The Dark City: Noir Then and Now

I don’t know when noir happened to me.  Perhaps I got my first stirrings from my paternal grandfather’s insistence that I watch the early and eerie Universal Studios monster movies with him.  The fog, the dark villages, the cursed man alone in his plight–these were the precursors for my love of the fatalistic and dangerous cities of 1940s and 1950s film.

These films seem to embody everything that I love about cinema.  Although there are several subcategories within noir films, most of them contain several key elements: an ordinary man who’s life takes a wrong turn through an immoral act or chance, a beautiful and often dangerous woman, the disparity between the desperation of the poor and the desperation of the wealthy, the crumbling barrier between “everyday life” and the underworld, and a bleak fatalism.

What isn’t to love?  Noir had a short lifespan, perhaps only ten years.  Although there are earlier depictions, many would say noir started at the end of World War II and died as people moved to the suburbs around 1955.  Television transformed noir into pulpy crime dramas.  The dark city underwent the Big Sleep.

I didn’t come to really appreciate noir until my thirties.  (Yes, I am older than 29.)  I began to enjoy the movies I grew up viewing on afternoon television when I read the books that had inspired them.  Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Ring’s Twice, and of course Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

Any book that begins with:
“It was about eleven o’clock in the midmorning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.  I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blew clocks on them.  I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.  I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be.  I was calling on four million dollars.” has me for good.

As a poet, I wondered how I could incorporate the things that I loved about noir into my own writing.  And then the dreams began… 

In the year before I started graduate school, I began to have dreams with strange narratives that were akin to David Lynch films.  Never able to recall entire story lines,  images, emotions and words managed to stay with me throughout the day.  I decided that I would try to use prose poems to capture the them.  What followed were my “Carbonite Dream” series of prose poems.  Some of them based on dreams and others on the world around me.  You can some of them here and a few more over here.

Noir continues to fascinate me.  I look forward to reading and watching the classics and modern twists on the genre.  Two recent books have delighted me with their adaptation of classic noir themes. 

The first is Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim urban fantasy novel.  Modern day Los Angeles is the setting for the story in which the main character literally crawls out of hell to exact revenge.  Hard boiled doesn’t even begin to the wonderful dialogue Kadrey brings to the page. 

The second book is Kris Saknussemm’s Private Midnight.  The book is darker and far more sexual than Kadrey’s.  It was a challenging and uncomfortable ride through what the flap describes as “a psychoerotic noir fairytale.”  I don’t know if that is an accurate description.  I argued with this book aloud.  “Did that happen or not!” The ending satisfied me, but it was hard to get there.

Noir hasn’t finished with us yet, and I for one am glad of it.

Posted in Dashiell Hammett, film, genre fiction, james m. cain, Kris Sanussemm, noir, raymond chandler, Richard Kadrey, universal studios.

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