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This month I’m teaching a three-week intensive course on Film Noir and American Culture. The “movies with a dark look” emerged in the United States around the coming of World War II (think John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, 1941) and lasted till the late 1950s, with the Cold War a decade underway (Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, 1958).
Noir’s dark look was born under the exigencies of wartime rationing—of film stock, materials for set construction, and especially electrical supply. But the look opened up as well the dark underside of American life, which standard Hollywood productions had resolutely ignored or confined within such genres as the gangster film, where evil is consigned to certain distinctive locales or character types. It was those immigrant types in the cities—Italians, Irish, Jews—that were the problem, and if their enterprises imitated American Big Business all too well, well, that didn’t imply anything for the motives and aspirations of ordinary Americans. Film Noir cast a broader suspicion. Anybody could do anything. Everyman could fall to fate, or fateful desire. So could Everywoman. Even blondes could be bad. Especially blondes. Enter Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity with that glittering anklet, a chain for fools.
Double Indemnity was one of three releases—Laura and Murder My Sweet were the other two—that made 1944 the breakout year for the noir style. What gets interesting from the angle of American religion is the publication in that same year of a classic in American political theology, Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. The title makes you wonder if Niebuhr was moonlighting on the title desk at a Hollywood studio.
The two sets of children in Niebuhr’s book were, respectively, the optimistic idealists behind modern democracy, particularly in its American version, and the moral cynics who, trusting nothing and no one, would put raw domination in its place. Democracy could be upheld, Children argued, only if its defenders overcame their “sentimentality” about human nature. They had to wake up to the reality of the works of darkness, and their own part in them, the better to control or delimit its spread. Not least they had to stop denying their own self-interestedness and the long stretch they were willing to go to preserve it.
“The conception of human nature which underlies the social and political attitudes of democratic culture is that of an essentially harmless individual,” Niebuhr averred , but in fact “there is no level of human moral or social achievement in which there is not some corruption of inordinate self-love.”  Those two sentences spell out the premise of film noir. Then, in Scene 1, we tip over the edge. Trouble develops on the screen, as in Niebuhr’s world, when the parties in question press on in their delusions, deepening their predicament, worsening their vulnerability, wreaking ever more woe as they go along. Lots of people die here, tarnished all, as their inevitable due.
The only figure who has a chance to escape on the noir screen seems to be the private eye, hardboiled version. Not that there’s any guarantee—just a possibility. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe makes the grade. See Murder My Sweet where he’s played by Dick Powell, or The Big Sleep per Humphrey Bogart’s perfect rendition. Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade is another, with Bogart doing him right in Maltese Falcon.
Whence the private eye’s grace? Sam Spade puts it with iconic brevity to the femme fatale who would seduce him: “I won’t play the sap for you.” That is, I won’t surrender to sentimentality, to the pretenses of love that cloak the lures of success, money, and greed—all the “things that dreams are made of.” The true image of the latter in the film turns out to be the flinty statue of a bird of prey, the falcon itself. Raymond Chandler gave the elegiac version of the credo in a famous essay he published in the Atlantic in the selfsame year of 1944. “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Only such a figure, Chandler offered, could introduce that “quality of redemption” needed to make of human artifice a work of “art.”
Reinhold Niebuhr quoted Jesus to the same effect about the more elevated mean streets that are the corridors of power: “The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice.” [40-41] That formula proved to be highly unstable. By the 1950s the United States was playing fast and loose around the world (Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954…) with professed innocence, or cloaked malice, about its good intentions. At the same time, in his hero Mike Hammer the bestselling author Mickey Spillane pushed the hardboiled detective over the edge into self-indulgent violence and self-righteous vengeance.
Yet the violence and corruption finally brought about their own doom. Flash forward to 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned the White House just as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown signaled the return of noir as a critique of American life. Private-eye Jake Gittes (played to a turn by Jack Nicholson) falls in that movie because he mistakes his cockiness for genuine confidence, while Billy Graham simultaneously mourned not Nixon’s abuses of power but his potty-mouth. All of which burnishes the gold standard of both genres, Bogart and Niebuhr, and their depiction of the moral man in an immoral society, searching out the heart of true virtue.