perusal and exploration of the types of constraint on human choice. In one sense such an examination makes us aware that there are often greater limitations on things people can choose to do than is at first apparent in existential thought. Yet the characters in films noir are relatively free. They are often hard up for cash, but not starving. They may have little formal education but they are often intelligent and more than capable of rational thought. Limitations are relative and by such standards, the protagonists of films noir have very few that are not self-inflicted. The self-inflicted pain is illustrated by the characters’ fixation on the fatalistic reach of the past, which they romanticize as they repeat it on their way to certain doom.
Jeremy B. Butler makes an excellent observation concerning the film noir style that often uses confessional flashbacks, by means of voice-over. The voice-over is usually that of the protagonist. Butler states:”… the technique provides a kind of narrative closure that mirrors film noir’s inherent fatalism. The viewer thus knows the ending to come in the films because the future is pre-figured in the past.” But it is always important to keep in mind that the existentialist philosophers sought freedom from grim determinism by positing choice as the redemptive act, the exercise of human freedom which breaks from the repetitive and faulty reasoning that leads to non-existence.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his 1943 “Being and Nothingness”: “For human reality, to be is to choose oneself.” It is in the slow evolution of the American “tough guy” that one may observe some of the heroes emerge from the cliche of the hyper, and at times hysterical, male. The writers clung to the portrayal of protagonists who were filled with fearful aggression and anger, and little else, that was so characteristic of the tough guy novel of the time. But a few created more fully realized characters.
Many of the hard boiled novels originally came out in paperback books with colorful, lurid covers that grew more suggestive through the decades of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. The covers generally promised more sex and violence than the paperbacks actually contained inside the story. (There were some exceptions, and they will be discussed shortly.) But there was some sex and violence in the thrilling tales, and paperbacks were affordable and convenient to carry from one spot to another. Each cover contained a small drama in itself, and was sometimes more interesting than the story inside the book.
Many of the hard boiled novels had influence on the films noir. In fact, books by Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, Jim Thompson and others were filmed with a considerable degree of success. The hard boiled authors wrote about the same problems that contributed to the public interest in films noir. Not originally intended by their publishers to endure, they have become iconic in the eyes of many fans and critics. They were a distinctive American invention, like jazz and martinis, and often had the same cache. They were more of an American phenomenon than the films noir that were influenced by them. Film noirs borrowed from many European, as well as American, styles, but the hard boiled novel was a new, harder and more violent type of mystery than the classics of Agatha Christie and other writers.
The novels’ cool and cynical style was a welcome change for many readers who did not appreciate the American love of bombast and self-glorification. The false and sugary optimism of the larger culture was undercut by the hard boiled authors’ works. They exposed and warned readers about the lies and false promises of politicians, preachers, lawyers and mainstream movie and book productions.
Just as in the films noir, the paperbacks acquainted readers with the dark side of American culture. The two styles cross fed each other because the hard boiled novels were made into films noir and crime films. The world of the hard crime stories was much different from that of the classic mystery tales that preceded them. As Geoffrey O’Brien states in his 1997 volume, “Hard Boiled America,”: “The temple of this world is the barroom, and its holy of holies the booth where the blonde sits, always just out of reach. Its precincts are not guarded by priests, but by cool, psychopathic bodyguards who wisecrack as they bludgeon.”
As in the films noirs, one finds that most of the hard boiled novels often ignored the existential necessity to create authentic human beings who make correct choices. It is difficult to determine why the many writers of novels and producers of American movies omitted that important existentialist tenet. One reason for the omission might have been because existentialism was taken up by popular American culture rather than the academic community. Neither the producers of films noir, nor those of the hard boiled novels, seemed interested in generating different themes that would surmount the cynical despair of a doomed protagonist. The split in the two art forms is an interesting bifurcation of existential thought.
Even when the tough guy detectives created by such authors as Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald and others managed to survive and continue working in their profession, they were written as limited characters, lacking relationships and connections to a fuller existence. They operated without much of a past or future, in the same void they were inspecting. Liquor and cigarettes were part of the detectives’ solitary rites used to ward off the emptiness of their leisure hours. They existed in a present that was filled with corruption and danger.
Hard boiled protagonists seemed unable to love and even though sexually active, forced themselves to remain aloof from the women they desired. Just as in films noir, such women were often devious, deceitful and sometimes killers. But slowly more fully developed characters began to emerge. The development was limited and present in, at best, one or two of the series that featured classic tough guy stories. Such characters do seem to embody the growth into authenticity described by the existential philosophers. Most of the books, however, depicted an America that seemed flooded with negative emotions, particularly when seen and described through the realistic, and sometimes hysterical, eyes of the hard boiled novels and films noir protagonists. The heroes of the detective novels always featured a cynical tough guy because that style was popular with readers of the time.
America had become a society that was materialistic and lacking in any authentic value system. Religion was seen by many thinking people as an unnecessary hindrance. The concepts of time and space seemed on the verge of being thoroughly understood, and perhaps even conquered, and the idea of a god seemed child-like and naive. The proponents of capitalism and science saw the two as able to work in tandem to bring about a “brave new world.” But thoughtful people saw that the new world on the horizon promised a future that was filled with instant gratification and little else. It was a vision as limited as the outworn one of infantile belief in a god, immortality and heaven that had entrapped people in earlier centuries. The new world vision began to be understood as a bleak one and worse, it was assuming nightmare proportions. The hard boiled writers were most adept at depicting that nightmare in their works.
Dashiell Hammett began the tradition of the full-fledged hard boiled novel with his 1929 “Red Harvest.” The book was written in a realistic and colloquial style, both efficient and poetic. Hammett was a non believer and had worked as a Pinkerton detective for a time. The two main characters featured in his works are the nameless “Continental Op” and Sam Spade of the famous “Maltese Falcon” and other novels.
In “Red Harvest,” the Continental Op finds himself nearly overwhelmed by the corruption and evil of a small town, nicknamed “Poisonville.” He admits: “… it is easier to have the crooks killed off, and surer, and now that I’m feeling that way, more satisfying. Poisonville is right. It’s poisoned me.” In another passage, he muses: “But this getting a rear out of planning deaths is not natural to me… I’m going blood simple.”In another story, the Continental Op exposes a religious cult and its leader. The leader is found to be startlingly convincing in his final apparition of god. And then he is murdered. The Op is an efficient detective, but he often seems uncomfortably indistinguishable from the criminals he catches and sometimes kills.
Sam Spade, the detective whom Hammett describes as looking like a blonde satan, is a more fully developed character than the Continental Op. In the famous Maltese Falcon, Spade is portrayed as a violent loner, but as the novel develops, one sees that he is distinguishable from the criminals he kills or captures, unlike the Continental Op. Spade eschews emotional connection to his partner, the partner’s wife (with whom he is having an affair), and to his mistress, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who turns out to be a murderer. Spade might love Brigid, but he is more attached to his private code of behavior, much like an Ernest Hemingway hero. He gives Brigid up to the law because she has killed his partner.
Spade is the only important character in the novel who is not taken in by the pursuit of the legendary, bejeweled statue of the Maltese Falcon. It is a wild goose chase that is embraced by the other characters who steal, lie, and kill in pursuit of the mirage. Spade remains aloof from the desire to own the statue and sees it for what it is- a fantasy.
It is in the “Maltese Falcon” that Spade recounts the tale of “Flitcraft” to Bridgid. That story remains much discussed and its meaning disputed by readers and critics. The parable is told by Spade in Chapter 7. He reminisces about being sent to find the missing Flitcraft by the man’s deserted wife. When Spade does encounter him, he discovers that Flitcraft is living with a new wife in a new life very similar to the one he had left.
Flitcraft tells Spade that one day in his former life, he was walking down the street when a large beam fell down from eight or ten stories above and landed on the sidewalk next to him. Suddenly aware of the random nature of the universe, where a simple accident of a falling beam can end one’s life, Flitcraft tried to adjust to this revelation by leaving everything that had formerly had meaning for him behind.
Spade explains that Flitcraft had gotten used to beams falling, and then, as he lived a new life, “… to beams not falling.” Flitcraft had become aware that life can suddenly end without any more meaning than an accident. He was unable, like many of the other characters in the novel, to get beyond the realization that life was contingent on accident and changing circumstances. So as the fear he had experienced faded, he embraced a mediocre life once again.
Spade, and perhaps his creator, Dashiell Hammett, does not seem to believe that some people might be successful in achieving a fuller life when faced with an existential crisis. Incidentally, the Maltese Falcon was made into an excellent movie in 1941, and is arguably the first “film noir.” The movie is one of the many noirs that were made from the plots of hard boiled novels.
James M. Cain wrote novels that belong to the “noir” school that many crime writers embraced.Crime, doom and despair converge in books such as “Double Indemnity” (1943), “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1934), and “Serenade” (1937). The protagonist in the famous “Double Indemnity” is a small time insurance salesman already trying to figure out a way to game the system when he meets a woman who leads him to become a murderer. In “Postman”, the anti-hero seems to have no history and no ideas. When he stops at a luncheonette and becomes entangled with the owner’s wife, he is led into murder by obsessive desire.
In Cain’s novels, it appears that when his protagonists are left without desire, life ends for them, and they go to their deaths with the memory of that desire. They embrace their doom. Some critics believe it is because the anti-heroes’ obsessive desire and its consequences are the most interesting thing that has happened to them. Cain’s characters are sleepwalkers even most driven by desire, by obsession and by murderous crime. Their entire world is one of random meaninglessness, where people are killed because they are a hindrance to an obsessive affair, or by an accident that settles the doomed fate of the characters.
Raymond Chandler was a famous writer of the hard boiled style of the detective novel. He is, like Hammett, considered one of the most important 20th Century authors working in the genre. But unlike Spade, Chandler’s sleuth is a chivalrous character who understands that his goodness is often useless and who is sadly aware that his own goodness sometimes falters. Philip Marlowe is a character who shares his interior monologue with the reader. Marlowe can be seen as increasingly bitter and disillusioned with each book. Chandler’s detective grapples with a Los Angeles that he perceives as materialistic, chintzy and crime ridden. He knows that city well and hates it. He passes down streets “dark with more than night.”
In his 1950 “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler lays out his criteria for the ideal detective, who is his creation, Philip Marlowe. “…Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.”
But Marlowe’s attempts to be a knight errant often fail, as he becomes increasingly betrayed and disenchanted. In the 1953, “The Long Goodbye,” he states: “I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.” Marlowe is always left alone at the end of the books as the fake brightness of objects fade and as people turn vicious, untruthful and deceitful. He muses early on in the 1939 “The Big Sleep”: “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?…you just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”
The wit and kindness and courage of the hard boiled Marlowe is overcome by the reality of American corruption. There is no breakthrough for Marlowe into true authenticity. He remains in a meaningless world, overwhelmed by his discovery of the void that is that world, which he investigates futilely but with courage and resolution.
Horace McCoy was a novelist of the nihilist school of hard boiled fiction. His exceptional 1935 “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” exemplifies the theme that runs throughout his work. The characters he creates are marginal and their true desire is to become a blank, to erase themselves and thereby erase the meaninglessness of the world. They live by no code, no attempt to go down the mean streets with courage.
The anti-heroine of “Horses,” Gloria, is first encountered by readers as she attempts to win money with her partner by being the last couple left on the floor of the marathon dance contest that takes place during the Depression years in America. The fatigue and monotony of daily life is echoed in the microcosm of the dance floor, where couples go around and around in an exhausted stupor. Gloria chooses death, which will enable her to exit the ballroom horror and the horror of her life. She needs her dance partner to commit a mercy shooting for her as she is unable to do it herself. He complies with her desire, which dooms him as a murderer. He is sentenced to death by the law. McCoy has managed to reach a zero state for the characters in his novel. There is no way out and no salvation for them except death.
Jim Thompson wrote the horrendous and nightmarish novel, “The Killer Inside Me”, as well as other tales equally twisted and savage. The killer of the 1952 novel is a psychotic murderer, a small town sheriff who is not suspected of being a criminal for most of the novel. He behaves, and speaks, in accord with American small town cliches, which increases the grim irony and humor for the reader, as these ploys “fool” the townspeople into thinking he is one of them.
Like Thompson’s other tales, the narration is from the voice of the killer. He is someone who takes us into the depths of a personal hell. The killer hates and rages and kills, but at his center is a confusion that begins to color the entire novel. Who is he really? What is actually happening in the story? The reader becomes engulfed by the character’s psychic torment.
Thompson’s killer might be an exemplar of all the psychotic murderers who terrorize the American landscape- the bombers, the shooters, the violent rapists and others. Their mind set is likely similar to the Thompson criminal: confusion, seething rage and a descent into oblivion at the novel’s end. McCoy’s works are the flip side of America, and at bottom as American as an optimistic Horatio Alger story, in which the characters end up rich and happy. The minute the protagonist of a McCoy novel is born, he is in a hopeless jam, a murderous muddle which dooms him to carry out his murderous actions.
Mickey Spillane created the ultimate violent detective, Mike Hammer. Spillane’s books sold far more copies than did the finer works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Mike Hammer simmers with a barely controlled rage against nearly everyone- Communists, women, gays, shadowy networks of human monsters who threaten American life and so on. Women nearly always prove to be killers, or Communists, or criminals, or deficient in some way.
The police often hinder him in his one man vengeance crusade, but some of them understand and look the other way as he bludgeons, beats and murders his way across New York city. Hammer is convinced that society needs an enforcer like him. He loves the Second Amendment because he interprets it as giving him the right to bear arms.
The detective lives up to his symbolic name of Hammer. In the 1951 “My Gun is Quick”, he states:” I was just one tight knot of muscle, bunched together by a rage that wanted to rip and tear.” In the 1951 “One Lonely Night,” he boasts: “I loved to shoot killers. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than shoot a killer and watch his blood trace a slimy path across the floor.” His hyperbolic dialogue continued ad nauseam in every book that Spillane wrote about Hammer.
The detective is particularly hysterical and angry on the subject of women. He describes the bodies of the temptresses he encounters in rapturous terms, often with a clinical precision, but he kisses and touches them more often than he can bring himself to go to bed with them. The women whom he likes, who are basically “good girls,” even when sexually promiscuous, die nearly as often as the murderous women, although not at his hands. But the women who are killers, who deserve to die, are regularly dispatched by Hammer. In the 1947, “I, The Jury,” Hammer shoots the murderess in the same way she killed his friend, in the stomach. When she asks him: “How could you?”, Hammer replies with his by now iconic answer: “It was easy.”
In the 1950 “Vengeance is Mine,” the beautiful model agency executive, Juno, is revealed as a man in drag. She had tried to tempt Hammer into bed, but he always had a queasy feeling when he was attracted to her. Since Juno was exposed as first a criminal killer, and then as a man, Hammer felt justified in killing him/her. His odd queasiness when he desired her earlier in the book is justified by the fact that she was not a woman after all. Temptresses, killers, members of shadowy criminal organizations that threaten America, and women cannot be trusted by the red-blooded American male, as exemplified by Mike Hammer.
The sadism that became so popular in 1950’s American fiction was common to other hard boiled writers, but it was Mickey Spillane who “opened the floodgates.” With Hammer, the American hard boiled detective persona began to descend into a frightened, raging bully, beating and killing people in a hysterical fury. He believed that he was not only threatened by women, by shadowy criminals, and by political plots, but sometimes even by policemen in the higher ranks, like the District Attorney.
Mike Hammer was convinced that it was up to him to protect the entire fabric of American society by spilling the blood of everyone who threatened it or threatened him. Mike Hammer was less psychotic and more controlled in his murderous impulses than Jim Thompson’s characters, but the popularity of Spillane’s detective novels from the late 1940’s and beyond, is demonstrative of the paranoia of American culture at that time.
A more intelligent and compassionate detective came on the scene during the 1950’s with the novelist, Ross Macdonald. The witty repartee of his detective, Lew Archer, was similar to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. But Macdonald’s detective was a thinking man, somewhat intellectual, although not offensively so. Even though he was a tough character deserving of his hard boiled reputation, Archer embodied humanist tendencies that made him a sympathetic character to readers.
Macdonald had begun his career in academe and intellectuals felt comfortable reading him. It has been noted that the villain in his first Lew Archer novel, The 1949 “Moving Target,” quoted the philosopher, Kierkegaard, and that some of his volumes featured scholars and painters. Geoffrey O’Brien notes that Archer is comprehended through negative means, that he is a window through which we see the real objects of interest in the novels, the people whom he is investigating.
Archer is not always easy when he is able to find the killer. He has come to understand each criminal in the novels too well. Macdonald’s plots are difficult to keep in check as they expand and the characters begin to fall apart. Archer’s consciousness is the glue holding all the elements of the novel together. It is Macdonald’s style that creates the ballast as his detective moves through the complexity of the plot line.
Lew Archer investigates families and the emotional traumas and histories between the various members. He moves among the California elite, unlike the underworld that most hard boiled detectives must eventually negotiate before solving their cases. The expensive homes with long, elegant driveways, the landscaped grounds, the brunches and the beaches inhabited by the rich are Lew Archer’s primary habitat. Many hard boiled detectives might begin there, but often end up in the shady, grimy underworld as they follow their cases to conclusion. But Lew Archer encounters the greatest risk in the seductive vistas he traverses, which is to lose one’s self. He confronts people who swallow legally prescribed anti-depressants, have alcohol addiction, and other emotional difficulties. The killer is often the product of the spiritual malaise of the environment.
As fine an author as Macdonald is, his detective at one point sounds a little too “good” for the tough sensibility a hard boiled detective must display in the face of crime. In the 1956, “The Barbarous Coast,” Archer muses: “The problem is to love people, try to serve them, without wanting anything from them.” It is momentarily too great a departure from realism, but fortunately Archer quickly admits that he is a long way from solving that problem.
The frequently melancholy detective comes close to achieving authenticity. His caustic banter, so reminiscent of Hammett and Chandler’s heroes, masks a persona that never allows the darkness, malaise and tragedy he encounters to harden his heart. We know that he is estranged from love, that he is lonely and unattached. He is sometimes willing to let those he can help have a second chance. But he is still a hard boiled detective, even though he occasionally functions as a psychiatrist. According to his creator, Ross Macdonald, Lew Archer “… became a man who was not so much trying to find the criminal as understand him.” But Archer, in the end, remains alone and struggling against a corrupt American society. He just misses becoming a fully realized, authentic man.
Robert B. Parker’s Boston private detective, Spenser, is the best example of a genuine hard boiled sleuth who achieves authenticity and becomes a free human being. Parker wrote about forty novels about the Spenser character. Spenser operates in much the same style as the Chandler/Hammett wise cracking tough guys, but Parker has endowed him with Lew Archer’s sensitivity and empathy as well.
Spenser is in a committed relationship with a psychologist, Susan Silverman. They live apart, but share significant time together, as well as with various generations of pointer dogs, all named Pearl. There is a different sensibility at work in Parker’s novels, as Susan is described as a beautiful, intelligent, successful and loving woman.
In the 2003 “Back Story,” Spenser describes her: “…She was informed with generosity and self-absorption, certainty and confusion. She was subtle and literal, fearless, hesitant, objective, bossy, pliant, quick-tempered, loving, hard boiled and passionate. And it all melded so perfectly that she was the most complete person I’d ever known.” Women are never complete people in most hard boiled novels.
Spenser also has a foster son, Paul Giacomin, whom he helps grow up after he meets the boy on an earlier case. Paul becomes a dancer and drops in on the novels from time to time. None of the former hard boiled detectives had long-term relationships, friends, a child, or even a dog.
Spenser has a side kick, a device becoming more and more popular in current detective novels. His friend is Hawk, a gun-for-hire, but Spenser never reveals exactly what Hawk does when he is not working with Spenser. With Spenser, Hawk is an excellent partner and loyal friend. He is known throughout Boston as a man to be feared. He is black, highly intelligent and dangerous.
Spenser chooses his profession after being fired for being too independent as a policeman. Readers are told about his more lucrative cases, but many of the novels feature Spenser choosing the cases that interest him or arouse his compassion. For such cases, he works for small pay, or sometimes for free. Hawk accompanies him on these jobs, often being called in when matters become too dangerous for Spenser to operate alone.
There are some caveats for the people who intend to read the Spenser novels. The sexual bantering between the detective and Susan is often a little jejune. Many readers enjoy it, but even in the interests of reading about a hard boiled detective in a fully realized relationship, the sexual “talk” between the two characters is a little “corny.” When Susan is required to bring her psychological expertise to a case, the story slows down. But when Spenser is out on a job with Hawk, the action is superb and genuinely hard boiled.
Spenser makes his own decisions about the people he works for, and is not reluctant to refuse a case, or to keep working on one, even after he has been fired. As has been mentioned, Susan, his lady friend, is one of the few women in hard boiled literature who is relatively undamaged, smart and independent, a help rather than a hindrance and danger to the detective. Hawk is less realistic, but makes an excellent side kick to Spenser. He is dangerous to bad guys and his style complements Spenser. Their action together keeps the plot lines running along and is always exciting.
Spenser is not bitter or depressed. He works out, cooks, is educated and loves sports. His cases sometimes feature football or basketball players as clients or suspects. He is courtly to women and treats them with respect. This is not always easy because some of his female clients can be difficult or suspicious. He carries various guns and uses them to kill people he can’t stop by other means.
Spenser has qualms when he must kill people, but he quickly resolves them. He thinks about what he has done when he is forced to kill three criminals who have tried to shoot him down. “…Sometimes the work helped people. But who was getting killed this time? Several people had died so far in pursuit of information that no one might wish to acquire…Did I stick at it because I was curious?… I did this work because I couldn’t do any other… at least this work let me live life on my own terms.”
Susan tells Spenser: “You are a violent man… you have been all your life. It’s neither good nor bad. It simply is. What makes you who you are is you have contained it within a set of values that you can’t even articulate.”
But Spenser can articulate some of his code when he feels required to think about it. He says: “I was doing this because I had started to do it and if you are going to live life on your own terms, they need to be terms and that somehow you need to live up to them. What was that line from Hemingway? What’s right is what feels good after.”
Spenser is a fully realized character. He is an authentic man, an anomaly for a detective of the hard boiled school. (There are other series which purport to be hard boiled, but even a quick read will unmask them as pretenders.)
Like a true hard boiled detective, Spenser has no use for the consolations of religion. He lives by his own code, but that code never consumes him. He might drink alcohol, but for enjoyment, not to fill time when he is not working or to try to evade the void of existence.
Spenser is the character who stands alone in the pantheon of noir films and hard boiled novels. He is able to break through his awareness of corruption and negativity to become the authentic person that has been described by the French Existentialists. Robert B. Parker achieved a fine series of novels before his death. Before his work, American protagonists of the hard boiled school seemed to be doomed by the negative mentality shared by so many characters. The earlier detectives were aware of the meaninglessness of the universe and unable to achieve freedom because of their own alienation.
But Robert B. Parker’s conception of a hard boiled protagonist gives the lie to the myth of the inevitable failure of characters who perceive the void in the center of existence. Spenser sees the void every day, faces it and comes out somewhat battered but unbowed. He does not need religion, false comfort, alcohol or drugs. The American hero has made the journey into the dark underside of his culture and returned whole. He has achieved this triumph by his own ability and reasoning power. The hard boiled school has produced an American hero at last.
Conrad, Mark, Ed. The Philosophy of Film Noir. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007.
Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003.
Damico, James. “Film Noir: A Modest Proposal.” in Silver, Alain and James Ursini, Eds. Film Noir Reader. New York, New York: Limelight Editions, 2003. 95-107.
Dinerstein, Joel. The Origins of Cool in Post War America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Faison, Stephen. Existentialism, Film Noir and Hard-Boiled Fiction. Amherst, New York: Cambria Press, 2008.
Hillier, Jim and Alastair Phillips. 100 Film Noirs. British Film Institute, 2009.
Maxfield, James F. The Fatal Woman: Sources of Male Anxiety in American Film Noir, 1941-1991. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.
O’Brien, Geoffrey. Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir. Expanded Edition. New York, New York: Da Capo Press, 1981.
This volume by O’Brien contains a comprehensive check list of the hard boiled era from 1929-1960. Highly Recommended.
Osteen, Mark. Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and The American Dream. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2013.
Porfirio, Robert. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir” in Silver, Alain and James Ursini, Eds. Film Noir Reader. New York: New York: Limelight Editions, 2003. 77-95.
Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” in Silver, Alain and James Ursini, Eds. Film Noir Reader. New York: Limelight Editions, 2003.
Tellotte, J.P. Voices in the Dark: Narrative Patterns of Film Noir. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
In addition to the Hillier Book listed above, there is a plethora of books and websites that contain comprehensive lists of Film Noir movies. Crime Reads, a subsidiary of LitHub on the web, is an excellent source for crime novels. Film Noir Foundation is another web source for news about noir film festivals, movies, and back stories.