What has been alienated from our consciousness, and therefore what has become dark, can nevertheless be perfectly clear. Becoming dark is a matter of conscious perspective.
This article will explore the unique talent of hard boiled detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler as well as examine the germane cultural considerations that established the coherent mythology in what we recognize as noir cinema today. It is perhaps the convergence of these factors that established the prolonged nexus between the two with its specific resonance and appeal to the changing consciousness of the American.
The tale of noir’s rise and fall has a few twists of its own. The noir vision carried an ironic worldview, bleak with no possibility of a redemptive universe. It also revealed a place where people succumb to their weaknesses and passions. The noir films contributed to the American screen - in the guise of popular entertainment - a necessary postwar maturity. America emerged in moody set pieces of human anxiety, populated with unhappy people, basking in elusive meaning and other uncertainties.
Film noir presents a dark vision of the world, a view from the underside, born not only of fundamental disillusionment, but also of a confrontation with nihilism. When life is caprice, when the basis of human existence is irrational, when order is an illusion, can there be any peace, joy, stablilty? All of these questions come together in noir as potent themes.
Amidst a gasping for breath, a struggle to hang onto life, the films nevertheless depict a kind of truth - despite the haze of deception. Noir dares a revaluation, garnering courage not from convictions but by attacking them: the recognition that the real story is not the story that everyone is telling but that which when it comes to light, it is not only unpleasant, it is often worse than anyone suspected it might be. Through this dark vision of film noir, Americans shared Raymond Chandler’s consciousness that looming in the streets are forces darker than the night, and there is no knight - no matter how hard he tries - who can conquer the dark evils of this world.
Interesting to note is the fact that Chandler’s depiction of a spiritually dispossessed world that offers little human redemption - a depiction that became indelibly associated with an entire genre of film - came from only seven novels. Between 1942 and 1947, six films appeared based upon the four novels he had completed up to that time. These films, not only attempted to appropriate the storylines of the novels, but often used lengthy excerpts of prose directly from them and frequently focused upon the detective’s subjective perception of his situation by using such techniques as voice-over narration, delirium sequences, and narrative confusion.
Edward Dmytryk, who directed the first Philip Marlowe film, Murder, My Sweet (RKO, 1944) based on Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, once told Jon Tuska, the eminent film critic, that what appealed to him most about filming the Chandler milieu was that it allowed him to break many rules. Detective films had been formerly preoccupied with crimes committed by the rich; this story permitted the camera to venture among the lower strata of society where crime was far more commonplace; second, where before right and wrong had always been black and white, now it was possible to conceive of the world as gray. Chandler approached his stories by creating a realistic portrait of a corrupted city with perverted ideals that subsequently influenced the way the entire genre of noir was filmed. His style and themes violated the norms and conventions of the genre of detective fiction and also exposed less savory aspects of society. The inconclusiveness of his novels entrenched in moral ambivalence defined one of the classic traits of film noir – the representation of a social universe where morality is in decay, where vice is no longer even felt to be vicious. Chandler’s novels combined the notions of romance, the heroic knight, Gothic horrors, an obsession with the pathological, as well as with death, decay, and decadence. Set in the heart of Los Angeles, the linear narrative was often obscured. The noir film, in its interplay of shadows and light, became a visual representation of a dark worldview.
Around 1940, with war looming over Europe, the artists of film, theater, and literature who migrated to America found the apparatus of Hollywood at their disposal. They adapted, for better or worse, to a world that was ruled by commerce but which sought to utilize the artistry it imported. Noir cinema was born to the Depression-era audiences coping with the ruder realities of American life. There were gangster films in the 1930s, but none that implicated the darker side quite the way noir characters did. The terror of the noir landscape was explained through the impact of desolation and dislocation stemming from the ravages of war. The changes in a modern world of social and cultural upheaval reflected everything from the class structure underpinning American society to the altered role of women, to the threat of organized crime; this new vision showed an American quite ambivalent to the pursuit of "the dream."
In his seminal 1972 article “Notes on Film Noir,” Paul Schrader wrote, “The disillusionment many soldiers, small businessmen and housewife/factory employees felt in returning to a peacetime economy was directly mirrored in the sordidness of the urban crime film...The war continues, but now the antagonism turns with a new viciousness towards the American society itself.” But the noir films, with their greatly intensified visual style and their stress on perverse psychology, weren't reflecting the Americans’ misery in a peacetime economy, as Schrader suggests. Instead, their aims were quite different. For one, they were trying to give the traditional crime film a new lease on life - particularly in the way it represented the city's place in the postwar world. Somewhat more originally, they were placing a new stress on the power of the past - something most of the Americans thought they had buried - to reach out and twist their fates when they least expected that to happen. Noir is a rich genre, and I do not want to imply that these were the only themes it took up. They are, however, the two I find the most interesting. Let me begin with the metropolis.
The city becomes a character of shifting identities and intentions, an entity that is as much a threat to the protagonist as the human enemies he seeks to expose and punish. In his study, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City, Nicholas Christopher states that “for the individual faced with a physical and psychological labyrinth so fantastical in scope or design as to be nonnegotiable, the quest [for truth] may devolve from a goal of illumination with a slim chance of escape...to one of bare survival while seeking out the least excruciating torment.” The city has become not only the setting for our modern mythology; it is also the symbolic locus of our deepest fears and dreads. Its dark alleys, shadowy streets, and featureless buildings are the hiding places for thieves who suck the economic lifeblood, predators who steal the innocence of children, and psychopaths who torture and murder for reasons so deeply imbedded that even they do not understand what drives them. In the early 1930s, this world had been portrayed in grimly realistic terms - in gangster pictures and in a surprising number of movies about the working poor, struggling to survive. But by the late 1930s, the city had become by and large a much happier and more promising place - penthouses, white telephones, dressing for dinner - a setting for romantic comedies and Fred Astaire - Ginger Rogers’s musicals. It was a place where young provincials came to escape the narrow constraints of their small-town pasts.
After the war, however, the city’s glamour became much darker and more menacing. Noir quickly noted the gathering flight to the suburbs and the countryside - or, at least, the desire of many people to join that flight. The genre began to offer this dichotomy: the suburbs as a clean, spare, safe, if not very interesting place to love a plain, little woman and to raise healthy, normal children, versus the city, whose glamour was at once more menacing and more tempting than it had ever been. This new noir mise-en-scène (rain-wet streets, blinking neon signs, fog enshrouded alleys) often gave the metropolis the aspect of a wounded beast. It was either attempting to entangle people who thought they had made their escape from it, or it was obliging these refugees to return to its mean streets in order to free themselves of some past terror or transgression that now haunted their dreams of happiness. In the real postwar America, the city was increasingly viewed as a place people were putting behind them, a locale of organized crime - of small-scale muggings and large-scale slum clearances.
Most often depicted at night and in the rain, the city becomes the site where human motivations find action, where people betray, lie, and hurt others. A small town can function as well as a city, but it must have those social and legal-political institutions that urban civilization has bequeathed to its people, for it is in the encounter among these corrupt institutions in one’s pursuit of a derailed American Dream that the noir displays its greatest vigor. The happiness promised in the daylight goes awry as the normality of home and integrated personal and social relationships disintegrate in the face of human weakness and desire. The institution of law, the sanctity of marriage and family, and the zeal to overcome personal economic distress through ingenuity and hard work all fail. It is then a characteristic of the film noir that life is seen through the eyes of the city and its shrewd and often broken denizens.
Additionally, who are the people who walk down the mean streets of noir and what has shaped them? In the American noirs, the characters most clearly illustrating the influences of this urban landscape are involved with law and crime, usually law enforcement. Likewise, the protagonist who navigates this environment must be from and of it. His survival is based upon his knowledge of the city’s quirks and its dangers. The description “street smart” is worn like a badge of merit. The private detective and the police detective have acquired the stature of phlegmatic heroes because of their ability to move in all circles of urban society: institutional and criminal, respectable and disreputable. The symbiosis between them and their adversaries and sometimes alter egos - the racketeers, club-owners, extortionists - contains the basic dramatic tensions of greed, intimidation, submission, betrayal, fear, and violence. The detective’s mobility exposes him to such characters which hardens his vision in the cynical, all-too-knowing sense that educates him as to how little human behavior can be trusted, how easily betrayal occurs, and how illusory the truth can be. All of these characteristics are wrapped in the romantic nihilism that the patina of time has given noir. Perhaps noir's most compelling legacy remains the fact that the films unveil these features of the human condition with a seductive, modern allure, a tawdry glamour at once mesmerizing and disturbing - invested with the existential idiom of the city.
The antagonists are personifications of the evil city, suggesting that its dark nights hold deeper menaces than men who are attempting a hasty heist. They also represent the movies' postwar discovery that psychopathy could reach out and maim ordinary lives. These people were bad and more bent than movie villains had ever been. Their crimes resulted from sexual and love drives too single-minded or selfish to satisfy socially sanctioned prescriptions for shared happiness. In their desperation, these characters go too far and pay a price for it. Caught in their obsessions, such characters acquire a rebelliousness and individualism of spirit in a doomed atmosphere. Amidst this poetry of stark violence, the lives of noir characters come to represent that fearful image of the darker recesses of human nature unleashed in the American culture which is at odds with its most optimistic illusions.
Film noir reflected a mood, a tone that could have been possible only within an isolated time period, in a particular place, in response to a national crisis of some kind. First, there was the cultural and psychological assimilation of the depression; then the response to global war, and, finally, the shattering realization that crime had become both widespread and organized within the United States. The fluctuations of the progressive period of American economic growth in the 1920s, followed by the crash of 1929, the Great Depression, and the nation’s recovery from it during the first year of the Roosevelt administration spawned an American public that was wise from collective suffering. Optimism had long disappeared replaced by the opposite. The city became a world of vice and pleasure, of ignominy and anonymity. Existence was a difficult, torturous, and painful process.
The time was ripe for the emergence in the popular literary genre of an abused, anti-authoritarian, muckraking hero, who stayed at home to confront crime and corruption on the increasingly unlovely streets of modern, urban America. It was amidst that tremulous urban life, rooted in historical consequence, that a lone private detective, Philip Marlowe, was created by Raymond Chandler. The arrival of such a disoriented alcoholic, cloaked in the urban fabric of 1940s Los Angeles, disconnected from the surrounding city, this new geography, adumbrates a characteristic landscape of modernity, in which no one can feel truly at home. Calling such spaces “terrains vagues,” the architectural theorist Ignasi de Sola-Morales Rubio describes them as follows: "In these apparently forgotten places, the memory of the past seems to predominate over the present. Here only a few residual values survive, despite the total disaffection from the activity of the city. These strange places exist outside of the city's effective circuits and productive structures. From the economic point of view, industrial areas, railway stations, ports, unsafe residential neighborhoods, and contaminated places are where the city is no longer...The enthusiasm for these vacant spaces – expectant, imprecise, fluctuating – transposed to the urban key, reflects our strangeness in front of the world, in front of the city, before ourselves."
In Chandler’s hands, Los Angeles becomes a backdrop at once romantic and malevolent, peopled by characters of devious complexity. He presents a world that in the face of apparent normality and optimism, reveals fissures, eruptions, which spoke to the intransigent dark nature of man, even the detective’s. Crime film quickly identified with such fatalistic and nihilistic characters. Chandler’s texts exposed the inadequacies of the psychology and reformative measures of social health via characters that betray, steal, and kill because in their world they have to. The texts spare its readers sentimental excesses and moral explanations; similarly, film noir also did not always ask its audience to pity the characters. They just asked why such characters could not be changed. Did they shoulder a myth of destruction? Both the film genre and the writer in question challenged the definition of the contours of American life extending the boundaries to those who had run away from their fears in a world that gave shape to those fears. In their worlds, mystery came not from the crimes committed, but from the disorientation of that image which was simultaneously flattering and crippling, where positions were uncertain and motives questionable. Their dystopia was not only populated by visible hunters and hunted, but by a complicated series of man - the person who fears the malevolent forces without and also within him.
Film noir found its inspiration in the texts of Chandler which were populated with characters whose paranoia and amnesia disoriented their perception of the world around them, the thwarted desire and active fear of the protagonist (Who am I? What am I doing here?). The Marlowe novels are framed within the reality of a modern world seen through the deranged detective elucidating the conflict born out of the terror of the unknown. The visually generated mood through light not only recorded the emotional upheaval and dilemma of the character and the texture of suspense in the not so stratified plot, but also the well defined emotional resonance of the "new noir city" under a well-lighted street lamp, bringing to life the sensation of urban anxiety. The theme of persecution and pursuit is central to Chandler’s vision of injustice in the world, and more specifically, of the cruelty and paranoia spawned in such persecution infecting a man with doom, the only certain condition of life. Chandler’s novels evoke the struggle of the twentieth century working American to become or stay his own boss, a struggle that plays out as a conflict between the professional and personal lives of the protagonist resolving it in favor of the professional, placing the work, its codes and demands above personal priorities, yet with intensely disturbing outcomes. Such disturbance gets translated in the personification of fear in the film noir.
When, in 1943, Chandler walked into Billy Wilder’s office for the first time, he knew very little about the film industry and practically nothing about screenwriting. The two agreed to collaborate on a script based upon James M. Cain’s novella Double Indemnity. A year and a half later, their script was nominated for an Academy Award. Two years after that, Chandler received his second Academy Award nomination: Best Original Screenplay for The Blue Dahlia. In addition, all four of his published novels either had been or were in the process of being adapted for major studio productions. His screenplays, his fiction, and the films based upon them quickly became associated with a distinct cinematic style - a darker view of life, concentrating on human depravity and despair in a seedy, urban landscape, in a world gone bad.
Chandler did not father this cinematic style, but he contributed significantly to it and rode the crest of its popularity. Paradoxically, for someone whose literary style became synonymous to one of the most clearly defined celluloid interpretations of America at that time, Chandler’s notion of writing had little in common with Hollywood’s. He saw himself as a novelist working alone at home. Collaboration on a nine-to-five schedule in an office building disoriented him. Story conferences upset him further. In the article "Writers in Hollywood" published in The Atlantic Monthly, he wrote: “That which is born in loneliness and from the heart cannot be defended against the judgment of a committee of sychophants. The volatile essences which make the literature cannot survive the clichés of a long series of story conferences.” He was also horrified at the fact that when a writer produced something, a director or a producer might change or even erase it while the film was being shot. Chandler made a number of attempts to adapt to the Hollywood system, largely because he was making more money at screenwriting than he could hope for anywhere else. Unhappy with the constraints of adapting novels to the screen, he turned to writing original screenplays. Uncomfortable with the intrusions upon privacy that collaboration and an office schedule entailed, in 1947 he signed an amazing deal with Universal-International that not only allowed him to write an original screenplay at home, bit also guaranteed no studio interference. The script, Playback, was never produced, and it marked the end of his involvement with Hollywood. (Playback later provided the basis and the title for his final novel.)
In the article mentioned above, Chandler went on to argue that the motion picture was a defeated art because of the failure on the part of those in power to realize that “the basic art…is the screenplay; it is fundamental; without it there is nothing.” He addressed Hollywood as a “showman’s paradise,” interested not in nurturing art but in exploiting talent. In a letter to Alfred A. Knopf, dated January 12, 1946, he called Hollywood “a great subject for a novel - probably the greatest still untouched…It is like one of these South American palace revolutions conducted by officers in comic opera uniforms - only when the thing is over the ragged men lie in rows against the walls and you suddenly know that this is not funny, this is a Roman circus, and damn near the end of civilization.”
In another of his seminal articles, “A Qualified Farewell," Chandler himself summarizes his perception and position, admitting that he, with his subjective notions of integrity and vocation, did not fit into the frame: "I bid you farewell. I have enjoyed writing this piece, although essentially I know it is a testament of failure…A man does not deliberately turn his back on what I could get out of Hollywood from motives of personal pique or overinflated vanity. Such moods pass. Mine have remained with me for a long time. I have a sense of exile from thought, a nostalgia of the quiet room and the balanced mind. I am a writer and there comes a time when that which I write has to belong to me, has to be written alone and in silence, with no one looking over my shoulder, no one telling me a better way to write it. It doesn’t have to be great writing, it doesn’t even have to be terribly good. It just has to be mine."
Assessing his position in American letters today is a less perilous undertaking than it once was, but it remains nonetheless problematic. Though he produced no perfect novel, he has been taken seriously by literary personalities like W.H. Auden, who wrote, “Chandler is interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu. The Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing books should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.” Chandler outlived all of his contemporary fellow writers and attracted passionate admirers from each successive generation due to his brilliance of language that flashes with verbal radiance and human passion. As a stylist, Chandler has stood the test of fifty years. “Chandler wrote like a slumming Angel,” said Ross Macdonald, “and invested the sunblinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.”
The signature style of the hard-boiled detective with his quick repartees, banter, and tough-talk became synonymous with the film noir genre whose protagonists were extremely articulate about their frustration and inherent futility. Marlowe, with his curious lack of progress, personifies this stasis, as expressed here, first in his own words, and then by Chandler: “Wherever I went, whatever I did, this was what I would come back to. A blank wall in a meaningless room in a meaningless house,” and again “I think he [Marlowe] said that he was thirty-eight years old, but that was quite a while ago and he is no older today. This is just something you will have to face.” There is further evidence. Frank MacShane includes in his biography of Chandler an example of his unpublished poetry, which he notes is "not a good poem," but which contains a glimpse of Chandler’s ideology: “Let me go back into that soft and gorgeous future, which is not past, never having happened, but yet is utterly lost.” This poem exudes certain themes, specifically a sense of nostalgia for an age yet to come. It describes exactly the lack of momentum, of hope, and the necessity of regressing to an earlier vision of progress. Chandler’s writing depends upon juxtaposition, and upon unresolved conflicts. He provides us, in every simile, and every confrontation, with a thesis and antithesis, and he leaves the formation of a synthesis to us, his readers; and in this is his final subversion of the genre. If the mystery writer’s aim is to tell us "whodunnit" before we guess, then that is a responsibility Chandler abdicates choosing only to ask questions of us. The stasis manifested in the cycle of futile action gets translated on screen as the detective struggles with arbitrarily designed mysteries, never quite finding his solution but only amplifying the discomfort.
Theorizing about larger themes or the implications of Chandler's dark vision of the "mean streets" of his day, the internal workings of his style, perhaps, are worth analyzing. Chandler's own awareness of style is evident from a number of his essays and letters. His 1944 essay SAM suggests how he views his own style, though he appears to be discussing Dashiell Hammett. Chandler first comments, here, on two mistaken assumptions: “[Hammett] had style, but his audience didn't know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements. They thought they were getting a good meaty melodrama written in the kind of lingo they imagined they spoke themselves. It was, in a sense, but it was much more.” Chandler argues, in other words, that style is often mistakenly equated with refinement, and the language of hard-boiled fiction with a linguistic slumming of sorts in that it offers language spoken by the uneducated classes doesn't fit into that kind of categorization. The difference between something like a low (as opposed to high) vernacular and what Chandler sees himself (and Hammett) as writing is worth noting.
Noir became an expression of the realm of dislocation in Chandler’s novels where a benighted individual battles with threats and temptations. Looking back from the vantage point of 1950, Chandler suggested that the postwar climate was responsible for feeding, not breeding, the "smell of fear" generated by his crime stories. In his Introduction to Pearls Are a Nuisance, he wrote: "Characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun. The streets were dark with something more than night."
Chandler portrayed his cosmos amidst a vortex of corruption, a world fallen from the state of grace. As he wrote in his 1944 essay SAM, he illuminated "a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the finger man for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge." His resonant collage speaks of a vitality of the domain as well as its appalling corruption, of its enticements as well as its horrors - a dichotomy that the author himself shares with the dark city of Hollywood noir, because even film noir communicates most expressively through its silences, evasions, and disavowals, resisting an easy mapping of its vision.
Like Philip Marlowe, the noir protagonists tend to find themselves with nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and nowhere to call home. Richard Dyer points out that "settings tend to be in the public world rather than domestic. For the hero a basic domestic Ritual like eating is transferred from family to public eating place. Indeed, the lunch counter comes close to being one of the true icons of the form...Crucial personal encounters take place not in the home but, say, in a train (Strangers on a Train), in a supermarket (Double Indemnity) or in a seedy café (Out of the Past). In this way the hero is denied an environment of safety, coziness or rootedness."
The noir city becomes the principal stage upon which this drama of the obliteration of "home" is played out dealing with the psychic manifestations of such "unliveability" in the modern city. In the arena of the noir city, protagonists must confront both the strangeness of others and the strange otherness within - as film noir’s scenarios of dislocation and disorientation challenge their ability to chart an identity among the deceptions of modern America.
The most iconic male inhabitant of the noir city is the private detective, who shares with the femme fatale a willful rejection of domestication. The depraved, lawless city that Chandler describes in SAM serves the private eye as a new frontier - an apt venue for spinning out male adventure. But the noir detective is a privatized hero, accustomed to the atomistic regime of noir’s apparent urbanity. Raymond Chandler’s serial detective, Philip Marlowe, may expose the sewers of corruption beneath the ordered façade of the city, but his diligent efforts result in little change - when the case is apparently closed, the city still remains lawless.
In Chandler’s fictions, the focus upon Marlowe’s private conflicts - as a man of the city but a man against the city - continually displaces the social and political causes of its disordered state. The impact of the American private eye as a cultural icon or male fantasy derives from his role as a perpetually liminal self who can move freely among the diverse social world of the city, while existing on its margins. He takes us everywhere - down in the ghetto, to the underworld and also into the haunts of the rich and the famous. But at the same time, as Marlowe traces the secret connections between the city’s legitimate façade and its underworld, he compulsively replays the process by which he can remap the self as a stable entity that is separate from the degradations of the world he lives in. Striving constantly to justify his status as private "I," the detective rejects the claims of social identity. His contacts with others is fleeting and is generally conducive to paranoia - as nearly everyone he meets tries to bribe him with money, sex, or lies. Even his contractual bond to the succession of clients is more a means of legitimizing the process by which Marlowe can engage with the self-defining challenges of the city. As the continuous interior monologue of Chandler’s fiction implies, the privatization of the self has its costs - despite the freedom and mobility Marlowe enjoys in the city of strangers, he ultimately remains trapped within his self-containment.
The anxieties provoked by the privatized self and the voiding of community tend to suffocate the adventure as David Pinder describes the literary detective, in his piece Ghostly Footsteps, as follows: "The figure of the detective has long been associated with the complexity of modern urban life. It rests on the idea of confronting the city’s apparent unknowability in its infinite spread and diversity, and of following clues to tame and make intelligible its secrets and scrambled paths. It embodies a realist epistemological claim about the potential of knowing the city and of mastering a labyrinthine urban reality…The detective’s presence comes to speak of the difficulties of reading and knowing the city, where the city’s legibility and representability have been thrown into doubt and become a focus of anxiety, or in more extreme cases where they become the subject of paranoiac webs of connection."
Chandler was a master at portraying the schizoid aspects of American culture and the ways in which the base and ideal and their manifestations are so closely intertwined as to be inseparable, if not indistinguishable. The lives of his characters reveal this split in motive, intention, and conduct, just as the patterns of his novels reveal the cohesiveness of American life which underlies and makes a whole of this self-perpetuating opposition. Chandler uses the entire and varied landscape of Los Angeles for his canvas. Because he is so much more expansive in his descriptions, one gets a better feel for the vastness of the city, as well as sharp interpretations of the differing neighborhoods. However, this expansiveness offers no comfort to Marlowe. In a very real sense, it is every bit as claustrophobic as we see in his description from Farewell, My Lovely: "Outside the narrow street fumed, the sidewalks swarmed with fat stomachs. Across the street a bingo parlor was going full blast and...The voice of the hot dog merchant split the dusk like an axe. A big blue bus blared down the street...After a while there was a faint smell of ocean. Not very much, but as if they had kept this much just to remind people this had once been a clean open beach where the waves came in and creamed and the wind blew and you could smell something besides hot fat and cold sweat."
What is particularly interesting about Marlowe’s relationship to the city is the powerful effect it has on him. Others may talk of California as the land of golden opportunity, but Marlowe suffers a powerful alienation: "It got darker. The glare of the red neon sign spread farther and farther across the ceiling...I got upon my feet and went over to the bowl in the corner and threw cold water on my face. After a little while I felt a little better, but very little. I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room."
Marlowe crosses and crisscrosses the landscape of greater Los Angeles, which provides an almost infinite variety of background, moving from terrain to terrain, locale to locale, setting to setting. Chandler bears down so heavily on landscape in his novels that physical property almost takes on a value and meaning of its own - so conveniently accommodated in the noir motion pictures by the way in which the camera invests physical props with significance by panning back and forth over them as well as lingering on them. But, while the vastly different places Chandler's Marlowe visits, and the people he encounters, are seemingly held together by a thread of meaning solely of Marlowe’s making, a pattern gradually emerges, a meaningful arrangement and sequence of events; and behind this pattern lies, broadly speaking, the pattern of American society as Chandler saw it and noir depicted it: mobile, fluid, a reticulated crisscrossing of people through time and circumstance. He extended the form by making available to writers who came after him a more complex understanding of the fabric of society and a more serious and sensitive view of its dynamics. One of the most troubling and sometimes terrifying aspects in the work of Raymond Chandler, who created an authentic American voice that still speaks to millions of readers, is perhaps that there hangs on about the world he created something of the inconsistency of nightmare, also an aspect of film noir.
The shared ground between the texts of Chandler and the cinematic genre of noir focuses on how events combined with a corrupt milieu disillusion a human being. The works recognize injustice, and perhaps ultimately the irrationality, of a certain principle operative in life over which men and women have no real control. It is nothing more than a mere assumption that the typical portrayal of women as femme fatales in the majority of noir films reduces the individual entity of independent women and reinforces patriarchal values. Patriarchy is a double-edged sword. For men, it prescribes that they must perform to be admired, and part of that performance must include subscribing to the success ethic. Keeping women in their place, means for men, that they, too, must keep to their place; they must go about their business alone; they cannot show too much emotion; and above all, they must find the meaning of life in activity, never contemplation. They must close themselves in, confine themselves to a role in life which they had no part in creating and which was not created to accommodate their idiosyncrasies. There are no more alternatives for men than there are for women. Ironically, both the Marlowe texts as well as film noir subvert those very strategic interpretations of raw, rigid toughness to which they claim to strongly adhere.
In the 1940s, film noir reflected a contemporary sensibility. Chandler’s novels were set in contemporary Los Angeles, and the Marlowes of the films were men of their time. By the late 1960s, the romanticized private eye, like the cowboy, was considered part of a past age. He was associated with value structures and styles of filmmaking that were considered old fashioned. Even when presented as contemporary men dealing with contemporary problems, they could not help but recall a past age, like modern day cowboys. The new Marlowe films dealing with such dated materials presented him as the lone detective in lieu of Chandler’s representation of him in the novels. However, instead of the murky darkness and ominous shadows of the 1940s, these films used comparably sinister, but too bright and glossy color surfaces. The suggestion of censorable, “forbidden” material was a major factor of the 1940s noir films. By the 1960s, the reigning structure of censorship did not prevent the display of “morally dangerous” content such as nudity, incest, transvestism, and bold approaches to sexuality.
Marlowe existed against, and in counterpoint to, the Production Code as well as the juxtposition of mean streets and mansions. The films, as a result of such protagonists, questioned the American sense of self, gender relations, notions of personal success or failure, and notions of personal freedom or the lack thereof. Embedded as they are with the unresolved anxieties of their era, they formed a natural window into some of the deepest underlying currents of the times. Such a co-habitation of resistance and conformity explored the vulnerability to, responsibility fo,r and enjoyment of aggression, gaining momentum in the culturally powerful narrative forms of films via fiction.
From Debasree Basu, Amity University, India