The Noir Forties

At World War II’s end, a low-budget thriller called Detour was released to positive reviews; it has since become a film noir classic. In the movie, a New York piano player named Al plans to hitchhike to California to see his girlfriend, who has moved west in hopes of making it big in Hollywood. In Arizona, he’s picked up by a wealthy bookie, who succumbs to a heart attack while Al is driving. Fearing that he’ll be implicated in the death, Al dumps the body and assumes the bookie’s identity. He then picks up a hitchhiker named Vera, a femme fatale who by coincidence had earlier encountered the bookie and thus is onto Al’s secret. Later, Vera tries to blackmail Al. They argue, and Vera, drunk, threatens to call the cops; attempting to do so, she gets the telephone cord tangled around her neck. Al tries to free her, but Vera ends up strangled. At the end of the film, he is picked up by the police. Though he hasn’t murdered anyone, it is clear that he will pay for the two deaths. “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all,” Al says in a sullen voice-over.
In The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to Cold War, Richard Lingeman argues trenchantly that films noir, which thrived between 1945 and 1950, have much to reveal about the immediate postwar period. There was, of course, joyous celebration when the war ended, but that joy had a dark flip side. “Uncertainties loomed: fears of another Depression, of the Soviets, of the A-bomb too,” Lingeman writes. As the Cold War dawned, those fears became amplified by dread, fatalism, and paranoia, all central elements of film noir.
Lingeman, a longtime editor at The Nation and author of several books, calls The Noir Forties a “memoir in the form of history.” While the book is no memoir — it’s cultural and political history — it is bracketed by chapters in which the author recalls his “unremarkable adventures in Japan,” serving in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps during the mid-1950s. During his stint overseas he operated mostly at night, meeting shadowy paid informants in an effort to keep tabs on Japan’s ultranationalist groups. What it all amounted to was unclear to him then and now, but years after the fact, when he began immersing himself in the crime films of the late ’40s, something about them resonated with his “subterranean memories” of his service. He concluded that “films noir are a key for unlocking the psychology, the national mood,” from the end of WWII to the onset of the Korean War.
The Noir Forties is a bit too wide-ranging — short sections on music and Abstract Expressionism feel tacked on, while a chapter on Henry Wallace’s failed 1948 run for president as the Progressive Party’s peace candidate feels too long. It is perhaps this sprawl that leads Lingeman to be, at times, unnecessarily repetitive, as when he summarizes the same movie, the 1947 noir The Long Night, twice within almost fifty pages.
The book is at its best when it hews close to Lingeman’s enlightening central thesis; he excels at portraying the uncertain postwar mood and the way that films noir were uniquely able to capture that mood. (Even if accidentally: Lingeman explains that the dark lighting and use of smoke and mirrors characteristic of the genre were deployed out of necessity to disguise the cheap props and shabby sets that resulted from wartime’s material shortages.) “Fictional war films seemed phony because they competed with the real war in magazine and newsreels,” he writes, “while in the hard-boiled crime films death was more real because it was shown in an unidealized, unheroic way.” Many of the violent crime films, like the 1946 classic The Blue Dahlia, featured veterans and reflected the country’s conflicting feelings toward the men who’d fought the fight: gratitude, but also guilt over what they had sacrificed, resentment over the claims they were making on society, fear that they were ticking time bombs capable of resorting to the violent acts they’d been trained to commit during wartime.
Finally, Lingeman explains why film noir’s heyday was so short, how the creative ferment of the immediate postwar years fell victim to the country’s rightward-shifting politics. After the war, big business’s stature rose while the New Deal’s declined. As the Cold War consensus hardened, what Dwight Eisenhower would later call the military-industrial complex was born. While the crime films of the ’40s were shot from the perspective of the criminal, “the pro-authority police procedural film became the dominant genre” of the politically conformist ’50s. Film noir gave way to the rabidly anti-Communist movies that Lingeman calls “film rouge.” In the wake of the Hollywood blacklist, “even the Communist writers were writing anti-Communist movies,” according to a quip from the period. And by the time Harry Truman sent American forces to South Korea’s aid in June 1950, even 1948’s “peace candidate” Henry Wallace was expressing vocal support for this new war. Times had indeed changed.