Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ian Fleming

Noir and the limits of control

leave a comment »

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.

The hardware of suspense

with 2 comments

Sean Connery as James Bond

Suspense novels, as we all know, have a lot of hardware. As regular readers are probably aware, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the role of hardware in my own books, which contain detailed information on guns, weaponry, and tradecraft to an extent that might seem surprising in the work of a confessed moderate liberal. When I wrote The Icon Thief, I don’t think I spent much time worrying about this: to my mind, it was a convention of the genre I was happy to embrace, since it fit in nicely with my love of research and real-world information. Later on, I began to see it as a way of enhancing verisimilitude: if the writer can describe small technical details accurately—or at least convincingly—the reader is more likely to accept the story’s larger leaps of logic. I still believe this, but I’m also uncomfortably aware that it can be taken too far, as in the corporate jet with its “dual Pratt & Whitney engines” that intrudes into one scene in The Lost Symbol. And it’s only recently that I’ve begun to figure out why certain forms of hardware are distracting while others immerse you more fully into a novel’s world.

My initial clue, oddly enough, came from Ian Fleming, who might not be the first novelist you’d consult for advice on the unobtrusive use of detail. Fleming once wrote an excellent essay called “How to Write a Thriller,” which while amusingly dated in some respects—he says that his books “are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, aeroplanes and beds”—is surprisingly insightful on the subject of hardware. Fleming writes:

My plots are fantastic, while being often based upon truth. They go wildly beyond the probable but not, I think, beyond the possible. Even so, they would stick in the gullet of the reader and make him throw the book angrily aside—for a reader particularly hates feeling he’s been hoaxed—but for two technical devices: first, the aforesaid speed of the narrative, which hustles the reader quickly beyond each danger point of mockery and, secondly, the constant use of familiar household names and objects which reassure him that he and the writer have still got their feet on the ground. A Ronson lighter, a 4.5 litre Bentley with an Amherst-Villiers supercharger (please note the solid exactitude), the Ritz Hotel in London, the 21 Club in New York, the exact names of flora and fauna, even Bond’s Sea Island cotton shirts with short sleeves. All these details are points of reference to comfort and reassure the reader on his journey into fantastic adventure.

Ian Fleming

At first glance, the 4.5 litre Bentley with its Amherst-Villiers supercharger may not seem that far removed from Brown’s dual Pratt & Whitney engines, but there’s a crucial difference. Brown doesn’t give us any indication that the character in this particular scene would take any interest in the engines flying his plane, but Ian Fleming is talking about James Bond, who might well be expected to care a great deal about the specifications of his Bentley. In short, the details here tell us something about the protagonist, his point of view, and the things he finds important, from his martinis to his weapons to his custom-made Morland cigarettes with the three gold bands on the filter. Fleming, as it happens, smoked the same brand of cigarettes himself, and he gave Bond many of his own personal habits, such as his love of scrambled eggs, which only helps with the identification between the author, the character, and most of all the reader. The brand names and hardware in these books are an expression of Bond himself—as if he’s willing the world around him into existence—which is a point often lost on Fleming’s many imitators.

In other words, hardware in a thriller works because it’s an expression of the personality that occupies the center of the narrative, whether it’s a cop, a spy, or a hit man. The novelist Steve Rasnic Tem has a wonderful essay called “One View: Creating Character in Fantasy and Horror Fiction,” available in this collection, in which he compares this approach to the way dreams are created:

An analogy I’ve always found useful for the relationship between characters and their settings is the relationship those same elements have in dreams. A particular theory of gestalt dream interpretation suggests that every object in a dream is a piece of the dreamer. A chair, a table, a car, another human being—each would represent some aspect of the dreamer…But whether you agree with its validity as a method of dream interpretation or not, I think it suggests a useful approach for fiction making…[And] the approach to characterization I’m suggesting here puts increased weight on the individual details that make up a story.

Tem is speaking mostly of fantasy and horror, but this approach also has fascinating implications for the thriller. If every aspect of the story and setting is expressive of the protagonist, the details will naturally tend to center on what he notices and cares about the most, which in suspense is likely to revolve around hardware. When it’s done poorly, it’s less an issue of excessive research than a failure in point of view: those Pratt & Whitney engines reveal less about the character than about the writer. When done well, as in The Day of the Jackal, it functions as a sort of metonymy: the Jackal is his rifle, just as Bond is his martini, and we learn a great deal about both men in the process. Ultimately, hardware is all very well and good, but character is the software that makes it run.

Written by nevalalee

May 1, 2013 at 8:52 am

%d bloggers like this: