by John Adamus
We think detectives in noir and some elements are indispensable – the office, the twisted past and the old debts, the two cases merging into one, and ultimately as a knight driven by a code that seals his fate without ever earning him all the true rewards he deserves.
This describes Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe easily. But can we take it past the city streets? Can we take to a galaxy far far away and a long time ago?
Han Solo, everyone’s favorite smuggler and knower of when he’s loved, is the Private Eye of classic film noir, only he’s in space, he’s got a blaster, and he isn’t about to let a thing like a parsec ruin the Kessel Run.
To explain this better, let’s talk about the Corellian Greedo-shooter and several of the classic detective concepts in film noir.
The Detective Gets Caught Up In Something Greater Than Expected
Usually, this is where the detective discovers that the small case of a missing girl turns out to be the thing that topples city government, or that by the time he’s done investigating the divorce, he’s found a plot to build a highway right through the heart of the city. The case a detective takes is always an iceberg – a small portion of it is visible and known, the rest remains hidden until it is often too late.
Captain Solo is hired on Tatooine to ferry an old distinguished British actor and a whiny farmboy from a desert backwater to a lush cosmopolitan planet. He’s a chauffeur. There’s no way of knowing that while they’re in transit, a space station that’s no moon is going to fire a kyber crystal powered laser and reduce the planet to space dust.
But it’s because of that planetary annihilation that they spot a TIE fighter, get dragged onto the Death Star via tractor beam, and almost get compacted in a dionaga’s living room. And that’s not counting the ship to ship battle, the escaping a frozen planet, the getting betrayed by a friend, the being frozen in carbonite, the being defrosted and almost fed to a desert butthole, and ultimately having your son kill you and toss you in a pit.
All because, yes Greedo, Solo was going somewhere.
It’s this staple of noir that propels the story forward, so that the detective is as much as a proactive force as well as a reacted upon target. Every action has a consequence that at face value appears straightforward but is progressively layered and ultimately an engine for further actions and challenges.
But why doesn’t the detective say no? Why not put the kibosh on the whole thing? That’s the second point to make.
The Detective Is Driven By A Code Deeper Than What It Appears To Be On The Surface
In fantasy terms, the noir detective is a paladin. They do what they do because they have reasons greater than their past, and because they have a philosophy that leads them in certain directions regardless of the specific moment. They’re always going to act in defense of certain groups or in accordance with certain nobler definitions, no matter the danger.
We see this in Solo when he’s navigating the asteroid field, or when he doubles back, money in-hand, to make it possible for Luke to blow this thing so they can go home. Mapping Solo’s moral and philosophical code across four films (let’s put aside the comics, novels, and future films for a minute), we can sketch out Solo like this:
- Show yourself as selfish but know your conscience will get the better of you and ultimately you’ll do the right thing. (Saving Luke in A New Hope)
- When in doubt or faced with an emotional reality that’s uncomfortable, retreat to actions or places where you feel comfortable, where you have some power and control (going back to smuggling after losing Ben to the Dark Side and the estrangement from Leia)
- Always attempt an angle that is personally beneficial greater than personally expensive (pitching the two Death Gangs against each other when smuggling, or offering Jabba more money instead of being executed)
- If you have to be defeated, do so in a way that shows no cowardice (being frozen in carbonite)
- Under duress, do not yield (being tortured on Bespin)
- Stand up for your friends (leading the ground team on Endor, forgiving Lando)
- Trust your best friend without fail (Chewbacca)
By no means is this a comprehensive list, but it does convey a sense of Han Solo being more than the archetype “rogue with a heart of gold” in the traditional be-bad-then-do-good things. And thanks to the added nuance of self-preservation and self-interest, you seem more of the noir elements of character development.
The Detective’s Cases Start Initially Separate But Are Ultimately The Same
In noir as well as detective fiction, two cases are often presented, with one (often the second of the two) having greater stakes and reward than the first while one (often the first) is in reality small compared to the other although it’s presented in a much larger way.
For Solo, the first case has to do with the debt to Jabba. It’s presented in a large and meaningful way, through Greedo, as well as conversations with Jabba (depending on your version of the film), Chewbacca, and Luke. It’s a big deal to Solo, and it’s the throughline that motivates the majority of his actions in A New Hope.
However, much like the noir detective’s first case being a segue into the second, Han’s efforts to pay off his debt lead him to become a General and lead him to aid the destruction of a Galactic government on three occasions (two Death Stars and one Starkiller Base).
Even when the money is in hand on Yavin IV, effectively ending the first case, the moral code kicks in and prevents an easy resolution.
In all noir, the actions of a character domino forward, cascading into and through the actions of other characters, making sure that everyone is tangled with at least one other person and that what appears easily resolved isn’t. Our Corellian heartthrob smuggler just needed to take two people off-world, not blow up space weapons and topple leadership structures.
The Trappings of the Detective
Picture any noir detective and you’ll invariably blend the hardboiled and noir genres together to produce a list including trenchcoats, cigarettes, guns, a run-down office, and a host of other things. Smoking aside (we never see Han with any deathsticks, although the debt to Jabba had something to do with spice), Han has all those elements, changed in some way for his environment.
|The Item In Noir
||The Item In Star Wars
||The smuggler’s vest
||The heavy blaster
|The run-down office
||The Millenium Falcon
|The trusty sidekick and confidante
|The debts and bills
||Debts to Jabba and the guys from The Raid
|The love interest who’s slow to come around
If clothes maketh man, then Han Solo is as much bound to his role by the vest and blaster as he is his code. Granted, we see the good Captain in a variety of coats but for the most part, he’s always dressed for success … whatever that success might be.
The Successful Detective Fails And Still Wins
In the majority of stories, failure is avoided, or at least unwelcomed. In film noir, failure is an accepted element of resolution – something isn’t going the way it was expected for at least one person. Though this is often more elaborate or emotional than the guilty criminal getting caught, or the stolen item being returned, there’s at least one character experiencing the unexpected consequences for whatever their actions may have been.
In Han’s case, it’s incredibly unlikely that he thought rescuing a Princess would lead him into a trash compactor, or that a quick jaunt to Ord Mantell would lead him to confront a bounty hunter. Or, more significantly, that turning to an old friend would lead to him becoming a carbonite popsicle before being defrosted and almost fed to a desert worm in a hole.
These sorts of things just don’t come up in the daily stream of thoughts, regardless of galaxy. It’s worth noting that four films, we see Han Solo successfully smuggle one time (hiding everyone in floor compartments when the Falcon is brought aboard the Death Star), and that on three other occasions, it leads to a confrontation he loses to some degree (incurring a debt to Jabba; getting captured and tortured by the Empire; getting killed and chucked in a put by his son)
But in these failures, there’s a win, even if he isn’t the winner. His actions protect others, save the Rebellion, and galvanize the Resistance. Without Han Solo failing, others couldn’t succeed.
So it’s for these reasons that the noir lens works for Solo as a Private Eye. Now let me tell you about how Obi Wan Kenobi is the greatest cop the galaxy has ever seen…
JOHN ADAMUS is a writer, writing coach, editor, and game designer (Noir World) who lives out beyond the Dune Sea of northern New Jersey where he spends a lot of his time thinking about how he’d much prefer to have a fast ship and adventurous copilot, with his name splashed across the galaxy. Follow him on twitter (@awesome_john) for plenty of thoughts about writing, noir, creativity, and a heap of other stuff.