Posted by Susan Doll on April 16, 2012
As promised, this week’s blog post provides the answers to last week’s film noir quiz. The quiz was prompted by the tribute to film noir at the TCM Classic Movie Festival, which ended Sunday, but good movie dialogue has been on my mind since teaching Citizen Kane in my film studies class a couple of weeks ago. We were discussing Mr. Bernstein’s bittersweet recollection about the girl he saw while on the Staten Island ferry when he was a young man. She never noticed him at all, and he never saw her again, but there wasn’t a week that went by that he didn’t think about that girl. It didn’t take long for the class to understand that the girl symbolized the personal life that Bernstein gave up to serve Charles Foster Kane. I remarked that in a good script, the dialogue may seem to be about one topic on the surface, but it is actually representative of something else.
The conversation in class made me think about the clever witticisms and banter of film noir. More than just entertaining, noir dialogue denotes aspects of the characters as well key themes. Most notably, the noir genre is famous for the banter between the hard-boiled protagonist and the femme fatale. It serves as a substitute or metaphor for flirtation, love, or even sex.
The literary antecedent for film noir was hard-boiled detective fiction, which was popularized in the 1920s and flourished in novel form during the 1930s and 1940s. As a genre of literature, hard-boiled detective fiction was part of a revolution in literature to depict the sounds and rhythms of vernacular American speech. In addition, the colloquial, vivid styles of the hard-boiled writers were in contrast to the “drawing-room” conversation found in classic or English mystery novels. The hard-boiled writers reveled in imitating the slang of the real criminal world. Speaking this lingo in film adaptations of hard-boiled fiction made the characters even more colorful and quintessentially American, a point made by two Mexican characters in The Big Steal. Ramon Navarro asks, “What means ‘he pulled a fast one’?” Don Alvarado responds, “Copped a Sunday.” “Strange language, but colorful,” notes Navarro. It’s almost as vivid as Charles McGraw’s line in The Narrow Margin, “What kind of dish was she? The 60-cent special—cheap, flashy, strictly poison under the gravy.”
All the characters in film noir have something to hide, whether it is a dirty secret, important information, or true feelings. The inability of the characters to connect, communicate directly, or personally relate reveals that they live in a world—a version of our own modern world—that is defined by alienation, corruption, and isolation. Men and women communicate via conversations that are rife with innuendo and wisecracks to deflect sincere emotion and reveal sexual attraction.
I’m sure many of you recognized this exchange between Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson (Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity.
—Stanwyck: “There’s a speed limit in this state – 45 miles per hour.”
—MacMurray: “How fast was I going, Officer?”
— BS: “I’d say about 90.”
—FM: “Suppose you get down off that motorcycle and give me a ticket.”
— BS: “Suppose I give you a warning instead.”
— FM: “Suppose it doesn’t take.”
— BS: “Suppose I have to wrap you over the knuckles.”
—FM: “Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.”
— BS: “Suppose you put it on my husband’s shoulder.”
—FM: “That tears it.”
Or, consider this passage from The Big Sleep between Bogart (as Philip Marlowe) and Bacall:
—Bogart: “Speaking of horses. . . you’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.”
—Bacall: “Depends on who’s in the saddle.”
And, this one between Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in His Kind of Woman:
—Mitchum: “When I have nothing to do at night and can’t think, I iron my money.”
—Russell: “What do you press when you’re broke?”
—Mitchum: When I’m broke, I press my pants.”
Robert Cummings is downright blunt about Claudette Colbert in Sleep, My Love.
—Question: “What would you like?”
—Cummings: “More of the hostess.”
Not surprisingly, film noir features some of the strangest pick-up lines. Elisha Cook, Jr. casually asks Ella Raines in Phantom Lady: “You like jive?” “You bet,” she says. “I’m a hep kitten.” No wonder he likes her. Later he coos: “Stick with me, Snooks, and I will buy you a carload of hats.” Hey, he had me at “Snooks.”
Helene Stanton gets straight to the point with Cornel Wilde in The Big Combo: “What’s on your mind? As if I didn’t know.” But, Gloria Grahame, my favorite noir dame, is more provocative with Bogart in In a Lonely Place: “I said I liked it; I didn’t say I wanted to kiss it.” The volley of barbed wisecracks is not only an indicator of sexual attraction but also a substitute for sex in the era when the Production Code did not allow direct depictions or expressions of lust and desire.
Fans of film noir know that whatever the attraction, the relationship is doomed. Noir may be the only classic-era genre intentionally critical of American social institutions, including two that were sacred under the Production Code—marriage and the nuclear family. In regard to marriage, the Code suggested that marriage and children should be depicted as positive forces that made characters lives better, never worse. But, in film noir, the portrayal of marriages for money, femme fatales who were more interested in power than children, and decadent families rotting from within contradicted the Code’s preferred representation of women and families. Thus, the dictates of the Code doomed the femme fatales to die or their relationships to fail. The fatalism of noir love affairs is echoed in the dialogue, and if you have ever been on the wrong end of a failed relationship, you can relate to the bitterness. Jane Greer remarks to Robert Mitchum in The Big Steal, “What I like about you is that you’re rock bottom. I wouldn’t expect you to understand this, but it’s a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.” Esther Howard tells it like it is in Born To Kill: “My two husbands was turnips.” Ida Lupino insults Cornel Wilde in Road House with “Doesn’t it ever enter a man’s head that a woman can do without him?”
Women aren’t the only ones who are have no faith in love. Raymond Massey reveals, “She’s got something on her conscience, but what woman hasn’t?” It is obvious to the viewer as well as other characters that the relationship between the femme fatale and the hard-boiled protagonist is doomed. Hume Cronyn lays it on the line to John Garfield and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice: “Well, I can think of fifteen, twenty reasons why you two should never be happy.” Romance isn’t the only corrupted relationship in film noir, as evidenced by Eve Arden’s perfectly delivered quip in Mildred Pierce: “Personally I’m convinced that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.”
The hard-boiled detectives and other male characters are so alienated or at odds with the normal society that they are grossly out of sync when it comes to romance. Peter Breck tries to romance Constance Towers in Shock Corridor with “My yen for you goes up and down like a fever chart,” while Robert Ryan convinces Barbara Stanwyck in Clash by Night that he is the better choice by pointing out, “Jerry’s the salt of the earth, but he’s not the seasoning for you.” Cornel Wilde wonders where he went wrong in The Big Combo: “I treated her like a pair of gloves. When I was cold, I called her up.”
One reason why film noir appeals to women viewers is because the female characters are strong, independent, and generally smarter and more reflective than the male characters, including the detective figure who is the protagonist. “All my dresses are beautiful. They gotta be in this racket,” says a knowing Isabel Jewel in The Marked Woman. “There’s nothin’ like clothes, that’s the sugar makes the flies come ‘round.” I can’t decide who is the tougher dame: Rita Hayworth in Gilda or Jan Sterling in Ace in the Hole. Gilda claims, “If I’d been a ranch, they would have named me The Bar Nothing,” while Sterling’s character admits, “I don’t pray. Kneeling bags my nylons.” Gloria Grahame reveals in The Big Heat that most femme fatales are alike: “We’re all sisters under the mink.”
Beyond the banter, entendre, and wisecracks, the dialogue in film noir can seem perceptive about life. Often luck, chance, or providence is referenced, though none of these fortunes ever smile upon the ill-fated characters in film noir. “That’s life,” offers Tom Neal in Detour. “Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” But, Ann Savage isn’t ready to give up, no matter the odds: “Life’s like a ball game. You gotta take a swing at whatever comes along before you wake up and find it’s the ninth inning.”
Gunplay and fistfights are par for the course in film noir, but these scenes are outdone by the poetically brutal descriptions of crime and violence. Sam Jaffe observes in The Asphalt Jungle: “Crime is a left-handed form of human endeavor.” Both the viciousness of murder and its connection to greed are conveyed in this description of a crime scene by Elisha Cook, Jr. in Strangers on the Third Floor, “It wasn’t very nice. His throat was cut. Blood was still dripping into the open drawer of the cash register.” No hard-boiled writer was more poetic than Raymond Chandler, and his words were well interpreted by any number of actors who played his character Philip Marlowe over the years. One of my favorite Chandler passages was interpreted by Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet. Though the character does not die in this scene, the passage is a haunting metaphor for the inevitability of death: “I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at the bottom of my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom.”
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