NOIR DETECTIVE FILMS

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Of the five films initially identified with noir by Frank and Chartier, Otto Preminger’s Laura is a detective story of sorts, while John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944) are based, respectively, on classic novels by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, perhaps America’s two best-known writers of hard-boiled detective fiction. Laura is a much more idiosyncratic noir story, partly because it involves a police detective, the upright Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), rather than a private detective. Otherwise, the on-screen clash between characters played by Clifton Webb and Vincent Price provides campy highlights to an otherwise straightforward whodunit that is nevertheless complicated by the fact that the eponymous Laura (Gene Tierney), supposedly a murder victim, turns up alive halfway through. There is a real murder victim, though, and McPherson manages to solve that case (along the way becoming obsessed with Laura), even if Lydecker steals the film. In any case, detective stories have come to be associated strongly with film noir in the popular consciousness, perhaps because so many neo-noir films have been detective stories. Detective stories are, in fact, more prominent in neo-noir film than in film noir, though it nevertheless remains true that many of the most important noir films have involved private detectives, lone individuals living by their own codes and trying to enact their own visions of justice, even though these visions might not match up with those of the police or of society as a whole.

The Maltese Falcon, based on the 1930 novel of the same title by Hammett, features Humphrey Bogart as tough-talking (and genuinely tough) private eye Sam Spade. Perhaps the first fully noir detective film, it might also still be the greatest noir detective film. Bogart, named the greatest American film “legend” of all time in a 1999 poll conducted by the American film institute, owes much of that status to his performances in film noir, and The Maltese Falcon is perhaps his most important noir film—though his own greatest noir performance is probably in In a Lonely Place (1950). Spade, because of his strong (if rather eccentric) sense of right and wrong, stands out here in a world full of corruption, as all the other characters—including femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) scramble to achieve their own selfish goals, no matter who gets hurt—or killed. And yet there is a way in which Spade is very much at home in the world of the film, very much able to understand the motivations of the other characters.

Murder, My Sweet is based on Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely and was released in the U.K. under that title. In the U.S., however, it was felt that the original title might cause filmgoers to think it was a romantic musical, especially as star Dick Powell was well known for appearing in such musicals. Here, though, the baby-faced Powell delivers a surprisingly effective imitation of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who stands even further apart from the world around him than does Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Marlowe, in fact, observes the events of the film from an oddly distanced, bemused perspective, much less able than Spade had been to understand those around him. Spade always seems one step ahead of the action; Marlowe always seems one step behind, partly because the world in which he finds himself is far more absurd and makes much less sense.

Marlowe also navigates a rather absurd Los Angeles landscape in The Big Sleep (1946), another classic noir detective film based on a novel by Chandler (the 1939 novel of the same title). Famous for its complex, convoluted plot, The Big Sleep is clearly designed as a star vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, who with this film became associated with the roles of both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, America’s two most famous hard-boiled private detectives. Bogart’s Marlowe is a bit tougher than Powell’s had been, but still lacks the rough-edged quality of Bogart’s Spade from The Maltese Falcon. He also here has a tender side, including a subplot (significantly embellished from the novel) involving his relationship with Vivian Sternwood, played by Bogart’s new wife, Lauren Bacall, in an attempt to capitalize on the public’s fascination with the glamor couple, who had first been seen on screen together in the 1944 film To Have and Have Not. Possibly Chandler’s raciest novel, this one required considerable modification to get past the Production Code, but director Howard Hawks, one of the Hollywood’s most successful mainstream directors, was a master craftsman who was up to the task. It probably didn’t hurt that he had an all-star team of screenwriters, including the novelist William Faulkner, as well as Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman (a Hollywood veteran who, among other things, had co-scripted To Have and Have Not along with Faulkner). And yet, the contrast between the source material of the original novel and the Hollywood craftsmanship of the finished film creates tensions and interesting effects that go beyond the craftsmanship itself.

In 1947, Philip Marlowe returned to the screen in still another incarnation with Robert Montgomery’s adaptation of Chandler’s 1943 novel The Lady in the Lake. Though a generally undistinguished adaptation, this film is notable for being shot from the point of view of Marlowe, thus mimicking Chandler’s habitual first-person style of narration. Thus, except for an occasional insert in which Montgomery addresses the audience directly, Marlowe is never seen on screen, except when he is front of a mirror and can thus see himself. This technique makes The Lady in the Lake stand out, though in another way it is simply a specific example of a characteristic it shares with so many noir films—the tendency to put a great deal of emphasis on style.

Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), vaguely based on Mickey Spillane’s 1952 detective novel Kiss Me, Deadly, updates the noir detective film to include Mike Hammer, the misogynistic, commie-hating protagonist who made Spillane a huge commercial success in the 1950s. Aldrich’s film, however, adds a significant amount of Cold War anxiety to Spillane’s novel, which had been about organized crime, by converting it into an espionage narrative centering on the threat of nuclear catastrophe. At the same time, the film presents Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) in an extremely unflattering light that emphasizes his violence and brutality. Then the whole thing ends with a bang.

Finally, just to emphasize the versatility of noir detective stories, one might also take note of Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956). This film is rather late in the noir cycle, standing apart from high noir in the refinement of its visual style, which lacks the harshness and starkness of so many noirs, while still showing occasional signs of Lang’s Expressionist roots. It is also an unusual noir in that it employs comedy extensively—and even has a comic ending. Otherwise, the film displays a number of crucial noir characteristics, including the dark nature of the troubled serial killer whose murderous attacks on women, motivated by his own gender insecurity, underlie the entire plot. However, the killer (dubbed the “Lipstick Killer” in the media and played by John Drew Barrymore) actually has relatively little screen time, most of which is taken up by said media. In particular, having just inherited his father’s media empire but having no desire to run it, wastrel Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) decides to amuse himself by having the heads of his company’s three major departments compete to see who can identify the killer before the police, the winner to take over the leadership of the company. This contest initiates a competitive scramble in which all involved acquit themselves rather badly—making the key noir point that these respectable media executives are not that morally superior to the serial killer they are chasing. At least he has the excuse of being mentally ill, while they mostly seem to be just ruthless and ambitious.

In what is perhaps the film’s most interesting (but unsettling) motif, writer and telejournalist Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), who is the closest thing this ensemble film has to a central figure, also seems at many points to be its most despicable figure. For one thing, though newly engaged to sweet young secretary Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest)—the film’s most morally “pure” character—Mobley doesn’t hesitate to dally with tough woman reporter Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino), who serves as the film’s “dark” woman character in opposition to Liggett. Even worse, Mobley is perfectly happy to dangle Liggett as possible bait for the Lipstick Killer, just as Donner’s boyfriend, one of the executives, sets her on Mobley to try to get information that will help him in the contest.

Newspaper editor Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), ultimately wins the race to the top of the company, which has to be counted as happy conclusion, given that the seems less reprehensible than his rivals. Meanwhile, somewhat to his own consternation, Mobley is tabbed to succeed Griffith as editor of the company’s flagship newspaper. More importantly, he secures the position of husband to Liggett, who, somewhat bizarrely, is still willing to marry him despite his callous behavior throughout the film. Viewers are left to ponder whether this conclusion is really a happy one: is Liggett just an extremely loyal woman who can see through Mobley’s flawed exterior to see a better man underneath, or is she simply suffering from some sort of delusional codependency that will ultimately lead to her doom? Meanwhile, the depiction of the corruption and ruthlessness of the Kyne media empire (while having much in common with near-contemporary films such as A Face in the Crowd or Sweet Smell of Success, both of which were released in 1957) is somewhat ahead of its time in anticipating the fallen condition of the mediascape of America in the early twenty-first century. As Dickos notes, “It is this compromised moral condition of urban institutions and their machinery, which Lang recognized in While the City Sleeps and saw ever so clearly in The Big Heat, that gives further definition to his noir vision (25).