Down for the Count, the second Harry Kvist novel is now on shelves, following on from the critically acclaimed Clinch. We caught up with author Martin Holmén to discuss his love of film noir and how this obsession inspired him to create the character of Harry Kvist.
I think almost everyone would recognise the characteristics of a film noir. You’ve got your cynical and somewhat nihilistic world view, a protagonist with a moral complexity, and corruption and murder. You’ve got bad weather, a tough guy in a hat, a femme fatale and an unsentimental story that revolves around themes like crime and sexuality but still has a touch of melodrama.
The protagonist can be a detective but is often a victim or a suspect with a built-in weakness, and the plot is often almost predetermined, with no happy ending in sight.
The genre had its palmy days in the 40s and 50s but still has a great influence on today’s filmmakers and authors like myself. In this list I am going to skip noir classics likeThe Big Sleep, The Third Man, The Touch of Evil and what I consider the best one: Out of the Past and concentrate on ten old and more modern film noir titles that inspired me while I was writing my trilogy about anti-hero Harry Kvist.
KISS ME DEADLY (1955, Robert Aldrich)
I grew up on my father’s old pulp fiction books which I found in the attic and Mickey Spillane and his scumbag detective Mike Hammer was one of my favorites. In this black-hearted movie he is more brutish than ever and the almost surreal ending reflects the main fears of the cold war era, still current when I was growing up in the late 70s and early 80s.
FARGO (1996, the Coens)
My vision of the Harry Kvist trilogy was to give a Swedish twist to the American noir tradition. The Coen brothers’ neo-noir from 1996 is set in Minnesota where the Scandinavian heritage still lives on. The movie revolves around the clumsy car salesman Jerry Lundegarard, so desperate for money that he decides to hire some contract killers to murder his wife for the insurance money. Of course, everything goes wrong.
THE KILLING (1956, Stanley Kubrick)
When asked who is going to play Harry Kvist in the Hollywood adaptation of my first instalment, Clinch, I always answer Sterling Hayden. Unfortunately he is dead, so I think it’s time for Ed Hardy to roughen up a bit. In Kubrick’s masterpiece The Killing, Hayden plays a veteran criminal who sets out for one last heist before settling down and marrying the love of his life. He gathers a group of experienced robbers to help him. The heist is successful, Hayden is close to realizing his dream and the only thing that is left is the dividing of the booty…
TAXI DRIVER (1976, Martin Scorsese)
”Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There is no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” Not unlike Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s neo-noir masterpiece) Harry Kvist walks the filthy streets of 1930’s Stockholm. Shunned by society, people are whispering behind his back, though nobody dares to speak directly to him. Instead they cross the street when they see him coming.
CHINA TOWN (1974, Roman Polanski)
With two of my favourite actors – Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway – nothing can go wrong. Or can it? A private eye, played by Nicholson, is sucked in to a world of corruption, sexual vice, power and big money in the hot summer of 1937. I adore this movie and the ending in Clinch is in a way an hommage to Polanski’s masterpiece.
NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950, Julius “Jules” Dassin)
While on the subject of good endings you can’t overlook this British classic by Jules Dassin. Set in London, it tells the story of Harry Fabian’s hellish descent towards a finale that made me shed a tear or two. This movie has every characteristic of a film noir, from the plot to the lighting, and if you should watch only one I think this is it.
AFTER DARK MY SWEET (1990, James Foley)
No author has influenced my writing more than Jim Thompson. Only two titles have been translated into Swedish but a lot of his books made it to the screen, and he actually worked as a screenwriter as well. Like Harry Kvist this is a story about a former boxer named ”Collie” Collins. Unlike Harry he’s a softie, and soon falls under the spell of a drifter and femme fatale and winds up in a kidnapping. The characteristics of Thompson’s books – the conflict being mostly psychological – are there from the start when Collie escapes the loony bin. And the kidnapping? Well, of course it goes wrong from the very beginning.
THE KILLER INSIDE ME (2010, Michael Winterbottom)
I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I just love writing gritty scenes of violence and sex, often combining the two. Of course this was impossible to do in the movies from the 30s, 40s and 50s but in this modern adaptation of yet another Jim Thompson novel some scenes made even me close my eyes for a moment. Casey Affleck plays a small town sheriff, a sociopath with a rough sexual appetite. My character, Harry, is no sociopath, but he still has an attitude towards both sex and violence that reminds one of Lou Ford, played by Affleck.
ON THE WATERFRONT (1954, Elia Kazan)
”I could have had class, I could’ve been a contender, I’ve could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.” The first thing I did when I set out to write Clinch was to watch the classic cab scene with ex-boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) and his mobster brother Charley (Rod Steiger). I’ve seen it a hundred times and it still gets me.
BOUND (1996, The Wachowskis)
It’s not easy to find a noir movie with a bi- or homosexual theme but this sleek neo-noir from 1996 has it all: a progressive portrayal of a clandestine lesbian affair between an ex-con and a mobster girlfriend. Of course, a perfect escape plan with some big money from the mafia takes form. Can it go wrong? Oh yes it can. Although criticized for excessive violence and explicit sex scenes it still won several festival awards.