Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship
Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship

Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship

by Jonathan Auerbach


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Dark Borders connects anxieties about citizenship and national belonging in midcentury America to the sense of alienation conveyed by American film noir. Jonathan Auerbach provides in-depth interpretations of more than a dozen of these dark crime thrillers, considering them in relation to U.S. national security measures enacted from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. The growth of a domestic intelligence-gathering apparatus before, during, and after the Second World War raised unsettling questions about who was American and who was not, and how to tell the difference. Auerbach shows how politics and aesthetics merge in these noirs, whose oft-noted uncanniness betrays the fear that “un-American” foes lurk within the homeland. This tone of dispossession was reflected in well-known films, including Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, and Pickup on South Street, and less familiar noirs such as Stranger on the Third Floor, The Chase, and Ride the Pink Horse. Whether tracing the consequences of the Gestapo in America, or the uncertain borderlines that separate the United States from Cuba and Mexico, these movies blur boundaries; inside and outside become confused as (presumed) foreigners take over domestic space. To feel like a stranger in your own home: This is the peculiar affective condition of citizenship intensified by wartime and Cold War security measures, as well as a primary mood driving many midcentury noir films.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822349938
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/25/2011
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Auerbach is Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of Body Shots: Early Cinema’s Incarnations; Male Call: Becoming Jack London, also published by Duke University Press; and The Romance of Failure: First-Person Fictions of Poe, Hawthorne, and James.

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film noir and American citizenship
By Jonathan Auerbach

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5006-4

Chapter One

Gestapo in America

Confessions of a Nazi Spy and Stranger on the Third Floor

Fifth Column methods have permeated into every walk of life.—J. Edgar Hoover, 1940

Released two and half years before the United States officially entered the Second World War, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) was the first mainstream Hollywood film to directly attack Hitler. It was also the earliest movie to depict Nazi espionage on American soil. Tracing the activities of the National Socialist Party in the United States and around the globe during 1937–38, Confessions would seem to be tangential to film noir, although its director, Anatole Litvak, would go on to make a number of important noirs in the 1940s. Yet in its feverish depiction of the German-American Bund, "the boring of enemies within," as a prosecuting attorney warns near the end, the movie's combination of documentary realism and paranoia would help articulate the foundational, affective logic of noir for twenty years to come. This is more than simply a matter of visual style. As the phrase "enemies within" already suggests, Confessions would serve as a blueprint for representations of anticommunism soon after the Second World War, and in fact its screenwriter, Milton Krims, subsequently coauthored the script for The Iron Curtain (1948), the first Hollywood treatment of Soviet spying during the Cold War.

That Nazis could so easily morph into communists is perhaps less surprising than the emergence of film noir partly from such an overt piece of wartime propaganda. To tease out the relation between the dread of enemy aliens stirred up in Confessions and feelings of alienation and despair so typical in noir, I will pair the Litvak film in this chapter with a movie made the following year by another Russian Jewish émigré, Boris Ingster. While Litvak was a Ukrainian from Kiev, Ingster was born in Riga, Latvia, coming to the United States in the 1930s as an associate of Sergei Eisenstein. After teaming up with Nathanael West to write a few screenplays, Ingster was given the opportunity to direct Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). By virtue of its dark mood and look, Stranger is commonly regarded by cinema scholars as the first noir, an expressionist hallucination that culminates in a remarkable extended nightmare sequence. Putting these two seemingly different films side by side, we can appreciate how public politics (so explicit in Confessions) and private fantasy (so openly on display in Stranger) comingle and gird one another in both these motion pictures, in 1940s noir, and in many Hollywood narratives more generally.

The first five minutes of Confessions are astonishing. The movie opens (sans credits) with the silhouette of a radio announcer intoning in a deep newsreel voice that the story about to be told, "stranger than fiction," is based on a recent criminal case of espionage against the United States. Subsequently this portentous voice will provide commentary more than a dozen times to create a documentary feel, often in conjunction with actual newsreel footage of marching Nazi soldiers, rallies, newspaper headlines, and battle scenes spliced into the fictional narrative. As the voice-over fades, we are suddenly transported to a seemingly mundane mail delivery in a small Scottish town, one of many such moments of transport foregrounding communications technology. These sharp geographical leaps emphasize the global reach of Hitler's fascist networks. A close-up of an address on a letter enables Litvak, radically shifting scope and texture once again, to cut to New York, where we see and hear the heavily accented Dr. Karl Kassel (played by Paul Lukas) in a beer hall forcefully addressing his fellow German-American Bund (GAB) members as "patriots."

His speech is fierce, passionate, mesmerizing—in clear contrast to the measured tones of the shadowy radio narrator. Energetically declaring "I love America," Kassel is in fact an American Hitler, as Litvak makes clear when the camera gradually pulls back to reveal a large Nazi swastika sandwiched between two American flags. Perhaps unprecedented for a major Hollywood studio production, this visual shock is matched by equally shocking rhetoric. Identifying himself as a U.S. reserve officer and citizen, Kassel argues that the United States is based on German blood and culture, that Germans have a "destiny" in the United States to save it from the "chaos" bred by "democracy" and "racial equality." Nazism is presented here as a pan-German movement extending beyond national borders. Kassel's references to "our America," repeated both in English and in German ("unser Amerika") bring cheers and Sieg Heil salutes from the crowd, as the camera begins to pan and focus on individuals in the audience. One of these men, unemployed, feckless, with delusions of grandeur and a nagging (non-German) wife, as we soon learn, becomes inspired to volunteer as a spy for the Nazi cause, convinced that he owes allegiance to the Führer and the fatherland. Rather than represent spying as a professional intelligence or military operation, the movie thus imagines espionage in U.S. territory as resulting directly from GAB rabblerousing that especially affects unstable, insecure, cowardly, and inept amateurs. The result, of course, is to make the actual activity of espionage seems less of a threat, less harmful than the propaganda that triggers it.

Indeed, the movie as a whole seems far more interested in speeches than in spying, and in fact it is the blurring or collapse of this distinction between words and deeds that leads me to categorize Confessions as a proto-noir film. Despite the provocative title, talking is less a source of (criminal) revelation than a medium for persuasion; although government agents, led by the G-man Edward Renard (played by Edward G. Robinson) do eventually break up the spy ring, the plot's popular, generic, and action-oriented detection elements remain relatively feeble. The FBI is not even introduced until midway through the picture, and Renard's main function seems less to enforce police procedure than to indulge in a form of speechifying himself, explaining (to us and those around him) the dangers of orators such as Kassel. The movie closely follows the facts of the spy case by depicting thinly veiled versions of the real incompetent spies Dr. Ignaz Griebl (Kassel) and Günther Rumich (called Kurt Schneider in the movie, played by Francis Lederer), who actually tried to directly acquire blank passports from the U.S. government just as his bungling counterpart does in the film—passports being the clearest way to document a foreign enemy's designs on U.S. citizenship. Yet beyond these similarities, Hollywood's fictional reenactment in its hysterical focus on the relationship between propaganda and citizenship would introduce a different set of concerns.

As Kassel's unsettling opening address to the Bund suggests, Litvak seems remarkably willing to show the power of unrestrained rhetoric, both oral and in print. While at various points in the movie some German Americans express skepticism, disdain, or outrage during these meetings, their opposition is swiftly shouted down and met with force from Bund supporters, indicating mob mentality rather than reasoned debate. This is a form of gangsterism that the movie charts with a mixture of fascination and dread. And as we shall see, the fate of American Nazi spies in the United States who come to express misgivings about their work is far worse than a mere silencing.

In his excellent analysis of Confessions as the apex of progressive Hollywood antifascism, Saverio Giovacchini focuses on the movie's production history, particularly on how Warner Bros. chose to adapt a spy case of 1938 that was publicized in New York newspaper stories written by an agent who helped solve the crime. But I think another current event might have exercised a more profound sway over the movie: a Washington birthday's "Free America" rally (February 19–20, 1939) held at Madison Square Garden in which over twenty thousand people came out to hear the national leader (Bundesleiter) Fritz Kuhn and other gab officials. A culmination of a series of speeches held by the gab over the previous few years, the two-day rally in New York triggered violent clashes between protestors and Bund members in attendance that night. Representing the height of the organization's influence in the United States, this mass demonstration generated much attention and anxiety in the press. The movie's Kassel was clearly modeled both on Kuhn and on Griebl, so much so that Kuhn (unsuccessfully) filed a defamation suit against Warner Bros. for 5 million dollars on behalf of the gab soon after the movie was released.

It is worth contrasting what Kuhn and other speakers actually said at the rally with Kassel's speeches in Confessions. Although Kuhn and other leaders were openly anti-Semitic, deriding Jewish control of the media, denouncing Jews as communists, and mocking the New Deal as the "Jew Deal," they took pains at the rally to distance themselves from Hitler, saying that the German National Socialist Party had no place in the United States and warning against attacks on the U.S. Constitution. In celebrating what he took to be American ideals, Kuhn specifically called attention to his "citizenship right" to "criticize freely and act and protest as long as I do not engage in treasonable activities." He concluded by embracing "the freedom of the pulpit, press, radio and stage," but also by demanding, interestingly enough, the "thorough cleansing of the Hollywood film industries of all alien, subversive activities."

Progressives in Hollywood might have been especially peeved by this parting shot at communists; but in any case the movie's script took some serious liberties in translating Kuhn into the fictionalized Kassel, who early on explicitly attacks the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which he says must be destroyed, not upheld. Why such a drastic change? Turning the rhetoric of his accusers against them, Kuhn sought protection in the freedom of speech, declaring his status as a true American against subversive outsiders (communists/Jews), as well as standing up for his right as a citizen to speak out. But to deny the gab that freedom, the film had to imagine Kassel as a sheer demagogue advocating the destruction of the Bill of Rights, thereby abdicating any sort of self-protection for his own speaking. In rejecting bedrock American rights inscribed in the nation's sacred documents, Kassel, according to this logic, betrays his professed patriotism and effectively renounces his claim on U.S. citizenship.

Against Kuhn's own repeated public insistence that Nazism is reserved for Germany and not for export, Kassel expresses his obedience to a foreign sovereign (Hitler) and to an alien set of principles, even while continuing to live in the United States. Anticipating cold warriors who sought to outlaw the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) because its members (even those native born) were presumed by virtue of their beliefs alone to be Soviet agents, Confessions directly links the speech of the Bund leader Kassel—later shown traveling to Germany and talking with Joseph Goebbels—to the deeds of espionage: precisely the kind of "treasonable activity" that Kuhn disavowed.

The film's propaganda thus sought to render propaganda itself criminal. Of course later in the movie we see Kassel actually engaged in espionage, peering at a small model of a stolen secret American antiaircraft weapon that looks like a toy—not exactly the most dramatic of smoking guns to prove his criminal behavior. This scene feels like a minor afterthought because the emphasis and energy throughout the film have been on the power of rhetoric. The real menace is not spying but words, which threaten to turn hundreds of thousands of law-abiding German American citizens living in the United States into potential Nazis. In the film this threat is located not only in Kassel's incendiary speech but in printed materials as well, visualized by Litvak during one powerful sequence as swastikas coming directly from Germany to spread across and overwhelm a map of the United States (see figure 1). But would not this material (at least those pamphlets not directly advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government) be protected under the Bill of Rights? By drumming up a fearful state of urgency or emergency endangering national security, Confessions at its most hysterical would seem to answer "no." The question then becomes, who decides, who polices? It was easy enough for Hollywood filmmakers to twist Kuhn's words to match their own worst fears and suspicions, but how could the United States address a threat coming from treacherous foes, at once citizens and yet strangers, who were already firmly entrenched inside the country?

Near the beginning of his speech of February 1939, Kuhn (not Kassel) decried "the standardized order" of public opinion prescribed by the "Untermyers or Dicksteins." Since the early 1930s, alarmed by Hitler's rise to power and growing anti-Semitism at home, a Jewish representative from New York named Sam Dickstein had been lobbying for a congressional committee to investigate German Americans who might be working for the Nazi cause, creating a fifth column of support undermining the nation from within. Paralleling Dickstein was his equally persistent fellow congressman Martin Dies, whose work on House immigration and naturalization committees spurred him to introduce a number of bills advocating the expulsion of foreign communists deemed subversive.

Their joint efforts helped establish in 1934 the Special Committee on Un-American Activities (the McCormack Committee), whose published report the following year indicated that Nazi propaganda circulating in the United States was aimed at "20-odd-million Americans of German birth or descent." This mounting anxiety over fifth-column sympathizers would lead three years later, in June 1938 (a few months before production on Confessions began), to the creation of a more permanent and better-funded congressional committee headed by Dies. A staunch anti–New Dealer, Dies would turn the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) almost entirely to combating communists, especially after the Soviets and Nazis signed a nonaggression treaty in August 1939. For many Americans, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact collapsed any nuanced distinction between communist Russia and fascist Germany. A few months after the pact, the term Commu-Nazi was coined to conflate the two. Both Stalin and Hitler were gangster-tyrants who ruled totalitarian regimes best defined by the umbrella term un-American—a comprehensive category referring to anything and anyone perceived to endanger American traditions and principles. As Dickstein replied when skeptically queried about whom the proposed committee would investigate: "Everybody."

Complicating the matter of who would be investigated—without the right of the accused to cross-examine a witness—was the question of what. Insisting from the start on the need to differentiate "between what is obviously un-American and what is no more or less than an honest difference of opinion," Dies defined his committee's purpose as gathering information about subversive propaganda activities, either of foreign or domestic origin, as long as this dissemination of rhetoric compromised "the principle of the form of government as guaranteed by the Constitution." But short of openly attacking the Constitution, as Confessions has Kassel do, "propaganda activities" remained a very nebulous phrase conflating word and action. When Kuhn himself was brought before the committee in August 1939, and then again in October of that year, his often contentious testimony and cross-examination led to no new disclosures about the Bund and to no actionable evidence of crime. Like so many common gangsters before and after him, Kuhn would be indicted for and convicted of a far more mundane offense, the embezzlement of Bund funds (technically larceny and forgery), followed by his arrest and denaturalization during the war and deportation back to Germany at the war's end.

The newly founded Dies Committee of course does not figure in Confessions, although the movie clearly partakes of its concerns; HUAC would gain far more prominence after the war investigating communist subversion in Hollywood, ironically the very kind Kuhn warned against in his Madison Square Garden speech. Because the film ostensibly centers on espionage, the forces of law and order are represented not by a congressional investigative committee but by the FBI and the justice system, institutions embodied by agent Renard and his U.S. attorney friend Kellogg (played by Henry O'Neill), who prosecutes the spies. Dedicated since its founding in 1908 to fighting crime at a national level, the FBI and its G-men civil servant bureaucrats were seemingly less given to partisan grandstanding than elected politicians such as Dies. And Edgar G. Robinson as Renard gives a fair approximation of most Americans' view of J. Edgar Hoover during the 1930s and 1940s—calm, professional, vigilant, trustworthy.

And yet even for the FBI the question of what constituted a crime against the state would remain open-ended, leading to an ever-widening set of categories. Well before the founding of the Dies Committee, President Roosevelt in 1936 issued a private directive to the FBI to gather intelligence intended to track connections between domestic radicalism and foreign agents working for international fascist and communist movements. On September 9, 1939, shortly after Hitler invaded Poland, FDR officially declared a provisional state of emergency. This was three days after issuing another FBI directive in conjunction with the global crisis that enabled Hoover to significantly widen the scope of investigation to examine an array of "subversive activities" not previously included in the bureau's traditional crime-fighting mandate. As if to urge fdr's secret order, the agent Renard in Confessions at one point in the film complains that the United States has no effective peacetime counterintelligence operations to fight this "new kind of war." Even though a subsequent directive that the president issued in early 1943 pointedly dropped the term subversive to focus strictly on spying and sabotage, a crucial class of criminality had already been expanded to extend into the domain of ideas.


Excerpted from DARK BORDERS by Jonathan Auerbach Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction The Un-Americanness of Film Noir 1

1 Gestapo in America 27

Confessions of a Nazi Spy and Stranger on the Third Floor

2 White-Collar Murder 57

Double Indemnity

3 Cuba, Gangsters, Vets, and Other Outcasts of the Islands 91

The Chase and Key Largo

4 North from Mexico 123

Border Incident, Hold Back the Dawn, Secret beyond the Door, and Out of the Past

5 Bad Boy Patriots 155

This Gun for Hire, Ride the Pink Horse, and Pickup on South Street

Postscript Darkness Visible 185

Notes 205

Bibliography 245

Index 261

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