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I’m dreaming of a noir Christmas

Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin star in the 1944 film Christmas Holiday

Two dark Christmas movies provide the perfect antidote to Yuletide sentimentality

Perhaps because red and green look garish together, or because roasted chestnuts have no taste, or because “everyone telling you be of good cheer” is rather depressing, or because “peace on earth, goodwill to men” is supposed to be the proclamation of a new kingdom, not an invitation to complacency, I find myself dreaming of a black Christmas. Yuletide coziness can become so suffocating that I want to knock down toy soldiers like bowling pins, ban Christmas shopping, and hunt reindeer.

I settle instead for watching film noir. Something about these shadowy, ambivalent films – full of doomed loners rather than family men, mean streets instead of happy homes – is a relief in this season when the hearth gods are worshipped more intently than Christ.

There are even several Christmas noirs, though unfortunately most are of low quality. I, the Jury (1953) is a stupid, nasty Mickey Spillane adaptation that features the gangland execution of a department-store Santa Claus. The Lady in the Lake (1948) – featuring an impossibly unctuous Philip Marlowe – merely throws its violence into relief with a few Christmas wreaths. The neo-noir LA Confidential (1997) is a bit better. It shows Russell Crowe ripping a Santa display off the roof of a ranch home owned by a wifebeater.

But two Christmas noirs are fully satisfying. Blast of Silence (1961) aims squarely at the jingle-bell cult. Its protagonist is a clear-eyed, no-nonsense hitman who hates Christmas because he grew up an orphan and has no family. He spends the holiday gunning for a mafioso with a picture-perfect home life (“Nice little home. Quiet little community. An hour out in the suburbs”) and reflecting on the hypocrisy of commercial celebrations of the feast. When he catches the Christmas spirit and decides that he wants to exchange violence for domestic peace, he meets a tragic end.

Chesterton is supposed to have said that a man who knocks at the door of a brothel is unconsciously seeking God. Christmas Holiday (1944) takes this spurious quotation rather literally. It follows a young army officer who visits a New Orleans cathouse and takes one of the women there to midnight Mass, where she begins to cry. This unlikely scenario is made plausible by director Robert Siodmak’s decision to film an actual midnight Mass (at St Vibiana’s Cathedral in Los Angeles). His expressionist use of shadow and light, music and silence, makes this easily the most beautiful Mass on film.

Like the hero of Blast of Silence, the magdalene in Christmas Holiday is a glamourous outcast. Her husband, played by a diabolically charming Gene Kelly, is a murderer locked up at Angola. She attends Mass not out of an immediate belief in the Incarnation, but for a sense of yuletide belonging. “I thought I’d become part of it, share something with all those people, some feeling,” she says. In the Somerset Maugham novel on which the film is based, she makes the point more clearly:

Some have no faith, but just then, all of them, they were joined together by a common feeling; that ceremony … is part of the recollections of their childhood, the gardens they played in, the countryside, the streets of the towns. It binds them together, it makes them one, and some deep instinct tells them that they belong to one another. But I am a stranger. I have no country, I have no home.

What makes Blast of Silence and Christmas Holiday so successful as Christmas noirs is the double vision they bring to the holidays. The magdalene at mass may, like the hitman, long for home and family, but her solitude, like his, is glamorised. Her unhappiness is more beautiful than the contentment of the people around her. Her loneliness is to be preferred to life with a violent husband. The goods of hearth and home are not denied in these films, but their limits are dramatised.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the commemoration of a birth in a stable to a virgin overshadowed by divinity would become a celebration of warm homes and the human family. But these things cannot be the point of a feast marking the arrival of the man who said, “I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” By valorising the intact family, our sentimental image of Christmas tends to exclude the widow and orphan, whom Christ came to comfort.

This is why the commercial conception of Christmas inspires simultaneous attraction and revulsion. We somehow know that our love of cosy homes is mistaken when it does not look toward the Father’s House, that our enjoyment of family is cramped when it forgets our divine filiation. Until we recall that the Child born on Christmas came bearing a sword, we will need gun-toting loners to disrupt our silent nights.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things