Recently I spoke at Hillsdale College on film noir as part of a program that introduced audiences to four of the most impressive movies in the genre that defined the tough detective in America and the less popular type of doomed romantic. The two together present the greatest fear that comes out of our ambition—the radical disjunction between justice and happiness.
Film noir is accordingly disturbing, halfway there to tragedy, and you might think it’s not what Americans love, yet this was considered stylish, beautiful moviemaking and in turn created stars: The Maltese Falcon (1941) made Humphrey Bogart; Out of the Past (1947), Robert Mitchum; The Killers (1946), Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner; and Laura (1944), Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney. They made directors, too—the great John Huston above all.
These crime stories were influential in print in the America of the 1930s and on film in the 1940s, but they have left quite a legacy. They made a return in the 1970s as liberalism led the nation to collapse and moral idealism was losing its plausibility. Then in the 1990s, the influence of noir was felt once again on all genres, as well as on those upcoming directors, like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, looking for the only plausible statement on manliness in America (except for the Western, then considered obsolete).
The theme of film noir is man in the city. Does the newly urbanized American of the 20th century have any room or need for men? In The Maltese Falcon (1941), we see one of the few plausible answers, the private detective. It is of the essence of America that private detectives are possible and necessary: Finding out the truth and telling the story have been privatized to some extent, without which justice, the basis of the common good, cannot be done.
The novel The Maltese Falcon was written by Dashiell Hammett in 1930, a private detective turned writer himself, trying to tell the ugly truths about modern American society and to offer America a new hero, Sam Spade, shamus. If you will, he’s named Samuel for the biblical judge, and spade for his penchant for bluntness. His is an almost nihilistic kind of stoicism, the manly response to a situation where justice doesn’t really count for much.
John Huston’s script and movie step back from that harshness and instead offer a wittier, more beautiful version of the story, ultimately intended to serve as an education for Sam Spade, improving on the novel; it’s what’s called in the vulgar language of our times an origin story. Huston’s Sam Spade is the role that defined Bogart for American audiences, a tough guy who laughs at the show he puts on to intimidate or impress others. He dresses well and respects himself for his wit; he enjoys the intrigue and deception of the sophisticated world of San Francisco where he lives, despite the moral ugliness that shows up everywhere he turns.
His intellect is part of his integrity, and he is accordingly not an unhappy man—the conflicts between justice and a desperate, criminal search after happiness interest him but aren’t quite powerful enough to shake him to the core or tempt him with corruption. At times he seems more interested in figuring out whether to dedicate himself to the American way of life than entertaining any worries about the moral collapse of the country. The challenge he faces, however, is very real—the Old World, at the last moment before America conquered the world. He beholds European adventures and Asian mysteries with freedom and splendor as gifts. He emerges a defender of America against such rotten sophistication.
Along with Bogart, Huston showed America the minute, fragile, but devious Peter Lorre and the rotund and orotund Sydney Greenstreet, a man by turns mannered and murderous. Both Lorre and Greenstreet are chasing the mythical Maltese Falcon, an idol of ancient wealth, exorbitant beyond the imaginations of mere modern people stuck with the self-contempt of democracy and science, which make greatness illegal or irrational. Both actors were to appear with Bogart a year later in Casablanca. They show the varieties of European sophistication with which Bogart must contend, the only people who have a chance to match him intellectually—unlike his partner in the detective business or the cops or the district attorney, who are crude, moralistic blunderers. They want the aristocratic wealth and pedigree of the bird statuette, but they need Bogart to help them get it, because their globetrotting adventure, spanning the British Empire and the edges of Asia, Istanbul, and Hong Kong, have led them to San Francisco, a place new to them, where they will find the limits of their ability to mislead or corrupt justice.
Enter the Femme Fatale
Bogart’s main antagonist, however, is neither of the two men, who show the charms of evil; hiding a gun behind a scented handkerchief or drugging a man’s drink is not the worst one must face in this world. Mary Astor—a combination of the damsel in distress and what we have come to call the femme fatale—is the true antagonist because she shows the charms of love, which is always in some sense good and innocent. She is attractive, sophisticated, has seen the world and yet might need, might choose, Sam Spade as her knight errant—that’s something San Francisco and indeed America simply cannot offer a man of ambition. Indeed, precisely because she’s caught in a criminal world, she’s attractive, since love is a law breaker. To the extent that she has no patriotism, she’s an American who has abandoned her country, which not only adds to her charms but shows Bogart one possible path out of his boring, drab life.
Film noir starts from an acknowledgment that America simply has little to offer daring men. The border, as we know, is closed, and freedom from moralism has disappeared. The life of commerce is not as interesting to men of ambition as the life of honor, or at least splendor, because there’s no freedom in commerce—nobility is literally forbidden to public men by the Constitution’s Article I, Section 9, Clause 8.
In some sense, this is injustice to heroes, and accordingly the men with which noir concerns itself are doomed simply for being Americans. This is why they are open to a certain temptation to abandon justice, something most people do not face—it’s only a few steps from being daring or witty to being reckless or doing something desperate. The popularity of such heroes, Bogart above all, shows, however, that manliness, daring, and pride have a secret attraction to American men, who are at best reconciled to their mundane situation but not in love with it.
Perhaps the strangest thing about The Maltese Falcon shows up in its delight in sophisticated language and argument: The freedom of the mind is unknown in America, to judge by Sam Spade’s loneliness. He is treated with at best mild contempt by both his detective partner and the authorities, who are blind to his irony. Only his enemies even care to take Spade’s measure. Since he can never amount to something, why not accept being seduced by someone charming?
Only now can we see that there is a real conflict at the core of the movie: Will Sam Spade stay American or, like many sophisticated people, most famously Hemingway, leave America? What seems like an accident turns out to be the key to his character—the woman he falls in love with deceives people into trusting her and then murders them. The fundamental ingratitude involved in that calculating mind is so ugly that it takes away any sentimentality Sam Spade had in him.
This then becomes the real mystery of the story and, like film noir, I’ll leave you with a lingering doubt and a newly acquired, startled moral seriousness. It’s obvious to anyone that you cannot love in accordance with public opinion; on the contrary, something exotic, beyond the limits of American democracy, has attraction precisely to the extent it allows a man a view of a wider world, a vision of life beyond the middle class. But can you love at all when faced with the possibility of deception? Spade chooses justice over false happiness, but in the process makes it seem like happiness is always false.