The Modern Noir Has Atrophied (and It’s Not All True Detective’s Fault)

All style, no substance. Photo: Illustration/ HBO

When discussing his masterful 1968 neo-noir Le Samourai, writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville said, “I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic […] A film is first and foremost a dream.” This same philosophy runs through True Detective. But showrunner Nic Pizzolatto overplayed his hand in season two, leading to characters whose emotional landscapes lacked depth, or much of a through line (unless you count daddy issues). True Detective is the clearest example of the emptiest aspects of modern noir: vengeful, self-centered white men; casual racism; violence without grace or purpose; mistaking the cliché strong female character for something meaningful; lack of levity or humor; labyrinthine plotlines without verve. Ultimately, it’s a parody lacking the sincerity needed to give its pulpy center meaning. As easy as it would be to hang this on the inflated ego of its creator, True Detective is indicative of a larger problem: Modern noir has atrophied.

Noir’s influence continues to cast a long shadow, reflected in critically acclaimed TV shows and in the work of filmmakers like Rian Johnson (Brick), Christopher Nolan (Memento), and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive). But modern noir’s biggest hang-up is that it seems only to care about the most superficial elements of the genre: its snappy dialogue, moody lighting, and interest in criminality. Given the critical response to this season of True Detective, Pizzolatto is an easy target. But far more beloved films and shows replicate the same misunderstanding of the genre. To understand how noir ended up here, we have to examine where it’s been.

In the early 1940s, noir began as a movement born of a number of factors: the changing gender and racial landscape of America during and after World War II, the Expressionist influence of European-refugee filmmakers like Billy Wilder, and studio-system economics. To quote City of Nets by Otto Friedrich, “At Warners, a studio so frugal some of its employees called it ‘San Quentin,’ shooting a film in the moody darkness and rain tended to disguise the cheapness of the sets.” (Warner Brothers gave us arguably the earliest noir in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart.) In the 1940s and 1950s, films like Ace in the Hole and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers viciously skewered the American Dream, and exposed the weaknesses and contradictions of the American psyche. It removed the masks of modern men and women to reveal the horrors below, challenging notions of gender, race, and desire.

Noir quickly solidified itself as a genre with a series of consistent stylistic (voice-over, high-contrast lighting, poetic and rhythmic dialogue), thematic (existentialism, free will, gender politics, fear of the “other,” white men losing or gaining power, obsession with the past, dread of the future), narrative (non-linear storytelling), and character archetypes (detectives, femmes fatales, criminals, people on the fringes of society), all typically within urban settings. Noir’s elasticity is its greatest strength, but it also makes it hard to define. You know it when you see it. Save for the theme, these attributes can be laid on thick or nearly nonexistent, which is why films as vastly different as In a Lonely Place, L.A. Confidential, and The Letter can all be called noir. It can twist from pulpy vulgarity to gritty realism. But at its core, noir has always been a political genre.

The fear of the “other” is crucial to noir, and it was born out of new tensions in post–World War II America. The Red Scare and Hollywood blacklist instilled a sense of paranoia and ambiguity that translated into one of the genre's most ubiquitous (and important) motifs: No one can be trusted, not even yourself. This is consistent in a wide variety of noirs, whether it be Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, scraping herself up from the poverty line but never pleasing her malevolent daughter; Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall dancing around each other’s affections in Martinique while aiding the French Resistance in To Have and Have Not; Sidney Poitier playing a doctor caring for people who hate him for his blackness in No Way Out; or Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray as doomed lovers bound by a murder plot and fatalistic lust, trying to reach their own version of the American Dream in Double Indemnity.

But the fight for civil rights, second-wave feminism, and the fall of the studio system created a far more black-and-white political landscape in the 1960s, shaping an era nearly devoid of noir. Come the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s presidency had created an atmosphere where the villains and heroes were clearly outlined. Noir became increasingly self-reflexive and metatextual. It lost its ambiguity and became content to comment on the genre itself rather than the cultural landscape, with Pulp Fiction (while an enjoyable film in its own right) as the most well-known example.

When I watch 2014’s Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal’s gaunt, predatory Lou Bloom recalls a similar 1950s film about a fast-talking, tattered white man in the media industry doing whatever it took to make it on top: Ace in the Hole. Billy Wilder’s film is aware that for the American Dream to work, the bodies and lives of women and people of color must be exploited and broken. In Nightcrawler, the filmmakers are mindful of this brutal dynamic but seem more interested in embodying the rot of the American Dream than critiquing it. The film has too much fun watching its main villain exploit others unimpeded to spend much time delving into why this is possible in the American news-media in the first place.

This isn’t to knock all noir since the 1980s and 1990s. There have been admirable entries in the canon, including Stephen Frears’ The Grifters, the Wachowskis’ Bound, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. This season of True Detective was influenced in large part by Lynch, whose works, including Mulholland and Twin Peaks, are effective noirs because they are sensitive to gender politics and the failure of the nuclear family. They create a fresh, dreamlike style that nods to the genre’s past but is not beholden to it. But Pizzolatto fails to breathe any emotional resonance into his exploration of fatherhood and inheritance in True Detective, typifying a problem present in noir over the past two decades: It hasn’t had much new to say, as it's forgotten that what made the genre so powerful in the first place was how it stylistically expressed the mood and fears of contemporary America. Its position as a genre that taps the vein of American consciousness meant its perspective would ebb and flow depending on the current political, artistic, and cultural climate.

Noir’s shifts in part come down to one question: Whose story is being told? The dominant image of noir today is a white, male power fantasy, whether it be in positioning his brutality as badass in Drive, turning depravity into parody in Sin City, or the empty stylistic exercise of Looper. Meanwhile, the dominant female image in noir has shifted from a complex, contradictory woman comfortable with her sexuality to a hard-edged one whose strength and anti-feminine dress are implicitly linked to past sexual trauma. Shows like Top of the Lake, The Killing, and now True Detective replicate the same basic template. These female detectives are white, capable, and rough-hewn. They have immense hang-ups with their sexuality and motherhood, along with a bevy of daddy issues. Besides their genuine interest in the women they seek justice for, they aren’t all that different from their male counterparts, which means their creators don’t have to stretch themselves creatively. And what we’ve lost along the way is one of noir’s most soulful and powerful depictions of the hypocrisy of the American Dream: the femme fatale.

By virtue of her gender, the femme fatale’s choices are limited. Her quest for riches belies more than greed. Money is never just money in American culture. It’s the ability to define your own life story. It gives women the kind of power that society often precludes them from reaching. What’s more important to the American Dream than the means to define your own future? Films like Clash by Night, Sudden Fear, and the entire oeuvre of Gloria Grahame delve deeply into how the notion of the American Dream does not include prosperity for women or people of color. The femme fatale is often categorized simplistically, as virgin or whore. This forgets that it is the femme fatale who spurns the plot, often having the most active role in the film, and shown as having anxieties and desires all her own. Ultimately, can’t the femme fatale be viewed as much as a female power fantasy as a male nightmare?

This isn’t to say the noir of the 1940s and 1950s is faultless. Because of the sheer output of the studio system, bad films were an inevitability. And while the production code that set a moral standard forced filmmakers to make the more lurid, violent, and sexual aspects subtextual (creating a rather delicious tension), it also meant wonderfully complex characters had to die in the name of decency. While Hollywood is still pitiful in its treatment of women and people of color, there has been some progress.

And noir can still progress, too. This is the perfect time for a genre that sharpened its teeth on social unease — America is built on crime, and we’re living in a time where that is shockingly evident. Gender and sexuality are being upended and redefined. People of color are abused by the same police forces meant to protect them. Access to technology and the knowledge it provides has only made us more paranoid. We need more characters and settings and voices that represent what it means to be the “other,” rather than reflexive adoptions of the emptiest tropes of the genre. Instead of turning away from the shadows of modern America, with noir, filmmakers and critics can take a deeper look.