American Civilization

March 30, 2009

Modernity and the American Roman Noir

Filed under: Mass Society — equiano @ 6:10 pm

Key Terms


Roman/Film Noir





Value (exchange, use)

Finance capital

Mass Society (Mass Culture)

Realism/Naturalism/Roman Noir/Hard-boiled

The hard-boiled style has roots in literary naturalism, a genre of writing most often associated in American literature with authors such as Frank NorrisStephen Crane andTheodore Dreiser. Naturalism, in turn, is generally considered to be an outgrowth of realism, and in a rough approximation of its difference from that cultural mode we can argue that if realism’s mise-en-scene is the bourgeois parlor then naturalism plays out in the ghetto among urban lowlife. William Dean Howells, one of the major figures of 19th century American fiction, is easily the most famous praciticioner of realism (though movie studios have been kinder to Henry James) and novels such as The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Hazard of New Fortunes are essentially stories of the vicissitudes of social mobility told with a genial warmth that a younger generation of writers– notably the above-mentioned Norris and Crane– found claustrophobic. Norris in particular, ambitious and cocksure, sought to transform the American literary scene and so borrowed quite heavily from perhaps the absolute master of naturalism, Emile Zola. Naturalism, then, was in a sense an import, but one that morphed– as do all cultural products and practices– in translation.

Scholars and aficionados often date the inception of hard-boiled fiction with the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest— a dirty, violent, and canny first novel featuring a body-count equal to any Jerry Bruckheimer flick and one of the most compelling “dames” of pulp modernism, Dinah Brand. Hammett has long since become an icon, not only for his four magnificent novels (excluding the never-completed Tulip) but in deference to his delinquent charm, political courage, and variegated past. He worked as a detective, served in the Army, wrote ad copy for Samuels’ Jewelers, and helped build Black Mask magazine, a veritable school for crime fiction talent, into a lucrative venture. While working for the notoriousPinkertons in Montana– a company that was essentially a mercenary force against unions– he refused $5000 to murder IWW agitator Frank Little, whose body was later found castrated and shot hanging from a railroad trestle.  Increasingly disillusioned by this sort of ubiquitous reactionary violence and suffering from tuberculosis, Hammett quit the Pinkertons and moved to San Francisco, where he began his writing career. Years later, a success and a celebrity, he went to jail rather than fink on his comrades during the red paranoia of the 50s.

Red Harvest was published the year of the Crash and there followed in rapid succession three more brilliant novels. At the same time James M. Cain was producing classics such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Serenade, and Mildred Pierce. In the early 40s Raymond Chandler began to consolidate his reputation as a writer of calculated crime fiction. Though Chandler is usually grouped with both Hammett and Cain as one of a triumvirate of seminal roman noir authors, he resisted identification with the latter. To Chandler Cain’s novels were lurid and cheap, and he famously remarked to his publisher that

“Everything [Cain] touches smells like a billygoat.  He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking.  Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way.  Nothing hard and clean and cold and ventilated.  A brothel with a smell of cheap scent in the front parlor and a bucket of slops at the back door”.

Chandler’s asperions are worth considering not only for their vitriol but for what they tell us about his vision of the hard-boiled style. If “dirty things” are the subject of the American crime novel then the method of execution required to make them interesting– perhaps even render them as art– depends on the writer’s ability to calibrate language, to take control and produce a text that is “hard and clean and cold and ventilated.” The Chandler aesthetic values lowlife– the dingy bar, the slow-witted ex-con, the slatternly cigarette girl, the arid banality of Los Angeles– on the condition that in their representation such tropes and themes become more than the sum of their parts.

For Chandler, Cain’s work fails because it is excessive, a style that relishes extremities– “cheap scent” and “a bucket of slops”– for their own sake. This self-indulgence occurs at a formal level– after all, what would “a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking” write?

Realism sought to represent the world as it was (or seemed to be) yet largely confined itself to a polite social zone. Naturalism revised that impulse to verisimilitude though its obsessive concern for the abject was weighed down by theories of innate depravity and the over-determinism of heredity. The hard-boiled school drew its energy from both of these movements but tended to eschew gentility or over-arching theories of human nature in favor of a style that lingered on the surface of things, that approximated the key values of late modernity: smoothness, functionality and precision.


In its broadest sense modernity is “a certain mode of the experience of space and time” (Harvey 201).  The Communist Manifesto is useful here. In one of his most widely quoted passages Marx characterizes modernity as follows:

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Modernity, then, is the experience of this unprecedented expansion of productive power in all of its jarring, dislocative power. The ceaseless social transformations provoked by capitalism are a key trait of modernity. Everyday life accelerates. Tradition yields to innovation. Identities are extinguished and new ones take their place. In general this seething activity has a cosmopolitan character: “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange — of the means of communication and transport — the annihilation of space by time — becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.”

That cosmopolitanism comes at the price of alienation.

“The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli. . . . With each crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life. The metropolis exacts from man as a discriminating creature a different amount of consciousness than does rural life. Here the rhythm of life and sensory mental imagery flows more slowly, more habitually, and more evenly. Precisely in this connection the sophisticated character of metropolitan psychic life becomes understandable as over against small town life which rests more upon deeply felt and emotional relationships. These latter are rooted in the more unconscious layers of the psyche and grow most readily in the steady rhythm of uninterrupted habituations. The intellect. . . develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart. In this an increased awareness assumes the psychic prerogative. Metropolitan life, thus, underlies a heightened awareness and a predominance of intelligence in metropolitan man. The reaction to metropolitan phenomena is shifted to that organ which is least sensitive and quite remote from the depth of the personality. Intellectuality is thus seen to preserve subjective life against the overwhelming power of metropolitan life. . . .”

–Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903)


Hammett, copywriter

DH’s employment as a Pinkerton agent is well-known, though less widely acknowledged is connection to the lynching of Wobbly Frank Little in Butte, Montana. According to one of his biographers, Barbara Johnson, a substantial offer was made to Hammett if he would participate in criminal acts against the IWW at the behest of copper mining concerns.

Earlier, Hammett had worked as a soldier, freight clerk, stevedore, timekeeper, yardman, and railroad worker. After leaving the Pinkerton’s because of a worsening medical condition (he was a victim of Spanish Influenza while in the army during WWI) Hammett eventually became a copywriter for Samuels Jewelers in San Francisco. It was here that he began to hone his craft as a writer. The constraints of copywriting– limited space, clarity of purpose– influenced his later style, particularly in that the ads he scripted were intended to appeal to potential customers in a ‘soft-sell’ technique and thus often took the form of very short stories.


By 1923 Hammett was supporting his family with copywriting and freelance work for one of the most significant pulps of the era, Black Mask, an activity he called ‘blackmasking’. Hammett’s first story in Black Mask was “The Road Home,” published in December 1922 under name Peter Collinson. It was for this magazine that he created his nameless character, the Continental Op, who would become the protagonist for his first novel, Red Harvest. The Op was an eponymous figure, based on several men Hammett had known as a Pinkerton and is notable for the way he inverts the standard romantic paradigm of the strong-jawed hero. The Op is middle-aged and paunchy, a man who lives for his (poorly compensated) job. He is above all unsentimental, clear-eyed concerning the foibles of human nature. At the same time he is not strictly speaking amoral, for he has a code of professional ethics. The Op will not be bought with sex or money. He won’t, as Sam Spade tells Brigid, “play the sap.”

Hammett himself possessed such a code:

“ In 1951, Hammett was called to testify before the New York State Supreme Court as a trustee of the Bail Bond Committee of the Civil Rights Congress in the wake of the violation of bail by eleven members of the Communist Party for whom the CRC had posted bond, four of whom could not be located. When Hammett refused to testify–even to identify his signature–he was sentenced to six months in federal prison for contempt of court. He served his term between July and December of 1951.

“In April of 1953, Hammett was called to testify before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Joseph McCarthy. His testimony before that committee is often quoted. Asked by McCarthy if he would ‘purchase the works of some seventy-five Communist authors and distribute their works throughout the world, ‘Hammett replied, ‘If I were fighting communism, I don’t think I would do it by giving people any books at all’” (Twayne).


Above: first edition of The Maltese Falcon, currently listed at $136,000.oo

Notes on The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett

Ch. 1: Spade and Archer

opening lines: SS is  a man of angles, with a predator’s features. the echo of masculine modernity in the description’s emphasis on his rectilinearity

Effie Perine: a “boyish face”– flapper-esque, modish and thus also a modern figure

Brigid O’Shaugnessy (Miss Wonderly): note her alias, as something not easily accounted for (a wonder) and her true name, which emphasizes her Irish-American roots, stands in for a kind of gritty, urban identity, and evokes Irish-American machine politics.

She’s from NYC, she claims, thus establishing her urbanity.

Note Hammett’s (and by extention Spade’s and O’Shaugnessy’s) emphasis on precise description, a stock in trade of the crime novel, one drawn from a professionalized discourse of detection, police procedure, etc.

Spade’s modernity is leavened with certain symbols of an earlier, 19thC version of masculinity: the roll-your-own cigarettes, the union-suit and garters.  What is being conveyed here? That modern men require some elements of an earlier version of masculinity? Spade in this sense shares something with other male characters in American fiction such as Natty Bumppo. An iconoclast– independent, calculating, ruthless, yet with sense of honor, a moral code.

Note the geography Hammett lays out: “where Bush St. roofed Stockton before slipping downhill to Chinatown”. CT as a sort of nadir, located in the depths of the city.

A clue: “The blast burnt his coat.” ie, the shooter was very close to Archer.

Evidence of Spade’s hard-boiled demeanor: “a tone that was utterly meaningless”. These moments signify his modernity as well, his location outside of a Romantic or Sentimental tradition. Spade is a realist, and the creation of Hammett’s realism.

The Lt.: “A five-dollar gold-piece was pinned to his necktie and there was a small ealborate diamond-set secret-society emblem on his lapel.” What to make of this? IN a sense, the Lt.’s gold-piece appears as a sherrif’s badge, marking him as a figure from an earlier time, while  the emblem indicates his participation in a older brotherhood. He seems to be both Spade’s antagonist and a potential ally. He too, is on the square. He also exhibits machine-like tendencies: his gaze seems as if it were “ a matter of mechanics.” To be real men, this passage seems to indicate, is to be part machine (cf. Terminator). Yet Dundy’s machinery is more reminiscent of Victorian-era gear works than smooth, precision industry of the 20thC?

Spade’s professionalism: he has “clients” who pay him “retainers” and he practices the standardized tools of his trade”

Iva Archer: voluptuous, emotional, even grasping, a woman whose appeal is largely limited to her physical attributes. Spade has already grown bored of her. Not like Brigid, whose beauty is complemented by intelligence and canny instincts.

Iva asks Spade, “Did you kill him?” An important quesiton b/c the world these characters inhabit is one where such a question is not entirely unreasonable. But it is also a crucial misjudgement of Spade for two reasons: he would not kill his partner and he is not the kind of man who kills for passion anyway.

Within 24 hours Spade tells Effie to have Spade&Archer taken off the door: cold and practical, and also a sign that he is anxious to be on his own. Spades characteristics, his practicality, rationality, his sense of professionalism, etc.– are all attributes of the “proper” modern subject, one whose actions are to be guided by a carefully calibrated, “enlightened self-interest.” Other qualities: coolness, skepticism, sharp humor, self-preservation.

Spade goes to meet Brigid. She attempts to play him along, though he’s wise to her tricks: “You won’t need much of anybody’s help. You’re good. You’re very good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get into your voice when you say things like ‘Be generous, Mr. Spade.’” Spade recognizes the femme fatale and is simultaneously wary of and compelled by her.

“the Orient”: Brigid came from Hong Kong with Thursby. California as part of the Pacific Rim. “The Orient” as a means of heightening dramatic tension, of giving an exotic aura to the story. We are not in the world of the Western, limited to the back country of the continental US but at the edge of a Asia, with all of the (often stereotypical) “color” that locale implies.

Sid Wise: an urban ‘type’; the sly shyster/lawyer: “a small olive-skinned man with a tired oval face under thin dark hair dotted with dandruff.” Coded as Jewish. Compare with Joel Cairo.

Joel Cairo: note the name, which is “oriental” and his description– Effie says outright “This guy is queer”– marks him as both “foreign” and homosexual. “A small-boned dark man of medium height. His hair was black and smooth and very glossy. His features were Levantine. A square-cut ruby, etc….” Wise and Cairo are virtually identical in some respects, radically different in others. They seem to offer two version of a type.

Our first mention of the falcon: Cairo says “I am trying to recover an– ah– ornament.” What sort of ornament? “the black figure of a bird”. What kind of object is this? What is its significance?

After Spade knocks out Cairo, he goes through the latter’s possessions. Again, note the precision of the descriptions– this is a form of writing that beleives that the visible, the empirically observed, is a key to knowledge and truth. As if by noting each item Spade (and the reader) will be able to discern Cairo’s nature. The material world is evidentiary; it is a realm of objects that reveal something about their possessors. To that extent, detection shares its methods in common with modern science.

From Marling’s The American Roman Noir:

MF as an origin for subsequent crime fiction. Style.

The falcon as an icon, the value of which Spade is unconvinced. A speculative value. No use-value. Pure exchange. But from an earlier period, when wealth consisted of gold and gems rather than stocks and bonds.

Note the “objective” view of the text: we cannot see into the minds of any of the characters. This puts an emphasis on action and events. As in the famed passage on pp. 11-12 where Spade rolls a cigarette. This illusion of objectivity is reinforced periodically as in the passage about the man crouching at the billboard.

Style: allowing readers to fill in the blanks. Understatement “not to deceive but to increase the impression made on reader” (Hammett qtd. in Marling 130). Hypotactical sentence structure: not many conjunctions. Instead, a series of statements.

Spade’s animalism: predatory eyes and features, bear-like, etc.

Spade’s explanation for turning Brigid over to the police. The code, which has 19th century (partner) elements, professional (business) elements  and even class interests.

Those characters who fail to control or regulate themselves are doomed to destruction. The self-management of modernity’s proper subjects.

The problems confronting CA no longer emanate from the east (NY) but the East (Hong Kong, the ME)

Spade’s apt. and office as spaces of modern efficiency: Murphy bed, etc. “embodies an emerging economy” (140).

the chapter entitled “3 Women”: as fates, related to Stein?,


Flitcraft: the knowledge that the world is a place where beams fall doesn’t really make any difference. The Flitcraft parable seems to speak to the radical contingency of everyday life in the modern era.

Two clips:

Joel Cairo

Falcon Lore

Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley…. [He] gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.”

— Raymond Chandler

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930)


The Geography of the Falcon

As a critique of modernity, the novel not only describes a society whose values have been transformed and deformed, but engages with the mysteries of finance capital and mass production. The world of The Maltese Falcon– its primary setting the city of San Francisco at any rate, a place where “most things… can be bought, or taken”– is cosmopolitan. The Maltese Falcon itself, the strange artifact crafted by medieval knights as a form of tribute, links the Mediterranean, the Near East, and– in the language of the day– the Orient with the US. San Francisco– the notorious Barbary Coast, already a space of exotic figures and a shadow economy– thus becomes a site of confluence. Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whose name evokes the “white ethnic” identity of Irish-American machine politics, claims to have come from New York. Joel Cairo, a “queer” character in more than one sense, is said to be Levantine, though his travels with Gutman and Wilmer have taken him around the world. Jacobi, the captain of a merchant vessel, is also a transnational figure even if readers know little about him beyond his function in the novel– to deliver the bird and then die.

Significantly, the Falcon’s transit around the world establishes a geography of historical events and contemporary trade. Tracking its movements over time and across space produces a map of the development of modernity (and thus capitalism), from the pre-capitalist Mediterranean with its feudal relations of tribute and deference to the Pacific Rim commercial networks of a globalizing world economy.


The Falcon, as a unique object d’art, possesses an unrivaled status, a value that exceeds its material composition (black-laquered gold) and arises from the historical circumstances of its production and its complicated provenance. We could “read” this artifact in at least two ways, as a commentary on the irrationality of finance capital or the culture of the copy. Let’s look at both of these interpretations.


The Falcon and Finance Capital

The criminals in TMF are clearly willing to do whatever it takes to obtain the black bird. Though every murder in the novel takes place off-stage, there is little doubt that Gutman and company have killed or betrayed anyone impeding their acquisition of the Falcon.  Yet what exactly do they seek? As an object, the bird is without use-value with the possible exception of a paperweight or doorstop– it has no purpose other than to exist, to be contemplated or treasured. In this sense the bird is an irrelevance. Its original content– that which it was intended to signify– was simply a gesture of fealty, what a linguist might call “performative” language, a word or phrase which essentially does what it says and communicates nothing more. Torn from its context the bird becomes a curio– Spade calls it “the dingus” (Ger. literally, “the thing”) a name that effortlessly deflates its importance– an expensive piece of medieval kitsch which is valuable because it is held to have value by those who desire it. In this sense the Falcon bears a strong resemblance to the occult instruments of finance– futures, shares, hypothecated bonds– which in and of themselves have no meaning or purpose save what value might be realized upon their redemption. Gutman and the others are chasing a fantasy, a useless article which will in no manner improve their lives.

In this scenario, the Falcon embodies what Karl Marx called the commodity fetish— the notion that value inheres in an object, that value is the product of some inherent property of a given thing rather than the outcome of human activity. The obvious analogy here would be with the rise of a “post-material” economy, one in which wealth comes not from the production of socially useful commodities but from the ballooning yet insubstantial value derived from speculation.

An alternative reading of the Falcon as a fiduciary symbol would emphasize that the figure’s very materiality, gold, locates it within a prior economic formation, the legacy perhaps of mercantile capitalism. Wealth, in this earlier paradigm, consists of precious metals rather than industrial capital and thus depends on extraction rather than production.

The Falcon and the Copy

“[T]hat which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements.”

— Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

The contraband article swaddled in paper which Jacobi delivers to Sam Spade’s office turns out to be a forgery, a hunk of lead molded to assume the appearance of the fabled Falcon. Men have died, it seems, for nothing.

Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, quoted above, wrestles with the effects of the age of reproducibility–  later modernity itself– when mass society produces a mass culture. Largely, though not entirely, absent from this scene is the experience of art as a kind of pilgrimage to the original work– imagine traveling hundreds of miles to see a painting in an obscure monastery, for instance– which has been replaced by the mass production of copies with no proper context. A silkscreen of the Mona Lisa seen at the airport or a digitized image of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel only a few keystrokes away on the internet– that sort of thing.  For Benjamin this means the death of the work of art’s “aura”– the mystery of a unique artifact and our encounter with it. This change, it should be said, is a form of alienation, though one with ambiguous consequences. (Indeed, modernity itself, as Simmel argues, can be seen as alienation embodied in everyday life, that sociological conceit “anomie”– a condition of radical individuation and isolation most prominent in urban centers.)

The auratic properties of art have been stripped away by a means of production which relentlessly excretes standardized cultural commodities. Aesthetic experience is now structured according to the same principle that manufactures canned soup or rubber bands or automobiles. Art is product, one size fits all: if you don’t like what’s on offer then simply stroll down to the next shop window.

Populating this uniform landscape of mass-produced images, sounds and artifacts are people whose very insistence on their individuality (as we will see in a week) is the symptom of a deep and abiding conformity. The consumption of culture industry dross regulates our dreams and desires, gives us the pre-packaged rudiments for idle conversation, influences our ability to imagine the world. Yet the transition from one cultural regime to the next is never a neat affair. The rise of mass culture proceeds unevenly, sparking anxiety in its objects (us) a response which creates friction, which can lead to a rejection of the new regime. Perhaps Gutman, the amoral collector, prizes the Falcon precisely because it cannot be copied. Even the forgery delivered by Jacobi is an original of sorts– hand crafted to fool the uninitiated. If this is the case, then Gutman’s quest for the bird is essentially anti-modern, or at least at odds with the prevailing cultural logic. In this sense, Spade, whose apartment, office and habits exemplify the key modern value of efficiency opposes Gutman. Someone who sleeps in a murphy bed and excels in evaluating facts and evidence can have little use for intangible worth. Spade is above all practical; he is a professional, while Gutman most resembles a 19th century aesthete.

Yet Spade bears the marks of an earlier age as well, notably in his union suit, roll-your-own cigarettes, and garters. In this regard he is like Dundy, though with a crucial difference: Spade is modern, we might say, where it counts– in his methods and mental acuity.

Spade’s hard-boiled empiricism is paralleled by the novel’s prose, which never deviates from a purely objective point of view. TMF does not offer its readers any interiority of character– we learn about their motives by speech, action or appearance– and in this regard the world of the text, its mise-en-scene, is a real of surfaces, of physical facts which must be gathered and assessed.


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