Waldo Lydecker in Laura says: “I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York.” Going beyond Waldo and the town and the French Provincial furniture, how does this statement express the dark heart of noir—story, visual imagery, and the emotional, political, and economic climate of the mid-century? You could also re-read Camus’s The Stranger but you don’t have to.
Waldo Lydecker’s line could have been uttered by any number of characters in the films in this series: Burt Lancaster lying on his bed in The Killers, waiting for what he couldn’t escape; Cloris Leachman running almost naked in Kiss Me Deadly; John Garfield stumbling through New York streets at dawn in Force of Evil; Tony Curtis nervously waiting for Martin Milner to “get it” in Sweet Smell of Success; Victor Mature waiting in the restaurant at the end of Kiss of Death. Theirs is an uneasy, solitary wait for the hair holding the Sword of Damocles to break.
There’s a palpable feeling of loneliness, powerlessness, searching and despair, not to mention loss of identity and/or essence, that run through the films, symptoms that Americans started to display after two World Wars and a depression. Helped along by the European directors who made many of the films, themselves not unfamiliar with despair, et al., the film noir genre seems a commentary of sorts on the corruption, greed, and ruthlessness which formed the heart of darkness in American life, a darkness which has now reached critical proportions.
As well, the agon in these films can become almost a mythological retrieval, as in Mike Hammer’s retrieval in Kiss Me Deadly of the box containing nuclear materials, a statement concerning the post-war Damoclean sword, or Mildred Pierce’s retrieval of the information that Zachary Scott and her daughter are having an affair .
Nothing is a given, nor should anything be taken for granted in films noir, as the gears are ever turning, and he or she who is on top one day may have to struggle up out of the gutter the next, or, as in the case of Charles Laughton in The Big Clock, out of the bottom of an elevator shaft.
The café scene at the beginning of Siodmak’s The Killers gives a picture of the uncertain noir world. The cafe is brightly lit (cf. Kubrick) against the pitch black outdoors, and would seem to be a safe haven, until the arrival of the two hired guns. Thus, the safe haven beomes as dangerous as the shadowy world outside from which they leaked in, and there is no guarantee which of the occupants will emerge from what becomes a prison. In this microcosm we get a glimpse of the existential worldview of film noir.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 28, 2004