Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Nothing You Can't Fix": Screening Marlowe's Masculinity

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Nothing You Can't Fix": Screening Marlowe's Masculinity

Article excerpt

While a fundamental pleasure in film spectatorship consists of viewer identification with the characters on the screen, Slavoj Zizek has suggested that what makes American film noir so compelling for today's audiences is not a viewer identification but precisely the opposite: a "kind of distance [that] is its very condition." While we may snicker at the dramatic moments in films like Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Out of the Past (1947), we are, in fact, fascinated by the imagined gaze of the film's original audience: the viewers whom we assume could still identify with what they saw onscreen, and who recognized that flickering world as their own. When we watch film noir, Zizek claims, we are transfixed by the gaze of this "mythic 'naive' spectator, the one who was 'still able to take it seriously,' in other words, the one who 'believes in it' for us, in place of us" (112). This dissonance, and the triangulated path of desire between today's irony-infused viewer and the imagined originary viewers, resonates equally when one considers the hard-boiled novels from which these films are so often derived-those tough, taut and darkly rendered tales of lone detectives navigating violent urban streets. In the decades since their publication, the novels' stylized American idiom and lean, razor-sharp prose have been satirized and burlesqued; the snap and purr of the dialogue now reads as a parody of itself, the original that we mistake for a copy.

This contemporary viewer or reader reaction indicates the extent to which the hard-boiled tradition has been distorted and contorted for use in each ensuing era. We see this phenomenon most stunningly in conceptions of hard-boiled masculinity. The tough guy figure has largely been flattened out and reshaped into a solitary, gleaming icon: Humphrey Bogart. The predominance of Bogart as the hard-boiled hero reduces the complexities and variations of the genre into a single, unchangeable image: Bogart, in fedora and trench coat, cigarette hanging from his mouth. Bogart's interpretations of Raymond Chandler's detective hero Philip Marlowe and of Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade have mingled with other, still-tauter models of hard-boiled masculinity, to spawn a hyper-tough guy icon bearing minimal relation to any individual film and even less so to the source novels (not to mention the eras from which these texts derive).

The Bogart icon persists, however, because he accords with (and helps create) our nostalgic vision of the tough guy. He endures when other potential models of hard-boiled protagonists slip from collective memory. In fact, Bogart's rendering of Chandler's Philip Marlowe has all but occluded a variety of attributes Chandler himself gave Marlowe-attributes such as Marlowe's feelings of vulnerability and isolation. The often hysterical and reactionary, fraught and fumbling figure of the novels is revised in favor of a confident, controlled, sexually potent hero: a man recalling an imagined time when "men were still men."

Interestingly, Bogart's iconographic status seems to emerge from a bleeding together of his actually quite distinct portrayals as a hard and intermittently cruel Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), a tough and honorable Harry Morgan (To Have and Have Not), a savvy Rick whose conscience rises to the exigencies of the time (Casablanca) and a sardonic, knightly Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep) moving through the mean streets to weed out corruption and save damsels in distress. As such, it is difficult to distill the cultural memory of Marlowe from that of Bogart and his gallery of characters. Bogart's Spade accords fairly tightly with Hammett's detective, hard-bitten and winning but teetering perilously on the brink of psychosis, particularly when he seems to find genuine pleasure in battering a young gunsel. (1) Bogart's performance as Philip Marlowe, however, in Howard Hawks's famed adaptation of The Big Sleep (1946), is a man who remains consistently in control of himself and the situations in which he finds himself. …

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