Notes on Film Noir

© 2014 William Ahearn

“The Blue Dahlia” is the third film starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake and was the only solo script by Raymond Chandler (although he received credit for writing “Strangers On A Train,” he hated the book, hated Alfred Hitchcock and I’m not sure if his script for the film has ever been found. Hitchcock was disappointed in what Chandler turned in and had Czenzi Ormonde re-write the whole thing) and was written under – if one believes all the tales attached to the film – unusual circumstances. (As mentioned above, this was the film where the US Navy supposedly interfered with the script.) Schrader seems to be alluding to this film when he notes that it is a film “in which a serviceman returns from the war to find his sweetheart unfaithful or dead” and in this case, it’s first one and then the other.

If contrasted to a similar scene in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the differences become clear and the unfaithful wife in “The Blue Dahlia” has one role and one role only: To be murdered. Not only is the wife a drunk and a floozy, she killed their child in a drunken accident and once she has told him how the child died, the entire existence of the child is forgotten with the exception of a single visual reference later on in the film. It’s interesting that the wife was murdered and there is no hint that this is a revenge film. Instead the wife – and child – is forgotten and all that remains is for the hero to prove his innocence. Chandler stacks the deck against the woman so thoroughly that James Agee noted in his 1946 review in The Nation that the husband“didn’t much want [her] anyway.” Agee also agrees with and notes a complaint from John McManus of PM, where McManus “accuses Hollywood of neglecting to make films [of this similar seamy sort] which can possibly interest, open, or influence honest minds on any social or political issue.” To think that this film somehow reflects the notion of portraying veterans’ problems in re-integrating into society – or any other social or political content – is absurd.

Chandler rose to prominence in the public’s eye via his hardboiled novels and short stories. His novel Farewell, My Lovely was the first to be adapted although only to be folded into a mystery series and titled “The Falcon Takes Over” in 1942. It was Chandler’s work with Billy Wilder on “Double Indemnity” that brought him to the attention of Hollywood producers who began buying rights – if they didn’t have them already – and getting screenplays for what would be “Murder My Sweet” and “The Big Sleep.”

It’s difficult to understand at this point in time what an incredible gamble Billy Wilder took in making “Double Indemnity.” Joseph Breen – the force behind the Production Code Authority, also known as the Hays Office – had warned the studios that the novels of James M Cain were off the table due to subject matter and even Wilder’s usual collaborator, Charles Brackett, refused to have anything to do with the “trash” story. Wilder hired Raymond Chandler to co-write the script since James M Cain – who has said in interviews that he was never approached to write the script – was working on a film about the signal corps for Darryl Zanuck that he would eventually be fired from because, as much as he could tell a story on the written page, he couldn’t write a script to save his life.

What is also difficult to fathom these days is how “Double Indemnity” changed the game along the same lines as “Fist of Fury,” “For A Few Dollars More,” “Jaws,” “Night of the Living Dead” and several others in that these films reinvented and reinvigorated a moribund genre that would spawn numerous imitators. Wilder took the grubby crime film into A-movie territory with a stellar cast and a brilliant script, that would be nominated for seven Academy Awards and take in huge amounts of box office cash.

Hiring Chandler to adapt Cain was a brilliant move although it would add to the current confusion surrounding “noir” and “hardboiled.” Chandler – along with Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy, and Leigh Brackett, among others – began their careers in the pulps such as Black Mask and similar magazines while James M Cain’s career was far more mainstream and his background includes The Baltimore Sun and The New Yorker. Chandler – who never had a good word for much of anyone – didn’t think much of Cain, calling him, “Proust in greasy coveralls.” Émile Zola in khakis is a bit more on target and Cain’s novel and Chandler’s usual material is the antithesis of one another and that nexus brings some clarity to the notion of “noir.”

In Chandler’s world of the “errant knight” private detective, the detective – no matter how alienated he might be – is a hero who transverses the nether world and finds out what happened to the missing friend, the lost sister, the lost lover, or whatever McGuffin is driving the story. At the end, mysteries have been solved, questions have been answered and the hero returns to his dingy office to wait for the telephone to ring bringing another case. This detective is quick-witted, glib and good with his fists and isn’t driven by money as much as a moral or ethical need to set things right. As dark as his suit and fedora might be, as dark as the shadows that obscure the streets, the detective remains a white knight, a savior of sorts, or in other words, a hero.

“Double Indemnity,” Walter Neff, the insurance salesman, isn’t a hero and he isn’t a sap. He’s a willing participant; a catalyst to the events, and what goes wrong isn’t the blueprint to murder, but the sanity of his partner, Phyllis Dietrichson.

Cain didn’t write mysteries and his characters didn’t right wrongs, they created them. In In films noir, there is no hero, only a protagonist who is usually of the lower classes and ends up dead, insane, or in prison by the end of the film – that is the blackness of “noir.” The true films noir – such as those made in France and similar films produced in Shanghai during the 1930s were – by definition – political and hence the term “film noir.” To the Popular Front, the films were poetic realism and to the rightwing film critics, they were films noir. In the postwar years in Hollywood, the Red Scare began before the last ash settled on Nagasaki and films dealing with the “common people” and the notion of class were seen as communist propaganda and any criticism of the political system was seen as heresy and the makers of the films were blacklisted, with Jules Dassin’s “Brute Force” and “Thieves’ Highway” – even in the compromised version released by the studio – being excellent examples as well as Abraham Polonsky’s “Force of Evil.”