back toJacket2

Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

David Lehman: Shades Among Shadows:

The Murder Mystery, Film Noir, and Poetry

You can read David Lehman’s article ‘The Mysterious Romance of Murder’ in Jacket 18.

This piece is 7,200 words or about seventeen printed pages long.

The Murder Mystery & Postmodernism

The murder mystery remains both academically respectable and socially chic. Detective novels and movies — movies especially — are more popular than ever. The public’s appetite for them seems boundless. The genre’s staple forms and tried-and-true formulas seem to fill that appetite and renew it at the same time. The essential theme (victim dispatched by unknown assailant, police baffled, detective to the rescue) gives rise to a finite number of brilliant variations and an infinite amount of repetition. It can be done straight or parodically, a fact that helps explain why the detective story appeals as strongly to contemporary taste, which sets a high value on piquant irony, as to the palates that preceded it.
      I take it as an encouraging sign that a new edition of my book The Perfect Murder was announced just as the film A Perfect Murder was released, in the early summer of 1998. The pairing of this book with that movie may have been accidental, but the repetition confirms what readers of newspapers know — that the concept of homicidal perfection springs eternal in the human breast. To get away with murder is still the linguistic standard by which all illicit wish-fulfilment fantasies are measured. I remember thinking, when The Perfect Murder was first published in 1989, that it would have sold more copies if the words how to commit had been added to the title.
      As for A Perfect Murder, it turned out to be an enjoyable summer movie that goes through the motions of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder with Michael Douglas in the Ray Milland role, Gwyneth Paltrow in the Grace Kelly role, and New York in the role of London. Only New York comes out ahead in the remake, but the more noteworthy point has to do with the amount of repetition, refabrication, and reflexive self-consciousness that we expect to find, and do find, in new movies — the way they echo other movies, recycling old dialogue relentlessly, with whatever degree of irony. By now, certain conventions can hardly be invoked without a wink — as when the pipe-smoking Scotland Yard man, about to let himself out the door, turns to the hapless suspect, who had just begun to relax, and says, ‘Oh, by the way, just one more thing,’ and fires off a devastating question. In an entertaining article in the Times Literary Supplement, Terry Eagleton offers a brief anthology of such standbys. ‘If a phone rings in your house when a detective has dropped by, it’s always a plot-enhancing call for him, never the optician to say that your glasses are ready,’ Eagleton notes. ‘When a caller hangs up on you after an angry exchange, you must always stare at the receiver before replacing it.’ [Note 1] True, and when a prisoner, escaping in a stolen car, turns on the radio, it is just in time to catch the bulletin that the cops are on his trail. Eagleton treats such cliches as ‘markers of the familiar’ that provide ‘an established background against which to make sense of the unpredictable.’ They amount to ‘a kind of literal déjà vu.’

The fascination with clichés, the habit of using them and mocking them at the same time, is a hallmark of postmodernism, whose peculiar mantra is Marx’s line about history repeating itself, ‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ When movies give up on imitating life in favor of aping antiquated attempts at imitating life, the result is pastiche. The arrested criminals who say ‘You’ve got the wrong man,’ the interrogators who command ‘Let’s just go through it one more time, okay?,’ are, in Eagleton’s words, ‘postmodern ironists.’
      For a nutshell definition of postmodernism, suitably flip, I recommend Terence Winch’s poem ‘Mysteries’ (1994). The poem is like a joke with a magnificent punch line that turns it into a parable . The poet narrates that he has been reading Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ which is commonly considered the first detective story. He is disappointed in it. The solution, that an orangutan committed the murders, seems to him ‘pretty ridiculous.’ But he finds himself thinking about Poe and talking about the story, and when at dinner he tells his friends Doug and Susan about it, ‘Doug / suggested that he and I collaborate / on a series of detective stories in which / the murderer is always an orangutan.’
      The lesson of the poem, beyond its humor, is ambiguous. Is it that what appears ridiculous may become something quite different if taken to an extreme? Or is it that some ideas for fiction are best left in a conceptual state? Both, perhaps. Doug’s idea of a ‘series of detective stories in which / the murderer is always an orangutan’ is so pithily stated that it makes the composition of the stories themselves superfluous. There is a deliberate perversity in ‘Mysteries’ as in postmodern art in general, the logic of which was stated by Jean Cocteau when he suggested that artists should exaggerate the traits in their work that have aroused the fiercest critical opposition.
      In its deceptive, easygoing way Winch’s narrative hints at the uncanny strangeness of the mystery genre’s inaugural story, in which the ‘ridiculous’ murderer is nothing less than Darwinian man in an arrested evolutionary state, or perhaps Hobbesian man in the state of nature: an ape who, Poe tells us, is in the act of watching himself shave in the mirror, as he had seen his master do, when the sudden appearance of the man in the flesh startles him. Terrified at the sight of the lethal razor in the ape’s claw, the man grabs a whip, and now it is the ape’s turn to grow terrified. At the sight of the whip he runs away and commits the murders in a frenzy.
    The primal murderer, Poe is suggesting, is the unshackled Id: a creature of brute desire, limited intelligence, but not devoid of finer aspiration, including the desire to be human. Look how manlike he is. He is capable of feeling guilty, fearing punishment. He is aware of his resemblance to human beings and proves, indeed, that the homicidal impulse can originate in a clumsy effort at civilization. Note that the orangutan is capable of consulting a mirror not only for narcissistic but for mimetic purposes; it is surely significant that the brute begins his murder spree when he is discovered in the act of aping the sailor who owns him. But note, too, that the notion of the double, always strong in Poe, is taken to a logical extreme in the story, in which the detective and his sidekick make one double and the murdered mother and her daughter make a second. It is tempting to say that the murderer is also a double, the product and emblem of a divided consciousness, half human and half brute. So when Dupin says of the sailor that though he did not himself commit the murders he was ‘implicated’ in them all the same, it is a remark that vibrates with meaning.
      I watched The Woman in Question (dir. Anthony Asquith, 1951) and The Last of Sheila (dir. Herbert Ross, 1973) on successive evenings recently, and I propose this sequence to viewers eager to get a purchase on how the spirit of postmodernism affects films. The Woman in Question is pre-postmodernist. British, black-and-white, with Dirk Bogard mouthing a phony American accent, it is utterly unselfconscious. The eponymous woman is the victim of the murder that initiates the action. Since she cannot speak for herself, we see her through the eyes of five different persons, each of whom knew her. In each telling, she is different in a way that seems to reveal the character of the witness more than that of the deceased.
      For the housekeeper, she was a ‘real lady.’ The older gentleman who keeps the bird store across the street has put her on a pedestal. The victim’s sister knows her to be a hussy, perennially hungover, a mess. The sister’s fiancée concurs. Or was she, as the sailor in love with her insists, a reformed whore? It is a classic detective story — you begin with the corpse, and you never get to know her except as the projection of other people’s memories, wishes, dreams, and denials. The movie illustrates the high modernist principle that moviegoers think of as the ‘Rashomon’ effect: the notion that truth is not one narrative but many, that each witness constructs his or her own story, and that the movies are brilliantly equipped to dramatize this multiplicity. The Woman in Question plays by the rules. You do find out whodunit: one of the five narrators is not only self-serving (and self-involved) but a blatant liar. The detective has to figure out which one based on the clues. The narrative multiplicity coexists perfectly with the conviction that the truth can be known, the murderer caught: characters are complex, but not so enigmatic as to defeat the rage for certitude.
      The Last of Sheila, on the other hand, lacks such innocence, such unself-consciousness. It is Hollywood-slick rather than London-earnest. The movie is ostensibly about who killed the title character, glimpsed for just a few seconds at the start of the film. The James Coburn character, rich and powerful and given to playing elaborate games in exotic locales, invites the assembled suspects to a cruise on his yacht in the gloriously technicolored Mediterranean. So far, so like the classic whodunit, in which a closed circle is required, preferably at some remove from the big bustling world — a remote country mansion or desert island. But The Last of Sheila has a layer of irony and knowing self-reference that older movies lack. As if he were a director and they the actors in the film he is making, Coburn obliges his glamorous cast — including Dyan Cannon, Raquel Welch, James Mason, and Richard Benjamin — to play a scripted game. Each player is handed a card naming a crime he or she is said to have committed or a condition he or she does not want publicized: one is a shoplifter, one a hit-and-run driver, one a homosexual (the closet was still a professional necessity in 1973), one a child molester, one an informer. Coburn, feared and detested, is a perfect victim — and indeed he is dispatched. By whom? We find out after the requisite number of plot twists, but the movie has made certain that our interest has less to do with the movement from disclosure to closure than with the red herrings that have been strewn in her path — hints that the whole film is a spoof, of the genre and of itself. It is full of in-jokes about Hollywood relationships, so that when Dyan Cannon, drunk, asks for a ‘glass of water and a couple of lesbians,’ you have the feeling that insiders know exactly who is being outed. James Mason is a has-been director, and Richard Benjamin a struggling screenwriter, and when each reverts to his cinematic type, we know we are seeing the real movie within the movie, the point of which seems to be that making a movie with a certain director — the director of The Maltese Falcon, for instance — is murder.

Film Noir and the Femme Fatale

The cinematic corollary to the hardboiled detective novel is film noir: rained-on streets, cigarettes in dark rooms. A curtain is drawn (‘the man in the hat standing at the streetlamp had been following her since morning’) and a shot rings out. There is the sound of footsteps hurrying down stairs and then, in the fleabag hotel room where the dead man lies, a gauze curtain rustles lazily in the half-open window. On the record player the same record plays over and over: it’s ‘Moonlight Serenade’ by Glenn Miller and later when the hero in the movie, who seems to suffer from amnesia, dances with his sweetheart at a night club, the band is playing ‘Moonlight Serenade’ and that is the moment he senses that something is amiss.
      Noir is the product of the 1940s, the late ’40s especially. Men wear trenchcoats and fedoras. Women smoke. Everyone smokes. Bourbon is the drink of choice. Everyone drinks. Favorite hangouts include gambling casinos, race tracks, and cafes in which somebody bangs out a Hoagy Carmichael tune while a leggy blonde sits on the piano, crossing her legs, and sings. The style is compatible with hard-boiled novels and spy thrillers, sultry jazz vocalists, Edward Hopper’s pictures of alleys and hotel rooms, Franz Kline’s black-and-white abstract paintings of the 1950s.
      It was the French who seized upon the poetic possibilities of this rough-hewn American style. Noir became the existentialists’ preferred form of imported fiction. As James Naremore notes in More Than Night, French critics celebrated noir ‘as if it were an existential allegory of the white male condition.’ Nicholas Ray’s movies (In a Lonely Place, They Live by Night) were interpreted as dark parables of ‘moral solitude.’ In the late 1950s Godard directed Breathless, Truffaut made Shoot the Piano Player, and all at once a French art cinema based on the Hollywood thriller was born. Meanwhile Albert Camus declared that James M. Cain’s noir novel The Postman Always Rings Twice had inspired him to write The Stranger. ‘You were a fool not to be born a Frenchman,’ the British author Rebecca West told Cain. ‘The highbrows would have put you in with Gide and Mauriac if you had taken this simple precaution.’’
      Permeated with ambiguity and uncertainty, noir is at home in the half-light of a city evening or in the shadows of elevated traintracks at night. Indispensable to the plot is the femme fatale thereof — beautiful, ruthless, deadlier than the male she attracts and exploits, and less apt than he to confuse lust with love. She is Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai, Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. She is somehow entangled with a rich man, a husband or a lover, often sinister: the mobster played by Kirk Douglas in Out of the Past or the histrionic defense attorney hobbling on crutches as Everett Sloan plays him in The Lady from Shanghai. The plot involves conspiracies and betrayals: greed augments passion until it displaces it. The darkness in these movies is not a function of the lighting alone. The films suggest that evil exists, whether as an entity in itself or as a perverted form of love. At the same time they imply a world of shades among shadows, and no absolutes. They associate sexual passion with mortality and they insist that the electric impulse linking man and woman is so powerful as to override all other imperatives. For its sake men and women would commit larcency, even homicide, though of course the money has something to do with it, too.
      What happens to the detective in the noir scenario is that he disappears — or is utterly transformed. Witness the fate of Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), which is often regarded as the definitive example of American film noir. When we first meet Bailey, he runs a gas station in a hick town. A man out of his past turns up — a man named Joe, about whom we’re later told that he ‘couldn’t find a prayer in the Bible.’ But he had no difficulty finding Bailey; the garage sign with Bailey’s name on it caught his eye. (‘Small world.’ ‘Or big sign.’) You can’t escape the past, and when it catches up with you, it explodes the identity you would construct for yourself. Not Bailey but Markham is his real name, Mitchum tells the sweet, wholesome girlfriend he has managed to acquire in the rural village. He was a professional detective three years ago, ‘maybe more,’ when he got a call from a high-powered gambler. . .
      This is a movie in which characters constantly seek, often find, and always lose. In a flashback Mitchum is a detective in New York — we know it from his trenchcoat. Big operator Kirk Douglas hires him to find the woman who shot at him, Douglas, four times, and absconded with $40,000 of his ill-gotten gains. Mitchum goes to Acapulco, the movie’s third locale, in search of the lady in question, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). Acapulco in Out of the Past is the quintessential romantic place of escape. Beach houses, palm trees casting shadows in early evening, gambling joints where the point is to bet big, as if life itself were a reckless wager. Mitchum finds Greer, but instead of accomplishing his mission he falls in love with her, and then keeps falling. Greer denies taking the $40,000. Mitchum: ‘Baby, I don’t care.’
      ‘I never saw her in daylight,’ Mitchum’s voiceover informs us. ‘How big a chump can you be? I was beginning to find out.’ When Kirk Douglas and his henchman unexpectedly turn up, Mitchum and Greer flee to San Francisco. For a time they keep a low profile. They begin to venture out, going to the usual gambling places and race tracks, and that is when Fisher, Mitchum’s ex-partner from his New York days, turns up: ‘Pay me off and I’ll be quiet,’ Fisher says. Greer shoots him. ‘You didn’t have to do that,’ Mitchum says. But it is too late to prevent it; Fisher is dead, and Mitchum knows himself to be implicated irrevocably, an accomplice in murder.
      What he does is thus exactly what Sam Spade refuses to do in The Maltese Falcon. Bogart playing Spade recognizes he has a duty to his partner, and acts accordingly, even though he never liked Miles Archer all that much. Bogart resists Mary Astor, because she has already lied to him when he put his trust in her and he refuses to make the same mistake twice; he turns her in to the police. When Mitchum in Out of the Past throws in his lot with Jane Greer, he terminates his identity as a detective no less surely than the army deserter Don Jose terminates his identity as a soldier in Carmen. Inevitably, Greer betrays Mitchum. The flashback concludes with the revelation that she has the missing $40,000 in her bank account after all.
      Mitchum informs his girlfriend that he never saw Greer again. She ran out on him. But when we return from the flashback’s past tense to the unfolding present, Mitchum has his second-go-round with Greer, and the country girlfriend doesn’t stand a chance. Greer has in the interim regained Kirk Douglas’s confidence (Mitchum isn’t the only man under her spell) and has promptly pinned Fisher’s death on Mitchum. She is a cheat, a murderer, and a liar, and Mitchum knows all this. Yet when, in the shadows, with the light illuminating their faces, Greer says, ‘I’ve never stopped loving you,’ he melts in her arms. He will let her betray him again. Sam Spade’s words fit the case perfectly: Mitchum has ‘played the sap’ for Greer. Or in Mitchum’s own word, the ‘chump.’
      It could be said that this is the crucial spin that noir put on the detective novel: the transformation of the detective from the victorious man of reason to the chump, a victim not so much of lust as of a force of sexual attraction so deep, so dark, and so irresistible that there’s no reason not to call it love. ‘You’re no good, and neither am I,’ Greer tells Mitchum. ‘We deserve each other.’ And so they do. The melodrama they enact is the noir equivalent of certain immortal lyrics from the Rodgers and Hart song ‘I Wish I Were in Love Again’: ‘the double-crossing of a pair of heels,’ ‘the self-deception that believes the lie,’ ‘the classic battle of a him and her.’
      The noir in book and film is the imperfect murder, in which the criminals annihilate each other with a devastating inevitability — a tradition stretching back to Chaucer’s ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’. A group of guys plan to make a ‘killing’ in a race track heist, but there is too much killing of the non-metaphorical kind, and the suitcase with the money in it pops open in the airport runway and the cash is scattered in the wind (Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, 1956). There are other books and movies focusing on the caper, the stunt, the heist.
    But far and away the most popular plot is that of spousal homicide. A man and a woman plot to eliminate her husband and enrich themselves in the process, but she betrays him or he betrays her and both end up in the morgue. There is sometimes a competent detective on hand — the Edward G. Robinson figure in Double Indemnity (1944) — but more truly representative of the noir is the detective who succumbs to the lure of a woman impersonating his client’s wife (Vertigo), or possibly the fellow who investigates his own death in D.O.A. (1950). Bigelow has swallowed a slow-acting poison, a ‘luminous toxin’ that will kill him before the week is out. Just time enough to find out who did it — and make sure they get what’s coming to them — before checking out for good.
      Cold War paranoia modified the noir impulse in the 1950s. An us-versus-the-Commies subplot complicates the familiar greed and the chase and the lust, the hooch and cigarettes, the gunshot and the needle going to the end of the record, in Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953). A pickpocket riding the New York subway helps himself to a lady’s purse, which contains the movie’s MacGuffin: a roll of film on which formulas have been captured — metaphorically Pickup on South Street itself. The lady’s ex-boyfriend is the rat who wants to sell the film to the ‘Commies’ and is using her as a conduit. Everyone — the FBI, the New York Police Department, ‘Red’ agents — wants the film, which has suddenly acquired tremendous value. The two individuals who do not want the film — Skip, the pickpocket played by Richard Widmark, and Candy, no lady after all but a broad, played by Jean Peters — are naturally those who possess it and want to get rid of it. They are destined for each other, these two, but only after she breaks into his place (which appears to be a no-electricity houseboat tethered to the New York waterfront), he clips her on the jaw, they begin to get the hots for each other but each is still convinced that the other is a Commie. A police informer played by Thelma Ritter gives Skip the straight dope on Candy. ‘That muffin you grifted, she’s okay,’ Ritter says. ‘She stuck her chin way out for you.’ In the end, Skip — who had begun with purely mercenary motives — turns out to be the good guy, preventing the Russians from learning our secrets and doing so for no substantive personal gain. The movie rejoices: ‘I told you there’s a big difference between a traitor and a pickpocket.’ Perhaps there is, but the apparent moral clarity is an illusion. The movie’s politics, entirely out in the open, can be inferred from the fact that the most sympathetic character on view is Ritter, the police informer. The Red menace transcends such ordinary antitheses as those pitting cops against robbbers — this is hammered home relentlessly, reminding us of what the Cold War felt like in the early 1950s when schoolchildren had to practice hiding under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack.
      But the film is more ambiguous than its politics. Think of it. It is the criminal living on the edge of society — on the edge of the continent — who is the hero, the loner, the detective, even the artist. (Candy to Skip: ‘You got fingers like an artist, soft and smooth.’) The underworld is a subway car. And the object of masculine desire is a montage of images of Candy — in a clinch with Skip, in a bubblebath smoking a cigarette eyes closed, and in a hospital bed black and blue, having taken a bullet for the side of righteousness.
      The Cold War caused a revolution in espionage fiction. In Eric Ambler’s prewar thrillers, the interest (in Auden’s words) is ‘the ethical and eristic conflict between good and evil, between Us and Them.’ It was the Allies versus the Nazis and the Fascists; nations were at war, and unconditional victory the goal. But in the Cold War, the conflict was not conducted out in the open, with troops and troop movements, but with threats, strategies, back-channels, spies in the guise of diplomats plotting a coup. The battles were like games of chess that took place in some realm of conjecture or theory.
In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold John Le Carre adapted the thriller to a universe that was, then, not only morally ambiguous but metaphysically treacherous — where the nature of reality is in doubt and paranoia seems a sane mode of apprehension. No one, including your own spymaster or boss, is reliable. At the conclusion of the book (and movie) Le Carre’s hero chooses to die at the Berlin Wall rather than escape, since in escaping he would be complicitous in the betrayal of his lover. The death of Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) at the Berlin Wall — the hero whose one heroic deed is to choose to die there — is the supreme moment of Cold War espionage fiction. In John Le Carre’s world, it was still Us and Them but it had become much harder to tell them apart, spies and counter-spies, traitors and patriots. Only one thing is certain: betrayal; only one thing heroic, the refusal to betray. The squalid life that Richard Burton leads when he playacts the part of a disaffected ex-British agent in London — the little winter love that he and the librarian played by Claire Bloom find in a dark corner — is pure noir, though Bloom is an unwitting femme fatale and though Burton is not quite a chump in the sense that Robert Mitchum is in Out of the Past.
      Repetition, or what Freud called the ‘compulsion to repeat,’ serves as a governing principle in many noir and neo-noir movies. The present is a repetition of the past — it is possessed by the past or haunted by something ‘out of the past,’ something so tightly repressed that its return produces hysteria. Consider Kenneth Branagh’s underrated 1991 thriller, Dead Again, featuring Branagh and Emma Thompson, who were husband and wife at the time, each in two roles. Like Dennis Potter’s peerless six-hour video The Singing Detective though on a lesser level of ambition and accomplishment, Dead Again is a Freudian murder mystery. But where Potter fused murder mystery and the talking cure with swing music and 40’s crooners, Dead Again strips the Freudian phantasmagoria of its basis in rational thought and takes the result to a gothic extreme. The movie features hypnosis, dream interpretation, trauma-induced amnesia, mysteries of identity and a strong dose of the uncanny (what Freud called the return of the repressed) as long-buried secrets are brought to light.
      The film is set in two time periods, 1948 and 1991. In the 1948 scenes, shot in black and white, Branagh plays the European-born Roman Strauss, a renowned conductor and composer accused of (and ultimately executed for) murdering his wife, Margaret (Thompson). In the scenes set in 1991Branagh plays Mike Church, a detective as American as Los Angeles, and Thompson is an amnesiac whose dreams reconstruct the 1948 murder mystery. The movie’s moral is stated by a defrocked shrink played by Robin Williams, who speaks of the ‘karma credit plan’ ensuring that in each successive life the reincarnated soul is surrounded by the same cast of characters. (The recent fortunes of psychoanalysis in American dream life may be deduced from the fact that the Williams character has been expelled from his profession for seducing his patients.)
      In a key moment, Thompson, the amnesiac of 1991, becomes ‘Margaret’ when the detective unwittingly speaks a line she has heard already in a dream: ‘I wouldn’t hurt you, Margaret.’ When the plot requires Mike to enter hypnosis, he sees Strauss when he looks in the mirror. ‘I have to stop this,’ he says, meaning the hypnosis, and his voice merges with Thompson’s saying ‘I have to stop this,’ meaning her conversations with Baker, the reporter (unshaven, with tie askew and cigarette on lip, as the genre requires). All this is to pin the blame for the Strauss murder where it belongs, with the jealous housekeeper’s son, who was a boy in 1948 but has grown up to be — surprise — none other than the hypnotist.
      The Usual Suspects (1995), among the best neo-noir films, is so brilliant in its mode of telling that the viewer overlooks, or is distracted from seeing, the conventions at its core — the fact that at heart it is an old-fashioned murder mystery with the least-likely-suspect as the murderer. The film relies on an idea, which dates back to Poe’s ‘Purloined Letter,’ that the object of the search is under the policeman’s nose but he, arrogant fool that he is, fails to recognize it. Even the reference to Claude Rains’s line in Casablanca (‘Round up the usual suspects’) is a tipoff to the film’s conscious awareness of its place in Hollywood history. It is in fact these generic conventions and structural standbys that allow the film to try something a little less ‘done’ in the movies — to play with the concept of the unreliable narrator. ‘On its deepest level, The Usual Suspects is a story about the implication of telling stories, and about the inherent ambiguities of the storyteller’s role, especially when his motives may be a story unto themselves, with myriad roots,’ Nicholas Christopher observes in his study of the noir genre, Somewhere in the Night. ‘It is the story behind the story which gradually draws us in, since the storyteller turns out to be Satan wearing one of his innumerable human masks.’
      The character played by Kevin Spacey, appropriately named Verbal, is the film’s narrator and, it turns out, the murderer as well. This belated revelation has the effect of upsetting the entire narrative that the complacent police detective (another convention observed) had coaxed out of Verbal. The disclosure that the altogether disarming and unthreatening Verbal is responsible for a sequence of murders is devastating, though less so than the disclosure that he has improvised, spontaneously and with reckless abandon, a coherent, convincing, but false-bottomed narrative to beguile us and deceive his interrogator. The film’s best line, spoken by Verbal, paraphrases an observation made by Charles Baudelaire. The line concerns the notorious Keyser Soze, said to be the author of all the crimes in the movie, whose existence is purely notional until Kevin Spacey (note the initials) answers to the description for a fleeting few instants as the movie ends. ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled,’ Spacey says, ‘was convincing the world he didn’t exist.’

Film Noir & Contemporary Poetry

Noir as a style, an attitude, and a bundle of useful conventions has entered American poetry in an emphatic way. Here in its entirety is an untitled prose poem from a sequence entitled Noir by Fred Muratori. (The piece appeared in The Prose Poem and on the Poetry Daily website.)

The blonde took her teeth out of my hand and spat my own blood at me. In isolation, an almost incomprehensible sentence, courtesy of Chandler, but a story in itself. And what about the eerie grace of The woman stood up noiselessly behind him and drifted back, inch by inch, into the dark back corner of the room. Not perfect, almost if not certainly ruined by the repetition of back, but in life I have often witnessed such imperceptible edging, sometimes by women, often by men. Guilt is no different retreated from than withstood. That’s a Philip Larkin line in its bones. He was just a surname away from Marlowe, and would probably have been quite good at this game: nondescript, unmarried, few friends, his hand quick to the gundrawer at the suggestion that routines he had spent a lifetime perfecting were about to be disrupted by a livid husband, or a beautifully enraged widow.

Noir here begins as a style and becomes a way of confronting experience. The elision between the two Philips, the fictional detective Marlowe and the mortal English poet Larkin, is beautifully enacted in the syntax itself, which moves from Raymond Chandler’s style of observation to the flat statement in Larkin’s great poem ‘Aubade,’ where death is ‘no different whined at than withstood.’ If novels are mirrors, the mystery novel is the mirror in which Philip Larkin might look and behold Philip Marlowe, ‘just a surname away.’
      Lynn Emanuel fuses the noir and the postmodernist impulses in her exciting new book, Then, Suddenly (University of Pittsburgh Press). Consider this passage from ‘At the Ritz’:

All up and down the avenue, blondes — lacquered
in intelligence, sarcasm, babeness, and money —
gossiped into the ears of investment bankers
so impeccably groomed you could see them
checking their Windsor knots in the chrome
toes of their wing tip shoes.

Blondes, sarcasm, ‘babeness,’ money: essence of noir. The poem describes the beginning of an affair (‘He was so handsome that when he walked in / the room just rearranged its axis from south / to north,’ ‘Against her mink a gardenia erupts in a Vesuvius / of white’) and ends with quiet, sinister streets that look ‘grainy’ as an old black-and-white movie: ‘the pale, small stares of the hotel / lobby, a taxi hauls a smudge of exhaust into place, / and a town staggers to its feet as he follows her like a prisoner / into the sentence of the story.’ Elsewhere, in ‘The Book’s Speech,’ Emanuel writes that a certain dress — the one that recurs in the book — ‘is not a dress really, it is heartache-waiting-to-happen in / the train station of the small town where the rainy evening / is a window, black and shiny, where the passengers are / planted like flowers in the rubber pots of their galoshes.’ From the train station in the rain, that marvelously evocative bleak landscape, to the Chandleresque simile that clinches the deal, Emanuel paints it noir.
      How to account for the particular attraction that noir holds for contemporary poets? I asked several to comment. Lynn Emanuel likens noir style to the ‘lush’ workings of the sestina form: ‘What I love about film noir is its repetitions; the manner in which a delimited number of images and plot elements are circulated and recirculated through a film and through the genre as a whole. Watching film noir is like being in the presence of a miraculous sestina in which the lush presence of repetition is felt subliminally. I love the way form (repetition) is content in these films. I love film noir because it is the most stylish and stylized of American film forms; these films feel ‘poetic’ in their valorizing of style. I admire their insistence that style is more important than mere event — unlike Westerns which celebrate event. Finally, the genre is so compact. Watching these films I often feel I am watching an ouevre by a single author. Again, I think, because the films are so formally restricted, there is a strong family resemblance among them. Watching film noir is close to the experience of reading chapters in a long book. Even when the film is over, you are invited to feel that the story continues in its elegant, paranoiac, American way.’ [Note 2]
      Form, the form that repetition constructs, as content: the sestina form, as it happens, suits the murder mystery well, as James Cummins has demonstrated in his book of Perry Mason sestinas, The Whole Truth. Here is the first stanza of the title sestina:

As he walked into the courtroom, Perry Mason
Was looking hard for a needle in a haystack.
Mason’s client, the famous Air Force pilot,
To entice Jethro Wyatt’s daughter to submit
To his charms, had rented a plane and a long
Banner that read SPREAD ’EM. Unfortunately,

The repetition of the six end-words — Mason, haystack, pilot, submit, long, unfortunately — creates the momentum that speeds us along a suitably twisted plot to the prescribed moment when Mason amazes the court and ambushes the villain. It happens in stanza six:

Mason scowled. ‘I refer to a second haystack — ‘
The courtroom erupted — ‘the evidence I submit
As proof Misty Wyatt is alive. Unfortunately,
Mr. Wyatt, these bones, flesh, and hank of long
Hair dropped from the plane of a second pilot:
Is this pile not Mrs. Wyatt?’ thundered Mason.

The Whole Truth is a case of the love of a genre (‘the courtoom erupted’) perfectly matched to the mastery of a form.
      Diann Blakely, whose new book of poems, Farewell, My Lovelies, announces the noir shading in her work, associates noir with nostalgic desire. She describes herself as a ‘perversely proud member of the junk culture decade otherwise known as the ’70s,’ who ‘came to be a noir fan after becoming, in my teens, an ardent and lifelong fan of what are now called the neo-noirs.’ When I asked her to explain the depth of her interest, Blakely offered a series of associations: the theme music of The Untouchables on TV, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, ‘Bull Connor and his legion of soon-to-be-unemployed-steel-worker supporters,’ ‘the logical outcome of belief in original sin and urbanization.’ ‘Or was it because the bitter and troubled and violent city [Birmingham, Alabama, where she grew up] was so beautiful at night, the molten steel pouring in white flashes through blackness and the distant streetlights, when seen from the suburban hills, glowing more interestingly than the stars?’ [Note 3]
      For L. S. Asekoff, too, a curious nostalgia (for the ‘trailer courts and bungalows of James Cain’s post-war 40s America’) has something to do with his appropriation of noir elements for his verse. Asekoff’s poem ‘Film Noir’ begins with the universal noir landscape:

In the rearview mirror
she can see
the arctic light
of his eyes
& the dismal world
they are leaving —
lipstick pink
neon glow
of The Inferno
Bar & Grill
then a string of seedy
motor courts
& bungalows
with sad melodious names
tucked away
in a grove of
orange flowers
just off the highway.

There is, in Asekoff’s words, a ‘nostalgia here for cars with running boards, America on the move, the first neon nights, the black/white irrealities of a world-that-never-was, except in the movies of my / our childhood.’ [Note 4]
      Asekoff speaks of noir as primarily a style — a matter of atmospherics rather than plot, of style predominating over substance. Robert Polito, whose poems owe much to the lurid melodrama and stylish chiaroscuro of noir, emphasizes that noir ‘is focused on failure, on losing.’ This is a point too easily overlooked. Noir is the flip side of Horatio Alger. It is the product of desperation, the recurrent dream of failure, a catalogue of the many things that can go wrong and do go wrong when lust and greed overlap. It is in this regard that noir could be said to extend a tradition of American literature, which ‘from Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, and Dickinson through Crane, Dreiser, and Faulkner has been obsessed with crime, guilt, deception, deceit, nightmare, mystery, murder, and the disintegrating psyche.’ Polito, the author of a celebrated biography of Jim Thompson, reports that it was ‘the rawness, darkness, and violence,’ along with the ‘formal experimentation,’ that first drew him to Thompson. There is no denying the power of noir ‘to surprise and unsettle’ with the revelation of a darkness that seems both familiar and strange, uncanny as death and just as inextricably bound up with love.


I understand why Graham Greene felt impelled to draw a distinction between what his serious novels and what he called his ‘entertainments.’ It is because Greene, like Flannery O’Connor, has a powerful belief in Evil.
      From Greene’s The Honorary Consul (1973):

     ‘What have you got there?’
     ‘Only a detective story. An English detective story.’
     ‘A good one?’
     ‘I am no judge of that. The translation is not very good, and with this sort of book I can always guess the end.’
     ‘Then where is the interest?’
     ‘Oh, there is a sort of comfort in reading a story where one knows what the end will be. The story of a dream world where justice is always done. There were no detective stories in the age of faith — an interesting point when you think of it. God used to be the only detective when people believed in him. He was law. He was order. He was good. Like your Sherlock Holmes. It was He who pursued the wicked man for punishment and discovered all. But now people like the General make law and order. Electric shocks on the genitals. Aquino’s fingers. Keep the poor ill-fed, and they do not have the energy to revolt. I prefer the detective. I prefer God.’

The sheriff arriving immediately after the gunshot at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s story ‘The Comforts of Home’ gets nearly eveything wrong — the sequence of events, the motive, even the identity of the intended victim. And he is smug about it. ‘The sheriff knew a nasty bit when he saw it. He was accustomed to enter upon scenes that were not as bad as he had hoped to find them, but this one met his expectations.’ The sheriff exists within a world of temporal right-and-wrong. He believes in a society of laws and ethical norms, crimes and punishments. But the story exists in a world under an aspect of eternity. The story believes in Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell.
      The single most traumatic public event in the lifetime of most Americans middle-aged and older was an unsolved murder mystery: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. By the rigorous standards of the detective genre, the solution to the mystery proposed by the Warren Commission flunked the test of believability, and as a result a subgenre of literary and cinematic works devoted to the case has arisen. Oliver Stone’s movie JFK (1991), the cinematic culmination of this tendency, is a hybrid of footage and fantasy, fact and paranoia. The issue of Stone’s poetic license was hotly debated when the movie was released. Lost in the din was the fact that Stone had created a cinematic vocabulary capable of giving a conspiracy theory the look and feel of a documentary. At bottom JFK is yet another example of the protean shapes that the classic murder mystery can take. Perhaps it is the cinema that can best satisfy the murder addict’s craving for a state of exalted paranoia, and perhaps our psychic need for the same is a more salient feature in the success of murder mysteries than critics have been willing to admit.


[Note 1] Terry Eagleton, ‘Let’s Go Through it One More Time,’ Times Literary Supplement, October 31, 1997, p. 22.

[Note 2] Letter from Lynn Emanuel, August 15, 1998.

[Note 3] Letters from Diann Blakely, November 7, 1997 and July 25, 1998.

[Note 4] Letter from L. S. Asekoff, October 12, 1998.

Jacket 21 — February 2003  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © David Lehman and Jacket magazine 2003
The URL address of this page is