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When Film Noir Reflected An Uneasy America

We look back at the 1940s from the vantage point of superpower status and, admittedly receding, global hegemony. During World War II, distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong, seemed much more black and white than when compared to what followed in the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty first.

The 1950s ushered in political consensus. Granted it was predicated on segregation and sexism and the benefits were hardly doled out equitably, but the nation experienced unparalleled economic growth. Even the cultural turmoil of the 1960s was matched by robust economies.

Yet to live in the 1940s, to watch Europe fall to fascism, realize the depth and horror of the Holocaust, witness the birth of the atomic age, and fear the outbreak of nuclear war and global destruction invoked no small amount of anxiety. Domestically, rapid urbanization, social dislocation, protests for civil rights by African Americans and others that challenged the status quo, and changing gender roles, added, perhaps even superseded, worries about the international situation.

Unsurprisingly, popular culture reflected these anxieties. Beginning arguably with the "Maltese Falcon" in 1941 and extending into the late 1950s, film noir depicted a nation in which the American dream was treated as a “bitter irony”, marriage as “absolutely horrific”, the police and politicians were “bleak, amoral and ugly”, and morality little more than situational; “anyone in the right or wrong circumstances, was capable of almost anything,” agues film historian Robert Pippin.[1]

“Never before had films dared to take such an uncomplimentary look at American life,” critic Paul Schrader adds.[2]

Two movies from the genre, made five years apart by very different filmmakers help to draw out the characteristics of film noir and the anxieties at the heart of them: 1943’s "Hangmen Also Die" and 1947’s "The Lady from Shanghai."

hangman also die still 2
"Hangmen Also Die

 

Birth of Noir

For many observers of the time, doubt and ennui prevailed. In many ways noir proves uniquely American, and when taken together "Hangmen" and "The Lady from Shanghai" demonstrate the intersection of the international and the domestic.

One most note that the genre came to be defined by refugees of the 1930s and 1940s. Fleeing the Nazis, a wave of German and central Europeans descended upon Los Angeles. From 1933 to 1941, between 10,000 and 15,000, Germans and central Europeans, roughly 70 percent of them Jewish, relocated to the city in what one historian calls one of the greatest exodus of writers and artists in “recorded history”.[3]

The émigrés made a profound impact on not only Los Angeles, but also national culture: “they brought an intellectual maturity and sophistication to cultural life in the West that it had previously lacked,” argues historian Gerald Nash.[4] Directors like Billy Wilder, who made what many consider the landmark of the genre "Double Indemnity "(1944), and Fritz Lang ushered in the noir age.

Whether or not they brought with them a European pessimism derived from the continent’s history remains debatable. When asked if the devastation of World War I and rising anti-Semitism of Nazi Europe had colored his worldview toward the negative, Wilder responded simply: “I think the dark outlook is an American one.”[5] Perhaps, but as Mike Davis has noted, Los Angeles “the ultimate city of capital, lustrous and superficial, negating every classical value of European urbanity” played a role in shaping their dark outlook.[6] At the time, Los Angeles did lack the cosmopolitanism of New York, Berlin or Paris, but some historians have argued that as a blank slate L.A. enabled the new arrivals to recast their identity anew and provided grist for the film noir mill.[7] 

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Hangmen Also Die!

Co-written by Bertolt Brecht and by Fritz Lang, the 1943 film, "Hangmen Also Die!" encapsulates the developing noir sensibility and the influence of the German émigré diaspora. Admittedly, the film represents the intersection of three genres or subgenres of the Anti-Nazi film, war movies, and noir rather than any one singularly. However, Lang, who also directed the film, employs numerous characteristics of the genre, while dispensing of others to make it a useful study.

Both Brecht and Lang came to Hollywood out of desperation. Brecht and his family arrived in Santa Monica in 1941, Lang five years earlier in 1936.  The former famously dismissed his new West Coast home: “on thinking about Hell, that it must be still more like Los Angeles,” he once wrote. Like Brecht, Lang desired to create work more profound than the average Hollywood blockbuster, but made his peace with the system, discovering ways to “sneak his visual artistry and thematic preoccupations into movies meant to be disposable entertainments,” writes film critic Noel Murray.

In "Hangmen," Brecht and Lang tell the story of German occupied Czechoslovakia. The assassination of Germany’s Reinhard Heydrich (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) known by Czechs as the Hangman for his sadistic cruelty, occurs off screen very early in the film.

Hangmen Also Die!
"Hangmen Also Die!"

Even at the time the German officer was seen as a butcher but Heydrich’s infamy grew years later when it was discovered he was the man behind the Final Solution introduced at the Wannsee Conference in 1942.[8]

The film focuses on the repercussions visited on the Czech people and the ways in which it internally divides the population. As with other noir films, "Hangmen" flips traditional morality on its head. The authorities and police are the interlopers; corrupted by their perverse Nazi ideology and delusions of grandeur; a prominent sign displayed at Gestapo headquarters reads: “He who servers Hitler serves Germany. He who serves Germany serves God.” Moral choices made by the assassin, the Czech public, the underground resistance, and the protagonists represent the kind of troubled morality at the center of film noir.

Masha Novotny (Anna Lee), the daughter of the famous professor Stephen Novotny (Walter Brennan), unwittingly helps Heydrich’s assassin, Dr. Franticek Svoboda (Karel Vanek). When her father is picked up by the Gestapo and threatened with execution unless the public reveals the killer, Masha and Svoboda initially conflict over her father’s fate then soon ally in a plan to deliver to the Nazi’s an assassin and free her father and the other 399 hostages held by the Germans. Trafficking in noir secrecy, the plan is not fully revealed to the audience and features a number of surprises.

It should be noted that while the film demonstrates the blurred morality of the noir genre it does so in the context of war. That the Nazi’s have delivered a man they know to not be the assassin but execute him anyway to save face, serves noir tradition since it appears hardly equitable and not exactly justice, but nor does it feel all together wrong either. Without giving too much away, the conclusion reinforces Lang’s, and to a lesser extent Brecht’s, worldview that corrupt, hypocritical institutions govern our lives and overwhelm our “individual will.”

Still, Lang ensured that despite its bitter ending, the film put forth a message that resisted the cynicism he and Brecht saw in the world. After all, they both hoped to appeal to American impulses so as to garner support for the war and delegitimize German rule. “Freedom is not something one possesses like a hat or a piece of candy,” Professor Novotny tells his daughter during his imprisonment, “the real thing is fighting for freedom, and you might remember me not because I’ve been your father but because I also died in this great fight.”

 

the lady from shanghai
"The Lady from Shanghai"

 

The Lady from Shanghai

Though not ignorant of international affairs, "The Lady from Shanghai," directed and starring Orson Welles more fully embodies domestic anxieties and noir themes regarding gender and race. An increasingly suburbanized America held a voyeuristic fascination with “mysterious Chinatowns, African jungles, Mexican pueblos, and decrepit slums,” writes UCLA’s Eric Avila.[9] The film traverses New York, Mexico, and San Francisco as it ambles through its storyline and toward its famous conclusion.

“I start out in this story a little bit like a hero, which I most certainly was not,” protagonist Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) tells the audience. The Irish O’Hara first meets Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) when he saves her from an apparent nighttime assault in New York’s Central Park. We later discover in true noir fashion that the ambush was a set up meant to draw O’Hara into Bannister’s plot.

Through Bannister, the film weaves three central noir themes: fear over interracial relations, the dangerous urban woman, and the dark heart of domestic bliss, notably the falsity of marriage and romance.

While Elsa is Caucasian, from the beginning her time in Asia is highlighted. Ethnically Russian, “White Russian” she tells O’Hara, she spent time working in Chefoo (“the wickedest city in the world”), Macao, and Shanghai. “You need more than luck in Shanghai,” she quips. As the film draws to a close, its final scenes take place in Chinatown where Elsa displays her comfort with Chinese language and culture. She even depends on the Chinese underworld in her attempt to off O’Hara.

As Avila has noted, film noir dramatized “the fine line between whiteness and blackness” in its depiction of race. Urban spaces that “sanctioned racial and ethnic transgression” represent this best and those men and women who inhabited such spaces were depicted as morally corrupt.[10] Chinatown epitomizes this intersection by equating it as a source of “danger and mystery.”[11]

Though white, Elsa has been “Orientalized” through her connection to Asia. Elsewhere in the film, she explains that her understanding of love comes from a Chinese proverb: “The Chinese say it is difficult for love to last long therefore one who loves passionately is cured of love in the end.” She becomes marked as Asian and is equated with racist Orientalist tropes of illicit sexuality and “familial disruption.”[12]

Historically, anti-Asian sentiment often rested on the idea of Asian men corrupting white women often through threat of rape or drug use. However, "The Lady from Shanghai" reverses this dynamic “making the white male the victim of the [O]rientalized female’s sexuality,” notes literary critic Michael Davidson.[13]

Elsa also embodies worries about gender and sexuality that unnerved Americans after the war. Postwar American cities provided greater opportunities for women professionally, socially, and sexually. Though such worries were not new, they had yet to be articulated as fully as in film noir and the war had accelerated these processes.

“Ambitious, snide, and duplicitous, the white women of film noir wielded the edgy disposition typically associated with urban life,” notes Avila, when the city soon emerged as the “heart of darkness” in postwar suburban America, the women of noir “assumed racial connotations…”[14] which in a society still defined by whiteness and segregation made women like Elsa morally suspect.

the lady from shangha still
"The Lady from Shanghai"

 

One can see echoes of similar tropes in the 1974 neo-noir “Chinatown” in the character of Evelyn Mulroy and the now famous line, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Chinatown becomes the locus of irrationality where logic finds no purchase. Part of a longer frontier thesis, Chinatown emerges as “the West’s political unconscious, where the violence of exploration, development and growth continues to be played out in closed demographic area,” Davidson points out. Though the violence of manifest destiny most often imposes itself on “racial others” white women who cross these lines into Chinatown, like Elsa or Velyn Mulrey are “identified with that same violence and ultimately suffer its effects.” White women who transgressed racial lines in relation to Chinatown were ruined not by “villainous Asians” but rather by their associations with them.[15]

Unsurprisingly, distrust and malice pervade Elsa’s marriage to prominent defense lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan). O’Hara refers to the Bannisters and their partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) as a pack of sharks that can’t even detect the smell of death that exudes from their malicious relations and interpersonal intrigue. Throughout, Elsa’s ability to love and her relationship to her husband are increasingly suspect. To be clear, as a husband, Arthur Bannister is no prize either.

In the end, one of noir’s central themes regarding control or lack thereof in human affairs comes to the fore. As critic, Robert Pippin notes, Elsa, Arthur, and Grisby all subscribe to the creed that “[o]ne is either subject to another’s will, or subjects them to their own, there is no middle ground.”[16] Yet despite their various machinations, things do not go as planned for any of them. O’Hara, in contrast, does not believe in the kind of calloused self-determination advocated by the others. “We can’t win,” he argues fatalistically but “we can’t lose either, only if we quit.”

Like the sailor he is, one must ride the currents and buffet the waves as best one can. Forces beyond us dictate it. For all the fears and anxieties present in film noir, holding on for the ride and deploying one’s skills and intelligence as best as possible seem to be the only option in a rapidly changing world. To the good, noir captures this sensibility; to the bad it also underscored the racism and misogyny that prevailed at the time. Delving into films like "Hangmen Also Die!" and "The Lady from Shanghai" serve as useful windows into a developing genre and an uneasy America.

Notes

[1] Robert B. Pippin, "Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy," (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2012), 6-7.

[2] Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir”, in "Film Noir Reader," Eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini. (New York: Limelight, 1996), 53.

[3] Erhard Bahr, "Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism," (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 3-5, 14.

[4] Gerald D. Nash, "The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War," (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1985), 196.

[5] Billy Wilder, interview with Robert Porfirio in "Film Noir Reader 3: Interview with Filmmakers of the Classic Noir Period," Eds. Robert Porfirio, Alain Silver, and James Ursini, (New York: Limelight Editions, 2002) pg. 101.

[6] Mike Davis, "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles," (New York: Verso, 1990), pg. 21

[7] Bahr, "Weimar on the Pacific," 19.

[8] Bahr, "Weimar on the Pacific," 133.

[9] Eric Avila, "Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles," (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 17.

[10] Avila, "Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight," 81-82.

[11] Avila, "Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight, "86.

[12] Michael Davidson, “The Lady from Shanghai: California Orientalism and ‘guys like us”, "Western American Literature" Vol. 35. No. 4 (Winter 2011):  350.

[13] Davidson, “The Lady from Shanghai: California Orientalism and ‘guys like us”, 350.

[14] Avila, "Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight," 83-84.

[15] Davidson, “The Lady from Shanghai: California Orientalism and ‘guys like us”, 352.

[16] Pippin, "Fatalism in American Film Noir," 69.


Top Image: "Hangmen Also Die"

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