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 would be far too facile a way to describe what happens to the murderous couple in Double Indemnity, the hapless anti-hero of Detour, the “gun crazy” pair in Lewis’s film, the benign but bumbling boob in Lady from Shanghai or the besotted “victim” of his own desire in Lang’s Scarlet Street. None of these characters can be said to “temporarily” lose their capacity to act, as if agency has a kind of on/off switch. They do act, often long-term, with a good deal of planning and forethought, even though what they do does not seem explicable on the reflective model. (In Out of the Past, Jeff perfectly summarizes both active and passive elements of action when he says, as he waits and hopes to see the femme fatale Kathie, “I knew where I was and what I was doing. I just thought what a sucker I was.”) In this respect the Ur-noir might be Double Indemnity, where the plot is driven by an attempt to make what is intentional look accidental, like a mere happening—all the while showing that much of the putatively intentional is based on a deluded sense of how the accidental might be intentionally mastered—and where the job of the investigator, Keyes, is almost a kind of metaphysical job, to strictly hold this distinction fast despite any doubts, and to discover “the truth.” There are countless characters in film noir who have some stake in being able to claim that what they caused to happen was “accidental,” couldn’t be helped. As in the movie, there is a kind of “double indemnity” if you succeed in making this convincing—you get to do and deny you did it. But the “intentional-accidental” or the “intentional-coerced” dualisms are, we are shown, far less stable than our characters would like.

This situation has become especially interesting in the last 150 years or so, because (under the influences, first, of the so-called Masters of Suspicion—Marx, Nietzsche and Freud—and then of everything from structuralism and various “anti-humanisms” to evolutionary biology and the neurosciences) many seem to have concluded that in an ever expanding range of cases, it only seems to us that we are “running any show” as agents, actually leading our lives. Some now even seem to treat such a view as a quaint anachronism (not that any of them have given us a remotely plausible picture of what it would be, what it would look like, to live a life under the assumption that their various conceptions of necessity were true). But many of the film noir directors present a pattern of what remain actions, subjects doing things, but in a way that prevents us from any temptation to think that those subjects have simply had to become the spectators of their own activities, and in a way that does not fit and in effect challenges the reflective or “inner directed” models in philosophy. They show us what it literally looks like to live in a world where the experience of our own agency has begun to shift. (The radical version of the claim: that what it is to be an agent has begun to shift as well.)

But there is yet another strange and crucial complication in the “noir world.” Noirs are almost always about crime, usually murder, often cold-blooded and well thought out murder, and we would normally assume that the subject matter of such films is a variety of distinct abnormalities, pathologies. Yet the larger social context for such deeds, the historical American world in which they take place, is itself just as bleak, amoral and ugly as the individual deeds and the characters themselves. It sometimes can seem that everyone is double-or triple-crossing everyone else. All the police and politicians are corrupt, or if not corrupt then maddeningly incompetent, almost always—and with righteous self-confidence—arresting the wrong man. The public is an anesthetized object of easy manipulation or an easily aroused mob. The so-called American Dream is treated with bitter irony because in reality, we see over and over, wealth and power are all that matter. The most powerful and effective human passions seem to be greed, revenge, lust and craven fear. The state of modern marriage seems absolutely horrific, either some sort of stupefied self-satisfaction or a seething, barely controlled state of mutual loathing. Efforts by characters to change, start anew, escape their past, seem pathetically impossible as they repeat themselves and their own self-destructiveness in what appears a never-ending cycle. Yet on the other hand, characters shift identities or create new ones with such frequency that it can seem as if any one practical identity or character is like a mere suit of clothes, easily put on or taken off as the situation requires. Various putative heroes seem dangerously close in type and attitude to the villains they pursue. It seems impossible to distinguish clear-cut guilt from clear-cut innocence. Instances of traditional romantic love are very rare (as opposed to obsessive and often submissive attachments, raging possessiveness and crassly manipulated sexual desire). Characters who have been righteous, stable paragons of responsibility all their adult lives are seamlessly and quite believably transformed in a few seconds into reckless, dangerous and even murderous types, all suggesting that anyone, in the right (or wrong) circumstances, is capable of almost anything, as well as that one’s sincere avowals of basic principles are ludicrously ignorant. Not only then does a vital distinction between what happens to me, or even compels me, and what I genuinely do seem difficult to hold onto in noirs, the putative deeds at issue all seem of a dreary, disheartening, almost predictably venal, banal or even evil type.

All of this of course raises the question of why there should have been such a consistent audience for these rather depressing and anxiety-producing movies during the Forties and Fifties, and especially in the immediate postwar years. This is a deeply interesting question, as movies have often been important pieces of evidence for sociological interpretations of the temper of the times. Film noirs have produced any number of possible explanations. We hear that there was bound to be some social dislocation (and filmic evidence of the anxiety it produced) when hundreds of thousands of men returned from years of living with violence and death (and what some have called the “thrill” or exhilaration of war) and had to adjust to the quiet and routine of bourgeois domesticity. There was considerable unemployment, financial instability and an increase in crime in the postwar years. The increasingly rapid urbanization of America created both a fascination with the new cities and a palpable horror of such a way of life. There was the phenomenon of “war widows,” wives and lovers who did not wait for their former partners and who took up with new partners, and the much discussed problem of relatively liberated factory-working-women who were not about to take up again their old and oppressive roles as housekeepers. (The infamous misogyny and simple fear of women so obvious in many noirs are no doubt connected to both phenomena.) There was a great deal of new attention to abnormal psychology and a fascination with psychoanalysis that surfaces in many noirs—and after 1945 an explicit attention to the supreme example of human beings having created a force they could not control, that seemed a destiny we must merely suffer: nuclear annihilation. (Many consider Kiss Me Deadly the paradigmatic noir, or its apotheosis as a genre, and it ends with what appears to be the beginning of nuclear annihilation—something we “did” to ourselves, and yet also seemed to suffer unwillingly and inevitably.) Finally, this last suggestion of a “dialectic” of enlightenment (being the object of the forces we created as subjects) would take us into the complex debate about modern cinema and modernization in general. The distinct aspects of Western modernization, especially the advent of mass production and the possibility of mass consumerism (which eventually resulted in the industrial mass production of movies as objects of mass consumption), rapid urbanization, increasing bureaucratic rationalization and the increasing “technologification” of everyday life, could all be said to be recorded, expressed and to some degree “worked through” by many genres of Hollywood film. This would suggest that if we ultimately wanted to know why agents or subjects begin to look so different in film noir, we would need a specific sort of sociological, historical and critical analysis of the development of the unique form of life (mass consumer societies) within which passive agency and weak intentionality come to seem disturbingly credible.

This is a particularly intriguing question because both during and after the peak of the noir period another genre with a very different framework emerged: the classic Hollywood Western. Whereas the visual framework for Westerns is horizontal or painted against broad vistas and a distant horizon—in the natural world, open, for the most part day-lit, with a stationary camera suggesting objective, even epic narration—in noirs the action typically takes place at night, the lighting is shadowy, the framing conventions are vertical (stairs, bars and shadows of bars or blinds, shots from above or below, elevators, small, closed-in rooms, tight shots), urban, interior, and disorienting, shifting camera locations suggest shifting and sometimes unreliable points of view. Westerns are often about founding (the second, or Western expansionist, post-Civil War founding) and adopt a mythic style of narration appropriate to founding narratives, presenting us with questions about the possibility of law—often about the question of the psychological possibility of allegiance to law in pre-law situations. Noirs again concern something like “the other side” of the mythological coin, human life under conditions of corrupt or decaying or incompetent law, the post-law world of disillusionment. In Westerns the hero operates on a kind of ancient warrior code; public honor is still quite important to him, and the ideals of self-sufficiency and self-reliance are treated non-ironically and admiringly.

Noirs are famously populated by anti-heroes whose virtues are often cunning, craftiness, skill in deception and a kind of ruthlessness, and the narratives are saturated with irony. The issue of agency is presented in Westerns against a backdrop of vast and momentous historical possibility and not only is decisive and history-altering action possible, it is heroically possible. Communities get founded, law gets established, peace and order finally reign, the future is secured. In noirs on the other hand, the question seems to be: Where there remains almost no credible sense of a “space of possibility,” when the suspicion is that the very idea of someone leading his or her life begins to look naïve or self-deceived, what could action and agency look like? The issue of destiny or fate in Westerns is framed as a question of national historical destiny and it is, at least on the surface, progressive and meliorist, whereas the issue of destiny in noirs is largely framed in psychological or social or existential terms, and the relevant possibilities are severely constricted. The standard picture is of people “trapped” either (somewhat paradoxically) by themselves (by who they have become), or by an anonymous and autonomous social order or societal machine or by a vast purposeless play of uncontrollable fortune.

There is a clever play on this whole contrast in one of the greatest noirs, Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Joseph Cotten plays a writer of pulp Western fiction, Holly Martins, set down in the rubble, shadows and ambiguities of postwar Vienna. He and his “Westerns” sensibility, with its notions of personal loyalty, fairness and moral clarity, are no match for the noir villain, Harry Lime, played with murderous charm by Orson Welles. The suggestion is that the original “Westerns questions” about founding, law and effective agency, even heroism, look wholly different, even slightly childish and pathetic, in the dark, uncontrollable, even unfathomable world emerging from the rubble of World War II. (I don’t mean to suggest that these Western and noir points of view are necessarily opposed. Their co-presence and popularity at around the same period could mean that the grim lived-present represented by noirs also motivated a nostalgic fantasy about a heroic past and a more traditional picture of agency, the fantastic quality of which only intensifies rather than resolves the tensions of the later modern age.)

Understanding the respective role of such self-images in the American imaginary and especially understanding the historical moment for both such archetypal or mythic frameworks (ways of making fundamental sense of things, let us say) in postwar America would obviously be a very lengthy and involved investigation. All I want to underline here is one prominent feature of the noir-treatment of the issue of agency. It is that in the best noirs we are presented not merely with a form of life dominated, as a matter of historical fact, by a shared, heightened sense of fatalism and alienation, but we see what is, in effect, a partially worked out picture of what it would be to live in such a world, a shared world not wedded to the notions of reflective individuals formulating plans for avowed purposes and then enacting causal powers to effect them. We don’t, that is, just see pictures of suffering victims, individuals overwhelmed by forces they cannot control and so merely buffeted hither and yon. What is interesting and challenging for philosophy is that all these characters still have to continue to live, in some sense to plan and decide, to actually lead a life. They cannot, after all, just wait to see what will happen to them.

The first French critics were right, in other words, when, after a long wartime period when no American movies could be shown in France, they expressed a kind of deep amazement at what had happened to the American gangster film or crime melodrama or private-eye thriller, when they insisted that the movies now being produced were qualitatively different, as if of a new genre, much darker and deeper than those previously made. That qualitative difference had something to do with the presentation in the films of both the futility of any presumption to master fortune or fate, and yet the unavoidability of struggling to do so.