The Political Underpinnings of Film Noir

by Randy Shaw on March 11, 2010

Since film noir was rediscovered in the 1960’s, there have been many books analyzing the genre. One could understandably ask what Dennis Broe’s new work, Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood could possibly add to the subject. The answer is: quite a bit. Broe brings a political and class analysis to film noirs that contextualizes them by the political environment in which they were made. From 1940-44, the films focused on someone investigating a crime that gets in conflict with the law over the investigation (e.g. The Maltese Falcon). This trend continued from 1945-50, where films depicted working class fugitives and others outside the law, and are critical of American institutions. The films of 1950-55 showed a shift consistent with management attacks on unions, and the rise of anti-communism and the Cold War. Now working class fugitives were portrayed not as sympathetic victims of an unfair system, but as dangerous outcasts. Police departments and the legal system were now portrayed as vital protectors of the broader society. This pro-authority shift was finally weakened by Roy Huggins’ television series, The Fugitive, whose lead character lives in a world where justice is irrelevant and an arbitrary and often unjust legal system controls.

Most fans of film noirs are attracted to its visual look, urban and working-class settings, and suspenseful plots. And these films can certainly be enjoyed at this level. But if you are looking for patterns in the film noir, particularly those involving the political views of directors, the impact of post-war strikes in the movie industry, and the overall Cold War/conservative shift in these films, than you will want to read Dennis Broe’s new work, Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood.

The Politics of Film Noirs

In their early years, film noirs focus on working-class lead characters that often fall prey to an unfair, class-based legal system. This was a period of rising worker organizing, and when unionization was promoted by President Roosevelt and was as a politically safer issue than ever before. With many noir screenwriters’ politically active progressives, the noirs remains the most class-conscious, pro-working class genre made in the United States.

Even when the working-class lead character gets in trouble through his own temptations — as in the classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice, the film depicts a society where the working-class, particularly women, has such limited options that even murder becomes a viable social mobility strategy.

But as American politics shifted sharply rightward after World War II, sympathy for workers was replaced with attacks on unions for waging strikes, the passage of the anti-union Taft-Hartley law in 1947, the outbreak of the Cold War, and a fervent anti-communism designed to destroy progressive activism. Noir screenwriters like Abraham Polonsky, whose Force of Evil (1948) used the numbers racket to attack the unfairness of capitalism, found themselves on Hollywood blacklists.

In their place emerged people like Jack Webb, best known as Joe Friday in the television series, Dragnet. Broe describes how Webb took the emerging police procedural noirs — which, as in Naked City and other post-war films show the police and legal system as technically and morally supreme — and elevated the “no-nonsense lawman” to the center of what would become a dominant genre.

Remember Highway Patrol? Or the “eight million stories” in the Naked City television series? Webb created both, along with other shows that told viewers that, contrary to what they may hear from activist protesters or political dissenters, the nation’s police departments and courts were the incarnates of virtue.

Fortunately, Webb had a counterpart, Ray Huggins, who offered viewers a different social perspective. Higgins was a longtime political leftist who avoided the blacklist by naming names before HUAC. His idea of law enforcement was the anti-authoritarian gambler Brett Maverick, and a “hipster parking lot attendant” in the alternative detective show, 77 Sunset Strip. Huggin’s greatest rebuff to Dragnet and the police procedural motif was in The Fugitive (1963-67).

I had not seen the pilot episode of The Fugitive until reading about it in this book, and it is a real eye opener. David Janssen plays Dr. Kimble, heading for the gas chamber after being convicted of a murder the audience knows he did not commit. Despite his innocence, Kimble is zealously pursued by Lieutenant Gerard, who openly states that he doesn’t care if Kimble is innocent, because “the law says guilty.”

No wonder an ABC executive described The Fugitive as “a slap in the face of the American judicial system,” and “the most repulsive concept in history.” Considering that each episode of the popular series repeats this message, it is astonishing that the show was ever allowed to air. Though a television series, The Fugitive is classic noir.

Broe’s book has an unavoidable problem that I tried to address in this review: to prove his points he must reveal key plot points in films viewers have not seen. I have tried to avoid this by not analyzing many specific films, and would encourage readers to rent the films Broe discusses at length before reading his descriptions.

The book also contains academic jargon that could put some readers off. Phrases like, “the extradiegetic Hollywood symphonic score in the film,” are all too typical, and may reflect the author needing to prove that this is an academically serious subject matter. I’m not bothered by Broe’s references to Gramsci and the theoretical arguments of Raymond Williams and others — even when I have no idea what he is talking about — but some readers might be.

Broe has made a great contribution to the political underpinnings of the noir genre, and his book has already inspired me to see a number of films that he convinces me are worth viewing. Noirs are steadily being converted to DVDs, and those with Netflix can order to many of the titles discussed in this wonderfully insightful book.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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