According to Otto Penzler, noir stories focus on losers, on the people that will ultimately doom themselves by their own immoral choices. He cites Nef as a perfect example from Double Indemnity. I’m on board with Nef’s story as one of noir, but, conversely, Otto declares the PI story is not noir as it is one filled with hope, focused on a moral character standing up and doing what is right in an immoral world. Even the premise itself is hopeful as other characters seek out the PI to solve their problems.
Otto suggests that the protagonist character is of primary importance, so that if the story is told from the perspective of someone other than the PI, it could be a noir story. This is the point where I’m not sure I agree with Otto.
To my mind, the world, the society, is what is noir. I see Nef’s world as the same as Spade’s world as the same as Marlowe’s world. The moral and immoral choices of characters are what are important. For that matter, those moral choices are never between right and wrong, but wrong and less wrong. Or perhaps those choices are made for the wrong reasons.
I need to deal with this in a little more detail, I think. I’m probably going to look at Spade and Marlowe along with Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder” to continue to make sense of this.