straight down the line

Noir: A Closer Look

This week I dived deeper into the dark and exciting world of noir to gain a more complete understanding of the genre. I started this process by reading The Postman Always Rings Twice, a short story by James M. Cain. In this tale, a rugged drifter falls in love with the wife of a greasy Greek storekeeper. The two new lovers ultimately murder the unsuspecting husband in a staged car accident, escaping jail by the skin of their teeth. Later, a real car accident ends the widow’s life, finally landing the drifter behind bars.

I recognized many of the typical aspects of noir in this reading. For one thing, crime is absolutely central to the plot of the story. Murder? Check. Cops? Check. Overzealous detectives? Check. I also took note of the stereotypical dynamic between Frank, the tough tramp, and Cora, the Greek man’s beautiful wife. From the beginning of their relationship, Frank is clearly in charge. He pursues her, he makes the decisions, and he even plots the murder. She obeys his every command because he fills her life with excitement and passion. Her lust for danger seems to be why Frank is attracted to her in the first place, which reminds me of this vine. When a point of argument is reached Frank becomes violent, and a passionate love scene inevitably follows. This romanticization of violence against women certainly troubled me. Alcohol also makes several appearances in this narrative.

Next, I listened to The Death Triangle, an episode of The Shadow, a noir radio show from the 1930’s. In this, the mysterious Shadow helps Dr. Evans, a famous surgeon and ex-political prisoner, escape the betrayal of his old friends. This episode involved many typical aspects of noir as well, including crime, mystery, violence, and betrayal. The only woman in the script was Margot Lane, the doting romantic interest of the enigmatic Shadow. Overall, this example of noir was not particularly interesting to me.

At this point, I was almost ready to write noir off as a one-dimensional genre that would only truly appeal to insecure men looking for an escape to a world full of submissive women and dangerously cool situations. However, a fresh perspective on the genre came to me in the form of my final reading: The Wild Party, a short work by Joseph Moncure March that reminded me of an Arctic Monkeys video. Though I don’t necessarily think this book inverts the conventions or downfalls of the genre, in my opinion it at least does a much better job of portraying women. Written completely in poetic lines, the book begins with the introduction of Queenie, the sexy, in-charge female protagonist. The wild party referred to in the book’s title serves as a setting that matches the events of the story as the night goes on. The evening begins with a coquettish, rambunctious party that foils Queenie’s innocent flirtations with Mister Black, her friend’s date. As the celebration becomes more intimate, the flirtations mature into a deep mutual infatuation. (Could it be love?)

The idea of falling in love at a party brought to mind Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” There can be no graceful ending to an affair tainted by such a dark beginning. Indeed, the party ends in tragedy (and crime), as Mister Black ends up killing Queenie’s domineering roommate, Burrs. Black is arrested after Queenie kisses him for the last time. This bittersweet ending brings us back to the romanticization of violence and a lust for danger, which I think represent the key aspects of noir. These themes are usually represented in the form of crime, violence against women (sexual or otherwise), drug usage, fast cars, and other reflections of conventional masculinity. As I continue to work with reading and creating noir, I hope to explore and perhaps expand the place of women in such a seemingly male-dominated genre.

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