Arts of Darkness:American Noir and the Quest for Redemption
by Thomas S. Hibbs
Spence, 316 pages, $27.95
It has been said that cinema has become just another American religion, with multiplexes for cathedrals and auteurs for priests. Let's grant the hyperbole but also concede that every religion, no matter how dubious, needs something approaching a theologian, a doctor communis, to interpret its revelation. In his new book, Arts of Darkness, philosopher Thomas Hibbs nominates Blaise Pascal, who enters the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences by shedding light on that darkest of movie genres: noir.
Film noir has both fascinated and confounded critics and film lovers since the 1940s, when foreign cineastes began to remark on how dark and depressing American films had become. Most scholars and filmmakers agree that it is not a genre proper, with clearly defined conventions that the Western or the romantic-comedy or the sci-fi adventure enjoy. As writer-director Paul Schrader wrote in his seminal 1972 essay, “Notes on Film Noir,” it is defined more by “subtle qualities of tone and mood.” Or, as Foster Hirsch added in his Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, it's about “the city at night,” with its dens of iniquity, secret identities, and lost souls.
Rent some classic representations of noir— Naked City, Kiss Me Deadly, or The Third Man—and witness the chiaroscuro lighting, canted camera angles that skew the audience's view, and shady heroes who defy easy good-guy categorizations. It's a world of marginalized figures—detectives who walk the fine line between lawman and outlaw, boxers in on a fix, and syndicates that operate sub rosa. It is a world of pseudonyms, hidden motives, and truth as a slippery, relative thing.
Hibbs acknowledges early on in Arts of Darkness the difficulty in defining noir: “It is stylistically and dramatically complex. Its emphasis on darkness and shadows, absence over presence, and the duality of the personal identity underscore the depth and mystery inherent in the most mundane of experiences. Into such a disorienting, threatening, and uninviting world, noir thrusts its protagonist, who sets out on a quest to solve a particular mystery.”
That quest is the real focus of Hibbs' critical analysis. In fact, the subtitle of Hibbs' book— American Noir and the Quest for Redemption —proves to be the compass that keeps the reader on track: Noir is so plastic, so elusive, it's easy to lose one's way in trying to discern its defining features and just which films qualify as genuine examples. And when movies as diverse as It's a Wonderful Life, Vertigo, Chinatown, and The Matrix all qualify in some sense as noir (or its progeny, neo-noir), one can ask only whether every film that exhibits some level of moral ambiguity can be filed under the rubric—making the term virtually useless as a descriptor.
Hibbs opens the book with a quotation from Flannery O'Connor, whose “religious sensibility . . . was particularly sensitive to the gap between contemporary religious platitudes and the deeper realities to which she wanted to point her own fiction.” Hibbs, too, wants to go deeper and show what he calls the convergence between the noir film and the religious film, by demonstrating that the unspoken quest in noir—as opposed to such apparent quests as solving (or committing) the perfect crime, finding the missing person, or awakening from a nightmare of unreality—is nothing less than the quest for redemption. Hibbs cites liberally other commentators who have already explored the moral universe of noir and its “pattern of desire for a kind of communication” (J.P. Telotte), as well as those who have already pinned their hopes on Pascal as a key cultural interpreter (Lucien Goldmann). Hibbs' signal contribution, however, consists in bringing these insights together to view noir through a religious lens.
Fade in on Blaise Pascal, seventeenth-century mathematician, in-ventor, and lay Christian apologist, whom Hibbs styles as quite possibly the first postmodern writer: “In his trenchant and aphoristic observations on the ‘monstrous' character of the human condition, Pascal anticipates many a noir theme. . . . [He] is acutely aware of the fragmentation of our knowledge and of the vulnerability of the self to forces, internal and external, beyond its control or even its critical consciousness.”
And just as noir was an antidote of sorts to “the populist films of the 1940s” that offered “affirmative visions of American life,” Pascal too offered an alternative theological conception to that of an easily accessible heavenly father who left footprints in the sand. Though a Christian himself, he did not believe that Christianity taught “that the existence of God is obvious; instead, it teaches that ‘God is a hidden
God' . . . a God of ironic distance and violent, surprising intervention in the human world.”
Hibbs' noir survey begins with The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, The File on Thelma Jordan, and what many consider Alfred Hitchcock's greatest achievement, Vertigo. All these films feature double-crosses and femmes fatales, the self-deceived and the duped. What they also have in common is an attempt finally to make things right: right with the law, right with themselves, right with a lost loved one—in short, a hidden desire for redemption. “Even where desire appears to operate in accord with laws of mechanical necessity,” writes Hibbs, “the characters evince an awareness of their situation that bespeaks a transcendence of it,” or at least the possibility of transcendence. We are “incapable of certain knowledge or absolute ignorance,” wrote Pascal, and so are left to struggle.
In The Maltese Falcon, for example, Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart) is “a fusion of seeming contradictions,” one who “eschews dreams” but is nevertheless unable to detach himself from personal involvement in his cases, which are “not solved . . . until he has made a moral assessment of those implicated.” He avoids the traps most noir protagonists fall into, but only at the cost of a heart-wrenching solitude. He is not an existentialist hero, however, who finds ultimate freedom by fashioning a moral code of his own. “The noir universe does not offer such naïve consolations [as] freedom.” And an “arbitrary creation of values” is a concession to nihilism, offering no solution to “the crisis of meaning.” Noir characters remain trapped in webs of deceit and doubt, left straining for meaning, even when a level of enlightenment enables them at least to acknowledge their predicament. Knowledge is not power in noir.
Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity opens with insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) offering a taped confession that also functions as the film's voice-over narration. “The voiceover,” writes Hibbs, “typically represents a partial transcendence of the mechanical necessity that seems to dominate the action.” On a routine call to a client, Neff is introduced to the classic noir femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson, played with inimitable deadpan earnestness by Barbara Stanwyck. Dietrichson wants Neff to help her bump off her husband so she can cash in on his hefty insurance policy.
The lure of sex and money, interchangeable commodities, reel Neff into an unreal world, in which affections are mere affectations. The “perfect crime” goes awry, of course, and when Neff announces that he's going to the police, his so-called lover shoots him—but not before Neff has composed what has become the film's overriding narrative frame—the confession—an attempt to put the narrative of his own life story right. It is Neff's boss, played by Edward G. Robinson, who functions as Neff's conscience, reminding him of what he already knows—that something is out of joint in this phony world of lovers conquering all—but not before it's too late. Redemption delayed is redemption denied.
It should be noted that the high noir era of the 1940s and 1950s was also that of the Production Code, which demanded that all criminals be punished (a scruple noticeably absent from, say, Chinatown). One wonders if Wilder's script would have ended differently shorn of such restrictions (think Body Heat, where Kathleen Turner's femme fatale winds up sunning herself on a beach). Says Hibbs: “An appropriate philosophical anthropology for noir would have to capture both the way in which we are prey to the machine-like workings of the passions and the way in which we retain a residual freedom and distance from those passions. It needs a dialectical philosophy.” And who better than Pascal to supply it: “Man's greatness comes from knowing he is wretched”—he is both a monster and a “dispossessed king.”
Not all noir films, or films that exhibit noir elements, necessarily end unhappily. Perhaps the most unexpected example of noir that Hibbs adduces is It's a Wonderful Life. Hibbs posits that George Bailey's despair over his apparently meaningless existence threatens to destroy him until an unseen power—in this case, divine providence as personified by the angel Clarence—breaks in and grants him new eyes through which he can see the salutary, almost salvific, effect his “ordinary” life has had on a wide variety of people. Hibbs then immediately cuts to an analogous theme in Pulp Fiction, in which a gangster named Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) should have died in a hail of bullets but escapes untouched. “God got involved,” he concludes, granting him the motivation to reverse the direction of his life. “Chance,” Hibbs asserts, even when construed as the unexpected intervention of the Almighty, plays a significant role in the noir narrative.
In a chapter entitled “Beyond Good and Evil,” Hibbs introduces neo-noir, in which the ideas of transcendence and redemption are more superficially exploited and rendered more problematic. The 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s proved to be rich in neo-noir types, films with noir contours but in which the protagonist is no longer an “everyman” in an everyday calling but superheroes who comprise an elite, a chosen few whose gnosis grants them special powers—both physical and mental.
Neo-noir undoes what Hibbs calls “the democratic ethos of noir.” Surpassing the limitations of the human body as given, and possessing unique powers of discernment, neo-noir's protagonists obtain access to a reality hidden from the masses. The laws of man—not to mention physics—become irrelevant, as what it means to be human is now an open question. In short, the good guys are once again indistinguishable from the bad guys but for their good intentions. Thus Neo in The Matrix exhibits supernatural powers—he even rises from the dead—but not before forsaking the mundane realm as experienced by others. The price of enlightenment, redemption, is the abandonment of kinship with one's own to become Other. Hibbs denounces this “shallow nihilism,” which “often afflicts neo-noir.”
It should be noted that this concept of an unseen “power” that presides over apparently free creatures—one of the controlling themes of both noir and its progeny—is one of the reasons a Jansenist such as Pascal is a natural guide through its various manifestations. Jansenism taught a version of predestination similar to that of Calvin's, which construed salvation as conferred only on an elect.
I wish Hibbs had spent more time on noir's use of surreal settings, which often conjure up images of hell. There are also noir classics that Hibbs ignores that I would have thought were ripe for exploration ( Kiss Me Deadly, Touch of Evil). On the other hand, I could have lived without the interminable chapter on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a one-joke advertisement for girl-power that I could not possibly take as seriously as Hibbs does.
As for Taxi Driver, which Hibbs reads as neo-noir, Robert Kolker, in his classic Cinema of Loneliness, interprets it as a citified Western, a kind of perverse reimagining of John Ford's The Searchers set in 1970s Manhattan. This doesn't negate Hibbs' analysis of Scorsese's now classic descent into urban angst, but it does make one wonder whether noir as a concept is so broad that, again, you could pick almost any film at random and find a “quest for redemption,” broadly defined.
My quibbles are those of an admirer, however. Hibbs makes a unique and valuable contribution to this endlessly fascinating subject, offering an interpretative grid for understanding the neo-gnosticism of so many popular films. Hibbs deserves much credit here for thickening the moral conscience of moviegoers beyond counting the number of dirty bits or blasphemies uttered. He is not afraid to talk religion and thereby give some recognizable content to the concept of redemption: “The religion of a humiliated, crucified God—inconceivable to natural reason—accounts for the paradoxes of human nature.”
“Man does not know the place he should occupy,” Hibbs quotes Pascal. “He has obviously gone astray; he has fallen from his true place and cannot find it again. He searches everywhere, anxiously but in vain, in the midst of an impenetrable darkness.” And what better way to smuggle a little light into the secular classroom than through the voice of a theologian on the margins of the Church—an irony any noirist would love.
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of First Things.