"...those who enjoy the darker side of the genre are in for some serious thrills with this..."
Laura Wilson, The Guardian
Published in the UK by Polygon (March 19th, '09) and in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Nov '09).
A thing out of season
by C S Thompson
Honor in the Noir Universe
"That is the noir character. Alone, a loner in a world he knows he can’t fix.
Alone in a world that has turned bad, full of betrayal, deceit, dishonesty,
crime, and vice. Maybe it always was bad. Yet, he keeps his own personal code of honor. It is the only useless thing left for him to hold onto."
—From an anonymous online article on film noir
"In the changing of the times, they were like autumn lightning, a thing out of season, an empty promise of rain that would fall unheeded on fields already bare."
—Shosaburo Abe, on the decline of the samurai
These quotes represent two very different worlds—the landscape of film noir and that of the Samurai warrior class in its final days. Yet they both share a similar sentiment, a sense of mourning for a world in which honor no longer has a place, a world where the man of honor has been left behind by "the changing of the times."
The noir protagonist has taken many forms, from the greedy and amoral hustler, Harry Fabian in Night and the City to the small-town police chief in Touch of Evil. These characters are not always honorable men; frequently they are even contemptible. But one of the most enduring noir archetypes is the kind described above, a man who holds stubbornly to his own personal code of honor even though he is surrounded by corruption and betrayal. But what does "honor" actually mean? And can it truly have any place in the world of noir?
Most people in the English-speaking world would probably define "honor" as a personal sense of right and wrong built around a code or set of rules. But this is not the way the word was historically defined, nor is this its meaning in cultures where honor is still a potent force.
In 19th century America and Europe, a man who was insulted was obligated to challenge the offender to a duel of honor. The insult could be almost anything, from a failure to acknowledge the insulted party to an accusation of lying or cowardice. Insulting a woman was one of the most serious insults possible, as it implied that the men in her life were physically unable to defend her honor. None of this has anything to do with an internal sense of right and wrong. Rather, it is clear that "honor" in this context is a combination of reputation and status—to insult a man’s honor meant to insult his reputation as a man of integrity and physical prowess. Integrity itself is only part of the equation, as "honor" is mostly a question of public opinion. If your community respected you, you had "honor." If you lost that respect somehow, you were dishonored, and to be dishonored was to be socially dead.
In places where honor is still important, this is exactly the way it is perceived. A "man of honor" in Sicily is a man who must be reckoned with, a man who cannot be insulted with impunity. In the Gaelic language, the word that translates most closely to honor is "cliu"—literally, "that which is heard," or reputation. In Asia, the words that are usually translated as "honor" literally mean "face" or "shame"—in other words, the community’s perception of you rather than your personal sense of ethics. Street gangsters in modern America tend to be obsessed with issues of respect and disrespect—honor in the classic sense of the word.
So if honor is a community standard rather than a personal one, what place can it possibly have in the world of noir, a "world that has turned bad, full of betrayal, deceit, dishonesty, crime, and vice"?
If the community itself has abandoned honor, what purpose can there be in continuing to uphold it? Even the noir hero does not expect his choices to be understood by the morally jaded inhabitants of the modern world:
"You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it." – Dashiell Hammett, in "The Maltese Falcon"
Sam Spade repeats the rules as if to convince himself—he’s "supposed" to do the right thing, to make the hard choice no matter what his personal feelings. But who’s doing the supposing? His actions are played out in front of an imaginary jury that no longer really exists.
Raymond Chandler took this concept even further, creating the private eye as "shopworn Galahad," a modern knight in faded armor defending the mean streets from themselves. A thousand imitators later, recent writers have rejected this as an unrealistic cliché. Jim Thompson and James Ellroy’s protagonists are almost uniformly corrupt—self-serving, amoral and extremely violent. No trace of honor remains to be seen. Walter Mosley has re-imagined the Chandleresque private eye as a black man in postwar Los Angeles, working the same city as Marlowe at the same time, but from a very different perspective. And Mosley’s hero, Easy Rawlins, does have a community behind him, a community with a recognizable set of values despite the corruption and crime bred by desperation. Rawlins himself is by no means simplistically honorable, frequently making morally compromised choices in an effort to make the best out of bad situations. But despite this, he does care about right and wrong, and this caring is rooted in a community that also cares, even if it frequently forgets that under pressure. His sense of honor has a context, and in that sense the Rawlins books are not thoroughly noir.
Andrew Vachss has criticized Chandler for Marlowe’s detached air of moral superiority. But his own hero, Burke, is as uncompromising as Marlowe ever was, and Burke’s outlaw family of criminals and misfits is in many respects more moral than the civilian world it has rejected. Burke’s family is fiercely loyal, dependable and united, and although they make their living by crime there are many crimes they would never consider committing. It’s ironic that some critics have described Burke as a sociopath, when his sense of right and wrong is so passionate and committed. Like Rawlins, Burke has a community with a definable set of standards. He may live in a "world that has gone bad," but he’s not the only good man living there. It’s this context that gives meaning to the standards Burke still lives by.
By contrast, Chandler’s Marlowe was far more isolated as a character. Unlike Rawlins or Burke, he has no community at all. He is a lone wolf in a Los Angeles of gangsters, corrupt politicians, and scheming rich men. When he does the right thing, he does it alone, and no one cares that it’s been done. Marlowe’s world is truly noir, a "dull, half-lit world, where always the wrong thing happens and never the right."
"Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs."
—Raymond Chandler, in "The Long Goodbye"
Later writers such as Mosley and Vachss have addressed the contradiction by restoring the community on which the concept of honor depends. Despite this, they don’t use the word "honor" in the first place. Chandler does use the word, although he’s skeptical of it:
"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. … He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it." — Raymond Chandler, in "The Simple Art of Murder"
It’s ironic, then, that Chandler’s Los Angeles is an honorless society, a place where Marlowe’s code can have no meaning in the first place. Marlowe is dancing to a tune that no one’s playing anymore, as ineffectual as a samurai warrior after his way of life has been abolished:
"In the changing of the times they were like autumn lightning, a thing out of season, an empty promise of rain that would fall unheeded on fields already bare."
The melancholy potential of this paradox, as well as the connections between noir and the samurai ethos, were both explored in a little-known 70’s noir called "The Yakuza," starring Robert Mitchum. Mitchum plays an aging American private eye, called to Japan to help an old friend with Yakuza problems. Yakuza gangsters consider themselves the heirs of the samurai class, and the climax of the movie features an epic battle between Yakuza armed with samurai swords. However, the old Yakuza honor codes are fading away, and Mitchum’s Yakuza partner, Tanaka Ken, sums up the new generation of gangsters by saying "they are not what I would call honorable." Like Marlowe (and Mitchum’s private eye character in this movie,) Ken is a lone wolf who stubbornly clings to the old ways even as they are dying all around him. Both protagonists are profoundly lonely men, trapped by bitter memories and an inflexible set of rules. At one point an American asks Ken why he still upholds the code of giri. Is there any notion of afterlife punishment? No. Will anyone come down on him if he breaks the rules? No. So why does he still uphold the code? His only answer is "giri."
The rules are the rules, even if they no longer have any meaning. At this point, honor becomes internal by default—with no community to uphold it, the code becomes its own reason for existing in the minds of the alienated men who still feel bound by it.
And yet the archaic codes of the two protagonists do not prove completely futile in the end. Fighting side by side, they defeat their enemies, and Mitchum proves his loyalty to Ken by cutting off his own finger in a Yakuza ritual of atonement for the harm he has caused him. This gesture makes the two allies into true friends for the first time. In an ugly world of violence and betrayal, these men create beauty and nobility by refusing to live down to the new standards of behavior. They may be a community of two, but they are still a community. This may be the only kind of honor that is plausible in the world of noir.
Copyright © 2005 C. S. Thompson
CS THOMPSON is also the author of A Season of Strange Dreams, featuring occult detective, Jim Rankin, as well as a poetry collection (City at the Edge of Night), a new translation of Baudelaire's classic Flowers of Evil, and Lannaireachd: Gaelic Swordsmanship, a training manual on the use of the Highland broadsword. He is the President of the Cateran Society, an organization devoted to researching and practicing the historic Gaelic martial arts. He is 32 years old, and lives in Portland, Maine.
Contact CS Thompson