Movies · TV

In Search of Today’s Great Noir

By  · Published on January 13th, 2017

Search Party, Nocturnal Animals, and the climb up Twin Peaks.

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, our alliterative hero, Sam Spade, delivers a ripping parable from his private eye years. It concerns a certain man named Flitcraft, guilty of going to lunch and never returning. After a construction beam almost kills him on his way, Flitcraft “was scared stiff, of course…but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.” Spade never uttered this anecdote in the John Huston classic, where Spade is given the peak-Humphrey Bogart treatment, but I believe it contains the loose sedimentary genesis of the genre that the movie came to define. Flitcraft, facing the same existential uncertainty that gripped many a Frenchman in their Nobel Prize-winning chairs, runs away.

Flitcraft’s flight will sound familiar to anybody finished binging last year’s Search Party, just as those TBS advertisements advised us to do. Captivated by the disappearance of a college acquaintance, Dory (Alia Shawkat) rallies the three other people she is friends with through a ten-episode journey to find the elusive Chantal Witherbottom. When they finally find Chantal (Clare McNulty), the paranoid thread of conspiracy that Dory has weaved for our entertainment is revealed as a fiction. Much like, say, the security that keeps you from landing on the deadly side of Hammett’s construction beam or that separates Dory from the dead body, killed accidentally by her boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds), and that Dory now keeps in a very literal closet. Chantal, employing the smart millennial writing that makes the show enjoyable, admits that she just had “kind of walked away…I had to just like ghost everyone.” It was nice, she says, being off social media. We laugh and Emily Nussbaum, acting dean of television, bestows an entirely new kind of scripted programming. She is “basically invent[ing] a new genre: the noir sitcom.” She is not entirely correct.

The contemporary noir sitcom, or at least the hip millennial noir sitcom, dates at least as far back as 2009, with Jonathan Ames’ failed HBO comedy Bored To Death. It was self-consciously poorly written in the style of Mr. Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and their ilk: Hammett, for instance would write a line like “His sallow face was phlegmatic” no less than twice in a single novel. But it forayed into Brooklyn’s emerging world of locally-sourced restaurants and organic options and was smartly canned exactly one season before the network took on Girls. It managed to get by for three seasons by starring the affable trio of Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson, who I would probably just watch eat lunch together with rapt attention. Like Search Party, it concerns itself with missing people; following a breakup, Jonathan (Schwartzman) decides to become a private eye and, advertising on Craigslist, proceeds to take on a number of suspiciously attractive guest stars as clients (Isla Fisher, Casey Wilson, Kristen Wiig, etc.) and ends up in comically-paced gun fights with Russian stereotypes in Coney Island. The nods to Hammett’s existential angst are ever-present: one episode, for instance, is titled “Nothing I Can’t Handle by Running Away.” Ray (Galifianakis) and George Christopher (Danson) star as best friends caught up in the misadventures, and John Hodgeman was roped in as an occasional nemesis. “If Bored to Death drops off the HBO schedule, I’m sad to say, I won’t shed a tear,” David Sims lovingly wrote over at The A.V. Club shortly before HBO dropped it off.

Bored to Death (2011)

But the hunger for mysteries tinged with the aura of violence and dark lighting have remained. The first season of HBO’s True Detective developed a massive, if somewhat disappointed, following, and FX’s equally popular Archer series spent the last few seasons rebranding itself from Bond-esque spy comedy into pure noir territory, similarly perusing the narrative goldmine of the missing person. It might help that many feature-lengths attempt to occupy the same territory are incredibly thin. Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014) ‐ “a contemporary addition to the LA noir genre,” per Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune ‐ was a remarkably deft sleight-of-hand. Supposedly a satire of some sort, Jake Gyllenhaal begins shooting footage of crime scenes and marketing them to sinister local network affiliates ‐ do people still watch local news? Enough to kill? At some point, driven mad by what I assume is the power appearing on local television gives you, he ends up getting an entirely lovable Riz Ahmed killed in the name of, you know, local television. A compelling story to some, perhaps, and Gyllenhaal’s latest noir-ish turn, as a vengeful husband in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (2016) was a similar concern: one that dived, instead, into the suspiciously-accented world of True Detective’s first season badlands. Gyllenhaal’s malleable body soon discovers perversion afoot and is done wrong. After some pause, he mans up to kill it and its also inside a novel Amy Adams is reading for some reason.

In playing, for want of a better word, phlegmatic straight man, both Gyllenhaal characters aspire to what Robert B. Parker, who has penned over 40 novels writing such men, calls a certain kind of character, one he traces to Hammett as well:

They are men with few friends and no social context. They have no family. Their allegiance is not to the law, but to something else, call it order, a sense of the way things ought to be.

Neither Gilroy nor Ford’s recent movies do much other than stick to their overloaded guns. They are instead hoping, I believe, to hold up to the noble tradition of neo-noir cinema championed in Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), the latter of which was adapted from a Chandler novel. Robert Elswit certainly hopes so, handling cinematography on both Nightcrawler and P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014). Inherent Vice desired to be an homage to The Long Goodbye but settled simply to live inside its swampy California intrigue for three comfy hours. But just because you have no, uh, context, does that mean you can’t have any fun?

It might help that the more comedic, more televisual, more New York variety of neo-noir is less interested in simply resurrecting visual motifs and is interested, instead, in filling the lives of its characters with, you know, things. The plot of Search Party, in my opinion, is second banana to hangout sessions that are part-Jarmusch jams, part Girls social satire (or Broad City, if you would rather, but it’s Dunham’s world, and we just live in it, honey). For instance, an entire episode ‐ “The Captive Dinner Guest” ‐ is dedicated to an awkward dinner exchange. The episode is ostensibly about finding out some nugget of information from Chantal’s ex-boyfriend Gavin (Griffin Newman), its titular unfortunate dinner guest. But really the episode is a joyous slice of awkward dinner conversation, glibly playing on the insecurities of a generation of people without a context: at some point, in a parody of awkward homosocial interaction, Gabe asks Drew what kind of porn he is into. See Dunham’s “Boys,” from Girls’ second season, if you want to know how it’s done.

Of course, the wrinkled granddaddy who looms over all of these exploits is the little empire David Lynch let loose in a town and TV show called Twin Peaks. While Elswit’s well-studied neo-noir is, if anything, more interested in Lynch’s late-era fascination with LA celebrity culture (Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, namely), it’s the obscenely rich DNA behind what remains Lynch’s most popular creation that is all over the current TV landscape. From Search Party’s dangling of Chantal’s secretive presence ‐ like a still-alive Laura Palmer ‐ to Donald Glover, who pitched his Golden Globe-winning hit, Atlanta, as “Twin Peaks for rappers.” These are all shows that understand how flat Hammett-esque loners are and, instead, populate their lives with characters who are far more interesting ‐ what would Atlanta be without Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) or Darius (Keith Stanfield)? We find this in the ample activity Search Party gives to Dory’s two other friends: Elliot (John Early), a deceitful philanthropist, and Portia (Meredith Hagner), an actress who loses her role on a mediocre crime show. Both are richly entertaining fare that succeed without leading the audience anywhere too dour or meaningful. While TV executives might have thought it was a dying desire to know what happened to Laura Palmer that kept viewers rolling in, it was really Dale Cooper’s sheer weirdness (or, you know, The Log Lady’s sheer weirdness or Leland Palmer’s…you get what I mean) that kept us continuing to want more, over twenty years later. Maybe Jake Gyllenhaal and his casting agents should pay attention.

Related Topics:

movies are not magic but skin and bone.