Thursday, December 08, 2005

Do noir heroes change?

I don't think Sam Spade was really putting his heart into it.

If you watch The Maltese Falcon, yeah, he unravels the mystery (or rather the hoax), figures out who's responsible for what, and so on. But at the end, he hasn't really changed. He hasn't grown, or become a better person; he's still the same callous, self-interested mook he was to begin with. I think he's gained a little insight into the human condition, but he's still just as cynical and unhopeful about humanity's prospects as he was to begin with. Even the last line (well, the penultimate line -- the last line is a confused "Huh?"), "The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of," is a recognition of the depths people will sink to in the greedy pursuit of money. And not in a good way.

A lot of noir heroes seem this way -- they start out world-weary and callous, and they end up world-weary and callous. The best you can usually hope for -- at least in hard-boiled detective-style noir -- is that they start out cynical and end up just a little less cynical, a little more hopeful that maybe the forces of evil won't always win. Except usually it's the opposite; they end up even more cynical, after experiencing the depravities of those involved in the case. Chinatown is an excellent example of negative change: Jake Gittes swore off ever helping someone if it involved anything more dangerous than trailing around unfaithful spouses, because of an experience when he was a police detective in Chinatown. But then Evelyn Mulwray comes along, and Jake falls for her, and believes that this time he can succeed where he failed before.

Of course, he's wrong; Evelyn dies, Noah kidnaps Katherine, and by any reasonable stretch of the imagination, the trauma to Jake's psyche would be so severe that he would never again risk that kind of emotional trauma. Realistically, Jake Gittes has nothing more to offer us, dramatically, because he is destroyed by his failure in Chinatown.

So, of course, they made a sequel. *facepalm*

Casablanca is noir, even though it's not in the Chandler-Hammett tradition. Rick Blaine undergoes significant positive change by the end of the movie. He goes from being snarky and selfish to being snarky and selfless. And the flashback sequence is brilliant, because we see him much happier and more positive than he's ever been. This gives us a contrast to his "present" state (drunk, morose, and pessimistic), making him an even deeper character. We don't see his transition to depressed bar owner; we merely see the trigger and are left to work out the rest for ourselves.

Double Indemnity is yet another example. Fred MacMurray's insurance investigator, Walter Neff, comes to realize the mistakes he made and the evil he committed -- and, had the wheels of justice not ground him into a fine paste, he would have subsequently become a good man who would never again commit such a transgression. He recognized his mistakes, unlike Jake Gittes; he did evil, unlike Rick Blaine; and he was the (im-)moral center of the story, unlike Sam Spade.

In fact, I'd venture to say that Sam Spade is not the protagonist of The Maltese Falcon. He doesn't change. Neither, really, does Joel Cairo; despite his barely-veiled rage, he's really no more than an extension of Kaspar Gutman's will. Possibly Gutman is the real protagonist; he learns to overcome shortsightedness and rage when he learns the "Falcon" is a fake, and commits to spending however long it takes to find the real Maltese Falcon. (Nevermind that he's shortly captured by the police and presumably convicted of numerous crimes.)