Without Fear

Ryan K Lindsay – Writer

Tag: noir

NOIRVEMBER 2015 ebook coming!

My series of NOIRVEMBER posts from Noirvember last year will be available as an ebook on the 19th of January for 99c on Smash Words from Four Colour Ray Gun. You can pre-order it now, if’n you like. It’s in multiple formats and represents nearly 40k of my thoughts and words and misconceptions about life and art.


I’ve tidied up the posts a touch, and added a CURRICULUM ADDENDUM section at the end of each chapter to give you the boring deets I didn’t want to didactically drop into the essays – plus sometimes some links to scripts and rad pdfs and other cool stuff.

It also features this ace cover from Christopher Kosek!


If you want, all the posts are still right here [LINK] but there’s something cool about being able to have this on your tablet, just waiting for you, or maybe you just buy a copy to share with friends. Or maybe you have that site-to-pdf Chrome extension. Or maybe I die destitute and alone.

NOIRVEMBER, the ebook, coming January 19th – tell your friends [who don’t already read this site, follow my twitter, like me] – [LINK] for the preorder, or the order if you are accessing this post post-Jan 19.


NOIRVEMBER 030 ~ Lark/Brubaker Daredevil

Daredevil has been walking down a long slow trip for decades and Michael Lark and Ed Brubaker finally showed him what was down there.

And what was down there was his downfall. Which I think he knew all along.


The character of Matt Murdock has been a fascinating decades long study of how to constantly orbit that noir black hole. He would have slipped in long before but narrative cycles never end in comics and so no one could ever truly just lay Matt to rest in the darkness. But then Lark/Brubaker had the stones to do it and they took months to delicately and intricately exact their midnight plan.

When Daredevil was handed to them by Alex Maleev and Brian Michael Bendis, they had outed the superhero’s secret identity and so Lark/Brubaker had to figure out how to make that work. Their response was to have Murdock suffer even worse in an excruciating plan that’s partially happening to him and partially happening because of him.

Because Murdock’s past is littered with the mess and entrails of his poor decisions. The women he left in his wake, the friends he bailed on, and the countless times he sold pieces of his soul to the wind. No one is more haunted by themselves than Matt Murdock.

Except when he’s positioning himself into a love square where he comprises 3 of the points around Karen Page. Because that’s not weird at all, Mr Mike Murdock, not in the slightest. Well, actually, not for you.

The thing about Murdock is that he’s cognizant of his choices every time he makes them and he knows where they will lead him. But he’s willing to shoulder the burden because he’s a born martyr, and I don’t believe he thinks he can actually survive the mountain of sludge he piles on himself, instead it seems he deserves the just desserts at the end of it. Which is just about the saddest thing ever.

This run opens strong with Murdock in jail for his dual identity sins and while there he starts to break bad. How else do you survive prison? Murdock wants to hold fast but he’s soon showing a hyperviolent side, and he’s making deals with his well sworn enemy, Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin.

By the time of his escape, he’s broken an alarming amount of bones, he’s double-crossed the villain he was dealing with, and he’s absconding with the Punisher, not exactly someone he would normally be teaming up with. Frank Castle even comments that it looks like Murdock is finally becoming more like him, which is your first step in knowing a hero is falling.

Upon reentry to the real world, though not exactly legally yet, Murdock takes off to Europe on a lead. He doesn’t stop to see his estranged wife who herself is blind and fears for him, he makes the choice to play hero first. Because his sense of duty is what too often leads him to making the wrong choice. And breaking out of jail and running away to Europe instead of seeing your wife even once is most certainly the incorrect decision.

Once there, Murdock is lured in by a woman whose special perfume makes her smell like whatever a man’s heart might desire, love, remember, cherish. To Murdock, she smells like Karen Page, a previous love. Because Murdock’s body and mind, even on a subconscious and cellular level, is betraying him and making the wrong choice. The noir path is something ingrained in his DNA.

The entire run is a series of poor choices from Murdock. And it all comes crashing down midway through when Mr Fear, a fear toxin using villain whose only intent is to destroy Murdock, is victorious. Daredevil loses, and had already lost, before the real fighting even took place. And could he have prevented it? I say yes.

The fact Murdock farmed his wife out to other people, the fact he left her alone and unloved, the fact his attention and priorities are well away from where they should be left Milla open and the right villain pounced on that avenue to destroy Daredevil.

When you are a hero, in spandex, keeping a city safe, you still need to make the smart small decisions. Daredevil has been thinking too long in burroughs and not in relationships. He misses the hard calls and it costs him, no less how much it costs his wife who ends up incarcerated and quite literally insane.

From this pivot point, the defeat of a superhero, Lark/Brubaker begin the downward slide to the inevitable. Something Frank Miller commented on years prior was that Matt Murdock had the perfect villain origin story. And yet he never gave up. But eventually he’d have to give in and this is the run where that happens. Much like Lark/Brubaker were handed a narrative bomb, they too handed off something explosive. After a few arcs trying to piece his life back together, Murdock eventually falls too far away and by the end of their final issue, he has become a villain himself. For the greater good.

In trying to best The Hand organisation of ninja, Murdock gives himself to them to stop the Kingpin taking control of them, which he knows will be bad for him and everyone. But suddenly becoming the leader of a known assassin squad is apparently also detrimental to your health and so Murdock suffers. But that all comes later, in SHADOWLAND, and such, but Lark/Brubaker leave him doing what he’s always done best, we leave Murdock walking down, forever down, certain he can make it work.

The next we see him, he’s wearing a black suit. The French would describe it was noir.

NOIRVEMBER 029 ~ Chinatown

This flick only gets better with age, and you appreciate that vintage also the older you are. As such, I want to ensure we time it just right that CHINATOWN is the last flick I watch right before I die.


A bunch of the 70s cinema new wave casting their hands over the old gumshoe trope was always going to be something interesting but no one could imagine how masterful they’d get with so many of the old toys.

Robert Towne wrote a script about a P.I. caught up in intrigue and sinister people involved in shady water dealings. From there, a tale unravels where the ugly beauty of the downfall is that it’s a noir for us all. It’s a real world spiral. Because the narrative should have us following the intrigue, the political mess, and Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes certainly does. But that’s not the problem. That’s not the problem at all.

The problem is that people are worse than you ever expect them to be, even the nice ones, and especially the bad ones. The bad ones become something nearly demonic. Roman Polanski touches upon this in ROSEMARY’S BABY where a husband sells his wife and unborn child to the devil and it’s all very theatrical and weird but here, in CHINATOWN, it still feels real. Hell, it could be ripped from today’s headlines quite easily if you know where you are looking.

And when bastard fiction starts to appear under our newspaper masthead then you know we’re all digging deep down.

Once this story moves past the water, we get to the incest. And it blindsides you, because it shouldn’t happen that way, but that’s sadly exactly how it happens. The real world doesn’t lay neat clues, and it doesn’t just do one bad thing and stick to it. The worst of us are Lernean hydras and we lash out indiscriminately, tearing flesh and spraying venom in glorious hi-def 360 leaving no one unscathed.

Jake Gittes thought he lived in a bad world, but one with rules, and by the movie’s end, he’s completely broken because not only are things worse, well, they’re also completely unmanageable, and he’s being told to just accept it. Because it is easier to not think about it, or to walk away. If you die on every sour headline or problematic retweet then your empathy is going to bury you early and hard. You need to armour up. You cannot be completely empathic because the world is an emotional vampire and you will be left as a husk of a human.

This is what stares Gittes in the face as he watches Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray keep on down the street, despite being slumped, probably dead, and definitely about to go unavenged for her trials.

CHINATOWN perfectly encapsulates the fact we all live in a noir globe, and we are slowly spinning down and down and around and around and we simply ride it out because what other choice do we have?

NOIRVEMBER 028 ~ The RKL Trilogy

Haven’t you always wondered why people make the worst decisions sometimes? I have. I also desperately want to avoid walking their paths. So, for me, writing is therapy and through it I figure out the world and my place in it. There is truth in fiction and storytelling doesn’t have to be pain free.

In the stories I tell, I want to dig deep into the darkness and spend time analysing the things my hands hold but my eyes can’t see and my brain can’t yet comprehend.

This is why my characters are often broken and even more regularly stupid. Baring their flaws to the world and justifying them helps me to understand them.


In FATHERHOOD [with gorgeous art by Daniel Schneider, colours by Paulina Ganucheau, and letters by Brandon DeStefano], I was writing through the demons of being a new father, so we got sad pages of a fatherhood noir. I was terribly afraid of making the wrong decisions so I followed one father down a series of bad decisions. A bad day that breaks the man until he’s completely screwed.

This one-shot was my way of working through things, pouring it onto the page, and then I’d be fine. Because that’s how it works for me.

When the father – he is scripted with no name – finally snaps, he enters a delusion but what he’s really doing is not filtering his choices. He’s acting irrationally, he’s lashing out in action, and it’s all in service of the one job he feels is left to him and that’s to provide for and please his estranged daughter. The problem is, he’s doing it all wrong.

Whenever I hand sell the book at cons, I always say “It’s about a guy who tries to get the doll for his daughter and doesn’t and so he snaps. And we show his mental breakdown through a crime lens. So it’s like JINGLE ALL THE WAY except instead of turning into a terrible flick it becomes SIN CITY.” And this always gets the point across but then if the customer is pausing still I knock them over with the real talk, which is: “It’s also about how far would you go to please your kids, and could you go too far?”

Because what crazier and sadder way is there to script your own noir ending than in service of the only people who need you to stick around. It’s heartbreaking purely because it happens, all the time, and I’m determined to not fall that way. So far, so good.

negative space 1 logo

My next foray into the spiral was a suicide noir called NEGATIVE SPACE. Because it sounds like an oxymoron of sadness and who doesn’t want that, right?

But this series with insane art from Owen Gieni, letters by Ryan Ferrier, and published by Dark Horse Comics, is about depression and choice and megacorporations controlling our emotions and it is exactly the sort of downward spiral I want to inspect. At its heart, it ponders over the problem that if something/someone else is making us depressed, and so our depression is fabricated by an external force, then does that invalidate our feelings at all? Aren’t all feelings caused and informed by external forces? Don’t they merely unlock a hollow chest already inside us?

It’s a quagmire to peer into and once I drag in underwater creatures and countercultural happiness cults, you can feel the PKD vibe wash over it all. And at the centre, just like he did, I have one man searching for the truth. Even if it’s just to know specifically what to obscure.

Guy Harris is our lead and when he sits down to write his suicide note he gets writer’s block [yes, you are allowed to smirk at that, he’s not real and it is funny] so he goes for a walk to clear his head and from there things get funky. Like ‘what if AFTER HOURS was directed by David Cronenberg?’ funky.

It’s then my job to drop, between the funk and the nasty, I have to drop globs of melancholia which lead Guy all the way down. And he has to be his own downfall. This isn’t a story where he blames the corporation. This isn’t a story where he gets the guy and runs into the sunset holding hands and is cured of his depression. This is not a happy tale and I like to pride myself on the fact I’ve found a new way to make suicide sad. At present, half the series has come out and I look forward to breaking hearts over the next two issues as I deliver on the premise of suicide noir in a way that’s a true bastard act.

page 1 - establishing panel pencils

My final noir in the trilogy [surely I’ll move onto some romcoms now] is my BEACH NOIR PROJECT. It’s a pulp paperback crime tale with Sami Kivelä on art, Mark Dale on colorus, Nic J Shaw on letters [and will be announced soon] about a bunch of people on a beach island caught up in each other’s webs and you know it’s not going to end well for the femme, or the cop, or the hulk of a boy toy, or the drug kingpin. This is my chance to play with tropes from the oldest noirs and twist them through a relatively modern setting that’s also timeless and then work out how to best make everyone ruin their lives while helping cause the ruination of all around them.

It’s been fun to write a story that’s a true web of only black threads. A town of characters who are not nice people and all they do is drag down the good people or else grind them under their heel. There is little good happening in this book but there are levels of depravity and mischievousness at play.

Here’s hoping I stick the landing because noir is all about that end. You don’t drag out, you don’t miss a beat. The effectiveness of every line before it hinges on the end. You have to swing that haymaker around like you are knocking out Galactus. And you have to land that impossible punch.

So far, I’m usually happy with my endings. I try my best to completely earn them. I build to them like I’m erecting a temple and it all needs to align. Even in HEADSPACE, which would be a responsibility noir if I felt like stretching things, Eric Zawadzki and Sebastian Piriz and I worked our asses off to make an ending that wrapped everything and had heart. With these three noirs, they all hinge on that very last beat.

From here, I think I need to write some happy endings. I need to try and let my characters have a win. But there’s something so much more satisfying in planning to have it all fall to pieces on them in the final moment than having it all come together. It feels more intricate, like you can do anything.

Or maybe I’m just an asshole.

NOIRVEMBER 027 ~ The Town

This tale of Boston robberies and broken men is the sort of narrative you know is noir because you feel it in the creak of your bones. You and I know the score but everyone else could be forgiven for thinking this was just another Hollywood flick featuring some crime. I mean, it stars [and is directed by] Ben Affleck, a guy who seemed for a long time to be living out his own noir tale IRL. I don’t know where SURVIVING CHRISTMAS fits into a noir flick visually but we all know it’s one of the lower rungs in the spiral.

Yet THE TOWN sparked redemption for Affleck while only bringing a metal curtain down on his character and anyone he touches around him. Because Affleck’s character of Doug MacRay is god’s lonely man, he’s just very good looking so we don’t believe it straight up.

the town

He spends his nights sculpting his body – which we see in one scene that has no narrative relevance except to show us Affleck’s superb physique, though it also holds reason, because you have to wonder why would he bother? He’s an isolated man, he robs banks, and while he’s externally doing great, his inside is hollow. He is working towards nothing until one aspect of a score goes sideways.

Affleck and his crew are successful in their heist but they take a hostage, bank manager Claire Keesey. They ensure their safety, and her blindness to them, and they release her onto the sand and tell her to keep walking until she hits water and then she can stop and look. It’s a terrifying moment – or series of moments – for Claire and it’s a perfect way for her to meet Affleck, even though she doesn’t know that’s what she’s doing at the time. She is reduced to raw emotion, she is connected to the world in a visceral contact way, and she is assuming she is a second away from death the entire time. With him, this is all true and will be forevermore.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, Affleck begins a relationship with Claire after the heist and we instantly see the conflict this brings and knowing how volatile his best friend, Jem Coughlin played by Jeremy Renner, is then there’s no escaping the fact we are walking the plank blindfolded and waiting to fall much as Claire was on the beach that day her life changed.

Watching the love blossom in this bleak environment is hard because you want it to give you hope but the signals are all there to point to the rather more honest truth of where this is all heading. Through a tapestry of events involving the FBI, the crumbling heist crew solidarity, and the knowledge that the one main truth can shatter a relationship, none of this plays out well.

And it’s all Affleck’s fault. Because he chose crime over ice hockey as a youth. Because he sticks by his toxic friend when he should have cut him loose many years before. Because he is so intrigued by this woman that he thinks he can make the one thing work that’s the one worst choice in the world he could make after having used her as a hostage. Because he was nice to the local girl he used to make time with who had a kid and he wanted to help her out when he had no reason to do so at all.

Because he starts the flick alone, and he needs to end the flick alone. Because he’s made all his important decisions alone and he is god’s lonely man. And we get a crime flick that’s slick and violent and dark and is most certainly one of the modern noir masterpieces.

And this works as a slick double bill with Affleck’s later GONE GIRL, directed by David Fincher. Wherein he plays a husband investigated for the murder of his wife. It’s actually not the sort of story I’d want to spoil but I will applaud it for being a surprise in tone because the flick looks like yet another Hollywood thriller and instead it is very much a throwback to the lurid paperback days of old where shit got real and everyone sank under the waves by the final page.

It would appear Ben Affleck is another one of today’s noir stars, a different version from Joseph Gordon-Levitt but still as handy, and mostly because though Affleck’s size should make him an imposition, he rarely uses it in these flicks, and the realest noir is about decision anyway. It is Affleck’s handsomeness that works against him, that disarm people in the worst ways, and that lead his path between others and locations until he’s too far gone.

And if you are wondering, yes, this makes me excited to see him tackle an aging Batman on screen because we might just get the tone and ending we deserve.

NOIRVEMBER 026 ~ Breaking Bad

The idea of ‘breaking bad’ is to really embrace and fuel your own noir narrative. You are choosing to do the wrong thing, you are delusional, and it’s just always going to travel in one direction.

I mean, no one expected Walter White to come out of this rich, in remission, and happy, did they?

breaking bad

I like the ambition of this show to take someone so milquetoast and make them a noir lead because it really comes down to the core of the fact that all people have the propensity to be the bad guy – some hidden, some just restrained – and we can all end up in situations where this is what we see as our best, and sometimes even only, choice.

It’s very reminiscent of the Joker’s concept in THE KILLING JOKE [a brutal Batman novella by Brian Bolland and Alan Moore – that despite being a classic has not actually aged well at all with its rape and nastiness] and in it the grinning villain believes anyone is just one bad day away from cracking. From breaking bad. And so he sets out to do this to the best man he knows, Jim Gordon [incidentally, a character Bryan Cranston would voice in the BATMAN: YEAR ONE cartoon adaptation].

Walter White’s villain is cancer. And an indescribably average life. From this dull warm ember, Walter rises like a dark phoenix to become something horribly monstrous. because any villain is just a confluence of unfortunate events and a handful of poorly judged choices. And they so rarely set out to become a villain. The good villains, the really flawed things, set out on their downward path with good intentions.

Watching Walter slowly push himself further and further was always the clickbait for your eyes. Every season, every week, he pushed his own boundaries. And more galling, he found reason to push his own boundaries. But the man we know at the start, sullen, moustached, walking wallpaper, slowly steps into the darkness. He attacks. Then he kills. Then he slaughters. It’s a study in the progression of noir, what pushes you into it, and what pulls you into it from the other side.

As Walter grows in drug making stature, the legend of his prowess spreads but so does the fear of him. He transmogrifies into a genuine drug lord and soon there is nothing he won’t do. There is no scene of human horror he won’t orchestrate to serve himself.

And that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Initially, the whole reason to break bad is to provide for his family – a pregnant wife and disabled son. But after a while, you know he’s done enough and yet he’s always finding reason to do more. It’s fascinating, but it’s sad. And it’s so very real. Especially when, at the end of the whole mess, Walter admits to his wife, Skyler, that he stuck at it because he was good at it.

He was pushed into it by perceived necessity but then he was pulled into it by the sense of self-esteem he took from it. The wallpaper was finally seen, and appreciated, and he could not go back to being so dull. All of it was sidelined because of his fear that he had prolonged his life and the reality was he had prolonged the life he had lived previously. A life barely worth living. A noir paradox.

And so Walter marches into the final spiral curve, ready for what is to come, and in his final moments, as he dies, he smiles. He smiles because it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees. To try and steal another Batman line and then horribly paraphrase/adapt it [this from the brilliant Nolan adaptation THE DARK KNIGHT], it’s better to die feeling like a hero than to live long enough to have everyone make you feel like the villain.

Because Walter knows he’s the villain, that’s fact, but he doesn’t have to feel like it. He doesn’t need to see it reflected at him where from the inside he still held some pride for what he did and how he did it. He still feels most of those steps down were the right ones to make, or at least the best ones. They gave him some months of good times instead of years marking time.

Then the beautiful thing about the show becomes Jesse Pinkman, in a career making role from Aaron Paul that is going to be insanely difficult to top because he is so supremely good in it. Pinkman is a junkie, a fool, but almost a savant at making drugs which means he’s malleable for Walter’s needs. Both chemically and socially.

Pinkman just shouldn’t care, he shouldn’t be noir because he’s already fallen, he’s already living his unhappily ever after. He gets high, he gets paranoid, he gets mouth favours from unsavoury ladies in the night and none of it comes anywhere close to fulfilling him. He should be the opposite kind of wallpaper to Walter, he’s the dirty, greasy stuff you don’t lean on, the gross surface you know can only be torn down, it’s the only way.

And yet Pinkman refuses to be stripped and tossed aside. He refuses to lie down. At first, he’s a pushover, Walter has it over him, and through this he’s bullied into some stupid places and decisions. But they’re nothing worse than the way he was already living so it doesn’t matter, right?

Wrong. Because while we watched, and fawned over, Walter’s transformation through the spiral, we neglected to fully realise that we were witnessing the opposite of noir: redemption.

Jesse Pinkman slowly starts making more moral choices despite the fact the world is giving him every opportunity to also break bad. Or break worse. He is put in danger, he still takes drugs, the new love of his life dies, he is beaten, and the hits just keep on coming. His life is made so terribly unmanageable once he falls in league with Walter and yet he never yields. Perhaps seeing one fall makes him want to rise up. Perhaps he knows where Walter’s journey ends and he doesn’t want to join him.

Finally, he is held hostage, brutalised, and forced into slavery. But even this doesn’t break him. By the end, he has become mentally strong. He has become unbreakable. His body might be making meth in the worst conditions for what might feel eternity but his mind is free, he imagines he’s crafting a fine wooden relic, something to be proud of. He has the mental strategies to survive.

In the final moments, after all that has transpired, so much bad, you’d not forgive him taking this out on Walter, you’d understand him lashing out and making the wrong choice for what might feel like the right reasons. But he doesn’t. He is not going to slide down.

Jesse Pinkman ends the show free, and he uses his freedom to drive off into the distance, his future preserved, his soul purified. Beyond us or society or anyone else, to himself he is redeemed and that sense of true worth is all that really matters. That we know we are right, no excuses, is the litmus test of the soul.

BREAKING BAD is that rare study of noir that perfectly showcases, in excruciating and slow detail, how the spiral works, and also how to escape the pit and ride valiant into the light.

NOIRVEMBER 025 ~ Memento

Noir isn’t about the bleak ending, it’s about every single direct step to that final crash onto your knees.


So MEMENTO, from Christopher Nolan, took that concept up a level by giving you that final fall straight up, it’s the very start, but you don’t quite get it, and you certainly don’t feel it, so then you get the journey in reverse and everything slowly clicks into place and it breaks you up in different ways because it makes you confused and uncertain and it really puts you into the mind of our lead, Leonard, played with noir lead aplomb by Guy Pearce. Y’see, Leonard has a memory problem where he doesn’t hold new memories very well, hell, he even struggles to hold a train of thought for very long, and it’s just brutal to watch at times.

With this major flaw, this perfect noir flaw, Leonard sets out to track down one of the attackers who murdered his wife and we are given the case in small snippets in reverse order so we never know what came before, the same way Leonard doesn’t in each scene. It’s a bold way to fracture a narrative and in this case it works to enhance the art and the dread because told straight up this would be a great crime flick but in the manner in which Nolan delivers this we get nothing short of a masterpiece.

It is with every step taken forward, which is actually a linear step backwards, we discover a sliver more and then have to quickly cross-reference all new points of interest against everything we’ve seen thus far so as to retroactively build a new narrative on the fly for the entire flick. By the end of it, we are exhausted and as the final pieces slide into place everything becomes clear in one long moment of despair and there’s nothing we can do. Instead of watching Leonard get dragged down for 113 minutes, we stow 112 minutes of information and then run it into a tight spiral all in the final moments and the shotgun blast of noir catches us in the chest and throws us to the ground.

The result was me sitting back after first seeing it and needing to discuss it. Thankfully, I watched it with some mates at university and we spent the next few hours debating the flick until the middle of the night. Because this is the intricate nature of Christopher Nolan’s mind when he’s at peak. You can’t shake loose of him.

Now I won’t even spoil the intricacies of the story because it’s one of those things you really need to discover and feel and it’s also something you conceivably haven’t seen so I will tread lightly. Suffice to say, this flick is dark and the more that comes to light the darker it all gets. Pearce is suitably baffled and determined and certainly hard done by. He’s a guy acting certainly about things he can never truly be certain about. There’s no other story that would so readily have him as a noir.

Whereas Carrie Anne Moss’ Natalie steals the show in one sequence where she plays damsel and femme like sides of a coin and it’s chilling and is also the moment the ball drops into the inky depths and you know you will never hear it hit bottom.

From this introduction to the world, Nolan showed himself as a mastermind of cinema. A thinking man’s creator who is interested in small things and how they fit together and you can’t help but be invested every single damn time. I find myself again and again drawn into the works of Nolan purely because I want to see how these people react in the face of these terrible things, I want to know why they choose each step. And this is something Nolan has looked at, in variations, over his career.

THE PRESTIGE is a great example of noir as being representative of a human theme. Determination is the sort of thing that if staunchly stood by can lead you down the darkest of alleys. As you watch two magicians duel over years, and each of them die a little for their craft, it’s hard to imagine either of them ever getting a happy ending because that isn’t even what they are chasing. They are after something so ethereal that they’ll likely never achieve it and yet in that hunt they remain locked through sheer determination.

The final hook turns of THE PRESTIGE are also masterful and also things I will not spoil here because they are experiences in themselves, especially through the way Nolan reveals, and conceals, them. But mostly it is because these paths are very consciously chosen by both characters, and they continue to stay the path despite a series of disastrous results and that is the key to personal downfall.

Whereas that subtle end of INCEPTION where Leonardo DiCaprio’s spinner just keeps on turning is the sort of thing that hints at possible noir, he’s certainly built up to that moment to fall forever into the abyss, but the final sound cues mostly preclude that ambiguity if you really think about it. He’s a flawed man, and one also driven by lengths of determination but it would appear he is allowed to exhale in that final moment.

And as Nolan continues to experiment with film stock and style, with endings dark and neat, and as he gets better in so many ways, I’ll always be drawn back to that perfectly simple and dark ending, the one he thought to put right at the start.

NOIRVEMBER 024 ~ Vertigo

Hitchcock was a master of showing us the self-destructive things we do and why we do them.

Spoilers: we often do them for women.

I’d love to know the top ten worst decisions Hitch ever made for a woman. The guy clearly knew from bad life choices. Oh, he knew.


In VERTIGO we follow James Stewart as a broken man having the shards of himself smashed to pieces by his own hand. He’s never really the one who breaks himself, the world does that, the shitty shitty world, but once broken he seems to methodically take himself apart and really grind each piece to small razor slivers just to see how it will feel and what will be left once he steps back to analyse things.

The opening of this flick is fantastic as we see Stewart chase a criminal across some rooftops until a fellow policeman slips and falls to his death right before Stewart’s eyes as he clings on desperately for his own life.

Our heroic lead is instantly broken by the world and we now have a major flaw to deal with as he develops acrophobia and vertigo which sends him into retirement and limits his own belief of self worth and function. So he’s out of the game for a while but he soon allows himself to get pulled back in, this is his choice, and here the true noir unfolds.

It’s fascinating to watch this noir play out and I mean that in a literal sense because Hitchcock as well as visual designer Saul Bass played with spirals and circles to make Stewart’s character feel adrift, which is in keeping with the sensation vertigo delivers to sufferers. It’s also an apt way to describe someone’s downfall, swirling, downward, as you watch. VERTIGO shows us a literal noir spiral in a story where our lead is most absolutely his own worst enemy.

There is also Bernard Hermann’s score to back this concept up as Martin Scorsese once described in an interview with Sight & Sound where he made parallels between the circular and spiral motion of the music as a representation of obsession and the need to revisit the same moment repeatedly. Everything on screen is a harmony of downfall. You could close your eyes and still not be able to escape it.

And the worst thing is we don’t even get to believe that maybe Stewart is doing it all for the best. We know the path he’s on very early and we have to watch it play out. Because that job he takes in his retirement, of course it goes south. He watches a woman die, he blames himself, and it fractures him that little bit more because for a brief while he falls for this woman, he feels, and this is so rarely helpful to us in the long run.

It’s not until he meets another woman, a doppelganger of the one he watched die, that he starts to feed himself to the beasts below. Or maybe he’s just feeding on himself. Either way, the result is the same, he’s being eaten alive one bite at a time. And there’s a chance he’ll heal enough between mouthfuls so the feast could go on for a very long time.

Watching Stewart transform Judy into the woman he lost, Madeleine, is difficult because we are shown that Judy is Madeleine, or was Madeleine, as she played the role to trick Stewart into believing the real Madeleine died in front of him. But now she’s free, and she does love him, and so she lets this pressured transformation happen. Which is the worst part, this is Judy’s noir, too.

As Stewart pressures her, she starts to crack and we follow two very broken people as they only set out to make themselves suffer, as if some form of self-flagellation is going to do anything but add rocks to their burden.

Stewart takes Judy back to the scene of Madeleine’s death, he takes her through the paces of the scene, the motions of the moments, and it’s horrific and unjustified, and ghastly to observe. It is Stewart blaming himself and projecting this tension onto the one person who might be able to save him, if he’d ever entertain the thought of allowing it to happen because he’ll never forget how he was unable to save her the first time around.

Noir, like suicide, can be a tough path to contemplate sometimes.

And in the end, against all odds, Stewart manages to hug Judy, to understand what happened, and maybe even why. This interpersonal shock therapy has yielded a result where Stewart is cured of his acrophobia/vertigo and he might even have a future with Judy. It’d be a messed up future but it would be something and something is mostly better than nothing.

But this is where the world steps in. And a figure approaches up into the top of the bell tower, a shadowed figure, and Judy is shocked, probably certain this is death come to deliver the only fair thing, and so she slips back and off the bell tower and to her demise, just like she did the first time when she was Madeleine. And again Stewart will need to live with this and it will be absolute because there will be no second woman to save him.

Knowing Stewart’s obsession at the end, I have no doubt his character lives for many more years before either falling off this location to his own demise, or perhaps before that he lures some other women up there and has them befall accidents. His spiral is going to circle this place and event until it finally does him in. To die any other way or in any other place would not seal that final noir buttonhook in on itself.

And with that, VERTIGO makes itself a cold-hearted noir masterpiece that’s not about love or hope or even justice, it is about how the world will force a crack in you and you’ll spend your lifetime pushing on it and touching it until you’ve spread it far enough to split you into pieces, and then you’ll repeat the process until you don’t exist anymore.


Philip K Dick knew from noir. He thought he was living in one. Conspiracy, drugs, self-hatred [though maybe that’s just all writers but he certainly didn’t always seem to think the most of himself, though he did respect himself in some ways], and an early demise.

PKD lived as he wrote, and wrote about how he lived. Interreality noir.


– my personal PKD shelf –

The first PKD book I ever read was A MAZE OF DEATH. I had these rad local flea markets in a shopping centre carpark every Sunday morning and I used to religiously ride in and just wander, eat some insanely good hot jam donuts, and peruse all the people selling old paperbacks out of last week’s broccoli bins. And this was the age where old sci fi pulps got the price they deserve: between 50c and maybe two bucks if they were superfly.

I was about 12 and had read enough Stephen King and Clive Barker and Star Wars books – and I’m talking SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE and the Han Solo trilogy, not that later extended universe stuff – to know it was time to branch out. I started shifting this weird stuff around, because all the other horror authors didn’t interest me and I found myself digging more and more sci fi flicks [ALIEN/S, BLADE RUNNER, THE ABYSS, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE OMEGA MAN, PLANET OF THE APES, etc], and it was getting late in the morning. All this stuff looked the same, a whole mess of Heinlein, lotta Donaldson and some Bradbury, there was plenty I wanted but nothing I could choose. Nothing worth the two bucks. But then I picked up A MAZE OF DEATH and it sounded half decent, I had no idea about the author, but the price was slashed in half from a buck to 50c. It was worth the gamble. I picked it up and my future path was set.


I read A MAZE OF DEATH and while it’s not PKD’s finest, it is lean, and harsh, and the end stuck with me like tar to your shoe. The story looks at a spaceship crew who go through the story all either being murdered or killing themselves and in the end we reset to find out they’re actually just using virtual reality to kill time as they orbit a dead star and are waiting to die. That kicker, that they’ll no doubt just go through all of this again, such anguish, such empty human rage, was something that hit me in the guts. Looking back, it’s like a recursive noir loop set in deep space. It’s insanely dark and brilliant and a very bloody good hook on which to hang yourself as an intro to PKD.

I was about to become a teenager and embark on a quest for more that I am still on.

In the early days, it was hard to find PKD books but when they arose, they were cheap. It felt like a worthy adventure. I go to a lot of secondhand book shops so in every one the first thing I still do is go to the sci fi shelves and scan for D, which means Gordon R. Dickson, with his middle initial and very very similar last name has become my nemesis for the fact he bloats these shelves and always kills me with false hope. Because now, PKD books are rare. I blame flicks like MINORITY REPORT and maybe PAYCHECK for jacking up the price because for a long while PKD pulps remained cheap but suddenly they’d be asking $20 a copy, and the worst thing was the bastards would sell. So you’d either put up or get shut out. The game is suddenly dark and sharp. But, still I look and my shelf grows.

Often times I think of my journey procuring and slowly reading PKD books as a noir where I’ll die before reading them all, though I’ll probably get them all, because that’ll make the final sting all that much worse. As the life ebbs, I can probably see the shelf, the titles smirking back at me, the one found in that gargantuan warehouse of a store, the one the eccentric shopkeeper held for me, the trio I sniped on eBay back before people knew how to snipe on eBay, they’d look down and judge me for not having imbibed them all and I’d look up and whisper out to them, and my family would hate me for looking at the books when they were gathered around.

Then I’d wake to find it was all a virtual reality test to see how I’d fare in my final moments, and I’d be left wanting, my family would leave, and the books would be empty, filled with the vast works of Gordon R. Goddamn Dickson. Because if I’m going to go down, I want PKD writing my end.

And that’s what PKD did best, he messed with your reality so your happily never after chased you through space and time. His brand of sci fi isn’t about intergalactic discovery and exploration as much as it is a synthesis of how far we can see into ourselves wrapped in a metaphor of the crushing dark that surrounds us, as well as fills us. He saw beauty and horror in everything, his dichotomy of life was to fear and then fearlessly bound forward anyway. It’s the sort of thing they don’t teach you in class.

Looking through the works of PKD, you see bleak horizons laid out in his final pages all the time. A SCANNER DARKLY is a terrible piece of drug noir, and one of his finest works. It looks into the future at a narc who goes undercover into a drug house, and one he’s already also an active member of and in during his out of work hours. But due to a scramble suit which hides the identity of all narcs, this clash is not discovered, neither by the occupants of the house nor his superiors.

A Scanner Darkly

So we have a man spying on himself while imbibing hallucinogens and of course this is a problem. It’s a fascinating read into paranoia, and the system that lords over the street, and how interpersonal relationships open you up to salvation as well as damnation. By story’s end, we find our protagonist trapped in a loop of rehab where he’s being made to harvest the drug in the facility, and he’s seemingly gone from the top rung to the bottom and regardless of more movement the actual problem is there’s little hope he’ll ever get off the wheel.

Dick’s wife at the time, Tessa, said she found him weeping by his typewriter after particularly harrowing nights of writing this story. It is clear PKD was putting his life and his soul into his work.

THE ZAP GUN is a deliciously morose slice of consumerism noir as we follow weapon makers who come up with their ideas in fugue states only to have their designs turned into completely useless and random household artifacts. As an alien invasion looms, they struggle to team up and design a salvation for Earth.

the zap gun

The way this story plays out, everyone ends up in a black hole of their own reality of redundancy. People have their ideas handed across time, people have their own ideas turned on them, people have their own ideas nullified, and nearly all ideas are in service to fight oppositional ideas that are fabricated. Your life’s purpose is a lie. Even the way the book was birthed, the publisher wanted a story to match this title they had, is insane. They brought very little to the table and PKD obliged. That idea of ideas becoming larger ideas is right there.

There’s a great through line where a board game is constructed and in it a small character wanders aimlessly in a seemingly futile experiment. As you play, you connect with the playing piece until eventually you replace it, and you look up, and there is no hope. It’s barely subtle but it’s a visceral thing as it plays upon your feelings of empathy, and how many crosses you’ll die on, and the fact the world is out to slowly draw you in and stop you, entrap you, claim you, absorb you.

THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH, a novel PKD wrote amongst many as he struggled to make ends meet supporting a wife and four daughters, from whom he was estranged during his writing periods, wandering away from the homestead and down into a small shack that would get so cold the ink would freeze in his typewriter ribbon. If there was ever a confluence of events to create a noir masterpiece, this was it.

three stigmata of palmer eldritch

PKD had been spending every day isolated in this shack, every day inside his head with these wild ideas, and it took its toll. One day, he saw a vision in the sky above the horizon. It was the face of evil, and it was God, and this was the worst possible thing to consider. Which means that as the face continued to appear over a month, PKD processed it inside and the output was this magnificently sour and majestic novel.

It is certainly one of the most bleak PKD tales as it looks into the concept of seeing/meeting/becoming god through drug use and how dangerous a line any of that is. The book strongly treads into the territory of Gnosticism – the fact that God may be real but that doesn’t mean in any way that they are a nice or even sane deity. When man loses his higher power, or discovers that power is corrupt, well that means there’s nowhere left to fall because we all suddenly live on the grainy rock bottom.

In the end of the story, after many twists and turns, the kicker is that our lead man never knows if he’s escaped his hallucinatory nightmare, if he’s still in it, and whether he’s right or powerful if either of those scenarios prove true. Once you know there’s been a hallucination, how can you ever know you truly came out of it? And even if you did, if thoughts plague you that you didn’t will you ever be fulfilled? That noir of uncertainty and doubt that will mock you and haunt you for eternity is a scarier prospect than any actual definitive answer that will at least stop you hunting for clues or signs or ideas. This thin possibility means you are a ball spinning in a hoop that will never fall.

You can see the layers of eXistenZ and INCEPTION presented in this idea and it’s scary because the moment you apply it to your own life, you could be up all night chasing loops. Once your concept of reality is shattered, there is no recovery.

Philip K Dick didn’t seem to believe in happy endings, and if he gave you one, he wanted you to know it was perilous. He wanted you to question it because as soon as you did, it puffed away in blue smoke. That aspect of storytelling as a thing offered, and a thing taken away, and a thing unknown to which you can only guess is something that’s inspired me for decades now. As I continue to write, and have PKD paperbacks yet to read, may I die happy and certain, if he allows it.

pkd quote

NOIRVEMBER 022 ~ Charlton Heston’s Trilogy

Tracking the downfall of a person is one thing, it provides a tight narrative spiral. It’s a clean execution. But describing the downfall of a society, now that’s a trick. And a challenge Charlton Heston has spearheaded thrice with great success.

planet of the apes lobby card

It all started with those damn dirty apes. Heston plays stranded astronaut, Taylor, who crash lands in the future on a planet ruled by many classes of the ape family and where humans have been subjugated. For the poor filthy wretches of this planet, the downfall already occurred. So it makes sense that Heston would arrive to lead a revival.

Unlike any of the other human creatures, Heston has language, and knowledge, and he won’t be caged. He challenges the civilised society of ape culture, their rules, their laws, and he demands human dominance be restored.

It’s exceptionally arrogant and that kind of headstrong resolve is exactly the thing you need to keep pushing against all barriers to enact your own noir ending. But sadly, Heston is so forceful he actually ends up triggering a second noir spiral that is unconsidered at first but is exceptionally sour when taken on its own context.

The tale of PLANET OF THE APES winds tight until the final sequence as Heston leads a group of apes into the Forbidden Zone where he reveals to himself and us that this planet is Earth in a far flung future and that civilisation as Heston hoped to be reconnected with has long been buried. He pounds the sand as the Statue of Liberty signals up while his heart tumbles deep deep down. This is Heston’s hell, his reward for being a pioneer of the new frontier. And he’s stuck in it, an outsider, alone, forever.

But take pause to consider the apes. For generations they’ve only known one way of life. And now that cradle of their civilisation is shattered. Their very ordered way of life has been turned upside by a truth hidden from them and one they were happier and more functional not knowing. Things can never be the same for them and just because they are hirsute does not mean they won’t feel this greatly.


Heston would take a few years off from destroying societies but he would return in THE OMEGA MAN where he is instrumental in the downfall of humanity. This loose adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND novel changes the downfall of society from a bacterial infection to instead be a result of chemical warfare. This way, it is man orchestrating the demise themselves. Heston plays Robert Neville, a Colonel in the Army and as such someone connected to this terrible event. When he gets infected he experiments on himself and stumbles across a vaccine, though too late to save the millions of people turning into albino Luddite nocturnal freaks who will all soon rally against the lonesome Neville who comes to represent the old ways they loathe so much.

Neville spends his days wandering his city and hunting this new breed of person, called The Family. He has become the monster and it isn’t as if he can turn the tide and kill them all, and even if he did he’d be left all alone, so Neville is firmly planted in a futile situation. Until a woman arrives and they fall in love. Because of course you have time for love if it’s Heston you stumble upon.

Through a series of stubborn events, Neville gets Lisa’s brother murdered, and her infected, and he still won’t play nice and so he ends the movie slumped dead in a fountain with a spear through his side. As a hero, this is a pretty bad run of events and so should instantly be clear that Neville is not any kind of hero in this story. Not one bit. And so he gets no happy ending. There might be a happy ending for some of the other characters but Neville most certainly is buried because of his own actions, and he no doubt keeps a rift between the very few human survivors and The Family because of his actions born of frustration, fear, and closed-mindedness. He is the epitome of male stupidity and pride and it is his ultimate downfall. And a shame he insists on dragging others down with him.

There is no happy ending for THE OMEGA MAN and two years later Heston would make SOYLENT GREEN, a flick renowned for its horribly downbeat ending. Because in a film where people are being euthanized and food shortages are a common problem, there are always ways for Heston to make it all worse.


The people of Earth face many problems but one isn’t what to eat, because Soylent Green is available and it’s got all the protein you need. Because of special plankton being farmed and turned into a wafer that’ll keep your system running. Though there isn’t much worth going more than a mild trot for. Society is fractured, only the 1% have anything of luxury – and those luxuries are things you and I take well for granted right now. Luxury is only convenience finessed up due to context of rareness. The world is a sad and small and oppressively hot place and Heston’s Detective Frank Thorn wants to do right. He’s investigating a murder and that rabbit hole leads him to a ghastly truth.

Soylent Green is people. It’s made from corpses. And in the movie’s final moments, with Thorn injured, he screams it to the masses, “Soylent Green is people!” And we close on a freeze frame of Heston’s bloodied hand in the air. It’s a hell of a close; poignant, grotesque, socially prescient.

It’s also as bleak as a week old corpse left to turn before becoming our next wafer of protein.

Y’see, what’s going to actually happen next? The only two ways my brain goes is to reckon either Heston’s public declaration gets Soylent Green production stopped, robbing society of the only real affordable and functional food source they have and driving a new societal collapse, and probably one where people turn to straight cannibalism once they realise what was happening all along. In for a penny, in for a pound of flesh, and all that.

Or maybe Heston changes nothing except for that he’s opened our eyes and we can’t just stay in our blissful ignorance of human body noshing. Every time someone cracks a wafer into their mouth they have to ‘know’ what they are doing. And that hardly seems fair.

Though I suppose they could just toss Heston straight into the production line and hope no one else believes the bleeding crackpot in the streets. This narrows the scope of the noir ending but it also highlights that no matter how you take it, SOYLENT GREEN, like THE OMEGA MAN and PLANET OF THE APES before it, all portray tales where Heston is around to watch the downfall of man, and the end of his own natural life, and if we wait long enough these sucker punches could be ripped from our headlines so we’re looking through a lens at the brick barrier we are all speeding into. Hrmm.

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