The public enemy

Issue: 125
Posted: 7 January 10

Mike Wayne

Dennis Broe, Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood (University Press of Florida, 2009), £62.95

Film noir is a sub-genre that has attracted a lot of popular attention and commentary in the mainstream media. Although its classic black and white Hollywood period was in the 1940s and 1950s, its style and thematics live on in many examples of contemporary cinema. Popular criticism duly notes its aesthetic characteristics (the canted camera angles and lighting set-ups that swamped the image in darkness except for a few shards of light that cast unsettling shadows) and connects its themes of doomed anti-heroes and betrayal to the rise of fascism (many writers, directors and technicians entered Hollywood from Europe in the 1930s). Additional “contextualisation” includes references to historical generalities such as the Second World War, the subsequent Cold War, and a vague existential sense of unease about society and its institutions. Academic studies often distinguish themselves from such a general and superficial social analysis of this interesting cinematic form only by reaching for Freud and the Oedipus complex.

Admittedly sexual desire plays a very significant role in film noir. The femme fatale (the dangerous seductive women who entraps the male protagonist) is one of noir’s most recognisable features and a major contribution to film culture in general. However, there are precise social and historical reasons for the emergence of the femme fatale figure. After the Second World War women were being pushed back into the role of the homemaker in the US, when a very different role for them (as workers) had been briefly opened up in the war years. Some academic feminist critics have explored these social roots behind the frustration with restricted opportunities and conditions that the femme fatale is brimming with in this period. It is a frustration that produces a very dangerous dynamic vis-à-vis the male protagonist on whom she depends, but who she also destroys, or tries to. However, while gender has loomed large in academic studies, the relationship between film noir and the class struggle has been, if not entirely neglected, rather marginal.

For this reason Denis Broe’s book, which seeks to reconnect noir with a largely repressed history of class conflict (repressed or sublimated in the films and in the commentary on the films) is welcome. Students of noir might be surprised to learn that its emergence is coterminous with the biggest wave of strikes in American history. This period of workers’ militancy also affected the Hollywood studios which found themselves having to deal with a revived unionised labour force challenging their total control of the film industry. The strikes inevitably brought working people hard up against the law and the state, which used sections of the Taft-Hartley Act to outlaw their actions. In the late 1940s and 1950s the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigations began a period of political witch-hunts against anyone with left leaning sympathies. This period is often decried in liberal histories as a moment of paranoia and persecution. Yet it rested on a rational fear among the business class of workers’ militancy and an understanding that such challenges to their control of industry had to be crushed. In this context, HUAC provided the political cover to weed out leaders and suppress dissent.

This history returns in film noir in the form of the working class protagonist who is forced by the circumstances engendered by inequality to become a fugitive from the law. Broe identifies the key period for noir’s orientation towards a left paradigm as 1945-50. In many of the films of this period the key figures are outside and against the law, and the films work to align audience sympathies with the predicament of these outsiders. Such was the impact of the broader historical struggle against corporate America in this period that it sees the emergence of narratives that feature middle class protagonists kicking against their integration into the post-war business society.

The classic example of this type of film is Double Indemnity whose doomed male protagonist Walter Neff is a respectable insurance salesman. However, in the 1950s a new paradigm emerges which Broe identifies as “a cultural counterrevolution” where the central protagonists are once more law enforcement officials of one type or another. These “police procedural” films involved narratives of infiltration, surveillance and information gathering. This paradigm, where audience sympathies are aligned to the forces of “law and order” as they police working class locales, clearly aligns itself with the “red-baiting” years of HUAC which resulted in taming the unions and integrating them as junior partners into US corporate imperatives. Broe tells this parallel history of labour’s battle against the bosses and the state in some detail and provides compelling evidence that it makes sense to read these films in relation to this history.

That the emergence and shifts in noir so closely parallel broader historical realities is, of course, no coincidence. It is evidence of the links between culture and society that justify and require an analysis that reconnects what the films can only obliquely articulate and what the broader dominant culture often represses completely. Broe’s work here finds a parallel with studies of British cinema of the immediate post Second World War years. Again, in a brief moment between the end of the war and the consolidation of post-war capitalism, a space opened up for alternative visions, social roles and values in film that would be subsequently closed down as the 1950s advanced. This moment, with its embryonic resistance to the dominant order, is registered in film culture.

Broe makes use of Raymond Williams’s suggestive notion of a “structure of feeling” to mediate between the films and their historical context. A structure of feeling for Williams refers to those emerging qualities of practical experience which have not and perhaps cannot be given official expression because dominant society cannot recognise or value them. Yet in culture such “feelings” as class antagonism towards figures of authority can acquire a presence and form (a structure) in those cultural products that for whatever reason are attuned to them.

Broe goes further and suggests that in film noir in the 1945-50 period, there was something like a working class/middle class alliance (or Gramscian bloc) that was hegemonic in terms of this anti-corporate “structure of feeling”.

In a useful appendix Broe breaks down this group of films into various categories according to the social and narrative position of the leading protagonist. For example, there are the social problem film, the working class fugitive film, the Depression-era drifter, the war veteran, the middle class fugitive and the detective figure who is outside the law. Broe notes how these films opened up a space for working class protagonists and even a kind of affirmation of working class language, experience and values, in contrast to upper class or business figures or agents of the law who are represented as self-interested or corrupt.

In a process of cultural struggle, this countercultural hegemony was broken down and dispersed in the films of the 1950s. The predominant form this took was to shift the centre of narrative gravity back towards police officials involved in the nitty gritty of surveillance, information gathering and manhunts. Here the state apparatus and its control over working class districts are normalised. Other films deployed a different strategy, by focusing on the fugitive, but making him psychotic and thus turning the audience against the type of outsider character who they would have identified and sympathised with in the earlier films. Broe illustrates this process very well with the 1953 film Niagara, a rare early colour noir. Here the psychotic figure, George Loomis, is initially presented in at least quasi-sympathetic terms, but gradually becomes more threatening towards the bourgeois couple on their honeymoon at Niagara Falls. As Broe puts it:

The narrative works initially to introduce Loomis (Joseph Cotton) as the typical protagonist of the noir film, replete with subjective voice-over narration, but then slowly to pull back from him, refocusing instead through the bourgeois wife, Polly, who understands George but whom he also menaces, and ultimately to distance him to the point where his death is seen as necessary to return bourgeois life to normal.

Yet despite the closure on noir radicalism in the 1950s, the cultural struggle between the fugitive outsider and the state enforcer, once created, can be mobilised and revised in new contexts that reprise the earlier duel between contending visions of America. Here Broe’s analysis shifts focus towards television. He charts this dynamic in the contest between two popular US television serials in the 1960s. The Fugitive clearly recalled the themes and working class locales of the radical noirs of the 1945-50 period, while the police procedural show Dragnet clearly modelled itself on the status quo orientated films of the 1950s.

Finally Broe explores the trajectory of neo-noir into the Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior years and, beyond that, noir after 9/11. After 9/11, George Bush Junior launched his “war on terror”. This served, as the red baiting years had in the 1950s, to silence dissent and shore up support behind an administration that had been widely seen as illegitimate following the disputed presidential elections of 2000. The Fox channel’s popular series 24 was hastily rewritten while being broadcast, shifting from critical paranoia about right wing extremists in the state apparatus apparently planning the assassination of a black politician with presidential ambitions to blaming foreign terrorists. The series’ hero, Jack Bauer, meanwhile was rapidly converted into an enthusiastic practitioner of torture. The conservative and status quo orientation of the police procedurals had now reached a new level.

Broe’s analysis of television programmes after the classic period of film noir does raise questions as to how one defines film noir. It was always an unstable blend of quite disparate materials: a social realism that sought out urban locations and working class experiences; an expressionistic and paranoid style evoking a general social alienation; an intricate thematic of sexual desire and social power struggles; and an ambiguous and shifting relationship to agencies of the law and the state more generally, with the position of the key protagonists (outside the law, private detective, or salaried employee of the state) often being decisive in shaping the ideological orientation of the text.

Beyond noir’s classic period, different parts of noir get adapted and combined with other generic materials in different ways leading to a widespread influence of noir on the general culture but also at times a dilution of that original nexus of elements that made up the classic noir film. Broe’s analysis thus loses something of its focus after the discussion of the classic period and the subsequent focus on television, which perhaps cannot sustain a full-bloodied noir aesthetic.

Nevertheless Broe’s book very usefully reminds us of the necessity to ground films in a rich historical understanding and boldly sets out what has often been only hinted at in much of the literature and commentary on noir: namely that it is an aesthetic forged by class, class struggle and class consciousness.