‘No R’ by David Lehman


From The American Scholar:

Kaminsky got on the noir bandwagon early on.

At Wesleyan he majored in French, spent his junior year in Paris, went to the Cinémathèque Française at the Palais de Chaillot, and watched American movies with French subtitles as a way to learn the language. Many of the films were classic noir efforts of the 1940s and early ’50s. He saw Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, and Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, and Dark Passage with Bogart and Bacall, and The Killing with Sterling Hayden organizing a racetrack heist, and The Lady from Shanghai with Anita Ellis’s voice coming out of Rita Hayworth’s mouth singing “Please Don’t Kiss Me” and meaning the exact opposite, and Pickup on South Street with Richard Widmark as an experienced pickpocket who lifts a woman’s wallet in the subway and the wallet happens to have strips of microfilm that the Communists crave, and Widmark lives on a houseboat under the Brooklyn Bridge and Thelma Ritter gets offed and Jean Peters gets beaten up like you wouldn’t believe, and Cry Danger and The Woman in the Window and Laura and The Asphalt Jungle and the dozens of other notable movies that feature fatal females, mixed-up males with mixed motives, robberies and insurance scams that go wrong, greed that turns lusty, lust that turns deadly.

The dialogue is snappy, witty in the hard-boiled manner. Even cabdrivers crack wise. The fare is a private eye, and the cabbie says sympathetically, “Tough racket.” “Maybe so,” the dick replies, “but cabdrivers don’t live forever.” “Maybe not,” the cabbie concedes. “All the same it’ll come as a surprise to me if I don’t.” In another part of town, Ann Sheridan of the magnificent mane kills a burglar in self-defense, or so she claims. The dame-in-distress sobs to the police: “I’ve told you all I know.” Husband Zachary Scott of the mustachioed sneer knits his brows, but can’t help looking bitchy: “There’s nothing for you to be ashamed of.” Both are lying. But the true noir note is sounded by Eve Arden as Paula, a secondary character, officiating at a party for the suspects, witnesses, and extras. When she has everyone’s attention, she admits to having committed a crime against society some years ago. I “married a man,” she announces. Later the busty broad deadpans that “practically everything” she has is real. “It’s a shame to waste two perfectly good mouths on you,” she remarks when a pair of gossiping girlfriends get on her nerves. Later, still: “Don’t show me out, I know the way. I always look for an exit in case of a raid.”

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