We Need Film-Noir Now More Than Ever
Most people don’t think of Jake Gittes as a hero. The protagonist from the film Chinatown has been popularized as a victim of his ego and a self-indulgent sponge of excess. And, to a certain extent, I would agree with this sentiment. However, when looked at as a parallel to our current society, he and many other private eyes from the ’40s, 50’s, ’60s, and early 70’s might suggest the contrary.
You see, what Jake and many other protagonists of his era have in common, is that they’ve all been nurtured by their nature. Each character is a representative of their environment, and at the center, they’re fighting for individual progression.
At its very core, the film-noir genre is a unravelment of one’s morals. You meet the detective (in most cases) and begin to witness their complex and oftentimes uninviting reality. Our lead’s individual life is frequently wrapped up with entanglement and unflattering affairs, making them all the more elusive and captivating to the audience.
These character flaws prove themselves to be relatable to a modern demographic. Humans are instinctively faulty. They’re filled with cracks, most of which are unlikely to be permanently filled. This, to a certain extent, is common across the noir-star spectrum. To solve the case, they must travel through a twilight world of their morality, discovering themselves in the process.
In addition to character motivation and a humanized backstory, you can look at a mystery and see an odyssey of identity. In Double Indemnity, an insurance salesman named Walter Neff is roped into becoming an accomplice in a high-profile homicide. This is something that comes at a surprise to both the audience and the character because it is the moment where he truly loses his identity. Or, perhaps, he finally finds it.
Walter is confronted by his new reality, one where he feels… free. His true self is finally being personified by his actions, and this newfound gratuity comes at a selfish expense: his innocence.
The rest of the film layers into this idea. Percolating in his own thoughts, our protagonist dwells in his decision, oftentimes refusing to let it catch up to him. His love interest, Phyllis Dietrichson, leads him through the scandalous affair, right up until she double-crosses him. Which, finally, forces reflection onto Walter. For the first time in the film, he reflects upon his actions. But, I don’t feel as though Walter experiences regret, rather, understanding. He begins to understand his true self, and even if he isn’t happy with the result, he’s not left dissatisfied.
Our current reality is riddled with undercurrents of human flaws. Identity is at the safeguard of no one, and everyone is searching to find its true nature. Noir consistently shines a light across these themes, and therefore provides the audience with a relatable protagonist. Sure, these fictitious storylines may seem exaggerated, especially when compared to the mundane nature of our everyday lives. But, when looked at through the lens of ambiguity, there are more similarities than one may think.
Culpability is another important pillar in the film-noir genre. Each character is a victim of their guilt in one form or another. They have some personal connection to the crime, to the mess, or whoever is at fault. And sometimes, they don’t even know it. Maybe it’s the guilt of watching someone crawl away from you, knowing that they’ll be in a better place wherever they arrive. Or, the radicalized fear of impending consequence. Having the knowledge that you started a fire incapable of being tamed, and it’s only a matter of time before someone smells the smoke.
Let’s take Rick Deckard for example. In the modern neo-noir film Blade Runner, Harrison Ford’s character’s job is to track down and kill “replicants”, clones of human beings. However, there are hints throughout the movie that Rick himself may be a replicant. So, what does that actually make him? His whole job is built upon the foundation that replicants, at least older models, need to be eradicated. If Rick truly is a replicant and he’s killing his own kind, what type of person does that make him?
Now, I’m not saying that any of these themes are directly correlated to today’s circumstances. Not at all. However, it is important to look at them for what they are. These are complex and deeply flawed individuals who most of the time lack the certainty to make a confident next step. And I feel as though, when examined through a societal mirror, the reflection may seem similar.
Most of us are unsure of the future and are oftentimes lost on our own life-path. We lack the foresight to see too far ahead and are oftentimes confused about the trail we leave behind. People are complex creatures — we are unable to be defined as one specific thing. We harbor feelings of imperfection and oftentimes carry a guilty conscious. This isn’t our fault, it’s just by design. And today’s entertainment doesn’t do a great job representing that.
Noir was conceived to shine a light on humanity’s flaws. It was used as a tool to showcase themes that were frequently minoritized. The loss and search for an identity, the guilt that can weigh on a persona, and the desire for one’s redemption. All of these ideas converge into a mosaic of the human experience.
Jake Gittes, Walter Neff, and Rick Deckard are not heroes in the traditional sense. However, they are heroes for the everyman. They represent the average joe, people like you and me. By allowing themselves to be flawed and to be fallacious, they act as a beacon of similarity to the casual audience member. And, hopefully, in the future, we’ll see more of these characters portrayed onscreen. Because if there is one thing we need right now, it’s the experience of being indulged into a world where we don’t feel so different. In a world of superheroes and squeaky-clean good guys, let’s shine a light into the dark. Let’s allow our characters to be fluid and true. Let’s finally, once and for all, let them be people.