Let us put aside for a moment the rather usual and thus “uncritical” approach to the USA in the 1940s and 1950s as a cultural, political and national whole; and now let us try to experience that world through the eyes of a fictional character in a Film Noir.
Then we would sense the many small changes that made life in the largest democracy in the world slightly strenuous. Simultaneously, a war had to be fought abroad, subsequently the Red Scarce swept the country and made the production of critical plays, movies, books and lyrics demanding and being an individual with thoughts and ideas may have given your fellow citizens the idea that you were a communist, spy or worse.
It is with this approach that parts of Mr. Lingeman’s book try to recreate and thus analyze the overall spirit of those times. This does not imply that “The Noir Forties” is a book on movies; actually, it is not.
But then, a number of noir movies portrayed the realities of many returning veterans. Many of them experienced their homecoming as a return to a familiar yet strange country. The US had changed during their absence in the service; women did men’s jobs in factories, plants and many other sectors. There was a shortage of houses, jobs in general and a feeling of uncertainty due to goals or visions not specified by politics. Violence and killing had become familiar to the soldiers, as had organized and structured days, a military chain of command and a clear way of how things had to be done; but to what order did the veterans return after the war? Fighting Hitler and Japan was one thing but what national vision was waiting after that?
Having picked an excellent title for a study in American history and sociology, the mere word “noir” quickly and thoroughly prepares the reader for certain aspects of uncertainty and a personal and sociological environment rather hostile than friendly.
We need to keep in mind that the majority of the cinematic noir masterpieces were filmed in the decade highlighted by Mr. Lingeman, and their plots were neither fantasy nor science fiction but were conceived as common drama, thriller or even romance (the term “film noir” however, was used only years later to refer to this way of film lighting, the outsider confronted with a life gone helter skelter and the new role of government, women and organizations to mention but a few changes).
On the other hand, one could argue, that the first films noir were shot way before that time, like Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). Alienation, loneliness, hypocrisy and the fading meaning and importance of the individual in modern life were no strange matters to sociologists of the day, as were psychosis, depression and paranoia. But things after the war seemingly got tense.
Richard Lingeman, long time senior editor of The Nation, author of nine previous books and cultural historian of some standing, uncovers a historical period (roughly the years 1945-1955) in a highly entertaining way.
Or to put it another way: Europeans (like myself) always had a very different understanding of the times after the war, meaning that the year 1945 and peace marked not only a new era but also a new way of interpreting it. While that very year seemed not to have left any great impact on the US history – as was my general understanding so far – there were, nevertheless, a number of effects that in Lingeman’s study now surface in the right angle; meaning quite literally that they surface and thus immediately become “noir.”
Mr. Lingeman masterfully shows the interrelatedness of seemingly small and rather fiddling developments and changes in people’s everyday life; it is the total of these small changes that fostered finally a climate of distrust culminating in the McCarthy witch hunts and a culture of indoctrination and suppression. We must not forget that The Nation is the oldest weekly paper of the United States, and that its quite liberal/leftist point of view may have enabled it to perceive the change in minute domains over the years from a somewhat safe and secure neighborhood to a rather unstable life situation.
That specific tendency in movie plots, the character’s impression to be under surveillance, their nagging notion that things are “not quite” what they seem actually was imported from German movies of the Weimar Republic and film directors from Austria and Germany. Like Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Abraham Polonsky and many others.
As I write this review, a recent article in that very paper Lingeman was associated with for a long time, The Nation, pops up in my mind. There a good article on film critic and theorist Siegfried Kracauer was published. And just as Kracauer attributed the feelings of terror and angst in American movies of the 1940s to the similar emotions in German movies of a decade earlier, Lingeman moves ahead some more steps while he connects various other aspects of American life in the late 1940s into one whole that seemingly had to lead to the Korean war and finally, the cold war.
This is not to say that the “Noir Forties” were never documented or never received sociological attention; but Lingeman’s book offers the missing links to have a good understanding of the mechanisms, meanings, substitutes and finally types and images that so often pop up while watching a noir film. The roots and ancestors of these fears, feelings and uncertainties are solidly uncovered by this volume.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert (2013)
Richard Lingeman. The Noir Forties: The American People From Victory to Cold War. Nation Books, 2012, 434 pages.
(This review was previously published on www.jive-talk.com – Musing on JAZZ and Related Topics).