Nobody Lives Forever: A Lenten Reflection on Film Noir


In recent years I have come to love the cinematic genre known as film noir. Noir has always had a fairly substantial following among film aficionados since its heyday in the late 1930s through the early 1950s. That has been helped in large part by the continuing general popularity of a few of the most iconic noir movies, such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep. If you are, like me, a Turner Classic Movies junkie, its continuing appeal (at least to a certain type of television viewer) is pretty apparent.

I have tried to articulate to myself why this genre of film is so compelling—foggy nights, clever wise cracks, the palpable danger that seeps from every crevice of the setting and the plot. Then there are the trench coats and the fedoras—what would a noir film be without these? In other words, there is something terribly romantic (in the old sense of the word) about it. In that kind of a setting something interesting is bound to happen.

In Amor Towles’ book A Gentleman in Moscow, Osip Ivanovich Glebnikov, chief administrator of the Soviet Secret Police, has meetings over several decades with Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who is imprisoned in the Metropol, a luxury hotel in downtown Moscow. Osip has Count Rostov teach him Greek and Latin, as well as Western history and literature. He is trying to know his enemy, the free West, better than his enemy knows itself.

Osip specifically wants to understand America, the Soviets’ chief adversary in the Cold War. And one of the ways he thinks would be best to do this is to watch American movies. So, together the two men watch Marx Brothers’ comedies, musicals, even horror films. Osip concludes from these that Hollywood’s role in American society was social stability:

“Just look at their depression,” he said. “From beginning to end it lasted ten years …. If ever there had been a time for the American worker to cast off the yoke, surely that was it. But did they join their brothers-in-arms? Did they shoulder their axes and splinter the doors of the mansions? Not even for an afternoon. Instead, they shuffled to the nearest movie house, where the latest fantasy was dangled before them like a pocket watch at the end of a chain.”

With cinema, he thought, “the Yanks had apparently discovered how to placate the entire working class at the cost of a nickel a week.” “Hollywood,” said Osip “is the single most dangerous force in the history of class struggle.”

Or so he argues, until he discovers film noir.

Noir films were the one genre that seemed to defy Osip’s theory. “What is this?” he asks. “Who is making these movies?” The two men watch This Gun for Hire, Shadow of a Doubt, and Double IndemnityFrom one to the next they seem to Osip to depict an America in which “corruption and cruelty lounge on the couch; in which justice is a beggar and kindness a fool; in which loyalties are fashioned from paper and self-interest were fashioned from steel.”

Film noir makes no effort to tidy up the underbelly of American society. In fact, it seems to revel in the dark side of our culture. Whether we agree with Osip in his theories about American movies (and there is a certain plausibility to them), his description of film noir is compelling and insightful.

One of the major themes of film noir is the allure of evil. In the movie Out of the Fog , Stella Goodwin (played by Ida Lupino) is enamored of the low-level hood Harold Goff (played by John Garfield) precisely because he is dangerous. He offers her a way out of the mundane safety of home. As viewers, we are drawn to it ourselves in strange ways.

The problem of the attraction of evil in literature has a long history, perhaps the most famous example being Paradise Lost, which was the occasion of some criticism directed at Milton because his Satan is so much more compelling than the good angels (not to mention God Himself). Was this because Milton made him so? Or is it because evil, by its very nature, is more compelling? If the latter is the case, it would explain a whole lot of human behavior—in movies and in real life.

Then there is the opposite theme: the compelling nature of seeing justice done. Justice is one of the sine qua nons of any good story (to which I would add freedom and order). Again, in Out of the Fog, Officer Magruder (played by Robert Homans), discovers that two fishing buddies have killed Goff because he had been extorting money from them. Magruder does not report the crime, however, because he is satisfied by the justice of what has happened, even if the act itself was technically illegal—a satisfaction we as viewers share. We watch Dirty Harry or The Equalizer precisely for this reason: We like seeing justice done—even if (and sometimes especially if) it happens outside the bounds of the formal legal system.

Justice, of course, is a double-edged sword. If we rely on the ancient Greeks’ definition—that justice is giving to each man his due—that would mean not only that the bad guy gets it in the end, but that the good guy gets it in the end as well. Except that the thing the bad guy gets is the evil he practiced, and the thing the good guy gets is something of the good he performed. In a noir film, many times you get both.

Noir films tend to mostly resolve with this natural justice of the Greeks, but occasionally we see something more—a higher justice, a Christian justice—that goes beyond the limitations of what one has coming to him—a kind of justice that we know, as Christians, is the truer justice, which we call Grace.

In Nobody Lives Forever, Nick Blake (played by John Garfield, who also played Goff in Out of the Fog) is a soldier who has been released from the Army after the war and is recuperating in a military hospital across the bay from New York City, where he grew up. Before going to war he was a small time but successful mobster, and he is looking forward to returning to settle down peacefully with his girlfriend, whom he had left in charge of $50,000. But when he finds her she claims to have lost his money. She is now working with another man, with whom she now has both a professional and personal relationship. Disappointed and angry, Nick forcibly takes money from his girlfriend’s new boyfriend and leaves without his girlfriend for Los Angeles.

In LA he runs into a former underworld partner from New York, Doc Gansen (played by George Coulouris), with whom Nick had worked in Florida before the War. Gansen is down on his luck but has identified a rich widow staying at a nearby luxury hotel, ripe for exploitation. He does not have the up front money or charm he will need to bring the caper off, and he needs the money badly. He knows Nick has the skills (and the money) needed for what he has planned, and convinces him—for a share of the proceeds—to get close to her and closer to her money. Nick takes a room at the tony Marwood Arms Hotel, posing as the owner of a fleet of salvage vessels. He hopes to convince the widow and her business manager to invest her money in his fake business. For his part in the scam, Nick demands two-thirds of the money with the desperate but dissatisfied Gansen settling for the rest.

Nick Blake, posing now as Nick Lloyd, learns quickly that the widow is trusting and vulnerable. But she is also beautiful, with a beauty that is more than skin deep. She quickly falls in love with him—which, of course, was part of the plan. The trouble is that he also falls in love with her, which was not part of the plan at all.

Like all great dramas, the conflict is more than external—more than that between two characters or two dramatic forces. There is certainly extrinsic conflict in the movie, mostly among the hoods involved in the scam themselves. But the conflict in almost every great story is in the soul of the protagonist. And it is in the soul of the hoodlum Nick Blake where the real battle occurs.

All his life Blake has been surrounded by people who were out for themselves. He grew up a hoodlum among hoodlums. All his friends and associates (save one, Pop Gruber, played by Walter Brennan) are looking out for their own interests, and have attached themselves and their destinies to him only in order to serve themselves. The girlfriend he returns to from the Army has no real concern for him either. To her he was just another way of furthering her own interests. Nick Blake is completely immersed in the Order of Selfishness.

But in the figure of the widow Gladys Halvorsen (played by Geraldine Fitzgerald), Blake encounters something almost completely outside his experience: Here, for the first time, he discovers an utterly unselfish person, one whose love for him is also completely unselfish. His friends begin to notice the inordinate pleasure he takes in her company. They begin to worry about his commitment to the scam, and they begin questioning his motives. But Blake is by this time questioning his own motives; he realizes he is falling in love with her.

Nick and Gladys have been spending their days at a beach cottage he has rented. But one day she asks him if they can do something else. She wants to surprise him, she says, and the next day takes him to the Mission at San Juan Capistrano. They walk through the beautiful gardens and the centuries-old structures of the Old Spanish mission and then come to a door. “Can we go in here?” he asks. “Yes,” she says, and they walk into the church. Here he sees in the sacred statuary what he has seen in Gladys herself. He has lived in the Order of Selfishness, but now is fully confronted with the Order of Selflessness. He is stricken to silence, and Gladys, not understanding what he is thinking, wonders openly if she has ruined his day by taking him there. He protests unconvincingly that she has not.

Nick cannot yet comprehend what is happening to him, but he does realize that he cannot go through with the deception. She is completely at his mercy, but he cannot cheat her now. He refuses to accept the “investment” money Gladys’ business manager offers him, and that had been the whole purpose of his original intention. He begins pulling up the stakes on the operation. He decides that he will pay off the partners in the scam with his own money and that the best thing for Gladys is for him to leave town before she realizes who he really is.

She has been unselfish toward him, and now he, who set out to cheat her, is being unselfish toward her. He is on the verge of becoming a good person. 

But Blake’s past has been slowly catching up with him. The bellhop at the hotel recognized him when he first came, and has begun to talk. His girlfriend from New York has arrived trying to resume her relationship with Blake, and Gladys’ business manager has become suspicious and has shared his concerns with the local district attorney. On the day that Gladys confesses to her manager that she is the happiest she has been in her life, he finds out that Nick Lloyd is really Nick Blake, the New York con man, and he shares his discovery with unbelieving Gladys.

Nick comes to Gladys’ room, not knowing what she has been told who he really is, and agrees to meet her at 5:00 p.m. in the hotel bar, while he really plans on leaving town by 4:00, never to see her again. Suspecting he may not keep the appointment, she goes to his room where she finds Nick packing. In the climactic scene in the movie, she confronts him with what she now knows.

“Nick,” she says, closing the door, “tell me the truth. Is your name Blake?” Not knowing that she has found him out, he has greeted her with a smile, but now the smile—and with it the whole mask—comes off.

“Yes. Who told you?” She then relates what she has been told. She realizes that Nick had not planned to meet her in the bar at all when she notices him packing.

“But Nick, you’re …. There are so many things that I don’t understand,” she says, her voice betraying, again, her innocence.

“Just forget the whole business. Nobody’s hurt. I might as well say goodbye now,” he says as he stuffs his clothes in his bags.  There is no sense in denying what she already knows. But, despite knowing now the ugly truth of the situation, she still protests.

“I just can’t say goodbye like this. You say that nobody’s hurt. I am.”

“But you could have been hurt worse,” he assures her, stuffing papers into his briefcase. “You’re a nice woman, I’m just a guy trying to take your dough, that’s all.” She realizes that he was in the process of abandoning his plan to cheat her even before she had found out who he was.

“Then why didn’t you take it when Charles offered it to you?”

Stung by her insight, he dissembles. “Maybe I got wind of something. Maybe I figured the longer I put off your manager the bigger the take.” At this point she knows who he is and that their entire relationship was a set up to get her money. But she knows something more.

“You refused the money on my account didn’t you? Because after that day at Capistrano you just couldn’t ….”

“What’s the difference? We were a hundred-to-one shot. Believe me, we’re two different kinds of people.  Go home. Stick with those you know. Pretty soon you’ll forget the whole thing.”

“I don’t want to forget. I love you. You can start all over again.” Until this point in the conversation he has mostly avoided her gaze, but he turns to her now and answers with what he thinks is an undeniable truth:

“Guys like me don’t change,” he says.

But Gladys knows him better than he knows himself, and she knows that he is wrong about himself. She knows the Great Secret of the World—that guys like him can change. And it is at this point that the movie transforms itself from what has until this point been a good noir film to a great Hollywood classic. He is leaving her—not because he doesn’t love her, but because he does, and she sees this. Gone is the selfishness. He is now sacrificing his own good for hers.

Blake has spent most of his life deceiving people. And in order to deceive people, you need to know how they think. You need to know people better than they know themselves. This is the way evil is commonly portrayed: as being wiser than the good. The theme of the vulnerability of innocence in the face of evil is not an uncommon one in literature.

In his novel Billy Budd Herman Melville cast a character who is so utterly innocent that he has no understanding of evil whatsoever, and it leads to his downfall. In the act of creating such a character as Billy Budd, Melville implicitly proposes the question: Can a completely innocent person understand evil at all? 

This theme appears too in Jane Eyre, but accompanied by an answer. Here the cynical Rochester, who has traveled the world and experienced all the pleasures life has to offer, articulates to his young and inexperienced governess Jane his vision of himself as a lost and degraded person. As he sits by the fire in the dark house and articulates to Jane his nihilist view of life, Jane, in spite of her innocence, simply but confidently articulates what is, in essence, the Christian vision of reality–that the Good is greater than evil, and that there is hope even for him. Rochester thinks he sees the world more clearly through darkness, but Jane knows the the simple truth that all things are seen clearer in the light.

Of course, Melville’s question is answered once and for all in the character of Christ, who is the only human who could really be said to be completely innocent, and who yet—since He is also God—understood evil so perfectly that He was able to defeat it. Not only is innocence able to understand evil, it is the only thing that can subdue it. Darkness has no power to extinguish the light because darkness is nothing in itself. But light has the power to quench darkness.

In C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the author portrays Screwtape as wiser and more knowing than his unfortunate targets. He seems to know them better than they know themselves. This is how he is able to manipulate his sinners in the way he does. The schemer, the scammer, the swindler, the scoundrel—they survive on their wits, and so their wits seem sharpened to a razor’s edge.

But there is one character in The Screwtape Letters who is wiser even than the senior devil Screwtape—and more clever—and it is a character who isn’t actually in the book. It is the character outside and over the book, the character who is not a character, but who is the author himself. Screwtape is the creation of Lewis, of course, and it is in Lewis’ own cleverness in creating him that shows that evil is not as clever as it seems. Screwtape may be able to see right through his subjects, but Lewis sees right through Screwtape. 

The innocence of the angelic Gladys does not prevent her from seeing the worldly-wise Nick in a way that he cannot see himself: It is the very thing that allows her to see it. “You have changed,” she says. “What does it matter what you were? We love each other.”

She doubts herself only briefly, when a look comes over her face, a look of doubt and fear. She raises her hand to finger the bow on her neck in a gesture of vulnerability, “I supposed I should have realized,” she pauses,–“that that was also a part of the deal.” She is tempted for one moment to believe that the good she has seen in Nick is a mirage.

But this is too much for Blake. “No it wasn’t. Believe me, it wasn’t.” Although she doubts the reality of his love for her for a moment, what she has seen is, in fact, real.

Doc Gansen, thinks this was Nick’s plan all along—to marry the widow and take all her money for himself. So he kidnaps her. In the final scene, Nick’s one truly loyal friend—the only person who bothered to send him packages during the War, Doc Gruber—saves Nick and Gladys’ life by shooting Gansen. His dying words to Nick, “Nobody lives forever,” seem to put a period on the main message of the movie: Life is short, but there are things that are longer—things like loyalty and friendship and love.

Few noir movies, as great as many of them are, reach this height of vision. That such a great message could come from so dark a film could be considered a paradox. But it is this very paradox that is at the heart of Christianity:

But unmeasured of plummet and rod

Too deep for their sight to scan,

Outrushing the fall of man

Is the height of the fall of God.

It is this very paradox that Chesterton sees: That the God of the Universe would appear in the form of lowly man whose death and Resurrection would save the souls of undeserving sinners, serving to remind us that nobody lives forever, and that, in another sense, some of us actually do.