As you can see in the "Movies" section of this blog, I've been happily commenting on various films as examples of film noir. In doing so, I've relied on Otto Penzler's definition.
Now I learn there's more to it than that---much more. In the table of contents for the Wikipedia article on film noir, the first item is "Problems of definition." It turns out there are so many problems, and they are so complicated, that, "There is no consensus on the matter."
Yet the article tells us that in film noir the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. Penzler says essentially the same, and this article refers to Roger Ebert's description, "A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending."
All this sounds depressing, yet film noir (and neo-noir such as Chinatown, Raging Bull, Basic Instinct, Body Heat, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Training Day and many more) remain popular for the same reason tragedy has always been popular (Oedipus the King, Hamlet, A Doll's House, Death of a Salesman).
We hope that Good conquers Evil and that Love is the answer, but we know those statements are are not always true. Too often in life a force greater than ourselves overwhelms our best efforts. The Greeks called it fate. The twentieth century called it socio-economic conditions.
We watch a play or a movie about an imperfect man or woman who struggles for happiness, knowing all the while they will lose. We suffer with them as they fight the good fight. When they lose, we experience a purgation of fear and pity, which Aristotle called catharsis. And we feel better.
As with so many of my favorites, I saw the movie before I read the book. I came away wondering, "Why is it called The Postman Always Rings Twice?" There is no postman in the story (book or movie). We don't hear anyone ring twice, and no one mentions a postman ringing twice.
Wikipedia has an interesting article on this title. In the preface to another of his classics, Double Indemnity, James M. Cain said this title came from a conversation with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence, who grew so anxious about his manuscripts being returned he would leave the house when the postman was due, causing the postman to ring twice.
That may explain the origin of the title, but it doesn't explain why Cain adopted it as the title of the book.
The article suggests three other possible explanations for the title. I don't find any of them persuasive because each would assume the reader (or viewer) had some specialized knowledge of events or ideas not contained in the story. That's a lot to ask.
For me, the title works because it is senseless. Like naturalistic classics by Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, and others, noir stories suggest our actions are determined by our circumstances. If so, what we do has no more meaning than the wind blowing or a river running.
Why should a title make sense?
I've been reading a lot of Jim Thompson lately. Perhaps I should be worried. Most people I know say his books are too dark.
Which brings us to the subject of noir. In the 1930s the French word for black was used to describe black-and-white films in which there's more black on the screen than white. Since then noir has come to describe a type of story, as Otto Penzler explains in his Foreword to Best American Noir of the Century:
"Noir works, whether films, novels, or short stories are existential, pessimistic tales about people . . . who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
Noir comes out of the early twentieth century, which also saw the rise of the social sciences: anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, etc. These sciences said, "If you want to understand human beings, study their circumstances."
The early twentieth century also saw the rise of the naturalistic novel in which characters struggle with their circumstances as well as with each other. Jack London's stories aren't so much man against nature as man subject to nature. In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair writes about working conditions in the meat-packing industry. In Native Son, Richard Wright shows how crime grows out social conditions.
The naturalistic novel asks the reader, "How well would you fare in these circumstances?" I see noir as a sub-species in which the answer is, "Not very well." This prompts compassion.
A lot of people don't like the idea that we are a product of our circumstances, but to some degree we are. To think otherwise is false pride, the kind that goeth before a fall.
Thompson's books are noir but reading them does not depress me. I feel compassion for his characters.
Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith were geniuses at making the bad guy the hero. They didn't invent the idea. For instance, Shakespeare gave us a heroic villain in Richard III. But Highsmith and Thompson created an American art form based on following the bad guy instead of the good guy. Their work carries on today with books like Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, in which, as many have pointed out, every character is a scoundrel.
They seem to have accomplished this almost simultaneously. Thompson published his first suspense novel in 1949; Highsmith published hers in 1950. Thompson published arguably his greatest work, The Killer Inside Me, in 1952; Highsmith published hers, The Talented Mr. Ripley, in 1955.
Their careers ran parallel in several ways. He published twenty-five novels; she published 22. Both of them saw many adaptations for film and television, and their stories continue to be adapted to this day, although Highsmith had notably better luck in her lifetime, beginning with her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's classic film of the same title.
Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921 and grew up there. At that time, Thompson, lived in Fort Worth, working odd jobs, selling his first stories, and gathering experiences that would turn up in his novels.
But for all that, they seem to have been unaware of each other. Andrew Wilson's biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadows, makes no mention of Thompson; Michael J. MacCauley's biography of Thompson, Sleep with the Devil, makes no mention of Highsmith.
Their careers also differ in several ways. Highsmith methodically published a novel about every other year throughout her adult life. Thompson published almost half his novels in just three years: two in 1952, five in 1953, and five in 1954. His biographer, MacCauley, notes these were essentially the only years of his life when he was sober.
The most important difference between them was the point of view they used in their novels. Highsmith wrote in the third person, thus referring to the hero-bad-guy as "he," and she had a good reason for doing so: "I have quite a bit of introspection in my heroes, and to write all this in the first person makes them sound like nasty schemers, which of course they are, but they seem less so if some all-knowing author is telling what is going on in their heads."
Apparently Thompson wasn't concerned what his bad-guys sounded like. He wrote in the first person, referring to the hero as "I." Here's a bit of introspection from Nick Corey the hero of Pop. 1280, recalling why his father beat him, "The fact was, I guess, that he just couldn't stand for me to be any good. If I was any good, then I couldn't be the low-down monster that had killed my own mother in getting born. And I had to be that. He had to have someone to blame."
The Talented Mr. Ripley was my introduction to stories in which we root for the bad guy. I may have read the book before seeing the 1996 film version by Anthony Minghella, with Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwynneth Paltrow, and Philip Seymour Hoffman among others. Either way it was an eye-opener.
Patricia Highsmith's hero, Tom Ripley, seems an ordinary man, just getting by in life, though he does so by running petty scams. In the course of the story he progresses to greater crimes and reaps greater rewards. I admit I was delighted to see it all work out for him. When I shared that with a friend, he said, "No, that movie was a little too dark for me."
Why would we hope he succeeds? Whenever I have encountered grifters and con artists in real life, I have loathed them.
Matt Bird, in The Secrets of Story, says an audience will empathize with any character who is making decisions, doing something difficult, and having to improvise. His prime example is the second half of Hitchcock's Psycho.
So perhaps it's not so much that we are rooting for the bad guy, but rather that we empathize. And maybe we wonder what it would be like to take whatever we want without being bothered by feelings of guilt. But, of course, we would never do that.