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!

Film Noir Valentines, Volume 2: For the Hep Kittens and Non-Turnips in Your Life

Philip Marlowe striking a match on Cupid’s stony butt cheeks in Murder, My Sweet rather neatly sums up film noir’s irreverence towards the more delicate notions of love. Go home, arrow boy. You’d better come packing heavier artillery in this part of cinema.

And yet most of noir’s greatest hits are defined by romance, no matter how rotten at its core. In the volatile chemistry of noir attraction, the people who make you feel most alive are often the ones most likely to kill you.

Characters tend to love and/or lust like there’s no tomorrow. With their surreal badinage and doomed desires, these courtships come across as sick parodies of respectable romances. In its purest (or most impure) form, noir seems to say, “You wanna see what love really looks like? It’s not for the faint of heart.” The unhealthy eroticism of noir serves as a cathartic escape valve for the negative impulses lurking inside all of us—

Oh, I give up. Let’s dispense with the polite thinking, shall we? I just wanted to have a good time and make some more shoddily satirical noir valentines, so I’ll spare you the rationalizations.

My first batch of noir valentines in 2015 barely scratched the surface. So here are 15 more bitter little billets-doux with an emphasis on films and stars I neglected last time. Hopefully they’ll amuse you as much as they amused me. To paraphrase Alicia from Notorious, there’s nothing like a valentine to give you a good laugh.

Please note that I do not endorse toxic relationships, crimes of passion, eyelash-induced high treason, phony mentalism, or the overuse of first-person POV camerawork. You are strongly advised to seek help before embarking on any kind of partnership with a hot psychopath.

Stanton Carlisle deploys a classic play from The Homme Fatal Handbook in Nightmare Alley (1947).

Who wouldn’t be inspired by a hep kitten in a slinky black dress? Cliff the drummer gives Carol a suggestive musical tribute in the jive demimonde of Phantom Lady (1944).

Nobody understands sociopathic housewife Jane like sleazy crook Danny in Too Late for Tears (1949). And that’s why he has to die.

“Soulmates, huh?” Sam in Born to Kill (1947) is a vicious murderer, but, as it turns out, Helen is kind of into that. At least he’s not a total turnip like her fiancé.

International man of mystery Dimitrios Makropoulos leaves a trail of destruction in the wake of his luscious lashes and dangerous charms in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944).

Platinum blonde temptress Cora just might have an ulterior motive in wanting Tom to profess his undying love in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

What can I say? Lake and Ladd bring out a less cynical side of me. Especially with dreamy dialogue from Raymond Chandler in The Blue Dahlia (1946).

Maybe this one doesn’t totally make sense, but neither does the decision to shoot almost all of The Lady in the Lake (1946) from Marlowe’s perspective. We can be grateful for Audrey Totter giving us a masterclass in eyebrow acting, though.

Scheming Kitty March from Scarlet Street (1945) finds another way to dominate her hapless sugar daddy Chris Cross.

Sparks fly when Bruno meets Guy in Strangers on a Train (1951). This is clearly the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

It’s Bogie and Bacall, so I guess we can forgive the warm and fuzzy denouement of Dark Passage (1947).

Perhaps no poor sap in film noir tugs at my heartstrings more than Steve Thompson in Criss Cross (1949). And looking at his gorgeous femme fatale ex-wife, Anna, one can’t quite blame him for his terrible choices.

Things get steamy for Lily and Pete in Road House (1948). Who knew that bowling lessons could eventually lead to this?

Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) may want a Valentino, but she’ll settle for Joe. He looks thrilled.

For my money, the real love story of Mildred Pierce (1945) is between the only two non-awful characters: Mildred and Ida. Galentines or valentines? Well, I’ll let you decide…

In the unlikely event that you want to send one of these to somebody, you can save the files (I think right-click and save should work), pull them into your device’s free image editing software, and type names in the To and From fields.

Just don’t blame me if the recipient blocks you… They clearly weren’t noir material.