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