The producers of Without a Trace, a TV series about fictional FBI agents searching for missing persons who may be victims of crime, recently introduced a 16-year-old character who mentions casually that in high school she's studied Dashiell Hammett and other crime writers of his day. Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and similar authors are of course discussed as a literary cluster because of the way they depict crime, cities, hard-boiled private eyes, Los Angeles and male-female relationships.
French critics gave the name film noir to the dark (literally and figuratively) movies made from their books, and now the same term attaches itself to the writers as well. The character on Without a Trace provide fresh evidence that the noir era never ended; it changes shape from time to time, but its central themes remain a vivid part of American entertainment.
In fact, persistent evidence suggests that noir functions as the mother lode of American storytelling, the source for a multitude of novels, movies and TV shows. Its tics and tricks are never far from the minds of producers and scriptwriters. In their eyes, the conventions of noir provide the most convincing and reliable way to enter the darker reaches of the American psyche.
The self-consciousness of the episode on Without a Trace made me sit up and pay attention. It was a highly literate moment in a rarely literary series, a turning inward -- the sign of a style in its later stages. The script mentioned that an FBI agent, Samantha Spade (Poppy Montgomery) was named by her parents in homage to Hammett's character, Sam Spade. The 16-year-old reader of noir books turned out to be a temptress working a scam that any noir reader would recognize as a classic case of a seductive female preying on an emotionally vulnerable and easily fooled male. The student, professing love, destroys a noble and talented young teacher and steals his money before vanishing (to Canada, a detective speculates).
"She played me," wails the poor teacher as he's led off in cuffs to face statutory rape and other charges. Many a noir male has said the same, sometimes with his dying breath.
An anthology published last year, The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, edited by Otto Penzler, explains how this far-reaching and infinitely enriching category was born in magazines of low repute. Jazz, which did for American music what noir did for narrative, was developed in New Orleans whorehouses. The two movements made their way upward in parallel lines, both of them eventually conquering the world. In the 1920s, noir came alive in pulp magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective. Writers, working for as little as a penny a word, created many of the conventions (tough-guy talk, casual brutality, etc.) that have since moved through the decades, eventually filling the Godfather films, The Sopranos and other expensive entertainments.
The magazine stories became novels, which became movies, which became TV shows, successive media both handing on and altering the tone, themes and plots, so that after a few decades even fairly
Anti-Establishment feelings of the noir authors remain embedded in crime fiction and TV careful students of noir couldn't say for sure whether any given glance, gesture or wisecrack originated in print or on film. In 1944, when Billy Wilder made James M. Cain's novel, Double Indemnity (the story that likely inspired the teenager on Without a Trace) he enlisted Raymond Chandler to work on the script, thereby blending two of the classic noir writers on one story. The novel fit so well into the movie format that it's hard to separate them in memory.
The foreground of the typical noir plots turn on personal betrayal, while in the background we glimpse the corruption of cities by unseen power brokers. Wisecracks, now ritualized in TV dialogue, became part of crime fiction's repertoire about the time when Chandler said someone looked "as guilty as if he'd just kicked his grandmother."
Early or late, noir-affected writers love that shame-of-our-cities theme. The rich and the powerful lurk behind every murder and the anti-Establishment feelings of the old noir authors (Hammett, the communist, above all) remain to this minute embedded in crime fiction and crime TV. The Brass Verdict, this season's novel by Michael Connelly, now one of the most admired of crime writers, reaches right back to the corrupt heart of noir for its villain, a Hollywood producer so powerful that his money and influence may help him get away with murdering his wife and her boyfriend. On Law & Order, any wealthy man who shows up on screen will surely turn out to a villain, unless he's the helpless cuckold of his murderous trophy wife. At the very best, he's trying to distort the law to save his wastrel son from being punished for a hideous crime. In the Spenser novels of Robert B. Parker (who wrote a PhD dissertation on noir before becoming a star among private-eye novelists), the rich are treated with contempt.
Often the secret Mr. Big, wealthy and respectable, pulls the strings of criminals and scoops up their ill-gotten gains. The city, with its devious ways, makes this possible. A great John Huston film, The Asphalt Jungle (1950) defines its theme in the title. The central figure, played by Sterling Hayden, is trying to pull off the one big job that will get him back to the farm where he spent a boyhood he now idealizes. But he and his fellow thieves are double-crossed by the vicious metropolis, in the person of a suave businessman (Louis Calhern, with the young Marilyn Monroe playing his girlfriend) who agrees to finance the heist but wants all the money for himself. Roman Polanski's Chinatown, the greatest noir movie of the 1970s, was also the most paranoid, linking a murder to land developers manipulating the water rights of Los Angeles.
A couple of years ago, one of the most admired films, No Country for Old Men, was an exceptionally brutalized noir, complete with someone in an office far away issuing orders to killers. The Departed, with a plot grounded in mutual betrayal of criminals and police, rewrites the noir plot in 21st-century style. Only a few of those who write and those who enjoy these entertainments remember that they began life in the squalor of 10-cent pulp.