A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post called “Why I Love Film Noir,” focusing on some of the spiritual elements of why I adore noir. On my “About” page, I talk about how I often examine films and graphic novels from a Christian viewpoint. Today, Easter Sunday, I want to delve a bit deeper into this holiday, Christianity, and film noir, topics that may seem unrelated, but contain more connections than you might think.
The resurrection that Christians celebrate during Easter is of primary importance to the Christian faith. The cross has very little meaning apart from the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You could go as far as to say that our lives as Christians, our very existences mean nothing apart from the resurrection. If Jesus was the son of God, died, and was buried with his body rotting in a cave, our faith would have no meaning. We would be without hope and Christianity would be a cruel joke. The Christian faith – in fact our very lives – has no meaning apart from the resurrection of Christ. Without the resurrection, we live for a little while, doing the best we can before the grave takes us and we decompose in the earth, end of story.
Well what does this have to do with film noir?
Film noir is, I believe, the most honest, brutal and unflinching depiction of the human condition apart from the gospel. Watch most any film noir and you’ll see messed up people in the midst of messed up lives. Some of them are out-and-out criminals, some are fall guys (or women) caught in a trap, others are men lured to their doom by a femme fatale (and vice versa, women lured to their doom by men who are just as deadly). Some are just trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got. In most cases, all these people are seeking redemption, sometimes – but not always – with the best of intentions. Usually they don’t find it.
At times you’ll see a film noir that ends with the protagonist escaping the pit of doom by the skin of his or her teeth, such as John Forbes (Dick Powell) in Pitfall (1948). (SPOILERS) Forbes has been unfaithful to his wife (Jane Wyatt) by having an affair with another woman (Lizabeth Scott). Forbes confesses everything to his wife and by the end of the film, they’re still together and we know his wife may forgive him, but the road to true reconciliation is going to be a very, very long one.
In some noir films, a “happy ending” was tacked on, usually to satisfy the production code, dulling the hard edge of the story, but in many cases we see the guilty get exactly what they deserve. We know at the end of The Maltese Falcon (1941) that Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s elevator ride leading to jail symbolizes her descent into hell, but Sam Spade is probably headed there as well – He’s just taking the stairs, the long way – with his own sins to atone for.
Most film noir wrongdoers pay the full price, such as Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) at the end of Double Indemnity, or Emmett Myers (William Talman) at the conclusion of The Hitch-Hiker (1953), or practically everyone in the final moments of The Asphalt Jungle (1950). There’s a reckoning to be had for all the crimes (legal and moral) of noir and it’s going to be paid one way or another.
The thing is, none of these people can save themselves, try as they may. Film noir brings that fact home harder and with more force than any other type of film. As I mentioned in an earlier post, film noir is the book of Ecclesiastes, only without that book’s chapter 12, which gives meaning to our lives. Film noir is also the story of mankind without the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Bleak, hollow, meaningless.
Yet because of the resurrection, there’s hope. It alters everything and Ecclesiastes chapter 12 points to that hope. But still, there’s more to it. The resurrection means that God is not finished shaping mankind. Christ’s resurrection points to the resurrection of believers, defining a future that death can’t control. It places our lives in a larger context and shows us that the things that really matter are already ours in Christ. We don’t have to rob banks, steal jewels, lie, cheat, or rise to power by crushing the people beneath us. If we embrace the resurrection and the One who was raised on that day, we have everything we need.
I’ll close with some lines from Touch of Evil (1958), a film many consider to be the final classic film noir:
Quinlan (Orson Welles): “Come on, read my future for me.”
Tanya (Marlene Dietrich): “You haven’t got any.”
Quinlan: “What do you mean?”
Tanya: “Your future is all used up.”
Film noir reminds me of the fallen state of man, that at some point, all our futures will be used up, and the resurrection gives me hope for a future that’s glorious and unlimited.
(Photos: Film Forum, Hal 0000, Classic Movie Stills)
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