Progressive Origins of Film Noir

Force Of Evil
Force of Evil (1948)

With the passing of Jules Dassin, it worth noting that social criticism in early film noir is largely ignored by most contemporary noir pundits and populists.

James Naremore in his 1998 book on film noir, More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, mounts a strong argument for the leftist origins of film noir (my emphasis):

…most of the 1940s noir directors — including Orson Welles, John Huston, Edward Dmytryk, Jules Dassin, Joseph Losey, Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky, and Nicholas Ray—were members of Hollywood’s committed left-wing community. Among the major crime writers who provided source material for dark thrillers, Dashiell Hammett, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler were Marxists to one degree or another, and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain were widely regarded as social realists. Among what Robert Sklar has described as the major “city boy” actors of the period, Bogart and John Garfield, who played veterans of the Lincoln Brigade in Casablanca and The Fallen Sparrow (1943), were icons respectively of liberalism and leftist radicalism. Meanwhile, the credits for noir screenplays usually included such names as Albert Maltz, Howard Kotch, Waldo Salt, and Dalton Trumbo, all of whom were eventually blacklisted, and these screenplays were often based on literature by such politically engaged figures as Kenneth Fearing, Vera Caspary, Daniel Fuchs, and Ira Wolfert.

There is good reason to conclude that the first decade of American film noir was largely the product of a socially committed fraction or artistic movement in Hollywood, composed of “Browderite” communists (after Earl Browder, head of the American Communist Party) and “Wallace” Democrats (after Henry Wallace, the radical vice president and potential successor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt). This movement is somewhat downplayed by Borde and Chaumeton, who emphasize the anarchic, antisocial qualities of noir and who initially argued that the form died off with the rise of neorealist policiers in the late 1940s. The Cahiers critics and subsequent American commentators tended to depoliticize noir even further, thereby obscuring the fact that many of the best thrillers of the 1940s and early 1950s were expressions of the Popular Front and the radical elements of the New Deal. A more accurate account would show that although the noir category viewed as a whole has no essential politics, it has formative roots in the left culture of the Roosevelt years—a culture that was repressed, marginalized, and virtually extinguished during the postwar decade, when noir took on increasingly cynical and even right-wing implications. During the 1950s, the congressional hunts for communists in Hollywood were themselves based on a kind of noir scenario and were crucially important to the history of American crime movies, affecting not only their politics and their doom-laden atmosphere, but also their reception by later generations. (pp 104-105)

7 thoughts on “Progressive Origins of Film Noir”

  1. Naremore, while pointing out the leftist leanings of many of the people who made films noirs, nevertheless concludes “the noir category viewed as a whole has no essential politics”.

    It certainly, as a radical critique of society, had political implications — so it might be truer to say that it had no essential ideology, no programme. There was a world of difference between the New Deal liberalism of an Orson Welles and the doctriaire Marxism of many of the blacklisted filmmakers.

    More importantly, you have to ask not only, “Who made films noirs?”, but also “Who consumed them?” — and the answer to the last is, “A broad popular audience, over a long period of time.” By definition, then, films noirs spoke to feelings in the American public that transcended any specific political orientation or ideology.

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  2. Lloyd, fair comment, and thank you for engaging with me.
    But let me put my cards on the table: I am unredeemed leftist, so I can’t and don’t intend to claim impartiality.
    For me true film noir is fully subversive and so essentially political. It is iconoclastic, it shatters the comfortable shibboleths of bourgeois orthodoxy that would have us believe that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The pervasive noir motif of contingency: that from one moment to the next you can be, as you have eloquently said yourself, totally “fucked”, attests to this. In the noir universe, institutions, wealth and privilege are at their core rotten, and safety, security, and comfort are illusions. This is a profound political critique, that just may have resonated in Peoria.

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  3. I agree that film noir incorporates a political critique, just not one associated with a particular ideology. It also incorporates what might be called a theological critique, a sense of existential despair — but not one associated with a particular religious view.

    The issue is complicated, especially when you try to account for the docu-noir, which typically celebrates, in glowing terms, the most repressive instruments of the capitalist state — the police, the F. B. I., the Treasury Department, the immigration service, even the public health service. I think you could make a better case that docu-noir is reactionary than that it’s radically progressive — since it implies that the capitalist state is honest, competent and omnipotent, to be trusted with the sorting out of almost any social ill.

    The issue is further complicated by the fact that Jules Dassin, a committed leftist, made one of the greatest docu-noirs, “Naked City”, which frankly glorifies the New York City Police Department, not a notable bastion of leftist progressive ideals.

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  4. I suppose it depends on how wide you cast the net. To my mind, the police procedurals had noir elements only, and were more are a reactionary response rather than a development of the cycle.

    Perhaps, to paraphrase Naremore, as Borde and Chaumeton, who downplayed the leftist political element, initially argued the form died off with the rise of neorealist policiers in the late 1940s. But then again, Dassin made Thieves’ Highway (1949) after The Naked City (1948), and there were pockets of resistance in the 50’s: Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) immediately comes to mind.

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  5. True noirs and police procedurals coexisted throughout the noir period, which to me was just getting going in the late Forties — and they were often, as in the case of Dassin, made by the same artists. “The Big Heat” is a mixed bag — it exposes corruption in the body politic but also assures us that the official agencies of the state, when mobilized, are fully capable of rooting it out and sweeping it away . . . not a particularly radical analysis, since the corruption is not presented as systemic and endemic, as it is, for example, in “The Big Combo”, which has a much more downbeat and ambiguous ending.

    Both forms addressed the same general social anxieties — just from different generic perspectives. One can see why Dassim might have been attracted to the police procedural as a way of exposing certain social ills under the cover of a celebration of official institutions — but one can also see why less political artists might have been attracted to the noir tradition as a way of exploring a more interior and generalized existential angst. (Again, Dassin bridged the categories — “Night and the City” being, to me, a true noir, resisting any particular political analysis.)

    Noir was a rich and complex and supple tradition — which is one reason we’re still talking about it.

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