England, noir England

If it's something dark you're after, the Brits do it best. By David Thomson
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The Independent Culture
You may not remember this, or care to believe it, but we had a darkness once, in London town, to curl your fancy. It came not quite at noon, but soon afterwards, and it made noir seem like a schoolboy's trick. This was a Sunday in the mid-1950s, when most of London was still sitting down to its roast lunch. Two-Way Family Favourites had played as usual. Things were said to be picking up - and just before two o'clock, as I recall, it started to turn dark. And it went on. And on. Until it was black out there on the street - not night, you understand, but black light, and still as warm as day. It lasted an hour, and then it went away.

They told us later it was a freak of the weather - London's customary smoke gathered over the city and then impelled down by an abrupt change in the wind. I suppose some people believed that, while others observed that it was Sunday. Anyway, the country went over to smokeless fuel, and they started scrubbing the public buildings so they shone. And everyone went on as if nothing had happened.

Nothing so drastic, I think, has been reported in Los Angeles - no matter that it was famous for its smog, or that you can still see a brown smear, like poison at the bottom of a glass, on the horizon there. But Los Angeles is the home of noir, isn't it? Bloody nerve, if you ask me, when they also boast of 300 days of sunshine a year.

I'm thinking of English noir because of the re-release of Mike Hodges's Get Carter (1971). I know, that film isn't London, it's Newcastle, when there was old-fashioned industry up there, along with sluts like Britt Ekland and nasties as distinct as Ian Hendry, George Sewell and John Osborne. (Can you think of three better players for Mr Big, Bigger and Biggest in some dream English noir than Osborne, Pinter and Potter - the last in a wheelchair?) But Get Carter is sour, nasty and mean-spirited, and it knows that "Satanic mills" takes the capital "S". More than that, it's part of a tradition and an attitude that we have reason to be proud of.

American noir is all very well; I love it as much as the next depressive. But it's a kind of rhetorical poetic gesture in a land and a culture in which "happiness" is so unstoppable, it'll drive you mad long before you can get properly sad. In American noir, the cornered guys have such panache - they have shrugged off ordinariness; they know no shame. They shoot at the darkness and utter amazingly melodramatic lines, and the films love them for it. But English noir is much more an extension of social realism - it's there in the knowledge that the cities can be awful places, that the system is corrupt, and that people like us don't stand a chance. Whereas, in America, poor buggers, they all think they're going to win.

Noir makes us think of movies, but in England0 the genre is so much more pervasive. A few years ago, the Royal Academy mounted a fine Walter Sickert show, and I was impressed by some paintings he did around 1908 based on a famous murder of the previous year: the Camden Town murder, when a prostitute, Emily Dimmock, was found naked in her bed, her throat cut. Sickert had been doing female nudes for several years, and he leapt at this sinister variation of the genre in a series of cramped interiors, the paint heavy as soot, the bleak flesh vulnerable and invaded. Sometimes a man sat by the corpse, hunched, astounded by what had transpired. It was noir, with every sense of women existing on the edge of society and their men trying to escape the pious bonds of respectability. The outrage was intimate and casual - yet it left you knowing not to trust the well-to-do manners of any man at his office or his club.

Those pictures helped me to see a line of noir solitude that reached as far as Bacon and Freud. Both painters nurse the sense of hidden upstairs rooms that harbour so much melancholy, or anguish, of the flesh. In Bacon, the howls of pain are silent yet smothering; in Freud, the melancholy is as fertile as the ivy that writhes in through the window. Much of their quality rests in the enforced privacy - the domestic cells - wherein pleasure or introspection have curdled into dismay and loneliness.

Just as so many Bacon or Freud paintings could sustain the titles of classic Forties and Fifties noir movies - In a Lonely Place, The Secret Beyond the Door, Act of Violence, Kiss Me Deadly or The Small Back Room - so they serve as inadvertent illustrations to this essential piece of English noir despair: "The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism - this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us; we lose our identity. The words of human love have been used by the saints to describe their vision of God; and so, I suppose, we might use the terms of prayer, meditation, contemplation to explain the intensity of the love we feel for a woman. We too surmount memory, intellect, intelligence, and we too experience the desperate, the noche oscura, and sometimes as a reward a kind of peace. The act of love itself has been described as the little death, and lovers sometimes experience too the little peace."

Words to mount in every American motel room! But they come from Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair (1951). Greene lent his name and his mood to film noir often enough: The Ministry of Fear (1945) made one of Fritz Lang's best films; Brighton Rock (1948) is a terrific movie, and the opportunity for Richard Attenborough's first great work in noir - the second was his Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971); and The Third Man (1949), his screenplay/novella, which originally involved two Englishmen (Rollo Martins and Harry Lime - to be played by Cary Grant and Noel Coward, before production pressures Americanised them). Greene knew the tricks of movies (he had been a good critic) and screenwriting, but in The End of the Affair (1951) - his most guilt-dependent novel - he catches the educated English forlorn, the mixture of the social and the metaphysical in which one is doomed to be poor, unlucky, unattractive, unhappy and

wretched. It's a world T S Eliot saw, some years earlier, in The Waste Land:

Unreal City

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so


I had not thought death had undone so


That bridge stands for another parasitic but exemplary structure in English noir - the grid of London itself, the wen, the cancer, the toxic mood, as well as the organisational web where the spider lurks. That's the London that Conrad depicted in The Secret Agent (1907) and which Hitchcock adopted in his 1936 film of the same story, Sabotage; a London that is all pompous edifice and underground intrigue, waiting for bombs to bloom.

Of course, that London goes back to Fagin's lair and Hogarth's panoramic riot (though in the years between those two, robust curiosity has shifted to sentimental distress). Dickens, a chronic walker, had gone out to suburban limits, and he had heard the whingeing language of vice and its victims. But he also felt the beast in the city, the crushing drive of progress, the engine of communication that might trample all living creatures - and that's a vision that goes through much of our best fiction. Just follow this trail:

The power that forced itself upon its iron way - its own - defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.

- Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (1846)

London, the crouching monster, like every other monster, has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels.

- Patrick Hamilton, The Slaves of Solitude (1947)

The lost rivers of London - Black Ditch, Walbrook, Neckinger, Effra, Tyburn - affected all surface life; our moods swung to their unpredictable subterranean tides. They were our unconscious. Somewhere in that drifting unfocused world the link was to be found.

- Iain Sinclair, Radon Daughters (1994)

I'm not sure if many English noir movies are as poetic or sombre as that writing, or the paintings. Still, film has a poignant tradition - and it's not always reliant on harsh, shadowy night. Recollect, in Blow Up (1966), that sunny, idle day in some London park, when you can just hear a click or two in the rustling of leaves and you may have seen murder.

You'd also have to include Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947), set and shot in a grimy Belfast, a city of smoke and snow, tenements, side alleys, rotting gardens, Dostoyevskian drinking places and that final public space where Johnny (James Mason) will meet his death. Just as with Baines, the butler in the following year's The Fallen Idol, Reed has a stricken sympathy for ordinary, decent men who cannot escape their fate.

David Lean's Oliver Twist is both intelligent Dickens and a real noir film of the late 1940s. Bill Sikes (Robert Newton) is a horrifyingly brutal spirit - yet so is the mob that gathers for his death. And if Lean is shy of grasping the full dread of molestation in Fagin's command of a band of boy thieves, I think there's a hint and a shudder of damage in Anthony Newley's Artful Dodger. But, all his life, Newley remained a doggedly noir malcontent, the kind of man whose suspicions gradually infected all around him.

I have a soft spot for the films of Robert Hamer, a director too easily praised away as the maker of that fastidious black comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Just as impressive is It Always Rains on Sunday (the English never trust Sunday - ask Jimmy Porter or Tony Hancock), a dowdy East End thriller from 1947 in which a lower-class housewife (Googie Withers) tries to shelter her ex-lover (John McCallum) when he escapes from prison. The realism permits no grace or exhilaration to the lovers. In an American film noir, their brief abandon would be celebrated - like the sexiness of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944). But in England, drab normality persists: the wideboy proves a louse and the wife has no option but to re-enter marriage, her domestic prison.

The underlying insight that life is itself a prison is what makes Joseph Losey's The Criminal (1960) so remarkable. Stanley Baker (a central figure in English - or Welsh - noir) is the crook who finds himself as restricted out of jail as in. It's also a movie in which Losey sees that other confinement - class. That was more central in his later classic, The Servant, one of two great films in which a house itself turns on its occupant and becomes a trap. The other? Polanski's Repulsion, made just a year later, in 1965.

Losey had a taste for epic parable - it figures again in 1962's Eve, a movie in which femme fatale Jeanne Moreau ruins and humiliates a compromised man (Baker again). But there's a fine English noir from 1985, Dance With a Stranger, in which the real case of Ruth Ellis is used to show that a femme fatale may be just a woman suffering from the fatal diseases of hope and ambition. Miranda Richardson is so exactly right in raw need and cosmetic gentility that it is easy to lose sight of Ian Holm and Rupert Everett, the doormat and the cad, who mock Ruth's forlorn social aspirations.

There are others I can barely mention: Night and the City, made by Jules Dassin in 1950, with night location-shooting; Gumshoe (1971), The Hit (1984) and even Mary Reilly (1996), all by Stephen Frears and full of his wry sense of "the rest of the story" lurking in the shadows of noir legend. Add to those nearly all the movies by Alan Clarke; Seth Holt's Nowhere to Go (1958), written by Ken Tynan; Waterloo Road (1944); Performance (1971); Nil by Mouth (1997); The Long Good Friday (1981); Mona Lisa (1986).

Again, this subject spreads beyond film. It was in Sixties British television, and Z Cars especially, that I first saw the dramatic realisation that cops weren't the masters of crime, but helpless victims of its infection, with families broken by their cruel duty, and some of them disasters waiting to happen. You can see that very well in The Offence, a 1971 Sean Connery film, derived from a Z Cars episode. We'd also have to include Edge of Darkness (1985) by Troy Kennedy Martin, and Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (1986).

Isn't it noir that hangs over the sinister hesitations in Harold Pinter, and haunts the jokes about boredom in Tony Hancock? And if you want to see noir - or dark gris - in the modern mainstream of English drama, just think of the way Alan Bennett's most recent Talking Heads (1998) veered further towards crime and punishment. In "Playing Sandwiches", the subject for endless self-interrogation is Wilfred (David Haig), in prison: "The prison must be near the station. I hear the trains on a night. And a school somewhere. There's a playtime at a quarter to 11. And they come out at four. It's the bit of my life that feels right and it's that bit that's wrong."

That tidy irony is another kind of handcuffs: hushed, endlessly obedient, patient, English, knowing its place. But the agony is not far from, say, the noir grotesquerie of Kenneth Williams - this country's Peter Lorre? People noted how he was "hilarious" and "hysterical", a "scream". But too often that attitude muted his real scream - the ha-ha self-loathing of a sustained suicide.

To think of Williams in that way is to recognise noir as a staple of the English diet - along with mild and bitter, and all those other things that ruin Sunday.

'Get Carter' (18) is released on Friday