Race and Film Noir: Black and Noir

Mauri Lynn in The Big Night (1951)
Mauri Lynn in The Big Night (1951)

If during the 1940s and 1950s Hollywood was not actively racist, it still largely ignored race. Some academics have gone so far as saying that film noir was essentially a manifestation of a transference of a fear of blackness, the other, to a noir nether world of ambivalence and sublimation. But my view is to the contrary. If you look at noir movies over the classic period from the early 40s to the late 50s, a significant number of progressive writers and directors made noirs that deal sympathetically with race as important elements of the story. This is more than can be said of the body of Hollywood output for the period.

Here I would like to cover some of these noirs from 1941 through to 1956. The Harry Belafonte produced Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) is not included in this discussion, as we are dealing here with white Hollywood’s portrayal of blacks.

Blues in the Night (1941) An unusual melodrama cum musical with a leftist heart and a killer performance by Betty Field as cheap femme-fatale. Blues in the Night is a fascinating musical noir melodrama about a budding white jazz band scripted by Robert Rossen, directed by Anatole Litvak, and atmospherically lensed by Ernest Haller, with a b-cast, including a very young Elia Kazan, as a dizzy jazz clarinetist. These impeccable leftist credentials are reflected in the plot and the resolution which talk to personal integrity and the values of solidarity and loyalty. Amazingly for the period an establishing scene in a police lock-up respectfully credits the music’s black roots. A black prisoner is given a lot of screen-time as he sings a blues number and the white cast listen awe-struck.

Body and Soul (1947) This masterwork from Robert Rossen is a melodramatic expose of the fight game and a savage indictment of money capitalism. The powerful screenplay by Abraham Polonsky is brought to the screen with an authority and beauty that is still breathtaking. From the editing to the photography and direction, the film is a work of art. The black actor Canada Lee has a substantial role as a damaged ex-boxer, whose tragic death following a brutal betrayal by a crooked white promoter is one of the film’s central elements and perhaps the most affecting scene in the film.

The Reckless Moment (1949) Max Ophuls takes a blackmail story and infuses it with a complexity and subtlety rarely matched in film noir. Ophuls’ last Hollywood picture is a great film. It is a brilliant example of the dynamics of the auteur working inside the studio system. Ophuls’ long and fluid takes and subtle mise-en-scene infuse the movie with a rare subtlety. Joan Bennett as the threatened middle-class housewife, Lucia Parker, and James Mason as the Irish blackmailer Donnelly, are both impeccable, but it is Joan Bennett as the wife and mother plunged into a noir world of criminality that carries the drama forward. She struggles to defend an idyllic domesticity against a rising tide of darkness that would engulf her family. Lucia’s black maid, Sybil, plays a central role in the film. The Canadian film critic Robin Wood has written: “Sybil, and the splendid actress [Frances E. Williams] who plays her, deserve comment… The film’s presentation of her represents a drastic break with the conventional demeaning stereotype of the devoted black maidservant. Sybil’s hovering presence is a recurring leitmotif throughout the film, Ophuls taking every opportunity to show her watching and listening in the background of scenes in which (because of her social position) she is denied active participation. The empathy she manifests for Lucia is altogether different from the servile devotion to family of the stereotype she superficially resembles but from which she so drastically departs: it is essentially the concern of a woman who is fully aware of her oppression for another who is equally oppressed but unable to recognize the fact… In certain ways she resembles John (Art Smith), the mute servant of Letter From an Unknown Woman, the point being that their very exclusion from participation in the affairs of their employers (John by his handicap, Sybil by her colour) gives them a distance that makes possible a heightened awareness.”

Juano Hernandez  - Young Man With a Horn
Juano Hernandez in Young Man With a Horn (1950)

Young Man with a Horn (1950) A fine melodrama with true pathos, great jazz, and an intelligent screenplay by HUAC blacklistee Carl Foreman. Young Man with a Horn is loosely based on the biography of jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderdecke: the story of how a lonely white kid in LA learns the trumpet from a black musician, who becomes his close friend and mentor. His shift to New York in pursuit of a career is the stuff of melodrama; young guy makes good, marries the wrong woman and abandons his friends, and after tragedy finds a kind of redemption. There is great jazz played by Hoagey Charmichael and Harry James, nice songs from a young Doris Day, solid acting from Kirk Douglas in the lead, Lauren Bacall as the wife, Juano Hernandez as the black trumpeter, and Charmichael as Douglas’ piano-playing buddy. The strength of the film is in the script by Carl Foreman (who during filming of his script for High Noon in 1951 appeared at HUAC and was later blacklisted by Hollywood studio bosses). Redemption for the young man with the horn comes from a realisation – triggered by the tragic death of his black mentor – that a great artist’s obsession with his craft is not the only requirement for artistic fulfillment – it cannot come from a sterile wedding of player and instrument but ultimately from a deeper maturity which comes from embracing human relationships and commitment – a responsibility to and for others. The mentor’s death and its immediate precedent lend a true pathos to the melodrama, and the prominence given to the black father-figure in a film of this era is a revelation.

The Set-Up (1949 ) Robert Ryan is great as washed-up boxer in Robert Wise’ sharp expose of the fight game packed into a lean 72 minutes. From RKO and filmed at night on a studio lot, this movie is brooding and intense, with Robert Ryan, as the aging boxer, “Stoker” Thompson, in perhaps his best role. The boxers’ dressing room, where Stoker’s essentially decent persona is established from his interactions with the other boxers, is beautifully evoked. Each person in that room is deeply and sympathetically drawn, and these scenes are enthralling. To the movie makers’ credit, remember this is 1949, there is a black boxer, who responds to Stoker’s friendliness, with a heart-felt wish of good luck, after winning his own fight.

The Big Night (1951) Joseph Losey’s last American movie is a powerful and affecting drama of a white boy crossing into manhood one big noir night. During the young man’s dark journey, he confront his own racism, when he encounters a young black woman after being moved by her beauty and soulful singing in a night-club. A close-up of the singer renders her pain as important as the central protagonist’s bewilderment and regret.

The Well (1951) This movie deals explosively with race and mob hysteria. Up there with Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936) and Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury (1950). The seeming tolerance of small town is shattered when a white mining engineer is accused of abducting a 5-yo black girl. The girl’s family is given equal billing in this adventerous picture, which received AANs for the screenplay and editing. The reconciliation at the end is idealistic but fragile.

The Killing (1956) Kubrick’s heist movie has a bloody savage climax. ‘Individuality is a monster, and it must be strangled in its cradle… ‘ In a pivotal scene a black parking attendant confronts the reality of prejudice when push comes to shove.

POSTSCRIPT:
To these films should be added No Way Out (1956) and The Breaking Point (1950). In No Way Out a young black intern’s struggle against the prejudice of a deranged criminal confronts the issue of race head-on. A white woman is redeemed by her decent self opening to the other: black people who show her a path to a life of decency free of prejudice and self-loathing. In The Breaking Point the death of a black man is for society of little consequence, his despairing boy ignored and left to discover the fate of his father alone – completely alone – a closing scene that is the most subversive and poignant in all of film noir.

33 thoughts on “Race and Film Noir: Black and Noir”

  1. In film noir in general, as you suggest, even brief and casual encounters with blacks could be important — treating blacks like human beings was a kind of code to establish the protagonist’s coolness and humanity, and also his solidarity with other social “outsiders”. See the scene in “Out Of the Past” where Mitchum visits a black nightclub looking for information about the heroine.

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  2. Geez, Tony, this is really a spectacular post here, and it again examines an aspect of noir that is part of its fabric, but not as easily discernible as one might think. But while various art forms were born at a time of social upheaval, it’s inevitable that any one of them, including noir, would have formed some kind of an overall world view. After reading through this fantastic collection of capsules on some of the great Hollywood noirs (THE SET-UP, BODY AND SOUL, THE RECKLESS MOMENT,YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, BLUES IN THE NIGHT) I must agree with YOUR findings Tony, that the blacks were basically treated sympathetically. A particularly profound examination of self-realization (as you note) is presented in Josey Losey’s excellent THE BIG NIGHT, while there are still some “reminders” so to speak, as is teh case in Kubrick’s THE KILLING.

    As the same time some of the greatest noirs began to appear, B director Val Lewton crafted his B classic cycle at RKO, and the prevailing Hollywood liberlism of the period and general warmth toward blacks could be seen in Lewton’s humanist depiction of Sir Lancelot, the Calypso singer of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

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  3. Excellent and informative post Tony. The scene at the race track in THE KILLING must have been somewhat shocking for its time. I know I remember it vividly.

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  4. A noir I love quite a bit that I talk about from time to time, 1947’s THE GANGSTER (directed by Gordon Wiles) handles race in an interesting way as well. Rather then the white/black dichotomy the titular character is (we assume) middle-eastern (?) and named Shubunka, and unsaid conflicts seem to emerge as he dates a beautiful blond American woman. As nothing is said it makes the proceedings that much stranger every time the main characters ethnic name is uttered. We know much of the conflict has to do with this but it’s never said.

    It would have had to have been strange in the mid-40s, as you’ve pointed out the black characters struggled to get a fair shake, what odds does an Arab who has modern art hanging in his apartment, a white girlfriend, and power/money stand in New York?

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  5. Thanks Sam, John, and Jamie for your valued comments. It is great to get feedback like yours and Lloyd’s, as without it, I am never confident I have said something worth saying. Tony

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  6. What I find most interesting is the study of film noir from a sociological viewpoint, which connects the form with a more general view of American cinema made during the time when the movement flourished. In nearly all instances presented, there are facts to back up the conviction.

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  7. Tony,
    This is an essay that will certainly have me seeking out those films. Thanks!!
    The subject of group membership in good standing is a fascinating one; and, much to your credit, you have found in noir narratives a way to explore this matter.
    Best,
    Jim

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  8. Some thoughts occurring while reading your initial thesis and enticing capsules (The Big Night in particular, unavailable on Netflix unfortunately, sounds really intriguing). To be taken for what their worth as I haven’t seen a fraction of the noirs you have:

    I think you rightly profess skepticism towards the “noir-as-fear-of-blackness” perspective which, like many high-concept means, sounds cool in theory but isn’t really borne out by the facts. What you’ve keyed into here (and throughout your writings on noir, in fact) is the astute observation that noir is generally not a displaced representation of the masses’ fear and anxiety; rather it’s centered the wise and (in some regard or another) principled individual’s struggle to maintain dignity and standing in the face of said fear and anxiety. In this sense it’s less a cinema of repression than of stoicism (and is clearly very existentialist).

    I think to a certain extent the issue of race is repressed in noirs, but in a different way than in most Hollywood films – for one thing, it pops up explicitly more often (however briefly in most cases) than it does in other films; and for another, like the other partially submerged elements of many noirs – the palpable melancholy and stressful anxiety, the sense of a “lost cause”, likewise the moody nostalgia – it runs very close to the surface (just the fact of representing blacks in a humanizing way – let alone implicitly or explicity addressing their social status – was, as you note, quite rare in films of this era).

    To return to the original formulation you more or less reject, noir – to my limited understanding – does not seem to be a cinema about the “other” so much as a cinema embodying it: it does not place the cancer outside, to be fought, but within – in a sense we (to the extent we identify with the protagonist) are the cancer, or at least are indistinguishable from it. It’s resolutely, as you’ve noted before, a cinema of the outsider and as such notions that it represents a fear of darkness “outside” the norm seem to misrepresent the fundamental nature of the beast.

    Incidentally, are there any books you’d recommend about the left and film noir? I’m thinking of the intriguing co-incidence of noir’s emergence progressive disillusionment/anxiety (which perhaps began even before the HUAC era with the dissolution of the international Popular Front, the initiation of the fascist war, and the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact).

    With this in mind, what’s your take on Casablanca within the noir framework? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe it as a noir, but now that I reflect upon it, it does contain a number of elements or icons which were later taken up by many noirs. It’s got Bogie of course, but also the shady milieu, the notion of a “lost cause”, the sacrificial stoicism, the romantic nostalgia for a more idealistic past, and the sense of an alliance between political and social outsiders (Sam being an outlaw on the side of the underdogs). In all of read about Casablanca, I must have run across considerations of it in this context, but nothing comes to mind – indeed, these thoughts are creeping up on me with a fresh vigor.

    Of course, Casablanca too has a notable black character but I’d say he trends more towards the conventional sidekick role than the more sensitive, often socially aware representation you describe (still he’s relatively free of stereotype and treated with sympathy, so perhaps he’s a bridge in that sense).

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  9. Sorry, I should have checked that comment over before posting. There are a number of unwieldy sentences and missing conjunctions etc. Hopefully what I’m saying is clear enough.

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  10. Speaking of the Popular Front thing, I’m reminded that Le Jour se Leve – described by many (including yourself if I’m not mistaken) as a proto-noir – has always been rather explicitly connected to the disillusionment of the 30s left…

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  11. Hi Joel. Thanks for your thoughtful contribution.

    TCM has the TV rights for The Big Night (1951) but does not have the movie currently scheduled. The French label Doriane Films has issued a Region 2 DVD.

    Part of the fascination of film noir is the deep layers of meaning that exist in the more original titles. At the same time, this complexity allows some film writers and academics to project questionable sociological theories onto these films. As you say noir is more concerned with an amorphous anxiety and dark fatalism than repression. Existentialism is indeed more relevant. Noir protagonists in many noirs echo the words of Jean Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness (1934): “I am responsible for everything … except for my very responsibility, for I am not the foundation of my being. Therefore everything takes place as if I were compelled to be responsible. I am abandoned in the world … in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”

    The progressive portrayal of blacks in classic period noirs is I think possibly a result of b-productions getting less attention from conservative studio executives. In an interview in 1954 Jean Renoir spoke to Francois Truffaut about b-movies: “When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see “B” pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that “B” pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”

    I agree with your take on Casablanca to the extent that there are noir elements: Rick is an outsider who claims he has no principles but in reality is as deeply moral as Chandler’s Marlowe. While Rick’s relationship with Sam is one of affection and loyalty, Sam’s race is only incidental. It is interesting that The Writers’ Guild of America in April 2006 voted the screenplay for Casablanca, co-written by blacklist victim Howard Koch, the best ever.

    I have read these books on the Left in Hollywood, and while not dealing exclusively with film noir, they are enlightening and fascinating reading:

    “UN-AMERICAN” HOLLYWOOD: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era
    Edited by Frank Krutnik, Steve Neale, Brian Neve, and Peter Stanfield

    HOLLYWOOD’S BLACKLISTS: A Political and Cultural History
    By Reynold Humphries

    The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten
    By Gerald Horne

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  12. “Un-American” Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era is a fascinating read, Tony, and I thank you for telling others to seek it out. I have yet to read “Hollywood’s Blacklist” by Humphries, though I plan to very soon, actually, so this is great timing.

    Your piece is superb, and I could not agree more as it relates to noir and race.

    Your capsule reviews, especially of “Young Man With a Horn,” are exceptional. I completely agree. Great work!

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  13. Thanks Joe!

    Hi Alexander, thank you, so great to have your input, and know that you are still around. I recommend all FilmsNoir.Net readers visit Alexander’s blog and check out his his movie reviews – he has written some great essays on a number of noirs.

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  14. Way after the fact but when I returned to this page – to add those titles to my library queue – I saw that I wrote “(Sam being an outlaw on the side of the underdogs” – obviously that’s supposed to read Rick…

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  15. I think you are right about race being dealt with sympathetically in many noirs from the classic era. The academic perspective that ALL of film noir transfers fears of blackness to the noir underworld is more theory-driven than supported by the actual films. In fact, one noir you write about in another context supports your claim as well: Ride the Pink Horse (1947), which subversively undermines its own surface racism by positively foregrounding the lives of its racial “others.” Similar positive characterizations of racial “others” can be found in Border Incident (1948), The Lawless (1950), The Breaking Point (1950), No Way Out (1950), and others. Plus, not all of these were “B” films, although I’m sure that it was easier to slip things past the censors in lower-tier productions: No Way Out for example was an “A” production — and it includes a race riot that the African-American characters win! I also think that the Bogart vehicle Knock on Any Door (1949) deserves some consideration here, because it centers around an “off-white” protagonist and clearly aims to criticize ethnic prejudice against recent Italian immigrants to America. Its source novel was also written by an African-American, Willard Motley. (I’ve written a little bit about these and other films noirs in my book, Philosophy, Black Film, Film Noir, although I’m mostly interested in more recent incarnations of the genre.)
    Anyway, thanks for the helpful reflections on race and film noir.

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  16. Thank you very much Dan for your valuable contribution to this thread. I have your book in my ‘to read’ pile – looks like I should have read it before posting!

    I will have to revisit some of the movies you mention. I was particularly struck by your insight into Ride The Pink Horse.

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  17. Some great comments – from ‘MovieMan’ and others!
    I would like to thank the author for noting ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ as I believe it is a landmark movie.
    Also, I’d like to add that not only did the beautifully-built ‘Body and Soul’ have a chance for Canada Lee to show what a marvelous actor he was but the creators of the film made a point to make absolutely no reference to the ethnicity of his character. The brilliance of that pictures personel (at least 7 of whom were blacklisted) and Enterprise Productions in general were ultimately what Lee deserved.
    For books, well, did anyone suggest ‘The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960’ or ‘A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left?’
    After all of this, it must be remembered that, despite many efforts, those in the film community were (like others throughout the nation) facing firm institutional restrictions that kept them from doing exactly as they wished. Often, as many of the aforementined movies show, the only option was to do their best to actively show African-Americans doing their best to maintain on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

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  18. I tried to find some early background information on Juano Hernandez. I wasn’t able to do so. Do you have any information about his background?

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  19. What a very useful piece — I wish I’d discovered it before! Many thanks for it.

    I was watching Irish Luck (1939) the other night, the first of the Frankie Darro/Mantan Moreland collaborations (not noir, but it’s somewhere in noir’s ancestry, maybe). I gather the two men were good friends in private life yet, onscreen, Moreland had to be “properly respectful” to Darro for fear of offending Southern cinema managers/cinema-goers. Depressing stuff.

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