Meditations on Noir

We use the French term noir because it was the French who first recognized the deeper social and philosophical work being performed in what were essentially considered commercial, or even “pulp,” crime novels. There’s a reason Albert Camus claimed his inspiration for The Stranger, his bleak novel of a disaffected murderer, drew its inspiration from James M. Cain’s noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. Both novels are existentialist masterpieces. With his dark trench coat and a cigarette dangling from his lips au bec, Camus looks the part of a brooding French philosopher. We expect him to be deeply psychological and of course he doesn’t disappoint us.
By contrast, Cain looks every bit the bespectacled journalist he was, but he took sun-drenched Southern California as his milieu for darker explorations. He knew Los Angeles back when it seemed like paradise and you could still smell salty ocean air and the perfume of orange groves above the smog. But he also knew that pretty scenery doesn’t make humans behave any less horribly to each other. Even though we expect (and get) sordid crimes and wicked twist endings from Cain’s novels, we read them primarily for the brisk, satisfying plots and the unethical characters who come to bad ends.

Noir novels are the 20th-century version of gothic potboilers. These books take us behind the scenes of the trashy stories we see splashed across the covers of American tabloids. We expect the cheap titillation of tawdry sex and back-alley murders. We certainly don’t think of ourselves as embarking on heavy philosophical explorations of humanity’s place in a Godless universe. America doesn’t do philosophy, at least not that we’re willing to admit.

However, Cain delivers with both barrels. He’s got one loaded with all trashiness the public has been primed to expect, and the other barrel is packed with the same unflinching self-examination practiced by Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.

And it wasn’t just James M. Cain who wrote these sorts of things, though he did it first and best with his first three novels, a trifecta of noir brilliance – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. But a whole host of other American noir writers emerged during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Proto-noirist Cornell Woolrich wrote not only a brilliant series of novels with Black in the title but also Rear Window, which Hitchcock adapted into his brilliantly claustrophobic film. After Cain, David Goodis found the most favor with French readers. In 1960, François Truffaut turned his novel Shoot the Piano Player into a brilliant film. The grande dame of noir, Patricia Highsmith wrote her Talented Mr. Ripley series as well as Strangers on a Train and countless other wicked gems. For a delicious taste of Highsmith’s genius for psycho-sexual tension, check out the underappreciated 2015 film Carol which adapts her 1952 novel The Price of Salt. Though his talent was uneven due to his bouts of alcoholism, Jim Thompson wrote a dozen or more indispensible noir classics, including The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, The Grifters, Savage Night, and (my personal favorite) After Dark, My Sweet.


These authors were the luminaries, but many other noir writers emerged in this era. Some wrote quickly for money. Others had just one or two brilliant moments in the sun. Yet, prolific or not, they all still understood the basic premise of a bleak worldview they were promulgating. Living in the wake of World War I with all its fresh horrors, followed by the global grind of the Depression, and then emerging into what Charles Willeford called the “new forms of ugly” manifest during and after World War II with its twin horrors of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb.

In the face of all this, noir authors wrote what came naturally to them, gritty, grinding crime novels that tried to make sense of a world where God is dead, or at least sleeping. Noir became essential because it confronted the fact that we are ultimately alone in the universe. Worse, we no longer have any illusions that anything can save us from ourselves.