Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them
Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir
Publication Year: 2006
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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In the preface to my previous book of literary criticism, The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story, I explained that it was the first of a three-book project whose other two planned volumes would be titled “Apollinaire Lived in Paris. I Live in Cleveland, Ohio”: Approaches to the Poetry of Hart Crane and An Almost Theatrical Distance: Figuration and...
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The first thing that a reader starting this book should be aware of is that, in spite of its subtitle, it is not a general overview of an entire fiction genre and its authors nor of an entire film genre and its auteurs. Rather, this book is a selective study of works by five seminal writers of the 1930s and ’40s who established the themes and narrative structures of hard-boiled fiction and initiated the genre’s popularity with...
1 “Where Their Best Interest Lies”: Hammett's The Maltese Falcon
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Over the last ten or fifteen years I have reread Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon at least once, sometimes twice, a year and accompanied each rereading with a viewing of John Huston’s film version. Some readers may dismiss this annual rereading of the same book as either boring or silly, or merely obsessive- compulsive. I hope to find on examination that it’s neither boring...
2 Being Boss: Chandler's The Big Sleep
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Like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler turned to the writing of detective fiction to support himself when his previous line of work as a salaried employee of a business ran out. Hammett had joined the Pinkerton Detective Agency as an operative in 1915 at the age of twenty, worked for them until the summer of 1918, when he was inducted into the army, and then rejoined...
3 Beating the Boss: Cain's Double Indemnity
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The two writers most frequently associated with James M. Cain in any discussion of hard-boiled fiction are, of course, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and indeed the three men’s lives and careers have much in common. Like Hammett, Cain was born and raised in Maryland, served in the U.S. Army during World War I, and contracted pulmonary tuberculosis as a...
4 Who’s the Boss?: W. R. Burnett's High Sierra
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If Hammett’s and Chandler’s best detective fiction has as its underlying theme the main character’s becoming or staying his own boss and Cain’s best has as its the main character’s trying to beat or outwit his employer, then W. R. Burnett’s High Sierra (1940) situates itself in relation to these works by addressing the question of who’s actually the boss and whether...
5 Deadline at Midnight: Cornell Woolrich's Night Has a Thousand Eyes
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Though critics often group Cornell Woolrich with hard-boiled writers like Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and Burnett, Woolrich’s fiction is characterized by a quality present only by turns in the others’ work. Woolrich is primarily a writer of suspense fiction, his trademark the creation of psychological terror so pervasive and paralyzing it seems almost more destructive...
6 A Puzzle of Character
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A look back over the books and authors we’ve discussed so far reveals several patterns in the development of hard-boiled fiction in the 1930s and ’40s. As we noted, the genre began with the work of detective-story writers in the twenties (most notably Dashiell Hammett) and reached a high point in Hammett’s career with the 1930 publication of The Maltese Falcon, a work...
7 Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir
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In examining the films made in the 1940s from the hard-boiled novels we’ve discussed—movies representing some of the best examples of film noir—I intend to avoid for the most part the sorts of well-worked-over arguments the analysis of this subject typically generates: as, for example, whether film noir is a movie genre like the Western, the musical, or the gangster...
8 Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir, Continued
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When Paramount Pictures contacted Chandler in 1943 to ask if he’d be interested in collaborating on the screenplay of Cain’s Double Indemnity with the film’s director Billy Wilder, Chandler got his chance, for his first venture in screenwriting, to work on adapting a book embodying his sense that the detective story and the love story “cannot exist . . . in the same book—one might...
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We’ve come a certain distance together since my questioning of an obsessive annual rereading of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon began this study, a starting point that ultimately led into an examination of a twentieth-century popular (not to say pulp) fiction genre whose origin was in a different kind of detective story, one that would eventually give birth to a novel of manners with a detective or crime interest. What began essentially...
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Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2006