straight down the line

Film Ain’t The Only Thing That’s Black And White…

…So is print.

Noir is just as prevalent in literature as it is in film. Like its film counterpart, noir literature focuses on the dramatic and gritty topics of crime, debauchery and the question of good and evil. This is perhaps more difficult to see considering the visual aspect of film compared to the written word, but the short, choppy narrative present in noir literature more than compensates for the visual shortcomings. Dialogue is short and to the point, and there is little room left for detail in terms of scenery. Enough is provided for a picture to be set in the mind of the reader, but not enough for the, “…perfume of freshly baked bread wafted through the open window tickling his noise” garbage. Flowery language is reserved for when a time is good, and when there is hope and, more importantly, there is a desire for romantic language. Noir is cynical, and any attempt at flowery language comes off as sarcastic and disingenuous.

Within noir literature, the most common themes are those of murder, unrequited (and often illegal or morally questionable) love, and the seedy underpinnings of society. Often, these three topics intertwine to compose the narrative. Revenge is often very popular, where the protagonist has seen or encountered some awful wrong, and in his quest becomes the thing he most despises. Do you remember the movie, “The Punisher”?

The protagonist lives the good life and is then is faced with a horrible wrong, which consumes him body and soul. He goes out, kicks ass, and in the process becomes more of an anti-hero than a hero. This is the easiest and most readily available example I can think of for a modern storyline that explains my point.

Characters are subdivided into categories. There are the;

  • Hero: Classic goody-two shoes who goes out of his way in order to do the right thing. However, over the course of the story the good natured hero may undergo challenges and developmental changes that may force him to become the…
  • Anti-hero: The guy who does what it takes to achieve his goals no matter the cost, often times compromising his morals and ethics. Not necessarily a villain, the anti-hero is more of that “gray space” character I mentioned in a previous post. Meaning, both good and evil. The gray can fluctuate depending on the need of the anti-hero. Sometimes this change can be seen as a direct result of the…
  • Femme Fatale: The most badass of the whole group. My personal favorite, the femme fatale takes no prisoners and is undeniably aware of her beauty and power over men. She takes what she wants, and leaves no prisoners. She is the woman who marries a man for his money or life insurance, than kills him to become a very rich (but “grieving”) widow. The hero is seduced by this woman, and goes to impossible lengths to win her affections. Often times resulting in the demise of the hero and the birth of the anti-hero. The femme fatale is a game changer. Once she enters the scene, all bets are off, and the game his hers.
  • Detective: The detective can be either a hero or anti-hero. Glued to the law in an almost unnecessary way, it could be that the law abiding citizen is penance for past activities. This complex character is often seen when the protagonist of the story is the detective. If the detective is just a character getting in the way, perhaps not so much. In that case the detective is symbolic of how good intentions are sometimes more of hinderance than a blessing. This is especially seen in the police.
  • Crime Boss: However, before the police is explained, the crime boss is the embodiment of what is wrong with society. The crime boss is the head of a bunch of dumb, easily manipulated goons who cause havoc for the city. Think the penguin in the batman comics and movies.
  • Police: Police, while meaning well, usually come off as incompetent and unjust. As the protagonist commits a crime for his well being, the reader forgets that the crime is still a crime, and needs to be punished. It seems unfair that a crime should be punished when done for the, “right reasons.”

This list is just to name a few. I know this is a very short and incomplete list. Yet is important to understand that characters can be fluid. In The Post Man Always Rings Twice by James Cain, we see these tropes. Frank Chambers was never a good guy, but he definitely went to the dark side and back in his pursuit of the love of the woman Cora. He morphs from anti-hero, (a bum) to hero, (saving Cora from a loveless marriage) to an even messier mix of the two. He desperately loves Cora, but what kind of relationship is it when you almost force the woman to drink with you so you stop fighting? This is not excluding Cora from blame. The woman is trouble. I think Cora is actually the transformation of a regular girl into the femme fatale, which I don’t have a lot of experience with.

The element of mystery is also present in noir literature. In both Hemingway’s, “The Killers” and, the television episode called, “The Death Triangle” from the series The Shadow, there is a question of who and why the so-called bad guy is being hunted. In, “The Killers” this question isn’t even really answered. All the reader knows is that two ruffians roll into a restaurant, order a late lunch, and wait for their conquest to arrive. Who never does, because he decided to stay in bed the whole day. The reader is left confused and almost irritated. Not unlike the bystanders in the restaurant. Noir has the ability to force the participant (meaning you) into an uncomfortable position of not knowing the whole story, and keeping it that way. In, “The Death Triangle” a similar effect occurs where the Shadow is never really defined. Who is this all knowing vigilante?! The world may never know.

I think the thing to keep in mind when reading noir is that nothing is ever as it seems, and that the line between good and evil wavers and sometimes disappears all together. Attempting to stay on either side of that line results to madness. This can be easily summarized as the following popular quote;

“You’re only a hero long enough to see yourself become a villain”

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