The Funniest Tough Guys in Film Noir

The new Sin City is a solid action film, but it doesn’t have the cynical punch of the great detective stories.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Robert Rodriguez’s new, 3D entry in the hyper-violent, high-contrast Basin City saga, is a crime movie, an action flick, and, in places, a mystery. What it isn’t—and someone should tell the critics panning it as a bastardization of the genre—is film noir. The genre it draws on for visual inspiration (or the genre the comics it draws on for visual inspiration drew on for visual inspiration—got that?) would spit out Frank Miller’s characters. That’s not a criticism of the protagonists. The noble cro-magnon Marv, played by Mickey Rourke, has a certain magnetism and Dwight McCarthy (formerly Clive Owen, now Josh Brolin) is a memorably gruff good guy. But these black and white characters are just that. They present a strong contrast to the men in the original noir flicks, which were shot with an eye for darkness, but starred men whose lives were painted in shades of grey.

If the latest Sin City is a reminder of anything, it’s that guys who don’t give a damn are more fun to root for than guys who do.

Let’s compare good-hearted Marv with greedy Walter Neff, Fred MacMurray’s beady-eyed insurance salesman from 1944’s Double Indemnity. Walter Neff is a mediocre man trying to extricate himself from a bad situation of his own making. He’s helped Barbara Stanwyck kill her husband and he means to get away with it—and her. Thing is, Walter Neff isn’t really in that much of a hurry. Far from driven, Neff spends most of the movie engaged in witty repartee. He’s less hard-boiled than he is scrambled. Here’s how he says goodbye to his would-be lover/accomplice/victim:

Walter Neff: You’ll be here too?

Phyllis: I guess so, I usually am.

Walter Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?

Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.

Walter Neff: I wonder if you wonder.

The great film noir characters, including Don Birnam, Frank Chambers, and Ben Grace, treat plot as little more than a bother. The best example of this is the ur-noir badass Philip Marlowe. Played by Bogart in The Big Sleep, Marlowe seems only slightly less bored by snooping than he is by everything else. The title refers to both death and the general sense that the whole story is little more than a nightmare its characters are on the verge of shaking off. That’s the only way to understand Marlowe’s indifference—well, that and the relentless boozing. The one thing he seems to really have a passion for is getting the last word, which he’ll do regardless of who he is addressing:

Dangerous Mobster: Is that any of your business?

Philip Marlowe: I could make it my business.

Annoyed Dangerous Mobster: I could make your business mine.

Philip Marlowe: Oh, you wouldn’t like it. The pay’s too small.

Marlowe is a singularly insulting character. He gets to people by insinuating that he’s the bigger man then explaining that he’s of no consequence at all. What makes him funny is his droll existentialism. In Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Elliot Gould takes it even farther, making the classic character into a bumbling mess, more Lebowski than Holmes. “My my you’re a pretty asshole,” a detective tells him. “Yeah, my mother always tells me that,” he responds.

Far from a hero, Marlowe is just an everyman who doesn’t care anymore.

Nihilism is like smoking: Mothers hate it and it makes everyone look cool. You can tell the difference between faux noir and film noir by watching the audience leave the theater. Any man holding the door for a woman he doesn’t know has been enjoying the former. Any man ignoring the stop sign on the way out of the parking lot has been enjoying the later. Film noir is ultimately freeing. It reminds men that they can still find a good time even if they lose their way.

Unfortunately, 2005 was the last good year for noir. Robert Downey Jr. made his freewheeling comeback opposite Val Kilmer in the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Joseph Gordon-Levitt spewed a stream of not-quite-idiomatic expressions in the high school crime flick Brick. Those indies did not fare as well as the more purposeful Sin City or Batman Begins that year, which is presumably why crime flicks since then have had a less cavalier attitude about morality. Cinematographers decided to embrace darkness, but writers did the opposite. Downey Jr., who had been struggling to save himself, was suddenly saving the world. 

But we need noir now more than ever. Unlike tradition action fare, film noir reminds men that they are not merely reflections of their situation. They can be funny when things get serious. They can laugh in the face of danger then scoff at a beautiful body. They’re products of their own weakness, not just the slings and arrows of ill-won fortunes. Men are more than capable of failing on their own terms.

When Walter Neff’s boss informs him he’s going to have to take a pay cut, the murderous salesman reacts by asking, “Do I laugh now, or wait ’til it gets funny?” It sounds like a rhetorical question, but in the shady world of film noir there is a very clear answer. Laugh now.

Photos by Everett Collection