The Slanted Streets of Hardcore
Paul Schrader was a vital figure in the revitalization of the noir sensibility in the 1970s, contributing a pathbreaking critical essay as well as a string of film scripts and directorial efforts that explored the alienation and moral confusion of American men in a rapidly changing world. While the Scorsese-directed Taxi Driver is probably his greatest contribution, Hardcore, released in 1978, is the more person work for Schrader. Its plot parallels Schrader’s own biography, following a strict Calvinist from the nurturing heartland of Grand Rapids to the overloaded neon streets of California. While not hewing closely to established noir stylistics at all times, its tale of a lone moral man on a mission to save his daughter from a corrupt underworld captures the essence of noir’s investigation into the underside of American society. Therefore, Hardcore can be called a modernist film noir because of its concern with the alienation of individuals and the contradictions and even the criminality of American capitalism, expressed through color visuals that recall both the social realist grit and the Expressionist audacity characteristic of film noir.
The film’s protagonist is Jake Van Dorn, head of a furniture manufacturing firm in Grand Rapids, whose daughter Kristen goes on a church-sponsored trip to California. When she disappears, he quickly grows disillusioned with the police and hires a private detective named Mast, who finds out that Kristen is working as a porn actress. Whether this is against her will or her own decision is unclear (Schrader). Dissatisfied with his hireling’s work, he takes on the investigation himself. While there, he encounters Niki, a sex worker with information he needs. Her overt sexuality, especially contrasted with Van Dorn’s strict Christianity, might initially mark her as a femme fatale, but by the end she is revealed to be a modernized “good-bad girl.” Desperate for a father figure–a major motif in the film–she generally supports Van Dorn despite their differences. Though her dependence on his largesse complicated the trope, she does “believe in his innocence” and gives him his sole constant companion, “[allowing] him to feel at home with her as he might with a male companion” (Spicer 92-93). Mast, the private eye, is a dead ringer for a noir detective, a working-class man with integrity, neither a saint nor a devil, who doggedly pursues justice as long as he can support himself with the pay. While the lack of a femme fatale might be used to argue against its status as a noir, Spicer notes that the lack of such a figure is characteristic of modernist as opposed to postmodernist neo-noir (162). In that way, Hardcore fits its “phase” of noir perfectly.
His character in the film, though not falling precisely into any of the male stock types defined by Spicer in his Film Noir, aptly matches this description: “the expressionist Golem, beyond rational control or appeal and yet acting with an implacable logic” (Spicer 127). He shares this description with Sergeant Bannion from Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, and both characters lose their wives–Van Dorn before the film and Bannion while it is in progress–and have their daughters endangered during their respective films. Like Bannion, Van Dorn is not a psychologically complex character, rendered as a hulking man with stark Calvinist convictions, an aversion to sexuality, and a tendency to burst into fits of violence. He severely injures a male porn star after finding out the shapely blonde man has met Kristen on a porn shoot, shoving him under a hot shower to extract information from him. Later, he threatens to strangle Niki in their motel room (Schrader). The film takes a strongly critical look at Van Dorn, so that though he often resembles Raymond Chandler’s “best man in his world, a “man of honor,” his own moral stature declines as we see him reacting in unbridled rage due to his single-minded pursuit of his daughter (Chandler). He descends onto the “mean streets” and immerses himself in the world of vice but does not emerge untarnished like the classic hardboiled detective. One recalls Charlton Heston’s rampage through a club in Touch of Evil, proclaiming he was no longer a police officer but a husband (Welles). The personal dimension of the conflict in Hardcore, as in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, drives our ostensible hero to go further, faster than he otherwise would, revealing him to be far more unstable than the respectable surface would suggest.
Much of the narrative revolves around Van Dorn’s use of deception and disguises to find more information about his daughter’s whereabouts. In one scene, he dons a pair of sunglasses and marches into a porn producer’s office claiming to be a rivet manufacturer from Detroit with money he wants to invest in porn (Schrader). Later on, he takes out a fake ad in the newspaper in order to draw male porn stars and interrogate them. When he receives them, he dons a seedy false mustache and wig, adopting a chameleonic camouflage. Though he plunges ever further into the nightmare, and it seems for most of the film to be an easy transition. He is able to easily talk producers and actors into thinking he is legitimately interested in their business.
The film strongly implies that one of the reasons that Van Dorn is so adept at dealing with the underworld is his background in business. When he marches into the producer’s office, his bearing is so natural as to seem unaffected. At one point in the conversation, the producer asks why, if Van Dorn has such a thriving and honest American business back in Michigan, he would be interested in the pornography industry. Schrader here draws the worlds of the Grand Rapids furniture business and the sex industry almost together, juxtaposing the “honest” businessman with the sleazy showbiz magnate and finding them on good speaking terms (Schrader). Van Dorn is wealthy and ruthless, described as an “angry man” by one of his friends.
Thus the film takes the noir critique of greed and wealth, desires wisely rejected by Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and foolishly coveted by figures like Detour’s Al Roberts. Here, the morality is far less starkly drawn despite Van Dorn’s “hardcore” Christian values. These values, however, appear to be corrupted by a capitalist obsession with property, causing a contemporary critic to wonder “whether his strongest motivation for finding his daughter is to recover Lost Property” (Feitshans). Indeed, his attitude toward Kristen, and the film’s as well, treats her as an object to be recovered. She has little screen time and her motivations remain opaque, with Van Dorn rarely speaking about her. The film thus critiques the depravity of the porn industry and launches a broader criticism of capitalism in general, showing the legitimate and illegitimate, honest and dishonest, as intimately linked. No matter how much of an alien he is to the libertine citizens of the “mean streets,” he talks the language of money and violence just as well as they do. This directly recalls the social critique of Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, as well as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.
In addition to mirroring the noir concern with entrenched corruption both monetary and sexual and featuring a psychologically disturbed, often violent male protagonist, the film also adopts many of noir’s visual strategies while transposing them into a world of color. For the first segment, set in Grand Rapids, noir’s characteristic dark shadows, claustrophobia, and low-key lighting. Numerous establishing shots help acquaint the viewer with the Grand Rapids milieu, giving us snowbound streets, churches, and parks. Interior shots in this segment are tight and somewhat cramped, but the effect is homey rather than claustrophobic. Once the action moves to Los Angeles and the Bay Area–notably, after a rainy scene–the film becomes a color noir par excellence. Strip clubs and brothels are bathed in searing red light, night scenes feature heavy shadows, and the setting moves from clean middle-class houses to motel rooms and tiny shops crammed full of erotic products. The final scene, which takes place in San Francisco, makes full use of the city’s famous hills, giving us eerie wide shots of slanted streets laced with rain and detritus. As Schrader himself noted, in noir, “oblique and vertical lines are preferred to horizontal. Obliquity adheres to the choreography of the city, and is in direct opposition to the horizontal American tradition of Griffith and Ford” (Schrader 57).
Often, the camera dwells more on the setting than the characters, establishing environment rather than character as the primary focus of the story. This gives us a sense of determinism reflecting Van Dorn’s Calvinist Christianity. While characters rarely communicate orally about their emotions, the intensely alienating visuals gives the audience a sense of wandering through a dream world. Indeed, the streets are overflowing with sexual fantasy, which, unlike in the repressed noirs of the 1940s and 50s, is on full display. Overall, the visual strategy of Hardcore aligns with its “distorted, morally ambiguous universe,” a world of waking dreams and pervasive fantasies from which no one seems able to wake (Spicer 47).
In its exposure of a corrupt, male-dominated, sex-crazed world, its evocation or direct use of many noir character types, and the visual strategy it employs, Hardcore makes for a strong modernist neo-noir. Fittingly for the writer and critic who penned one of the foundational essays on the subject, it exhibits not only fidelity to the standards of the cycle but also creativity in their application. By tapping into his own biography and drawing a powerful connection between the Calvinist notion of predestination and noir’s fatalistic universe, he creates a film that disturbs and upsets. It questions the boundaries between Puritan and libertine patriarchy, showing the violent and cash-laden men who strive after women for one reason or another. At the end of such a long sojourn in the figurative inferno, Schrader’s film ends on a note of muted redemption, recognizing that, though all might seem well, no one in the ordeal is emerging unscathed.
Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder.” Atlantic Monthly 1944.=
Feitshans, Buzz. “Hardcore.” Rev. of Hardcore, by Paul Schrader. Cinéaste 9.3 (Spring 1979): 48-49.
Schrader, Paul, dir. Hardcore. 1979. Columbia Pictures. DVD.
Schrader, Paul, “Notes on Film Noir,” in eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir Reader. New York: Limelight, 1996. 57.
Spicer, Andrew. Film Noir. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2002. 47-162.
Welles, Orson, dir. Touch of Evil. 1958. Universal Pictures. DVD.