A Theological Look at Film Noir

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I’ve spoken before about my thoughts on the theology of film noir, how as a Christian I look on noir as cinema’s greatest, most accurate, and most biblical expression of fallen humanity. That state and how it plays out in our lives is best expressed in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Film noir is simply Ecclesiastes being played out through movies, although film noir usually stops at Ecclesiastes Chapter 11, not moving forward to Chapter 12, the book’s final chapter. After watching 30 film noir movies last month in light of a Christian worldview, I thought about several things:

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Regardless of your worldview, belief system, or even your upbringing, film noir presupposes a standard of morality. Concepts of right and wrong make film noir what it is. If Walter Neff didn’t care whether or not it was wrong to kill Phyllis Dietrichson’s husband, we wouldn’t have Double Indemnity (1944). There is an actual point where Neff truly doesn’t care: he just wants Phyllis and will do anything to get her, but the law (or we could just as easily say the Fifth Commandment) simply won’t let him get away with it. Noir knows actions have consequences, even in places where life is cheap and everyone’s stepping on everyone else to reach the top (or what they think is the top), such as Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The top is never quite the way you envisioned it and one way or another, there’s always a price to be paid.

There’s also a reason the best film noir movies were made after World War II. We’d seen the horrors of war, the depravity of what man is capable of inflicting on humanity. To make this worse, whereas war consisted primarily of inflicting harm towards an enemy, in film noir, the person inflicting the damage may be a friend, someone in your own family, even a wife or husband. These relationships, especially the husband/wife relationships we so often see in these films, are supposed to work according to a set of moral practices, or if nothing else, simple vows. The very people that war taught us to love and treasure are either turning against us through some type of infidelity or we are turning against them. Everything is upside down.

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Much of these characters’ feelings come from a sense of postwar disillusionment. We won the war, but for some characters, it sure doesn’t feel like it. Although it’s certainly not a film noir, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) spelled out for audiences scenarios that would be suggested in many film noir movies: returning servicemen not being able to adjust to normal life. We see that in marriages no longer working, loss of identity, not having a job to come home to, broken friendships and relationships, and so much more. Things don’t work the way they should, but why not? Didn’t we win the war? Didn’t we do the right thing so we could come home to a better world? If all those sacrifices didn’t result in something better, what was the point?

The characters in film noir recognize this. Many of them are trying (sometimes desperately) to adjust and others just think, “Screw it, I’m getting my share right here, right now.” Maybe some of these people thought that very thing, that they deserved something, so they’ll just go get it on their own. Bank heists, jewelry store hold-ups, gambling, extortion, adultery… the list goes on and on in film noir, down an unending series of dark, rain-soaked streets.

Or maybe it’s a case of the film noir protagonist being at the wrong place at the wrong time, a case of mistaken identity (Railroaded!), or finding something that doesn’t belong to you (Too Late for Tears), engaging in what seems to be a casual fantasy (The Woman in the Window) or just people trying to do the right thing (Thieves’ Highway). It’s all in Ecclesiastes and it’s all in film noir.

Many people during the war – and during our own time – frequently ask the same question: Where is God in all of this?

That question gets into some pretty deep theological and philosophical areas, but one of the wisest people I know says that these events and situations should tell us that the world is not how it should be. Things are messed up. Not just a few things, but everything, and on an enormous scale.

In his recent book Awe: Why It Matters for Everything We Think, Say, and Do, Paul David Tripp states that too many people no longer have an awe of who God is. Instead, we tend to be in awe of ourselves or someone else, which can get us into trouble. When your highest agenda becomes yourself, you might as well be right in the middle of a film noir.

Just what is awe? I think it starts as a sort of childlike sense of wonder, a fascination with something or someone we’re attracted to, something/someone we love and can’t do without. I also think that’s part of Jesus’ instruction that we must receive the kingdom of God as a little child (Mark 10:15, Matthew 18:3, Luke 18:17). Regardless of our age, we’re all built to worship something, Tripp says. We can’t not do so. The question is what or who are we going to worship, what or who are we going to be in awe of?

The vast majority of film noir characters who are in deep trouble have abandoned proper awe (of God, their wives, husbands, family, commitments, etc.) for something else and that something else is usually themselves. The reasons and situations might differ, but Tripp would probably say that most people in noir have an awe problem.

Yet it’s not always that simple. As mentioned above, many other factors (postwar disillusionment and others) contribute as well. But the others stem from awe problems.

And the way out of this predicament?

Many film noir movies end with the consequences of bad choices (or misplaced awe) being played out to their logical conclusions (Champion, Odds Against Tomorrow, etc.). Others – usually due to the Production Code – end with uncharacteristically soft endings (The Woman in the Window). Yet the film (one I watched before Noirvember) that strikes me as the most damning is Pitfall (1948).

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(SPOILERS) At the end of the film, John Forbes (Dick Powell) gives a full confession of his adulterous affair with Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) and other bad decisions he’s made to his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt). You could say that John’s confessing his misplaced awe.

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Sue forgives him, but neither she nor the audience is sure that their marriage will ever be the same. The damage has been done and the expressions on the actors’ faces tell us that – despite John’s remorse and Sue’s forgiveness – the rest of their marriage could very well be a living hell. (It’s also significant that in this final scene, Sue is driving the car, clearly signifying that – in more ways than one – she’s in the driver’s seat.) For the Forbes marriage, Ecclesiastes Chapter 12 hasn’t happened yet.

Yet Ecclesiastes Chapter 12 brings us back to where our awe should be. So does Isaiah 40, which is less about comfort than awe restoration.

Film noir continues to be my favorite genre or style of movie. The things mentioned above are just some of the reasons I love noir. Maybe we watch because we see something of the way the world was then, or the way it is now, or maybe it’s because we see something of ourselves in film noir, something of our own struggles or maybe or own correctly-placed or misplaced awe.

Or maybe we just love good stories.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy watching some of the film mentioned here.

(Photos: PatheosThe Film SpectrumThe DissolvePulp InternationalFree Classic MoviesSunset Boulevard)

One thought on “A Theological Look at Film Noir

  1. Pingback: My Year in Movies 2015 | Journeys in Darkness and Light

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