Prefiguring Postmodernism: Flashback in Film Noir

I am currently reading a fascinating book on the career of activist Hollywood writer and producer,  Adrian Scott,  ‘Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s Hollywood’,  by Jennifer E. Langdon (2008 Columbia University Press),  which focuses on the production by Scott of three seminal RKO noirs, Murder, My Sweet (1944), Cornered (1945), and Crossfire (1947).

In a chapter on the making of Crossfire, Langdon relates that one of the most radical changes Scott and screenwriter John Paxton made in the adaptation of Richard Brook’s source novel, ‘The Brick Foxhole’, was the use of flashback.  Langdon goes on to expound a profoundly interesting take on the nature of the flashback in film noir:

flashbacks are a key narrative strategy in film noir, contributing to the genre’s existential exploration of truth and falsehood.  Historian William Graebner, suggesting the ways in which film noir prefigured postmodernism, explains, “By interrupting a traditional, linear narrative, the flashback challenged the form strongly identified with progress: the story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and open to all possibilities.” Explicitly connecting the ruptured narrative strategies of film noir to the pervasive postwar sense of contingency and doubt, he argues:  “In the context of a military victory that seemed to have been won at the cost of demonstrating the inhumanity of humankind, and of a cold war that called for eternal vigilance, the ability of a cultural text to produce a conclusion consistent with, and implied in, everything that had gone before—what literary scholar Frank Kermode calls ‘the sense of an ending’ —withered and died.” * (p 85)

More on Langdon’s book in a future post.

* William Graebner, The Age of Doubt: American Thought and Culture in the 1940s (Boston: Twayne, 1981), 54, 145.

6 thoughts on “Prefiguring Postmodernism: Flashback in Film Noir”

  1. Langdon’s book does fascinate me Tony, as I completely agree with the assertion here: “flashbacks are a key narrative strategy in film noir, contributing to the genre’s existential exploration of truth and falsehood.” I believe that in this sense, noir alone of all genre’s makes more profound and formidable (existential context, etc.) use of this device than in any other genre, where it is usually emplyed much more conventionally, within the linear framework.

    Great post here!


  2. Hi! Tony…
    What a very interesting article/post…indeed!
    As a matter of fact, I plan to take a look at Film noir and flashback(s) over there on the Ning where I’am a co-administrator this week-end.
    Thank, for sharing!
    DeeDee ;-D


  3. Hi! Tony…
    WB are about to release these films noir on DVDr…and they are:
    THE SYSTEM is a gripping 1953 gangster tale about a bookie ring. A reporter, whose daughter is dating the ring’s big boss, feels compelled expose the criminal. Frank Lovejoy and Joan Weldon lead the cast.

    On THIS SIDE OF THE LAW lies impersonation, greed and jilted lovers. This tense 1950 thriller stars Kent Smith and Viveca Lindfors as a hobo conman and the “wife” who thought her husband was dead and gone.

    BETRAYED (aka “When Strangers Marry”) (1944) made Robert Mitchum a star. He plays the ex-boyfriend of Kim Hunter, as she begins to suspect that her new husband (Dean Jagger) might be a murderer! Future horror innovator William Castle’s taut direction leaves audiences feeling like they, too, are uncertain of whom to trust. Pre-order now for 9/14.

    In the 1953 film noir, HOT NEWS, a prize-fighter-turned-reporter seeks to expose an unscrupulous gambling ring that leaves boxers broken, ruined and murdered for love and money. With plenty of good girls, bad girls, and bad girls who like good times, HOT NEWS is everything a hard-boiled B-picture should be.

    THE GANGSTER (1947) is a grim glimpse behind the curtain of a criminal life filled with struggle and pain. This is the story of Shubunka (Barry Sullivan), as he fights his way to the top of a shaky crime pyramid. Will beautiful Nancy Starr (Belita) save his soul…or steal his heart (and fortune)?

    One of Howard da Silva’s last films before being blacklisted, THE UNDERWORLD STORY (1950) has Dan Duryea playing a yellow journalist who faces his own professional blacklisting. Will he be able to clear his name? Story by Craig Rice (pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Randolph Walker Craig), a female mystery writer who once appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine.

    In true film noir fashion, 1947’s HIGH WALL is awash in rain, shadow and psychological suspense. Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor) is accused of killing his wife, but a brain injury he suffered during the war has left his memory unreliable. His psychiatrist (Audrey Totter) begins to suspect there is more to the story. You will too.

    A beguiling, fast-paced B-grade crime drama, BUNCO SQUAD (1950) follows the LAPD as they investigate a ring of phony fortunetellers and misanthropic mediums that bilk wealthy widows out of their fortunes. The cast also includes Dante the Magician – whose magical stage shows once played to huge
    international acclaim

    Unfortunately, I have only watched the 1947 film…High Wall.

    DeeDee ;-D


  4. Bravo,Tony! The flashback is an excellent factor to reflect on. It’s cutting across the grain of mundane progress could indeed open strange and fascianting dimensions.
    I don’t know enough about film noir to make much input regarding the flashback in that field. But there are two David Lynch films (both somewhat noirish) that deploy characters’ looking back, to stunning effect. In Mulholland Drive, Rita dreams of Club Silencio, and then she and Betty reactivate the gift from the past (and the present and the future), namely, Rebekah Del Rio’s performance of “Crying.” In Rabbits, all the characters (linked to Mulholland Drive)shake off a fear-driven lethargy in order to come to grips, as best they can, with the pain and death befalling the little creature from Eraserhead.


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