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THE RED AND THE BLACK: AMERICAN FILM NOIR IN THE 1950s

By Robert Miklitsch

University of Illinois Press. 312 pages. $28. ISBN 978-0-252-08219-1 (paperback)

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 (University of Illinois Press, 2014), edited by Robert Miklitsch, raised these questions (see my review, Northern Review of Books, May, 2016), though without really answering them. There probably aren’t any answers, or at least not definitive ones. My own feeling is that there may be only a handful of films from the 1940s which can truly be classified as film noir, and that most of the others will include certain aspects of the style, as categorised above, in their general approach, but are not necessarily film noir in the strict sense of the term.

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 United States. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had arrived in Hollywood in 1947 to investigate supposed communist infiltration of the film industry, and events in America and the world generally helped to build up a situation of near-paranoia about what communists were supposedly doing. There were dedicated anti-communists, as well as opportunists, in Hollywood, and a number of films began to appear which played on the fears of the subversion that the media, and various politicians, claimed to be prevalent in the country. Senator Joseph McCarthy didn’t get to Hollywood, but he wasn’t alone in allegations of spies and agitators at work in branches of the civil service, industry, politics, the arts, education, and just about everywhere in American life. . That there were spies and agitators wasn’t in dispute. Whether or not they were as widespread as someone like McCarthy suggested might be another matter. But people believed they were.

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 Hollywood system required a suitably positive ending, but the body of the film allowed Fuller to be idiosyncratic and raise questions about both communism and capitalism. The authorities are shown to be just as ruthless as the communists in their disregard for the individual in order to get what they want.

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 Empire State Building as a sign that she is the professor’s contact. Perhaps that was how it was? The way the professor seems to be caught in a web of spying that he can’t escape from, puts one in mind of the words of the communist boss in The Red Menace who, speaking of a possible recruit, says, “when we get him into the Party he’ll find out that it’s not so easy to get out”.

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, City of Fear, also used the idea of a stolen deadly canister of radioactive material being carried around by someone who doesn’t realise what it contains. In this case, it’s an escaped prisoner believes that he’s holding a can of narcotics worth a million dollars. In the meantime, the authorities, alert to the fact that, if opened, the contents could decimate the city and its surroundings, are trying to track him down. There is no anti-communist theme to the film, and it simply emphasises the fear of what an atomic mishap could result in. People were aware of the possibility of atomic warfare and its consequences, but both Kiss Me Deadly and City of Fear appeared to suggest that an accidental release of radioactivity was just as much of a threat.

It’s a fascinating side-issue in relation to City of Fear that its director, Irving Lerner, who had been active in the left-wing Workers Film and Photo League and Frontier Films in the 1930s, may have been linked in some way to espionage activity in the 1940s when he worked with the Office of War Information (OWI). He was caught trying to photograph some highly-secret equipment located at the University of California which was linked to the development of the atom bomb at Los Alamos. Lerner wasn’t prosecuted, but he did resign from his position at the OWI, and went to work for Keynote Records whose owner, Eric Bernay, was reputed to have been involved in espionage, as was Arthur Adams, a Keynote employee, who moved to Russia in 1946. Keynote Records initially specialised in folk music and protest songs, but also became known for some excellent jazz records, including examples of early bebop. As for Lerner, he was, not surprisingly, blacklisted when the anti-communist hysteria hit Hollywood.

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 Niagara, as among them. I’m not convinced of his arguments, persuasive though they seem to be. As with my earlier comments about Leave Her to Heaven, I find that the use of technicolour, and the wide screen, work against the elements of darkness, dreary settings, and paranoia that were highlights of film noir. Agreed that the stories may be similar to those in many of the earlier films, but it’s how the stories are interpreted that makes the difference. And the early noirs made imaginative use of often limited resources.

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.  The Red and the Black is a book for all those who love to read about the Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s, and especially those that fall into the film noir category. We can argue all day about exactly what that term entails, but the subject will never fail to fascinate.