Reflections on the nature of Film Noir

With reference to Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon and Dirty Harry


A video presentation of this material is available here.


Recently, I sought the definition of the term "film noir" in Google and found the following in a post from Oxford Languages, "a style of film marked by pessimism, fatalism and menace", while in Wikipedia the film noir article starts with "a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood dramas, particularly those that emphasise cynical attitudes and motivations", and this article goes on to outline a variety of problems in providing a definition with any degree of precision.

After looking through a few more attempts to characterise film noir, I couldn't help but feel that while the descriptions I read offered insight into the tone, atmosphere and even the format or structure of films noirs, an element was missing - something that offered insight into their purpose or their raison d'etre.

In my mind, I have always associated film noir, or at least what I regard as its most engaging and reflective examples, with existentialism and its fundamental premise and challenge that God and morality do not necessarily exist and therefore we are free, though that very freedom implies responsibility toward others when our actions have an impact on their lives.

A classic film noir will, in my opinion, contain elements of challenge to the traditional or accepted view of morality or moral conduct, and will explore the consequences, in terms of the effects of action on characters and on society, of such a challenge.

This will frequently involve an amoral character attempting to advance his or her cause by involving or influencing another who is apparently a normally upstanding citizen, but who may be open to suggestion or corruption, while a figure of authority or principle will also be present to remind us of social convention and to allow the audience to draw a comparison.

Of course, not all films noirs will follow the same pattern and many variations are possible.

Another fairly common means of exploring the implications of existential freedom in society was to involve private detectives, often presented as apparently morally neutral characters driven not by ambition or greed, but by a desire to seek truth. They demonstrate an understanding of human nature and the workings of the mind and they may err from strict observation of laws and social niceties while dealing with both the moral and the amoral in order to get by and make ends meet, allowing the audience to gain insight into the machinations of a world seemingly without natural order or justice.

A third possible solution to the problem posed by existential freedom is to apply the maxim "treat others as you would expect to be treated yourself", potentially bringing characters into conflict with society's laws and raising the question of justice and freedom within society.

To illustrate my points, I will refer to three films.

The first is an example of "pure" film noir in which we, the audience, gain insight into the workings of the moral challenger's mind and how she manipulates events and people to advance her cause, and the effect she has on the lives of others. Her actions may initially be presented in an almost positive or sympathetic light, promoting our understanding and engagement, but this will ultimately contribute to our outrage as we eventually become aware of the extent of her manipulation and devious contrivance at the expense of others' lives and freedom.

In "Double Indemnity", Phyllis Dietrichson is an amoral and calculating opportunist who inveigles her way into a family, bringing manipulation and death for her own advantage. To help advance her plans for physical and financial independence from her previously widowed husband she involves insurance salesman Walter Neff, a relatively ordinary fellow whose base desires and confidence leave him open to temptation and emotional manipulation. Phyllis applies a combination of seduction and emotional blackmail to gain Walter's sympathy and co-operation to do away with Mr Dietrichson - she even manages to manipulate him into proposing and planning Dietrichson's murder.

All this is laid out in a vaguely reasonable and compassionate way and although we may not approve of the action to be undertaken, Mr Dietrichson is presented as fairly unpleasant and Phyllis's plight appears genuine, so her plan appears almost defensible.

It is only after we discover a few pertinent but carefully undisclosed facts that we realise that we, just like Walter, have been misled and deceived by the devious and singularly determined Phyllis.

However, Walter has abandoned principle and morality in favour of sexual and emotional indulgence with Phyllis. He has committed murder for her benefit and indirectly for his own and as a result he enters the world of amorality in which, with no foundations of truth or honesty, he loses all trust and gains paranoia.

Neff was a sort of everyman out for himself but operating within certain limits. However, his involvement with the deceitful and conniving Phyllis has plunged him into a dark, murky world without clarity, dependability or boundaries.

In the aftermath of the murder, he comes to understand there are consequences for others of his obsessive feelings and self-centred actions, and lies and deceit beget ever more mind-bending deceptions and duplicity. When he realises the chain of events he initiated for selfish reasons is spiralling ever further out of his control and he may even become Phyllis's next victim, he comes clean to his straight-as-they-come colleague, Barton Keyes.

Keyes clearly represents traditional legal and perhaps moral standards, though it is interesting to note that he is an insurance claim investigator and not an officer of the law, and so his primary concern is not so much morality in itself but the saving of money for his employer. Perhaps even traditional morality is not quite as straightforward as it might appear...

The perfect embodiment of an apparently neutral but curious private detective, willing to deal with the moral and the amoral while investigating and clarifying a situation, is one of the most admired and influential - Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon".

Sam Spade is a survivor who keeps his head above water in a sea of amoral goings-on. To make ends meet, he digs into other people's problems and situations (as his highly appropriate surname suggests) without real involvement or personal responsibility, to reveal truth or unravel a twisted tale. He is good at his work because he is intelligent and curious.

Once again, we witness attempted manipulation and distortion of facts by several characters through repeated and varied lies and deceit, all in an attempt to advance their cause at the expense of others and at the expense of truth, principle and honesty. Indeed, at one point Brigid, Spade's client, even states she can no longer tell truth from fiction.

Morality and principle do not exist and most of the characters on display are simply out for themselves as they pursue easy wealth and fortune rather than pursuing worthwhile lives. Their greed and obsession have blinded them to moral and social values to the extent that Spade's partner, Archer, is killed merely as a ploy in the game to find the invaluable Maltese Falcon.

Sam Spade, however, plays these people at their own game as he applies his wily intelligence to manipulate people and events in an effort to uncover the truth. Not just, as we are led to believe, to find the Falcon and earn a share of its worth, but to discover the identity of his partner's killer.

Spade is no saint - he has had a casual affair with his partner's wife, among other things - but he is no great sinner either as he discovers loyalty, depth and principles he may not have realised he had in him but which niggle away at him in the background. He has played the game of social interaction and investigation while maintaining a certain personal detachment and has become disillusioned with his clients' humanity and society's values, but when he is put to the test, a deep-seated code of conduct is triggered by the death of his partner. He tries to be glib and hide his emotions by seemingly being unfeeling and pitching in with these pursuers of fortune, or referring to how he is supposed or expected to react to the loss of his partner, but he invests himself fully in the investigation and goes through a lot, including quite a beating, all in the name of justice for his partner.

Events may have brought out the best in him, but on the way, he has fallen in love with the guilty Brigid, and apparently, she with him. However, Sam has learned not to concede to emotion and desire - that is a route to potential existential disaster. He recognises that indulgence of his feelings for Brigid would leave him open to distrust, blackmail and corruption and that she, and she alone, must take responsibility for her action in killing Archer while he must maintain his freedom to continue his life as he sees fit by denouncing Brigid to the authorities. He accepts this will cause him great pain, given his genuine feelings for her, but he consoles himself with the existential reasoning that his pain will pass with the passage of time.

In the end, it transpires that the Falcon they have managed to acquire is a fake and so, still consumed by greed and obsession, Gutman and Cairo set off to repeat the cycle of criminality in pursuit of ill-gotten gains, perhaps suggesting mankind will forever indulge in this type of conduct and we must all be wary in our dealings with people and careful in our choice of the code by which we live.

In "Dirty Harry", society is presented as drifting toward decay due, in part, to what may seem like indulgence of freedom and a sense of entitlement, and avoidance of responsibility toward ourselves and one another.

In practical terms, law and order also seems to be failing as the legal and enforcement agencies seem riddled with careerism and focus seems to be set on technicalities and precision of wording rather than the spirit and purpose of the law.

It is within this general context of laissez-faire that we are introduced to the film's antagonist, Scorpio. We are given scant information on his background and motivation and are therefore encouraged to judge him by his actions which indicate he is a self-indulgent killer of random victims who shows no pity or remorse.

Investigating officer Inspector Harry Callahan appears to be something of an anachronism. He is held in some disregard by his superiors as they accuse him of frequently failing to apply politically correct departmental policies when dealing with cases. He is virtually accused of behaving like a vigilante, but it is essential to note he does not mete out his own brand of justice - he works within the law but he treats suspects as they treat others and he will shoot, but only if he is under threat. He appears to embody the maxim, "treat others as you would like to be treated", a philosophy Clint Eastwood explored further in "High Plains Drifter".

"Dirty Harry" is often referred to as an example of neo-noir, that is to say it shows characteristics of a classic film noir but updated to modern times. However, it strikes me there is a substantial difference, indeed I would say the moral conundrum is almost reversed.

In "Dirty Harry", society is being challenged, but from within - clear moral direction is missing, perhaps even leading to the evolution of antagonists such as Scorpio, and Harry Callahan, far from being a figure of reactionary evil, is presented as a principled and practical saviour willing to use the antagonists' own methods against them in order to defend society.

It is interesting to note that at the end of the film Harry throws away his official badge of office, perhaps rejecting a perceived weak or ineffective system of justice, but perhaps also suggesting principled action in the face of moral adversity is a matter of personal choice...

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie (