Your Honor and the legacy of noir

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia

Your Honor has a great debt to film noir.

In the recent TV series Your Honor, (Stan in Australia) a respected and fair judge descends down a moral abyss to protect his so. Desiato is depicted as a liberal judge handing out fair sentences in the hopelessly corrupt city of New Orleans, and he appears to have a strict moral code. When his son Adam is involved in a hit and run, Desiato does not cover up but takes Adam down to the police station to report the crime, only when he discovers that his son has killed the son of a violent crime family head – that he begins a cover-up. Judge Michael Desiato breaks every rule to protect his son from the wrath of a vicious organised crime family.

The TV series was adapted from the Israeli TV series Kvovo, which has a similar premise. This series is set in New Orleans, and it contains the basic stories in film noir: individual moral decline and a doomed attempt to beat the system.

The TV series has many of the elements of film noir. Underpinned by the production code, film noir in the 1940s and 19050s contained the idea that anyone committing a crime must pay the penalty. Without giving away the ending, Your Honor keeps to the formula. The moral fabric of the universe, or the gods that run it, will not allow an individual to break the rules and get away with it.

The plot has many elements of Scarlet Street (1945), directed by Fritz Lang. In Scarlet Street, an honest man, a painter called Christopher Cross, played by Edward G. Robinson, is in a loveless marriage and a hopeless job. His meeting with Kitty March, played by Joan Bennett, paves the way for personal destruction. Cross makes some decision to embezzle funds from his employer to pay for Kitty.

The key difference in Your Honor to film noir is that there is no femme fatale to lead Desiato to the brink. Joan Bennett provides the lure for Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

When betrayed, Cross commits murder and implicates the wrong man, who goes to the gallows. Christopher fails at suicide, becoming homeless and needy, and he cannot even claim credit for his paintings, one of which has now been sold for a small fortune. He wanders New York, constantly hearing his victim’s voices in his mind.[1]

In film noir, stepping off the moral path destroys the individual. Like Cross, Desiato’s action starts a chain reaction where people are killed, and the innocent are found guilty of crimes they did not commit. Every action Desiato takes to defend his son results in more mayhem and death. It is a dance with the devil, spiralling down to hell.

. In Double Indemnity (1944), the central character is an insurance salesman who tries to beat the system by murdering a client to run off with his wife. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Desiato promises his son that he can fix this problem as he understands the system. In Double Indemnity (1944), the central character is an insurance salesman who tries to beat the system by murdering a client to run off with his wife. Neff says, “You’re like the guy behind the roulette wheel, watching the customers to make sure they don’t crook the house. And then one night, you get to thinking how you could crook the house yourself. And do it smart. Because you’ve got that wheel right under your hands.” The salesman, Walter Neff, wants to receive double the payout from a life insurance policy. Every element of the murder is successful, and it appears certain that he and Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barara Stanwyck, will triumph.[2] However, film noir’s rules demand that their murder is exposed, and both must suffer for their crimes. They must take the “ride to the end of the line, ” which in their cases is death. Desiato also takes the same ride.

In a comment on the theme, Woody Allen wrote and directed Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), where there is no punishment for the guilty. The originator of the film’s murder, Judah Rosenthal, says: “And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background, which he’d rejected, are suddenly stirred up… Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse-an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then, one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him, and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe, and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person-a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.”

Rosenthal is challenged, but he responds that his accuser has, “seen too many movies. I’m talking about reality. I mean, if you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie..” [3]

The key difference in Your Honor to the film noir of the 1940s is that there is no femme fatale to lead Desiato to the brink. The women in Your Honor are strong and ethical. Desiato’s decision to fix the system is his own. The decision is based on reasonable fears that Adam will be murdered in prison by the criminal gangs. Whatever the reasons, having moved off the moral path, Desiato finds that his decision leads to even worse outcomes. People – innocent or otherwise – are killed or have their lives destroyed. The themes of film noir resonate today, but in today’s world, it should be noted that the murderer of an innocent man – the son of a gangster – gets off scott free. Those with values or principles appear to be trampled.


[1] Alan Silver and Elizabeth Ward (ed.), Film Noir, London: Secker Warburg, 1980, p. 248.

[2] Alan Silver and Elizabeth Ward (ed.), Film Noir, London: Secker Warburg, 1980, pp. 93-94.

[3] Woody Allen Crimes and Mideamnours, 1989, in https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097123/quotes/?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

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