Sunday 7 February 2021

What is Noir? (Baby don't hurt me)

I’ve always found Noir difficult to define. Compared to other genres, it seems to be more about the atmosphere and the aesthetic than a set of rules. This may be the reason why in Noir stories clichés seem to be not something to avoid, but a beloved ingredient that readers expect to find. Italian writer Gesualdo Bufalino once said that detective stories are very popular because they are reassuring, maybe even cathartic: the culprit is discovered, questions are answered, justice is restored. Everything finds its resolution. Noir, on the other hand, gives us the opposite experience: things remain unsolved and often criminals get away; a sense of loss and futility assails the protagonist who is usually worse off at the end of the story than they were at the beginning.

What then is it exactly that attracts us to these stories? And in what ways has the genre managed to evolve and change by contamination with other genres and literary traditions, while remaining recognisable? What are the elements that must be present in a story to be a Noir? What can be removed or substituted or played with? I don’t have the answers, of course. Just the opinions of a reader and spectator who has voraciously consumed Noir for more than 20 years, and never stopped enjoying it. What I can do is walk through some of those clichés we have all fallen in love with, and discuss them with you. Are you ready?

It rains. Always

Eric Asaris © 2016
Eric Asaris © 2016

If we were in a Noir story, I would be probably sitting behind my desk, in a shabby office in a big city. That’s all I can afford. You would be coming to talk to me, strangely after office hours, when even my secretary is not in the lobby. I should know better than to receive strangers at these times, but if I were a reasonable woman I wouldn’t be doing this job. You would sit in front of me, in the only available chair. We wouldn’t really need to turn on the lights, because, as in the iconic scene from Vertigo, the green neon of the nearby hotel would light up the room enough, albeit intermittently. And it would rain, of course. It always does. You’re wet, your trench coat is wet, the hat that you don’t remove is wet.

In an interview, Alfred Hitchcock spoke about the clichés in the Noir genre, and how sick of them he was. He mentioned the urban alley, lit by a street light, the cobblestones wet with rain... Try conveying the same feeling, but in a sunny landscape, he provoked. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky when a biplane starts flying lower and lower, while Cary Grant throws himself on the ground of a cornfield. Likewise, rain-level is not that high in the luminous streets of Cairo, where Refaat Ismail, the character created by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, is forced to investigate some mysterious events that are tormenting his loved ones. So I guess it’s not about the wet concrete after all.

The City’s Viscera

The rain hammers against the window, making the city outside a blur of moving lights. There is a strong bond between cities and Noirs, as if the crime were wounding the city and she were crying for help. And sometimes noir detectives can’t help hearing that cry, in the night, almost swallowed by the rain. Joe Miller in the Expanse, and Mieville’s Tyador Borlú are both creatures of their city, and cities, with their unique messy stories and continuous evolutions, play an important role in how the events unfold. While I look outside the window, half lost in my thoughts, you start telling me why you need my help. It’s a story I’ve heard a million times already (no offence), but we both know it is just a pretext to get me involved in something way more tangled and dangerous than you are willing to admit. You say that you need me because I am streetwise. You know, here is where things are gonna take a crucial turn. Because we both know what kinds of people populate the underbelly of a big town: people who struggle, who are marginalised, who don’t fit in, for one reason or another. And it is here that our ways will either part—or not. Because, you see, there are fundamentally two types of clients, and two types of Noir novels. One in which all the worst stereotypes about race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability surface and make the story move. I have a zero tolerance for those. I won’t read that shit. And if you are that type of client, then you can save the both of us some time and show yourself out.

But if you are a decent client, and if we are in a decent story, then the people who lay low, for one reason or another, can surely tell very interesting tales. Different from those the clichés may have conditioned us to expect, and, for this reason, even more powerful. If Noir has been used countless times as the setting for homophobic, xenophobic and racist stories, it has also been used to unveil different sides of those narratives. Like Mosley did with Easy Rawlins and the ugly US racism, or Jean Claude Izzo, who sang the stories of crime and desperation of the darker sides of Marseille. And the change of setting is not just something to bring in some refreshing variety. It’s not exoticism, but it’s a radical change of perspective. Walter Mosley’s LA and Raymond Chandler’s LA might be located at the same coordinates in space and time, but they are two very different places, and tell very different stories.

Cherchez la femme

You thought my conditions were fair, so it’s time to get practical: what do you want me to do? You pretend to be embarrassed, I pour myself some cheap bourbon in a not-too-clean glass. I know what’s coming: you want me to find a woman. Let me guess, she is beautiful and dangerous. If I had a dollar for each time someone has asked me to look for such a woman, I could treat myself to better bourbon.

Let’s be honest here: Noir stories are almost a manifesto of misogyny. Too often women are either criminally seductive or naïve damsels in distress. So why have I chosen to be a woman detective in a Noir universe? I could have been the heroine in an historical drama, like my mum wanted. But no, I actually like it here. And it is because even in those old B&W Hollywood movies, femmes fatales tend to have way more agency than other female characters in many other genres. They are not just beautiful, they have quite good plans, and write their own stories. You know they mean trouble the first time you meet them, and yet they are irresistible. They are stunning, surely, but they are also smart, strong, charismatic. In no other genres are there as many women villains as in Noir. The shabbiest femme fatale can at least convince a man to kill for her. I mean, that’s Femme Fatale 101. You give me a picture, and I can’t help whistling. Her eyes seem to burn the photograph.

I always liked a good femme fatale. They do what most women have been doing for centuries in order to survive: pretend to be the person a man has always dreamed of meeting. They have just decided that, if they have to go through this socially construed charade, at least it will be to their criminal advantage. I know, I know: they are still, most of the time, flat characters, and the male gaze is ubiquitous. And yet, some of those characters managed to be very, very good.

You are getting nervous. You start fearing for your belle. Or is it for yourself? Can we still have a Noir without a femme fatale, you whine. You want me to say yes, so you can believe that the woman in the picture is not already sipping cocktails on some faraway beach. But you are right, somehow. No, you don’t need a femme fatale. Or, better, you don’t need a cliché femme fatale. Of course, you usually need a woman writer to get that right. If you’re lucky, you can meet a woman villain that doesn’t look like Ava Gardner or Barbara Stanwyck but is described as “ordinary,” can you believe that? Someone like Lucia, the protagonist of The Blank Wall, an American middle aged mother and wife who bakes pies and organises picnics with the neighbours. How did she end up killing a man? Well, that’s not my story to tell, but there you go, one of the most engaging Noir novels features a murderess who doesn’t seductively puff smoke in your face. Not even once.

Do you know what else women writers bring to Noir? Good women detectives. V.I. Warshawski and Aud Torvingen are as hard-core as any of their male colleagues. And the best thing is that, in the story, it is just normal. They are women, no big deal. As it should be.

Don’t trust anyone (why do you always forget this one?)

You have put together quite a story to convince me. I’ll take your case. Mostly because I am now curious about the woman in the picture. Maybe we can become friends, she and I. Maybe she’ll buy me one of those fancy cocktails, with your money. I’d like that, to be honest. I won’t let her deceive me, though. Oh no, not me. I have seen so many cases, I have dealt with so many liars. I mean, what do you think, that I’m a complete idiot? I’ve seen them all. That’s what we all say. We kinda have to say it, at least once per chapter, that we don’t trust anyone, we don’t love anyone, we don’t give two shits about anything. I’m surprised anyone actually believes it. I mean, if that were true why should I go into the trouble of overstating it?

You seem confused, and a little disappointed. Did you really believe my world was all cynicism? Were you convinced that’s what makes a story a Noir? Well, after the third glass I’m in the mood for sharing: you’re wrong. Many Noirs start (I mean, really take off) exactly when the protagonist, a hardened criminal or a disenchanted detective, who has vowed to never trust anyone ever again, to never get attached to anyone, thinks they can make an exception for that one person. And you can almost see it, that from that moment on they have started walking with a bad omen following them. That single exception is gonna cost them everything. Look at Burt Lancaster in The Killers. How can someone look so big and tough, and so naïve at the same time? No wonder Siodmak wanted him back to star in Criss Cross, the guy basically walks with a “Please, betray me” sign on his back! Don’t get me wrong, it’s not just about having your heart broken by one or another type of dark lady (or gentleman), who is betraying you either for greed or for love (yes, they are capable of love. Just not for you…). Some of the most unforgettable Noir stories are about other feelings, other forms of love, that get massacred. When a ruthless gangster like Gloria Denton gets attached to her protégé. When a lowlife like Donnelly decides to help Lucia, even though he has just met her and she happens to be a murderess. Think of, possibly, the most iconic Noir: The Long Goodbye. Isn’t the most heart-breaking bit about a friend being betrayed and lied to? And if you think that this narrative actually reminds you of Lucia and Donnelly and what Sanxay Holding did in The Blank Wall, that’s probably not an accident. Chandler admired Sanxay Holding, and couldn’t understand why she was not sought after by all publishers. Me too, friend, me too.

So, you came here, in a Noir story and you know someone is gonna get hurt. It’s not safe here. And I think that the feeling of loss and defeat is something that really gives Noir its dark colours. But loss doesn’t have to be the only feeling the protagonist is left with. All the loners, the marginalised, the queer, the weird, the powerless can decide to stick together. And it doesn’t matter how many times you have seen your ideals shattered. You may, like V.I Warshawski in Sarah Paretski’s novels, realise that, even if justice is not met, you have done something good. You have helped someone, you are building a network of good people. Solidarity doesn’t make a story less interesting or, indeed, less Noir. On the contrary. We really can’t do this alone.

Pandora’s black (noir?) box

Miguel Santos © 2016

So, why do we read Noir? What do we find in these stories with no resolution and filled with pain? I think that what makes Noir interesting is that, in spite of all the tough talk, our anti-heroes have human decency, and endeavour to keep it alive. Beyond what they say, their actions suggest that they do believe in friendship, loyalty, solidarity. Sometimes in love. Some others even in justice. If they have seen enough during their lives not to expect the good guys to win, they still struggle to be better than  the crooks, the traitors, the polluters, the abusers, the corrupted and the corruptors. They will fail, but, you can bet, they will try again. Like Pandora who after releasing all the darkest shit in the world, still sees Hope at the bottom of her box. That is, I think, what we love in Noir, that Hope survives against all odds, sometimes even against the protagonist’s will. But it’s there. Hope that maybe not this time, and maybe not the next either, but one day, one day we will do something worth it, we will make this right. We just have to put some ice on our black eye, and try again.

The Future Fire will be publishing a Noir-themed issue later this year. If you have a speculative or progressive Noir story that you think might appear to us, see the Call for Submissions here.

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