THE RED AND THE BLACK: AMERICAN FILM NOIR IN THE 1950s
By Robert Miklitsch
Reviewed by Jim Burns
It’s often assumed that film noir was largely a product of the 1940s, and that, by the early-1950s, it was petering out as a genre, with perhaps a few late-arrivals still set in the world of “an extreme use of shadow, constant rain, paranoid voice-over, threatening camera angles, and jarring close-ups”. I’m not sure that even many of the earlier films usually listed in books on film-noir necessarily used all those characteristics, but the general idea is accurate enough. They caught a mood. And their black-and-white photography emphasised the often-downbeat and gritty environments where the action took place.
Problems arise when determining which films fall into the film noir
category, and just when did the genre start (or, more likely, become
obvious), and when did it end, if it did. An earlier book,
Kiss the Blood off My Hands:
On Classic Film Noir (
In The Red and the Black, Miklitsch mentions a 1940s film called Leave Her to Heaven, and refers to it as an example of what he calls, “colour noir”, a film in technicolour (most, if not all, film noir used black-and-white photography) that otherwise might easily slot into a noir pigeon-hole. Personally, I’m inclined to the view that Leave Her to Heaven is best described as melodrama. All film noir may be melodramas, but not all melodramas are film noir. I watched Leave Her to Heaven again just to refresh my memories of it, and frankly couldn’t for the life of me grasp how it can be described as film noir. It has a central female character who might be seen as something of a femme fatale in the way she has a negative effect on the main male character. But her personality and actions have more to do with neurotic obsessions than anything, and are not necessarily only noir characteristics.
The main thrust of Miklitsch’s survey of 1950s film noir is in the
direction of films which exploited the rise of anti-communism in the
One of the films that worked on the susceptibilities of the public was The Woman on Pier 13, which had initially been titled, I Married a Communist. The switch of titles points to the appeal that a thriller, or similar sort of production, would have over something that might be thought of as a documentary. Its story was fairly simple. A newly married, successful businessman comes face to face with his radical past when Communist Party members try to draw him back into their activities. The film noir links are obvious. There’s a glamorous, communist femme fatale, several gangster-like Party members, and a plot that, with a few changes of names, etc., and with criminal aims substituted for communism, could have been taken from any number of “B” movies of the 1940s. And the lighting, camerawork, and settings (down by the docks, and along dark streets) were all designed to emphasise the noir atmosphere. It’s interesting that the communists, as in other films of the period which focused on their activities, are portrayed as akin to gangsters and not averse to killing to protect their interests.
A 1949 film not analysed by Miklitsch, The Red Menace, shows communist thugs beating a man to death when he dissents at a party meeting, and driving a sensitive young poet to commit suicide when his work is savagely criticised and he is ostracised by all his former comrades. The idea of writers being attacked did have a great deal of validity, as witness the treatment of Albert Maltz by the American Communist Party when he suggested that writers should be true to their own consciences rather than to a Party line. He was abused extensively, both in person and in print.
Among other anti-communist films which utilised the trappings of film noir, and are dissected by Miklitsch, were Walk East on Beacon, I Was a Communist for the FBI, and Big Jim McClain. The latter was the most successful, in commercial terms, of the genre, probably because it starred John Wayne. It didn’t help it rise much beyond the level of a “B” movie. It is a fact that few, if any, of the films that Miklitsch discusses, were of a quality that could push them into being classed above the “B” movie rating. An exception might be made for Pickup on South Street, directed by the maverick Samuel Fuller and starring Richard Widmark and Jean Peters. It does portray the communists as being no better than gangsters, and ready to murder to achieve their objectives, as when they eliminate an old woman who defies them, but other factors helped to give it greater interest as a film.
Jean Peters plays the part of a one-time prostitute who is
unwittingly acting as a courier carrying a microfilm with atomic
secrets for the Party. Widmark is a small-time crook, a pickpocket
who steals the purse with the film from Peters’ handbag. His
attitude when he finds out that what he’s got is worth something is
to ask a high price for it. He has no compunctions about dealing
with communists. When
he’s taken in by the authorities (an FBI agent had been tailing
Peters and had seen Widmark stealing the microfilm), and his
patriotism is appealed to, he sneers and tells his interrogators to
stop waving the flag at him. The demands of the
A number of other films employed film noir characteristics to play on fears of atomic espionage. One of them was the ludicrous Shack Out on 101, in which Lee Marvin (appropriately nicknamed “Slob”) played a short-order cook at a roadside diner who also happens to be the head of the local branch of the Communist Party. A nuclear scientist frequents the diner, and is romancing the waitress (a nubile young woman with aspirations to pass the Civil Service entrance exams) while she is being lusted after by Slob. The scientist is supposedly passing secrets to Slob, though he’s in fact working for the government. It’s hard to take the whole thing seriously, and the film doesn’t even have the benefits of good photography or imaginative lighting, as do, for example, Pickup on South Street and The Woman on Pier 13.
A much more provocative film dealing with the passing of secrets is The Thief, starring Ray Milland as a nuclear scientist who is involved in stealing information and handing it over to the communists. In fact, it’s never overtly stated that they are communists, though the period and the nuclear aspect inevitably lead viewers to assume they are. What makes the film of great interest in cinematic terms is that it contains no dialogue. The usual extraneous noises – footsteps, doors, telephones, etc. – are heard, but no-one ever speaks. It adds tension to the narrative and also lays emphasis on the increasingly paranoid actions of the professor.
It’s true that, to a degree, the communists are viewed somewhat
stereotypically. A small, bespectacled man peers ominously from
behind a desk in the reading room of the Library of Congress, as the
professor hides information on a shelf of books. A female communist
carries three books under her arm at the top of the
A film that continues to attract attention is Kiss Me Deadly, written by A.I. Bezzerides from Mickey Spillane’s novel. Spillane, a pulp writer if ever there was one, described his work as “the chewing gum of American literature”. The novel referred to a stolen canister that contained drugs, but the film changed it to radioactive material that would, should the canister be opened, bring death and destruction. Miklitsch says that it’s not an anti-communist film, but rather “an atomic or apocalyptic noir”. It certainly uses all the stylistic aspects of film noir, and has been described as probably the final film in what might be called the classic tradition of the genre. It’s definitely an example of a film improving on a book.
It’s worth noting that another 1950s film,
It’s a fascinating side-issue in relation to
Miklitsch looks at several
1950s films which, he says, can be classified as examples of
late-film noir. He cites
Black Widow, A Kiss Before Dying, and particularly
Despite my occasional challenges to Miklitsch’s ideas and opinions,
I thoroughly enjoyed his book. He’s an astute critic and a rigorous
analyst of the plots and contents of screenplays. He also rightly
gives a lot of credit to the technicians who worked on the films, in
particular cameramen like John Alton, Lucien Ballard, Joseph
MacDonald, and others. Without them the all-important visual aspects
of film noir would have been much reduced.
and the Black is a book for all those who love to read about the