Planning to Watch ‘Summer of Darkness ?’ You’ll Need This Noir-cabulary !

noiropenerI am proclaiming 2015 the year of film noir. Not only am I teaching a course on noir this fall, but TCM is presenting 53 films in the noir-themed “Summer of Darkness,” which airs every Friday in June and July. In preparation for my course, I am reading detective novels, perusing the latest books on the genre, and screening potential films for viewing in class.

My students will be 70 years removed from the original cycle of noir and 30 years removed from the neo-noir movies of the 1970s. This occurred to me when I was re-reading Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, and the colorful WWII-era slang jumped right off the page. While the Production Code prevented the film versions of these hard-boiled novels from using the grittier slang, I realized that my students are not going to know the difference between a gat and a gam, or a C-note and a fin. I decided to create a vocabulary list of common slang terms from the era.

I am sharing my first draft of the list for two reasons: I want to lure viewers into watching TCM’s Summer of Darkness every Friday, and I am hoping that fans of the genre will add to my “noir-cabulary.” If you can recall an imaginative phrase or word from a hard-boiled novel or a film noir, let me know, and I will consider adding it to the list. Or, if you remember a line of dialogue that makes a nifty use of slang, that would be helpful, too.

FRED McMURRAY CAN"T TAKE HIS EYES OFF BARBARA STANWICK'S PINS.

FRED McMURRAY CAN”T TAKE HIS EYES OFF BARBARA STANWICK’S PINS.

1. Investigators, women, criminals, and corrupt functionaries (politicians, cops, doctors) make up the cast of characters in hard-boiled narratives, and each archetype is referred to by an array of catchy slang phrases. A detective is a shamus, snooper, gumshoe, peeper, or private dick. They work for corrupt officials, known as highbinders or high pillows, who get away with corruption and murder. They not only work for the wrong clients but they also fall for the wrong women; that is, chippies, chicks, dames, dishes, dolls, frails, skirts, or twists. While the Production Code prohibited too much attention to cleavage, private dicks openly admired a woman’s gams, pins, or getaway sticks (legs).

KIRK DOUGLAS PLAYS A BIG OP IN 'OUT OF THE PAST.'

KIRK DOUGLAS PLAYS A BIG OP IN ‘OUT OF THE PAST.’

Cops, who are elephant ears, elbows, flatfoots, flatties, or hammers and saws (to rhyme with “the law,” perhaps?), head for the clubhouse (police station) at the end of a long day—usually empty handed. Few criminals end up in jail, or the big house, the caboose, the cooler, or the hoosegow. The police pursue an assortment of underworld figures referred to by their specialty. The most dangerous are button men, hatchet men, droppers, or the chopper squad, who are hired killers that lay down heavy gunfire, known as Chicago lightning. They are brought in to blip off, bump, bump off, chill off, croak, plug, or drill a target. Equally deadly at “throwing lead” are the torpedoes and gunsels; that is, gunmen who guard or protect a higher grade criminal. A can-opener is a safecracker; a derrick or a clout is a shoplifter; a dip is a pickpocket; a fakeloo artist is a con man; and, a scratcher is a forger. A gambler who arranges big games for high pillows in the backrooms of saloons and joints is a big op, which is short for operator.

LINE FROM OUT OF THE PAST: "A DAME WITH A ROD IS LIKE A GUY WITH A KNITTING NEEDLE.'

BEST LINE FROM ‘OUT OF THE PAST’: “A DAME WITH A ROD IS LIKE A GUY WITH A KNITTING NEEDLE.’

2. Cops, detectives, and criminals all use the same tools of the trade—mostly guns. Not surprisingly, only squares (honest folk) refer to them as guns; instead, they are called bean-shooters, rods, roscoes, gats, or heaters. Other weapons include saps, another name for a blackjack. Weapons are not the only tools in a detective’s arsenal. For example, he needs only a pair of cheaters (sunglasses) to go undetected in a crowd. Characters do not communicate directly with words in film noir; instead, they banter, crack wise, and speak in riddles. They often communicate with cigarettes: Smoking with someone, or offering them a gasper from your deck of Luckies (a cigarette from your pack) signifies approval, making butts a good tool for gaining allegiance.

MARY ASTOR & VAN HEFLIN IN 'ACT OF VIOLENCE'

MARY ASTOR & VAN HEFLIN DIP THEIR BILLS  IN ‘ACT OF VIOLENCE’

3. Money and power are the driving forces in film noirs. Characters constantly talk about money: they scheme to obtain it, buy information with it, and barter with lives for it. Once again, only regular folk call it money. In the noir world, dollars are called berries or cabbage for reasons that escape me. A C-note or a century is $100; a pair of C’s is $200. A fin is a five-dollar bill, and a sawbuck is a ten-dollar bill. If you bet on the right bangtail (racehorse) at the track, you will be rolling in dough, rhino, jack, kale, scratch, or the mazuma.

DICK POWELL GOWED UP ON HOP IN 'MURDER MY SWEET

DICK POWELL GOWED UP ON HOP IN ‘MURDER MY SWEET’

4. Characters inhabit an underworld where drink and other vices are common. Like cigarettes, dipping the bill (having a drink) with someone or refusing to do so can send a message far more powerful than words. Detectives are wary of drinking at a clip joint, where prices are high and patrons are taken advantage of, and most often end up in a dive or gin mill for their giggle juice or eel juice (liquor). They are also savvy about their drinking companions because even the most trusted allies are capable of slipping an unsuspecting soul a Mickey Finn, which is a drink drugged with knock-out drops.

The Production Code prohibited most references to drugs and drug use, though a few slipped by in Murder, My Sweet. However, in the hard-boiled novels and other original source material, drugs are commonplace, and the slang is juicy. During the 1930s and 1940s, marijuana might be called mesca, tea, or muggles, while the cigarettes were jujus or tea sticks. Drug addicts got all “gowed up” when they hit the pipe or kicked the gong around, that is, smoked opium. Heroin addicts would do anything for hop, and apparently ingested it through their noses, because it was also known as nose candy. Cocaine, on the other hand, was called snow and its users known as snowbirds.

The authors and scriptwriters responsible for hard-boiled novels and film noir made impressive use of language. On the surface the slang and wisecracks are funny and colorful, but there is a rhythm, timing, and subtext to the dialogue that is clever and expressive.

 

7 Responses Planning to Watch ‘Summer of Darkness ?’ You’ll Need This Noir-cabulary !
Posted By Autist : June 1, 2015 3:18 pm

“Gunsel” has an interesting history. It was used by Dashiell Hammett in “The Maltese Falcon” to refer to Wilmer, Caspar Gutman’s thuggish young henchman–he’s mostly referred to as “the boy”. At the time, “Gunsel” meant “catamite”, and Hammett seems to have used an unusual word to hint at the relationship between the fat man and his “boy”, which was something that he couldn’t come right out and say at the time. Subsequently, “gunsel” came to mean “gunman” because of the occurrence of “gun” within it and its association with Wilmer, who was a young thug with a gun. But originally it had nothing to do with guns.

Posted By Raven : June 1, 2015 3:21 pm

May I inject my personal favorite writer of noir? Cornell Woolrich is one that I consider to be on a level with and in my estimation, even higher.
Of Course most know that he wrote Rear Window, The Bride wore Black, Mrs. Winterbourne, and my personal favorite, “Waltz Into Darkness” made into film Mississippi Mermaid, (I don’t even count the “Original Sin” version) and so many more stories he wrote that turned into films. So, I pray Cornell will be remembered in this “noir” time period.

Posted By Autist : June 1, 2015 3:30 pm

Con artists are usually called “grifters”, by the way.

Posted By Autist : June 1, 2015 3:39 pm

I agree that Woolrich is an underrated writer. The book upon which “Mrs. Winterbourne” is based–rather loosely, I gather, though I haven’t seen it–was earlier adapted as “No Man of Her Own”, a film noir with Barbara Stanwyck. It’s not a great film noir but worth seeing.

Posted By LD : June 1, 2015 3:49 pm

Since I first found out about The Summer of Darkness I have really been looking forward to it. So many films I can’t wait to see and TCM with Ball University offering the online film noir course. This is going to be fun.

A couple of words would be “iron” for ammo and “grouse” for female. Marlowe uses it in MURDER, MY SWEET, as in “grouse hunting”. Thank you for explaining a sap. I thought it was a blackjack but couldn’t find a definition for it.

Some of my favorite quotes come from THE BIG SLEEP.
Sternwood- “How do you like your brandy?”
Marlowe-”In a glass.”

When Marlowe describes his encounter with Carmen-”She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up.”

And of course Vivien telling Marlowe he goes too far and he responds “Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he is walking out of your bedroom.”

Just one more from OUT OF THE PAST. “Baby, I don’t care.”

Posted By david hartzog : June 1, 2015 4:07 pm

Great article, you got the goods. Favorite quotes: “My first wife was a second cook in a third-rate joint on Fourth Street.” From The Glass Key. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” From Chinatown. “You’re not too smart are you? I like that in a man.” Body Heat. “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” In a Lonely Place. “What are you gonna do? Kill me? Everybody dies.” Body and Soul

Posted By swac44 : June 1, 2015 4:24 pm

Funny, just reminded me of watching San Andreas last week, and of course there’s a scene destroying one of San Francisco’s most famous neighbourhoods, during which I turned to my companion and said, “Forget about it The Rock, it’s Chinatown.”

OK, maybe not MST3K worthy, but we got a giggle out of it. Thankfully the film is so loud nobody else could hear us.

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