Of working-class tragedy, Boston has more than its share. It’s usually suffered by a tragic hero who, unlike those of the Greek variety, doesn’t die, as Lehane puts it, “in a blaze of [his] own ill-advised conflation.” Instead, they are knuckleheads like Eddie Coyle, who “simply doze off drunkenly in a car and take one in the back of the head before they wake.”
The remark refers to George V. Higgins’s novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, adapted into a movie by Peter Yates in 1973. Which brings up the more glamorous manifestation of Boston noir: the movies it has engendered. After Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Mystic River — shot largely in gamey, out-of-the-way nooks like Chelsea, Mattapan, and the late lamented Costello’s liquor store on Boylston Street — won two Oscars in 2003, studios noticed the cinematic potential of the city beyond the Swan Boats and the Freedom Trail.
Massachusetts politicians took note of their interest and passed a bill giving tax breaks to studios shooting in the state. Then Martin Scorsese shot much of The Departed on location here and that won a Best Picture Oscar. And so on, until just the other day, about two blocks from where I’m writing this, Ben Affleck staged the climactic Fenway Park shoot-out for The Town, his adaptation of local noir writer Chuck Hogan’s novel about Charlestown bank robbers, Prince of Thieves.
No doubt, it takes more than an author to make a genre. It takes a serendipitous confluence of economic, cultural, political, and social factors. The tax-credits bill, for example, had a lot more going on behind the scenes than just discussions about cinematic aesthetics. Of the 26 or so films the bill engendered, most could have been shot anywhere; The Pink Panther 2, for example, has the South End filling in for Paris and The Proposal transforms Rockport into Sitka, Alaska — with the help of CGI mountains. (Even when the Boston location is actually supposed to be Boston, it seems like a Hollywood-ized version: the same weekend Affleck and company staged the Fenway gun battle, director James Mangold was landing Tom Cruise and a helicopter on the Zakim Bridge for his romantic thriller Knight & Day. Seen now in about a dozen different Boston-set movies, the Zakim Bridge is becoming our version of the Eiffel Tower.)
But then there are those films that could only have been made here, which draw their reality from triple-deckers in East Boston, from the projects of Southie, from the streets and alleys in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Charlestown where no tourist has ever roamed. They come from the world of sad corner bars, of bloody knuckles and blackouts, of hangovers and holding cells and the tight faces of marginalized people whose families have clung to the same diminishing expectations and confining neighborhoods for generations.
These are things that are unique to Boston, but they are also common to the universal malaise known as film noir.
Noir and again
“It has always been easier to recognize a film noir,” James Naremore writes in More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, “than define the term.” In other words, it’s a lot like Eisenhower-era Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of obscenity (“I know it when I see it”). Film noir is as murky as its own (sometimes) visual style. In the 1970 essay “Paint It Black: The Family Tree of the Film Noir,” one of the earliest attempts to narrow the concept down, Raymond Durgnat lists hundreds of examples of films noires, ranging from D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.