FILM noir remains a genre in search of its roots -- and perhaps even a proper definition. That's because, unlike other genres (westerns, musicals, romantic comedies), it was not identified as one until dozens, perhaps hundreds, of movies in the noir vein had been made. In the 1940s, no one in Hollywood -- asked what he or she was currently doing -- would have replied, "Oh, you know, a nice little noir over at Warner Bros."
The very term "film noir" derives from the paperback editions of hard-boiled crime fiction that Gallimard published in postwar Paris under the title "Serie Noire." The books arrived on shelves more or less simultaneously with the release in France of American movies derived from or influenced by these novels but unseen in Europe because of World War II. The term did not really catch on in the United States until much later, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the publication of pieces such as Paul Schrader's 1972 article, "Notes on Film Noir."
Since then, there has undoubtedly been more heavy-duty writing about noir than about any other genre -- which includes disputes about whether it really is a genre. This endlessly fascinates both academics and film buffs, in part because so many of the films of noir's classic era, which Schrader dates from 1941 to 1953, are so seductively realized -- well-written, handsomely directed (all those shadows, rain-wet streets, blinking neon signs) and played with such harsh authority, often by otherwise quite ordinary actors. Schrader says, inarguably, that in that period almost every serious American dramatic movie contained some noir elements.
Yet, for all the critical-historical attention lavished on noir, the task of analyzing the genre hasn't advanced much beyond what Schrader offered 35 years ago. That's certainly true of "Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them," which considers in numbing detail five hard-boiled novels ("The Maltese Falcon," "The Big Sleep," "Double Indemnity," "High Sierra" and "Night Has a Thousand Eyes"), each the work of a major first-generation tough-guy novelist (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, W.R. Burnett and Cornell Woolrich, respectively) and the movies derived from them. The author, John T. Irwin, a humanities professor at Johns Hopkins University, basically has just one (rather paltry) idea about these books: namely, that they are about men who are forced to choose between work and love -- and invariably opt for the former. That formulation applies neatly to the Hammett and Chandler novels, less so to the Burnett and Cain works and not at all to Woolrich's. His novel is not really hard-boiled (except, on occasion, rhetorically), and its film version has almost nothing to do with its source.
The good professor opens by saying that he rereads "The Maltese Falcon" at least once a year -- a confession I find less disarming than alarming. In writing about it and other hard-boiled novels, he draws to his side Hawthorne, Poe, Fitzgerald, Freud and other ace literary and intellectual figures. You get the impression that he has to justify his passion for pulp by granting it a literary pedigree. Among more reasonable people, of course, the best of these novelists have long since achieved respectability without making high-toned associations.
Irwin also approaches the topic in genteel fashion, even though noir was sexy on the page and on the screen. I kept waiting for him to parse the scene in "The Maltese Falcon" -- it couldn't make it to the movie version in those censorious days -- in which Sam Spade takes Brigid O'Shaughnessy into a bathroom and forces her to strip to see if she has purloined some money.
This is not a throwaway scene, a little dollop of sadism for the mouth-breathers. It signals yet another shift in the tricky, fluid relationship between "The Maltese Falcon's" two major characters that is at least as important as others Irwin spends his time on. Indeed, more often than not, it is the female characters who represent the largest, scariest departures from the previous norms in popular crime fiction and films. We'd had bitchy ones before, but killers? Not often. Irwin should be more aware of the sexual component in their restless scheming.