How is film noir like the Book of Ecclesiastes?

Quick answer: There are striking similarities between the themes of film noir and those of Ecclesiastes. Both present a deeply pessimistic worldview, lamenting the futility of life and the flaws of human nature, and both feature miserable characters in desperate search of meaning.

You’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute. Film noir is like a book of the Bible?” Seriously?

Seriously. But before comparing film noir with the Book of Ecclesiastes, let’s briefly examine each.

Defining film noir can be as frustrating as attempting to grasp the smoke from one of Robert Mitchum’s cigarettes. In an interview for The Los Angeles Review of Books in 2015, film noir expert Eddie Muller recognizes the difficulty of pinning down a definition, stating “the hard-and-fast definition of film noir: it’s a distinctive and organic artistic movement that happened largely between the early 1940s and the mid-1950s.”

John Grant, in his book A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide (2013), provides some recurring elements to film noir, stating, “The noirish worldview is typically nihilistic… There may or may not be a femme fatale present…That male protagonist… may find himself trapped irrevocably in the noir quicksand - or vortex, or abyss, or anxiety dream - because of a single minor act of folly or stupidity, or even through no fault of his own…. once the merciless, noirish Fate has targeted you, there’s really not too much you can do about it - your best option might be to go down in a hail of cop bullets, as happens to quite a number of noir protagonists.”

Film noir often touches on themes of disillusionment, dissatisfaction, identity confusion, betrayal, corruption, futility, desperation, and the idea that fate is out to get you.

It might surprise you that there’s a book of the Bible that mirrors these themes. The Book of Ecclesiastes, found in the Bible’s Old Testament, is all about the meaningless and futility of life. Narrated by an anonymous king (probably written about and by King Solomon) who has seen and done it all, its recurring themes can be summed up as follows:

  • Nothing is reliable.
  • The world is full of injustice.
  • Death is coming for all of us. Enjoy what little life offers while you can.

Some of Ecclesiastes’s more famous lines include: (all from the New International Version)

  • “What does anyone gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?” (Chapter 1, verse 3)
  • “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.” (9:5)
  • “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9)
  • “Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves.” (4:5)
  • “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:2)

Sounds like film noir to me.

Everyone in film noir is searching for something. You could say that’s the case for all stories in all times, but with noir, you constantly feel as if the deck is stacked against you while you’re searching. Post WWII (when many of the film noir classics were made) was a time of disillusionment for many, particularly servicemen and their families. Veterans knew firsthand the horrors of war, the depravity of what man is capable of inflicting on his fellow humans. Here at home, the person inflicting the damage wasn’t necessarily an enemy; it could be your friend, someone in your family, even your spouse. Such relationships are supposed to work according to a set of moral standards, or if nothing else, simple common courtesy. The very people war taught us to love and treasure are either turning against us through some type of infidelity or we’re turning against them. The love, security and peace we were searching for had vanished.

Everything is meaningless.

Other problems arise: marriages no longer work (Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)), friendships crumble (The Third Man (1949), Kiss of Death (1947)), people no longer know who they are (Somewhere in the Night (1946), The Crooked Way (1949)) or are mistaken for someone else (The Wrong Man (1956), Railroaded! (1947)) or are attempting to become someone else (Out of the Past (1947), No Man of Her Own (1950)).

Common ordinary pursuits can land you in a world of trouble. Perhaps you’re engaging in a harmless bit of fantasy (The Woman in the Window (1944)), or you found something that doesn’t belong to you (Too Late for Tears (1949)), or are simply trying to make an honest living (Thieves’ Highway (1949), Try and Get Me (1950)). It’s easy to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time (Woman on the Run (1950), 99 River Street (1953), The Hitch-Hiker (1953)).

And what do we do when the institutions we considered safe and secure become untrustworthy? Good cops go bad (The Big Combo (1955), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)), prison officials become sadistic (Brute Force (1947)), and corrupt politicians always seem to be in abundance (All the King’s Men (1949), The Big Heat (1943)).

Film noir and Ecclesiastes certainly seem to be from the same neighborhood. Yet in his book Meaning at the Movies (2010), Grant Horner writes, “There is one important difference…between film noir and the book of Ecclesiastes. Film noir has no chapter 12. This is where Solomon brings God into the equation of the depressing, meaningless world of mere human observation. God’s presence, and knowledge of his presence, radically alters the meaning of everything – in fact it gives meaning where there was none.” (p. 192)

Ecclesiastes 12 reminds readers that they find their meaning in God, that He is ultimately what they’re searching for, and in obeying and trusting in Him, they’ll find everything they need. In film noir, finding that sense of meaning is often associated with obeying the law, honoring vows, and basically doing the right thing.

That sense of meaning may not necessarily convey a happy ending. Although many film noir movies contain endings consistent with the noir themes mentioned above, several were sugar-coated by the Production Code, making everything A-OK with the protagonist just before the end credits roll. Yet a film like Pitfall (1948) offers an unflinching look at what Ecclesiastes 12 is all about.

At the end of Andre de Toth’s Pitfall, John Forbes (Dick Powell) gives a full confession to his wife, Sue (Jane Wyatt), of his adulterous affair with another woman (Lizabeth Scott). You could say that Forbes has recognized, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, that indeed “All is meaningless,” but at least he’s acknowledged that there’s a moral standard he’s violated and has owned up to his wrongdoings. Sue forgives him, but neither she nor the audience is sure their marriage will ever be the same. The damage has been done and despite Forbes’s remorse and Sue’s forgiveness, the rest of their marriage could very well be a living hell. For the Forbes marriage, Ecclesiastes Chapter 12 hasn’t happened yet, but we the audience have our fingers crossed.

Again, the people in both film noir and Ecclesiastes are desperately searching for something. They both recognize that something’s wrong with the world and it’s making them miserable. And their search for the answers—whether it’s on rain-slicked city streets in the darkness of night or in the pages of the Old Testament—is always fascinating.