straight down the line

Out of the War and Into Noir

As Week One of noir106 draws to a close, I wanted to offer some of my own impressions of Noir. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m not a Noir expert. I decided to teach this class late last fall, and by then Bond and Groom had already decided to use Noir as the lens of this iteration of ds106. I’ll be learning, along with all the students, about what Noir is and how it can inspire us creatively this spring.

If I have any experience with Noir as a genre, it tends to be more with radio drama. As a child, my Sunday nights were often spent listening to NPR’s Big Broadcast, a weekly homage to old-time radio. I was a big fan of Johnny Dollar. I loved the heightened drama and suspense of those shows, and the over-the-top acting. I’m also a big mystery fan, so I enjoyed the unraveling of the plots, even if the outcome was sometimes a bit obvious.

I also spent a lot of my childhood watching old films on AMC. I’m having fun revisiting some of those and thinking about their noir-ish overtones.

In doing some reading about Noir this past month or so, I think the thing that fascinated me most was the notion that American Noir was in many ways a response to our experience in WWII. There are a couple of factors coming to play there. First, it’s probably important to remember that the film industry was relatively nascent at that time, and, as happens when any new technology or mass media captures the public’s imagination, there was still a fair amount of concern and hand-wringing about how these productions would affect and shape our citizenry and culture.

To that end, Hollywood operated under the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Act) during this era. The Code attempted to regulate what kind of content was acceptable for American films to portray. The code went into affect in the early 30s, and if you look at movies from that era, it’s striking how upbeat and sunny they are. During WWII, it seems there was an even stronger sense that American films needed to keep Americans feeling good — because, frankly, overseas there was a lot to feel not so good about.

That juxtaposition really is striking, and I find myself thinking about how WWII marked our foray into a truly global culture, where we were, as a country, confronted in ways we’d never been confronted before with the realities of global politics and what it meant to be a world leader. WWII ended with us winning (at a huge price of American soldiers’ lives)–but it also ended with Russia winning, and with that came the looming threat of communism, which, for many Americans represented a kind of dark, foreboding danger from beyond.

I’m neither a film historian nor a historian of any kind or merit, so these are merely my clumsy attempts to try and frame the moment when Noir appears to grow on the American cinematic scene. And I find this context and framing so interesting. Thinking about how these films were a reaction against the forced sunniness of the Hays Act and how we were just coming out of global war that was, for many, a nightmare, changes my impression of them. They’re more than just dramatic, black-and-white suspense films. Instead they’re a reflection of our cultural sense of fear and embedding danger.

As a final note, I was unaware until recently about the alternate ending for Double Indemnity, in which Neff was actually depicted dying in the gas chamber. Apparently, this was filmed, but at the last minute taken out. (The actual footage is apparently lost.) ¬†Billy Wilder decided that, in the end, the film didn’t need it. But in addition, perhaps there¬†was some sense that this raw depiction of public execution was going too far. It’s so interesting to me how that bar of “too far” moves and in response to what social, cultural, and political forces.


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