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.