film noir world

Writing Noir: Social Media Coordinator Noralil Ryan Fores highlights 20 top-notch #NoirSummer script tweets.

Photo: Lauren Bacall & Humphrey Bogart in KEY LARGO (’48), airing this Friday, July 3 at 8am ET/5am PT.

As it is for so many film lovers, THE MALTESE FALCON (‘41) served as my introduction to film noir. It’s a world of easy cheats and lies, of crisp rudeness in riposte, of chiaroscuro that belies the truth, which is that so many stories exist in grey spaces of moral ambiguity. For as much as I love the film, I appreciate the narrative much more on a page than on the screen. Filmmaker John Huston creates work that mesmerizes me. His THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (’48) is among the most thoughtful and moving explorations of greed I’ve ever seen. But THE MALTESE FALCON (‘41) is not Huston’s; it’s Dashiell Hammett’s. Not Huston’s and not Bogart’s, Sam Spade will always be Hammett’s.

When our tireless Director of Marketing & Editorial Shannon Clute suggested that we run a film noir script contest for #NoirSummer, I felt an immediate pull to judge the entries. Noir writing draws me into dark, desperate emotional corners that I’d never paint myself into in real life. I’m not that complicated - or that lonely. For that reason, reading noir offers me catharsis unparalleled by any other genre, and I say this as an inveterate science fiction and fantasy fan. I am not noir, and that makes engaging with noir perfect for me. 

Throughout June, we asked you classic film fans to send us 140-character noir script tweets. More than 250 scripts poured in, and each thrilled me. (And, yes, they thrilled me as much as reading the script for THE MALTESE FALCON (‘41) does.) I chose 20 scripts to pass off the our friends at The Black List, and trust me when I say I struggled with selection. Here are the Top 20 #NoirSummer scripts you sent, and here’s why I love each:

City of Angels, where everyone brought their dreams, only to watch them fade and die.  When you see the truth, it’s too late. - @1199Worf

Noir to me is about the desperation of getting to an end and then, often painfully, accepting that end. This script strikes to the core of that desperation, and its grounding in Los Angeles gives the narrative vivid context for me. 

It started with a gun.  It ended with a body.  Her eyes told me she was guilty, but that dress told me she needed saving. - @1nickeverhart

Noir is, of course, also about the tensions within relationships, particularly those between lovers. In noir, the men are often stoic and strong-willed, the women often vulnerable and wicked. I’ve always loved that latter dichotomy, perhaps because I’m neither vulnerable nor wicked myself, certainly because I myself don’t need saving.

As I listened to the monotonous staccato of rain on my window, she walked in. An hourglass figure with time on her side. - @BobJolesVO

Noir writing embraces a playfulness with language. This script indulges that playfulness in a winning way. “An hourglass figure with time on her side”: Try to get that out of your head now. I defy you to do so. What a great line. 

The gift of all that decay was that it left crevices. Secrets… Every city has its own underground. Cleveland’s no exception. - @creativecadence

The tug of opposites in this opening line works beautifully. How can decay ever offer a gift? How can secrets be those gifts? Noir writing is about the unexpected. This script captures that thought-provoking unexpected. Add to this the rhythmic beauty these varied lines: 14 syllables. 2 syllables. Pause. 10 syllables. 6 syllables. This script is lovely to read loud, and I want to keep doing so. I just need more script.

He crossed a bridge between light and shadow in a desperate bid for freedom, only to find that it was burning at both ends. - @Crewylou

More so than with many other genres, noir seems to me to trap it characters within a destiny. Free will is not up for negotiation. Life is hard, and little ends well. This script taps into that idea with a recognizable, yet not hackneyed,  visual that creates an immediacy, an urgency to the main character’s dilemma. I’m pulling for this character, but I know he’s doomed. 

I hate when I get the paper, and I’m on the front page wanted for murder. - @CrissyLee

The first person narrator wins me over immediately. Seemingly, she’s plain spoken and guiltless in this crime. She could be exactly what she seems, and I’d like her for that. Or she could be an unreliable narrator, and I’d like her even more. The script crafts a character I want to spend more time trailing. What a feat for a single compound sentence.

He cast a long shadow, one that chased him more than followed him. And no matter how he tried, he could never escape it. - @DrNickatNite

When writing taps into an essential human quandary, it transcends its form and genre, and it takes up residence not in our intellects but in our hearts. At one point or another, we’ve all felt the helplessness this script mines - that we ourselves are our own worst enemies, that we can’t make ourselves better, that we’re stuck with what we’ve done and those past actions will forever define who we are and what we can be. If you haven’t felt this helplessness, you owe me a tweet, because you’re a much more well-balanced person than am I. 

The street was flooded with sirens. I knew I was in trouble. They say the bullet that gets you is the one you can’t hear. - @elizabeth238087

I’ve read this script at least a dozen times, and this last line doesn’t lose its power. That, I think, is a mark of truly great writing.

People say there’s no color to air. I disagree. That place had green air, gas chamber air. How can a bedroom be so deadly? - @elizabeth238087

While much noir writing depends on its crisp dialogue and intriguing first person narrator, it also depends on stark, unsettling visuals. Reading these lines, I can smell the acrid air. It’s terribly unpleasant. Oddly, I enjoy the sensation, though, of course, I can enjoy it only because it’s fiction. 

Her eyes said back off. Her dress said danger. Her money said not to listen to eyes and dresses. - @fojazz

So much of noir is about defying your own instincts, quashing the pull toward rectitude and, consequently, survival. I love that this script acknowledges and celebrates the foolhardiness we see from characters within this genre. 

He was dirty, all right; dirtier than the bottom of the glass in a two-bit clip joint, but just then he was the only lead I had. - @JackieKPGH

Noir is also often about doing precisely what you don’t want to do, speaking with people who don’t want to speak with, taking paths you know lead nowhere good. Noir is about having limited options and working with those constraints. This script takes up that aspect of noir writing and runs with it. 

His steak was cold, those spent shells were hot, and that woman was dead. “Great,” he muttered. “Now dinner’s ruined.” - @jajonesapf

I love to explore men in states of forced apathy. It’s not so much that noir men are unfeeling in their natural states; it’s that their circumstances dictate they define clear emotional boundaries. They need to unburden themselves of empathy to get their jobs done. In noir writing, that emotional detachment can often lend itself to a wonderful, morbid humor, and that twisted humor is exactly what we have in this script in spades. 

The one person who knew I was innocent was dead. And I had a feeling God knew I was a joker and a thief. - @JoeSchiappa

Because noir is so much about destined doomed, it ties naturally to religious undertones. I’m continually searching for explorations of and references to God in literature, so that Joe evokes God as a player who influences the character’s fate, I appreciate. It makes his doom all the more terrifying. This isn’t your garden variety doom. This is mystic doom. Poor sucker. 

I had six seconds to decide if the one bullet I had left was for me or him. - @JoeSchiappa

Never underestimate the power of simplicity. This script is bare bones, but it’s immediate and urgent. The character has to make a decision now, and I want to know what decision he makes. Does he take the easy way out with suicide, or does he fight, even if the fighting is futile? You know my vote. I’m spoiling for a fight. 

“If I didn’t love you,” she retorted, “I’d have told the mob where you are instead of the cops.” - @Lexcelsior

Great dialogue looks easy. It’s not. The script leans on its biting dialogue - one line of truth that tells you volumes about the relationship between this sassy woman and her man. 

He didn’t know if she was lying. He didn’t care. He would’ve done anything she asked to be near her, and he did. The fool. - @missbethg

The women of film noir crave power. Often they snatch that power, if only for a time. The femme fatale, beware: Feminists gone manipulative and lethal.

I’ll be honest: At times, I’ve wanted to yield that fashion of power, particularly over a man. It’s flattering to know a man would do anything for you. In the end, though, for me that need for power is so modest; it’s so trumped by my desire of genuine mutual, equivalent affection that I don’t even recognize its existence. Noir depends on women who forget that genuine mutual, equivalent affection is possible. This script gets directly to that core point. I’m glad those women exist in the world. Diversity of ambition and temperment makes society - and storytelling - colorful. With that said, I’m even happier that I’m not among that loveless lady crew.

It was a hot, lonely night. The type of lonely you crave. The kind of lonely you’re not sure will end. Then she appears. - @pgsroufe49

Contradictions are tools for compelling noir writing. How can you crave loneliness? The thought stops me. I want to spend more time mulling it. Do I crave loneliness? Do you? 

Four beers and a cold sandwich are no way to spend a Friday night, but the dame has to be tailed by some bum, so I’m elected. - @suesueapplegate

Call me a tender heart for the self-deprecating. I like this bum. I’ll happily spend time on a stake out with him. He just needs to share that sandwich with me. 

My place looked like it had been turned over. And this time, rather than the aftermath of a night on the gin, it actually had. - @VieuxPoissons

The ransack - another essential element of noir. In a noir world, someone is going to steal something from you. You hope it’s not the most valuable possession you have, though, of course, it will be. 

The dame had a gun. I liked dames with guns, but most dames liked the guns on me. She was unlike most dames, except in that way. - @YouOldSoAndSo

Repetition is a powerful literary tool. The uses of the words “dame,” “gun” and “like” to make different, conflicting series of thoughts fascinate me. Try giving yourself just three words to repeat in this same way. Can you reshape the relationships between those words to twist and turn conceptually as this script does? It’s not easy. Brilliant.  

Our friends at The Black List are culling this list of Top 20 to Top 10. After, that we’ll send the finalists to filmmaker Ed Burns for last judging. Look out for updates as we announce the winners.

And until then, keep spending #NoirSummer with us. Bogart & Bacall in KEY LARGO (’48). Somehow, I suspect you won’t miss it. We’ll show the film this Friday, July 3 at 8am ET/5am PT.