Everyone recognizes noir lighting, noir dialogue, and the convoluted downward spirals of noir plots. But is there an acting style that defines film noir the way expressionist shadows and hard-boiled poetry do?
There are several, really, but perhaps the easiest to pinpoint is the subzero sangfroid exhibited by Charles McGraw and William Conrad as the titular hit men in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946). They show up in a small New Jersey town like some homicidal vaudevillian double act, elegant in overcoats and fedoras, their faces twin masks of glacial boredom. Two actors famed for their growling, tough-guy voices, McGraw and Conrad compete like bullfrogs to plumb ever lower bass notes. Their lugubrious wisecracks—taken nearly word for word from the Ernest Hemingway story that inspired the film—are incantatory, a meaningless flourish of style as they toy with the bystanders in a diner, whom they may or may not be planning to slaughter. As they kill time before killing someone they know only as “the Swede,” their needling patter seems a ritualistic preparation, designed to sustain their marmoreal indifference and casual contempt for their fellow men. This type of stylized, deadpan performance is iconic and hugely entertaining, but the scene suggests that it is also a functional necessity, allowing cold-blooded men who shoot strangers for a living to stay insulated from their dirty jobs.
The tough guy may be the most iconic brand of noir masculinity—the femme fatale, his distaff counterpart, will star in the second half of this column—but many different faces can hide behind the hard-boiled mask. Noir performances are always about the ways people cope with a bleak and violent universe, whether they arm themselves with the icy remoteness seen above, or with abraded cynicism, desperate defiance, or spellbound fatalism. This last response is distilled by Burt Lancaster in his screen debut, playing the killers’ target, the Swede. It is a surprising introduction for one of cinema’s most physically resplendent and powerful men: we first see his muscular body supine on a bed, his head blacked out by shadows. When Nick Adams (Phil Brown) comes to warn the Swede about the killers, the doomed man speaks out of the dark, his voice low and lifeless: “There’s nothing I can do.” When his face appears in the light, it is calm, frozen in a mixture of numbness and dazzled resignation—the same expression he wears at many points in the film, notably when he first sets eyes on the fatal beauty of Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). “I did something wrong once,” he says, explaining why he won’t try to get away; the little pause before “once” makes the line doubly tragic. He lies there blinking, waiting for the end. This passivity seeped through many of Lancaster’s early performances (Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, Criss Cross), turning the virile athlete into a sorrowful sleepwalker. Robert Mitchum, in his star-making roles in Pursued and Out of the Past (both 1947), would take out a patent on the cool, detached, somnambulistic style of the man who knows that the best he can hope for, as he says in the latter film, is to “lose more slowly.”
Other actors took a radically different tack, not retreating into the deep freeze or an impassive trance but fighting their characters’ doomed battles with visceral urgency. This mode is exemplified by Richard Widmark’s sweaty, frantic sprint through Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950). Widmark had the face of a man in extremity, the skull seeming ready to poke through the taut, clammy white skin, the eyes burning in their sockets like hot coals. He plays Harry Fabian, the nightclub tout with self-destructive delusions of grandeur, at a near-constant fever pitch, working himself into one frenzy after another as he pleads and hustles and gloats and schemes, scrambling around London always one step ahead of his enemies and one step behind his dreams of glory. He belongs to a ragged army of such desperate men, all livid and perspiring, hysteria gleaming through the cracks in their self-confidence: Edmond O’Brien in D.O.A., Marc Lawrence in The Asphalt Jungle, even gorgeous Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success. Fabian, the ultimate rat in a maze, enters the movie literally running from his creditors and spends the last fifteen minutes in hopeless, heart-pounding flight from the entire London underworld, every ally and refuge turned against him by a price on his head.
Throughout the film, Fabian has been an abrasive, often unlikable character, but in the last scenes he takes on a tragic grandeur that finally makes him the “somebody” he always dreamed of being. In the gray dawn he comes staggering across the Hammersmith Bridge in his pinstripe suit and sporty spectator shoes, falling and clutching the rails and panting in the last stages of exhaustion. Taken in by the compassionate but clear-sighted smuggler Anna O’Leary (Maureen Delaney), he achieves a broken, transcendent self-awareness. “All my life I’ve been running,” he says softly, mournfully: “From welfare officers, thugs, my father . . .” He knows that he is “a dead man,” as he’s often been told, yet even now he retains a perverse, unquenchable optimism; success is still so close he can smell it. His fall is not cushioned by pessimism.
How can these starkly contrasting performances all be “essentially” noir? Like jazz, film noir could be hot or cool, and often it managed to be both at once. The complex formula evolved over time. In the forties, the hard-boiled style valorized masculine reserve—Bogart’s dry, parrying skepticism; the haunted stoicism of Dana Andrews; the nonchalant underplaying of rough-hewn men like Mitchum and Sterling Hayden, who suspected acting was phony and effeminate. These defenses walled off psychological horrors that erupted in surreal nightmares or surging melodramas. In the later fifties, darkly romantic dreamscapes gave way to fractured portraits of a dehumanized, explosively violent world (Touch of Evil, Blast of Silence). Instead of a lacquered surface that hides corrosive anxiety or aching loss, there is a frenetic burlesque of action concealing a freeze-dried hollowness.
Perhaps the best example of this strange mixture of scorching violence and chilly amorality, spiked with black humor and grotesquerie, is Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). The jaggedly fragmented plot, at once borderline nonsense (the hunt for a “great whatsit” that is never fully explained) and overendowed with meaning (constant allusions to myth, art, and poetry) is held together by the central performance of Ralph Meeker, who drives through the whirling vignettes like a hammer in search of a nail. An Actors Studio–trained performer with a distinguished stage and film career, Meeker remains best known for this bullet-headed, likably brutish performance as detective Mike Hammer in Aldrich’s sly subversion of the lurid, right-wing pulp fiction of Mickey Spillane.
On the face of it, the success of the performance is how shallow and opaque he makes Hammer, devoid of the interiority and psychological depth that are essential to noir. Yet there is more to Meeker’s subtle, detailed performance than slaps, smooches, and sadistic grins. In odd moments he has a detached, quietly amused stance, as in his wonderful scenes with a philosophical moving man (Silvio Minciotti) and a sheepishly crooked boxing coach (Juano Hernandez). When he goes to question a broken-down opera singer (Fortunio Bonanova), he nastily snaps one of the man’s precious records, then roams around the room sampling his cheap wine, sniffing his spaghetti, fingering his hat. There’s a childlike blend of selfishness and stubborn curiosity in his behavior; his attention is always oblique yet he misses little. The world of Kiss Me Deadly is threatened not just by corruption or crime but by impersonal, unstoppable forces of atomic destruction, beside which Hammer’s self-centered neutrality seems small and even possibly sensible.
Raymond Chandler, writing about just the kind of characters played by Conrad and McGraw in The Killers, has Philip Marlowe muse, “All tough guys are monotonous. Like playing cards with a deck that’s all aces. You’ve got everything and you’ve got nothing. You’re just sitting there looking at yourself.” All the non-monotonous movie tough guys have some vulnerability under the surface, hidden wells of anger (Bogart), sadness (Mitchum), or fear (Garfield). Meeker’s Mike Hammer is interesting because he leaves us guessing whether or not there is anything under the surface, what’s going on behind his still, inward-looking face as he listens to a singer in a bar (“I’d rather have the blues than what I’ve got . . .”) or to Gabrielle (aka Lily Carver) reading Christina Rossetti’s poem “Remember,” with its cryptic reference to “the thoughts that once we had,” or to a cop reciting names linked with the atomic bomb. Remaining ambiguous is a smart strategy for both the actor and the character he plays. A deck of aces may be boring, but an unrevealed hand and a poker face can be endlessly fascinating.
Imogen Sara Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. Her writing has appeared in Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Quarterly, Reverse Shot, and other publications.