The California Road Scholar Talks About Noir!

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May 1, 2013 · Posted in California Roads Scholar 

Photo is of 1825 N. Kingsley, the apartment building where Walter Neff in Double Indemnity lived. Photographer is Jodi Siegner.


Lo!  Death has reared himself a throne

In a strange city lying alone

Far down within the dim West

Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best Have gone to their eternal rest.       

There shrines and palaces and towers (Time-eaten towers that tremble not) Resemble nothing that is ours.

Around, by lifting winds forgot, Resignedly beneath the sky 

The melancholy waters lie.” 

(Edgar Allan Poe, “The City in the Sea,”  1845 but an earlier version was published as “The Doomed City” in 1831)


By Phyl Van Ammers



Scary literature is not new. Even the Old Testament is pretty creepy.   The Book of Job could be the first noir story except that it ends too well, and Job was probably the oldest-written book of the Bible —  written about events that took place before the flood, around 1270 BC.


Catharsis, which roughly means a cluster of responses to powerful art that includes intellectual clarification, purgation and cleansing, first appears as a nonmedical term during the beginning of Greek tragedy.  British Scholar E.R. Dodds In “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex,”  wrote, “…what fascinates us is the spectacle of a man freely choosing, from the highest motives. a series of actions which lead to his own ruin…”


California noir writing and films drink deeply from an ancient literary river. The detective, the first literary anarcho-individualist after Oedipus, emerged as a cathartic response to the frightning changes in experience caused by the Industrial Revolution.


Charles Dickens pictured changes in English consciousness during the Industrial Revolution (About 1760 to some time between 1820 and 1840) through events in the life of Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” (1843), casting Scrooge  — “… a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” — as the incarnation of the great British capital engine that financed the Industrial Revolution.

Dickens’ Bleak House (1852) was one of the first detective novels to respond the anomie experienced by those who lived in the society transformed by the growth of cities.

In America, Edgar Allan Poe published “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) in the last decade of the revolutionary age in Europe and set it in a city associated with the excesses of revolution.   Through Poe, the detective took on a revolutionary edge that was to persist in 20th century California writing; right-wing misogynist Mickey Spillane, however, was to spin that edge around in his Mike Hammer novels and aim it back at the left in the late 1940s into the 1960s.

Poe associated the city with death, and he had good reason to do so.  Fire destroyed the heart of Manhattan three times.  In 1845, fire broke out in a whale oil store a block south of Wall Street and spread quickly.  Four firefighters and 26 civilians died in that fire.  Infectious diseases – cholera, yellow fever, typhus and tuberculosis plagued New York City since the Dutch Colonial era.


UCLA’s Professor Richard Lehan writes, “….Poe believed that the city contains a destructive force that causes a process of dissolution.  His city, whether it be a buried city of the distant past or nineteenth-century London or Paris, is inseparable from the inevitability of death.” Poe spent the last years of his life from 1846 to 1849 in a cottage, now located at Kingsbridge Road and the Grand Concourse in The Bronx (then on Kingsbridge Road east of Valentine Avenue).  He hoped the country air would help is wife-cousin Virginia’s tuberculosis.  She died in 1847.


The industrial revolution and the consequent growth of cities brought anonymity, social fragmentation, urban poverty, immigration and concern about crime.   The City of New York established the NYPD in 1844.  At the time, New York City’s population of 320,000 was served by a force consisting of one night watch, 200 city marshalls, 31 constables and 51 municipal police officers.


Americans dragged the Industrial Revolution and capitalist ideology honed to its sharpest edge into California during and after the Gold Rush.  Crime hung on the back of the American occupation, both the acceptable crime of taking the Mexican-owned land from the Mexicans, who had stolen it from the Indians in the first place, Robber Barons, lynchings and violence aimed at Chinese, Indian and the thefts from the public good of the resource exploiters and the expedience of political hanky panky, but  also unacceptable thefts and murders.


In Los Angeles, the homicide rate between 1847 and 1870 averaged 158 per 100,000, which was 10 to 20 times the annual murder rates for New York City during the same time.   Between 1851 and 1856, the San Francisco Vigilance Movement usurped local and state authority during the post-Gold Rush period.


Prohibition – a national ban on the sale, production and transportation of alcohol in place from 1920 to 1933 —  brought in the San Francisco crime family and gang wars by 1928.   Fiction went along for the ride.


Ur noir writing in California emerges in the 1920s in the Black Mask magazine stories from the cohabitation of anti-government and anarchistic and racist legal history, criminal gangs, the Great Depression, the supression of unions, and also from the human need of ordinary people to make sense of urban life and to arrive at a solution to mysteries.


A California subgenre of the detective novel —  “hardboiled detective fiction” —  begins with Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, who had both been Black Mask writers.  Their central anti-heroes are Philip Marlow and Sam Spade.


Noir film’s “classic period” during the 1940s and 1950s required adherence to the Motion Picture Production  Code – a set of industry moral censorship guidelines that governed the production of acceptable movie conduct, which opposed the libertine outlook of the 1920s and early 1930s. Consequently, fate must inevitably punish wrong-doers but became curiously morally ambiguous partly because of the Code’s constraints.


Even those locations purposely left uncertain – Criminal Investigator (1942) for example — were shot in Los Angeles.   The investigator in the movie is the son of a cop, a journalist, in an unnamed place that was actually the streets around, and including, the Vista (vintage) theater on Hillhurst.  The Vista and the area around it had been the location in the teens of the D. W. Griffith studios.  Griffith’s  Intolerance was shot on the site that is now a supermarket parking lot across the street from the Vista.



Kevin Starr, where he about hard-boiled fiction in his The Dream Endures, remarks that  Edmund Wilson found California literature during the 1930s pared down reality to an environment without social complexity – a theme later to be brought out  by the characters in Allison’s Lurie’s The Nowhere City (1965) – because California could never lose its unreality.  Its sun is empty.   Its stores are built like cats and dogs and frogs.  It faced “the vast void of Pacific space.”  That sounds right.   This is the backdrop of noir.   California is not real like other places are.  Life is experienced fast, superficially and tradition is an inch deep, especially in Los Angeles, the Noir capital of the world.


There is not much in the way of a class system in our state.  Maybe a little: rich people and not-rich people or fat people and not-fat people.    California’s unreality does not explain, however, why so many people like noir fiction and films.   The reason is that noir reaches deep into our ancient literary past and it also taps  emotional responses to what was happening in the 1930s and 1940s.


The classic period  noir period exposed new thematic veins: the bad girl and psychopathic behavior.   Both themes reflected changes in American life that were already evident in the 1930s:  the increasing success of women in the workplace; the Great Depression’s imminent plunge over the precipice into revolution and chaos only averted by New Deal socialist programs; and the horrors of World War II.


The Civilian Conservation Corp, the Public Works Administration, and the Works Progress Administration built dams, bridges, roads, restored forests, built the infrastructure for fighting forests and floods, created great art, recorded history, and provided jobs.


The nation’s first socially owned housing began under the Wagner-Steagall Act of 1937.   In 1939 alone, the federal government built 50,000 units of affordable housing.


From the spring of 1940, San Diego, Los Angeles and the Bay Area grew as centers of war mobilization and people from across the country streamed into California.   Congested war populations threatened to capsize local governments.  In late 1940, aspiring aircraft workers poured into San Diego, for instance, at the rate of 1,500 per week.   Families slept in their cars, in garages, in all-night cinemas, and in streetcars.


In 1940, Congress authorized the United States Housing Authority to build twenty public housing developments around factories manufacturing military goods.  The government ended New Deal programs for housing but began defense housing under the Defense Housing and Communities Facilities and Services Act of 1940, created to construct national defense public works, primarily housing, public health facilities, schools, childcare facilities and recreation for areas gearing up for war.


Californians lived in a state that, had there not been a war going on, or as Bob Hope said, “Hey, a fellow could get hurt,” was a socialist state in many ways.  The federal government subsidized child care and built defense housing with affordable rents.   The Kaiser shipyards worked with the federal government to put up housing fast and cheap in Richmond.  The aircraft industry developed humane work schedules for women and changed its tools to accommodate women’s smaller height and weaker upper body strength.   The ship building and the aircraft industries took care of health care for its workers.


At the end of the war, this socialist cushion was yanked from under California tushes.  We returned to the normal dog-eat-dog, woman isolated with the avocado appliances in her kitchen and bored to death at PTA meetings, no jobs for women, crappy public education, hatred of unions, hatred of various minority groups, hatred of Communists, no housing subsidies except for the very poor, not really health insurance except for the very poor, the old, and those lucky enough to get a health plan – the everyone for himself thrust into a cold universe world that was popularly perceived as real America, although it probably wasn’t.   There were always people with community feeling in this country, always volunteers ready to lend a hand or rush into a burning building to save a child.   We aren’t all that bad, but sometimes it felt that way.


The signal film in the bad girl vein was Double Indemnity (1944) directed by Billy Wilder.  Barbara Stanwyck  set the mold with her unforgettable femme fatale sociopath Phyllis Dietrichson.  A slew of noir bad girls followed, such as those played by Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946), and Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947).


As seen in films during this time, independent women were dangerous, amoral, promiscuous, liars, crazy and very very tempting.  Bad women were the presipice men wanted to fall over to enter joint madness.   Sometimes a good girl, or a bad girl with a heart of gold, joined in the madness either through innocence or through decent love for a charming psychopathic male or a man drawn towards darkness.  These films contributed to American ideology acceptance of the role of women as one limited to marriage and children.


During the war years, working class and middle class women entered the work force in order to support the war effort.  They raised their children, which the federal government helped them to do with subsidized child care, they grew victory gardens, they drove cars.  Their camaraderie passed through racial and ethnic lines.    After the war, the government eliminated child care support, and women moved out of cities to single family houses with washers and later dryers, vacuum cleaners, Ladies Home Journal, Pond’s cold cream, and sewing curtains.


Joan Crawford in Possessed (1947) was a good woman driven to madness and murder by her passion for a sociopathic man.  In Mildred Pierce (1945 – shot in Glendale), Crawford bridged the role of the good wife and the independent businesswoman but her daughter was a bad girl who destroyed her.  She was the best anarcho-individualist woman character in films, and she did not always have to die.  Sometimes she only went mad.


The pyschopath male in films was an outsider, an outlaw.  He dies horribly and alone, like James Cagney’s character in White Heat (1949).   Or shot.  Something awful always happens to him like getting burned up in an inferno.


The Great Depression, following on the heels of World War I, undermined the Horatio Alger myth – the notion that anyone could make it in America with enough hard work.  Twenty-five percent of Americans could not find any work at all during the Great Depression.  Many American soldiers died, and many returned psychologically and/or physically maimed.  Immigrants who fled to this country during the 1930s and 1940s did not forget the horrors of fascism in Europe.


American experience was so awful  for so many during and after the war that few people spoke about it.  It was not “the greatest generation.”  It was a maimed, disfigured and frightened generation that passed on its terror to its children but that also could play golf or tennis on Sundays in public parks and drive anywhere, including to drive-in restaurants and drive-in movies.


Kevin Starr, in his Embattled Dreams, writes about the hell people lived through.  He says that one psychiatrist feared “a condition of buried psychoneurosis in a large number of veterans, especially combat veterans, who might at first glance seem to be coping.”  Coping?  The City of Pasadena prohibited burned war victims from walking out in public because children might be harmed from seeing them.  Yet, right after this section, he skips a space and says, “Still, there was film noir to consider, with its mistrust of society, its themes of alienation and obsession, together with Hollywood’s continu8ng interest throught 1946 in themes of psychoneurosis, amnesia and false identity in such films as Crack Up, Somewhere in the Night …. And The Stranger ….”


It is not surprising that an inexplicable sense of terror underlies noir films just preceeding, during and after World War II.  Experience is existential, characters have limited or phony emotional responses, absolutely anything can happen, the plots don’t even make sense, motive is out the window, yet, in the end the author or screenwriter makes sense of it all and the audiences complete their cathartic experiences.


The anarcho-individualist hero, e.g., Philip Marlowe, doesn’t make much money, very rarely has sex if at all, and gets beaten up and drugged.  The anarcho-individualist villain, usually dies but sometimes only goes to prison for the rest of his life.

The Flitcraft parable in Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon may be the closest we can get to figuring out the characters’ motives.


Detective Sam Spade suspects that Brigid lies but accepts her case because she’s willing to pay more than the going rate and because she’s a real looker. Spade also accepts money from Cairo.   He is having an adulterous affair with his partner Miles’ wife.   He is fairly confident from the beginning – as revealed in the Flitcraft parable – that his client murdered Miles.  This anarcho-individualist walks the razor’s edge himself.


Flitcraft, a Tacoma businessman, left his office one day to have lunch and never came back.  He was happily married, had two young children, a thriving real estate business, owned his own home and had a Packard.


Spade was working for a large detective agency in Seattle when Mrs. Flitcraft hired the agency to investigate a man she’d seen in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband.


On the day he disappeared, Flitcraft had been going to lunch when he walked past a building site, and a seteel beam fell and hit the sidewalk so close that a chip from the sidewalk flew up and scratched his cheek.  Flitcraft “felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”   In sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step and not into step with life.”


So he left it, randomly, by simply going away.


Steven Marcus, in his 1974 essay, “Dashiell Hammett and the Continental Op,”  describes the Flitcraft tale as one that is “about among other things…the ethical irrationality of existence, the ethical unintelligibility of the world,” and that “life is inscrutable, opaque, irresponsible and arbitrary – that human existence does not correspond in its actuality to the way we lie it.”


The anarcho-individualist hero is a businessman.  He’s not real successful.  He doesn’t have a child or a pet.  He doesn’t go to church.  He probably does not vote.  He drinks too much.


“I was fired.  For insubordination.  I test very high on insubordination, General.”   Marlowe tells General Sternwood in The Big Sleep.  Arthur Gwynn Geiger, a rare book dealer who trafficks in upscale pornography, blackmails the general over a debt owed by Carmen Sternwood.


Marlow finds Eddy Mars, who runs a casino, inside Geiger’s empty house.


“Convenient….The door being open.  When you didn’t have a key.”

“Yes.  How come you had a key?”
“Is that any of your business, sodier?”

“I could make it my business.”

”And I could make your business my business.”

“You wouldn’t like it.  The pay’s too small.”


Carmen is morally bankrupt and mentally unstable.   Marlow comes home to find her naked in his bed.  He throws her out and then tears his bed apart in a frenzy because her corrupt little body had been in it.


James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity began as an eight-part serial in Liberty Magazine in 1936, first appearance in book Three of a Kind.  (1943)   It’s the story of insurance salesman Walter Neff who, in paying a call on a client one day, meets instead the client’s wife Phyllis Nirdlinger,  finds himself immediately attracted to her and guesses when she asks if he could take out an accident policy for her husband without his having to know that something fishy is going on.    “I couldn’t be mistaken about what she meant, not after fifteen years in the insurance business.  I mashed out my cigarette, so I could get up and go.  I ws going to get out of there, and drop those renewals and everything else about her like a red-hot poker.  But I didn’t do it….What I did was put my arm around her, puller her face up against mine, and kiss her on the mouth, hard.  I was trembling like a leaf.”


When Neff leaves he realizes he’s been “standing right on the deep end, looking over the ege” and that all the time he was “trying to pull away from it, there was something in him “that kept edging a little closer, trying to get a better look.”


Chandler co-authored the screenplay for the film Double Indemnity and changes it so that right off the bat you know that Neff is going to die because of his inexplicable lust, although later in the film you see that he really does not like Phyllis Nirdlinger – and who would in that George Washington-crosses-the-Potomac wig – but nothing could stop him.  He chose his fate without reason.




Karie Bible, Marc Wanamaker, and Harry Medved, Location Filming in Los Angeles (2010)(Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, South Carolina)


Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953)  (City Lights Bookstore, 2002).


James Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1936), Mildred Pierce (1941)


Raymond Chandler,  The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), The Lady in the Lake (1943), The Little Sister, (1949), The Long Goodbye (1953).


E.R. Dodds “On Misunderstanding the ‘Oedipus Rex,” Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol 13, No. 1 (April 1966), pp 37-49, published by Cambridge University Press.


Dahsiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (1929, Knopf).


John T. Irwin, Unless the Threat of Death is Behind Them (2006) The John Hopkins University Press.


Richard Lehan, The City in Literature (1998), The University of California Press.


Otto Penzler, editor, The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (Vintage Books 2010).


Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, editors, Film Noir (Third addition 1992, The Overlook Press)


Kevin Starr, Embattled Dreams (2002, Oxford University Press)


Kevin Starr, Endangered Dreams  (1996, Oxford University Press)


Kevin Starr, The Dream Endures (1997, Oxford University Press)


Elizabeth Ward and Alain Silver, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles (The Overlook Press 1987)


Richard Weiss, The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale (Illini Books edition, 1988).


See:  Criss-Cross (1949), D.O.A. (1950), Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Murder, My Sweet, Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1948), The Big Sleep (1946), The Long Good-bye (1973), The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Turning Point (1952)


Visit:  Biltmore Hotel, observation deck of City Hall, Union Station, Angel’s Flight, the Bradbury Building

Dashiel Hammett tour of San Francisco

Raymond Chandler tour of Los Angeles

James M. Cain tour of Los Angeles








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