Fragments of Heroes in American Noir Movie
by Alessandra Calanchi
Translation by Margherita Pergolini and Maria Teresa Vitali
The secret lies behind appearances… action can no longer be one dimensional, characters cannot be people of sterling character. The rule of the game is être double. Alain Corneau
The male protagonist of the American noir movie of the 40s, very different both from the gangster movies’ “tough guy” and from the most refined British cousin in the style of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, is doubtless one of the most attractive and contradictory creations not only of the hard-boiled genre, but in all of cinema. Virtual superman of undisputed talents in solution and investigation, he actually does nothing more than handle big guns without ever using them, falling into traps which insidious blond women fatally set, letting himself be hit, imprisoned and drugged almost without blinking an eye. Nevertheless, he usually does not lose face and comes out on top. At the beginning, he is often presented to us as a name (P.I., Private Eye, appears on the office door-even better when upside down- in many films) or as a voice (Sunset Boulevard, Letter from an Unknown Woman): through a limited perception – visual or aural – the spectator is called upon to build, a bit at a time, his own cognitive process and link the fragments he arranges to unite them into a whole that will be the product of an entire organization of perceptions.
Sometimes, the “visible” character’s identity is revealed later (Sunset Boulevard); sometimes, it continues to be hidden until the end, just showing itself now and then, perhaps with a mirror trick (Lady in the Lake). Other times, we have to content ourselves with seeing physical parts (a hand, a profile) or details in attire (a hat, shoes), as if the camera were not able to offer us an “entire” version of the scene – or, turning the dialogue around, as if the view were inadequate to gather the whole reality of the situation in its totality, or maybe because, after all, reality is made up of numerous points of view which can create a “whole” only when put together.
The labyrinthine structure of many noir films seems to underline the fragmentary character not only of the image, but of the character’s identity itself. He often moves about among dark and unknown paths in a sort of trance, feeling a tension which, even if not truly part of the male hero’s prerogatives, has in any case its own moral and psychological justification in the context of the crisis that the P.I. is called to resolve. Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) is time after time represented as fragments: more frequently we see parts of his body in the foreground than his entire body, and around him the whole universe is disjoined; it is a mosaic made up of many pieces – a falling key, a bill, a statuette – which have to be combined together.
Even voice-over, a very frequent devise in noir, is part of this separation. It is a breaking point between image and word; this voice belongs to a face of which we cannot catch sight. It is a further fragment of reality, which hides an empty space. Both when explaining everything (The Lady from Shanghai, Sunset Boulevard) and when speaking in a confused or deceptive manner (Crossfire), but also when it acts as a liberating factor (Out of the Past), the voice is, again, just a piece of the whole. It is often a mere appearance of reality, or just one among the numerous points of view, up to the extreme case of Touch of Evil, in which the voice fractures into three different voices: the real one, the echoed one and the recorded one.
The elaborate expedient of Welles is coloured with an existential motivation: the more interpretations we have of the same reality, the more the same reality paradoxically loses consistency and meaning (as Kurosawa wonderfully reaffirms in his Rashomon).
Noir’s physical and mental fragmentation approaches that of the dream. It is not by chance that Spade, speaking about the statuette of the hawk, says that it is “made out of the same material with which dreams are made”: actually, this similarity can be applied to all these films.
They are perceived by the spectator as “light in the dark” (Alloway), and based on that detection, called by Edenbaum “metaphor of existence”, they are characterized by a fabric like that of the dream, in which “the psychic states… are exposed to an obscure pressure, following which the relationship between images divides; the perceptive pictures of things, people, places, events and actions of life are separately reproduced while wide-awake”(Strümpell).
Fabre says that in the American movies of the 40s and 50s, “physical presence separates and loses the total dimension of the medium”.
Part 1 -Translation by Margherita Pergolini
In a rarefied and neurotic atmosphere, where the urban background is often the enemy of the character (“the world that we know disappears”, Wood) and also where mirrors deceive rather than showing reality (The Lady from Shanghai), the hero struggles in vain against the stranger oppression of the nightmare, of the hallucination. Marlowe, unconscious and drugged, has deformed visions of a huge spider’s web and a series of narrow and unreachable doors (Murder, My Sweet). Again, the objects, or the fragments of them, get the better over the whole: as the figurative motif of the spiral in the film credits of Vertigo, or as the eye in various films by Hitchcock, the fragment becomes reality, the synecdoche takes the place of unity.
Since the structural coherence always prevails perceptively, and the observation has a subjective structure, based on what we already know or what we wish to see, the incompleteness will be filled in by the spectator in any case, who will rebuild it by a reformulation and recombination of the available fragments. The opening scenes in Crossfire, for example, in which we watch only the shadows projected on the wall and in which we vaguely perceive legs and backs in a surreal lighting effect that at the end is switched off leaving the screen completely dark for a few moments, there is no obstruction in our ability to re-establish the events even in their confusion: an argument is going on and a man is killed. This is because the parts cannot exist autonomously but only when linked together, since we have already perceived through ‘thought’. This decidedly cinematographic expedient of “rage” is particularly present in thriller films, however, in all movies suspense is of a certain importance. In “noir”, to the subject of “surprise” (we are expected to pass from surprise to surprise without understanding) that of incertitude is joined, the “broken” identity of the hero. Women who surround him (sisters, mothers, vestals, or in contrast, deceptive witches) belong to a much more stable and dualistic universe, they always know which side to be on, and even when they are playing a double game, they do so by choice. Bad or good beings with no chance for compromise, sometimes nothing more than unconscious beings, a source of agitation and upheaval or, vice versa, a source of love and protection . Sometimes, man erases them from his memory (Letter from an Unknown Woman) and sometimes he evokes them so intensely as to bring them back to life just by contemplating their portrait. (Laura)
The presence of the male protagonist in noir is contradictory and complicated: an incomplete and imperfect character, supported by the same mechanisms as the “detection” itself but always on the edge of self disintegration. He is a hero whose parts tend to join together, but his wholeness is often in danger. In him, there are always some blank spaces to fill in, invisible images that can become visible only through our active perception; there are parts to link, lines to trace. The mystery that surrounds him and he is asked to resolve is passed down to us: its detection is completed by our own.
₁ The voice-over, a part from being a frequent technique in noir, in the great majority of cases is a male phenomenon (and it is always, except for rare exceptions, when it appears in its “purest” form, that is when it belongs to someone that doesn’t belong to the story).Regarding this issue, consult G. Fink, From Showing to Telling: Off-Screen Narration in the American Cinema, in American Literatures, Bulzoni, Year 3 n. 12, 1982; A. Calanchi, The imperfect hero of the black American film in New Cinema, year 31, n. 278/279, 1982; S. Kozloff, Invisible storytellers, University of California Press, 1988.
₂ In regard to the perception problem, and in particular regarding the perception as a constructive process and the reconstruction of the whole based on its parts, please refer to a very interesting book by G. Kanizsa, Grammatica del verde. Saggi su percezione e gestalt, Il Mulino, Bologna, 1980.
₃ The German word, introduced by phenomenology (Husserl) with which the various perceptive aspects of a same object in its sensitive multiplicity are defined, is Abschattungun (in Italian we speak less of overshadow). In other words, perception doesn’t occur in just one fixed way, but it is trigged by a patrimony of knowledge already acquired individually.
Part 2- Translation by Maria Teresa Vitali