However, if you locked a bunch of film scholars and critics in a room, they might begrudgingly concur on a few points. For example, that in its “classic” period, film noir extended from John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). That some of its distinguishing traits are criminal behavior, a demimonde setting, a subversive narrative, a possible femme fatale, a disillusioned hero, and chiaroscuro-conscious cinematography. That the factors that contributed to its development include hardboiled fiction, post-war nihilism, French existentialism, and studio B-film economics. That it has recurred cyclically over the years, and many of its elements have permeated other genres.
And then there’s one thing everyone agrees on: film noir is very dark indeed.
“Noir is the most un-American of film genres,” says Thomas Doherty, professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and author of several books on film, including Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. “It tells you your fate is sealed by malevolent forces beyond your control. Fate — or worse, chaos — rules. That’s why Breen’s office (in charge of censoring Hollywood films from 1934 to 1954) had such a terrible time with the post-war noirs — the tale and the atmospherics contradicted any notion of a moral universe.”
Robert Polito, formerly of St. Mark’s Parish in Dorchester, currently director of the writing program at New York’s New School and editor of two Library of America collections of noir novels, agrees with Doherty, but thinks the noir mindset derives from a much older, deeper American tradition than Hollywood. “I’ve come to see noir as perhaps one of the essential styles of American history and culture,” he says. “Mainstream American literature of the 19th and 20th century is incredibly dark in a way that is still unacknowledged. Edgar Allan Poe, Hawthorne, Melville’s Moby Dick, Emily Dickinson . . .”
From Brahmins to Black Irish
Wait: Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson — aren’t they all natives of Boston, or close to it? Could we say that all noir springs, in part, from Boston noir?
“I think, in some obvious way, the answer is no,” says Polito. “Because so many of the movies are set in southern California. But one of the things that noir is always pursuing is a difference between a way a life seems to be and the way that it really is. It builds on the culture that emerges out of Puritan New England.”
From Puritan New England, could this strain of pessimism and disillusionment be traced to a contemporary Boston of insular ethnic neighborhoods? To hard-boiled losers like the protagonists of The Town?
“A city teaming with Black Irish is bound to be a congenial place for film noir,” says Doherty. “If I had to define Boston noir, I’d have to say the essential component is the city’s Irish-Catholic cast — darkly poetic, guiltily Catholic, and prone to senseless eruptions of violence.”
Lehane, himself no stranger to the Boston Irish-Catholic malaise Doherty refers to, concurs. “It involves a darker kind of blacker, more Boston type of comedy,” he adds. “The idea that God’s a bit of a jokester — and we’re the punch line.”