- Jazz and Cocktails: Rethinking Race and the Sound of Film Noir by Jans B. Wager
Jans Wager works at the intersection of film soundtrack studies and racial analyses of cinema to offer an account of the way film noir deploys jazz to further its often racially fraught designs. In nine chapters that range mostly across what Wager calls “late classic film noir”—Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953), [End Page 340] Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1957), Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)—the author suggests a “revolutionary, if short-lived, element” was to be found in the contexts jazz music and its composers brought to the productions (2). The music might enhance the drama, contrast with it, or operate in and as a separate dimension altogether; it might be diegetic (seen in a club or heard on a radio) or a nondiegetic set of codes and implications; it sometimes even came in the form of key figures themselves (Duke Ellington, Chico Hamilton), or actor-avatars meant to summon them. All of it provided an air or environment of significance for “dark” tales of predominantly white characters’ having fallen into various forms of moral corruption. If I dissent below from many of Wager’s conclusions, this takes nothing away from the painstaking study and the insights into noir soundscapes ably documented in Jazz and Cocktails.
Much is pinned on what Wager terms the “Afromodernism” and (after Brecht) the “alienation effect” afforded by the appearance of jazz in noir. “Afromodernism allows a reading that focuses on black activism and the use of innovation and integration to achieve artistic goals in white Hollywood. The alienation effect suggests a more general understanding of the type of disruption within established codes that jazz offered to Hollywood soundtracks” (3). Though much of the analysis strains to demonstrate such activism and disruption, what Wager most often shows comes closer to her judicious early remark on noir’s use of jazz, that it “both served the Hollywood system’s stereotypes and provided a nuanced and expanded contribution to filmic meaning, just as it meant more to the musicians themselves” (15). In my view, noir enabled a commonsense racialism by which cinematic and musical “blackness” was used to convey whiteness gone wrong, which is to say that for all the genre’s interest in exposing white pathology, deceit, murder, and betrayal, it remained problematically invested in an untainted whiteness.
Before moving to her various exhibits, Wager takes us randomly for a chapter to Ogden, Utah and its Porters and Waiters Club (Wager teaches at Utah Valley University), which she demonstrates hosted many jazz musicians (even Charlie Parker) on their way to the West Coast. It’s an understatement to say this chapter doesn’t further Wager’s argument in the slightest, but it is not without its interest. Wager’s turn to Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) mines its production details to show how conscious the studio (RKO) was of falling into various kinds of racist depiction but too ingenuously co-signs its liberal intentions, finding sequences clearly associating people of color with evil as “offering liberation and freedom” (45–46). This is the often unintentional problem of racial figuration in noir that I have argued elsewhere bedeviled whatever radical intentions this “Marxist cinema manqué ” (as Mike Davis calls it in City of Quartz) may have had—its relentless use of marginalized Black characters and racialized associations as backdrops, buttresses, and shadings for the moral degradations of white people. Wager’s book, in its sinuous explorations of such figuration, qualifies and looks for openings in it without producing a satisfying critique of it. As Wager puts it, the “representation [in Out of the Past] hints at the black activism implicit in bebop for an instant, suggests black life is as rich and sophisticated as white life for just...