Drug Use in Hollywood Film Noir

Poster - Man With the Golden Arm, The_06

By Eve Pearce

Hollywood has become synonymous with Film Noir, depicting it throughout its cinematic journey and reflecting the dark underbelly of American life with themes of bleakness, alienation and paranoia.

Many argue that Film Noir is a style of film making rather than a genre, and that at its heart is the story of an average man who tries and fails to beat the system and to belong to a society he ultimately feels outcast from.

The depiction of drug use has become increasingly popular Film Noir. The Maltese Falcon featured a character being drugged through drink, and The Man With The Golden Arm had Frank Sinatra playing a drug addict who attempts to live a life of reform with dire consequences. Predominantly, however, classic Film Noir followed other forms of corruption such as gangster dominance and femme fatales with a penchant for murder plots.

Contemporary Film Noir now leans towards addiction as a major theme. California is a popular location for films featuring characters battling with drug addiction, arguably because of the contrast to glitzy Hollywood.

One of the first examples of drug use in Californian based Film Noir was High School Confidential! Which was a morality play of the late 1950s. The film depicts the journey of a high school senior through the world of drugs. Tony Baker wants to succeed as a drug dealer and move to the top of the chain, but first he must outsmart the existing dealers in the area. High School Confidential! Was ultimately viewed as having a naive view of drug use, as it didn’t reveal the negative effects of drugs.

Brick (2005) is a complete contrast to this early film noir. The central character in this story, Brendan, discovers his dead girlfriend lying in a sewer tunnel and sets out to find the truth about what happened to her. Before she died, Emily told him that the word ‘Pin’ meant something to her. Brendan hides her body and investigates the drug dealers who lead him to the powerful teenage dealer, The Pin. By being accepted into the clique, Brendan discovers how Emily died, but also learns some unpleasant truths about himself.

The Southern Californian setting of Brick is a contrast to the world of drugs beneath its starchy surface and it has often been likened to the work of Raymond Chandler in its style and substance.

Blow is the story of the man who fully established the cocaine market in America during the 1970s. George Jung grows up in poverty and vows to never struggle again. He dips into dealing marijuana during the 1960s, but during a stint in prison, he discovers that cocaine will make him a wealthy man in California. Jung pays the price of his dealing, through drug addiction and a loss of reality.

Pulp Fiction is a neo Film Noir with its dark themes and characters who struggle with their morals. There are ample scenes of drug use throughout the film, most notably with the character Mia Wallace overdosing and having to be revived in a dramatic and disturbing way. Pulp Fiction takes the dark themes of classic Film Noir, predominantly those of hit men and femme fatales and introduces drug use to give the film relevance in modern day California.

Less than Zero is a dark tale of narcissism set in the 1980s in L.A and is based on the novel by Brett Easton Ellis. Clay is a college freshmen returning to his hometown in the holidays to be with his girlfriend Blair. During his absence, his best friend Julian has developed an out of control drug habit that plummets them all into a dark journey of excess and loss.

Californian Drug Use

Film noir treats drug abuse seriously and tackles the issues associated with Class A drugs in many contemporary storylines, revealing that this is an ongoing problem in California. The UCLA runs an integrated substance abuse programme called ISAP, which addresses new approaches in treatments of disorders and increases awareness and understanding of drug use and abuse. ISAP considers the social as well as health consequences for addicts and its research is ongoing. There are many California Heroin treatment programs available state wide for drug users who want to seek help.


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