When asked to define noir by the interviewer, Eddie dances around for awhile until he decides to polish his long-dormant crime fiction bonafides and makes a statement that at least partially appears to recognize some precepts that Dan Hodges has been focused on since the turn of the century. Eddie doesn’t quite track with Dan’s rather pointed disdain for the hard-boiled detective, but he gets oddly close in the quote below. (But Eddie misses a key point about Chandler that we’ll take up briefly below). Here’s the quote:
“Also, the other thing you have to realize is I’m a writer and I have written crime fiction, so my attitude about noir is not entirely movie-centric. I also look at it in terms of the literary aspect of it. That’s why I would argue that Raymond Chandler is less of a noir writer than James M. Cain is a noir writer because with James M. Cain, the protagonist of his stories, are the “villains.” They’re the people doing the bad things, which is not the case with Chandler. I find it very handy to say that from a writer’s standpoint, if your protagonist is a good cop or a good detective, it’s not really noir. I mean, there has to be that morally compromised character because the stories are about what people will do to get what they want and when they cross that line and they know what they’re doing is wrong and they do it, anyway. That’s what noir is.”
In what follows Eddie quickly backtracks with Sam Spade, calling him “morally ambiguous” and ticking off a few items that supposedly demonstrate that. Thanks to this dispensation, Eddie keeps his man Hammett in the picture and calls THE MALTESE FALCON an “honorary noir.”
Now I think Dan might leave off that rather baffling adjective & grant that MALTESE FALCON is noir, even if he would want to quibble about the intensity of the film’s femme fatale. “Danger and despair” strongly suggest crime and alienation, and a noir situation can affect characters who are not amorality by forcing upon them dangerous and impossible choices as well as those stemming from what Foster Hirsch calls “inner criminality.”
Thus a look at Marlowe suggests that alienation is key to how he approaches a random but rigged amoral world, and the tone of the story and the situations which coalesce from it being put into motion can be viewed from two simultaneous vantage points: from inside the action, and from a character stepping back from it and attempting to stay ahead of the destructive path that he is forced to traverse (“mean streets”). Eddie seems to grasp this process more in melo-noir, but he doesn’t seem to see that there is also a range of responses to alienating and/or morally loaded situations that present dilemmas and “no way out” flashpoints in these stories—and such can happen to anyone through mischance as much as from moral weakness. Marlowe’s cases push toward the extreme of this formulation, and his attitude about his work “just gets worse.” That is why noir is often tied in with various conceptions of “existential malaise.”
My response to all this would be to say that triangles in life (and film) have a strong tendency to create tension and intensity, and that is before you overlay crime. They have sharp edges that, if collided with too abruptly, will draw blood in one way or another. Eddie should seek out the triangular structures in these films and focus on that a bit more so that he will leave his ideal young audience with some tools that leave them with the idea that while classic noir is most likely black & white, how it is deployed in the films themselves is a greyscale. The key moments in a film noir crash through those shades of grey and pull the characters further toward the darkness.
The full interview appears here: