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 film noir.
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.
How is this period in American history still with us today—politically, culturally, psychologically?
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.