Noir And War Tell The Same Grim Tale

In Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels, German detective Gunther faces adversaries who are sick products of those in political power — men who also happen to be brutal fascists. In the later postwar novels, Gunther's mere existence within such a regime comes back to haunt him. The classic flawed fall guy, he too was a product. 

Kirk Douglas in Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957)

In Stanley Kubrick's gritty masterpiece Paths of Glory (a favorite), Colonel Dax, a French officer in WWI, tries to stop the court martial of soldiers who mutinied rather than fight in another suicidal sortie. Dax doesn't solve a murder but he does discover, in starkest black-and-white, that the corrupt war Establishment works a scam of lies so big that a regular guy can never beat it. 

Both of these noirish tales were borne from war and the forces that need war to self-perpetuate. You could say modern war spawned noir. The monarchical proto-fascism that willed WWI sparked the new realism of the 20s, which shouted out that all we were being told was not blessed but bleak. WWII, with all its raw power unleashed, proved that bleakness worse than any could imagine. Sure, the postwar eras could look fun, pioneering and prosperous in popular culture, but there was always that sordid underbelly in which fermented the wretched truth that had been so deadly proved during war.  

How are the examples of Gunther and Dax, borne of war and fascism, much different from Chinatown, in which Jake Gittes finds that those most powerful are more perverse, corrupt, and controlling than any mob of smalltime hoods? To take this in another direction, John Le Carré's spare spy stories gave us Cold War controllers (much like a gumshoe's clients) who are only slightly cleaner than the legion of spies and masters on the enemy side. 

In the noir world, what else is war but a system rigged to serve not only the few power hungry but to dupe the many into believing in that very system? Many know it's rigged yet few can fight it. You can only survive. You might have to get a little dirty to survive. War, with all its blood-soaked, flag-draped, cynical and gilded champions; with all its grim consequences for the guy, however flawed, who's just trying to survive. This is the same world as in The Red Harvest and The Asphalt Jungle and right on through to LA Confidential. You have to play along even though you just know it's going to screw a guy. War is the ultimate expression of noir, whether we're talking about the thick of it or its grim aftermath. 

In war-tinged noir, the protagonists aren't bulls on the take, careerists looking to please or greedy industrialists but Nazis, Soviets, or worse yet, a main character's own officers, comrade soldiers or fellow travelers. The examples are so many — from The Third Man to Alan Furst's novels to those many hard-boiled types who returned from war only to find out the cards are stacked against them, whether it's a battle for a general's glory or a water grab to serve an incestuous LA baron. After the war the powerful are right back at it, only this time with more colorful flags, bigger mansions, heartier slogans. 

I try to discover the nexus of war and noir in my own work. In my new WWII novel The Losing Role a failed German actor, Max Kaspar, is forced to join a desperate secret mission in which he must impersonate an enemy American officer. So Max cooks up his own fanatical plan — he'll use his false identity to escape tyranny and war and flee to the America he'd once abandoned. Too bad Max is in far over his head. The Liberator, the sequel to The Losing Role, puts Max's German-American brother Harry in postwar Europe as the Allied Occupation and ensuing Cold War prove to be just another racket in the long line of rackets. Another novel, False Refuge, follows an American AWOL from the Iraq war who finds that the one haven he believed would give him a chance was the only thing worse — a new corrupt racket with even fewer scruples.

The noir label gets stretched beyond recognition sometimes, and the dark world in which noir belonged to war can certainly look like an artifact of the 20th Century. But just look at the headlines. If you still think it's dead and buried, you've been taking one hell of a nap.

This also appeared in Noir Journal.