Essays · Movies

A Fistful of Hateful Noir Dialogue To Get Us Through Election Day

The Maltese Falcon
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on November 8th, 2016

It’s the stuff of which nightmares are made.

Attempting to stay positive in an election year is impossible. 2016 may be the 50th anniversary of Star Trek’s utopian ideals, but until every home comes equipped with its own replicator and capitalism becomes irrelevant, I’m strapping on the cement shoes and taking that long walk off a short pier. Watching fair and balanced pundits rage over a flurry of emails while sexual predators admonish invading brown people has my stomach in knots. I’ve never felt more distant from a bright future, and I’ve never been more disturbed by the conversations around the water cooler. This insanity has revealed the abusive relationship I’m trapped in with my politicians, my coworkers, and my family members. Hope is a luxury we cannot afford, action is the only answer. Vote, dammit.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to escape the national heartache, #Noirvember has never felt more apt. You could easily find some cotton candy fluff to watch, but Film Noir offers you a machine to rage against. Ignorance is not your option right now, the type of respite you need is as toxic and as sour as your election year soul. Don’t sooth it, stir it. Even when you need to relax, your entertainment should be there to drop a brick on your skull.

Film Noir works best when it’s at it’s most malicious. It’s fuel for the fire you need to bring into that voting booth, and an anger waiting to be redirected into positive action. I offer you my top five favorite verbal slams from the angriest era of cinema. It’s a fistful of contempt, hatred, and disgust. Hopefully, after we slap each other around, we can all reach for Gene Roddenberry’s stars. But first, it’s going to take a serious beating.

5. “Are you waving a flag at me?”

Pickup On South Street (1953)
Director: Samuel Fuller
Starring: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters

When Richard Widmark’s two-bit pickpocket, Skip McCoy snags a roll of top-secret microfilm from Jean Peters’ purse, he falls down a rabbit hole of espionage and flatfoot pursuit. Dragged downtown, G-Man Zara attempts to appeal to Skip’s patriotism only to discover that no such ideology exists. Widmark made his career pushing little old ladies down the stairs, and his grin is as cutting as any blade. That dumbfounded response to Zara is as indicative to his hollowness as it is to the contempt he plunges into the post-war audience. The G-Man might be mad, but writer/director Sam Fuller has to work twice as hard to bring the crowd around to caring about his lowlife hood again. Thankfully, the film does reveal more than a lump of coal for a heart, and Widmark’s Skip eventually fights for righteousness…but only as an act of vengeance.

4. “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis

Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker has convinced Tony Curtis’ Sidney Falco to railroad his sister’s jazz player boyfriend with a rumor of dope and communism. So desperate to please, Sidney’s attack on character is as sycophantic as it is ultimately incestuous. Hunsecker loves his sister too hard, and stoops to Sidney’s bottom feeder because he can trust scum to be scum. And yet, when Hunsecker hears Sidney refer to integrity as “a pocketful of firecrackers waiting for a match,” even he is disgusted with the monstrosity he has hired. Sweet Smell of Success is a film loaded with endlessly quotable jabs, but it’s this impressed revulsion that succinctly sums up the film’s bent morality.

3. “That’s a real pretty kisser.”

The Big Heat (1953)
Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Glenn Ford, Gloria Graham

Film Noir is filled with some of the most despicable villains in cinema, but maybe none more vile than Lee Marvin’s Vic Stone. Having already played a hand in killing Glenn Ford’s wife, Stone nearly kills his own girlfriend when he pours a pot of boiling coffee on her face. It’s an act of impromptu rage when he learns that she’s been talking out of school with Ford’s detective, and it’s probably more shocking to watch today than it was in 1953. For me though, what really twists the knife is how he toys with her just seconds before the violence. The dread stems from how he slithers up to Gloria Graham as she applies her lipstick. This beast enjoys his time before the strike, complimenting her looks while fondling the base of her neck. That hot coffee scene not only shocks us, but it also flips the film into Graham’s revenge story as much as Ford’s.

2. “All a lawyer cares about is the law.”

Touch of Evil (1958)
Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles

The true pleasure of Touch of Evil is how much fun Orson Welles seems to be having at portraying his own character as an absolute grotesque. The director practically buries his camera in the ground when shooting himself, the angles so low that they make his blubbering Captain Quinlan tower above the frame. Welles speaks as if constantly chewing and slobbering over a cigar, his dialogue dribbling out of his maw with utter contempt. He’s a Machiavellian tyrant willing to bend, break, and bury any principle as long as his sense of justice is accomplished. When Charlton Heston’s Detective Vargas distracts him from his kingdom with accusations of corruption, he simply dismisses the man as a one-dimensional thinker. He keeps his town safe, not the law. Touch of Evil ultimately sides with the square-jawed hero, but the film works best when dragging its audience into the Captain’s muck.

1. “Maybe you love me, maybe I love you.”

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Director: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor

To find one of the most hurtful statements in Noir, you simply need to go back to the film that started it all. The stuff that dreams are made of? It’s all b.s. The hunt for his partner’s killer has led Humphrey Bogart’s private investigator to the quivering lips of his lover. Does he hand her over to the cops, or can he trust his beating heart to steer them to a happy ending? The film climaxes with a pros and cons discussion between lovers. On one side, if he helps her get away with murder then she can use that against him for the rest of their relationship. On the other side, maybe they love each other, and that’s enough. Nope. Bogart’s cold calculation is the very backbone of noir. Love’s got nothing to do with it. Ouch.

So, do you feel better? I sure don’t. That’s good. We need our cynicism. We need our anger. We need Bogart and Widmark to slap us around for a bit. Star Trek is the stuff that dreams are made of; Film Noir is our nightmares, and it stokes the fires of change.

Related Topics:

Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)