THE COOL OF CLASSIC NOIR
Slick grifters, seen-it-all survivors
Here’s something that quite startled me not that long ago, from a eulogy given in Washington Cathedral for a remarkable American. The speaker was recalling a capacity John McCain had, for what she called …a stoic silence that was once the mark of an American man. So why should that startle me? Well, I suppose to begin with, because the words reminded me of traits I grew up with, that I imagined were long gone out of fashion. But it was the next thought that really pulled me up. What audience nowadays, I wondered, would understand where that temperament for stoicism - not to mention silence - came from? It can be a shock, realizing how far over the hill you are.
The Mark of an American
It set me thinking about where I first came across that mark of an American man - and of American women too - let’s be clear about that. Where? Well, where else? Like most Europeans of my vintage, everything I grew up thinking I knew about Americans, I’d learned at the movies. I was an impressionable age, I admit. But I marveled at a certain kind of American I found there. More than that, it’s clear to me now that in those postwar years, movie audiences everywhere were marveling along with me.
Of course, that certain kind of American wasn’t only to be found in the films we call noir nowadays (and didn’t then). But I do think especially in those. Explore those classic films noirs and you’ll see how that hallmark American manner once played out onscreen, for the generation our eulogist had in mind. Buy a ticket and you’ll be watching ground-breaking cinema - and not only American cinema either - but we’ll come to that. Because you won’t fail to notice, wherever those classic period noirs hail from, they have the manner at their fingertips.
For now, let’s stay with the stoic silences. As for instance when Los Angeles Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (Charles McGraw), follows his partner down a Chicago tenement stair in The Narrow Margin (Director Richard Fleischer, 1952). The two detectives are escorting a witness back to testify before a Los Angeles grand jury. She’s the widow of mobster, a target and she knows it. As do the two LA policemen sent to protect her. Sure enough, Brown’s partner is gunned down on the tenement stair, his slayer escapes, and - as a small crowd gathers - the Detective Sergeant hustles his charge to a waiting cab, Brown leaves a bystander to call in the murder of his partner to city police. Not until he’s in the back of the cab with the widow, bound for Chicago’s Union Station, does he start reflecting on what just happened. Gravel shuffles the anger in McGraw’s voice. He tells himself he shouldn’t have let the older, slower man go first down the stair. Then remembers that the news will need breaking to the dead man’s wife. It’s about all the detective registers before he switches back to the present problem - how to get himself and his witness aboard their train to LA.
Don’t misunderstand me. The back-of-the-taxi scene is no cheap shot about a tough cop doing what a cop must do. For one thing, the cab’s other passenger (Marie Windsor, none better) doesn’t reach for her feminine side any more than does Detective Sergeant Brown. But more to the point, screenwriter (Earl Felton) and director knew just as well as their performers, that audiences would have been startled if they did. By 1952 a generation of men and women had grown unaccustomed to voicing their own emotions. It was a behavior currently out of style. And as in life, so in the movies. Which begs the question, how come was it out of style?
Now an admission. I’m a sucker for history that’s new to me or that I’m not expecting. And since I’m a relative newcomer to American history, the museums that tell it are apt to pack more surprises for me than the average. So you’ll understand that, on my first visit to the Minnesota History Center Saint Paul, a sign pointing to a gallery on the third floor was irresistible. It said: Minnesota’s Greatest Generation. Now, then. You tell me. Which generation might that be? Me, I guessed at pioneer tales of the mid-West. Or of harnessing the giant Mississippi (thrilling - there are no rivers at all in the country I’m writing from, or even a year-round stream). So I licked my lips, kid in a candy store, and took the stair to find out. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The story the gallery has to tell is strictly twentieth century. It’s not hard to see why.
Closed, Tight-lipped Manner
For Minnesota, its greatest generation was born in the shadow of the Great War and raised in the pit of the Great Depression. It was the generation in its teens through the New Deal and the Dust Bowl years. Then, when the hardest of times had just begun easing, it learned for the first time where Pearl Harbor was. So it upped and migrated to find war production work, or got sent to fight across oceans. And four years later, those that returned were braced for A-bombs, the Cold War and Korea. Any one of those upheavals would have left its mark. The women and the men we’re talking about had run the gamut by the time they reached their thirties. In the year The Narrow Margin released, Marie Windsor was aged thirty-three. Richard Fleischer, thirty-six. McGraw was thirty-eight and had served a wartime spell in the army. All were veterans of the early twentieth century. They’d lived the pick-yourself-up-and-dust-yourself-off of the times, and understood at first-hand where the closed, tight-lipped manner came from. Certainly they knew how to play it. In that scene in the cab, they hit the character notes of noir right off the center of the bat.
Of course, it was never only Minnesota’s greatest generation. Neither was it uniquely American. That string of early-twentieth century catastrophes had put a generation through the same grinder worldwide. No surprise then, that as they came to navigate the early years of Cold War, cinema audiences everywhere could relate to those elemental notes of film noir.
Dark Inconvenient Truths
Cold War audiences needed no introduction to bleak, ungilded motives. Or to dark, inconvenient truths. Watching them play out onscreen in a new, spare brand of film-making was simply powerful, subversive, satisfying. And not only at the time. On Vienna’s Ringstrasse there’s a theater still showing The Third Man several times every week. Nearby is a small, private museum, dedicated to the movie and its making, and to a tainted postwar decade that the movie exposes, but that the city on the whole likes to forget. Despite its American co-producer (David O. Selznick) and American leads (Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles) The Third Man is of course a British movie, nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Director, Best Editor) and taking one home (Robert Krasker for Best Cinematography). Meaning that already by 1949 a British film could be fluent and even majestic in the elements of noir. Stoic silences included. (Personally, I can forget the accents and hear Trevor Howard’s Military Police Major Calloway and Charles McGraw’s Detective Sergeant Brown as interchangeable. Try it!).
A Kind of Quiet
In fact by then, film makers were exploring the new vocabulary from Argentina to Japan and stops in between. Demonstration, I think, that film noir was distilling a spirit of the times that knew no borders. In Hollywood it had been distilled by a perfect storm of home-grown and immigrant talent, technique, and limited resources; then bottled in new patterns of narrative and character, mood and setting, technique, tone and more. Which of all those elements sparked for audiences in Buenos Aires or Tokyo, I couldn’t say. The draw for me remains what it was from the first: watching a Detective Sergeant and a hoodlum’s widow wrapped in a terse exchange in the back of a cab, considering their latest calamity with quiet intensity. That kind of quiet was everywhere in those Eisenhower years, recognizable whichever continent you were on.
Shadows Making Magic
It seems like some small miracle to me now. How, out of a world gone sour, that remarkable generation went on to create film noir in its own image. Movies peopled with an unforgettable cast of slick grifters, seen-it-all survivors, racketeers, the opulent, the decent and the corrupt, whose moral compass - when they bring one along - is all their own work, men and women both. All photographed in shadows and camera-angles that still make magic, and dresses that can be to die for. And yet. What about those stoic silences?
I mean, can modern audiences still relate to them? You’d have to ask. But I really do hope so. Because in my adored films noirs, that self-contained cool is a quality those survivors always kept in their locker; one indispensable part of the thrilling, subversive whole. Insolence, of course, is always on hand. Also pragmatic, resilient and smart. Even that certain hardboiled uprightness, when absolutely necessary. All the above are the natural elements of classic film noir, where you’ll find them written, directed, played and caught on camera with complete conviction. How else? They were qualities lived and learned the hard way, over three spectacularly daunting decades.