Alan McMonagle on the allure of film noir
Alan McMonagle, author of Laura Cassidy's Walk of Fame, shares his first experiences of the films that inspired his latest novel.
Criminals on the run, ill-fated lovers, tough talk and smooth voices . . . film noir certainly has its allure.
Alan McMonagle's latest novel, Laura Cassidy's Walk of Fame, channels the era of Hollywood's silver screen with what author Patrick McCabe deemed 'cinematic zip and dazzling noir panache.' The novel is the story of a young woman's desperate fight for success in the bright lights of Hollywood and the people who stand in her way; it is an irresistible comedy of quiet mayhem, emotional turmoil and infectious, brazen optimism.
Here, Alan McMonagle shares where his love of film noir, and the inspiration for his novel, began.
I was watching them long before I came to know the term and what it stood for. Six, maybe seven years old, and possibly as part of last-ditch efforts to get restless me to sit quietly for an hour or two, I was plonked in front of our black and white television set in the sitting room of our end-of-row house. I'm fairly certain it would have been Saturday night. The TV tuned to the BBC. And suddenly I was in a whole other world.
A world of fast lines and tough talk. Of smooth as silk voiceovers and dialogue that snap-crackled-and-popped. I had little idea what was going on. But I knew I liked what I was watching. And later, I would come to realise that what appealed wasn't so much the stories themselves – fatal passion, heists gone wrong, love on the run – but rather the manner in which the stories were presented.
It was something to do with the atmosphere and the settings. The urban vibe and night-time locales. Dark windows, blinking neon, rain-spattered streetlamps. Low angles and high shadows. Cigarette smoke drifting through dead-end alleys. Where was the smoke coming from? Who was the smoker? What did they want? And how were they going to get it? I liked the tang off the streets, effortlessly oozing menace and deceit.
It was plenty to do with the characters, and the cut of their jib. Fast-talking men who wore brim hats, smoked bloodstained cigarettes and packed snub-nose revolvers. They knew what they wanted as soon as they got the merest whiff of it. They were convinced they had covered all the angles. They were doomed from the get-go and they carried on regardless.
The women wore sunglasses, ankle bracelets, lacquered their lips, and had chromium hair. They were sultry, provocative, unpredictable, and ice coursed through their veins. They listened to the tough-guys soft talk them and gave as good as they got. They knew every man was putty in their arms.
Barbara Stanwyck. Lana Turner. Lauren Bacall. These were my first discoveries. A little later came Veronica Lake, Gloria Swanson, Gloria Grahame, Ava Gardner, and Gene Tierney. I thought I had died and ended up somewhere very special the first time I saw Jane Greer. Out of the past and into the Mexican cantina she strolled, in her white dress and matching brim hat. Robert Mitchum's jaw drops through the sawdust floor and you just know he's had it.
I liked the interactions, the reactions, the flirting, the facial ticks, the give and take of grim prediction, the constant sass. I liked that every time two people said hello to each other, one of them came off second best.
I liked the titles. Double Indemnity. The Postman Always Rings Twice. In A Lonely Place. The Maltese Falcon. The Big Sleep. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. I Wake Up Screaming. They Live By Night. The Sweet Smell Of Success. Fallen Angel. Laura.
I liked the slippery terrain. Expect the unexpected. Take nothing for granted. Double-cross and treachery reigned supreme. Plots twisted like corkscrews. Characters lay lower than snakes in the grass. Crazy love, emotional duplicity, crooked cops and honest thieves. Nothing was ever quite as it seemed. I was in thrall to every moment.
Most of all I loved the language, hard-boiled and quick as a struck match. I would commit lines to memory, certain in the belief that they would see me right in my joust with life. 'Every guy has seen you, somewhere,' Alan Ladd tells Veronica Lake in The Blue Dahlia. 'The trick is to find you.' This was the line I was going to save up for the neighbourhood girl responsible for my irregular heartbeat. No way would she resist a line like this, she would be putty in my arms.
I liked that they were always on late at night. It was the best time to watch them, the only time. And little did my already-suffering parents realize that I was not going to sleep until I had my weekend fix. And so at the grand old age of seven I became a night owl.
I liked that they were very often based on novels. And so in time to come I got to experience them all over again – within the pages of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, Dorothy Hughes, Jim Thompson, and James M Cain.
I loved that the stories played out from the point-of-view of villains who elicited my sympathy. The stories seemed to invert formulas, upend gender, make room for uncertainty, ambivalence, confusion, ambiguity. Women were not going to be given the go-by, and men were rendered smitten and helpless. Of course seven-year-old me had little comprehension of any of this, but one thing I was certain of: I had found my tribe.