These days it seems like hundreds of novice and veteran crime writers alike are trying to out-noir each other with competing tales of debauchery, savagery, decadence, hedonism, and other amoral attributes commonly associated with this genre. In fact, heated discussions of what constitutes a true “noir” story as opposed to just another “mystery” tale still rage across social media.
And sometimes I have to wonder if any of the participants in these conversations understand that the current category of fiction known as “noir” has its roots not in literature, but in cinema.
Play It Again, Sam
Noir is actually derived from the term film noir, a term coined by French film critics of the 1950s in reference to very particular trends they observed in postwar American cinema, though now the very first film noir is generally considered to be The Maltese Falcon (1941), with the era bookended by Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).
But since film noir wasn’t declared its own genre until that classic period was winding to a close (with “neo-noir” taking the reins in the late 1960s, depending on which scholar’s timeline you subscribe to), it’s rather absurd to impose arbitrary perimeters.
For instance, the literary equivalent of film noir, eventually dubbed roman noir, has its roots in the seminal hardboiled fiction James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice), beginning in the late 1920s. It was actually my good friend, author Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart), that began the practice of applying the term “noir” to fiction, not just cinema, when he founded Black Lizard Press in the 1980s, and began reprinting the works of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and other vintage authors (“pulp” likewise being an elusive, co-opted and randomly attributed term; more on that later.)
Generally, roman noir doesn’t apply to crime novels that feature a detective, but rather criminals or other desperate types. The separately designated “Hardboiled” subcategory of crime fiction dates back to both Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, who further defining the genre with his publication of The Big Sleep in 1939. In fact, the film often cited as the official start of the classic film noir cycle, The Maltese Falcon, was actually the third adaptation of Hammett’s novel to that date, following a 1931 version with the same title, and the retitled Satan Met a Lady in 1936.
So what makes the famous John Huston version, which made a major, immortal movie star out of contract player Humphrey Bogart, more authentically “noir” than its predecessors?
Therein lies the distinction between “noir” and mere “crime” stories. It’s about mood, style, attitude, and execution more than the plot. Noir describes not only the desperate, self-defeatist actions of its anti-heroic protagonists, but also the chiaroscuro cinematography, with some exceptions, like 1945’s Leave Her to Heaven, which was filmed in vivid Technicolor, but still felt like a nightmare on celluloid. Ultimately, noir transcended its own visual palate, but that was after decades of evolution, resulting in its current iteration – which still inspires debates as to its “purity.”
“The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of”
The first two versions of The Maltese Falcon conformed to the rather static, stagey standards of their cinematic era. There was nothing particularly memorable about the way they were filmed. Even though the basic plot and main characters were derived from the same source material, it was John Huston’s ability to directly channel Hammett’s darkly cynical humor via the slyly witty performances as well as the romantic yet dangerous ambience that instantly identified it as film noir (at least in retrospect), not just a “crime picture,” or as some other famous noirs were then marketed, “melodramas” (a la so-called “women’s pictures” such as1944’s Mildred Pierce and 1946’s Gilda.)
Hammett’s Sam Spade, along with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, were the original, quintessential “private eyes." They spawned generations of imitators and influenced countless authors, including myself. It was their casually poetic first person narration, providing world-weary commentaries as their cases developed, which became the trademark of this genre. Their legions of heirs, from Ross (and John) Macdonald to Charles Willeford to Robert B. Parker to James Lee Burke to Walter Mosley ad infinitum, all owe the originators of the form a debt of gratitude, which they openly acknowledge, even as each has redefined those stereotypes to suit their own artistic visions, cultures, time periods, and milieu.
But Noir – and Crime – extend far, far beyond detective stories, which were around long before the term “noir” had been coined, as far back as Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, academically considered the fathers of detective fiction. But according to the “experts,” they wrote mysteries, not true “noir.”
Of course, can The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep be considered Hardboiled, Noir, Mystery, and Crime Fiction, all at once?
Yes, but that was long before major distributors like Amazon began dividing the genre into subcategories, aimed at different demographics, further confusing the issue, rather than streamlining it for mass consumption.
It’s all a big mystery, really.
Next: Crime Fiction Doesn’t Pay
PHOTO: WILL VIHARO