Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 6th, 2013

Noir and the limits of control

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Sterling Hayden and Coleen Gray in The Killing

“The curious task of economics,” Friedrich Hayek writes, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” You could say much the same thing about noir. The classic film noir, as well as its counterpart in fiction, is ultimately about the limits of control: its protagonists are generally tough, competent, and driven, but they’re brought up against an unfair universe that seems determined to unravel their perfect heist, getaway, or murder. It’s a sharp contrast to the kind of international thriller I’ve found myself writing, which ever since the time of Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth has been defined by a cult of competence. In a well-constructed suspense novel, it’s often the smartest and most capable character who wins, and the hero is frequently defined by his intelligence and skill—possibly because he tends to be so amoral in other ways. The men and women in film noir may be equally smart and tenacious, but that doesn’t always change their fate.

The tension between human control and what the universe really has in mind for us is baked into noir itself, which was often the product of smart writers and directors hedged in by the studio system. It’s often been noted that the classic film noir was created by a reaction against constraints: shadows and minimal lighting are used, as they were in Citizen Kane, to disguise cheap or incomplete sets, while shooting at night is a way of dealing with a compressed production schedule. You also see it in the kinds of plots to which it repeatedly returns. If an A-list picture is sold by a star, a B movie is sold by a poster, title, and tagline, usually involving a girl with a gun. If there’s a place where pulp fiction intersects with noir, it’s on the paperback cover, which tells us precisely what kind of story to expect. Or so we think. In reality, the truth is more complicated, and part of the reason noir indulges in such convoluted plots—the flashbacks, the impersonations, the returns from the dead—is to push against these conventions in the only way it can.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

But if the elaboration of the plot is usually complicated, the ending tends to be brutally simple. There’s no better example than Chinatown. Robert Towne spins a deliciously complicated story, and although I’ve seen the movie countless times, I don’t think I could accurately describe it in its details. Yet it comes down to very simple themes—murder, greed, incest—and ends in a way that makes nonsense of Towne’s beautiful script. As Towne himself says:

In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending…that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.

And it’s only appropriate that the cruelest of all endings should have been imposed on the story after the fact by a director whose own life became so saturated with guilt.

The ironic resolution isn’t confined to film, of course, and it reaches its height in novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice. Yet there’s also a sense in which the constraints of Hollywood itself encouraged a peculiarly tragic view of life. The Hays Code made it impossible for crime to go unpunished, and when a movie gives us a hero of great shrewdness and ability whose motives are less than pure, when he’s inevitably required to fail, it’s often the result of some cruel, meaningless trick. This has sometimes been taken as a sign of contempt by the filmmakers toward the limitations that the code imposed, but it also reflects a deeper understanding of how useless our most ingenious plans can be.  My own favorite example is the end of The Killing, in which a meticulously plotted heist is foiled by a little dog on the airport tarmac. It’s arbitrary, unfair, and frustrating, but there’s also something strangely satisfying in Sterling Hayden’s final line: “Eh, what’s the difference?”

Readers in Chicago are invited to attend the panel “The Lure of Noir” at the annual Printers Row Lit Fest at 4:00 pm on Saturday, in which I’ll be discussing the subject with novelists Bryan Gruley, Brian D’Amato, Libby Fischer Hellmann, and moderator Robert Goldsborough. More details can be found here.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 6, 2013 at 7:30 am

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