If film noir continues to attract critical attention, this is perhaps because it is something of an impossible object, a genre that was actually nothing of the sort: John Ford knew he created westerns, just as Vincente Minnelli understood he was directing musicals, melodramas and comedies, but Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer would not have realised they were making noirs until this label was applied to their work long after the fact. Noir has proved peculiarly reluctant to sit down and have its picture taken, its rules being multiple and contradictory – which is surely why it still fascinates us.
Consider Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), a key noir title whose notoriously labyrinthine narrative resists summation. In brief, it involves private eye Jeff Markham, aka Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), being hired by mobster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to find Whit’s absconded mistress, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). Jeff falls in love with Kathie, who subsequently abandons him. Jeff spends the next few years running a gas station, but is eventually tracked down by Whit, who asks him to recover some incriminating documents. This turns out to be part of a scheme to frame Jeff for murder, and the film ends with all three characters dead.
An attempt to understand noir might begin by posing a single question in connection with Tourneur’s film specifically, and the genre generally: why does the protagonist find himself in such a disastrous situation? There are many possible answers, but the most plausible ones are as follows:
The male noir ‘hero’ is the helpless victim of an impersonal yet inexplicably malevolent and inescapable force that reaches out from nowhere and seals his doom.
2. The femme fatale
The protagonist often sees himself as the victim of an evil woman who uses her powers of seduction to entrap and ensnare him. This is obviously connected to the previous explanation, the woman, though driven by a desire for money or personal gain, being perceived by the protagonist as unmotivatedly malignant.
In Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie A. Fiedler notes how “The European writer and the American alike learn to distinguish between feminine and female, to split Woman into Dark Lady and Fair Maiden, saviour and tempter, between whom the helpless male is eternally torn.” Out of the Past clearly belongs in this tradition, having Jeff romantically involved with both cynical femme fatale Kathie and idealistically ‘nice’ Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), a contrast neatly summed up by one of the film’s most memorable exchanges; when Ann insists Kathie “can’t be all bad. No one is,” Jeff responds, “Well she comes the closest”.
The protagonist’s fate is rooted in his character, his insistence on behaving a certain way, even though this behaviour will only plunge him deeper into a deadly trap. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) is the masterpiece in this vein; its solipsistic protagonist consistently refuses to take responsibility for his actions, seeing everything that happens as the result of an inexplicable run of bad luck, though the film makes it crystal clear that he is his own worst enemy.
Connected to this are those expectations raised by Hollywood’s star system; Robert Mitchum was the quintessential noir actor, his persona being so heavily laden with intimations of defeat that his eventual demise seems inevitable from the moment he appears onscreen.
But even character does not exist in isolation. It is formed by an environment. And the immediate environment for noir is the world of capitalism. Of course, the majority of American films made during this period were set in capitalist societies, but noir is notable for stripping its milieu of any features not directly related to the circulation of money.
In this sense, noir makes for an intriguing comparison with the screwball comedy; both genres value verbal dexterity, but whereas wit in the screwball is the means by which equality is ultimately achieved, in the noir it has much the same function as cash, being a weapon used in power games that can have only one winner. If screwball protagonists are independently wealthy, those of noir must work for a living; that noir icon the private detective is not a disinterested seeker after truth and justice, but rather somebody trying to pay the rent, and even rich men, such as Jeff’s antagonist – whose name combines verbal skill, ‘wit’, with a form of currency, ‘sterling’ – are primarily motivated by a desire to increase their bank balances.
These characters also wish to possess women, who are thus reduced to the status of objects. It is this desire to acquire money or women, to enlarge one’s ‘stock’ by taking these things from others, that plunges individuals into the noir world.
Noir can thus be seen to take about as harsh a view of capitalist organisation as is conceivable, and if capitalism is never identified by name in these films, it seems appropriate that the genre itself was only named retrospectively. But, as with the Gothic, the conditions which enable this genre to critique ‘reality’ place stringent limits upon what might be said. Noirs can hardly avoid relying on explanations drawn from all four of the categories cited above, but the most radical noir texts privilege the latter two, problematising the protagonist’s insistence on blaming fate or the femme fatale.
In this sense, Out of the Past is among the most progressive noirs. Jeff’s insistence that he is a victim of destiny and the machinations of an evil woman are there primarily to be exposed, his problems being implicit in his outlook.
This is also notable for being one of the few noirs which has a completely satisfying (if tentative) happy ending, the final shots focusing on Jeff’s deaf and dumb gas-station assistant, who is as nameless as the genre he inhabits, being known only as The Kid (Dickie Moore). This character is Jeff’s structural opposite, his inability to hear or speak separating him from a culture in which speech is used as a weapon. He represents a social order existing outside the nightmare world of capitalism, one whose nature the film can barely hint at, but whose necessity it fully comprehends.