Film noir: Everything you need to know about postwar America

Richard Lingeman's "The Noir Forties" reveals how the film movement captured the period's creeping fear and anxiety

Topics: LA Review of Books, Books, Film noir,

Film noir: Everything you need to know about postwar America
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

DETOUR IS AN ULTRA-LOW-BUDGET 1946 film noir that packs an undeniable punch. “He went searching for love,” the Detour poster said, “but fate forced a detour” — to accidental murder. The film is one of Richard Lingeman’s touchstones in his new book The Noir Forties. For him the film dramatizes how, in the feverish world of immediate postwar America, “guilt is arbitrary, the sentence is death, and there is no appeal.” Yes, on V-J day in 1945 the sailor kissed the nurse in Times Square in that ecstatic Albert Eisenstaedt photo. But less than a year later, fear had returned; people were anxious about another Depression, about the Germans, about the Soviets, about the A-bomb. “Fate,” it seemed, “was in the driver’s seat.”

Los  Angeles Review of Books“Films noir,” Lingeman declares at the outset, “are a key for unlocking the psychology, the national mood during those years.” But despite its title, The Noir Forties is not a book about the films — for that, readers should turn to J. Hoberman’s recent book An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, and to the classic More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts by James Naremore. Instead, Lingeman’s book provides a broader history of the brief but crucial period when the world of the New Deal died and the iron cage of Cold War politics and culture was forged. It would remain in place for the next 45 years. (Disclosure: Lingeman is senior editor at The Nation, and I am a contributing editor at the magazine, but he does not edit me.)

Lingeman opens each chapter with a wonderful page of “Voices” — for the first chapter on end-of-war euphoria, we have Milton Berle and Spike Jones’s wonderful song “Leave the Dishes in the Sink, Ma”: “Each dirty plate will have to wait / Tonight we’re going to celebrate.” [LISTEN]

The most powerful and unexpected parts of the book are the opening chapters on mourning the dead. Red Oak, Iowa, was the subject of national news attention because it had the highest proportion of war deaths of any place in the country. Its National Guard unit had been among the first to fight in North Africa in 1943; half of their unit of 900 was wiped out in a single battle, and most of the rest taken prisoner. In those days parents were informed of the death of their sons by a Western Union telegram: “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son _____ has been missing in action.” Each telegram was signed by a general. Lingeman went back to Red Oak in 2008 and interviewed townspeople who remembered, including the WWII telegraph delivery boy, who told him he knew “damn near all the people” whose doorbells he was ringing. “I hated to go up to a house,” he said, “but somebody had to do it.”

Next comes the story of the Joseph V. Connolly, a military transport converted to a mortuary ship at the end of the war. When it arrived in New York Harbor in October 1945, it carried a cargo of 6,248 coffins, including one of an unnamed Medal of Honor winner. It docked at West 21st Street, and a cortege of 4,000 soldiers, veterans, city officials, and others followed the coffin up Fifth Avenue to Central Park. Spectators lined the route. “The silence was awesome,” the New York Times reported. “Lips moved in prayer as the flag-draped bier passed.” In Central Park 150,000 people attended a memorial ceremony. The next day the Connolly moved to the Brooklyn Army Depot, where the coffins were unloaded by longshoremen “with tears streaming down their cheeks.” Each coffin was then shipped by rail, with an escort, to hometowns like Red Oak, Iowa. More than 400,000 were dead, more than 600,000 wounded; almost 200,000 children lost their fathers in the war.

Military policy required the return to families not only of the dead but also of their personal effects. Architectural critic Lewis Mumford’s son Geddes was killed in Europe. Mumford wrote about receiving a package containing:

Two rusty cigarette lighters, a cheap automatic pencil, a dozen fragments of paper money, a combat rifleman’s badge, [...] an Italian Theater ribbon, stained with blood, his social security card, preserved by scotch tape. [...] These were the last tokens of his life and all that one shall ever know, beyond conjecture or fantasy, of what his death was like.

This was the world to which film noir spoke, a world that had “become cynical about the phony heroics of the propagandistic war movies.” Lingeman quotes French cinema scholars Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, who declared that, “In every sense of the word, a noir film is a film of death.”


Lingeman also writes about “Reconversion Jitters,” about the phenomenal strike wave that roared across industrial America in 1945 and 1946, leading Republicans to pass the Taft-Hartley Act to try to cripple unions, and about HUAC coming to Hollywood in 1947, which of course started the Hollywood blacklist — all key steps on the road from victory to Cold War. But if you’re going to write about the road not taken after WWII, you have to write about Henry Wallace, FDR’s vice president who personified the New Deal and the Popular Front, but was replaced on the ticket in 1944 by the unknown Harry Truman. The next year FDR died, and the year after that the new president invited Winston Churchill to Fulton, Missouri, to announce that “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” Wallace replied that we could and should maintain our wartime alliance with Stalin; we all know what happened to that argument.

But Henry Wallace seems to be making an unlikely comeback this year — the hero of Oliver Stone’s 10-part series on Showtime, The Untold History of the United States, and the best-selling companion volume, coauthored by Peter Kuznick; and he’s also a central figure in Lingeman’s book. Oliver Stone focused on the 1944 convention where Wallace was dropped from the ticket; Lingeman focuses on the more familiar 1948 campaign, where Wallace ran as a Progressive third-party candidate to the left of Truman. Wallace started out the 1948 campaign with impressive support, Lingeman shows, and some thought he might win 10 million votes. (He ended up with one million.) The Communist Party sent thousands to work on his campaign and, Lingeman says, “hijacked” his candidacy. The Republicans and HUAC accused Wallace of being a dupe of the Reds; he replied, “If it is communistic to believe in prosperity for all, we are Communists…. If it is un-American to believe in freedom from monopolistic dictation, we are un-American.” Lingeman calls this speech “downright foolhardy” — but he praises Wallace’s platform as “prophetic” — it called for school desegregation, national health insurance, public housing, women’s rights, voting rights for 18-year-olds, and a $100 monthly stipend for everyone over 60.

It wasn’t just anti-communist liberals who turned on Wallace, Lingeman shows. Dwight Macdonald, the independent leftist who edited Politics magazine, called Wallace “unprincipled,” “totalitarian,” “a corn-fed mystic,” “a demagogue,” and “an apologist for Stalin.” The Nation magazine, edited by Freda Kirchwey, supported Truman because they feared Wallace voters would put Republicans in power.

Truman won his unexpected victory, Lingeman argues, not just because of red-baiting Wallace, but because he succeeded in rallying the party’s base: the AFL-CIO supported him because he vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act; liberals supported him because he argued for a national health insurance program; blacks supported him because he ended segregation in the military; and veterans supported him because of the GI Bill. And Wallace’s candidacy insulated Truman from charges that he was soft on communism.

Oliver Stone thinks that if FDR had kept Wallace on the ticket at that 1944 convention — where Wallace was nearly renominated for the VP slot by acclamation — then he would have become president in 1945 instead of Truman, and we could have avoided the entire Cold War. Lingeman never comes close to making that argument; instead he rethinks whether Wallace, if he had somehow separated his campaign from the Communists, could have been “a more respectable peace candidate” and kept some of the left alive. He concludes that would have required some kind Progressive Party blacklist of Reds, which would have been an unacceptable compromise of Wallace’s principles.

Lingeman opens and closes his book with personal “Confessions of a Cold Warrior,” describing his experiences as a soldier in the Korean War. He avoided combat in Korea because of a student deferment, and instead was stationed from 1954 to 1956 in Japan, where he worked as a Special Agent of the Army Counter Intelligence Corps. His mission: keeping track, not of left-wing activists, but rather of fanatical ultranationalist Japanese groups. All his reports were classified; “It was like being an investigative reporter for a paper with a very limited circulation,” he writes. He had undercover informants, but it was never clear who was using whom in those relationships. “Working in this shadow world,” he recalls, “I developed a taste for the night city, with its louche back-alley bars and hot-bed hotels, the exhilarating dangers, the sense of living on the edge.” Years later, when he discovered films noir, they threw him back into “the paranoia, the deception, the mendacity of the Cold War — that ‘long twilight struggle.’” This richly textured and deeply felt book is the result.


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