Playing with Dynamite: Noir’s Explosive Metaphors

“Convulsive beauty will be veiled-erotic, fixed-explosive, magic-circumstantial, or it will not be,” wrote surrealist André Breton in L’amour fou. Of those three qualities, the paradoxical “fixed-explosive” fascinates me most. In French, it’s actually “explosante-fixe,” the order of which makes more sense, although “fixed-explosive” certainly sounds better in translation. As an illustration of “fixed-explosive” beauty, Breton provided a 1934 Man Ray photograph of a flamenco dancer, caught with her arms outstretched and her ruffled skirts suspended like the plumage of an exotic bird in flight. 

Breton’s selected image, conveying both fiery movement and stillness, reminds me of pictures and posters of Rita Hayworth dancing, especially as Gilda. Frozen yet incendiary. More broadly, “fixed-explosive” aptly describes noir’s beautiful schemers. Femmes fatales blaze with bad intentions and unholy allure, even when motionless. Their beauty is all the more enticing because it is fiercely destructive. Think of Jane Greer, braced against the cabin wall with the shadows of a fire and fist-fighting men flickering over her, as she coldly lines up her shot. The women of noir, and the situations they ignite, are surely dynamite.

Given how much noir focuses on “l’amour fou,” on passion beyond reason, it’s fitting that metaphors of dynamite crop up so memorably in the language of noir. Money, beauty, compromising information—it’s all dynamite. Anything worth having also threatens to blow up in your face. Indeed, dynamite metaphors in noir dialogue and voice-overs are rarely hyperbolic. More often than not, the “dynamite” in question does detonate and wreck the lives of everyone involved. Though identified, the danger is rarely defused.

The recurrence of noir’s dynamite metaphors reflects crime fiction’s demand for constant, feverish excitement. Raymond Chandler wasn’t making a recommendation as much as he was summarizing the “fantastic elements” and expedient suspension of logic in pulp writing with his oft-quoted line, “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” Well, if you’re writing hardboiled dialogue, when in doubt, compare something to dynamite. You’d be in swell company, as the 6 examples below indicate.

The Maltese Falcon (1941): Sam Spade emphasizes the stakes of the situation to Brigid, now that the cops are grilling her former associates.

In the novel, Hammett’s dynamite metaphors serve as bookends to Spade’s relationship with Brigid. After her first visit to Spade and Archer’s office, Spade cautions his horny partner Miles not to “dynamite her too much” when he accompanies her that night. Little does he know that she’ll be the one to blow Miles away…

Double Indemnity (1944): Walter Neff worries that his victim’s grieving daughter Lola will spill her story about big bad stepmom Phyllis and her little black hat to Keyes and the police.

The Big Sleep (1946): Dynamite is something rich girls like to play with—or have to play with, if a wild sister lands herself in serious trouble and needs to be protected. They’re lucky they’ve got Philip Marlowe in their corner. Driving back from Mona Mars’s hideout, Marlowe starts to interrogate Vivian, but decides that he’d rather defuse the dynamite with her. Again, excitement over explanation…

They Won’t Believe Me (1947): Recounting his myriad sins and screw-ups for the benefit of a jury, homme fatal Larry Ballentine flashes back to his wife’s bargain: a fresh start and a partnership in his own investment firm, if he sheds his nasty habit of cheating. However, temptation beckons, in the form of shapely working girl Verna. Larry’s explosive metaphor here foreshadows the fiery twist of fate that puts him on the fast-track to a murder charge.

Too Late for Tears (1949): Painfully clueless Arthur Palmer warns his avaricious spouse about the dangers of keeping the bag of money that somebody mistakenly tossed into the backseat of their car. The joke’s on Arthur, because the real ticking time bomb in this movie is the blonde beside him.

Highway Dragnet (1954): Wanted man Jim Henry, stranded in the desert with a fearful model, ruefully explains that he only picked up a blonde floozy in Vegas. “I didn’t kill her, Susan. I didn’t even know her. All I did was buy her a drink. One drink…”

Once you start listening for “dynamite,” you’ll hear it everywhere. Stay safe, mugs, and have a dynamite Noirvember!

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