What Is This Thing Called Noir?

by Alain Silver and Linda Brookover

Of course, I'm not talking about commonplace affairs, planned out and prudent, but of an all-consuming passion that feeds on itself and is blind to everything else: of Mad Love. This love isolates the lovers, makes them ignore normal social obligations, ruptures ordinary family ties, and ultimately brings them to destruction. This love frightens society, shocks it profoundly. And society uses all its means to separate these lovers as it would two dogs in the street.1

In motion pictures the epitome of amour fou or "mad love" has most been associated with couples on the run. These fugitive couples were outcasts and outlaws, hunted and hopeless, and usually dead or dying at the film's end. As a sub-genre, the "fugitive couple" film has a long history from D.W. Griffith's Scarlet Days in 1919 to 1994's Natural Born Killers or True Romance. But even admitting such modern variants as Thelma and Louise, there are still only a score or two of pictures that fit this type. Many if not most of these were made as part of the classic era of film noir, in a fifteen year span from You Only Live Once (1937) to Where Danger Lives (1952). Both the obsessive character of amour fou and the alienated posture of the fugitives in relation to society as a whole are prototypical of the themes of film noir.

In his survey of noir, "Paint It Black," Raymond Durgnat gives a thumbnail sketch of the fugitive couples under the heading "On the Run": "Here the criminals, or the framed innocents are essentially passive and fugitive, and, even if tragically or despicably guilty, sufficiently sympathetic for the audience to be caught between, on the one hand, pity, identification and regret, and, on the other, moral condemnation and conformist fatalism."2 As usual, Durgnat's prose is so densely packed that it masks the shortcomings of his analysis. What permits, even compels, viewer pity or identification with the innocent and guilty is the nature of most fugitive couples' love: obsessive, erotically charged, far beyond simple Romanticism.

I. The Innocent

"Teach me how to kiss."

Since film noir is as much a style as it is a genre, the manner in which the wild passion of the fugitives is portrayed is more significant than the plot points which keep them on the run. Some of these lovers are little more than children, like Bowie and Keechie in Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1947) or the high school girl and her simple-minded, ex-convict pen pal in the recent Guncrazy (1992). In their naiveté, typified by Keechie's request to Bowie to teach her how to kiss, both films recall Fritz Lang's seminal couple in You Only Live Once.

Lang's narrative focus in You Only Live Once is typical of his deterministic world view and, like his earlier Fury (1936), is as concerned with the outrage of the unjustly punished as with the fugitive couple. The director's naturalistic staging relies on the conventions of casting and the innate audience sympathy for stars Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney to maintain identification with a fugitive couple irrevocably at odds with the forces of law and order. As Eddie Taylor is released from his third term in prison, he is greeted at the gate by his fiancée, Jo Graham. Eddie promises her that he is through with crime; and he marries her, settles down, and takes a job as a truck driver. Yet after a local bank is robbed and an employee killed, Eddie becomes a prime suspect. Although innocent, he is arrested, convicted on circumstantial evidence, and, in view of his past record, sentenced to death. Not only is Eddie Taylor thus rapidly overwhelmed by the fateful forces of the film's narrative, but Lang accents his harsh determinism in You Only Live Once with an accumulation of chance encounters and telling images, culminating when the truck used in the robbery, evidence which could prove Taylor's innocence, slips silently beneath the surface of a pool of quicksand. That image becomes a metaphor for the luckless Taylor, slowly and helplessly drowning under the weight of circumstantial events. Ultimately, because Lang is, in Andrew Sarris' words "obsessed with the structure of the trap,"3 the fateful turn of events is more important than the reasons for Eddie and Jo's devotion to one another.

Henry Fonda's interpretation of Taylor contains residues of hope and idealism which are almost incongruous in a man thrice-imprisoned by society for his past criminal acts. Nonetheless this outlook would become prototypical of later characters in the same predicament as Eddie. Whereas Lang's Fury concentrated on the question of mob psychology and recruited such stereotypes as the gruffly authoritarian sheriff, the politically motivated governor, and even the righteously liberal district attorney to probe that psychology, Lang does not elect to dramatize many of the possible parallel events in You Only Live Once.

As the title suggests, the individual protagonists, Eddie and Jo, and their one life are the major concern. On the date set for his execution, Eddie is sent a message that a gun has been hidden for him in the prison hospital. By the act of slitting his wrists, he has himself admitted to the hospital, finds the gun, and, holding the prison doctor as a hostage, demands his release. Both Eddie and the warden are unaware that the actual robber has been captured and that a pardon is being prepared for Eddie. When this word arrives and the warden announces it to him, Eddie assumes that it is merely a ruse. He refuses to give up and impulsively shoots the chaplain who bars his way.

As You Only Live Once is more subjective than other of Lang's films, so is its direction keyed to the emotions of Eddie and Jo. In the opening sequences, a series of elegiac details establish Eddie and Jo's romantic dependence on each other, culminating as they stand in the evening by the frog pond of a small motel where Eddie explains to Jo that the frogs mate for life and always die together. Even as they feel secure in themselves, the motel manager is inside searching through his collection of pulp detective magazines under the harsh glare of his desk lamp. When he finds several photos and a story on Eddie's criminal past, Lang underscores the irony first with a shot of a frog jumping into the pond and diffracting Eddie's reflection in the water. Then comes a view of a dark, vaporous swamp where the truck that could prove Eddie innocent of a crime of which he is not yet aware sinks into the quicksand. Although the frog pond scene could have either ridiculed the naiveté of Lang's characters or awkwardly stressed their lowly social status, Lang's staging and cutting makes it a simple, evocative metaphor for the entire narrative. As with Fonda's optimism, this elegiac moment is also a stylistic prototype for the treatment of a young and innocent couple on the run that endured throughout the film noir cycle.

When Jo, now pregnant, joins Eddie after his escape, the audience must expect that, for this couple as it would be for numerous later fugitives in film noir, the only way to freedom is through death. After their baby is born and entrusted to Jo's sister, they drive toward the border to escape. At a roadblock a flurry of gunfire forces them to abandon the car and flee on foot. A few yards from freedom, both are shot, Eddie falling last while he carries the already mortally wounded Jo in his arms. Despite the non-realistic, quasi-religious conceit, reworked from Lang's Der Müde Tod (1921), of having the dead chaplain cry out "Open the Gates" in voice-over, the final shot of his couple through the cross hairs of a police sniper's gun scope is an image that is both characteristically noir and surprisingly modern. Thirty years later Arthur Penn went a little further when he staged a realistic ending to Bonnie and Clyde (1967) by having them and their car perforated by scores of bullets. Of course, Penn's film purported to be the saga of the real Bonnie and Clyde. Lang's fugitive couple was merely inspired by those actual killers on the run.

They Live by Night shares an elegiac aspect with You Only Live Once in its contrast of the lovers' feelings with the insensitivity of the world around. In a way Nicholas Ray's film is something of a fable. Its characters with their odd-sounding names--Bowie, Keechie, T-Dub, Chicamaw--exist in a world of grubby garages and cheap motels, cut off from the mainstream, from the ordinary, in an aura of myth. As its fugitive lovers are little more than children, the noir ironies of They Live by Night are reinforced even more strongly than in You Only Live Once by the very youth and innocence of its "outlaw" protagonists.

As the brief prologue explains, Bowie and Keechie are not just "thieves like us." That is not why society isolates them. As an early writer on Ray's work suggested "by their very simplicity and their desire for happiness, they are isolated, exposed to the hatred of a culture which would destroy that which it no longer possesses: purity in its desires."4 That may seem an oversimplification; but Bowie, at least, really is too naive to survive. It is not merely that he is just a "kid"--the nickname which the press gives him to add color to their depiction of his flight--playing at being a man. It is because his lack of sophistication permits real criminals like T-Dub and Chicamaw to take advantage of him. How else but through his naiveté could they persuade Bowie that the only way to clear himself of an old criminal charge is to get money for a lawyer; and how else to get money for a lawyer than by helping his friends to rob a bank! Even Keechie's common sense cannot save Bowie from his own ingenuousness. She may help by removing him from the influence of T-Dub and Chicamaw; but the couple cannot remove themselves from the constraining influences of society itself. It surrounds them. Like the doorbell of the wedding broker that plays an off-key wedding march, while he hawks a "deluxe ceremony including a snapshot of the happy couple," the real world touches them with its cheapness and insensitivity. It entices them with the hope of escape like the bungalow of a backwoods motel where they find temporary refuge.

In the end, Bowie is guilty and he must die. But unlike Eddie Taylor, in Ray's hands, Bowie's fate seems less a question of implacable destiny than simple mischance. The fact that Keechie survives creates an alternate prototype for the ending of a fugitive couple drama. The Christmas tree and the small presents they leave behind when they must flee their bungalow are icons of hope and kindness that help sustain Bowie and Keechie in their brief time together.

It could be argued that the poignancy of the relationships in both You Only Live Once and They Live by Night, linked to life-mates in the animal world or wedding chapels and Christmas trees, may seem more romantic than noir. What is darkest about these movies, particularly in the context of mainstream Hollywood, is that one or both halves of each couple perish. Obviously one of the motivating factors is the straightforward concept of moral retribution, of the need that is both abstractly dramatic and backed by the dictates of the Hollywood production code for the guilty to die. It is by emphasizing the innocence of their protagonists--literally for Eddie who is not guilty of the crime for which he is condemned and emotionally for Bowie who is ensnared by the older, duplicitous criminals--that filmmakers such as Lang and Ray make these films even darker and firmly imbed them into the noir cycle

More "upbeat" examples of the fugitive couple plot in film noir could be the Douglas Sirk/Sam Fuller Shockproof (1949) or Tomorrow Is Another Day (1951, directed by Felix Feist the scenarist/director of the manic The Devil Thumbs A Ride four years earlier). Both of these couples survive, but the noir sensibility of these pictures is sustained through amour fou. Like You Only Live Once, both feature protagonists who have already been convicted of a crime when the narrative opens. Shockproof adds the element of the "rogue cop" in the parole officer whose obsessive love drives him to flee with a women parolee accused of murder. Tomorrow Is Another Day goes even farther. The prospective couple are a bizarre admixture of innocence and depravity. The man, Bill (Steve Cochran), has grown up in prison convicted for a murder committed under the influence of an uncontrollable temper while still a youth. Paroled as an adult, he is sexually inexperienced. As portrayed by Cochran, better known for such supporting roles as the gangster who cuckolds Cagney's Cody Jarrett in White Heat, Bill has a physical maturity which belies his stunted emotional growth. The woman, Catherine (Ruth Roman), who becomes the object of Bill's obsessive love is a taxi dancer/prostitute. Again the element of the rogue cop is introduced, this time when a detective, who is himself in love with the woman, sexually assaults her and is killed. Like most of Hollywood's fugitive couples, including Eddie and Jo and Bowie and Keechie, the lovers of Tomorrow Is Another Day are proletarian. As with the couple in Shockproof, who find work in an oil field, Bill and Catherine seek refuge in the anonymity of migrant farming.

In the end, the subtlest irony of both Shockproof and Tomorrow Is Another Day is that neither of these couples take charge of their own destiny and create their own salvation. Rather they survive because they are both exonerated by their victims. For many fugitive couples, particularly in the context of film noir, the emotional sustenance which may be derived from any hope of escape or the kindness of strangers is secondary to their own obsessive love. When amour four is as Buñuel suggested an all-consuming passion, every action--hiding out, stealing money, killing interlopers--is a desperate attempt to remain at large where that passion may be sustained.

II. The Guilty

"We go together. I don't know how. Maybe like guns and ammunition go together."

Although it was made just two years later, Gun Crazy and its couple are far-removed from the innocence of They Live by Night. When Clyde first shows Bonnie his gun in Arthur Penn's film, she casually fondles the barrel. As a sexual metaphor such a staging pales in comparison to the meeting of the lovers in director Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy. The first shot of Annie Laurie Starr, the sideshow sharpshooter of Gun Crazy (originally released as Deadly is the Female), is from a low angle as she strides into the frame firing two pistols above her head. Bart Tare accepts her open challenge to a shoot-off with anyone in the audience; and soon he and Laurie are firing at crowns of matches on each other's head. The sequence ends with an exchange of glances between the two. Laurie, the loser, smiles seductively. Bart, the victor with his potency established, grins from ear to ear.

This is merely the first meeting. Bart gets a job with the carnival, and from then on, Laurie wears her beret at an angle, her sweaters tight, and her lipstick thick. When a jealous sideshow manager fires them both, Laurie tries to convince Bart that there is more money to be had by staging shooting exhibitions in banks rather than tents. When he hesitates, she sits on the edge of a bed, demurely slips on her stockings, and issues her ultimatum: take it or leave me. Bart capitulates.

The aura of eroticism which Lewis builds so intensely into the first part of Gun Crazy is, albeit 1950 vintage, anything but subtle. As Borde and Chaumeton enthusiastically noted back in 1955, "Gun Crazy, we dare say, brought an exceptionally attractive but murderous couple to the screen."5 The physical aspect of the lovers does much to influence the viewer's perception; and the performance of the actors can sustain or counteract the visual impression, often assisted by the physical details of costuming and make-up. Catherine in Tomorrow Is Another Day, for instance, appears, in all senses of the word, "guiltier," with blonde hair, heavier make-up, and the gaudier clothes of her profession. As a plainly dressed brunette, her image is entirely different. Fred MacMurray's sneer as Walter Neff and Barbara Stanwyck's brazen, square-shouldered sexuality are keys to their outlook in Double Indemnity. Their underlying emotional estrangement is reinforced by the mise-en-scene. Two typical moments are found in the often reproduced scene stills of the couple side-by-side in a market but not facing each other [see p. 34] or her hiding behind his apartment door [see p. 64]. How would the audience have perceived them if they had acted and been posed throughout the film, as they did in the publicity still reproduced above?

Because they are an "attractive couple," because, as Bart puts it, they go together explosively like guns and ammunition, the intensity of the budding amour fou of the couple in Gun Crazy, is immediate and overt. His companions on the carnival outing cannot help but sense it, as does the sideshow manager, who hires Bart nonetheless. While Laurie's passion is less obvious at first, she not only marries Bart, but pins her hopes on him. At that point, the full madness of amour fou is ready to erupt.

As Gun Crazy progresses the lovers' continued physical attraction is keyed, for Laurie at least, to the excitement of their crime spree. Laurie tells Bart that she gets afraid and that is why she almost shoots down innocent people. Her real feelings are most clear in the celebrated long take during a small-town bank robbery. With the camera in the back of a stolen Cadillac for the entire sequence, Bart and Laurie drive in dressed in Western costumes, ostensibly to be part of the town's festival. The suggestion, of course, is that they are throw-backs to another era, desperadoes of an ilk closer to Jesse James or Belle Starr than Bonnie and Clyde. While Bart is inside the bank, Laurie uses her charms to distract and knock out a policeman who happens by. The encounter has agitated and thrilled her. As they race off, she looks back, her hands around Bart's neck as if to embrace him. In that sustained, breathless glance, backwards towards the camera, her smile is unmistakably sexual.

By more contemporary standards, the mere innuendo of sexual pleasure from a criminal act may seem rather tame. But the staging of the scene in Gun Crazy, the tightly controlled perspective from the back of the car and the entire sequence shot without a cut, creates a tension for the viewer that is subtly analogous to the couple's. The release of the tension as the sequence ends is keyed to Laurie's expression. What is building, to use more contemporary terminology, is an addiction. Laurie's addiction to violence, initially motivated by the desire for "money and all the things it will buy," is now the need for an adrenaline rush. In feeding her habit, Bart is a typical co-dependent. Unlike earlier fugitive couples, who flee to save themselves from unjust accusations, Bart and Laurie choose to become criminals. As they come to depend more and more on each other, the process of They Live by Night is reversed. Rather than being innocents whose total, platonic interdependence becomes a sexual relationship, Bart and Laurie's purely physical attraction becomes an emotional connection.

Appropriately then, the emotional climax of the picture follows immediately after their last job together. Laurie had planned for them to separate and rejoin later to throw off any pursuers. They drive to where a second car is waiting and start off in opposite directions. Abruptly and at the same moment, they veer around and rejoin each other. Like Buñuel's archetypes, Lewis' couple stand embracing each other in the street and figuratively serve notice on society that they will not be separated. After this declaration of amour fou, that they will perish is a given. They die together, he shooting her in a last, perverse act of love.


1. Luis Buñuel quoted in Giuseppe Lo Duca, L'Érotisme au Cinéma (supplement), Montreuil: Edilu, 1968, p. 44.

2. Reprinted above, p. 45.

3. Andrew Sarris, "The American Cinema," Film Culture, No. 28 (Spring, 1963), p. 14.

4. François Truchaud, Nicholas Ray, Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1965, p. 17.

5. Reprinted above, p. 21.

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