America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era

America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era

by David Cochran

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In America Noir David Cochran details how ten writers and filmmakers challenged the social pieties prevalent during the Cold War, such as the superiority of the American democracy, the benevolence of free enterprise, and the sanctity of the suburban family. Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone featured victims of vast, faceless, bureaucratic powers. Jim Thompson's noir thrillers, such as The Grifters, portrayed the ravages of capitalism on those at the bottom of the social ladder. Patricia Highsmith, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, placed an amoral con man in an international setting, implicitly questioning America's fitness as leader of the free world. Charles Willeford's pulp novels, such as Wild Wives and Woman Chaser, depicted the family as a hotbed of violence and chaos.

These artists pioneered a detached, ironic sensibility that radically juxtaposed cultural references and blurred the distinctions between “high” and “low” art. Their refusal to surrender to the pressures for political conformity and their unflinching portrayal of the underside of American life paved the way for the emergence of a 1960s counterculture that forever changed the way America views itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781588342188
Publisher: Smithsonian Institution Press
Publication date: 10/28/2004
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

David Cochran earned his PhD in American history from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He currently teaches at John A. Logan College and lives with his wife, three children, and four cats in Herrin, Illinois.

Read an Excerpt

About halfway through Charles Willeford's debut novel, High Priest of California (1953), the narrator, Russell Haxby, a successful though amoral used-car salesman, drops off his date Alyce. Unsuccessful in his immediate attempt to seduce her, Haxby has nonetheless begun formulating a long-term strategy toward achieving his goal. Before returning home, he walks into a tavern and orders a drink. Sitting at the bar, he surveys the other customers, noticing the man next to him is approximately his size. Then, without warning or provocation, Haxby says, "I put my drink down, raised my elbow level with my shoulder, and spun on my heel. My elbow caught him just below the eye. He raised a beer bottle over his head and my fist caught him flush on the jaw. He dropped to the floor and lay still. I threw a half-dollar on the bar and left. No one looked in my direction as I closed the door." Returning home, Haxby puts the "Romeo and Juliet Overture" on the turntable. "I poured a glass full of gin and played the overture several times while I finished the drink. After this emotional bath I felt wonderful. I went to bed and slept soundly all night. Like a child."

With this one indelible scene, Willeford presented his vision of the quintessential postwar American man. Beneath the pleasant exterior of a successful used-car salesman lies a soul equally capable of lashing out in meaningless, anonymous violence or appreciating the beauty of Tchaikovsky. While at this point in the novel the events do not come as a complete surprise---earlier Haxby had kneed a parking attendant in the groin for pointing out that he had parked in the wrong spot---the realization that the core of his soul Haxby is utterly without conscience prepares the reader for the ultimate revelation that Haxby will treat the people in his life with the same cavalier disdain he shows toward his customers at the car lot.

Table of Contents

Preface: Mapping the Underground Culturexi
Introduction: Within the Shell of the Old: The Creation of the Cold War Consensus and the Emergence of the Underground Culture1
Part 1The Killer inside Me: Roman Noir Authors17
1Slipping Deeper into Hell: Jim Thompson's Theology of Absurdity19
2"It's Always for Nothing": The Paperback Worldview of Charles Willeford39
Part 2Progress and Its Discontents: Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors53
3"I'm Being Ironic": Imperialism, Mass Culture, and the Fantastic World of Ray Bradbury55
4The Devil and Charles Beaumont73
Part 3Outside Looking In: Minority Artists89
5"So Much Nonsense Must Make Sense": The Black Vision of Chester Himes91
6"Some Torture That Perversely Eased": Patricia Highsmith and the Everyday Schizophrenia of American Life114
Part 4Little Shop of Horrors: Independent Filmmakers131
7"Lots of Socko": The Independent Cinematic Vision of Samuel Fuller133
8Roger Corman's Low-Budget Modernism151
Part 5Cracks in the Consensus: Liberal Artists173
9Richard Condon and the Paranoid Surreal Style in American Politics175
10Another Dimension: Rod Serling, Consensus Liberalism, and The Twilight Zone194
Conclusion: The Emancipation of Dissonance215

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