7 Hard-Boiled Lessons from Noir Films Old and New

Originally published at Cinema Sugar.

These are dark times. It’s tempting to feel that it’s never been darker, that the weight of our modern struggles is unprecedented. 

But I take comfort in knowing that film noir—a genre that has existed for almost 100 years—has been there before. It’s seen some shit. To show this, I’ve picked a few timeless, hard-won lessons and two noirs that illustrate them: one classic and one modern.

So let’s light up some cigarettes, pour a round, and stare down this cruel world together.

1. Crime Doesn’t Pay

The plan is always simple at the beginning. Maybe you want to knock off an old rich guy for the insurance payout (Double Indemnity) or stage a kidnapping for ransom money (Fargo). Doesn’t matter, because it’s not going to work and you’re going to pay hard—with your dignity, livelihood, or worse.

2. Beware Who You Marry

Do you really know your spouse? Can you ever be sure they won’t plot your grisly demise with clockwork precision, only to have the act go awry and ruin your life (Dial M for Murder) or morph into twisted mind games (Gone Girl)? Think really hard about whom you’ll commit yourself ‘til death do you part.

3. Fame is Dangerous

The greatest illusion of showbiz isn’t what we see on the screen but how it hides everything sacrificed to get it there. We don’t see the screenwriter of Sunset Blvd face down in a pool and shot in the back by a jealous actress, or the darkly absurd lives of aspiring actors in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The cost of a movie ticket is a lot cheaper.

4. Sometimes the Bad Guys Win

For every evildoer held accountable there are several more who get away with it, whether it’s an abuser engaging in real estate fraud (Chinatown) or a real-life serial killer eluding capture (Zodiac). You can drive yourself mad trying to seek justice in an unjust world.

5. Nothing Is Real

Go ahead, chase all the shadows you want through the tunnels of Vienna (The Third Man). Follow all the mangled clues to your mystery woman (Under the Silver Lake). In this world, what you seek isn’t always what you get. Whether that be love, justice or the cold hard, bloody truth—reality is a moving target.

6. The Media is Manufactured

Sometimes it really is #fakenews. The movies about righteous, crusading reporters taking down a big bad villain may win Oscars, but they usually don’t show the full story behind how the news gets made, whether it’s a journalist prolonging a crisis for personal gain (Ace in the Hole) or hunting for voyeuristic crime footage (Nightcrawler). (Mis)trust, but verify.

7. You Can’t Escape Yourself

Try as you might, you’ll always come back to yourself. You can work hard to project an image of normalcy to others, but your shadow self will eventually reveal itself: while you stalk a creepy motel (Psycho), attempt to solve a mystery (Memento), or otherwise attempt in vain to beat back the darkness.