This was written in response to seeing The Killers in my senior year (college) Film Noir course. It meanders and doesn't make its points well, but you can see the beginnings of my modern phase of film criticism.
I was immediately struck by a facet that I had never consciously acknowledged as a defining characteristic of the genre. It is overtly delivered in both forms of The Killers and in Hammett's Maltese Falcon. These trapped characters, who live up to their chins in moral slime, have an incredible sense of humor and suavite. Their choice of words sculpts themselves, to whom they are speaking, the situation, and the emotional world in which the genre finds its home, acting so subtly as to be irreproducible in reality (speaking as one who has tried). This implies that this genre is strongly literature-based; the dialogue is crafted, not by cause-and-effect lives but by an author, no question. It's just too cool.
And yet it never seems out of place. The viewer's skepticism is never invoked by the swaggering language, except upon reflection. Consider the line “Don't force a dying man to lie his way into hell.” Perfect. The scene required that line but the situation did not. So we are looking for dramatic flow then? Possibly, but it goes deeper.
Noir characters lead emotionally-charged lives. Depression and tragedy are natural conditions of their world, and the resulting tension manifests itself in many ways. There is always Lancaster's flying fists of fury, as well as the omnipresent brunette poured into a skirt lounging on a bed or chair looking about as complacent as a crouching mongoose. But sometimes words speak louder than actions, and in this genre where actions are without motives and time is just another part of the scenery to be manipulated, words are all we-as-audience have to grasp if we want access to their world.
The world of noir should be closed to us; the point that the writers make is that a place in this world is reward and punishment for hard living and the bastardom of Fate. But the characters' essentially human speech bely the tenderness that is the birthright of the human race.
Of course one must remember that the entire noiriverse is intentionally created to make us think all of this. But we can still ask why these characters speak in dialect. Partially, it is their home era expressing itself, stuff like “put the prize in the cracker jack”. The minimalistic underspeaking of characters like the hitmen can be viewed as an extraordinary response to an extraordinary responsibility. Maybe these quips are a defense mechanism of the writers, like the porter scene in Macbeth. Or as suggested above, it could be the tittering nervousness of the characters themselves. But I see this supernatural linguistic ability as part of the fabric of the world, as much as the through-focus and the bottom-lighting.
The reasons for the language lie in the masculine ideal. Reardon's “Don't change the subject” makes us smile because it does not fit the context. Reardon has infused a tense situation with levity because his testosterone grants him objectivity, a fast mind, and grace under pressure. Or so we think. Or are made to think.
Did masculinity define the genre or the genre masculinity? It does not matter. Any kind of interrelationship forces us to see noir-quips as a man-based aberration, tapped into the secret of what men want and fear. Men today do not see humor and diction as weaknesses; quite the opposite, and we see these popular conceptions reflected in both the men and the women of film noir.
The words drip from their mouths like the clothes drip from the women. Only enough words are used to encapsulate the sentence's meaning without expressing it. Nowadays, we consider such (apparent) overconsideration of coolness corny, but film noir could not exist without it. What we think of as cool is actually the male's retrogress to instinct (selfish crime) and self-destruction (desire of women that are sure to cause harm). Noirish as a language is a key to the humanity of the noir world, and ours.