Noir meets reality

Notes on: Road to Perdition (Laurie Dix)

Road To Perdition is, again, not a movie I would count as a noir, but it sits somewhere between classic ‘Gangster’ film and noir, due a combination of elements.

Whereas I would consider some of the more famous films to be considered true ‘Gangster’ films (Goodfelllas, Casino, The Godfather, etc.) I would not say that the ‘Gangster’ film is a genre in and of itself. It is a subject matter, a storyline, a plot point or a background rather than the basis for a genre. In the same respect, ‘Noir’ is not a genre. It is an atmosphere, or a style, the feel the film gives. Thus, in this respect, many films could be one and/or the other without being considered to belong to either one genre.

Road to Perdition is one of these films that does not quite fit in on either the ‘Noir’ nor the ‘Gangster’ venn diagram. It does, however, have a lot of the key elements which are associated with noir, and for these purposes, I am counting it as ‘Neo-Noir’, albeit one of the more ‘gentle’ examples (I say gentle, but I guess I mean ‘Not ultra-violent or packed full of swearing and drugs abuse’, like so many other gangster films.)

Mike Sullivan works for John Rooney, some sort of crime lord associated with bootlegging alcohol. After his son, Michael Sullivan Jr. witnesses a murder carried out by his father and Connor Rooney (son of John Rooney), things become more complicated and both Michael Sullivan and Michael Sullivan Jr. are chased across America, with a trail of bodies catching up to them as the Rooneys and other gangsters try to bump them off.

Now, as I mentioned before, this does not really fall into what I would call the camp of ‘Gangster Movies’, but there is the Gangster element there. In the same vein, it is not a noir, but it has some of the tropes.

Tropes of Noir

  • The Protagonist
    The ‘Maverick’. Whereas he stands mostly for justice and doing the right thing as far as he is concerned, his morals can be questionable and often he has to fight his own personal demons throughout the film.
    Whereas Michael Sullivan is working as a gangster, and he has killed in the past and is still willing to, he acts mostly honestly. Even when he robs banks, it is in order to injure the gangsters, not the banks or the civilians, and he even allows the tellers to keep a little bit of the money in order to make the trauma worth their while. The protagonist fits to a lot of classic ‘Noir’ stereotypes in terms of his motivation and moral ambiguity.
  • The Antagonist – (The Police Chief/ The Mob Boss/ The Husband)
    One of the less common tropes, but a trope nonetheless, it the use of the antagonist. Usually it falls into one of three categories, and in this instance, takes the form of the mob boss. The protagonist and the Mob Boss will usually be wary of one another, knowing that either would kill the other for the right price, but they can be useful to each other as well. There is almost always a double cross, and in this film, there are a few. Double crosses and power plays, people trying to sell each other out to the highest bidder and trying to rid themselves of a potential trouble by killing them, these all belong, though not exclusively, to noir.
  • A Body
    In Road To Perdition, whereas the body count isn’t especially high, there are bodies, and they are important. What kicks off the whole story is a funeral being held by the Boss for one of the underlings, and through this it sets off a chain reaction which causes more bodies to follow. In almost every Noir, there is a body at some point.
  • The Situation
    This is an unconventional one, but one I believe still suits. Normally, the protagonist would be a loner, often an alcoholic, he would have no one to turn to which is why he acts in the way that he does, not considering other people and being able to act with ambivalence when it comes to other characters. In this film, Michael Sullivan does have people, until they’re killed and he is left with his eldest son. Although not really being left on his own, he and his son are stranded with only each other, and once his wife and youngest son are dead, the situation changes dramatically, acting as a catalyst for the ‘Noir’ situation.
  • The World
    Noir films tend to be based in the 1920’s and 1940’s, even spanning as far as the early 50’s although rarely. Road to Perdition is set in 1931, which is just about in the middle of when Noir began to be popular, so the world is right. Prohibition is still in effect, and so bootlegging is still a viable way for people to make money, and America is in the throes of the depression and recovering from the Wall Street crash a couple of years previous. The timing could hardly be more perfect in terms of when to set a film which could be linked to Noir. It seems almost impossible to set a film in this time period without including some of the tropes of noir.
  • The Context
    See above for a lot of the context given, in terms of the depression post WWI. But also it is worth noting that the amount of immigrants to America rose massively during this time, although there had already been a surge of Irish and Italian immigrants in the mid 1800’s and the late 1800’s to early 1900’s respectively, so it does not seem that unfeasible that our story should follow a family of Irish Americans who work for an organised crime ring run by Irish Americans and who have ties to the Italian American organised crime circuits. Considering the timing of it all, it seems to make quite a lot of sense.

And so, even though Road to Perdition is not a true noir, it does not have the look nor the script of a ‘Traditional’ or ‘Classic’ noir, it does have a lot of the same characteristics, and simply being set in the 1930’s seems to basically cement its place in the world of noir. Although it is always difficult to put a film to a certain genre, I think it is not unfair to class this film amongst the Neo-Noir, perhaps among films such as The Untouchables; not really gangster films, but that should be considered alongside them all the same.

It is important to see what has become of this genre, and how it has changed over the years and evolved along with cinema.

It is also worth watching this film simply for the cinematography, which is by Conrad L. Hall, who worked closely with Sam Mendes on many of his films, and who was a sterling Director of Photography, which is what a lot of the ‘Noir Style’ comes down to.


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