I got older, and I found noir. Not just a genre, but the most honest depiction of the struggles of real life. And by the time I read Marx, I knew that he was right, because films like Detour and The Big Heat and Kiss of Death and The Hustler and Get Carter had shown me, and the novels of James M. Cain and David Goodis and Jim Thompson and George V. Higgins had told me.
In so-called “literary fiction” (which is just another genre), I mostly read only about the psychological hang-ups of affluent white people whose affluence never seemed threatened. There were exceptions, like the petty-bourgeois drama of George Orwell’s first three novels, and some of Graham Green’s novels. Significantly, Greene separated his genre novels from his literary ones, giving them the subtitle “An Entertainment,” but it is in these “entertainments” that he most seriously reflects class issues.
This has been true of noir from the early days, and is true now. Take the 1953 classic The Big Heat, with its blunt acknowledgment of class and poverty. The protagonist, Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), a cop, and his wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) discuss how fortunate they are to be able to eat steak for dinner; he tells her that his colleagues don’t believe him when he says they can afford steak, and she tells him that they won’t be able to afford it when they have their second child. Even now, they only have one steak, which they cut in half and share. This poverty, and fear of it getting worse, pervades the film. The reason Bannion’s boss refuses to stand up against police corruption is that his wife is worried about his pension— and Katie tells Bannion that she sympathizes with them.
Two decades later, witness George V. Higgins’ novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and the magnificent film starring Robert Mitchum. Both book and film show criminals as working stiffs, and so get to the real heart of the crime story.
In any film noir, what do the characters want? It is always the same thing. The characters played by Mitchum in Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter may be evil, but it is not evil that drives them. They are driven by the same need that drives the weary, sad, kindly Eddie Coyle.