This is the first in a series of posts in which I will cover books on film noir that I have been reading, and which aficionados of film noir will find interesting.
For this first post, I have chosen DRIVEN TO DARKNESS: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir (Rutgers University Press, 2009 ) by Vincent Brook.
In Driven To Darkness author Vincent Brook argues that the development of film noir in Hollywood was largely driven by emigre Jewish directors; and that the the noir motifs of the femme-fatale and the weak and ambivalent noir protagonist, have their origins in Jewish folklore, the historical oppression of Jews, and the German expressionist theater of the early 20th century. He argues his case by reference to the films of Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Edgar G. Ulmer, Curtis Bernhardt, Max Ophuls, John Brahm, Anatole Litvak, and Fred Zinnemann.
While Brook presents his case in detail and with a broad historical sweep, I am not convinced. The Jewish influence exists, but it does not explain the rise of noir. Brook supports his thesis principally by reference to plot elements, based on the (questionable) presumption that these derive from the director and not from the script. Many of the films cited by Brook have screenplays (or are from stories) written by non-Jews, and the influence of the American hard-boiled crime fiction of the 30s and 40s is not given sufficient consideration.
Nonetheless, I found particularly interesting the chapters on Fritz Lang. Brook presents the novel view that Lang in his films noir is escaping his Jewishness and perhaps seeking expiation for something he may have done in Germany before he fled the country. Lang’s recollections of his life in Germany and his reasons for leaving, have been found to be unreliable, and this has been of interest to scholars. Lang’s first wife died by his own hand. He claimed to have accidently shot her. There is a lingering suspicion in some quarters that Lang actually murdered her. Brook hypothesises this presumption of guilt and sees real parallels in a number of Lang’s noirs, particularly Scarlet Street (1945), where a weak artistic male protagonist is driven by lust and jealousy to kill the femme-fatale who has betrayed him. By the end of the movie, the killer is so consumed by guilt that he lives a deranged homeless existence in a noir city, so hopelessly dark, that it shattered the closed romantic realism of Hollywood for good. Brook’s analysis has a particular cogency in the case of Scarlet Street. The film was Lang’s first independent Hollywood feature and he “was allowed the luxury of working for three months on the script with Dudley Nichols” (Andrew Spicer, ‘Film Noir’, 2002, p123).
2 thoughts on “Books Digest: Crossfire, Jewish Directors, and Streets With No Names – Part 1 Jewish Noir Directors”
“He argues his case by reference to the films of Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Edgar G. Ulmer, Curtis Bernhardt, Max Ophuls, John Brahm, Anatole Litvak, and Fred Zinnemann.”
Fascinating volume. Of course there are a few others who are Jewish that began their careers in noir, like Anthony Mannn and William Castle; even Val Lewton’s work could be partially included. But it’s a convincing argument, though it might be too narrow in its focus as you rightly note. The section on Lang and SCARLET STREET seems worth the price of the treatise alone.
It has never ceased to amaze me how Jewish emigres defined American culture in general in the early part of the century, in film, theatre and music. There are easy enough sociological issues to figure it out though.
Yes Sam, the extent of the contribution of the Jewish diaspora to American thought and culture in the first-half of the 20th century is staggering.