Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Roots of Film Noir -- February 15, 2011

This post is part of For the Love of Film (Noir), The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted again this year by Ferdy on Films (http://www.ferdyonfilms.com/) and The Self-Styled Siren (http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/).
Click on contemporary images to see larger versions.
Please be aware that if you haven't read any of Hammett's stories or seen any of the three movie versions of The Maltese Falcon, or the two versions of The Glass Key or the one version of The Dain Curse that there are spoilers ahead.
Our friends at Wikipedia tell us that French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton coined the term "film noir" in their 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941-1953. Borde and Chaumeton say that film noirs (I'm going to avoid a long discussion on the proper plural for the term) have five defining characteristics: They are oneiric (dream-like), strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel. That sounds good to me, although I can think of some children's stories that are also oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel.
I am going to concentrate on one author whose books, and the films made from his books, had a significant influence on film noir.
Samuel Dasheill Hammett was born in Maryland in 1894. In 1915 he went to work for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He left Pinkerton to serve in the Army during World War One. He did not see combat, but he did contract a case of tuberculosis. After his discharge from the Army and the sanitarium, he returned to Pinkerton, working in the San Francisco office, in the Flood Building at Powell and Market, but after a while his health forced him to quit.

He took up writing and supported himself by writing advertising copy for the Albert S Samuels Company, a jewelery store. Some sources claim that Hammett coined their slogan, "The house of lucky wedding rings," but Samuels' website says they started using it when the business opened in 1891. My wife and I bought our wedding rings there. A famous street clock stood outside of Samuels Jewelers on Market. The branch is gone, but the clock is still there.

Hammett found success as a writer, which allowed him to quit the advertising racket, by publishing stories, especially in Black Mask, a pulp magazine.

How did Hammett's stories and the movies made from them reflect the five features of film noir?

1. Oneiric (dream like) - Hammett's stories are realistic, but dreams creep in around the edges of many of them. The title of Hammett's novel The Glass Key is explained when Janet Henry describes a dream she has had about wandering through the woods with Ned Beaumont. They are both starving and they come across a cabin. Through the window they can see a table set with food. They find a key and open the door. The floor is covered with snakes. They get the snakes to come out and they go in to eat. Later she says she didn't tell him the truth about the dream. The key was made of glass. After it unlocked the door, the key broke. They couldn't lock the door and the snakes crawled on them and she woke up screaming.
At the conclusion of The Maltese Falcon, the sympathetic cop, Tom Polhaus, picks up the falcon, remarks that it is heavy, and asks Sam Spade what it is made of. Spade says "The stuff that dreams are made of."
2. Strange - The Dain Curse, Hammett's second novel, featured the Continental Op, Hammett's nameless detective. The Op gets entangled with Gabrielle Dain, a junkie who thinks she is both de-evolved and cursed. She believes that people who get close to her are going to die. And what do you know, almost everyone around her does die. Along the way, we encounter the Temple of the Holy Grail, an oddball cult with phantoms floating around its rooms. We wind up seeing the Op helping Gabrielle break her addiction. All of this probably explains why no one made a movie out this story until 1978. James Coburn, who resembled Hammett more than the squat, powerful Op, played a character who had a name. Sacrilege.
3. Erotic - Sam Spade, detective in The Maltese Falcon, was sleeping with his partner's wife. He flirted heavily with his secretary, Effie Perrine. After mystery woman Brigid O'Shaughnessy engaged Spade and partner Miles Archer to deal with international adventurer Floyd Thursby, things got complicated. Spade wound up sleeping with Miss O'Shaughnessy, too. It's not so clear in the 1941 movie, because of the production code, but it is quite clear in the book. There are more erotic scenes in The Glass Key, but I don't have my copy handy, so I can't quote from them.

4. Ambivalent - Sam Spade's partner Miles Archer followed Floyd Thursby down Burrett Street, seen above in 2010. The police had Spade come to identify Archer's body. The police were surprised that Spade did not want to go down the slope that existed on the left before the present buildings went up to inspect Archer's body. Spade later explained his ambivalence: "When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. It's bad all around-bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere."

According to researchers like Don Herron of the famous Hammett Walking Tour, Spade and Archer's office was in the Hunter-Dulin Building, seen behind the former headquarters of Crocker Bank. The building was also the home of NBC's West Coast Orange Network.

In 2007, the San Francisco Arts Commission (http://www.sfartscommission.org/) set up a series of posters representing characters from Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (one of my favorite novels). Artist Owen Smith made this image to represent gunsel Wilmer and detective Sam Spade.

In a bit of ambivalent wording, Spade refers to Casper Gutman's gun-toting little boyfriend Wilmer as a "gunsel." Readers of the book and later the Breen Office, which administered the Production Code, assumed that "gunsel" refers to a gunman. Actually, it refers to a younger man kept by an older man.
On a larger scale, Hammett was a man of left-leaning attitudes, who later joined the Communist Party USA. Much of his work for Pinkerton involved breaking strikes. Talk about ambivalence.
5. Cruel - One of the most disturbing scenes in The Glass Key involves Ned Beaumont being tortured by the goons Jeff and Rusty. Jeff in particular enjoys beating Ned, referring to him as his "Little Rubber Ball" and marveling at the way that "You can't croak him. He's tough. He's a tough baby. He likes this."

In this still from the 1941 version of the movie, note the smile on Sam Spade's face before he punches Joel Cairo.

Sam Spade ate a meal at John's Grill, which is still open on Ellis Street. Today it houses a replica of the black bird and offers the same meal that Spade ordered. Nothing to do with cruelty, just going on with Hammett's story.

Hammett left San Francisco and went to Hollywood, where he worked as a screenwriter and pursued his interest in drinking. At some point he began a long-term affair with writer Lillian Hellman, which provided some of the inspiration for his last completed novel, The Thin Man. Money from movies based on The Thin Man and radio shows based on it, on Sam Spade, and an original series called The Fat Man, provided Hammett with enough money that he didn't have to write to live.

When World War II broke out, Hammett again volunteered for the army. Despite his age and his lingering health problems, he served honorably during the war. When the Red Scare broke out after the war, Hammett, a liberal who had once belonged the the Communist Party USA, became a target. His radio shows were cancelled. He eventually went to prison because he refused to name names. His health broken, he died a few years later.
Samuel D Hammett, veteran of World War I and World War II, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

I took all the contemporary photos between 2007 and last week. Magazine covers are from Cover Browser: www.coverbrowser.com.
Thank you to Ferdy on Films (http://www.ferdyonfilms.com/) and The Self-Styled Siren (http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/) for organizing this blogathon. I'm having fun and learning.


Please consider donating to the Film Noir Foundation. We are raising money to restore The Sound of Fury, a film noir that should be better known.


Marilyn said...

You're welcome, Joe. And thank YOU for this walk through the life and work of Hammett. Noir really is all based in literature, so I'm glad someone is paying attention to the roots of noir, as you so rightly title this post.

Anonymous said...

While I love Hammett's novels, for me the Continental Op stories are the heart of the matter. Dead Yellow Women, The Big Knockover, The Whosis Kid. To really get Hammett you need to read the stories and have that zen one-ness with the Op. Good post.

Tinky said...

This is a great addition to the noir posts--nice analysis, and I LOVED the tour!

Charles J. Sperling said...


You can actually write an excellent piece on Hammett without mentioning Flitcraft of the falling beams!

Seriously, as a big Hammett fan (hey, I have two radio versions of his Scott Anderson story "Two Sharp Knives" from the "Suspense" program), I thought this was well-nigh perfect. The only real flaw -- a slight one -- was the surname of the heroine of *The Dain Curse* (done for television in 1978, with James Coburn as Hamilton Nash, a renamed Continental Op. I would have called him Jimmy Wright, but I'm not sure then how many would have appreciated it!).

Gabrielle's the daughter of a Dain, but she's really Gabrielle Leggett. (Or "that Gabrielle," according to a disgruntled former employee.)

Dare we hope for a piece on Raymond Chandler for a bookend?

Joe Thompson said...

Anonymous: I agree. You can't beat the Op. As I get older, I even begin to look like him.

Tinky: I'm glad you enjoyed it. I forgot to mention that the Hunter-Dulin building, where Spade and Archer may have worked, was across the street from my grandfather's restaurant, the Fly Trap. Long story about the name.

Charles: I thought about the parable of Flitcraft, but I couldn't fit in. Thank you for spotting the Gabrielle goof. I fixed her name.

I would love to do a piece on Chandler, but it's a heck of a week at work. I was also thinking of a piece on D.O.A. or Dark Passage. Great San Francisco movies.

Ténèbres à la lumière... said...

Hi! Joe Thompson...
Thank-you, for this walk through "The Roots Of Film Noir" and a very detailed look at writer Dashiell Hammett's Life and Times..too!

Marilyn said,"Noir really is all based in literature, so I'm glad someone is paying attention to the roots of noir..."

Joe Thompson,
I have to agree with Marilyn, about Film noir and the Literature connection.
Because I post Literature on my (Film-noir inspired FYI page too!)
This is an extremely, nice post-I hope that you, don't mind if I link back to your post on my FYI Ning.

Thanks, for sharing!
DeeDee ;-D

Joe Thompson said...

DeeDee: Please feel free to link back. Thanks for the kind words and for all the work you have done on the blogathon.