There is something very striking about the mises-en-scène, the characters and the plot developments in the genre (a disputed classification) or historical cycle (by rough consensus 1941-1958) known as “film noir.” With respect to virtually any significant or pivotal action treated in many of these films (things like murdering someone or cheating on a spouse or informing on a confederate or committing suicide), almost no one in noirs behaves in a way that easily fits the reflective and deliberative models of action and agency prominent in philosophy since Aristotle. For one thing, it is clear that in some cases none of the principals have any clear idea at all why they are doing what they are doing. If you asked them, they might think of something to say, but there is no evidence in the films that what they avow bears any relation to what they actually do.
Or in other cases characters know that what they are undertaking is profoundly ill-advised and they can admit to themselves and others that there are no good reasons to do what they are doing and many very good reasons not to act as they propose. Yet they act anyway. (In Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, when Kathie tries to convince Jeff that she has not stolen the money she is accused of stealing, all in the context of deciding whether they should run away together, Jeff interrupts her and short-circuits both the reflection on why and the assessment of risks by saying simply, “Baby, I don’t care.”) There is even a strikingly persistent, somewhat unnerving acting technique in the male characters in noirs—apparently demanded by many different directors, but especially by Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Siodmak and Joseph Lewis. (It is especially striking when combined with an actor of animal-like physicality reduced to an almost whimpering passivity, such as Burt Lancaster in Siodmak’s Criss Cross and The Killers.) The characters are portrayed acting, doing things, but as if hypnotized, dazed or sleep walking, as if trying to portray what something like “passive agency”—agency, but not on the reflective model—looks like. The sheer speed with which they must act is often a factor, the sense that they (and we) are being swept along even though decisions are constantly being made. We might borrow terminology from photography criticism to sum this up. Such criticism often noted that, compared with painting, photography was “weak” in “intentionality,” given that the final image was produced by a machine, automatically, without direct control over the process by the photographer. Such low-affect characters in noirs can be said in a similar way to express “weak intentionality” in action. The champion at this style was undoubtedly Dana Andrews, although Robert Mitchum is also quite representative.
Or these characters express themselves, sometimes sincerely and sometimes self-deceptively, in ways that are difficult to fit into the conventional model. They seem to say that the question of what they have reason to do, why they are doing what they are doing, has become irrelevant; that they are trapped by some situation or by some social necessity or by their own past or even by some obsessive love, by amour fou, to such an extent that any reflective relation to their own deeds is simply beside the point. (The titles of many noirs make the point directly: Caught; Possessed; Tension; Conflict; Framed; Detour; Pitfall; Edge of Doom; One Way Street; The Reckless Moment; The Set-Up; Brute Force; Desperate; The Big Sleep; Where the Sidewalk Ends; Odds Against Tomorrow; Undercurrent; Underworld; Roadblock; The Steel Trap; and of course D.O.A.) Occasionally the actors even appeal explicitly to the ancient idea of fate, as when the main character in Edgar Ulmer’s classic, Detour, says simply, “Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” Characters are constantly pleading that they must act in some other way, that they have no choice. (The Rita Hayworth character in Welles’s Lady from Shanghai is forever going on about our own “natures” being inescapable, as is the Jane Greer character in Out of the Past.) This necessity is sometimes a result of direct coercion, but often it is an appeal to some great social constriction of possibilities, or due to the inevitable restrictions that begin to set in, become psychologically real and unchangeable, given the person one has finally become. Acting otherwise than as such a person would make no sense, even if he can see that he ought to act otherwise. Sometimes in ethically complicated situations, where an agent is trying to decide what would be the right or even simply the prudent thing to do—and wants to decide on that basis—he finds that in the world he lives in there is no reliable way to make such a distinction, and is thus completely disoriented. Or no matter how he deliberates, intends and plans, his world as experienced is subject to such arbitrary and unpredictable violent swings of fortune, to mere chance, that any conventional model of agency looks suited for another sort of world entirely.
Of course almost all film and literature portray irrational action. We are regularly presented with people acting compulsively or impulsively or against what they know as their better interests or because they are lovesick or consumed with hatred. It would be an easy solution to argue that sometimes people are so overwhelmed by passion and need and anger or despair that they cease to be agents at all; something happens to them as powerful as the effect of a drug or a brain trauma and they are no longer “running the show” in any effective sense. It would be easy, that is, to insist that in many of the classic noir situations, the role of necessity just does mean that we are reduced in effect to something like spectators of what happens to us, much as anyone else would be a spectator of the same events. And that, just like anyone else, we might regret what had happened to us, but we would be merely regretting that—that it happened. We would not be expressing, would find it crazy to express, “agent regret,” regret that I so acted—simply because we were not agents. We did not do anything but, as we say, “were caught up in forces we could not control.”*
*This is an excerpt from issue 2 of The Point. To read the rest, subscribe!