The political and social struggles of our time are not concerned merely with external changes and new borders – they involve the very core of our existence. A civil war is being fought inside every soul; and the movies reflect the uncertainties of that war in the form of general inner disintegration and mental disturbance.
— Siegfried Kracauer, Hollywood’s Terror Films
Crime doesn’t disturb this world, it’s foundational to it. Noir stories gave the stage to criminals and their motivations, which range from unspeakable passions to a firm conviction that their particular crime serves a greater good.
— Nicholas Seeley, Noir is Protest Literature
It took a war on a grand scale to shake humanity temporarily out of the economic funk, mass amnesia and ideological brainwashing of the 1930s. As is often the case, we have looped back to what went before. Back to the future; the same but different. Small dark clouds on the horizon rapidly transform into overhead thunderstorms.
During the 1940s, popular culture took our measurements and found us wanting. A film like Citizen Kane dissected the megalomania of a media baron. He closed himself off like an island, built a castle which only his personal invitees could enter, and witnessed the energy fizz away. By life’s end, he was a solitary figure lost in an echoing chamber.
Kane was one of several ingredients that fed the style, form and thematic content of the emergent noir genre during this period in the USA. Other factors were the influence of émigré filmmakers from Europe, the hardboiled fiction of Hammett, Cain and Chandler, the paintings of Edward Hopper and the photojournalism of Weegee. Noir held up a dark mirror to the sociopolitical and cultural reality of America in the 1940s and 1950s. It investigated the shadows.
[Photo credit: Henry Travers & James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life]
Noir narratives were imbued with existential angst and fear of otherness. The questionable ideal of the male WASP was found to be flawed, floundering as it sought to find the source of malaise elsewhere: women who had usurped jobs while men were away fighting; African Americans and Mexicans who had moved into city centres; Communists who apparently were everywhere. The finger of blame always pointed away.
If all this sounds familiar, in the context of contemporary politics, it is little wonder that noir – literary, cinematic, televisual – has become such a mainstay of our culture again, not only in the USA but throughout the West. From the dark recesses of our minds, our misgivings, our nightmares, are projected for others to endure and amplify. Occasionally, horrifyingly, such fictions become reality too.
It’s a Wonderful Life is another classic film of the 1940s that dipped into noir territory. George Bailey is a man on the edge, facing financial ruin and disgrace, driven to suicidal action by the machinations of the corrupt banker Henry Potter. It falls to George’s guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, to unveil an alternative reality. This is one in which George never existed, never stood up to Potter and his kind. One in which the corruption and lust for power of one individual infect a whole community.
In this George-less world, it is always night, people are downtrodden and town names are rebranded to reflect the glory of the dictator. The authority and service of Me is all that matters for people like Potter. Clarence’s intervention is enough to clear George’s head, to shift his mindset and lead him to positive action…
The crisis of identity that is at the core of the modern “raging bull” films has no potential for resolution. We simply watch the antisocial behavior of a psychotic figure result in his or her own self-destruction within an inhospitable and uncaring environment.
— Richard Martin, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls
It thus becomes clear that one and the same reality may be split up into many diverse realities when it is beheld from different points of view.
— José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art