Film Noir: Remember I Was Vapor


From 1941-’58, film noir was a highly atmospheric, darkly themed style of movie-making, cold and jaded like most everyday porn. Out of the shadows and into the sooty rain, the film noir hero’s mind betrays a kind of pleasure dome entrapment in James Woods, looking stern - Cop - 1988which he cannot play. Memories mobilize to strike him down, gratification competing with doom until they fuse to form a juggernaut — once his eyes are seared black, his skin is too. In this way, the film noir hero is comparable to author Norman Mailer’s “white Negro,” a Negro-minded white man, better known as the hipster. As seen in the movies Out Of The Past and Cop, the film noir hipster is an example of the characterization by Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” in that, not only do his life experiences validate his bleak (or black) outlook, they alienate him to the breaking point, a death that points to society’s fascination with dramatic deterioration.

The film noir hero is plagued by the 20th century blues: noir vaporizes his ideas of white might in the feared form of the mushroom cloud preset by his own hand. He’s a clockwork kamikaze burnout; a loaded gun in a world about to liquefy. The urge to kill or be killed, however, affords the hipster a choice. According to author Melville J. Herskovits, “the Negro is…a man without a past [italics mine],”1 and a man without a past is a man without ties to the present or future — he’s a ghost. If the Negro is an insubstantial shadow of self, the white Negro’s not yet a gone dead train. As Norman Mailer explains, the hipster was originally spawned by an escalating world-catastrophe: the Depression and the World Wars added to “lessons of disillusionment and disgust”2 which gave way to the language of Hip. Plus the third ‘D’ that Mailer leaves out — death — further engendered the white Negro into being.

The coolest man ever - Out of the Past - 1947Shell shocked, the white Negro collapses entirely or “accept[s] the terms of death…[and] live[s] with death as immediate danger….”2 The film noir hero sinks into the same kind of passiveness, a defeatist stance. In 1947’s Out Of The Past, Jeff Bailey, Robert Mitchum’s character, “relates his history with such pathetic relish that it is obvious there is no hope for any future,” notes Paul Schrader, screenwriter of 1976’s seminal Taxi Driver; “one can only take pleasure in reliving a doomed [nonexistent] past.”3 Out of yesteryear a fatal mistake throws Bailey’s world into disordered darkness of permanent midnight, and he greets it assuredly with ironic comfort.

Including Jeff Bailey’s, every film noir world is one of noticeable extremes. Trapped in a stark German expressionist lens, Bailey smokes each cigarette as if it’s his last, primed for the pyre that will wash his bones clean with ash. Oppression both physical and psychic is key to understanding hipsterism. It is “no accident,” says Mailer, “that the source of Hip is the Negro for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries.”2

Likewise, 1988’s neo-noir Cop “presents a world destroyed by the corruption of romantic notions…oppressively seedy and bleak.”4 This or any film noir city is a death camp strobed by night and the hipster a freak, a maggot on the regnant wind in a two-hour low, all down the line. He’s become an island, part of “a new breed of…urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synopses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.”2 The rest is a downhill tread, an isolation which begets alienation, leading to a new dementia-of-fit that produces such ultimate side affects as the utter gracelessness of death.

Once alienation has set, the hipster’s nerves atomize, his faith numb and chilly from the wrath of a destructive Maker. He’s no longer bulletproof but all too mortal. The film noir hipster is, with little feeling left, close to a cipher. He “can conform to what he loathes because he no longer has the passion to feel loathing….”2 He is God’s lonely man, “‘a social misfit'”5 in need of a quick fix to bury his dead confidence. Now we watch this corpse squirm for fear that he’ll never attain existence. He must surrender completely to his past experiences in order to actuate a result, any result that will obliterate his awareness of having been rubbed from the earth. Haunted and haunting, his mind a perpetual restlessness, he desires self-pity to the extent that he pins his misery onto others by exhibiting “suicidal showmanship.”3 In a yelp of dramatic pain and angst, the white Negro’s reality of the psychopath becomes the only way to live — always on the edge of disaster.

Cop is Lloyd Hopkins (James Woods), a psychopath who wears a badge of honor. Enter the film noir hipster on the edge of a blade: Hopkins as neo-noir masochist, a bloody, sleazy amplification of Robert Mitchum’s chic he-man of doom, using “violence to contain violence,” skirting “the law in order to uphold the law….”6 Torn between policy and blood lust, Hopkins is a modern contradiction. He and the serial killer are one and the same; like the Negro, “forced into the position of exploring all those moral wildernesses of civilized life…condemn[ed] as delinquent or evil….”2 Reality is stiffly harsh for this man. Defiled by society’s paternalism, its dog eat dog machismo lights him on fire, burning with programmed aggression and regret.

Nevertheless, the white Negro psychopath is a safe, not altogether sane organism: still packing moral resolve, but unable to fully self-destruct. He hates his Maker who has betrayed him, but the hipster has fashioned his hollow God after himself as inherently doomed to fail, true to his notion that nature winds down, inevitably. He’s only, after all, a cog on the rim of a doomsday wheel.

The hipster’s death and depression is also a sign of society’s decay, of which he is epidemic cause and symptom. They want predictable behavior, not this individualistic bullshit. They can’t stand him because he poses a threat to their secure uniformity, but they’ve a plan that’s relatively easy. Keep the populace doped up and a type of mollified dependence will develop where more people come to rely on the state to coddle them. The modern advertiser’s maxim: feed the need to (re-)create the need. Some quirks will be hard to sap, such as the need for open sport, and freedom and innovation. And these may refuse to die. Still, the state-run mental institution is the blemish on the power-elite’s brow. School will start at an earlier age for children, state-raised from the cradle to the grave, and humans will see the onset of a new ice age.

Suddenly it will be springtime for Hitler’s boys once again.

* * *

Sassy-frassy, stoned, or freaky, the white Negro really is his own perennial institution. The pusher’s currency of drugs — the coin of his realm — infects the white Negro’s ‘deviant’ behavior with continuing unpredictability, which makes it harder for the rest of us to distinguish ‘good’ souls from ‘bad’ ones: delete a nation, snort a rock — methods of madness on two sides of the same issue, president and pimp, respectively. (Some might say society is undermined by the white Negro’s appetite for drugs. One way he manipulates his deadlocked environment is to surf from one drug-addled state to another, since going down the chemical highway is his own manifest destiny. Style is his first priority anyway, since life bears little substance. (And film noir itself is a style and a general, affected way of life — not a genre and certainly not a special effect.)) Besides that, the co-opting of ‘criminal’ behavior into creative mediums, such as film noir, is our reflecting pool, an interactive arena in which characters on- and off-screen influence the other person’s performance.

Today the white Negro persists as commodity, appearing in all popular art forms. Scraping a black-skull noise, Nine Inch Nails and Joy Division crystallize modern rock noir, while film noir’s basic fascination continues in graphic strokes: adapted James Ellroy novels and the film Fight Club, among others, add grotesque layers to reflect the evolution of noir. But the hipster has become too commonplace, his spark indefinitely lost. In normalizing the hipster we’ve lost his original meaning. Indeed, to justify ‘low-level’ behavior in extreme actions, the white Negro as rebel-artist will urinate in public on a whim and defend this emission as an act of free expression and thought, declaring it a work of ‘art.’ But of course, such action entitles him to some publicity, which he readily welcomes. If he also finds inspiration in making the Virgin Mary out of elephant dung, the First Amendment watchdogs will bark at the faintest flicker of public disgust. The artist as rebel is untouchable, licensed to get away with murder. It’s ironic. As long as the world backs off, he doesn’t care how he’s perceived. His nonchalance may be intended as a shield but it only draws him more attention.

Society bends and shapes itself around the white Negro. It must co-opt his model. And it makes sense, for the hipster has obliged too many cultural elites and to prohibit his behavior would be spastic suicide for everyone. It is better to prolong the inevitable, for our culture to slowly integrate the elements of rebellion and angst. Disintegration is happening as we speak and the void forthcoming if not here already.

The venom is gone. The white Negro’s homogenized, exactly what he despises. Every acned teenager has co-opted him to poster boy status and now our freak is something he isn’t — a celebrity.

Though here the blight may only thicken. Carried to their ultimate end, film noir and the white Negro result in a perfect socialist state. Responsibility would go down the tubes and homo sapiens would sit around stoned or abdicated. If everyone was Jeff Bailey or Lloyd Hopkins, society rots and free will becomes its own psycho ward. Our final penance gone unenforced, we the dead would walk the earth, each of us a dull digit in a faceless, spin-cycle crowd, determined to erase past mistakes. But as the human race shimmies toward oblivion, the white Negro still struggles against death. He is not winning.

Written in 1957, Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” may sound dated on the surface, but its principles still hold. Seen in a film noir context, perhaps we can more easily analyze what it is that molds our ‘sins’ and modern indulgences into such grisly affairs. Thrust into hating himself, the film noir hipster finds no solutions to his problems, and the unending battle he wages continues to silence his queries into exhaustion. There is no happy ending for him or the white Negro. Bleakness is all.

Fall, 1999

2002 Postscript

Kind Reader,
Poor conjecture? Surreal screed? Purple ego? Pompous whimsy? Pointillist shotgun blast? Shitty lamb brain? Absurd? Elitist? Self-impressed?

Really, what do you think?


Other Hinge-ons

  • Angel Heart (1987)
  • Bad Lieutenant (1992)
  • Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
  • Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
  • Gun Crazy (1949)
  • Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
  • Johnny Handsome (1989)
  • Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
  • Le Samourai (1967)
  • Shock Corridor (1963)
  • Touch Of Evil (1958)
  • White Heat (1949)


  1. The Myth Of The Negro Past, 1958, Melville J. Herskovits
  2. Advertisements For Myself, 1968, Norman Mailer
  3. Schrader On Schrader And Other Writings, 1990, Paul Schrader
  4. The Movie Guide, 1998, Ken Fox et al.
  5. Mean Streets And Raging Bulls: The Legacy Of Film Noir In Contemporary American Cinema, 1997, Richard Martin
  6. The Dark Side Of The Screen: Film Noir, 1981, Foster Hirsch

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