A few years ago I wrote a piece for The American Scholar employing the Raymond Roussel method of composition that obliges the author to commence with one word or phrase and end with a meaning derived from a homonym of the initial word or phrase. Noir became No R. Here's how:
Kaminsky got on the noir bandwagon early on.
At Wesleyan he majored in French, spent his junior year in Paris, went to the Cinémathèque Française at the Palais de Chaillot, and watched American movies with French subtitles as a way to learn the language. Many of the films were classic noir efforts of the 1940s and early ’50s. He saw Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, and Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, and Dark Passage with Bogart and Bacall, and The Killing with Sterling Hayden organizing a racetrack heist, and The Lady from Shanghai with Anita Ellis’s voice coming out of Rita Hayworth’s mouth singing “Please Don’t Kiss Me” and meaning the exact opposite, and Pickup on South Street with Richard Widmark as an experienced pickpocket who lifts a woman’s wallet in the subway and the wallet happens to have strips of microfilm that the Communists crave, and Widmark lives on a houseboat under the Brooklyn Bridge and Thelma Ritter gets offed and Jean Peters gets beaten up like you wouldn’t believe, and Cry Danger and The Woman in the Window and Laura and The Asphalt Jungle and the dozens of other notable movies that feature fatal females, mixed-up males with mixed motives, robberies and insurance scams that go wrong, greed that turns lusty, lust that turns deadly.
The dialogue is snappy, witty in the hard-boiled manner. Even cabdrivers crack wise. The fare is a private eye, and the cabbie says sympathetically, “Tough racket.” “Maybe so,” the dick replies, “but cabdrivers don’t live forever.” “Maybe not,” the cabbie concedes. “All the same it’ll come as a surprise to me if I don’t.” In another part of town, Ann Sheridan of the magnificent mane kills a burglar in self-defense, or so she claims. The dame-in-distress sobs to the police: “I’ve told you all I know.” Husband Zachary Scott of the mustachioed sneer knits his brows, but can’t help looking bitchy: “There’s nothing for you to be ashamed of.” Both are lying. But the true noir note is sounded by Eve Arden as Paula, a secondary character, officiating at a party for the suspects, witnesses, and extras. When she has everyone’s attention, she admits to having committed a crime against society some years ago. I “married a man,” she announces. Later the busty broad deadpans that “practically everything” she has is real. “It’s a shame to waste two perfectly good mouths on you,” she remarks when a pair of gossiping girlfriends get on her nerves. Later, still: “Don’t show me out, I know the way. I always look for an exit in case of a raid.”
“Some things that happen for the first time / seem to be happening again”: Lorenz Hart’s definition of déjà vu (from his lyric for “Where or When”) applies with a vengeance to noir. Accidents seem predetermined; events occur as if repetitions of themselves. The gang leader has a heart-to-heart with his dead Ma in the back yard after dark, and the brains of the operation feeds nickels into the jukebox so he can watch a nubile girl jitterbug with a boy her own age. Exhibitionists in gaudy undergarments perform for laid-up photographers across the courtyard. The surgeon with a cigarette dangling from his lips gives the escaped con a new face, and if there’s a knock on the door, the chances are that a man with a gun will enter the room and shoot first, ask questions later. What do you want me to do, count to three like they do in the movies?
A thug throws a pot of hot coffee at a moll’s face or, giggling, rolls an old lady’s wheelchair down a flight of stairs and the wrong man is arrested. The prizefighter refuses to throw the bout and gets beaten in the alley. There's a scheme to do away with one angle of the triangular three, sit pretty, and collect the insurance. bit it doesn't quite work out as planned. The pampered invalid has a panic attack, picks up the phone, and dials the emergency number she has been given. A voice answers, “City Morgue.” The dead return to life. A beautiful murder victim walks into her own living room wondering what the hell the gumshoe asleep in an armchair is doing there. A small-town notary goes to San Francisco, has a drink, feels funny, and spends the next week—that is, the rest of his life—trying to solve the mystery of his own murder before he expires of a slow-working poison. In one scene at a club, a girl singer does a swinging version of “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are.” We go to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Reno, Mexico, the state penitentiary, a lost highway or two, but for some reason we keep returning to San Francisco. There is also a valise stuffed with $20 bills, a crooked cop, a cuckolded husband, a pair of lethal scissors on the desk, a sensitive black man played by James Edwards, a stick-up in the parking lot, a confusing plot, a lot of rain, and a lot of cigarettes.
It was an easy genre to like. The French were crazy about it.
But that's just the noir portion. How do we get from here to "no R"?
Click here to find out.
From "No R" by David Lehman in The American Scholar. Click here for the rest of the piece. [Originally posted 2015.]