What Is Noir?
Is more than darkness. Is
Corruption of the heart. Is
behind closed doors, board-
room or street. Is fucked
Whether you do, don’t sing,
Moan, sniff or shoot. Is a
ticket to all we have, never
enough. Is greed, lust, a fatal
kiss, the banker, cop, criminal, or
any other poor sucker who
screams for mercy. Is a
dream of autonomy, femme
fatality causality, breathing,
“Hey, baby, let’s take it all.”
Is a corpse, a handful of dust
and ultimately who cares, if
the only punishment is death.
A poetic response to what constitutes noir, whether on the page or on the screen, isn’t as unusual as one might think. There have been, after all, any number of poets who’ve been attracted to noir fiction, and, by extension, film noir. And any number of noir writers who began as poets, stretching back to Raymond Chandler, who, even before his stories began to appear in Black Mask, was publishing poetry, admittedly doggrel, in The Westminster Gazette. To make sense out of the relationship between poetry and noir fiction and film, one need only recall the legendary French crime publisher Marcel Duhamel’s advice to Chester Himes in the late 1940s regarding the house rules for Serie Noire crime fiction: “Always action in detail. Make pictures. Like motion pictures…No streams of consciousness at all. We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what- only what they’re doing. Always doing something. From one scene to another. Don’t worry about it making sense.” A statement that isn’t far removed from William Carlos Williams’s imagist declaration, “No ideas but in things.” Like modern lyric poetry, noir, whether on page or screen, favours minimalism, a quality one sees in the films of Jules Dassin, Joseph Lewis, Anthony Mann, Robert Siodmak, and early Kubrick, as well as in the writing of Dashiell Hammett and, to an even higher degree, in Paul Cain. A technique whose precise imagery sharpens one’s focus on details and the overall narrative contour.
Despite the attraction, poets, depending on how serious they took to their task, have had varying degrees of success in the genre. Some like Dorothy B. Hughes, Kenneth Fearing, Alfred Hayes, Charles Willeford and Stephen Dobyns, would find a home in noir fiction, and produce successful novels, while others, such Richard Hugo and Jack Spicer were destined to be dabblers, producing work of limited interest. Then there are those, like John Harvey and the late Jim Nisbet who have been able to move between the two types of writing. Some, as dissimilar as Henri Coulette, Robert Polito, Michael Gizzi and Alice Notley (Negativity's Kiss) have been heavily influenced by noir film and fiction. Not to mention those whose poetry contains noirish elements, from Weldon Kees and Charles Reznikoff to John Wieners, and Charles Bukowski, from Lynda Hull to Summer Brenner and Frank Stanford, or, like the Irish poet Martina Evans (“As Mitchum said- Crossfire (1947)- the snakes were loose.” And “If you tell your dream, you don’t have to dream it/anymore, says Alan Ladd, Crossfire (1942) simply include elements of film noir.
It stands to reason that a poetic genre like film noir should, in turn, engender poetic responses. Nevertheless, I can’t off-hand think of another book of poetry that takes the same approach as On Dangerous Ground. Of course, there have been critics, such as Manny Farber, James Naremore, Nicholas Christopher, Robert Polito, Geoffrey O’Brien and Sarah Imogen Smith who have written about the genre of film noir in a poetic manner. A less eccentric path to follow, their writing- at least three of them, O’Brien (Arabian Nights), Christopher (Desperate Characters) and Polito (Hollywood & God), are, in fact, film-noir influenced poets- derives from a passion for film and an ability to communicate their perceptions in an intelligent, concise and perceptive manner. Yet such writing is substantially different from someone writing poems about film noir, much less with the hope of challenging the usual passive nature of viewing such films.
My intention: to take 50 classic examples of film noir, and create a poem surrounding each of them. And, in doing so, investigate not only the films but the world in which they were made and viewed, then and now. The poems themselves derived from whatever happened to attract my attention: a piece of dialogue, camerawork, lighting, a particular scene, a plot, an individual performance, sartorial style, the director, or simply the film’s ambiance, and its nexus in space and time. In many cases, I ended up writing about those films in terms of their politics, not quite free associating, but more like what poet the late poet Robert Duncan used to call “tone leading.” In other words, not a thought-out process but more akin to after-thoughts, resulting at times in nothing more than rants and raves about the world as it was and is. Such is the fractured nature of the world and the poems themselves. In the end, the poems in On Dangerous Ground could be thought as distortions, often humorous, of the films under consideration, like scrambled film reviews that exist at a particular moment, distilled through time, whose shelf life will last until the next viewing, by which time another set of linguistic prompts or images might attract my attention.
Why the title? For one thing, Nicholas Ray’s 1951 film, On Dangerous Ground, with a screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides, has always been one of my favourite films, and one that has stood the test of time. But the title also relates to film noir as a genre, as well as to the position of anyone who attempts to explicate such films places, whatever their agenda. Not to mention how the title describes Ray’s film: a sadistic urban cop confronts and falls under the spell of a blind woman, although up to that point he has no conception of how vulnerable people can be, including himself, so blind to any subtleties. His own rough justice turned inside out as the various narratives reflect and refract one another. All that the snow not so much a symbol of purity as a condition of life. It’s all dangerous ground- the city, the place from which the boy-killer falls, the relationship between the cop and the blind woman. It’s a world, however modified for general consumption, in which everyone is vulnerable- cop, blind woman, child. All the product, so typical of film noir, of a cross-section of cultures, under the influence of European emigres and Popular Front leftists: Wisconsinite Ray, of German-Norwegian parentage, Greek-Armenian A.I. Bezzerides, filmed by a New Yorker, George Diskant, whose roots can most likely be traced back to Russia, and Ida Lupino, a Londoner, who not only starred in the film but directed various parts when Ray was too ill to continue.
Basing a book of poems on films might be unusual, but it didn’t take a great leap of the imagination to come up with the idea. After all, these films which I’ve long been obsessed by have always been prime fodder for interpretation, and ideal for riffing off of. Moreover, these days they are all within easy reach. On the other hand, any subject might have served a similar function. That is, had I been a different person. All that’s required in a subject is that can be viewed from a variety of perspectives, and used as a means of investigating the culture. In my case, the poems, written off and on over some ten years, were at times no more than an excuse to watch and think about the films. But as I watched them, and proceeded to write about them, it made me view the films in a different way, as artifacts to be acted upon rather than packaged and left on the shelf. So it was a two-way process, the poems activated the films, but the films clearly activated the poems, allowing me to go anywhere I liked with them, from glossing the surface of a given film to scouring its depths, while, at the same time, addressing subjects like crime, guilt, innocence, bourgeois values, late capitalism, and gendered space. Which made the films timeless, this even though they are so much of a period. Not that anyone could deny that, in the end, they are just movies- Ju-Ju beans for the eyes. Put them under the slightest scrutiny and they reveal themselves not only as documents of the culture, but something like a series of dreams about failed utopias. Half a century on, these films- spanning the years 1941 to 1976- can still captivate, and capable of affecting us on a personal as well as political level. Film noir poetry? “Give it a name,” as they say line in Scott Rosenberg’s 1995 Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead. A title deriving from a Warren Zevon song in which that aficionado of noir film and fiction goes on to sing, “You won't need a cab to find a priest/Maybe you should find a place to stay/Some place where they never change the sheets/And you just roll around Denver all day.” Which goes to show that the relationship between poetry and noir, whether on page or screen, can take surprising forms. Hopefully the poems that constitute On Dangerous Ground will, if nothing else, lead to further investigations, no matter that form they might take.
Ten Films and Their Opening Lines
The Big Heat: “Shocking, only if suburbia can/be paradise.”
Dark Passage: “It’s never easy, clocking the world, driving/the back roads and waterfront.”
Fallen Angel: “That was then, when Otto could still/see in the dark, and anti-fascism was a/thing” Human Desire: “How many/doors to make a room to make/an exit.”
In a Lonely Place: “A shattered world, future so bleak/it’s hardly worth the effort.”
The Killers: “Night time the proverbial/for irritable hoodlums…”
Kiss Me Deadly: “It’s the American Way, atomic/L.A. devolving into the future.”
Nightmare Alley: “Forget the reprobates, crawling parasites and/fallen angels…”
On Dangerous Ground: “With darkness bleeding into/domesticity…”
Sweet Smell of Success: A nostalgia of jazz, location shots, and barely/palatable venom.
Where the Sidewalk Ends: “A cop is basically a criminal,”/with an instinct for…legalised/violence”
(An earlier version of this entry appeared in Crime Time.)