There are various important ingredients for a Film Noir. Firstly, bad weather. You can’t make a Film Noir set on a bright spring morning. It needs to be mainly set at night, preferably in the rain or in fog. Poor visibility, in other words. Secondly, you need a hero whose surface cynicism hides a Romantic moral idealism. Though he pretends not to care about things, though he pretends just to be a cynical cop or private detective, the Film Noir hero is really a knight in shining armour.
Indeed, Raymond Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlowe, was originally going to be called Philip Mallory, after the author of the Medieval romance, the Morte D’Arthur. Thirdly, there needs to be a dame. A belle dame sans merci. She should be beautiful, but potentially threatening to the male hero’s moral order – like Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct, for example, or Isabella Rosselini’s character in Blue Velvet. The hero is not sure whether to rescue her or arrest her.
Finally, and most importantly, you need an atmosphere of moral ambiguity. The hero, the shining knight, rides in to try and put the world to rights, but the more he investigates, the more he realizes that the crime he is investigating is not a one-off, but part of a wider environment of evil which he is, unfortunately, powerless to change.
And the really great Film Noir shows that the hero himself is part of this general milieu of evil. He realizes he is not such a shining knight after all. He is just as corrupted as the ‘bad guys’. He may try to do good, but end up doing as much harm as the bad guys, because he is fallible, self-ignorant, and not fully in control of his actions or their consequences.
In a few of the more daring examples of Film Noir, the detective goes deep into the murky details of a crime, only to realize, finally, that he did it – but he was too morally blind to see what he was doing.
Poor visibility, in other words.
This is what happens in the first Film Noir – Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Tyrannus. At the beginning of the play, the king Oedipus is like an idealistic private detective, energetically investigating the crime of the murder of his predecessor on the throne. But as he investigates the crime and delves into the terrible secrets of the past, in true Film Noir fashion, he discovers the awful truth: he killed the previous king, who was actually his father, and, to make matters worse, he then married his mother. But he did it all unknowingly, by accident.
He realizes, to his horror, that he is the murderer he has been seeking, he is the monster he’s been tracking down. It’s a device that happens in a few other Film Noir, though never so effectively. It happens, for example, in Fight Club, where the hero tracks down the crimes and misdemeanors of Tyler Durden, only to realize that he is Tyler Durden – whenever he falls asleep, he becomes his alter ego and goes on the rampage.
It also happens in Christopher Nolan’s great film, Memento, where the hero loses his memory every few hours, and has to piece together the details of a crime, only to realize finally (and then forget) that he himself committed it. It also happens, in a way, in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where the hero is a cop who tracks down and assassinates runaway androids. At the end of the film, it is revealed that he himself is an android.
The idea behind these works of art is that we are not who we think we are, and our ignorance of ourselves means we cause great harm. We ‘know not what we do’, and until we wake up to ourselves, we are like a private detective who ‘does good’ during the day, then falls asleep at night and goes on the criminal rampage.
The psychologist Carl Jung had a suitably Film Noir-ish name for this part of ourselves that does evil without us knowing or intending it. He called it ‘the shadow':
It is a frightening thought [Jung wrote] that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses- and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster’s body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature.
To begin to ‘know ourselves’, we need to track this shadow side of ourselves down, to be the private detective of ourselves: collect the evidence, piece together the patterns, and build up a picture of the person we really are, rather than the person we think we are.
This is one of the challenges that philosophy sets us. Epictetus said:
Even a man, who has trained himself to the exercise of his rational faculties and has for a long time passed a blameless life, may in a moment when his vigilance is relaxed, when he is off his guard, be defeated by the enemy whom he always carries about with him.
So, like a good private detective, we have to be ever vigilant of the enemy within us, our doppleganger, our shadow, who goes around committing crimes in our name.