Raymond Chandler, the great hardboiled writer of The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and Farwell, My Lovely, wrote some famous lines describing the typical Noir protagonist: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.”
These words have become as revered as gospel to readers, viewers and writers of Noir – epitomized in hardboiled, tough-talking heroes like Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade, Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. But as the Noir genre has transformed and changed, I think a new addition to the description is called for. I’m nowhere near the sage that Chandler was but I’ve been looking at three seminal pieces of recent hardboiled works, in print, comics and film, and I found one thing in common. All these Noir protagonists are loners.
Now, it may seem like Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe and Mike Hammer are solitary sorts and that is partially true. But they all tackle their mysteries with some kind of companion. Spade and Hammer both have vivacious secretaries, always up for a wisecrack with their boss or a snub-nosed .38 pulled from their purse. Marlowe, cynical and tough as he is, doesn’t have a secretary for his own struggling detective agency, but he occasionally teams up with a winning woman to help him crack a case, like Ann Riordan in Farewell, My Lovely.
The three new Noir protagonists are all a little different. First up is Parker, the amoral thief from Donald Westlake’s numerous novels (and Darwyn Cooke’s amazing recent graphic novel adaptations). Then there’s Frank Castle AKA The Punisher, the Vietnam Vet turned vigilante of Marvel comics who is best portrayed in the mature MAX imprint by writers Garth Ennis and Jason Aaron. Finally, there’s the Driver, the nameless protagonist of the recent Neo Noir film Drive.
None of these guys are detectives – but they do the kinds of things that detectives do. They research, plot, deal with violent gangsters in violent ways, and they always have a quick remark or a quicker fist at the ready. But there’s something else too. All of them are lonely. They’ve got no companionship when they’re heading down some dark American street to the next bloody confrontation. The best they can hope for is to ride off into the sunset without serious harm – and most of the time they don’t even get that. I’ll talk about all these and then I’ll touch how this latest step of the evolution of the Noir protagonist is perfect for the darkness of our own modern age.
Let’s start out with Parker. Describing him isn’t hard, because Westlake always keep his cards close to the vest when Parker is concerned. He looks a little like Jack Palance. He’s a professional thief who lives by pulling off scores. He doesn’t have any morals and he doesn’t take any crap. That’s about all we get. He’s got no past and no real age (he stays pretty much unchanged in the 24 novels that Westlake wrote, from 1962 to 2008, under the penname Richard Stark). Even his name, Parker, might just be another cover.
I should probably mention that I haven’t read every Parker story. I’ve read the Cooke adaption of The Hunter, and then the books up to The Jugger. So Parker might change his ways and start a family of four in the next volume, but I doubt it. Unlike the protagonists of most stories, Parker doesn’t change. He’s the same bastard at the beginning as he is at the end. The only thing that’s changed is his body count or his financial situation. Something else never changes – Parker always stays the same with regard to his women and his friends.
When it comes to women, Parker’s got a pattern. He enjoys keeping a dame around, but when it comes time to plan, prepare and execute a job, he’s celibate as a monk. Afterwards, he enjoys himself with their company – but he always go back to his celibate ways when it’s time for the next heist. In The Hunter, he comes close to caring for a dame – a blonde named Lynn. She ends up betraying Parker to his rivals, after being threatening with death. Parker comes back to New York looking for his money and Lynn. He finds her first and she expresses her guilt, saying “I keep taking pills. (…) If I don’t take the pills, I don’t sleep. I think about you (…) and I wish it was me.” Parker’s ice-cold response? “Take too many pills.”
Later stories show that in Parker’s world, women are only there for causing trouble. That’s true for any Noir, but the girls in Parker’s stories are no femme fatales. They’re not equals to the men, preying on them and using their sex for power. Instead, they’re pathetic, just like the dumpy thieves they manage to seduce are pathetic, and their schemes always end terribly. Women are distractions at best and liabilities at worse. In The Man with the Getaway Face and The Outfit, when Parker needs a break, he just visits a brothel. He’s looking for pleasure and nothing more.
It’s the same with his friends. Parker doesn’t really have them. He has co-workers. He respects them and sort of likes them – as Chandler said, he’s a ‘Man of Honor,’ but that’s the limit of his relationship.
And why? Because he’s got a singular purpose -- a drive in him that leads to robbery and violence. That’s something he shares with the next lone hardboiled anti-hero on our list, Marvel Comics’ vigilante The Punisher.
It made seem odd to put The Punisher on a list of noir heroes. He’s a comic book character after all, complete with an origin story, – Vietnam vet with wife and kids gunned down in a mob hit – a real identity – Frank Castle – and he lives in the same world as Spiderman and Captain America. But Marvel also has the MAX version of the character, designed for mature readers. Here, Frank Castle’s living in a world without any superheroes, supernatural or sci-fi elements. Other Marvel characters, like one-eyed spy master Nicky Fury, may show up from time to time, but there are no masks and no tights. And I’d put these hardboiled stories, particularly those written by Garth Ennis and Jason Aaron, up against anything in contemporary crime fiction.
Frank Castle’s no Paul Kersey in the first Death Wish, wandering around and randomly picking fights with criminals. Castle’s a mix of soldier and detective, researching his targets, gathering intelligence and then striking down his victims with military weaponry. He also does it all alone. In the normal Marvel comics, he’s got a tech guy named Microchip. In Ennis’s MAX run, Microchip shows up as part of a CIA team led by a corrupt agent, trying to hire Castle to take on America’s enemies. I won’t spoil it, but the story ends with Microchip receiving a gunshot to the head. The Punisher may have a few other temporary allies here and there, but they don’t last. In all the MAX stories, Castle works alone.
There’s another part of MAX that makes it very compelling – the issue of Castle’s family. In the Ennis stories, Frank holds them in a high regard. A mobster desecrates the remains of Castle’s family and the results are a Punisher driven nearly insane with rage and a whole lot of massacred criminals. Another story shows Castle dreaming about his ideal life – what it would be like if his family missed the shooting and he and his wife are loving grandparents. That seems to be the life that Castle wants.
But ultimately, it’s not. Castle gets a few chances to take care of children and quit his war on crime. He’s always good to the kids, but they get handed on to other parents by the end. Castle can’t take care of them because he’s addicted to his war. It’s what his character demands of him – what he’s driven to do. That prevents him from ever having a family or stopping his violent ways.
Jason Aaron’s run on Punisher MAX – along with amazing veteran artist Steve Dillon--makes this connection even deeper. The third story arc, simply entitled Frank, sees the Punisher in prison, thinking back to what it was like for him after getting back from Vietnam and before he lost his family. In the flashback, it’s clear that Castle could never live as a civilian after being a soldier. His wife is lonely, his kids are strangers to him and he dreams of going back to war. Like the villain Bullseye said in an earlier story, his family’s death is really an excuse for Castle to keep killing – which is all he really wants to do.
I found it a little hard to reconcile Aaron’s unrepentant killer with Ennis’s Punisher, who dreams about being a grandparent. But then I read this one section where Frank is talking with his five-year-old son, Frank Jr. “Did you kill people in Vietnam?” the kid asks. “Yes,” Frank tersely replies. “But only because I was a fighting war. That war’s over now.” His son responds by asking “so you don’t kill people anymore?” The final panel of the page captures the indecision – the lamented lie -- in Castle’s eyes when he says “not if I can help it.”
Dillon and Aaron are able to show the tragedy of a man like Frank Castle. He can’t change – even if he dreams about it and really wants to. He’s locked on course. Parker doesn’t regret a thing about his character. He’s perfectly happy always being alone. Castle doesn’t want to be a killer, but his internal drive forces him to and he’s only happy when he’s going along for the ride – even if he regrets it. The mix of regret and dirtied heroism is perfect for a Noir protagonist. The way his violent nature ruins a chance of a normal life is echoed by the Driver, the unnamed protagonist of Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive.
Drive’s probably my top movie of 2011, so I’m sorry if I’m raving about it. I’ll also try to avoid spoilers, but the movie is much more than its plot. Basically, the Driver, played by Ryan Gosling, is a getaway man for heist crews who also works as a stuntman in Los Angeles. Gosling plays him as a man of few words, a taciturn criminal who refuses to let others know what’s going on behind his eyes. In the first part of the movie, the Driver is basically Parker. He lives alone, moving from score to score, and the closest thing he has to a friend is a loser mechanic (played with crusty charm by Bryan Cranston) who works on his cars. But then he falls for a woman – something Parker would never do.
However, this woman’s no femme fatale. She’s a young mother named Irene, played with girl-next-door charm by Carey Mulligan. She has a little boy and is struggling take care of him while her husband’s away in prison. There’s no outright physical affection between her and the Driver. Instead, he becomes like a friend of the family, watching TV with her son and giving them rides in his car. The Driver’s not looking for sex. He’s looking for a family – and this is his only chance to get it. As you can imagine, it doesn’t last. Her husband comes back, crooks are still after him and the Driver gets involved in a bloody caper that drags everyone into a spiral of violence and gang warfare.
Through it all, the Driver fights for Irene and her family. But even as he does, his actions drive Irene away and prevent any chance for a happy ending. The scene that sums this up – maybe my favorite scene in a great movie – is when Irene and the Driver are in an elevator heading down, along with another guy who happens to be a mob goon out to kill them all. The Driver notices the thug’s gun and knows he’s got to act. In a scene captured in perfect slow-motion, the Driver first manages to get a bit of heaven by kissing Irene, and then proceeds to brutally beat down the thug. By the time the elevator’s reached the bottom, the Driver has used his fists, his boots and his raw anger to beat a man to death. He steps out of the elevator and looks back at Irene just before the doors close– and she’s terrified. She knows that someone like the Driver could never be a good husband or father. The elevator doors slam shut and Irene’s lost to him forever.
They go their separate ways after that – Irene back to her son and the Driver to his own fate. I won’t spoil the movie by saying that fate isn’t a happy one.
Why do Parker, the Punisher and the Driver remain alone? It’s because their violent natures are always gonna mark them as outsiders. That’s why these stories are as vital for modern readers, in the same way that Hammet and Chandler are. They show that violence isn’t cool or appealing – it’s terrifying and those that practice it will always be set apart from the rest of us. Movies, comics and films don’t have to mirror reality, but violence in real life is never pretty or cool. Action flicks might say otherwise, but reading the Parker novels, Punisher MAX or watching Drive will serve as an audience’s wake-up call. It’s not a vicarious thrill. It’s a horror story, and we’re watching because we can’t turn away.
This new Noir protagonists may not wisecrack like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe or rough up thugs and bed dames like Mike Hammer, but they’re the exact same kind of flawed protagonist. Like Chandler said, they’re not tarnished or afraid. They might be tough -- but they’re not mean. And most importantly, they have to walk those mean streets alone.
This is part of the Curiosity Quills Blog Tour: http://curiosityquills.com/blog-tour-alert/