A Glimpse into the Origins of Film Noir
A term that translates to ‘Black Film’ already sounds interesting. Add to that dramatic, highly stylized cinematography and hard-hitting, gritty writing, and the appeal of film noir is clear. The term is mostly attributed to works such as Double Indemnity, Scarlet Street, and The Maltese Falcon, all major works which helped popularize the genre after its debut in the early 1940s.
Film noir has its origins in literature, birthed in the middle of the 20th century when urban development and social unrest were creating a new world that demanded new literary styles. Coming into prominence at a time of expanding social consciousness in the context of urban life, authors such as Dashiell Hammett found a passion for writing in a ‘hard-boiled,’ street-smart manner. Hammett’s Two Sharp Knives is such a piece, with its stylized narrative, moody characters and dark setting, later to be enhanced in film by stark black and white imagery.
Two Sharp Knives is written as a first person narrative, putting the reader firmly in the shoes of the protagonist, experiencing his suspense and curiosity first hand. As in most noirs, the plot revolves around a crime; in this case, a murder. However, this is no ordinary homicide. The murder is played off as a suicide, casting suspicion on a suspect perhaps motivated by greed, a repetitive device in noir that plays on moral ambiguities. Money is often used as a means of clouding characters’ judgment to the point of distorting their reality and their sense of right and wrong. The noir also typically casts unlikely characters as the antagonist, further complicating the morality. In Hammett’s piece, the villain is revealed to be an officer of the law, inverting the standard crime film trope.
The noir characters, of course, dominate the story. The narrator, Scott Anderson, is the Chief of Police, a typical personality found in the majority of noirs – laconic and slightly morose. On the surface, he appears to be a genuinely honest, hardworking cop who believes in justice and fair play. But towards the end of the story, an exchange occurs which appears to question this assumption. Anderson says to his partner, “I’m sorry you did it, Wally, I always liked you”. Wally, the villain, in turn announces, “I know you did . . . I was counting on it”. Here, Hammett is implying that our protagonist, despite the veneer of righteousness, was known by his colleague to have the capacity to deviate from his moral imperative.
Another feature of noirs is the appearance of an ordinary man whose life has been drastically changed. In Two Sharp Knives, this man is Lester Furman, a citizen of note who becomes a murder suspect and is finally himself murdered. This plot thread is rather cynical and Kafkaesque but again typical of the genre. Arguably, the most famous noir character is the alluring, apparently vulnerable yet, in the end, manipulative woman: the femme fatale. In Two Sharp Knives, this is Ethel Furman. Spell-bound, Wally pursues her, ultimately murdering her husband. Even when his crime is revealed, Wally remains infatuated with Ethel, claiming “I still think she’d marry me if she didn’t know I killed him.” Physical attraction and overt sexuality factor heavily in the makeup of this story, and noir in general.
Finally, setting plays a particularly important role in noir fiction. Perhaps moreso than other genres, the setting creates the mood, underscoring the plot and the morality (or lack thereof) of the characters. It can be likened to pathetic fallacy, a literary device which personifies inanimate objects to the extent that they mirror or reflect human emotions. In Two Sharp Knives, Hammett uses figurative language to paint a dismal scene on the street of a desolate city. It is the world of dark streets, a police station and the “cop car”. These latter scenes only serve to further deepen the sense of the dark and gritty world of the noir crime-investigator plot. Language, likewise, situates the story in time and with particular types of people. The use of slang (i.e., “ringer”, “Hanky-Panky”) often orients the reader to a particular decade in the twentieth century, not only servicing the mood but provides some authenticity and, perhaps, intimacy, for the character. The eventual migration of these themes and stylistic devices into cinema gradually gave birth to an entire genre of film, one that remains as fascinating now as during its heyday.