Film Noir: The Stuff American Dreams are Made Of

by Mark Hagen

The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of

Though a twentieth century cinematic genre, the antecedents of Film Noir surely go back to when humanity first organized social structures to be corrupted. The Greek tragedy Oedipus uses the vocabulary of Film Noir as it applies to the family. The hard-boiled detective has been characterized as a white knight whose code of honour is his only armour against medieval dragons. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is all about street gangs and the perversion of children's desires to parental politics. Shylock, from the Merchant of Venice, remains street short-hand for loan-shark.

For Sam Spade, Dashiel Hammett's prototypical detective in the Maltese Falcon (see video trailer), the black bird was "the stuff that dreams are made of" (video trailer). Revealed in the end to be enamelled lead, the objet d'art was a metaphor for corruption, obsession and self-destruction in the pursuit of material reward. As portrayed by Humphrey Bogart, Spade became the icon of manhood: independent, aloof, maintaining a personal code of honour in a world of deceit and corruption. The iconography was later parodied in Woody Allen's Play It Again Sam.

The Big Sleep

Film Noir is a popular cinematic genre usually used to depict urban gangsters and corruption. Very popular in the 1940's the genre employed high-contrast photography when most Hollywood movies were filmed in black and white. Film Noir grew out of the then relatively new American hard-boiled sub-genre of mystery fiction. Though black and white has given way to colour (with notable exceptions), the genre is still often marked by highly stylized photographic techniques and populated by street-wise characters. Classics include The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep (see video trailer), The Godfather series, Chinatown, Blue Velvet, L.A. Confidential, and Sin City (view film trailer).

The title The Big Sleep is a metaphor for death itself. Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum played Philip Marlowe in two movies based upon the novel by Raymond Chandler, an admitted admirer of Dashiel Hammett. The private eye (is there a better metaphor for the dream?) investigates murder as a by-product of sexual obsession, pornography and drug taking, resulting from family breakdown. Chandler wrote a number of similar novels with Marlowe as protagonist, others also made into movies investigating the seamy underworld of urban L.A. Hammett's Sam Spade, and Chandler's Marlowe are prototypes for the modern, hard-boiled detective.

Forget it Jake's Chinatown

Written by Robert Towne, Chinatown (see video trailer) is often cited as the most perfect script for any Hollywood movie. Chinatown is metaphor for the nightmare of urban Los Angeles where you may think you know what is happening, but really have no idea; where the police do as little as possible because attempts to install order can only make things worse. Jack Nicholson is detective Jake Gittes, tricked into an investigation that reveals family breakdown, political corruption and unbridled ambition not just as part of the urban landscape, but as the foundations of the modern city.

Released in 1974, the movie was directed by Roman Polanski, known for maintaining tight control over production and scripts. He also appeared in the movie as a vicious and eccentric hoodlum. In 1969, Sharon Tate, Polanski's wife, and their unborn child were murdered by disciples of the messianic Charles Manson, themselves prototypically gormless runaways ripe to fall under the influence of a paranoid, violent salvationist. In 1979, Polanski left the United States, rather than face charges of sexual interference with a thirteen-year-old girl.

Corruption and Codes of Honor

James Ellroy's detective heroes are lone-wolves in the mould of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, but their codes of honour are severely compromised by their own ambitions and the violent sexual obsessions, criminalities, and perversions they are sent to investigate. Set in 1950's L.A., the 1990 book and 1997 movie add the obsession with fame, the lure of the Hollywood spotlight, to the genre's list of classic corruptions. This is the hallmark compulsion of the late twentieth century, an egocentric need to be seen in pop culture media, however briefly, as a verification of existence and personal worth.

There is no part of Ellroy's stories, no part of his city, that is untouched by the perversion of power. A rogue band of cops solve crime, but nothing changes. Society and its authorities do not attempt to understand the root causes of the relentless and pervasive corruption of the human spirit. Cops are only equipped to treat the symptoms of a disease to which they themselves are particularly vulnerable. So they pursue their own agendas, and yet some part of them persists in the need to solve the horrific mass murder at the heart of L.A. Confidential (see video clip).

Blue Velvet -or- In American Dream's

Voted by critics as one of the best American films of the 1980's, David Lynch's Blue Velvet (see video clip) is a visual dream of the dark side of humanity. Most sequences take place at night, are darkly lit and depict scenes of inexplicable violence and obsessive sexuality that seem to have no context. The viewpoint is different from other Film Noir classics. It is set in anytown, any community, not the prototypically corrupt Los Angeles. In fact, the environment appears more suburban small town. The investigator is neither a professional detective, nor an innocent inadvertently caught up in surrounding evil. He is an average youth, an everyman, distracted from pursuit of the middle-class dream, to the hidden night world by his own inherent fascination, an obsession to witness sexual perversion, violence and death. City police are said to be investigating the crime, but they are only an active force in the movie in response to the protagonist's exploration of the decay that touches their own department.

Cops are the link between the superficial good life of the American Dream, and the dark obsessions it engenders. The lead character wavers between light, as represented by a budding romance with the police detective's blond daughter, and dark as represented by the raven-haired victim of sexual assault who turns to him for help and satisfaction. Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell do star turns as personifications of evil and indifference that are clearly more alluring than Laura Dern's deliberately underplayed portrayal of the high school sweetheart. From a popular music perspective Roy Orbison's In Dreams is reworked to fit the dark landscape of the film.

Characteristics of the Hard Boiled

Film Noir is the popular representation of Hemingway's literary style and, to some extent, his definition of the ideal American male, a man of few words and decisive, but ineffectual action. The world cannot be changed, so a man must remain independent to maintain an honourable code of behaviour.

Of all literary genres, the hard-boiled mystery and Film Noir come closest to replicating individual dreams on the communal dreamscreen. The mechanics of darkness, night, and visual detachment loom large in both theatres. In both theatres, the dreamer or movie-goer watches as events unfold. This is the genre most likely to encounter drug-besotted characters wandering through its plots in dream-like states, barely in control of themselves, let alone their environment. Themes of corruption, unleashed sexuality, and obsession show up regularly in people's dreams and on Film Noir movie screens. Dreams and dreaming are frequently mentioned in the dialogue of the genre. Film Noir is the dark side of the communal dreamscreen, providing a perspective by which we can read the pathological aspects of popular culture. For Hollywood, it is the American Dream gone wrong.

American hard-boiled detective fiction and Film Noir share a basic narrative structure with the British cosy from which it derived. The private eye or investigative hero searches for truth or the solution to a crime through a sequence of interviews with suspects and witnesses who make up a puzzle, or case, to be solved. Solving the case is the only badge of honour that the hero needs. But the sub-genre differs from it's British antecedent in style and tone. These are not drawing-room games in which readers comfortably confront then chuckle at death. The hard-boiled detective recognizes that societal problems are inherently linked to the corruption of individuals, and vice versa. In Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer stories (Harper in the two movies that starred Paul Newman in the title role), the despoiled Southern California landscape is a consequence of repressed familial failures that go back generations. In Chinatown, the same side stepping of rules that led to perverse familial relationships also built the water irrigation ditches that allowed for the growth of modern Los Angeles. But more than that is implied. Corruption is built into the system of decision-making, the body politic that is the foundation for the civic structure that produced the Rodney King beatings (watch video) and Mark Furman investigations, and has degraded the surrounding environment.

Censorship of the Truth

French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau felt that the public had contracted an epidemic of mental and moral jaundice that left it blind. Jacques Lacan believed that the motor of social problems was repression of the truth, resulting in deception and, for individuals, self-destruction. Freud described the dream as the place where repressed human emotions are revealed, made transparent.

These arguments are representations of the principal of binary opposition (repression versus expression), a theme which is repeated throughout Film Noir. The genre's basis is a simplistic struggle of good versus evil that parallels the myth of the good knight. The detective is a lone warrior with a rigid code of honour. He rescues alluring damsels from dragons that possess mysterious, dark, formidable powers.

Film Noir circumvents the dominant narrative of legitimate social reality and exposes the dark side of society to the prurient, sensationalistic, voyeuristic gaze of an intrusive public. Private, criminal matters are revealed, creating an atmosphere of scandal. The dramatic energy of stories in the genre is provided by the attempts of criminals and corrupt officials to cover-up their crimes from the prying eyes of the detective protagonist, who stands in for the audience. Film Noir is the communal dreamscreen where the dark side of western culture is made visible in the denouement.

Film Noir and the City of Angels

Los Angeles, represented in Film Noir as the prototypically corrupted modern American city, is also the home of Hollywood, the dream factory that created Film Noir transparency. It simultaneously provides insight into the darkness of the human soul, and is the object of society's fascination with visualizations of sex and violence, as depicted in Blue Velvet. As Film Noir reveals the sources and patterns of corruption, it is the ultimate realization of the obsession with stardom, the need to be seen, as revealed in L.A. Confidential. When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.

Film Noir and hard-boiled fiction are male genres. Women have only recently been cast as protagonists, and they remain notable exceptions. The detective is an unattached male who uses women, but must avoid their attempts to use him, to take advantage of his sexual weakness. Women are desirable and attractive, but deceptive, conniving and not to be trusted. Classic detective stories begin with the entrance of a beautifully fetishistic woman. As Chandler wrote: "It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window."

The Private Eye -or- Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

In 1975, Laura Mulvey introduced her feminist film theory of human "gaze", that argued in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema that women are stereotyped by men and in typically male ways of looking. Women are often seen and not heard. In recent years, social scientists have become more aware of the importance of visual representation of and in everyday life. Of course, gaze, looking, is much of what cinema is about. Mulvey noted that cinema largely reinforced the dominant patriarchal order by repeating the dominant male narrative in its stories. She believed this could only lead to the male unconscious becoming fixated on Film Noir as an avenue of escape from the anxieties generated by this social order.

The gaze is an integral and definitive part of the Film Noir genre. Waiting and watching, the stake-out scene, is de rigueur. The watchful activities of the protagonist, frequently a private investigator, or Private Eye, are usually seen as benevolent. He is sometimes known as a Transom Peeper, reduced Peeper by air conditioning.

Alternatively, the "Evil Eye" is an archetypal malevolent force, the power to harm with a look or glance. It is the gaze imbued with hostility, frequently connected with envy. According to the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, envy and jealousy provide the foundations for a self defined in opposition to others. The gazer who uses the Evil Eye is intent upon success, not through the merit of achievement, but through destruction of perceived competitors. Motivation for the gaze is more muddled and complex in the genre offshoot of spy fiction where the watcher is frequently the protagonist's own government, or a secret power elite lurking within.

Ideologies of Patriarchy and Capitalism

Patriarchy prescribes repression of male anxieties over women into the unconscious as if this were a cure. Instead, repression leads into a vicious circle of misogyny, transgenerationally reproduced. Anxiety does not go away when repressed, but returns in dark, disguised forms leading to repetition of compulsive symptoms and increased anxiety throughout the history in the body politic.

The male dominated political and economic belief system has developed historical rules for gender perception and its socialization by dictating how the gender separation-individualization process is shaped. Western society reflects the disintegration of love and the violent use of power to force and coerce the masses into submission, conformity and consensus.

In her 1995 article on Raymond Chandler for The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates observed: "Sigmund Freud's Studies in Hysteria is the classic model of a popular modern genre, the 'case study,' which purports to be a retrospective analysis of some species of pathology in which the physician is the detective and the patient is the victim, the one usually male and the other frequently female, or a male somehow emasculated."

Patriarchy and capitalism are primarily reproduced by the codes of speech and language that have an ideology built into their grammatical system of categories and rules. This language ideology shapes perception, attention and thought, and generates the construction of social reality. Hard-boiled detective fiction and Film Noir are marked by the use of a clipped, no-nonsense style of language frequently described as masculine. It glosses over details to get at what is anticipated as the point. In the genre, the protagonist must frequently return to the source, the beautiful woman, for the nuances of truth that she has been telling all along. The genre also uses a style of speech and colourful similes so distinctive that they are regularly parodied in popular culture. This is the language of the street, of an underclass that must keep on the move to avoid being victimized. It is where language is invented on the run.

Betrayal of the Child

The repression of the dream; opacity in the body politic and the corruption it hides; and the perversion of human impulses all result in betrayal of the child. Censorship from public vision and hearing produces a blindness and deafness that has estranged, alienated and depersonalized us from our authentic, creative selves, and our natural environment. It has gone on for generations, these patterns of repression imposed by dominant narratives that victimize and re-victimize victims. Private detective Jake Gittes' final failure in Chinatown is to protect a childlike young woman from the man who is both her father and her grandfather, and now that she is sexually mature, will be her guardian and probable lover. And we know that if this child, traumatized and unable to cope, eventually escapes, runs away into the society built by her guardian's corruption, she will eventually be punished for prostitution, drug dependency or vagrancy, while her parent remains a respected pillar of the community.

Achieving Power

Achievement motivation is a primary influence of the Dream and the Language of Self. David McClelland's The Achieving Society measured achievement motivation by analyzing respondents' narratives. He found individuals in western society to be driven by the need to achieve society's goals of success. Their performance is motivated by the need for a positive self-image as defined by society, and the fear of failure. The Success Proposition formulated by George Homans is based upon the learning principle of operant conditioning that rewarded behaviours are most likely to be repeated. The more valuable the result of the behaviour the more likely the performance will be repeated. Conversely, the less valuable the performance the less likely it will be repeated. When individuals' expectations of reward are defeated, or not reinforced, they will become angry and more likely turn to aggressive behaviour. If the aggressive behaviour produces a reward, it will be reinforced and becomes a highly valued tool to achieve success.

A social system that rewards the achievement of power through comparison and competition is predisposed to failure. A class system produces winners and losers, no matter how class is defined or how fluid the movement between strata. The middle ground in the struggle for success is a vast sea of longing and dissatisfaction.

The battle of good versus evil is corrupted by the struggle for success versus failure. If only a few can win wealth and status, and illegitimate means are seen as being as effective, or more effective, than legitimate means, the system is inevitably corrupted. As Mario Puzzo's Godfather Michael Corleone discovers, there is no escape from corruption once power is achieved through illegitimate means, whatever the intentions. A society that rewards ruthless ambition is itself corrupt. The only true reward in such a society is a dominant position in the struggle to retain power among other corrupt elites.

Traditional models of justice are based upon the separation of good and evil. Most of us are good, by and large; only a few are truly evil. Evil can be identified, isolated and punished into submission, leaving the good free to pursue life unhindered. This pattern is inherent in the courts of western societies and their approach to international affairs. Yet it has not stopped evil. "Why won't they learn?" good people constantly ask.

This process demands opacity. Individuals and groups must hide any impulses or actions for which they are likely to be punished if they hope to succeed in pursuit of the American Dream. They must deny their inherent fascinations with sex and violence, repress the all too human predilections toward obsessive/compulsive behaviour, and distance themselves from the potential for corruption that rests within their own nature. It is the opposite of Christian theology based upon the admission and forgiveness of sin as a pre-requisite to hope.

Film Noir inherently understands the circular, intergenerational nature of corruption breeding frustration breeding corruption, that reinforces this failure to develop successful societal coping mechanisms. It is a communal dreamscreen, much like the individual dream where the pattern is revealed. The first step toward Restoration of the Dream (read IIDR article) is transparency. To resolve social problems we need first to understand their nature, see clearly how they arise and the consequences when pressures are brought to bear.

Film Noir Bibliography;

Berke, Joseph H. The Tyranny of Malice: Exploring the Dark Side of Character and Culture. New York: Summits Books, 1988.
Birney, Robert (ed.) Fear of Failure. New York: VanNostrand Co, 1969.
Britton, Andrew (ed.) American Nightmare. Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979.
Boorstin, Daniel J. The Image or What Happened to the American Dream. New York: Anthencum, 1961.
Cowie, Elizabeth. Representing the Woman: Cinema and Psychoanalysis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989.
Foucault, Michel. Sheridan, Alan (trans.) Discipline and Punishment: Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage, 1977.
Hirsch, Foster. Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen. New: A Da Capo, 1981.
Madden, David. American Dreams, American Nightmares. London: Teffer & Simmons Inc, 1970.
Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in 20th Century French Thought. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.
Klein, Melanie. Envy and Gratitude. C.W., vol 3. London: The Hogarth Press, 1975.
McClelland, David C. The Achieving Society. Princeton: VanNostrand. 1961.
Metz, Christian. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema.
Miller, Alice. Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Societies Betrayal of the Child. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1984.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, in The Sexual Subject: A screen Reader in Sexuality. London: Routledge, 1992.
Shadoian, Jack. Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film. Boston: MIT Press, 1977.
Stratton, Jon. The Desireable Body: Cultural Fetishism and the Erotics of Consumption. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.
Telotte, J.P. Voices in the Dark: Narrative Patterns of Film Noir. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Williams, Roger Lawrence. Horror of Life. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980.


All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.