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THE MYSTERIOUS ROMANCE OF MURDER : CRIME, DETECTION, AND THE SPIRIT OF NOIR

By David Lehman

Cornell University Press. 281 pages. $27.95. ISBN 976-1-5017-6362-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There is nothing new about the fascination with murder and crime generally. As David Lehman points out: “In the fratricide in the fourth chapter of Genesis, the murder mystery has its starting point”.  He goes on to refer to Greek tragedy and Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy, “in which the crimes are parricide and incest”. It would be possible to continue mentioning examples that set the style for what came later. I recently watched New York Confidential, a 1955 film in which all the key protagonists, and others, are dead by its finale, and I couldn’t help thinking of the Jacobean theatre where bodies litter the stage as the inevitable happens. “You are the deed’s creature”, says the scheming Deflores to Beatrice after she has involved herself with murder to get the man she wants in Thomas Middleton’s great play, The Changeling. And the deed determines her fate.

Having established that crime in all its aspects can’t help but impel us to want to know what happens next, Lehman moves on to inspect how it has been represented in books and films. The detective novel is usually said to have originated in the early nineteenth century with Edgar Allen Poe as a prime candidate for the first practitioner of the form. There are arguments against this assertion, but it’s certainly true that by the time Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes into the picture the scene was set for a large cast of his “rivals”, good, bad and indifferent, to also appear in print.  Place them alongside, and sometimes in, a popular press thriving on sensation, and the profitable market for tales of murder and mayhem, whether factual or fictional, was soon well established.

Lehman proposes that “The figure of the detective as a distinctively modern hero suggests that truth in modern industrial society is concealed, distorted, fabricated”, but the detective, though he may be flawed as a person, can eventually arrive at the truth, or something close to it.  It’s possible to see the appeal in following the procedures the detective adopts on his way to a satisfactory conclusion. But detective fiction, despite its wide readership, is often treated as a minor area of literature. The noted American critic, Edmund Wilson was particularly dismissive of its values.

And yet numerous intellectuals and writers have stated a liking for detective stories. And not only as lightweight reading for those moments when they felt a need to get away from more-concentrated thinking. Some have seen the form as a genuine location in which to provide a critique of society. Did writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers have such thoughts in mind when they created characters like Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey? Perhaps not directly (they were largely concerned to present crime as “a species of entertainment”), but they had scope to deal with the varieties of human behaviour in ways which highlighted the perennial struggle between good and evil.

Though private detectives such as Hercule Poirot still have their supporters, largely I suspect among an older audience, it would appear from what is seen on television that the “official” detectives, i.e.  members of an organised police force, are now the focus of attention. And they view themselves almost like soldiers in a war against a ruthless enemy who will take control, and may have done in some cases, when allowed to do so. Corporate crime is on the increase and the innovation of the internet lends itself to the creation of widespread conspiracies to defraud. Drugs are a powerful incentive for many people to get rich quick by any means necessary. And no-one really knows where the tentacles of crime stretch to and who manipulates them. It all seems a long way from the Raymond Chandler-style lonely private eye walking down mean streets in search of a solution, if not always the absolute truth.

I happily admit to a great love of films in the film noir category. But what is noir? According to Lehman it’s where “pessimism meets desperation”, and “free will is a mug’s game”. A character in Detour, a “Poverty Row masterwork that is the most precise elucidation of the noir theme of explicit fatalism” (I’m quoting from Spencer Selby’s Dark City, McFarland, 1984), says “Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you”. And there’s a 1938 novel, You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, by Richard Hallas which makes me think that the origins of a significant portion of the noir mood might be found in the popular literature of the Depression era. Lehman considers the bewildered man wondering why things have happened to him, and says: “The noir equivalent of French existential anguish in the face of the absurd is ‘Why me?’”. The French recognised the new style in American films of the 1940s and defined it as film noir. They were also fans of many of the writers who provided the material in novels and screenplays for the films.      

A bleak novel like Don Tracy’s 1935 Criss-Cross was turned into the even-bleaker 1949 film of the same name. There are others. Edward Anderson’s 1937 Thieves Like Us was later the basis for the 1974 film. And A.I.Bezzerides’ 1938 Long Haul became the 1940 They Drive By Night. To quote Spencer Selby again, it has “clearly visible elements of an early noir sensibility”. Another Bezzerides novel, the 1949 Thieves Market was shaped into a screenplay by him for the film Thieves Highway, released in the same year. Not to be left out is Horace McCoy’s 1935 They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, filmed as that in 1969.  And how about the 1948 The Lady from Shanghai which took off from the  little-known 1938 novel, If I Die Before I  Wake, by Sherwood King?

Definitions of film noir provide a basis for discussion. Lehman writes about “Fog, rained-on streets, cigarettes in dark rooms, an unmade bed. A curtain is drawn (‘the man in the hat standing at the streetlamp has been following her since morning’). Two shot glasses flank a half-empty flask on the  table….Across the street you can see a ‘CHOP SUEY’ sign in faded red neon”. It’s John Garfield dying in the dark, rain-swept street in the 1951 He Ran All the Way (from the 1947 novel by Sam Ross). It could be an intriguing observation on some of the writers and directors who specialised in noir themes that Guy Endore, Hugo Butler, and John Berry, all connected with the film, fell foul of the House Un-American Committee when it came to Hollywood in the early-1950s.  

The visual element is obviously important where films are concerned. But music is important, too: “The music is as necessary in black and white movies of the 1940s – especially hard-boiled detective movies or noir thrillers – as the drinks the characters imbibe, the suits the men wear, the chic hats worn by the women, and the night spots they frequent”. He could have added “and the cigarettes they smoke”. To be fair he does have a separate chapter about the presence of cigarettes in films and quotes “a cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces”, a line from the song, “These Foolish Things”. He goes on to list a number of films where the lighting and smoking of cigarettes seems important. “Cigarettes are the single greatest prop of all time”, he says, but then adds that, to quote “the poet and noir connoisseur Suzanne Lummis”, “cigarettes had to go. But the cinema lost a language”.  There are lines from a song, “Deep in a Dream”, that always make me think of old films even if they were never actually sung in one: ”I dim all the lights and I sink in my chair./The smoke from my cigarette climbs through the air./The walls of my room fade away in the blue,/And I’m deep in a dream of you”.    

 There were the composers who came up with the scores that emphasised what was happening on screen. Franz Waxman (1947 Dark Passage, 1950 Night and the City), Max Steiner (1946 The Big Sleep, 1948 Key Largo), David Raksin (1944 Laura, 1955 The Big Combo), Miklos Rozsa (1946 The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1950 The Asphalt Jungle), Dimitri Tiomkin (1946 The Dark Mirror, 1951 Strangers on a Train).  I’m being very selective in picking out just a few names and a few films. Lehman also stresses how appropriate jazz, big-band music, and popular songs were for noir films. When Franchot Tone meets a lady in a bar in the 1944 Phantom Lady the music she plays on the jukebox is the lovely “I’ll Remember April”, a song from the that decade. I think I ought to add that the first appearance of “I’ll Remember April” in a film was less auspicious. It was sung by Dick Foran in a 1942 Abbott and Costello comedy, Ride ‘Em Cowboy.  Phantom Lady also has Elisha Cook Jnr as a drummer who sits in with the band in a jazz club while trying to seduce an attractive woman and shows off his flashy technique. As for jazz in noir films, I can’t leave out the 1950 D.O.A., where Edmond O’Brien finds himself in a bar called “The Fisherman” full of hip characters urging on a wild tenor-saxophone soloist. It’s somewhat over-the-top but fits the atmosphere that is being created for what happens to the confused O’Brien.

And I was delighted to see how Lehman notes that, in a scene in The Big Sleep where Lauren Bacall has to amend her previously brittle relationship with Humphrey Bogart, the pianist in the bar where they meet is playing “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan”. I’ve probably bored a number of people over the years by pointing this out. But it’s sad that so few these days seem to remember the songs of the 1930s and 1940s. Ida Lupino, who Lehman rightly pays tribute to, singing “Again” in the 1948 Road House, with Cornel Wilde and Richard Widmark hovering nearby, stays in my mind. A genuine entertainer of the type that Lupino plays was Hadda Brooks who appeared in the 1950 In a Lonely Place based on Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1947 novel. Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame starred in the film.

Lehman doesn’t only discuss novels as providing material for films. He analyses the work not just of writers like Raymond Chandler, James M.Cain, and Dashiell Hammett, all of them of key importance in the noir canon, but also, I was pleased to note, looks at novels by Eric Ambler. He may not be thought of as a noir writer, but it’s a flexible category, anyway, and a couple of his books were adapted for films (1943 Journey Into Fear and 1944 The Mask of Dimitrious) often included in lists of noir-inclined productions.  Working from memory I think it’s in Dimitrious that a police chief questioning a suspect says, “Your passport describes you as a writer, but that is a most elastic term”.

There is Lionel White whose 1955 Clean Break became Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing, described by Lehman as “classic noir”. And Cornell Woolrich. Quite a few of his novels were turned into films. I’ll mention three –1942 Phantom Lady, filmed 1944; 1943 The Black Angel, filmed 1946; 1944 Deadline at Dawn, filmed 1946. The latter has an interesting screenplay by Clifford Odets, one-time left-wing playwright. I’ve lapsed into relating the books to films, but they’re worth reading for their own sake, as are many so-called pulp novels. It’s a field in which there can be wide variations in the quality of the writing but there is decent work to be found there.  Lehman names David Goodis, Lionel White, Fredric Brown, and Charles Willeford as worthwhile writers, and I’d happily add quite a few more names, including Gil Brewer, William P. McGivern, Charles Williams, Jim Thompson, Day Keene, Steve Fisher (his 1941 I Wake Up Screaming turned into the 1941 film which is often seen as an influential example of early noir), Ed Lacy, Dorothy B. Hughes, and more.  

I make no apologies for letting my enthusiasm take flight. Lehman own enthusiasm is infectious, whether he’s talking about films, books, music and much else. He’s good to read on Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolfe mysteries and how he “adapted the model of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson from late Victorian England to metropolitan Manhattan, circa 1935-1965”. He mentions Kenneth Fearing, “The patron saint of poetry noir”, whose “Depression-era poems are bitter, colloquial, urban, noisy, and polyvocal”.  Fearing also wrote the 1946 novel The Big Clock which became a film in 1948 with a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, himself author of a number of crime novels. Lehman devotes a relatively long chapter to Alfred Hitchcock and enthuses about Vertigo. I admit to a preference for Rear Window if I have to choose between the two, but Lehman is persuasive in his advocacy of Vertigo as classic Hitchcock.

There are comments on books by “The Great British Spymasters” -  Somerset Maugham, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, John Le Carrè  - and again to my delight on the 1947 film Odd Man Out, which has always seemed to me one of the best British productions of its period. Its story of a wounded IRA gunman on the run after a failed payroll robbery fits into the noir category as he moves through Belfast looking for help and meeting his inevitable end. I can’t think of many other British films of its time which had the convictions of American noir. The 1947 It Always Rains on Sunday (out of a 1945 novel by Arthur La Bern) might fit the bill, and the joint Anglo-American 1950 Night and the City (from a 1938 novel by Gerald Kersh) certainly does. But what else?  Perhaps the 1956 Yield to the Night, with Diana Dors in a fine performance as a woman waiting to be hanged (the film was based on the Ruth Ellis case) has a kind of noir fatalism about it.

The Mysterious Romance of Murder is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in recent months, admittedly because so many of its concerns match my own. David Lehman is on my wavelength when, describing a  certain aspect of noir films, he says it’s a style “compatible with Edward Hopper pictures of alleys, hotel rooms, and all-night diners on the one hand, and Franz Kline’s black-and-white abstract paintings of the 1950s on the other”. Some years ago during a visit to Paris I bought a copy of Lehman’s The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry and reading it felt comfortable with what was said, its range of references, and how it all came together. I was reminded of it when reading The Mysterious Romance of Murder. Both books are clearly the products of a writer who obviously loves the books, films, and music he is concerned with..