The Red and the Black
American Film Noir in the 1950s
Publication Year: 2016
Published by: University of Illinois Press
Title Page, Copyright Page
I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to Danny Nasset for his early enthusiasm for this book. He’s a prince of an editor and prescient to boot. In addition, I want to thank all the staff at the University of Illinois Press—especially Angela Burton, Marika Christofides, Kevin Cunningham, Tad Ringo, and Roberta Sparenberg—for shepherding The Red and the Black through the publication process and beyond. Their labor is anything but invisible to this writer....
Prise de Position: For ’50s Noir, or Confessions of a Film Noir Addict
Nineteen fifties noir is, like Disney noir, something of an oxymoron.1 The stereotypical conception of “the Fifties”—whether it’s Elvis or Eisenhower, Lucy or Ozzie and Harriet, Chevies or gray flannel suits, Sputnik or Levittown-style suburbia—just doesn’t jibe with the stereotypical notions about film noir (private eye, femme fatale, chiaroscuro, etc.)....
Preface: Generalities, or The Rise and Fall of Classic American Film Noir
In 1955, in A Panorama of American Film Noir, Étienne Chaumeton and Raymond Borde declared, “From 1949, the career of the noir genre, properly so called, comes to an end.”1 In 1972, in “Notes on Film Noir,” Paul Schrader stated that the “third and final phase of film noir” is “from 1949 to 1953.”2 And in 2002, in Film Noir, Andrew Spicer referred to 1952 to 1958 as the period of “fragmentation and decay.”3 From this brief chronological review, it’s clear that the periodization of classic noir has changed considerably over the years.4...
Introduction: Coming Attractions, or The Particulars
The Red and the Black is composed of three parts, each of which is devoted to a particular topic: anticommunism, “atomic noir,” and new media/technologies. Each part also has a slightly different configuration given my sense of how intensive or extensive the play of the theme is in ’50s noir. Cognizant as I am of the variable experience of watching previews, I have endeavored in what follows to offer a fresh, animated take on the various films discussed in more detail and at greater length in the body of the book....
Part One: ’50s Noir and Anticommunism
1. The Woman on Pier 13: I Married a Communist!
In the wake of the 1947 investigation of communist infiltration of the motion picture industry by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a series of anticommunist films began to appear in the United States. Although a cycle of silent pictures had appeared in 1919 and 1920 that “painted in lurid colors the threat posed by Bolshevism,”1 the anticommunist pictures produced by Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s are those that have become associated in the public imagination, like some Pavlovian reflex, with the “red menace.”...
2. The Red and the Black: “Black Film” and the Red Menace
The Woman on Pier 13 may well be the most symptomatic anticommunist noir, but as I noted at the beginning of the previous chapter, it’s by no means the only one. In Film Noir Andrew Spicer states that the early “1950s generated a sub-cycle of noirs that was explicit about the Communist threat.”1 And in Somewhere in the Night Nicholas Christopher writes that the “films woven of red menace... themes are varied and numerous, with a decidedly hyper-urgent, infernal take on urban life.”2 More recently, Wheeler Winston Dixon in Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia observes that these red scare films were “noir projects is hardly in...
3. Pickup on South Street: Out of the Red and Into the Black
Released in 1953 at the end of the first cycle of postwar anticommunist films (1947–1954), Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is a “canonical Cold War text.”1 It’s also one of the “most overdetermined” films made during the blacklist period, “centrally concerned” as it is with the “politics of informing.”2...
Part Two: ’50s Noir in the Atomic Age
4. D.O.A.: Fatality, Sexuality, Radioactivity
Pickup on South Street is both an atomic espionage and anti-anticommunist noir, since the top-secret microfilm that Skip McCoy purloins from Candy’s purse, which is related to the production of the A-bomb, has itself been purloined by the Reds. Yet if it’s true that the stolen microfilm in Fuller’s film is something of a MacGuffin, the nuclear subtext of Rudolph Maté’s D. O. A. (1950), at least from an atomic perspective, is even more oblique and overdetermined so that from another, generic perspective (say, the classic investigative narrative of film noir) it’s virtually nonexistent, an anamorphic trick or allucinatory figment of the film’s...
5. “Black Film” and the Bomb: Spies and “Cowboys,” “Indians,” Red Professors and Thieves
In D. O. A. the atomic subtext is obliquely articulated to the sexual psychopathology of everyday life and the fatalism associated with the investigative narrative of classic noir—with the twist, of course, that the “detective” is also the victim and the scene of the crime his human, all-too-human body. However, in the prototypical ’50s nuclear noir, the protagonist is not an everyman like Frank Bigelow in D. O. A. but an elite scientist—a nuclear physicist, to be precise—who’s either overtly opposed to or intimately aligned with the nation-state and its institutional agencies such as One-Worlder “Wicked Wizards” like Robert...
6. Kiss Me Deadly: The X Factor, or The “Great Whatsit”
In part because of its notorious, Mickey Spillane provenance, Kiss Me Deadly has been interpreted as an anticommunist film, yet it’s arguably better interpreted as an atomic or apocalyptic noir with the proviso that in the 1950s, as I remarked in the preface, the discourse about the red menace is frequently imbricated with the discourse about “the bomb.” While there may be some ambiguity about the film’s exact subgeneric status (Is enigmatic mastermind Dr. Soberin a free agent or a fellow traveler?), there’s little doubt that Robert Aldrich’s picture is a film...
Part Three: New Media and Technologies
7. Noir en couleur: Color and Widescreen
It has been argued that the decline of film noir is coincident not simply with the advent of the red menace and the blacklist but with the transformation of the motion picture industry occasioned by new media and technologies such as TV, 3-D, Eastmancolor, and CinemaScope. If, for example, color film stock necessitated higher, brighter key lighting and CinemaScope was premised upon opening up or elongating the standard screen (from, that is, the academy ratio of 1.33:1 to the new, anamorphic one of 2.55: 1 or 2.35:1), these developments appeared to militate against the sort of expressionist devices such as low, Venetian-blind...
8. Niagara: Colored Marilyns
Although Niagara was released in 1953 and therefore appeared before Black Widow, House of Bamboo, Slightly Scarlet, and A Kiss before Dying, it is in many ways the definitive ’50s color noir. One reason is that it was directed by Henry Hathaway, who had previously helmed The House on 92nd Street, The Dark Corner, 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), Kiss of Death (1947), and Call Northside 777. Frequently described as a “company man” or “house director,” the “consummate Hollywood professional” who “handled his material straightforwardly with few...
9. The Glass Web: 3-D, TV, and the Beginning of the End of Classic Noir
While for many fans and critics the notion of color and widescreen, if not stereophonic, noir is downright blasphemous, 3-D noirs appear—depending on one’s perspective or prejudices—as either preposterous or fantastical. 3-D was originally developed, like Eastmancolor, CinemaScope, and magnetic sound, in response to the “catastrophic decline of the movie audience,” 1 and was originally considered to be most compatible, like the former new technologies, with those genres historically associated with fantasy and spectacle such as the Western...
Conclusion: The Crimson Kimono, or Odds for Tomorrow
Whether the symptomatic film is considered to be Touch of Evil or Odds against Tomorrow, the critical consensus has been that the historical period of film noir concludes in the late 1950s. Although a number of formal and ideological factors have been adduced for this demise (for example, TV and HUAC, respectively), the end of classic noir, like its advent or origination, is more a matter of degree than kind. For example, if the tricked-out stylistics of Touch of Evil can be said to crystallize the classic expressionist strain of ’40s noir, its exploration of the Mexican border and the hybrid performative character of racial and national identities,...
Page Count: 312
Illustrations: 38 black and white photographs
Publication Year: 2016
OCLC Number: 958469826
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