In my last post I quoted James Ellroy's brilliant summation of the message of film noir — “You're fucked.”  One of the ways “you're fucked” in film noir is that most of the women you're going to meet in the shadowy backstreets of noir's
dark city are going to be smarter and stronger than you are.  They
may use their power to save you, they may use it to destroy you, but
the situation is going to be beyond your control.

This view of women was obviously a projection of male anxiety and
insecurity in the post-WWII era.  There are some extraordinary
female characters in the film noir
tradition, but usually they're not quite real — they are demons, or angels,
summoned up out of troubled male psyches.  A film doesn't need a femme fatale to be noir
— they're absent in many classic films in the tradition — but it does
need a sense of male helplessness.  It's a comprehensive
helplessness, in the face of society and the universe itself — tough,
powerful women are just one manifestation of a general existential

When the situation is looked at from the woman's point of view, we leave the territory of noir
— move into another tradition, typically that of the psychological
suspense thriller, of the Hitchcockian variety, which is often
presented from the viewpoint of the female, with whom we
identify.  This tradition predated noir and is in fact connected to works of Victorian Gothic fiction, such as Jane Eyre
It deals with more traditional female anxieties arising out of the
contradictions of an insecure patriarchy.  To me it makes no sense
to call this sort of movie film noir, even though it may tap into the same mood of existential dread that pervades the classic noir.

As I've observed before, it took the neo-noir Chinatown to look back on the noir
tradition and try to imagine the effect of its male insecurities on
women — but this was never really a conscious concern of classic film noir.


In my last post I wrote:

I would argue that pulp fiction, hardboiled fiction, from the
20s and 30s is something different from the wartime and post-war films that are, to me at least, the heart of the
film noir tradition.  Film noir
drew on that fiction, just as it drew on the 30s-era crime melodrama
and conventional detective fiction, but it became something new.

So what was new about it?

James Ellroy summed it up best when he observed that the basic message of
film noir
is “You're fucked.”  It's an existential message, philosophical
(or perhaps theological) in nature.  Another way of putting it
might be “The world is fucked, at its core, and there's nothing you can
do about it.”  You might temporarily survive the predicament this
puts you in, or it might destroy you, but the predicament isn't going
to change.

This represents a profound divergence from the traditional “hero's
journey”, in which an everyman faces tests and ordeals in the pursuit
of wisdom, of meaning.  It also represents a divergence from the
“outlaw ballad” tradition of the 30s-era crime melodrama, in which we
explore the underworld and revel in the transgressive behavior of
society's rebels — all the while confidently expecting the rebel's
death and a reassertion of humane values.  In true noir, those traditional values have evaporated.

You have to ask yourself why such a radical divergence from earlier
traditions happened in the post-WWII era, and the answer to me is
obvious.  The basic message of war, and particularly of combat, is
“You're fucked.”  The soul-shaking experience of hearing this
message delivered in the most brutal terms doesn't go away after the
war ends, even if it ends in victory.  It is not subsumed in
feelings of patriotism or in the satisfaction of having done one's duty.

It endures forever.  In the case of WWII it had a macabre
objective correlative — the atomic bomb, the image of the mushroom
cloud, which summed up the enduring sense of existential dread that had
infected American society, and in particular its returning war vets.

Film noir was an arena in
which that existential dread could be engaged safely — and there was
something exhilarating about the exercise, the exhilaration of dealing
with an urgent but buried anxiety.  The existential dread I'm
speaking of here didn't define post-war America but it was there, and
it couldn't be talked about directly in a world that was desperately
trying to get back to normal.  But it could be faced in art — most especially in film noir.


D'Ambra of the ever useful films noir web site posted an interesting
comment about my Film Noir Master List which I'm eager to respond to:

Tony wrote:

I doubt you will welcome this comment, but here goes.

I'm delighted by all thoughtful comments!

He continued:

I don't see the point of your classification system: it has meaning for
you only and no film can ever be categorised to such a degree.

I realize that my list violates convention, but others have found it
useful, if only as a provocation to further thinking about the
subject.  It's primarily intended to provoke a new conversation about film noir, which in my opinion has gotten to be such a vague term that it's losing its usefulness.

And Tony wrote:

For example, there is wide agreement that Wilder's Double Indemnity
is an elemental film noir, yet you describe it as a “domestic noir”?
Neff is an unmarried loner and Phyllis an amoral gold-digger whose
marriage was a sham from day one, so how does domesticity gone bad come
into it? There is “no moral confusion” or “existential dread”: both
protagonists are motivated by greed and each has no scruples when it
comes to making sure that only one of them makes it to the end of the
line. Marriage has nothing to do with the dramatic imperative of the
plot. Remember Phyllis murdered Dietrichsen's first wife, so she could
marry him for his money. Neff was ready to be seduced and she knew it:
this is the essence of the noir paradigm of the femme fatale, which has
little to do, if it ever to did, with the role of woman in WW2 and its
aftermath. Remember, the great noir novels by Hammett and Cain, were
written before WW2.

Domestic noir, to me, from Double Indemnity to Sunset Boulevard,
is characterized primarily by a rancid view of domestic life, and
especially married life.  It's not about good marriages gone bad
— instead it reflects a jaundiced view of the domestic realm, sees it
as corrupt, no longer viable, infected by the moral chaos, the
existential bewilderment, of the wartime and post-war world.

Double Indemnity takes place primarily in middle-class homes and offices — not in the typical urban jungle of the classic noir, the labyrinth of the dark city.  In the domestic noir, the existential dread symbolized by noir's dark city has penetrated the “normal” world, transformed
it.  Both traditions are dealing with the same existential dread,
but viewing it from different angles — different enough to constitute
two distinct traditions.

Phyllis Dietrichsen is indeed a femme fatale, one of the most fatale in all of movies, but the presence of a femme fatale doesn't automatically make a film noir, anymore than the lack of one excludes it from the category.  The femme fatale in the person of the vamp was a staple of silent cinema, featured in films we would never think of calling noir, and many classic films noirs have heroines who save the protagonist.

Finally, I would argue that pulp fiction, hardboiled fiction, from the
20s and 30s is something different from the wartime and post-war films that are, to me at least, the heart of the film noir tradition.  Film noir
drew on that fiction, just as it drew on the 30s-era crime melodrama
and conventional detective fiction, but it became something new. 
My underlying argument in all this is that we lose sight of what made film noir
new and distinct when we confuse it with its antecedents and with other
films that were dealing with the same cultural anxieties in different
ways and in different contexts.


As a prelude to watching Ken Burns' new film about WWII, The War,
I decided to have another look at his film about the Civil War. 
This isn't really a documentary, or a work of history — it's a poem,
made up of very beautiful words, both newly written and derived from
historical sources, of images and of music.  It's in fact an
example of a new art form — a new extension of what a movie can be,
but so organic and effective that you wonder why no one ever tried it

One of its glories is that it so boldly deviates from the conventional
filmmaking wisdom of its day.  It constitutes a contemptuous
defiance of MTV-style cinema.  MTV-style cinema is founded on the
proposition that none of its constituent images has any inherent
quality or interest — none of them is worth your serious
attention.  But the resulting strategy is to simply bombard you
with vaguely engaging images which pass so quickly that you don't have
time to evaluate them — thus producing the impression that perhaps you
have actually seen something worth seeing.  The art of it is the
art of the three-card monte mechanic.  You aren't exactly the
audience for this sort of cinema — you're the sucker, the mark.

Burns, by contrast, doesn't need to use cinematic techniques to
distract you from the fact this his basic material is shabby and
second-rate — because it isn't.  This allows him to step back,
let the material breathe, speak for itself.

His primary technique is extraordinarily simple and extraordinarily
effective.  It is simply to marry one image with one
sentence.  Sometimes he will vary this rule, cutting to a new
image on a phrase ending, or showing different details of the same
image within the same sentence.  Occasionally, for purposes of
emphasis or surprise, he will cut to a new image illustrating a single
word or name in a sentence.

But the primary strategy is  generally maintained — one sentence,
one image.  Once you get used to this, subliminally, it allows you
to absorb the contrapuntal lines of word and image in a kind of
composure of attention.  There
is a third line, of course — the music.  But Burns does something
unusual with that as well.  He recorded the music first and then
conformed the pace and tone of the spoken quotes and narration to the
music, and adjusted the images accordingly.

The result is dense and many-layered — each line of Burns' film has a
life and momentum of its own and does not dominate the other lines . .
. but it has the wholeness and integrity and logic of a fugue.

It's a remarkably fine piece of work.


the good offices of Joe D'Augustine, of the excellent Film Forno web
log, I was recently able to view André de Toth's remarkable film Pitfall, from 1948.

Joe thought I might find it an interesting example of domestic noir
— and on many levels that's just what it is . . . a taut, harrowing
thriller about a man whose good marriage is threatened in violent ways
by a moment's indiscretion.  The film's tough, snappy, cynical
dialogue bears favorable comparison with the dialogue in Double Indemnity — and the moral confusion of the protagonist, played by Dick Powell, is pure noir.  (We also get to see Raymond Burr in one of his earliest noir villain roles.)

But there's something unusual about this film — something that distinguishes it from true noir and from the films I think of as domestic noir.  It's the way that the institution of marriage, and the women in the film, are portrayed.

Lisbeth Scott, in what ought to be the femme fatale role, isn't fatale
at all, in the end.  She's the victim of male obsession and
mendacity, who's destroyed when she tries to strike back.  What's important, though, is that we see
the predicament she's in from her point of view — not from the point
of view of the men who don't understand her or fear her, as we would in
a classic noir
(The oddness of this is only reinforced by the copy on the lobby card
above, which tries to sell the Scott character as a typical femme fatale — assuming that that's what audiences of the time were looking for.)

More remarkably, Powell's wife in the film, wonderfully played by Jane Wyatt, is a
true partner — neither delivering angel nor destructive goddess, the
two poles of womanhood in the classic noirPitfall
offers one of the best and most convincing portraits of a good marriage
in all of cinema — which takes it far from the rancid view of married
life found in almost all domestic noirs.

This film, in fact, presents marriage as a viable refuge from the moral
maze, the existential dread, of post-war American life — and it does
so without a trace of piety or sentiment.  Like young Charley in Shadow Of A Doubt, Powell's character in Pitfall
feels trapped by family life at the beginning of the film — only to
discover in the end that it's the only thing in his life that makes any
sense at all.  It's a way out that's almost always denied to the protagonist of a classic noir, lost in the labyrinth of noir's dark city — and a view of marriage that's unknown in the moral chaos of a classic domestic noir.

I guess this film belongs in a category all its own — anti-noir.

[In honor of Pitfall I've added a new category to my Film Noir Master List — Sui Generis, for noirish films that aren't like any other films noirs.  So far it has two entrants, the anti-noir Pitfall and the schizo-noir Trapped.]


During the WWII years Norman Rockwell created a character named Willie
Gillis — an ordinary guy from a small town who joined the army. 
Rockwell chronicled his experiences in the war in a series of Saturday Evening Post
covers.  After the war, he showed us Gillis returned to civilian
life — above you see him in college, on the G. I. Bill, having
survived and put on a little weight.

It's a poignant image, for all it doesn't say.  Gillis is
preparing himself for a “normal” life in post-war America, with his
pipe and his golf clubs — but the war souvenirs hanging over his head
suggest that he will always be haunted by memories out of place in a
“normal” world.

One of the virtues of Ken Burns' newest documentary The War
is that it addresses the sort of post-traumatic stress disorder that
returning vets, and the whole civilized world on some level, suffered
in the wake of WWII.  For the vets it was peculiarly disorienting,
with feelings of triumph, guilt and shame all mixed up together. 
It was
not something that could be talked about in the world Willie Gillis was
trying to become a part of.

All of this I think reinforces my notion that it was in art, in film noir
particularly, that such disorientation could be engaged in a safe way,
a socially acceptable way.  You can read more thoughts on
the subject here.


The subject matter of The Big Combo, a terrific B-picture from 1955, might have easily been treated within the confines of a late-era crime melodrama or a police procedural —
instead it lurches instantly into the territory of the classic film noir and never leaves it, at least not for long.  It’s something you might expect from its director Joseph H. Lewis, who also directed Gun Crazy, one of the darkest and bleakest of all noirs.

The Big Combo is about a policeman’s attempt to bring down a modern crime lord, Mr. Brown — a man so rich and powerful that he never has to soil his own hands with
the dirty work.  The police don’t have the financial resources to investigate his multifarious organization, the big combo of the film’s title, and Brown has enough friends in high places to put pressure on any cop who does try to go after him.

Cornell Wilde plays the one cop who won’t give up, won’t buckle under the pressure, and his boss thinks he’s lost his mind.  Fighting Brown is fighting the corruption of the whole world — a fool’s errand.  It’s Wilde’s essential loneliness that makes him a classic noir protagonist.  He doesn’t represent the decent forces in society opposed to “respectable” thugs like Brown — those forces simply don’t exist.  This is what distinguishes The Big Combo from a traditional crime melodrama or police procedural.

At the same time, Wilde’s detective is hardly pure himself.  It’s suggested that he secretly admires Brown, is secretly in love with Brown’s moll — that his crusade is motivated more by jealousy and resentment than by morality or a love of justice.  This is what distinguishes the protagonist of this film from the traditional “tarnished knight” hero of traditional hardboiled detective fiction.  The code of honor of the Wilde character is suspect.

At one point the moll, explaining why she can’t leave Brown, says, “I
live in a maze . . . a strange, blind and backward maze, and all the
little twisting paths lead back to Mr. Brown.”  That’s the
predicament of Wilde’s character as well.  By the end of the film,
the view of the world we’ve been given makes it quite irrelevant
whether or not Brown is ever brought to justice.  There’s no sense
that the world will be a better place if he is, because it will still
operate by the same rules — Brown’s rules.

The Wilde character’s fight to extricate himself from the maze is
heroic.  He will save a few lives and avenge a few others along
the way, but his existential dilemma will never be resolved, because
the big combo is the world and it won’t change.  It will stay noir.

The ending of The Big Combo echoes the ending of Casablanca visually.  But what different moral universes the two films inhabit.  In 1942, Casablanca could make idealistic sacrifice look glamorous and sexy.  By 1955, ten years after the end of WWII, the cost of such sacrifice had been measured.  We had defeated the Axis evil, but to do so we had had to summon up reserves of evil within ourselves, and the ghost of it hovered, in the shape of a mushroom cloud, over everything.

The Big Combo has been added to my film noir canon.  Sadly, there isn’t a satisfactory DVD edition of the film, although the Geneon release is watchable and cheap.  The Big Combo deserves better, if only for the wonderfully inventive cinematography of the
great noir master John Alton.


Above is a detail from a cartoon published in The Realist in 1967.    [Mature viewers not offended by moderately graphic sexual and scatological satire can click here to see the whole thing.]  I'll
never forget how happy it made to see this cartoon for the first
time.  I was seventeen then — I saw it in the dorm room of a
fellow student at my prep school who had a staggering
collection of underground publications, including a complete run of
Paul Krassner's The Realist. 
I can't believe the school authorities knew how much subversive
literature he had stowed away in his room — or how widely it was
corrupting the imaginations of his fellow students.  The Realist was truly shocking stuff in 1967.

The image made me happy not because I hated the classic Disney cartoons
and characters — but because I loved them.  I loved them too
much, and unconsciously.  They were embedded in my psyche on
deeper levels than I ever suspected.  To see them dragged
unwillingly into the light of an adult consciousness, mocked and
defiled, sexualized, allowed me to engage them as an adult — to try
and assess how they had affected me.  And it allowed me to
appreciate them as great works of art — not just as cultural
baggage.  That appreciation has only grown over time.

Transgressive, subversive
culture works in counter-intuitive ways.  By breaking spells, it
can lead to deeper realms of magic and enchantment . . . which
themselves will one day have to be transgressed and subverted.

Issues of The Realist are being archived on the web now — you can peruse them here.


you visit the Civil War battlefield of Chancellorsville, in the
Virginia countryside west of Fredericksburg, you can find at the
intersection of two small country roads a marker at the place Robert E.
Lee and Stonewall Jackson met around midnight between the 1st and 2nd
of May of 1863 to plan the next day's action.

They had between them 40,000 men and they were facing a Union army of
70,000 men.  Jackson had a startling proposition for Lee. 
His scouts had found some dirt roads through the woods that twisted
around the right flank of the Union position.  Jackson proposed
that he lead his 28,000 men over these roads and fall upon the Union
flank from behind.

Lee pointed out that while Jackson was marching, he himself would have only
12,000 men with which to hold the 70,000 Union troops in place. 
Jackson nodded — yes, that was about the size of it.

I like to think of the look in Lee's eyes as he contemplated this more
or less insane idea —  they must have burned with joy at the
boldness and fearlessness of Jackson plan.  Lee thought about it
for a moment and told Jackson to go ahead.

Jackson made the march pretty much undetected — reports of it that
reached the Union officers on the right of their line were
disbelieved.  They were just too preposterous.

Jackson rounded the Union flank and attacked at dusk.  The whole
Union right collapsed and the whole Army of the Potomac was set in a
panic that was just barely contained.  It was one of the most
stunning victories for an outnumbered army in all of military history
— but it's costs were high.

Riding to the front to assess the progress of the action, Jackson was
accidentally shot in the darkening woods by his own men, and would
later die of his wounds (in the bed pictured below,) never resuming his command.  The victory
also emboldened Lee to make his second invasion of the north, resulting
in the catastrophe at Gettysburg.

Ironically, it is the death of Jackson, and the defeat of the South,
which allows one to admire the feat of arms that Lee and Jackson pulled
off at Chancellorsville.  Their cause had a great wrong mixed up
in it — the institution of slavery — and no one can look back and
wish they had won.

But Jackson's death was a measure of expiation — enough to let us love
him and Lee for their genius and audacity and courage.  It fixes
the moment of their greatest triumph in amber, in a beauty outside of time.


Below is a provisional master list of what to me are the canonic films noirs, followed by lists of films that are often identified as films noirs
but which I think fall into different categories.


Out Of the Past
The Killers
His Kind Of Woman
The Dark Corner
The Set-Up
Gun Crazy
Fallen Angel
Angel Face
Touch Of Evil
The Wrong Man
Criss Cross
The Killing

In A Lonely Place
On Dangerous Ground
Where the Sidewalk Ends
Brute Force
The Sweet Smell Of Success
Night and the City
Thieves Highway
The Lady From Shanghai
14 Hours
The Long Night
Nightmare Alley
Odds Against Tomorrow
Act Of Violence
Crime Wave
They Live By Night
The Big Steal
Side Street
Where Danger Lives
Kansas City Confidential
The Big Combo
Road House


Murder, My Sweet
The Lady In the Lake
I Wake Up Screaming

The Big Sleep
Behind Closed Doors
The Mask Of the Dragon


Shadow Of A Doubt
Clash By Night
Leave Her To Heaven
Sunset Boulevard
The Night Of the Hunter
Blonde Ice
Daisy Kenyon
The Bad and the Beautiful


House On 92nd Street
The Racket
Call Northside 777
Panic In the Streets
Border Incident
The Narrow Margin
Mystery Street
Naked City
Arson, Inc.
Loan Shark
Fingerprints Don’t Lie
F. B. I. Girl
Portland Expose
A Bullet For Joey


The Big Clock
House On Telegraph Hill
The Blue Gardenia
Sudden Fear
Shadow Man
The Stranger


They Drive By Night
High Sierra
The Asphalt Jungle
Key Largo
Shoot To Kill
The Big Heat
Tough Assignment
Force Of Evil


To Have and Have Not

I’ll Get You
The Man From Cairo
They Were So Young
Mr. Arkadin (Confidential Report)




The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America,
by Roger Morris and Sally Denton, Vintage, 2002, is the most important
book ever written about Las Vegas and one of the most important books
ever written about corporate-controlled America in the 20th Century.
The prose can be clunky at times but there are stunning revelations on
almost every page. The result is a clear and impeccably researched
portrait of the criminal/corporate syndicates which run America and the
role Las Vegas has played and plays in their exercise of power.

You can buy it here:

The Money and the Power


I've written before, these are great times for fans of vintage comic
strips.  Publishers are bringing back into print many classics of
the genre — among them Popeye, Dick Tracy and Gasoline Alley in handsome multi-volume editions that will eventually make available complete runs of the strips.

Not least welcome in this avalanche of treasures is the first volume in a series published by IDC that will cover all of Milt Caniff's wonderful Terry and the Pirates adventure
strip.  It's a big, well-printed volume with the daily strips in
black-and-white and the Sunday strips in full color.  This first
installment covers 1934 to 1936.

Caniff's is known as the “Rembrandt of the comic strip” for his
exquisite draftsmanship, but he has also been studied by filmmakers for
the dynamic cinematic compositions of his panels, the economy and punch
of his visual narrative style.

It's impossible to convey just how much fun Terry and the Pirates
is — a series of rattling good yarns set in the Far East that move
fast and are full of surprises, drawn with wit and elegance and bold
graphic invention.

Caniff didn't come up with idea for Terry and the Pirates and he didn't own it — so he eventually moved on to an original series called Steve Canyon, which is even more ambitious visually but, to my mind, a bit stodgier in terms of story and character.  The Canyon
strips have been available in a series which prints the panels so small
that it's hard to read the text sometimes without a magnifying glass
and almost impossible to appreciate the graphic work.  It's not worth owning.

The IDC edition of Terry and the Pirates, though, does full justice to Caniff's art.  I think it's one of the most important publishing events of 2007.


I'm not kidding — you've never
tasted better salsa than this, and it's so easy to make . . . there's
really no excuse not to have a supply of it on hand at all times.

What you need to make it is four medium-sized tomatillos, three or
four cloves of garlic, two canned chipotle chilies in adobo sauce, some
water and some salt.  Take the husks off the tomatillos, wash them
and cut them in half.  Place them in a non-stick skillet, cut side
down, over medium heat, along with the unpeeled garlic cloves. 
Roast them all for about four minutes, then flip them over for another
four minutes, or until the tomatillos are soft all the way through.

Put a quarter cup of water into a blender, place the roasted tomatillos
and the peeled roasted garlic into the blender along with the chilies
and a couple of pinches of salt.  Two chilies makes for a very
spicy but not overwhelming salsa.  Just add one if you want something
a little milder but still very tangy.  If you want to knock your
socks off, add three or more — but don't say I didn't warn you.

Grind this all up into a slightly coarse blend, transfer it to a bowl and add more salt to taste, if necessary.

In this salsa the flavors of the roasted tomatillos and the roasted
garlic are a perfect complement to the smoky fire of the redoubtable
chipotle.  It's good with tortilla chips of course, and on any
kind of taco.  Mexican food guru Rick Bayless, in his book Mexican
, where I found this recipe, says he likes it on everything but
ice cream — and I'm not sure I'd rule out ice cream entirely.

It's sublime stuff.


is in the air — you can tell, even out here in the middle of the
Mojave Desert, because the Mets have just completed their annual Autumn
collapse.  After dominating their division for almost the whole
season, with what looked like the best team in baseball, they decided
in the end to just dry up and blow away, like leaves in the wind.

It was one of the worst late-season collapses in the history of
baseball, and the Mets didn't go down fighting — the whole team just
seemed to stand around, staring blankly into space, waiting for the
nightmare to consume them.

The Mets have been my last real connection to the city of New
York.  I have a lot of friends who still live there but they visit
Vegas regularly, so I think of them as Vegas friends now.  But the
Mets seem to have taken on the qualities of the new New York I couldn't live in anymore — rich,
bland, complacent, without grit, without character.

I think the time has come to let them go — let them fade into the old
ghost city that exists now only in my memory.  In that city, they
will always be champions.

When Willie Mays, playing for the Mets at the end of his career,
decided to retire, he said, “There always come a time when somebody
have to say goodbye.”