When Film Noir Reflected An Uneasy America

We look back at the 1940s from the vantage point of superpower status and, admittedly receding, global hegemony. During World War II, distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong, seemed much more black and white than when compared to what followed in the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty first.

The 1950s ushered in political consensus. Granted it was predicated on segregation and sexism and the benefits were hardly doled out equitably, but the nation experienced unparalleled economic growth. Even the cultural turmoil of the 1960s was matched by robust economies.

Yet to live in the 1940s, to watch Europe fall to fascism, realize the depth and horror of the Holocaust, witness the birth of the atomic age, and fear the outbreak of nuclear war and global destruction invoked no small amount of anxiety. Domestically, rapid urbanization, social dislocation, protests for civil rights by African Americans and others that challenged the status quo, and changing gender roles, added, perhaps even superseded, worries about the international situation.

Unsurprisingly, popular culture reflected these anxieties. Beginning arguably with the “Maltese Falcon” in 1941 and extending into the late 1950s, film noir depicted a nation in which the American dream was treated as a “bitter irony”, marriage as “absolutely horrific”, the police and politicians were “bleak, amoral and ugly”, and morality little more than situational; “anyone in the right or wrong circumstances, was capable of almost anything,” agues film historian Robert Pippin.[1]

“Never before had films dared to take such an uncomplimentary look at American life,” critic Paul Schrader adds.[2]

Two movies from the genre, made five years apart by very different filmmakers help to draw out the characteristics of film noir and the anxieties at the heart of them: 1943’s “Hangmen Also Die” and 1947’s “The Lady from Shanghai.”

“Hangmen Also Die


Birth of…

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