There were rat footprints in the dried lard in the frying pan. Sometimes the rats woke me, but this time I had slept through their visit. They were now a fact of life, like dogs or pigeons.
It was Raeberry Street, Maryhill, Glasgow in 1975. The cleansing department was on strike, and mountains of plastic bags full of garbage were piled in the back courts of the crumbling tenements. The flats didn’t have bathrooms or hot water, just closet-sized toilets.
This was how we lived, but it was not what we read. The most popular books read by children were Enid Blyton’s Famous Five novels, about a group of upper-class English children who had adventures and solved mysteries. The most popular books among the adults, I think, were Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, and Barbara Cartland’s romances. We kids also liked American comics. I remember standing on top of the midden, pretending to be Superman atop a tall building, yelling, “Up, up and away!” but I couldn’t fly out of there.
It was how we lived, but it was not what we watched on TV. Whether it was Upstairs, Downstairs—a soap about the English aristocracy—or Coronation Street, a soap about working class people in the North of England—there were no rats. There was hot water, and bathtubs. There was no mother of five knocking on a neighbor’s door to ask for help because it was payday and instead of coming home from his job at the butcher’s, her husband had disappeared into the pubs, and would not come home until Sunday. In the books we read and the TV we watched, money—or rather the lack of it—was never mentioned. The characters engaged in their dramas, mundane or life-threatening, marrying or divorcing or fucking or murdering one another without ever discussing rent arrears, lack of food, or utilities being cut off.
That year, the film Jaws was released, and broke all-time box-office records. Because of this, the novel it was based on became ubiquitous, in paperback with the image from the film’s poster on the cover. The film, a masterpiece of suspense, was the standard story of a heroic individual—a police chief, played by Roy Scheider—who wants to close his town’s beach because of shark attacks, but is overruled by greedy officials who want tourist dollars.
But the novel is less about man-eating sharks than the fear of poverty. Brody, the police chief, is struggling to get by. His wife, who comes from a wealthy family, is embarrassed about having married beneath her station, and is so resentful and bored that she has an affair. The reason that the town’s elected officials and business people conspire to keep the beaches open is not because they are evil and greedy and don’t care that people might get eaten by the shark; they are desperate, because they depend on the summer tourist season for their livelihood, and are afraid of losing their homes if the beach is closed.
Although the characters in the novel Jaws had a standard of living that seemed fabulous to me, it was the first time in fiction that I encountered the fear that defined the lives of everyone I knew.
The first time I saw that fear on TV was when I happened to watch The Incredible Shrinking Man, a 1957 film that shows how little has changed in the American psyche in the last half-century. Ostensibly a science-fiction movie, it is really about the same fear as the novel Jaws. The protagonist lives with his wife of six years in a suburban house that, had the movie been shot in color, wouldn’t look any different from a contemporary one. The kitchen, with its fridge and its counters and its toaster, is unsettling in its familiarity…
And the horror in this movie is the protagonist’s fear of losing that privileged, comfortable, convenient lifestyle. When he realizes he’s shrinking, he wonders how he’s going to be able to hold onto it. When he decides to sell his story to the media, it’s because he isn’t getting enough work and is falling into debt. When he gets to be only a few inches tall, his wife sets him up a doll’s house—anything to preserve the illusion of affluent white America. This film bears witness to the fact that the American Dream has always been a nightmare.
Depressing though this sounds, watching it in a filthy tenement with rat footprints in the frying pan, I was exhilarated—because, though we didn’t have a fridge or a toaster or kitchen counters, this was a film that seemed more real than Coronation Street.
I got older, and I found noir. Not just a genre, but the most honest depiction of the struggles of real life. And by the time I read Marx, I knew that he was right, because films like Detour and The Big Heat and Kiss of Death and The Hustler and Get Carter had shown me, and the novels of James M. Cain and David Goodis and Jim Thompson and George V. Higgins had told me.
In so-called “literary fiction” (which is just another genre), I mostly read only about the psychological hang-ups of affluent white people whose affluence never seemed threatened. There were exceptions, like the petty-bourgeois drama of George Orwell’s first three novels, and some of Graham Green’s novels. Significantly, Greene separated his genre novels from his literary ones, giving them the subtitle “An Entertainment,” but it is in these “entertainments” that he most seriously reflects class issues.
This has been true of noir from the early days, and is true now. Take the 1953 classic The Big Heat, with its blunt acknowledgment of class and poverty. The protagonist, Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), a cop, and his wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) discuss how fortunate they are to be able to eat steak for dinner; he tells her that his colleagues don’t believe him when he says they can afford steak, and she tells him that they won’t be able to afford it when they have their second child. Even now, they only have one steak, which they cut in half and share. This poverty, and fear of it getting worse, pervades the film. The reason Bannion’s boss refuses to stand up against police corruption is that his wife is worried about his pension— and Katie tells Bannion that she sympathizes with them.
Two decades later, witness George V. Higgins’ novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and the magnificent film starring Robert Mitchum. Both book and film show criminals as working stiffs, and so get to the real heart of the crime story.
In any film noir, what do the characters want? It is always the same thing. The characters played by Mitchum in Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter may be evil, but it is not evil that drives them. They are driven by the same need that drives the weary, sad, kindly Eddie Coyle.
Nowadays, we have the novels of Daniel Woodrell, James Sallis, Gary Phillips, Charlie Stella, Larry Fondation, Benjamin Whitmer, Vicki Hendricks, Tony Black, Ray Banks. We have such films as Texas Killing Fields, The Town, Killing Them Softly, Killer Joe. Like their antecedents, these are not mysteries, and they are not fantasies. They shatter the mainstream fantasy of what is “normal,” and depict the ordinary madness of life, the third world hidden inside the first.
Where did it start? Even while Arthur Conan Doyle was writing his Sherlock Holmes cozies in the 19th Century (which, it should be remembered, he lifted from Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin), his brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung, was writing the dark tales of Raffles, Victorian gentleman and cricket star who moonlights as a burglar. Raffles seems to be a gentleman of leisure, but it’s all about surface appearance and desperate avoidance of losing his upper crust status. While enjoying membership of exclusive clubs and hobnobbing with the aristocracy, he is always one theft away from destitution.
This is the demon that haunts all the Raffles stories. When he teams up with his sidekick, Bunny Manders, at the beginning of the first book, it is because Manders is facing bankruptcy and is so desperate that he helps Raffles rob a jewelry shop.
In the second book, Manders has just gotten out of prison and is applying for menial jobs. Raffles, who is thought to have died, is living in squalid rooms and still living by his wits. Little is said of Manders’ time in prison, but much is made of the now reduced circumstances that the two men now must endure.
Explaining his criminal ways, Raffles tells Manders, “Of course, it’s very wrong, but we can’t all be moralists, and the distribution of wealth is very wrong to begin with.”
There are those of us who argue that capitalism is a crime. For almost a century, noir has shown that (with the exception of “crimes of passion”), in the absence of capitalism crime could not exist. When the lightbulb is bare, darkness increases.