America’s fascination with
grim detective work and evil rooted out by a solitary sleuth working on
the fringes of the establishment goes back through the film noir of the
1940’s and 50’s, the hard-boiled detective novels of the same era and all
the way back to the dime novels of the late 19th century. The instructional
manuals for the form are the novels of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane,
Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald, and Earl Stanley Gardner, and those authors
owe a debt of historical gratitude to John Carroll Daly, who penned the
Race Williams series back in the 1920’s.
The French term film noir
(“black film”) championed by the critic Nino Frank, referred to the dark
suspenseful thrillers of the time, with their oblique camera angles, nightmarish
city images, wet streets and flashing light signs—all describing a bleak,
urban world of corruption and crime. When German expressionism made its
way to the Hollywood cinema, where gangster and detective films already
occupied a lot of turf, the combination of influences resulted in some
great movies in the era surrounding World War II: The Big Sleep, The Maltese
Falcon, Double Indemnity, and Murder, My Sweet, to name a few. Most of
these films were shot at night, so the “black” part of film noir refers
not only to the pessimistic and cynical world view, but the shaded camera
angles and glaring streetlights as well.
In these stories, some social
patterns play out. The narrator/hero is a disillusioned, insecure loner,
often a war vet who has seen so much corruption that he has no faith in
institutions even as he seeks to correct the injustices of his sordid little
world. It is an overly capitalistic world where the strong exploit the
weak with a greed that can only lead to horror and decay. Unsure
of the present, burdened by the past, and unenthusiastic about the future,
the hard-boiled gumshoe doles out a personal justice. He drinks too much,
he’s a sucker for a dame and he lives like a rat in a hole--only his determination
to expose the truth and his sardonic wit carry him to the end.
Then there’s the world of
musical theatre! No less abstract than a noir film, people burst into song
whenever a strong emotion gets the better of them, omniscient orchestras,
rhyming lyrics and practiced dance steps pervade the atmosphere, and everybody
in the village miraculously knows all the words to the same song.
In many of these stories, the pairing of inevitable lovers is the central
plot element, and the story explodes into music on a regular schedule.
The song/soliloquies serve as abstract narration for what is going on in
the hearts and minds of the characters, much like the voice-over narration
of the hard-boiled detective stories.
Using the degree of abstractness
as a calibrator, then, one perhaps can see that melding these two forms
isn’t such a radical concept—their commonalities outweigh their differences,
and they are both truckloads of fun. Gunmetal Blues is meant to be
an affectionate homage to Chandleresque noir mysteries, told through the
abstract prism of cabaret-style musical theatre. There is a streetlight,
a litany of blondes, a flashing sign, a mobster, a corrupt cop, a snubbed-nose
.38, an opening number, a big first act closer, a sexy club number and
a couple of ballads, just like any other hardboiled-detective-mystery-cabaret-act.
Time, space, and conventions of naturalism are elastic and songs can pop
up at any time, but remember--just about everything is a clue, and quick
judgment about what seems obvious can lead you down a dangerous road, as
in most detective stories.