David Murdock: Hooked on hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir

There are certain types of books and movies that have fascinated me for so long that I have no idea when I first encountered them. It just seems like they’ve always been a part of my life. I have loved “film noir” crime films and “hard-boiled detective” books for at least 30 years now, but I have no idea at all what the first one I saw or read was. It’s a mystery.

Even if the terms are unfamiliar, most people know the type of story I’m talking about. “Film noir” is the type of movie most associated with black-and-white crime classics of the 1940s like “The Maltese Falcon” or “The Big Sleep.” The term itself is French for “black movie” and refers to the heavy use of shadows in filming and the intensely brutal plots usually found in these types of film. For example, both of these classic movies feature Humphrey Bogart as a no-nonsense private detective trying to solve truly twisted mysteries.

Film noir comes from the literary tradition of the “hard-boiled detective” that got its start in the late 1920s with the former Pinkerton National Detective Agency operative Dashiell Hammett, who began to write stories and novels based partly on his experiences.

Unlike the British tradition of genteel ladies and gentlemen who solve crimes in country mansions (like Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes), Hammett and his successors — like Raymond Chandler — wrote about realistic, gritty scenarios set in urban environments and featuring cynical and antiheroic detectives as tough as “hard-boiled eggs.” Many of these novels later became the basis of films noir.

I probably first encountered this type of film and literature through Bogart. As longtime readers know, Bogart is my favorite actor. I first encountered his movies on late-night classic movie junkets on local television stations. “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep” were two of the first Bogart movies I saw, and it was only a matter of time before I looked up Hammett and Chandler, the respective writers of the novels on which those movies are based. One thing leads to another, and 30 years later I’m still discovering new films noir and hard-boiled detective books.

Hammett and Chandler write alike, in many ways, but there are some key differences. Hammett, for example, created four distinct detectives for his fiction — Sam Spade, the unnamed Continental Op, and husband-and-wife team Nick and Nora Charles. Although Sam Spade is his most famous creation — probably because of Bogart’s searingly brilliant portrayal of him in “The Maltese Falcon” — and Nick and Nora Charles spawned a series of films based on Hammett’s novel “The Thin Man,” Hammett wrote more books and stories about an operative working for the Continental Detective Agency who never reveals his name as he narrates his adventures. Movies were made about the Continental Op, but he did not command as much devotion by movie fans as he did among book geeks.

Chandler, on the other hand, essentially wrote about one detective, Philip Marlowe, portrayed by Bogart in “The Big Sleep.” He had used two other detectives before he created Marlowe, Carmody and John Dalmas, but he retroactively substituted Philip Marlowe into those stories. Chandler also wrote one of the seminal essays on hard-boiled detective fiction, “The Simple Art of Murder.”

Hammett and Chandler have some other differences, too. Hammett is far more lyrical in his descriptions, and his plots are far more straightforward. Chandler, on the other hand, has a rougher-around-the-edges writing style, and his plots are famously convoluted. In fact, there is no clear culprit for one of the murders in the movie version of “The Big Sleep,” and fans like to discuss endlessly their theories of who killed the minor character Sean Regan.

Hammett and Chandler were succeeded by a series of writers in the hard-boiled tradition, and books continue to be published in this genre. Films noir are still popular, as well, as evidenced by the success of such movies as “Pulp Fiction,” “Mulholland Drive” and “Shutter Island.” Some fans even consider the recent Christopher Nolan “Batman Trilogy” starring Christian Bale to be a type of film noir.

As long as they write the books, I’ll read them. As long as they film the films, I’ll watch them. I was hooked 30 years ago.

David Murdock is a correspondent for The Gadsden (Ala.) Times.

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