“The Big Sleep”: a milestone in the death of heroism

Summary: Films are a mirror in which we can better see America. Films show how we lost faith in heroes, so that today they appear mostly in fantasies. Here film critic James Bowman looks at The Big Sleep.

“The hero draws inspiration from the virtue of his ancestors.”
Attributed to Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.

The Big Sleep
Available at Amazon.

Review of The Big Sleep.

The cool hero is a milestone in the death of American heroism.

By James Bowman at his website.
Reposted with his generous permission.

After four films that have spanned the years from 1941 to 1956 and have featured one version or another of the virtuous hero, this week we’re backing up ten years, to 1946, and one of the earliest examples of what I call the cool hero – Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep. If you had to sum up in a sentence the themes of the last two movies in our series, you could say of High Noon that it’s better to be brave than to be smart and of The Searchers that what makes the difference between civilization and savagery is sexual continence. Now that we’re entering the realm of the cool hero, we find both of these heroic maxims turned on their heads.

We know that we’re in the realm of the cool hero even before the movie itself begins. The first image we see is of two silhouettes, a man and a woman, lighting cigarettes and depositing them in an ashtray and then the extended shot over the opening credits of them smouldering there – presumably both the lovers and the cigarettes. Everyone knows, even today, that smoking is cool. And this is going to be a film about smoking, among other things. Drinking too, for drinking is cool too. Drug use is cool too, but they couldn’t show that back in 1946.x

Then, in the opening scenes of the movie, our hero meets, first, gorgeous pouting Carmen Sternwood, played by Martha Vickers, whose frank and open leering at him might call to mind that of one of the young white girls returned from Comanche captivity in The Searchers. Then he goes into General Sternwood’s greenhouse, filled with orchids whose “perfume,” says the General, worn out from his many vices, “has the rotten sweetness of corruption.”

Martha Vickers as Carmen Sherwood
Martha Vickers as Carmen Sherwood. Age 19.

In Raymond Chandler’s novel, by the way, it wasn’t “the rotten sweetness of corruption” but “the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.” But that was something else you couldn’t put on the screen in 1946. Part of the legendary difficulty in following the plot of the film is owing to the fact that there were a number of other things in the book that could not be shown in the movie because of the Hays Code. In the novel, when Marlowe later comes home to his apartment to find Carmen Sternwood there, for example, she is naked in his bed. In the film she’s decorously and fully dressed and about as sexy as the armchair she’s sitting in. In the movie, we’re not even told that Geiger’s so-called “racket” is in dirty books, or that Carol Lundgren, the kid who kills Joe Brody, had been Geiger’s homosexual lover.

In the scene where Lundgren slugs Marlowe, Chandler’s version of the character comments: “I took plenty of the punch. It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.” You couldn’t say that on the screen then – and, come to think of it, you couldn’t say it now either.

There is a certain irony in the fact that so much of the sea of corruption in which Chandler’s hero, like so many others of film noir, was meant to be seen as swimming could not be shown on the screen but only implied. Is it more corrupt to keep the corruption out of sight or to make it obvious as we do today? In fact, film noir could never have come into existence but for the Hays Code’s restrictions on what you could show in a movie. To my mind, this is proven by the almost uniform failure of the many attempts to revive the noir style that there have been since the Code was abolished in the 1960s. Corruption ceases to be very interesting when it is no longer hidden beneath a veneer of decency and respectability.

But that veneer was meant to serve another purpose in films like this one. It was to show us that the hero has nothing to fight for but himself. That’s the hallmark of the cool hero: he’s a lone wolf. “I was fired for insubordination,” Marlowe tells General Sternwood. “I seem to rate pretty high on that.” The General, rather improbably, says that he does too.

But his being all alone in a world of vice and corruption means that the cool hero has to be smarter than the virtuous hero. In High Noon, remember, there was a trade-off between being smart and being brave. Being smart was the plea of those who weren’t brave, and the one man who was brave was accused of not being smart. Well, the cool hero differs from the brave hero in being a smart guy. It’s not that he’s not brave; it’s just that he’s smart enough not to be, usually, any braver than he has to be. The virtuous hero, like Marshal Kane, has to face down his enemies. Or, like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, he has to outlast them. But he doesn’t usually outsmart them. That’s more typical of the cool hero, and why the cool hero is better personified by someone who lives by his wits – a spy, like James Bond, or a detective, like Marlowe – rather than a soldier or a cowboy.

The plot of The Big Sleep is so convoluted, I think, partly to show us that Marlowe’s the only one who can understand what’s going on – and even he gets caught out on two occasions by thugs hired by Eddie Mars, played by John Ridgely. In the climactic scene, he says to Vivian of Eddie, “If I don’t get the jump on him this time, we’re cooked.” Of course, we can expect that he will get the jump on Eddie because he’s clearly the smartest guy in the movie. He not only knows more than anybody else in it, he knows more than we do. The proof is in that incomprehensible plot. But it’s all a magnificent bluff.

One of the famous stories about the film is that, in the course of making it, Howard Hawks sent a telegram to Chandler: “Who killed the chauffeur?” he asked. Chandler telegraphed back: “Damned if I know.”

The movie is even harder to follow than the novel because it added further obscurities by cutting out a couple of scenes that furthered the plot in order to make room for some more of the film’s big selling point, which was the screen chemistry between Bogart and Lauren Bacall, playing Carmen’s older sister, Vivian, with whom the hero falls in love {details here}. That doesn’t happen in the novel, though he has a brief romantic interest in her, nor do the two scenes inserted into the movie to suggest that part of the glamour of the life of a private eye consists of frequent opportunities for casual sex with willing strangers. Just in case we don’t get the point, after his dalliance with the girl in the bookshop, whom he’s just met, Bogart’s Marlowe thanks her and puts his hand on her shoulder, saying, “So long, pal.”

Dorothy Malone in "The Big Sleep."
Dorothy Malone in “The Big Sleep.” Also 19 years old.

Like his smoking and drinking, the cool hero’s casual sex, the product of his effortless attractiveness to women, is another way we know he’s cool. Shades of James Bond, we might think: the coolest hero ever. In The Searchers, as I say, it is sexual restraint that holds the line of civilization against savagery: the restraint of John Wayne who loves his brother’s wife but will only give her a chaste kiss on the forehead, or of Laurie Jorgensen who waits years for Martin Pawley and fears becoming an old maid. By contrast, the savages personify unrestraint, and when Ethan and Martin are looking at the white women who have been rescued from the savages, we are meant to look at the lascivious leer of the blonde girl, so reminiscent of Carmen Sternwood’s, as a sign that her sexual nature has been corrupted by her life among the Indians.

The virtuous hero protects women’s virtue, whatever else he does, but the cool hero has a certain contempt for women. The movie shows this contempt in its milder form by making its Marlowe a libertine, but one who, in a concession to the mass audience’s romantic sensibility, is still capable of falling in love. In the novel, Chandler expresses his contempt much more directly. “You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol,” he says. “I had one from women. Women made me sick.” The contempt is naturally mingled with excitement, however. The bad girl is the object of our contemplation, rather than the good girl, and the fascination she exerts utterly transforms our view of the world from one in which goodness is endangered to one in which goodness, if it exists at all, is a sham, and certainly not something worth fighting for.

Peggy Knudsen was Mona Mars in "The Big Sleep."
Peggy Knudsen was Mona Mars.

But there are still some things worth fighting for. Again and again Chandler’s Marlowe expresses disillusionment with any lingering ideas of chivalry or gentlemanliness, and he cheerfully admits to having bad manners to Vivian. Like General Sternwood again, perhaps, his hold on life is too tenuous for him to have any time for what the General calls “Victorian hypocrisy.” And yet, like all cool heroes, he has a certain sense of honor that raises him above the level of the grasping low-lifes with whom he has to do business.

In Marlowe’s case, this honor seems to be expressed in his loyalty to his employer, General Sternwood, but even this, even his love (in the movie) for the General’s daughter, won’t stop him from finding out what she doesn’t want him to know, which is what lies behind her relationship to Eddie Mars. It’s that inward imperative to get to the truth behind appearances to which Marlowe is finally loyal and for which he risks his life more than once. It’s a loyalty to abstract intellect, if you like, to truth for truth’s sake, which makes it an appropriate if lonely one for the brainy, cool hero.

Another feature of the cool hero is that he is a version of the victim hero who has come to dominate, along with the cartoon hero, the movies of the last 30 years. Bogart’s Marlowe gets beaten up twice during this movie, and this was to become a more and more common cinematic way to win our sympathy, just as it wins Vivian’s in this movie. He comes out of the beatings with no apparent injury apart from a smudge on his face. By the time we get to Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars next week, we’ll see how much room for improvement on this poor mask of suffering a skilled make-up man could give to Sergio Leone.

But in 1946, the main suffering endured by the cool hero is mental and it lies in his world-weariness, his disgust with the corruption and the hypocrisy of all around him. If he invites us to emulate him, it is for this rather than for his heroic qualities, which are designed precisely so that we can’t emulate them. We can’t be as smart as Marlowe is, any more than we can pick up girls as he does. In these ways, you could say that he looks forward to the cartoon hero, the superhero, as well, since we can’t emulate them either.

But we can adopt that cynical, world-weary pose so characteristic of the cool hero, the pretense of being able to see through everything, all pleasing but deceiving appearances, to the corruption within. There’s nothing easier, in fact. That’s the cool hero’s legacy to our world, and it begins with Humphrey Bogart.

————————

More in Bowman’s series about the death of America’s heroes

James Bowman

About James Bowman

Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as movie critic of The American Spectator since 1990 and as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993. He has also been a weekly movie reviewer for The New York Sun since the newspaper’s re-foundation in 2002. He has also contributed to a wide range of other major papers.

Mr. Bowman is perhaps best known for his book, Honor: A History, and his essay “The Lost Sense of Honor” in The Public Interest.

See his collected articles at his website, including his film reviews going back to 1994.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts by James Bowman, about heroes, and especially these…

  1. The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes.
  2. We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America.
  3. Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
  4. We like superheroes because we’re weak. Let’s use other myths to become strong.
  5. Hollywood’s Hero Deficit – both a cause and symptom of our weakness.
  6. An America without heroes. We’ll miss them.
  7. We need better heroes. They are there, in our past.

See the book. It is a much darker picture of America. It’s today.

"The Big Sleep" by Raymond Chandler
The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler (1939).

The opening.

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

Modern chivalry.

“The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.”

Romance.

“You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women. Women made me sick.”

The nobility of the Private Investigator business.

“I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.”

The happy ending. The last paragraph.

“On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig {Mona Mars}, and I never saw her again.”

I get laid in my bookstore in the afternoon?

Dorothy Malone - the bookshop owner
Dorothy Malone – the bookshop owner.

10 thoughts on ““The Big Sleep”: a milestone in the death of heroism

  1. Bowman tracing his concept of the Cool Hero back to 1946 seems highly significant. It is, to me, a subtle acknowledgement of the disillusionment and cynicism of the post-WWII era. Film noir owes much to the impressionism of the 1920s and 1930s, but as he mentions it only retains force in a world when propriety and respectability cover up such corruption. But Bowman himself is so intently focused on the manifestation of heroism within these two genres (western vs noir) that it comes off as myopic. Far from being a paean to high-minded idealism, High Noon is a primer on how ordinary communities turn cowards and hypocrites when push comes to shove. It is perhaps one of the most caustic cinematic condemnations of supposed national solidarity imaginable. No wonder it was controversial when it first premiered.

    How would you reconcile Bowman’s conviction that “the virtuous hero protects women’s virtue” with Dalrock’s assertion of chivalrous love being one of the most persistent noble lies in Western culture? Does heroism retain merit in this subject if it only served to protect women from taking responsibility for their own sexual decisions? This must be one of the characteristic conservative delusions of our time alongside “weak men are screwing up Christianity” and “Scripture is hallow unless it contradicts what a woman says”.

    1. The Inimitable,

      “But Bowman himself is so intently focused on the manifestation of heroism within these two genres (western vs noir) that it comes off as myopic.”

      I love the generic criticisms. If a subject is examined in detail, it’s myopic. If it is dealt with broadly, its superficial. If it does both, it is a scholarly book — and unread.

      I’ve love to see your treatment of such complex subject. Which of the 3 choices would you make?

      “Far from being a paean to high-minded idealism, High Noon is a primer on how ordinary communities turn cowards …”

      I don’t know your politics, but this is the standard tactic of the Left: make up something, attribute it to the author, and give a rebuttal (the Right refutes using made-up facts). Let’s see what Bowman actually says about High Noon in this post:

      “you could say of High Noon that it’s better to be brave than to be smart …”

      No “high-minded idealism.” In a more general discussion of heroism (“The Hero Vanishes“) – discussing films’ trend towards the hero’s increasing separation from the community:

      “In High Noon, the community shows itself to be unworthy of the risks and the sacrifice undertaken by Gary Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane, though he undertakes them anyway.”

      “How would you reconcile Bowman’s conviction that “the virtuous hero protects women’s virtue” with Dalrock’s assertion of chivalrous love being one of the most persistent noble lies in Western culture?”

      Film’s do not depict reality. They depict what is inside our heads. Dalrock describes the real world. Bowman’s describing two tropes in film: the “virtuous hero” and the “cool here.” He doesn’t confused the screen with the real world. You shouldn’t either.

    2. “I love the generic criticisms. If a subject is examined in detail, it’s myopic. If it is dealt with broadly, its superficial. If it does both, it is a scholarly book — and unread.”

      It is easy to pluck out and self-define a subject in a way that makes its analysis seem legitimate, but relies on invented premises. Defining the nomenclature and parameters of the ideology in such a way that it can never be proven wrong.

      For instance, any discussion of the virtuous hero in the Western genre is inseparable from recognizing the Western was a nostalgic foray. One can argue Sergeant York and The Sands of Iwo Jima were cinematic embellishments of recent history, starkly reminding us that virtue is pertinent and necessary shortly even if the war was wrapped up. Noir was a pessimistic response to the same stimulus, and I’d argue Westerns were a third option. But at least the first two movies portrayed models of heroism situated in a world similar to our own. Virtue didn’t only manifest on the battlefield in those movies and audiences could emulate their screen heroes to an extent.

      Bowman comes close to conflating the significance of heroism in those movies with its manifestation in the Western genre. He does acknowledge Westerns are more cynical and individualistic, yet he still distinguishes them from lower fare like superhero movies and blockbusters. I find this bizarre. The Western, in several senses, is no less fantastical than Spider-Man swinging between skyscrapers or Schwarzenegger gleefully rattling off his machine gun in Predator.

      First and foremost it depicts an environment that no one is familiar with. Protestations of “cinematic reality” aside, the setting and dynamics of High Noon and The Searchers are two generations removed from any experience on the frontier; the masculinity and heroism on display were no less foreign to its viewers because the elements that necessitated them no longer existed. Self-sufficiency, desolate landscapes, isolated communities where the battlelines were clearly drawn, easily recognized villains that could be defeated by grit and courage alone—these were the polar opposite of everyday life for the Americans who were watching said movies. The frontier had been all but conquered by the 1890s; the big enemy of the time was a vague menacing foreign threat with its tendrils allegedly creeping into all corners of society; modernization across the board constantly rebuffed the notion individual actions could have critical impact on society. The frontier had always been romanticized by those with no experience of it (e.g. look up the articles venerating lumberjacks at the turn of the 20th century), and Westerns were no exception. Verisimilitude might be the primary difference: we’re supposed to believe a gunfight is plausible and Superman careening through buildings isn’t.

      If anything it’s an unintentional denunciation of the concept of the “virtuous hero”, or at least one example of it. Does it matter whether the archetype exists in a fantastical environment or is fantastical itself? Both offer no actionable model for people to emulate. One could probably argue the Western version of the virtuous hero was the direct predecessor of the heroes Bowman so obviously deplores. His romanticized nostalgia blinds him to it.

    3. “I don’t know your politics, but this is the standard tactic of the Left: make up something, attribute it to the author, and give a rebuttal.”

      You’re right. My recollection of High Noon was that Will Kane was protecting the ungrateful denizens of Hadleyville from Miller’s gang, which rebuked the notion that heroism was inspirational. But Bowman already mentions and addresses this point.

      I’d hardly call Kane dumb considering the circumstances: besides a stubborn sense of pride and honor, Miller would track him down wherever he chose to run. I suppose Bowman is contrasting this to noir’s cynicism as a symptom of understanding how the world “really works”.

      “(the Right refutes using made-up facts)”

      My main gripe with Bowman in a nutshell. Consider these excerpts from The Hero Vanishes:

      “Generations from now these [Bergman, Antonioni, Kurosawa, and Fellini] will be remembered as the men who ruined the movies.”

      “But the great post-war directors including Bergman and Antonioni did to the movies what Picasso and Matisse had done a generation earlier to painting. They made the artist the hero of his own creation. Once that fatal step was taken, however great individual works of art might still be, a whole language of artistic expression was corrupted by self-consciousness.”

      “Thereafter, every second and third-rate artist or director felt he had a license to become a little imitation Picasso or Bergman. A vital link between the movies and reality outside themselves had been broken.”

      “The result was the nihilism of a Spielberg or a Lucas, film-makers who abandoned the artistic pretensions of their models and reverted to being entertainers but who were as devoted as the masters to style and technique over anything inherently interesting about their subjects.”

      So on and so forth.

      This is nonsense parading as profundity. Such bold claims would require chapters to even make a case for, yet he just rattling them off as if they are tidbits of wisdom that require no proof. And they are all demonstrably wrong or can be shown to be meaningless relativism.

      “I’ve love to see your treatment of such a complex subject. Which of the 3 choices would you make?”

      Option 4: write a scholarly book and make it accessible yet entertaining. Scholars succumb to turgid prose because they write for others within the profession, not because ordinary readers don’t care about the material.

      “Film’s do not depict reality. They depict what is inside our heads.”

      Bowman’s thesis pivots on the idea that a film’s value is critically determined by fidelity to the real world. Otherwise his examination is a useless academic exercise except for discussing the prescriptive merit of these archetypes, which is clearly assigned to these tropes, and he wouldn’t care to make sweeping negative generalizations about the quality and nature of directors like Spielberg and Lucas. This is obvious when perusing his other essays on the subject. His treaties don’t treat as these movies as reflections of the times either; there’s no sociohistorical element in his analysis beyond asides to Hollywood conventions like the Hays Code.

      “Dalrock describes the real world. Bowman’s describing two tropes in film: the “virtuous hero” and the “cool here.” He doesn’t confused the screen with the real world. You shouldn’t either.”

      Dalrock’s primary posts on courtly love are spent arguing that it was an invention, not a naturally occurring phenomenon, propagated through literature. Besides that, Bowman’s own sensibilities demand that movies should set some type of example for people in the real world. He wouldn’t use “fantasy” in such a pejorative sense otherwise.

    4. NEET,

      (1) “My recollection of High Noon was that Will Kane was protecting the ungrateful denizens of Hadleyville from Miller’s gang”

      I don’t recall him saying anything remotely like that.

      Bowman refers to Kane’s statements about his personal code: not running away from a challenge. I interpreted that to mean that he was choosing to fight the gang now — rather than have them bushwack him and his family by surprise at a latter date. That makes even more sense as he initially counted on help from the townspeople. Running away was suicidal, as cowardness often is.

      (2) “I’d hardly call Kane dumb considering the circumstances”

      Watch the film again. The townspeople consider him to be dumb, or a fool (a subtle distinction). So does his wife.

      (3) “Such bold claims would require chapters to even make a case for, yet he just rattling them off as if they are tidbits of wisdom that require no proof. ”

      That’s the funniest thing I’ve read in a while. Literature critics write like that all the time. For 20 years I have subscribed to the NY Review of Books and London Review of Books (lots of articles from them reposted here).

      That you consider his statements to be “facts” is silly. They’re opinions. Facts in lit crit analysis are rare, since the content is largely subjective.

      (4) “Dalrock’s primary posts on courtly love are spent arguing that it was an invention, not a naturally occurring phenomenon, propagated through literature.”

      Almost all social behavior is an “invention.” Behavior that is “a naturally occurring phenomenon” is that of African plains apes, living in tribes on the savannah.

      (5) “Bowman’s thesis pivots on the idea that a film’s value is critically determined by fidelity to the real world.”

      That’s a complete misread of Bowman’s work, like pretty much everything you’ve said. He describes films almost totally in terms of our psychology. For example, the evolution from “virtuous hero” to “cool hero” to “slacker hero” reflects changes in us. It’s a shift away from the real world. There are actual heroes, but “slacker heroes” are more akin to Cartoon Physics.

      Another is the shift from moderately realistic women to the rail-thin warrior women — regular women who (without training) instantly become capable of punching a much larger man — sending him flying across the room — or picking up a sword and fighting off a horde of experienced pirates. Contrast the Luke and Rey in Star Wars. Or Will Turner and Elizabeth Turner in the Pirates films. These reflect deep changes is us.

      (6) “Besides that, Bowman’s own sensibilities demand that movies should set some type of example for people in the real world.”

      Silly. Most of his work is descriptive, such as analysis of the tropes of “virtuous hero” and “cool hero.” He doesn’t cosplay The Pope. He has his preferences, as do we all — but he gives that as secondary content.

  2. “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean. Who is not only the best man in his world, but a good enough man for any world.”
    — Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder in the Saturday Review of Literature, 15 April 2950,

    Of course. I’ve read everything Chandler ever wrote. Of course he drew a lot of inspiration from Dashiell Hammett. (Who was a Communist, as long as we’re on the subject of subverting traditional American heroic archetypes). The private eye novel really was, in its origins, a product of Prohibition, which had a corrupting and disillusioning effect that maybe America never did really recover from.

    Oddly enough, I’ve never seen the Bogart version of The Big Sleep. I’ve seen the one with Robert Mitchum. Actually, my favorite Marlowe was Powers Boothe, from the HBO series.

    Private eye shows were a staple of TV back in the days, but they’ve pretty much disappeared. They were about lone heroes, and the chick shows they make now are all ensembles, and bland, boring ensembles at that. As for noir, maybe one reason it never really made a comeback was that nowadays to point out or even suggest that the system is corrupt would get you blacklisted, or investigated by Robert Mueller, or whatever. The most recent noirish movies I can think of are all decades old. (Heat, The Driver, To Live And Die In LA)

    1. The Man,

      That quote is, imo, the best words Chandler ever wrote. He knew his American mythology!

      In one respect Chandler’s detective stories are, imo, like Robert Heinlein’s science fiction. Both authors take different perspectives on life in different stories, showing the range of their vision. The Big Sleep describes the detective in a radically different way than the hero in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (1950). Starship Troopers (1959), and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966).

      “They were about lone heroes …s, but they’ve pretty much disappeared. ”

      That is the subject of Bowman series of essays, and of the my many posts about heroes. This is a signal of a deeper change in America. The lone hero is an agent of change — bold, taking risks. We no longer believe — or want to believe – in such people. So such stories appear almost only in fantasy (including horror and science fiction).

      Note: I’ve slightly reformatted your comment, and added a full cite and link to the essay.

    2. The Man,

      “As for noir, maybe one reason it never really made a comeback was that nowadays to point out or even suggest that the system is corrupt would get you blacklisted, or investigated by Robert Mueller, or whatever.”

      Not at all. Saying that the system is corrupt is consensus wisdom in America today. It’s our cheap easy excuse for retreat from the burdens of citizenship — all that work. No risking “lives, fortune, and sacred honor” for us!.

      Bowman’s explanation in this post seems more likely, imo. Noir requires a creative tension we no longer have (much as a kite stays aloft only so long as you hold onto the string).

      “In fact, film noir could never have come into existence but for the Hays Code’s restrictions on what you could show in a movie. To my mind, this is proven by the almost uniform failure of the many attempts to revive the noir style that there have been since the Code was abolished in the 1960s. Corruption ceases to be very interesting when it is no longer hidden beneath a veneer of decency and respectability.”

  3. “Not at all. Saying that the system is corrupt is consensus wisdom in America today. It’s our cheap easy excuse for retreat from the burdens of citizenship — all that work. No risking “lives, fortune, and sacred honor” for us!”

    It was different back then. The system was understood to be corrupt, but it was also expected to maintain at least a semblance of legitimacy. Back then, maybe nothing had to be right, but everything had to look right. Appearances mattered. And that was a theme in a lot of Marlowe’s investigations. People had stuff to hide, because they had stuff they were expected to be ashamed of. There were dirty cops back the and maybe dirty FBI agents too. But if a crooked FBI agent got caught, he wasn’t sneering at a Congressional committee in front of God and everybody.

    Maybe you’re right and things got the way they are because we let them get that way, and now the crooked FBI agents no longer need to be ashamed in public.Maybe people figured that even if you exposed the crooks they weren’t running for cover because they no longer needed to. The former is probably a lot closer to the truth, but there might be some truth in both.

    The other part of noir, politics aside, was the sense of style. Marlowe could observe that with a drunk, you were dealing with a different person every time. Nowadays you’d get pot of message about underage drinking or something. I haven’t seen a cop show with a recognizable style since Miami Vice.

    1. The Man,

      You are comparing the present with a sanitized version of history. Look up the Church Committee, the Knapp Commission (NYC police), and the zillion other investigations of corrupt US law enforcement and intel agencies. Those exposed often presented themselves as the aggrieved parties, persecuted for doing their jobs.

      Corruption was by any measure much worse — much much worse — in the early 20th C. And that was an improvement from the late 19th C, in which governments at all levels were wholly owned subsidiaries of the rich. Things have improved because past Americans worked to make it so. Now we sit on our butts and whine.

      We are meek and will inherit the dirt. Just as the Bible promises.

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