Nukes! Violence! Commies! 'The Noir Forties'

Still from The Blue Dahlia (1946)

A cultural historian views the age of anxiety through the lens of mostly black-and-white crime movies.

The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to Cold War

Publisher: Nation
Length: 420 pages
Author: Richard Lingeman
Price: $29.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-12

The late '40s should have been “the best years of our lives”, which happened to be the title of a film from the period. World War II was over, the United States emerged as the most powerful nation on Earth and the servicemen and women were able to attend college for free. Instead, the American mood in many ways turned, as Richard Lingeman’s title suggests, black.

How did this happen?

Lingeman interprets the period from VJ day in 1945 to the outbreak of the Korean conflict in 1950 through a combination of personal and cultural history. The cultural side, bringing in politics, books and art as well as movies, is a fascinating evocation of the period.

Even as hundreds of thousands gathered in New York’s Times Square to celebrate the end of World War II – an event memorialized in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photo of a sailor kissing a woman -- two huge clouds hung in the air: the mushroom cloud of the nuclear arms race, and the psychological cloud of fear of Communism at home and abroad.

As a youngster during the '40s, Lingeman writes that his generation was “the first to grow up in the shadow of the bomb... Of course we didn’t think of it constantly... We grew up dimly aware that a nuclear war might end civilization; but that potential remained a fantasy, a scenario you read about” in magazines.

For some adults, however, the war left deep, lingering emotional scars. The author’s premise is that “films noir”, literally “black films” (a term coined by French critics) are “a key for unlocking… the national mood” back then. These Hollywood crime dramas were preoccupied with “violence and death and a mood of disillusionment, uncertainty, and cynicism,” he writes. An early example appeared in 1944 even before the war ended: Double Indemnity, a tale of murder directed by German-Jewish émigré Billy Wilder with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler that was adapted from a James M. Cain novel.

In examining this and other noir movies, Lingeman reviews salient developments that contributed to what others called “the age of anxiety”. Housing shortages; unemployment that shot up as manufacturing plants lost federal war production contracts; labor conflicts; and strife at home for those returning veterans who could not share their experiences to wives and families were all contributing factors.

Women were in for an especially bad time, although Lingeman gives the subject rather short shrift. Thousands were thrown out of work as returning vets claimed their old jobs back. Domesticity was elevated to women’s highest calling. Films noir typically featured the “femme fatale”, sexy and dangerous, who tempted poor guys into extramarital sex and worse. Goodbye Rosie the Riveter, hello She-Devil.

Among the earliest movies to show a returning veteran’s potential for violence was The Blue Dahlia, a 1946 release also scripted by Chandler. The star, Alan Ladd, is an angry vet who is taunted about infidelity by his cheating wife. When she turns up dead, Ladd’s character becomes a fugitive.

Chandler, says Lingeman, was under such stress to finish the script that he went on a “working binge”; his muse required plenty of alcohol. The studio made sure that a doctor was on call to give him vitamin shots, a limousine was always available and typists were at the ready. Chandler finished his work -- and collapsed. In point of fact, alcoholism plagued many returned veterans. The best movie example of this was The Lost Weekend, also directed by Wilder.

The black-and-white "look" and New York settings of many noir movies were the result of both design and accommodation. Lingeman notes that many emigres like Wilder, Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger came out of the expressionist school of film established in Europe before the war began. Because directors could shoot more cheaply on New York streets than in California, and because there were loads of Broadway actors and other creative people to use, a particularly gritty look, which the author calls New York noir, arose. Among these films were Jules Dassin’s The Naked City, and Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death, which featured Richard Widmark’s Oscar-nominated performance as a psychopathic killer.

On the labor front, 1946 became a year of strikes by unions hungry for increased wages that had been kept in check during the war. The militancy of groups such as the autoworkers and the mineworkers caused an anti-union backlash that defeated the Democratic majority in the House and Senate in the 1946 elections and helped bring about the anti-labor Taft Hartley Act of 1947.

In Hollywood, craft unions fought among themselves. The House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating the role allegedly played by home-grown Communists in fomenting discord. Running scared, studios developed a “blacklist” to make sure Reds or fellow travelers were not hired.

One critic is cited by Lingeman as suggesting that “socially conscious liberal writers and directors were drawn to making crime film because they served as an alternative outlet for political dissent.” For example, Force of Evil, a 1948 movie by the Marxist writer/director Abraham Polonsky, ostensibly was about corruption, but the “numbers racket” was highlighted by a flashing street sign, the street being Wall Street.

Among the era's bright spots: the GI Bill. An amazing 5.6 million veterans enrolled in colleges and training programs, without incurring staggering debts. The Bill helped lift many young men into the middle class, including large numbers of blacks.

History may well remember the post-war '40s principally as the start of the Cold War era. For those who don’t know much about it, Lingeman’s film-oriented refresher course is eye-opening.

The “flying saucer hysteria” that made its sensibility felt in movies was “a metaphor for anti-Communist paranoia,” he writes. In time, this paranoia would come to be known as McCarthyism, after the Red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. But I wonder if it isn’t a bit of a stretch to view the alien takeover of a town in Invasion of the Body Snatchers as symbolizing fears of a Communist takeover of the US government.

Perhaps the most interesting historical perspective in The Forties Noir has nothing to do with movies, but with the Presidential election of 1948.

Not only did President Harry S. Truman defeat Thomas E. Dewey, he also defeated third, fourth and fifth party candidates: Henry Wallace, who had been agriculture secretary and then vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the Progressive Party nominee branded as being in pro-Communist; Norman Thomas was the Socialist Party candidate who was backed by peace groups; and Strom Thurmond was the Dixicrat candidate who actually came in third in the popular vote.

The Chicago Tribune infamously jumped the gun with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman”, which Truman held aloft, grinning, in a famous photo. But there’s a much deeper backstory.

Lingeman writes that there was such ill feeling between Truman and Wallace by the end that when presented with a draft statement congratulating Truman, Wallace said: “Under no circumstances will I congratulate that son of a bitch.” What's more, the election marked the temporary end of the “peace left’s” attempt to tame bellicose US Cold War policy.

Lingeman’s own memories of growing up in this era and of being sent to Japan by the army's Counter Intelligence Corps in 1954 bookend The Noir Forties. He had “landed in the country of my enemy,” yet found people friendly. He saw himself as a beneficiary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, since they ended World War II, yet he made it a point to visit Nagasaki, which was still being rebuilt. It was his small attempt to “bear witness”. His sincere self-examination is, nevertheless, a rather awkward appendage to what is otherwise a fresh, readable consideration of the cinematic threads in a tangled but crucial half-decade.


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