Hardboiled, Noir and the Politics of Style
This course will address two cross-pollinated products of literary and visual culture – the hardboiled detective novel and film noir – that have proven both remarkably durable, persisting from the early 1930s to the present moment, and remarkably hard to specify. Rather than comprise a genre, hardboiled and noir seem rather, and more elusively, to describe a look, an attitude, a feel – a visual and narrative style – that traverses any number of established genres, including ‘true crime’ fiction, police procedurals, melodramas, and thrillers. The hardboiled/noir ‘style’ appears mobile and plastic in other ways, as well, spanning, as it does, the divide between elite modernisms and mass culture, and a political spectrum marked at the one end by something like the Red Scare thematics of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and at the other by what Mike Davis describes as the quasi-Marxist sensibilities of Hollywood noir directors such as Billy Wilder and Orson Welles.
This class will explore the complex articulations of narrative style and cultural politics in hardboiled and noir. If ‘style’ is always a market phenomenon (a way of branding and selling cultural products), when and for whom might it function critically? To what extent does the dissemination of a style (the way the style catches on), create possibilities for appropriating and repurposing it – for example, possibilities for women writers to repurpose the expressly misogynist conventions of classic hardboiled fiction? Conversely, to what extent is there a politics intrinsic to the style – an orientation to sexual and racial difference, for instance -- that is ‘written in’ to the touchstone figures, settings, and organizing motifs of these narrative modes?
I am still tinkering with the syllabus, but reading will likely include Dashiell Hammet, The Continental Op, Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, Vera Caspary, Laura, Chester Himes, The Real Cool Killers, Sara Paretsky, Indemnity Only, and Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress, alongside a range of critical materials on modernism and popular culture (Andreas Huyssen, Walter Benjamin) , the cultural and material contexts of hardboiled and noir (Mike Davis, Michael Denning, James Naremore), and its cultural politics (Elizabeth Cowie, Frank Krutnik, Liam Kennedy, Greil Marcus, Manthia Diawara). Films may include Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1959), Blood Simple (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1986), and Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995).