Film noir is the easiest to identify and (as these things go) easiest to define of all the genres in cinema, yet it developed quite unintentionally—it wasn’t until well into its maturity that anyone realized it was a genre at all. The term film noir originated in postwar France when their theatres were glutted with all the American films they had missed during the German occupation. Seeing them all in one go, the French found in films like Laura, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, and Scarlet Street commonalities that had escaped the notice of the filmmakers themselves. Robert Pippin detects a metaphor in this: It is true, both in noir and of noir, that no one understands what is happening to them until after it has finished happening—or as Orson Welles says in The Lady from Shanghai, “I never make up my mind about anything at all until it’s over and done with.” Until it’s too late to do anything about it.
From the introduction to Fatalism in American Film Noir (2012):
The brilliant achievement of the core group of great noirs is to show how terribly limited explanations that focus on the moral psychology of individuals turn out to be, given how little of the future they can actually effect as individuals. The explanation of what happens does not finally lie with what they do and why they try to do it, given how unstable, provisional, and often self-deceived are their claims to self knowledge, and given how little in control they are of their criteria for deliberation. . . .
At some level, on some description of not knowing what one wants, or having a poor idea of what exactly it is that one wants . . . my wanting X can come to seem in some sense strange to me, “not really my want,” and the whole notion of agency can come to look thinned out and formal.
There aren’t many books about fatalism, probably because the people who would write them get to chapter three and start asking what’s the point. There isn’t much art about fatalism, either—plenty about fate, but that isn’t the same thing. In a Greek tragedy like Oedipus, the revelation that no amount of careful planning can stop the inexorable pull of fate is saved for the end as the big climax. Characters don’t act as if they knew from the start that destiny trumps decision. Noir, on the other hand, depicts what it’s like to operate in a world over which you know you have little control. Fatalism isn’t a revelation, it’s a lifestyle.
The last place one would expect to find fatalism in fiction is the mystery genre, where noir has some obvious ancestry. Detective work depends on motive being a reliable clue to human behavior, and on a personal conviction that there is a satisfying and coherent story out there to be discovered. In Britain, the underlying message of their entire detective-story tradition is that the truth can always be uncovered if you are observant and clever enough, which gives even weak and humble figures—a little old lady, an ineffectual English professor, or a fastidious Belgian—some power over the world. American hard-boiled detective stories are just the opposite: The toughest guy in the city is still powerless in the end, because even if he reconstructs a perfect blow-by-blow of what happened, he can never force the facts to yield up consolation or even make any satisfying kind of sense.*
It’s rare for an academic book to have too little gender theory rather than far too much, but there’s is something important that Pippin oddly fails to notice. The first chapter of his book, after the introduction, is on Out of the Past; the second chapter, The Lady from Shanghai. In both of those films, the main romance is between a woman who believes in fatalism and a man who does not and who, frankly, would prefer it if the woman he loved had a little more faith in human agency. In Lady from Shanghai, Rita Hayworth lives by an old Chinese proverb from her childhood, “One who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end.” Orson Welles asks, “Haven’t you heard ever of something better to follow?” In Out of the Past, Jane Greer tells Robert Mitchum, “You’re no good for anyone but me. You’re no good and neither am I. That’s why we deserve each other.” Not only does Mitchum not believe her, he has already proven her wrong. Back in Bridgeport, at the beginning of the film before trouble found him again, he had successfully turned himself into a good man with an honest business and a good woman who loves him—a woman Jane Greer can prevent him from being with, but can’t force him to betray.
It makes sense to me, if not to Pippin, that the women would have a more extravagant view of human helplessness than the men. It has something to do with how much more discouraging it is to be Rita Hayworth than simply to be in love with Rita Hayworth.
I wish that Pippin had discussed the difference between fatalism and other forms of philosophical pessimism, especially the difference between existentialism (the world doesn’t matter and my actions don’t affect it) and fatalism (the world does matter, but I can’t affect it much). Existentialism is not compatible with Christianity, but fatalism is—at least I assume it is, since the Irish are Catholic and no one is more fatalistic than those guys. I don’t suppose there’s a film that puts a Christian spin on the usual noir themes, is there? Eve, Robby, film-buff readers I am unacquainted with, help me out. But only if you feel like it, since it doesn’t really matter in the long run. If I am fated to find such a movie, it’ll all come together eventually.
* This theory of the difference between British and American detective novels comes from Colin Watson’s Snobbery with Violence: Crime Stories and Their Audience. I don’t know if Pippin has read that book, but he is welcome to borrow my copy if he hasn’t.