“Noir Is for Losers” (by Jeremy Herbert)

Jeremy Herbert got his start in the entertainment field as a movie maker—as you’ll see from this post. By day, he currently works as an AV technician, while writing, directing, and editing movies in his free time. Many of those films belong to the horror genre, and he also writes about horror and horror movies for a number of websites, including Crooked Marquee, Bloody Digusting, and PopHorror. His short film The Childish Thing will make its international debut at the Glasgow Horror Festival next month; his feature-length script, Another Harpersville Massacre, cowritten with Wolf Stahl, has been making the rounds of film festivals and has been a finalist at every one. Jeremy debuts as a fiction writer in our current issue (in the Department of First Stories), with the noir tale “Palmetto Springs.” He knows a thing or two about noir too!—Janet Hutchings

All film students have heard its siren song. Seen that publicity still from The Maltese Falcon, of Bogart holding the cursed prize and smoking a cigarette like he invented the practice, as they thumbed through a textbook about “reading” movies that they’d never open again. The caption would say something about “film noir,” so seductive, so French, and its hard shadows. Its unmistakable style.

What every film student loses sleep over—style. Nevermind the basics—that’s what those books nobody reads are for. Style is something else. Something greater. Means you’ve Made It. Pointed the camera the right way, convinced the right friends to stand in front of it, and found the right royalty-free music, called something like “Back Alley Blues” or “Jazz 3.” And what better style to steal than noir?

Hard shadows? Fewer lights to rent. Trench coats and threadbare ties? The very cornerstones of any thrift store worth its salt. A tough guy with a square jaw—probably Mitch, because he grows the darkest stubble—and a femme fatale with a look that kills and a .25 Auto on her thigh that could also do the trick—the only girl in class, who wants to direct her own project, but the guys don’t really want to grip so she ends up helping out on everyone else’s for the sake of not failing; and it’s a hard NO on the thigh thing.

Throw in someone’s period-inaccurate Airsoft gun, desaturate it into that murky world of grays, and congratulations—a stylish student film. A solid B in the making. B+ if you remembered to cut out that shot where you can hear the end of someone shouting “Action!” A- if there’s a complicated and showy dolly shot that took a significant majority of the shooting schedule to pull off. A+ if there was a shooting schedule.

To the lowly film student, noir is a shortcut to legitimacy. A shortcut to earn that most elusive of adjectives: cool.

I know the siren song of film noir because once, more recently than I remember and not long enough ago as I’d like, I, too, was a film student. Or at least an Electronic Media Production major, but who’s counting? The sum total was the same—a lot of filmmakers-in-the-making daydreaming of Steadicams, unnecessary neon lighting and how they could shoot their silent film project in the three hours before class, with little introspection as to why.

Why do you want to tell stories? I’ll ignore the means for now, but rest assured I’ll tackle it, considering this is a blog about writing, and so far I’ve only spilled scarcely related beans. And I don’t mean this as a savage assassination of those monsters, film students, who go into untold debt chasing a statistically impossible dream. I do suspect, though, that noir is still neck-and-neck with romantic-dramedy-about-going-home-for-the-first-summer-after-Janine-left-them-because-nobody-gets-exactly-how-that-felt in the film school genre races.

What I mean is that it took me a while to notice the gap between my love of reading noir and my antsy urge to make a cool film noir.

Because noir is for losers.

The overall effect might be cool. Cigarette smoke like sinners’ fog. Pinched-tip fedoras worn at the proper improper tilt, giving shifty eyes a murky place to hide. Gratuitous saxophone. But the nuts and bolts of noir, its very soul, belongs to the losers.

Strivers. Strugglers. Good people gone bad and bad people caught in the headlights, wondering if they were ever good. It’s no mean feat to count off too many noir heroes that don’t toe the line one way or the other. It may be just one flavor of mystery, but it’s exactly what carried me away in the genre.

Take Ernest “Stick” Stickley, the put-upon protagonist of Elmore Leonard’s Swag and Stick.

The following few paragraphs will contain absolutely careless spoilers for those books. If you’re allergic to them, please continue with caution. But Elmore Leonard is so good that it never matters if you know how his stories end, because you’ll be just as delighted spotting the snags in the weave that inevitably unravel someone’s Best-Laid Plans.

And if anyone’s readying a well-worded and researched argument for Leonard not writing noir, I applaud your dedication. Maybe you’re right. But he’s always read that way to me, whether the ill-fated action was in hardboiled Detroit or sunburned Florida.

And Stickley’s saga bridged the criminal underworlds of Elmore Leonard perfectly. Started out stealing cars right off the lot in 1970s Detroit. Then a blackmailer-turned-partner-turned-friend sells him on a lucrative new career in armed robbery. Ironclad, unimpeachable rules for Not Getting Caught Or Killed are hashed out on the most sacred of noir parchments—the cocktail napkin. Everything works perfectly until it doesn’t. They ignore the rules. They pay the price.

Stick takes his parole as a chance to reconnect with his estranged daughter in Florida. Almost immediately, he trips into the crosshairs of a Cuban gang, a killer in a cowboy hat, and a whacked-out wannabe kingpin. He hides in plain sight as a chauffeur until he sets up the Perfect Scam to fix everyone’s respective wagons at the same time. He even beds three women in the same night. Well. Two-and-a-half, until his natural limitations get the best of him in what may be one of the strangest omens in mystery fiction. He almost pulls it off, but falls flat on his ass within swearing distance of the finish line. Stick walks away with exactly enough money to lose in unpaid child support to his embittered ex-wife. The last line might as well be a mission statement.

There you are, Stick thought.

For all the schemes and double-crosses and back-alley meetings in the empty hours of night, he was always the same loser. And his stories were cool. No Leonard story isn’t. Swag saw him living the sweet life in a high-rise apartment. Stick followed his daily route through the Gold Coast elite’s favorite country clubs.

But despite himself, Stick was never cool. He tried. He failed. Maybe he proved something to himself, though someone like Stick would never admit it. But he’s that shadow in the dark, waiting for someone dirtier to come home, to walk into his trap. Because he’s got it all Figured Out.

The angles. The moves. The baser motivations of Mafia and men.

Got it all Figured Out, until someone else thinks the same and, funniest thing, their answers don’t match at all.

I couldn’t see it at first. Too busy imagining a woefully generic film noir and wondering which basements I could stage the chair-tied interrogation in. I would impress my peers. It would be so stylish without having to worry about my own pesky creative input. It would be so cool. I was too busy missing the forest for the trees, and worried about faking the Big City with so many of the damn, green things around. But then I’d sweat away ten pounds making it, only for the rest of the class to make something just shy of identical, depending on how much stubble their lead could muster. A hollow victory, if a victory at all, but at least I learned something the hardest way possible.

But I couldn’t see it because I had it all Figured Out.

Noir is for losers. And that’s why I love it.

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