The Killer Inside Us: Hard-Boiled Noir Existentialism.

By Robert Whyte and Z

1. Introduction, by Z

Existentialism is about the human free agent’s anxious, despairing search for authenticity and meaning in an apparently absurd and utterly mechanical–whether compulsively deterministic or randomly probabilistic–world, and more especially about, as Barnes so crisply puts it, how

every man is free, but most men, fearing the consequences and the responsibilities of freedom, refuse to acknowledge its presence in themselves and would deny it to others.[i]

In Existential America, George Cotkin rightly notes that

American culture, as expressed in the hard-boiled detective novel of the 1930s and in the film noir of the 1940s faced existential realities of despair, absurdity, and contingency. It did so without any influence from European philosophy. Indeed, popular American film and fictional noir spread its magic toward Europe. The style of James M. Cain’s classic noir novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), for example, influenced Camus to write his own novel, The Stranger [1942], in a similar style. Sartre’s magnum opus, Being and Nothingness (1943), may in some senses be seen as positing a noir universe, a sensibility that paralleled the American noir and tragic view of life….

The hard-boiled hero of noir film and fiction is deeply suspicious of human nature, or at least of the motivations of others. Aware of man’s rapacity and capacity for sin, the hard-boiled hero seeks to escape illusion. He remains, however, in danger of surrendering to its allure…. The noir hero is then perplexed, often left without a moral compass. He is in search of meaning, of a reason for existence–his own and that of others.[ii]

This existential arc is perhaps most starkly traced in two American novels, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929) and Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 (1964).

André Gide bang-on accurately described Red Harvest as “a remarkable achievement, the last word in atrocity, cynicism, and horror.”

The respective protagonists of the two novels, The Continental Op and Nick Corey, are highly intelligent, “human all-too-human” small-town lawmen, who end up as nihilistic serial killers in the name of the law.

In American hard-boiled noir Existentialism, and in everyday American life, the killer inside us is always also the gun-crazy shooter inside us.

Bernard Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon (1981), an excellent adaptation of Pop. 1280 set in French West Africa, fades out with a close-up of the sheriff-killer, played by Philippe Noiret–appropriately pronounced “noir-eh?”–alone with his revolver and the killer inside us, absolutely lost on the verge of the moral abyss.

And now here are some exceptionally existentially cool philosophical music and lyrics about all that.

2. Pop 1280, by Robert Whyte

Pop. 1280 now it’s seventy nine

a body in the trunk and I’m travelling fine

I like to keep things neat and tidy,

or it upsets the little man inside me

You made the mistake of smiling at me,

I returned the favour with a four by three

You’ll never find a sheriff as nice as me

A respected pillock of society

You were just a detail in a difficult case

for the sake of my town I had to erase

I pin my badge on

precisely at 8

And cruise the streets

in my Chevy V8

He’ll bore you to death with his meaningless talk

If that doesn’t work he’ll use a knife and fork

He’s got a death stare like you’ve never seen before

he can feel your liver all a-quiver with fear

He’s my dark underbelly

of original sin

and he keeps on

doing it again and again


[ii] G. Cotkin, Existential America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 28–30.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 11 December 2018

Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.

Please consider becoming a patron!



Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.