Grumbling Gum-Shoes

June 15th, 2008 § 0 comments

Some three or four years after my Noir class I am finally reading the novels/writers that inspired the genre. Hammett has been my first victim of dissection, after reading a collection of The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, and Red Harvest, I am appalled I thought of starting Proust instead. Hammett’s novels read so easily I am wary of them, wondering if they are just dated versions of the paperbacks in the supermarket I deem mind-numbing trash. The vernacular of his novels is quite interesting, they read like a cross between a play, a screenplay, and a film; not like what I expect of a novel. Plays are always overly descriptive, they are meant to be spoken and looked at rather than read, or so I assume, and there is something visceral and visual about Hammett’s wording. He too is overly descriptive, like he feels obligated to tell us exactly what this or that guy looks like so he can drop it and move on. His description of Spade; “he looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”

I wrote a paper years ago justifying the appeal of the noir detective, saying something about all their wrongs—the tough guy act, the straight talk, the ambiguous morality—equaling a right, but reading their characters is different from watching them. Predictably there is less polish, the stories focus as much on murder as they do on crime, dishonest politicians, prostitution, homosexuality, race, and pornography, whereas the movies stick to gum-shoe investigation. They are misfits in the book, Spade fights between the rule of law, the rule of crime, and his own morality, acknowledging that none are just or ‘right’. Bogart brings celebrity and a polish to the character, and Hollywood a cleanliness to the story that does not exist in the literary version of Spade’s Frisco. Of all Hammett’s anti-heroes Spade is the most timeless, misfits never cease being themselves.

sam spade

I can say for certain that noir writers did not do so well with women. Breaking it down into hardboiled speak there are two types, those that are “ok” and those that aren’t. All women are good for sex, stirring up trouble, and lying, with sex being first and foremost—the others can be tolerated later. So much fuss is made about femme fatales that I am not going to add much more, but I was surprised at how differently the women were portrayed from novel to film. Each seems to belong to a different brand of sexism, and I almost prefer the books no nonsense honesty—that one is trouble, poison, no good—to Hollywood’s subversive reenforcement of a mans world where we are spectators. Nora Charles, perhaps the most important female character who is not a femme fatale, was quite dull in Hammett’s story, and I keep picturing Myrna Loy and the spunk, lip, and character she brought to the film. In a great line when Nora complains about going home early, Nick replies, “there are speakeasies, nightclubs, and Harlem.” They are not a bit like the stand up couple Hollywood portrays them as.

the thin man

J Storm says, “there are only so many speakeasy jokes that are still funny,” and I wondered this while watching Wenders stilted neo-noir, Hammett. It does not have the grace of Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, it smacks of being low budget and, though it was criticized firmly for not reflecting Wender’s European take on an American genre, has his quirky eye and perspective. I liked the films play between Hammett the writer, his own past (Hammett was a detective), and his characters. Boys typically love noir, and this felt like Wender’s indulgent, slightly self-conscience caricature of the genre rolled together with honest adoration. The film felt so dated, however, and so much like a pictorial fantasy of a city stuck in a time that never existed, acceptable only here because it is happening in Hammett’s head, I wonder how much relevance neo-noirs have. They are fun, certainly, in the same way Hammett’s books are entertaining to read while being indicative of a time, but can current noirs be anything other than homages to the strong-jawed dick’s of the 1930’s? The necessities of making a film qualify as a noir are problematic, the characters are so dated they have to be modified and altered into current acceptability. It seems hard to make a noir say something new, and how successful the films are in the end depends on how clever the modification.

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