The Atypical Film Noir

The hero of film noir movies is often portrayed as being a macho man – strong, brave, and possessing a seemingly endless supply of witty remarks. The hero is also depicted as one who uses women for his own professional and sexual advantages. These prototypical noir heroes can be seen in Dmytryk’s “Murder, My Sweet” (1944) and Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974). Both movies show the typical noir characters and plots, but succeed in making the film much more regardless of the familiar plots.

In “Murder, My Sweet”, private eye Philip Marlowe is hired by a man named Lindsay Marriott to accompany him to buy back a missing jade necklace from the person who stole it. Marlowe agrees, and, after leaving the man alone for a few minutes, he returns only to get knocked out by someone. When Marlowe comes to, he finds that Marriott had been killed. From here, a Marlowe is dragged into a web of deceit involving bribery, perjury, and theft. The hero, of course, prevails in the end, but how he gets there is a different story. The typical noir characteristics are present in this movie. It begins with a man named Moose hiring Marlowe to find his missing girlfriend, Velma. The missing person motif turns out to be more than a simple subplot, but is connected and woven into the storyline. All the characters in this film seem to have something to hide and their intentions are unclear throughout the movie, making them all look suspicious and corrupt. Women like Anne Grayle are treated badly and abused by men like Amthor and women like Helen. The jade necklace lures the characters, and makes them want it so much that they would kill for it, much like the falcon in Daschiel Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The importance of this priceless object, and its role in stories such as these can be seen in Gutman’s words from Hammett’s book: “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, its possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.” There is also a very visible difference between the macho men like Marlowe, who fights back when needed, and the effeminate men such as Marriott, who dresses as if he would never even consider getting dirty.

Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” has a similar storyline. J. J. Gittes is a private eye who had retired from the police force in Chinatown. Ida Sessions, pretending to be Evelyn Mulwray, hires him to find out if Evelyn’s husband, Hollis, had been cheating on her. As he investigates this, he finds Hollis with a young lady, and uncovers a plan to buy cheap, unwanted land for low prices, water it, then sell it for millions of dollars. The mastermind of this plan happens to be Noah Cross, the father of Hollis’ real wife. As soon as Gittes sticks his nose in, however, it almost gets chopped off (literally) and things start to happen. The man he had been investigating turns up dead, and Gittes is plunged into more than he had bargained for. The abuse of women is evident in this film, with the incest that involves Noah Cross and his daughter Evelyn. The missing person that everyone seems to be interested in from the very beginning is the daughter that Evelyn has as result of this. She is also the priceless object that people are willing to kill for, and that lures them. There is much corruption in the film. Even the policemen have something to hide, as is made evident from the constant mention of Chinatown, making it seem as if they are keeping a secret from the viewer.

The movies “Murder, My Sweet” and “Chinatown” are perfect examples of film noir. They not only have all the characteristics of the genre, but all the characters that are necessary to establish an atmosphere of darkness and corruption. Even though the storyline of these types of films has been overused, the two films stand out nevertheless, making them more than just two more films.

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