In the 1940s thrillers, criminal impulses generally originated in personal malaise or psychic dysfunction. Any social critique is avoided… at least on the surface.
There were, in fact, a few characteristics in these films that suggest the hero’s personal experience is the figuration of a larger social issue.
Most of these stories are concerned with crime, very often murder. While in previous years, crime had been seen as something ‘other’, something ‘outside’ that needs to be controlled, in film noir crime gets very close. The hero himself becomes – willingly or by accident – the criminal, which cause a shift in the way the crime is handled: because the criminal is also the hero, the story sometimes delves very deep in the reasons and especially in the consequences, both psychological and material, of the crime.
The inadequacy of the hero as a mover of events becomes central as he gets pushed to the crime from many directions.
From the outside, the opportunity comes from a woman, who first and foremost induces the hero toward an ‘alternative’ world, a transgression that promises to give a new sense to life and, sometimes, a totally new material life. And killing is the ultimate form of transgression.
On the inside, there’s a sense that the action isn’t moved by the hero’s will, but by some darker, inner impulse. Even when he decides to go along with the criminal plan, he is very seldom in control of the action.
Film noir is thus about the disconnection and confusion of a hero who has lost his centre in the world. It all comes down to his fears and his insecurities and the ways he tries to re-conquer his central place in the world. Which, if it is indeed a personal story, it nonetheless reflects a social issue.
The sense of subject drama is very strong and intensified by the narrational strategies found within these films. Film noir uses in particular two techniques to suggest the hero’s confusion and his position of insecurity:
It’ a common narrative tool in film noir, and while it offers the usual possibility (characteristics of the technique) to fill the viewer in about events which happened before the film started, it also fragments the narration. Some movies, like The Killers, are built around a very complex structure of flashbacks that shifts point-of-views and breaks the narrative, so gives an ununified view of the story. It forces the viewer to piece the story together on their own, with no authoritative guidance. This reflects the hero’s awkwardness in piecing together the world around him.
It’s one of the chief characteristics of film noir and one of the places where the divided identity of the hero becomes more apparent. In the flow of the action on screen, we see the image of self-confidence and competency hero, what society expects from him. But in the voice-over narration, he speaks his true heart, his fears and insecurities. This is how the voice over gives us a more complex, more complete and more secret image of the hero.
Detour (1945) by Edgar G. Ulmer
In New York, piano player Al Roberts (Tom Neal) laments when his singer girlfriend, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), leaves for Hollywood, Calif. When Al gets some money, he decides to hitchhike to California to join Sue. In Arizona, Al accepts a ride with Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), but during a storm in a freak accident, Haskell is killed. Frightened, Al assumes Haskell’s identity and car, but soon comes upon the mysterious Vera (Ann Savage), who seems to know all about his true identity. (Google synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
Sillage Critiques – Flashbacks in film noir