restricted access 5. “Black Film” and the Bomb: Spies and “Cowboys,” “Indians,” Red Professors and Thieves
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5 “Black Film” and the Bomb Spies and “Cowboys,” Red Professors and Thieves Some men with brains in their cranium Took a piece of uranium They did what other men couldn’t do They split the atom right in two —Sir Lancelot, “Atomic Energy” (Raymond Glazer and L. V. Pinard, 1947) 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 Oppenheimer and anti-internationalist “Master Mechanics” like Edward Teller, respectively.1 AlthoughtheFBI,asintheanticommunistnoir,isthedominantinvestigativefigureinthesefilms ,it’salsooddlysuperfluous(asinTheThief[1952]), more concerned with national security than individual human lives (as in The Atomic City [1952]), or risibly incompetent (as in Shack Out on 101 [1955]). City of Fear (1959) is not, unlike The Thief, The Atomic City, and Shack Out on 101, an atomicespionagenoir.However,ifLerner’sfilmisanotherhybridsubgenre—say, a nuclear-epidemiological noir—the representation of the LAPD in City of Fear reiterates the ambivalent figuration of the FBI in the prototypical atomic noir as well as the distinctly unsympathetic view of the police and federal authorities in both Pickup on South Street and Kiss Me Deadly. 110 ’50s Noir in the Atomic Age * * * The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was established in 1946 after the bombingofHiroshimaandNagasakibutbeforeOperationCrossroads,theatomic bomb tests at Bikini. A civilian institution, the AEC sought to “oversee atomic energy research and development.”2 The turning point in the early history of the commission occurred in April 1949 and involved the AEC Fellowship Program. AnAmericancitizendiscoveredthatHansFreistadt,agraduatestudentinphysics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had “received an AEC fellowshiptodoresearchongeneralrelativity .”3 TheproblemwasthatFreistadt—inthe words of contemporary, right-wing radio commentator Fulton Lewis Jr.—was a “professed communist.”4 On July 7, 1949, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a rider that “requiredFBIinvestigationsforallAECfellowshiprecipients.”5 ThearrestofKlaus FuchsinLondoninFebruary1950—onemonthbeforethereleaseofD.O.A.—transformed the subject of atomic espionage from an academic to a national security issue.InAmericanSocietyinanAgeofAnxiety,JessicaWangsummarizestheswiftly unfoldingevents:“TheidentificationofHarryGold,aPhiladelphiaindustrialchemist ,asFuchs’sAmericancontactsubsequentlyledtothearrestofDavidGreenglass, an army machinist who had relayed limited information about the design of the plutonium bomb to Gold and to his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg. Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel, were arrested in the summer of 1950, convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in March 1951, and executed in June 1953.”6 Fuchs’s act of espionage—to cite the second volume of the massive history of the AEC, Atomic Shield—“was not an isolated instance of betrayal but part of an organizedSovietintelligenceoperationagainsttheUSatomicenergyproject.”7 In other words, the arrest of Fuchs confirmed the existence of an internal domestic threatintheUnitedStatesandraisedthespecterofSoviet-sponsoredsubversion. Since “all the known instances of wartime atomic espionage” (Harry Gold, Morris and “Lona” Cohen, David and Ruth Greenglass, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) were, with the exception of Gold, “members of the Communist Party or other communist organizations at some time in their lives,” atomic espionage became irrevocably linked with the red menace, despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans who joined the Communist Party did so “in good faith and never engaged in illegal clandestine acts.”8 The Thief: Alien Nation The above moment is the charged historical context in which The Thief was made. Starring Ray Milland as a nuclear physicist, The Thief—“one of the most influential 1950s noirs”9 —was made by a number of the same people who made 111 “Black Film” and the Bomb D.O.A. It was executive-produced, as was D.O.A., by Harry Popkin and directed by Russell Rouse, who co-scripted Rudolph Maté’s film. The Thief also reflects, like D.O.A., the characteristic look of ’50s noir in which the film’s “dark visual style” (furnished by Sam Leavitt) “works against the documentary nature of the location photography.”10 At the same time, unlike D.O.A. and “almost unique in motion picture history,” The Thief was “shot entirely without dialogue,” albeit not without sound.11 (The film’s ambient properties are central to its design, including and especially Herschel Burke Gilbert’s riveting, Academy Award– nominated score.) The absence...


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