[Marxism] Exploring the Noir Forties: A Q&A with Richard Lingeman

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 20 09:52:33 MST 2012

Exploring the Noir Forties: A Q&A with Richard Lingeman
Richard Kreitner | December 17, 2012

Scant light and a siren mingle in the air above 96th Street and trickle 
through an open window. The heater whistles and whines. “I’m a small 
actor in the currents of history,” the writer says softly, as he sips 
his tea. A small striped cat twists its neck round his ankle. “And I’m 
just trying to understand.” The study is dark, and growing darker.

Richard Lingeman, a longtime editor at The Nation, recently published 
his sixth book, The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to 
Cold War [1] (Nation Books). The book explores the years between World 
War II and the Korean War through the lens of film noir, the popular 
genre of stylized crime dramas of the postwar years. Interpreting 
politics through culture and culture through politics, Lingeman argues 
that noir uniquely reflected the subconscious stirrings of an America 
transitioning between postwar and prewar sensibilities, as it began to 
reckon with challenges like communism, McCarthyism, the return of war 
veterans, the end of the New Deal and the beginning of the Cold War.

Lingeman graciously met with Nation intern Richard Kreitner in the home 
study where he wrote The Noir Forties, and discussed the films and 
politics of the 1940s and why it’s all still relevant today.

Where did you get the idea to write a book about this time period by 
looking at film noir?

I try to write nonfiction books with some kind of personal involvement 
or interest. This period influenced my life, because it ends with the 
Korean War, which we all had to deal with. After I left college I faced 
being drafted, going to graduate school or enlisting and choosing my 
branch of the service. I enlisted, went to Japan to do intelligence 
work, and that was three years out of my life. I just wanted to 
understand the background to it. I found an old diary of mine, and 
before I went into the service, I wrote: “Why Korea? What are we doing 
there?” I was political in a way, but we weren’t a protest generation, 
if I may generalize. Time called us “the silent generation.” We were 
sort of obedient and we didn’t pay much attention to what was going on, 
and we didn’t question what we were told. I wanted to look into that.

And I developed an interest in film noir. I read a book by a man named 
Siegfried Kracauer, who analyzed German films and the rise of Hitler. 
The way he interpreted the expressionist films of the twenties seemed 
fascinating to me, as he penetrated the psychology of the German people, 
yet he was a rather political critic. So I coalesced my interest in film 
noir, which came later in life, into a desire to write about this period.

At one point I thought about doing a book on 1945 alone. I kept saving 
material on all the choices the country made then, and they all sort of 
determined that step-by-step we were going to get into the Cold War, 
which went on for thirty years and more.

What did you find particularly noir about that time period?

It’s a time marked by death and war. Noir films were about death, 
basically. It was also a tough, calloused, cynical time. It was a time 
of idealism, which I remember, personally. At the end of the war, 
everybody was asking, “How do we establish world peace?” We fought this 
war, and everyone was asking, not quite naively, “How we can prevent 
war?” So we start the United Nations. “World government” was a big idea 
at the time. I did high school oratory back in Indiana, and I made a 
speech on world government. But all these hopes faded, and it became a 
time of materialism and everybody trying to settle down, and there was a 
rise in redbaiting and anticommunism, which the Republicans had been 
using against the Democrats for some time. This became a more potent 
tool then, and forced a kind of conformity that I felt personally.

There was a sense of disappointment felt by many in Hollywood 
especially, and lingering mourning over people lost in the war. When 
[World War II] began you were worried about a few thousand being killed; 
by the time it ended you were rooting for the saturation bombing raids 
that would kill thousands of people, and you just didn’t care: that was 
what was going to win the war. And the guys who came back from the war 
were often messed up, or talking cynically and tough, and that all got 
into film noir. It was a dark side of this period, which in conventional 
terms you would expect to be celebratory. But there was so much 
ambiguity and uncertainty. Roosevelt died, and Truman was kind of a weak 
leader. The country was in a confused and anxious state. The New Deal, 
which with the war had given the country some sense of community, was 
being eaten away. Politics became more conservative and self-interested. 
A certain callousness developed. That end of idealism was symbolized by 
film noir.

What’s your favorite noir film?

I like Out of the Past and A Night in the City. The key ones were Double 
Indemnity; Murder, My Sweet; Farewell, My Lovely, which was based on 
Raymond Chandler’s novel; The Third Man and Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. 
A lot of writers and directors of these movies, like Fritz Lang, came 
from Germany, and learned filmmaking in the twenties, as Krakauer wrote 
about. They brought to America their expressionist techniques, which 
became part of the noir style: dark photography, black and white, a 
sense of hopelessness. They were expressing their own alienation from 
the Hollywood culture.

Who, or what, killed noir?

Partly I think it was the investigations of the House Un-American 
Activities Committee, which in some ways encouraged noir by forcing 
filmmakers to make films without overt politics that nonetheless 
criticized society. But the tolerance for that wore out—the films 
weren’t making money and industry executives were kind of ideological. 
They thought film noir was sinister and bad for America’s image abroad.

The Hollywood blacklist—a policy that you couldn’t hire a communist or 
anyone suspected of being a communist—killed the energy in film noir. 
Many of the people involved were serious about films and ideas, and the 
ideology in Hollywood became all about entertainment and cheerful 
optimism and making money. The tough, cynical film was no longer in 
style. Noir was a victim of political conformity, and Hollywood was the 
first place it set in.

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How is this period in American history still with us today—politically, 
culturally, psychologically?

This was the time when the idea of military intervention started. Truman 
committed American forces to Korea without getting Congress’s 
consent—that set a precedent. And the idea of scaring people with the 
threat of a foreign enemy has since been used to raise support for 
defense spending and military interventions. At the end of World War II 
we felt we were top of the heap and we had to police the world. We got 
into this habit of thinking that any threat anywhere in the world had to 
be resisted or we would lose prestige and the other side would gain. 
And, finally, I think the tradition of secrecy started then, which went 
beyond the old-time secrecy into a whole National Security State and the 
rise of the military-industrial complex, which was actually left over 
from World War II.

Do you think any art today reflects our current state of affairs as well 
as noir did in the late 1940s?

As Mad Men shows, there’s something about the middle of the [twentieth] 
century that still appeals to us and yet also reflects where we are now. 
Mad Men is actually a very dark, very noir series. It’s about capitalist 
manipulation through advertising. It carries a very noir and pessimistic 
message. The corporation has to sell any product just to make money, 
even if it’s harmful. That resonates for our own times, but perhaps 
could best be expressed by setting it in the past.

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[1] http://www.powells.com/partner/35280/biblio/9781568584362?p_ti
[2] https://donate.thenation.com/sitelink

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