Light in the Shadows

There is a certain type of film that has captivated audiences for decades. It is dark and eerie. There is mystery, and always something lurking around the next corner. I am talking about films like The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart, Double Indemnity with Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson, Alfred Hitchcock's classic Vertigo, and The Third Man starring Orson Welles.

These films are considered part of a genre known as film noir-films that typically involve an effort to solve a mystery in a "disorienting, threatening" world full of "unprincipled" characters. And as Dr. Thomas Hibbs suggests in his marvelous new book, Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption, they have something important to teach us about the modern-day religious quest.

Hibbs borrows Pascal's concept of a "hidden God" to help show the motive that drives many of the characters in film noir. Films like Double Indemnity and Maltese Falcon, Hibbs explains, show a reaction against the kind of shallow, facile optimism born out of the Enlightenment period-a mentality that taught that all things were possible through rational thinking and scientific observation. Film noir, by contrast, is all about the restraints on humans in a sinful world. It tells us that we cannot just do anything we feel like doing with impunity.

As Hibbs writes, "In its assumption that a double"-that is, "a dark self"-"lurks just beneath the surface of the most ordinary individuals, noir punctures naïve, conventional assumptions about human behavior. But the dark side is [not] liberating. . . . The characters who try to exercise a Nietzschean ‘will to power,' to exist beyond good and evil, destroy themselves instead of triumphing."

But just because a film has elements of darkness and mystery does not make it a good example of film noir. More modern films like Basic Instinct, for example, let their characters get away with just the sort of nihilistic, inhuman triumphs that classic noir did not. But just as these films do not fit the mold of true film noir, Hibbs argues, neither do they faithfully reflect human reality. They are fundamentally flawed as works of art, not simply because they fail to reward virtue and punish vice, but because they fail to acknowledge some of the most basic truths about human nature.

And one of the biggest of those truths is that it is not enough just to search for meaning. As Hibbs dryly notes, the villain of M. Night Shyamalan's film Unbreakable, who murders ruthlessly in a quest to find the meaning of his existence-sick though it is-"has a purpose-driven life." To find true meaning, we must search for something that transcends ourselves: "a lost code of redemption" that has its roots not in humanity, but in God.

That is why the modern Christian tendency to think that only bright and sunny films are good for us can be so misleading. Films like that, while inspirational, generally do not express the sense of loss and need that drives people to undertake the quest for God.

See BreakPoint's list of film noir classics.

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