The question of “what is noir?” cannot be answered in just one concrete, full-proof definition. This is evident strictly from the four readings that I explored this week. Although “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “The Killers”, “The Shadow”, and “Debris” all vary in form, setting, plot, and many other elements; there are certain commonalities that begin to emerge as characteristics of noir as a whole.
Some tropes that surface in these readings include overall darkness and night time, murder plots, and name calling, sexism, and prejudice. In the first murder attempt of Nick Papadakis in James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, it is already set at night, but on top of it all, the lights go out in the house, due to a cat stepping on the fuse box, followed by a typical gunshot-sounding bang that was the blowing of the fuse. This darkness leads to much ambiguity in the plot, as Cora is unsure of whether Nick sees her strike him and the police officer is initially skeptical of the power going out. “The Killers”, by Ernest Hemingway, is completely written in a night time urban setting, as Nick walks through the dark streets under arc lights when going to and returning from his visit to Ole Andreson’s house. The presence of darkness is immediately evident in the title of my next reading, “The Shadow”. That title alone is typical of the noir concept of darkness. In addition, the main characters spend the night at a mansion throughout the thick of the plot. Emily’s interaction with the Campbell son is laced with darkness in “Debris”. When the man comes by the house, it is described as almost “entirely dark” inside the kitchen, and at the time when Emily shoots him, it notes her lack of flashlight. Despite the varying methods of creating dimly lit scenes, they are common in each of the four examples that I read this week.
Crime is typical of every noir piece, and in these four in particular, murder seems to be the overwhelming choice of the authors. Cora and Frank make two attempts to murder Nick, the first of which was planned by the infamous Femme Fatale, Cora Papadakis. Femme Fatales are another trope typical in noir pieces, but out of my choices this week, Cora is the only one. Hemingway’s work also contains a murder plot, in which Al and Max plan to kill Ole Andreson when and if he comes into the restaurant to eat, which he typically does. Between the four main characters of “The Shadow”, there are a few murder plans and actual executions. Due to Corvet’s initial death threat towards Dubrille, Martan, and Evans, they attempt to counter it when they think he is coming after them. Dubrille goes on to actually kill who he thinks is Corvet, but who is actually Martan exacting his own personal revenge. In turn, Martan kills Dubrille at the same time. Kevin Hardcastle’s “Debris” also revolves around several murders, including those of two women killed by the Campbell son and the Campbell son’s murder, carried out by Emily. Whether successful or not, murder plots are clearly a recurring trope in noir.
Name calling, sexism, and prejudice command the first two readings that I chose. In “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, Nick Papadakis is commonly referred to as “the Greek” and Cora takes strides to make sure that Frank does not think she is Mexican, because apparently, being a “Mex” is an extreme negative. The dialogue of “The Killers” is covered with sexist and racial slurs. The grown men working in the restaurant, repeatedly called “boy” as a name of inferiority, are also told that they would make a good wife someday and are considered “girl friends”. In addition, Sam, the cook, is constantly referred to as the “n” word by Al and Max.
When reading these examples of noir, one cannot help but notice the enormous amount of dialogue that constitutes this style. It practically makes up majority of every work that I read this week. Within this dialogue, it is becoming apparent that slang is typically used to represent the time period in which the noir piece was written and to give personality to the characters. For the most part, it seems that the sections that were not dialogue were typically made up of in-depth, physical descriptions of everything from the scenery and weather, to the way people dress and their body features. The use of adjectives is abundant in noir, to the point that I could practically see the characters and scenes that the authors were describing in my mind.
Two major themes jumped out of these readings. The first, the overwhelming desire to escape or get out of town, is best illustrated by “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. Frank, being a born drifter and gypsy, only settles down in one place because of his love for Cora. However, from the very beginning he begs her to run away with him and just live on the road like he used to do. She likes the idea at first, but soon realizes that she would hate that lifestyle because she is used to the best clothes, the best cars, and wealth in general. Even after Nick is dead, Frank still attempts to get Cora to leave town with him because of the Greek ghost that he sees following him around. Frank wants to leave Cora’s old life behind, including her deceased husband, their business, and their house. Cora cannot stand this idea and that leads Frank to escape on the road for a week with another woman. “The Killers” also features the need for escape through Nick. After talking with Ole Andreson and realizing that he cannot stand the thought of the man just waiting around to be killed and knowing that Al and Max are going to kill him, Nick expresses his need to get out of that town and presumably does so. Escape and the longing for it laces the past of the four main characters of “The Shadow”; Corvet, Dubrille, Martan, and Evans. The main confrontation of the plot revolves around the betrayal between the men over their escape, whether it was over accusations of cheating Corvet out of his water supply during their escape, ratting him out to the police after their escape, or betraying Martan when he tried to escape alone. The desire to escape their past situation on Devil’s Island led to the eventual confrontation that developed throughout “The Shadow”. The second theme, betrayal, is included in a variety of ways depending on the piece of noir. For example, in Cain’s work, Cora and Frank both betray Nick by having an affair and they betray each other when put against one another during the police investigation. Although their betrayal of each other does not have a direct consequence due to the solid lawyer that they had working for them, it leads to mistrust in their relationship. “The Killers” includes the thematic element of betrayal through a more indirect avenue, as Nick and George speculate that Al and Max are trying to kill Ole Andreson because he betrayed, or double-crossed, someone in Chicago. As indicated in the discussion of the previous theme, there is a series of betrayals in “The Shadow”. Corvet thinks that the other men betrayed him by drinking his share of the water during their escape; one of them actually betrays Corvet to the police, sending him back to Devil’s Island after they escape; and Dubrille betrays Martan when Martan attempts to escape the island alone. These themes can and do apply to many different noir plots.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the noir pieces for this week. The only one that was sort of a let-down was “The Killers”, and that is simply because it was rather anticlimactic and did not live up to its title since no one was actually killed. The suspense and dramatic tendencies of the noir style keep me reading and on the edge of my seat. I could not help but get emotionally attached to the characters due to their in-depth descriptions. And that is precisely why I felt utter shock when Cora died, for example. Even though noir comes with the disclaimer of “no happy endings”, I still find myself wanting one, and that is one of the reasons why I enjoyed reading these selections this week.