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Hard-Boiled

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’s Masterpiece The Big Sleep (1946)

I’ve written before about American film noir, which includes many of my favorite films, such as The Big Sleep, High Sierra (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Big Heat (1953)—not to mention several hundred other likely prospects.

Today I would like to say a few words about the literary genre that spawned these films. Although it was not until 1945 that the French publishing house Gallimard introduced its Serie Noir editions that gave birth the the genre’s name, noir novels had been written for years. There was even an early noir film by D. W. Griffith entitled The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1913).

What is it about the United States that produced this genre of hard-boiled urban crime fiction? It probably has something to do with our fascination with hard-boiled dicks, cigarettes, hard-luck losers, cheap booze, hot floozies, and guns. Here are just a few mileposts in the genre, alphabetically ordered:

  • W. R. Burnett: High Sierra (1941)
  • James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
  • Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye (1953), probably my favorite of all the noir writers.
  • James Ellroy: L.A. Confidential (1990)
  • Kenneth Fearing: The Big Clock (1946)
  • David Goodis: The Moon in the Gutter (1953), which I’m reading now.
  • William Lindsay Gresham: Nightmare Alley (1946)
  • Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon (1930)
  • Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train (1950)
  • Chester Himes: The Real Cool Killers (1959)
  • Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place (1947)
  • Jim Thompson: The Killer Inside Me (1952)
  • Cornell Woolrich: Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945)

I think I’ll stop at thirteen writers—a most appropriate number for this list. Not coincidentally, all have been made into classic films, both in the U.S. and France. Without straining my mind too much, I could probably double the size of the list. What’s interesting is that this list includes women (Highsmith and Hughes) and one African-American (Himes).

While none of the above names fit in with Beckett, Joyce, Faulkner, and the other literary heavyweights of the last hundred years, I would not be surprised if their works could be found on their night-stands.

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