My analysis below tends to focus on the type of film noir I refer to as “crime noir.” I identify the key plot elements in crime noirs during the approximate years of World War II (1940-1944), and I contrast them with those in postwar crime noirs. I contend that the appearance and then disappearance of the wartime plot elements was due to changes in the historical context.
For my explanation of the other main type of film noir during the World War II era, see the page Spy Noirs & the Origins of Film Noir. Important plot elements in crime noirs are shared with spy noirs in this time period. Therefore, I have examples of spy noirs as well as crime noirs.
A set of plot elements recur so often in these early film noirs that they comprise a plot formula. This formula is both historically grounded, as I explain below, and historically bounded, insofar as the specific combination of the formula’s plot elements only existed for certain years and then ceased.
The film noirs (both crime noirs and spy noirs) that have the full range of these plot elements I call “war noirs” because the Second World War is both the historical context for the formula and the historical period in which the films were made.
The following is based on my essay, “The Rise and Fall of the War Noir, 1940-1944,” in Film Noir Reader 4 (Limelight Editions, 2004, 207-225). It was originally written in 1987. Since then I have identified many additional “war noirs,” and, therefore, the examples in the following post, as well as the films cited at the end of the post, are much more numerous than I provided in the original essay.
Two O’Clock Courage was released in 1945, a year after the significant era of war noirs. For my analysis of this film, which is based on the plot elements of the war noir, see the page Two O’Clock Courage.
Film noir typically has been studied across a twenty-year span, 1940-1959, and the categories used to describe or explain it consequently have stretched over most or all of this time. These categories have different names, such as “character types,” “existential motifs,” and “subheadings [for a] family tree.” What they have in common is that they are ahistorical. The period of film noir, in short, hasn’t been well periodized.
Ahistorical categories have been derived from a single element, such as a kind of crime or character. What I want to introduce, in contrast, is a time-based film noir category. Its distinctiveness is due to a variety of recurring plot elements. In other words, this category is a plot formula. It is historical because the specific combination of its plot elements only existed for certain years and then ceased.
I call this formula the war noir and date it from 1940 to 1944. Below I clarify the plot elements of the war noir and the meanings they encode in the formula.
As a shorthand way to refer to all of the film noirs released from 1940 to 1944, I use the phrase film noirs of the war noir period. However, the term war noir refers only to the film noirs of this period that have the explicit formula, the complete combination of plot elements.
Additionally, it must be emphasized that my analysis can be applied to other crime movies made during these years. Because they were released in the same period and share the same historical context as the war noirs, their plot elements are similar to, rather than different from, the film noirs of the war noir period.
The chief rule about film noirs is that they involve crimes. The kinds of crimes, of course, vary. Yet these differences are, in a fundamental sense, the result of changes in historical period. For instance, these changes can be observed in terms of what thing is stolen and why someone is killed. In the war noir the variation is especially and significantly limited.
The main cause of crime in film noir (as well as all other forms of crime stories) is property: people try to enrich themselves through theft and/or murder. However, there is a key contrast between the kind of property for which crimes are committed during World War Two and then afterwards. In the war noir property is personal. In the immediate postwar years it is increasingly public, and nearly always so after 1949.
I consider personal property to be what is intimately associated with a person: his or her existence and riches. Examples of personal property in film noir include: Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen’s savings (Out of the Fog); the landlady’s house in the country (Ladies in Retirement); the insurance on Joan Fontaine (Suspicion); the blackmail demanded from William Powell (Crossroads); the bookmaker’s bankroll (Christmas Holiday); and the jewels of Ingrid Bergman’s aunt (Gaslight).
I want to emphasize that personal property crimes do occur after 1944, but their frequency diminishes, and almost vanishes by the end of the decade.
In contrast, public property is bound up with society at large. There are a couple of rare examples in the war noir period, both of which are embezzlements (Angels over Broadway and Suspicion). Other instances of public property crimes must be taken from postwar film noirs: Marvin Miller’s robbery of gold bullion (Johnny Angel, 1945); Ray Collins’ swindle of original paintings (Crack-Up, 1946); Tyrone Powers’ “spook racket” (Nightmare Alley, 1947); Vincent Price’s sale of counterfeit bonds (The Web, 1947); Howard da Silva’s illegal immigrant smuggling (Border Incident, 1950); and Burt Lancaster’s various heists of a hat factory (The Killers, 1946), an armored car (Criss Cross, 1949), and African diamonds (Rope of Sand, 1949).
I have given a lot of examples to show the variety of public property crimes and their differences from personal ones. It is unnecessary to name movies with the most blatant public property crimes: bank robbing, racketeering, etc. These crimes are frequent in film noir but, crucially, only in the years after the war noirs.
As the kind of property is different in the war noir period, so too is the cause of homicide. For instance, in Angels over Broadway and Suspicion, no one is killed for the embezzled money. Murder to get hold of public property is a key element of postwar film noirs, but in the war noir period it occurs for other reasons.
Before considering those other reasons, let me note that an ambiguous exception is the second war noir, Double Alibi. (A list of war noirs is provided at the end of this page.) A police captain kills three people in his scheme to get hold of $40,000. The money represents public property; it was stolen from a company payroll by one of the victims. The robber buried the loot in the cellar of a house before he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. However, Double Alibi is not a clear exception because the film does not show the original robbery. What sets the plot in motion is that, five years after the heist, the criminal (who is partially shown in only one scene and who never utters a word) is released, and the cop knows that the thief will want to recover the hidden stash. Thus, although in its origins the money is public property, within the plot of the film it has become the ex-con’s own personal property. Furthermore, I would suggest the reason that the property is not unquestionably personal is because Double Alibi was released on March 1, 1940. In two later film noirs of 1940, Stranger on the Third Floor and The Letter (which were released on August 16, and November 23, respectively), the plot elements are consistent with those of other film noirs until near the end of WWII. That is, Double Alibi was made and released (just) before personal property predominated in crime noirs in the war noir period.
To be sure, someone is often killed for personal property, in the form of personal savings or other wealth. There are also many victims of maniacs who have no interest in monetary gain (e.g., Stranger on the Third Floor, Among the Living, Bluebeard, Experiment Perilous, The Lodger). There are also not-for-profit murders committed by humans transformed into other creatures (e.g., Cat People, The Leopard Man).
More pathological than even Jack the Ripper’s multiple murders is the killing of Robert Montgomery. His insane jealousy of his best friend, George Sanders, leads Montgomery to believe that his wife, Ingrid Bergman, and Sanders are in love. Bergman is devoted to Montgomery, but only until his behavior becomes so hostile toward her that he drives her into Sanders’ arms. After Montgomery fails to kill Sanders himself, he schemes to have Sanders executed for murder. Montgomery arranges his own suicide to provide the incriminating corpus delicti (Rage in Heaven).
It is a commonplace throughout the years of film noir that crimes of the heart don’t concern property. In the war noir period, when public property crimes were absent, the most common reason for murder is a personal feeling, passion (either anger or jealousy). The following are examples.
Bette Davis kills her lover for dumping her (The Letter).
Ida Lupino kills her husband, Alan Hale, to try to make George Raft her lover (They Drive by Night).
Betty Field kills Howard da Silva for refusing her (Blues in the Night).
Elisha Cook, Jr. kills Carole Landis for refusing him (I Wake Up Screaming).
Ida Lupino kills Isobel Elsom for wanting to evict her two dotty sisters (Ladies in Retirement).
Ona Munson kills Gene Tierney, her daughter, for insulting her (The Shanghai Gesture).
Thinking that he has murdered his cheating wife, Miles Mander kills the wrong woman (A Tragedy at Midnight).
Moroni Olsen kills his son, albeit accidentally, while arguing with him (The Glass Key).
Franchot Tone kills his best friend’s wife for not running away with him (Phantom Lady).
Clifton Webb kills the wrong woman, thinking she is Gene Tierney, for not loving him as much as he loves her (Laura).
Edward G. Robinson kills Joan Bennett’s lover, Dan Duryea, in self-defense — and in a dream (Woman in the Window).
In sum, most of the murders in the war noir period don’t involve any kind of property. Of those that do, it is personal property. This attention to the kind of crimes that occur is to help make it clear who the criminal-catchers are.
The persons in postwar film noirs who solve crimes and eliminate criminals (by arresting or killing them) are law enforcement officials. Whether they are local cops, state police or federal agents, they are public defenders of the law, and of property. In order to verify the Hollywood saw that “crime does not pay,” they have to be competent. In order to get their man or woman, they have to be correct. But in the film noirs of the war noir period they are neither.
In postwar film noirs public law-enforcers go after public law-breakers. But the absence of crimes with public property in war noirs results in the absence of the police. And even when cops are on the scene, they bungle and fail. Much of the war noir formula, and its social meaning, hinges on the absent or error-prone police. Furthermore, it isn’t only the cops who cannot fulfill their responsibilities; it is the whole justice system, the apparatus to provide public order.
The following are failures of law enforcement in the war noir period.
The police, led by a captain, Jame Burke, conduct a citywide manhunt for Wayne Morris, who supposedly first killed his ex-wife and, later, two other men. In fact, James Burke murdered all three (Double Alibi).
James Stephenson, an attorney, wrecks himself, if not his career, by arranging a bribe to clear his guilty client, Bette Davis (The Letter).
First, the police falsely arrest Elisha Cook, Jr., and then they do the same to John McGuire. In Cook’s trial the judge and jury doze off; the mise-en-scene of McGuire’s trial is cinematic Daumier (Stranger on the Third Floor).
Albert Dekker is arrested and nearly lynched for a couple of murders; no one believes that his twin brother didn’t die long ago but is alive, insane, and responsible for the killings (Among the Living).
Laurence Olivier, though innocent of killing his wife, nonetheless does dispose of her body and then is found to have had no connection with her death and disappearance by a town inquest (Rebecca).
Elisha Cook, Jr. is guilty of murder, and chief detective Laird Cregar knows it but is obsessed with convicting Victor Mature (I Wake Up Screaming).
George Sanders is convicted and sentenced to die for killing Robert Montgomery, who, in fact, staged his own death (Rage in Heaven).
Robert Cummings is wrongly arrested for murder and arson at an aircraft plant (Saboteur).
Detective MacDonald Carey tells Teresa Wright that, since one suspected Merry Widow killer has died, her uncle, Joseph Cotten, is no longer under suspicion (Shadow of a Doubt).
Dennis O’Keefe and Jean Brooks can’t convince the police in a New Mexico town that an escaped leopard didn’t kill two women (The Leopard Man).
New York’s finest falsely arrest for murder Dean Jagger (When Strangers Marry) as well as Alan Curtis (Phantom Lady). They are also hunting Humphrey Bogart for supposedly committing the same crime (All Through the Night).
Spies, who have killed a man in Richard Carlson’s hotel room, tip off the local police about the corpse. When Carlson realizes he is going to be arrested, he flees (Fly-By-Night).
The police start their pursuit of John Howard after he wakes up one morning and there is a woman next to him with a knife in her back. Before he can clear himself, another man is murdered in the room where he is hiding (A Tragedy at Midnight).
Pro-Japanese fifth columnists have shot in the back one of their own gang, a beautiful woman, and then called the cops to frame Preston Foster for her murder (Little Tokyo, U.S.A.).
Thanks to the very Nazis who have slain a member of the underground, the police in Lisbon learn the dead man is in Paul Henreid’s hotel room. When they arrive, the circumstantial evidence makes Henreid look so guilty that the other members of his Resistance group believe he has betrayed them (The Conspirators).
A pro-Nazi physician runs a sanatorium in Britain. He employs another doctor, a “psychopathic killer” who “nearly tears the head off” of three women. Each murder is committed to keep John Loder, an army captain, on the run and unable to provide vital information about Germany’s invasion plans to a general and his staff. Not only the London police but also the general, the father of his girlfriend, believe Loder is guilty (The Gorilla Man).
Also across the pond, Ray Milland has served two years in prison for committing a mercy killing of his wife. However, she actually committed suicide. Upon release he is soon arrested again, this time for murdering a private investigator that he had hired. In fact, Nazis killed the detective, but Scotland Yard doesn’t believe that there are any Nazis on its side of the Channel (Ministry of Fear).
Nor will Scotland Yard allow Joseph Cotten, one of its own men, to reopen the murder case of Ingrid Bergman’s aunt. Cotten goes ahead anyway and discovers the killer. This, at first, might seem an exception to the failure of law enforcers in the war noir period. However, Cotten conducts his investigation against the wishes and the orders of his superior. Most significantly, he acts as a private citizen, not as a member of Scotland Yard (Gaslight).
Other crimes are dealt with in the virtual or actual absence of the police.
After Betty Field guns down Howard da Silva, Wallace Ford takes her for a car ride and intentionally crashes to kill them both (Blues in the Night).
Because Evelyn Keyes is already on her way to tell the police she overheard Ida Lupino confess to murder to Louis Jordan, Lupino goes (off screen) to meet the police and turn herself in (Ladies in Retirement).
Shakedown racketeer John Garfield falls off Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen’s boat and drowns; their neighborhood cop turns a blind eye to the possibility they have pocketed Garfield’s bankroll (Out of the Fog).
Except to collect payoffs, cops will never bother casino owner Ona Munson, although she gunned down her daughter, Gene Tierney (The Shanghai Gesture).
Conrad Veidt wants to kill a child, who is his rival heir. His scheme ends when, while being chased by Melvyn Douglas and Joan Crawford, his sleigh plunges over a precipice (A Woman’s Face).
Although a policeman urges Kim Hunter to file a report on her sister with the department’s bureau of missing persons, she is never contacted. Later, when she wants to report a murder, Hugh Beaumont says that the police won’t believe her (The Seventh Victim).
A plot to take possession of Merle Oberon’s plantation results in the capture of the mastermind, Thomas Mitchell, by Franchot Tone; Elisha Cook, Jr., who has murdered three persons, is swallowed up in quicksand (Dark Waters).
George Brent rescues Hedy Lamarr and her son just before her townhouse explodes. When it blows up, her husband, Paul Lukas, who has murdered his sister among others, is inside it (Experiment Perilous).
Off camera the Turkish police check out a corpse on a beach and declare Zachary Scott’s character is dead. But mystery writer Peter Lorre, in his own research about Scott’s life, comes face to face with the truth that escaped the police (The Mask of Dimitrios).
These examples raise a key question, as well as suggest its answer. In the war noir period, “Who solves the crimes?” We know that law enforcement officials do not. The actual criminal-catchers are almost unique to these years; they are rare in postwar film noirs. They are rapidly replaced by first, local police and then by various kinds of federal agents. Postwar “official” law enforcers are a far cry from their fellows in the war noir years: they are competent and correct.
However, between 1940 and 1944, as the absence of public crimes leads to the absence of public investigators, the presence of personal (“private”) crimes leads to the presence of private investigators. They aren’t professionals, however. Of all the film noirs released during these years, only two have the well-known hardboiled dicks, The Maltese Falcon and Murder, My Sweet. The criminal-catchers in the war noir period are private through and through. They are private citizens, male and female civilians.
Frequently, it is a man and a woman who work together to solve the crime. Nearly as often, the man first gets unexpectedly entangled in a mystery. Afterwards, a woman joins him, and they finish the case. I call his partner an ally. Yet, in analyses of film noir, this special female “character type” has been missed. She is neither a femme fatale nor a woman in distress, and she isn’t a Goody Two Shoes. As an ally, she is at least the match of the man she is teamed with, in courage and intelligence.
The significance of women in war noirs relates to their growing independence as workers, their contributions to the war effort, as well as their numbers at the box-office. But of all the war noir elements to get jettisoned after WWII, none goes out faster than the woman who is an ally, if not an equal. She is all but finished in 1946. In view of American women’s postwar social experience, it is self-evident why this character was, unfortunately, eliminated from movie plots. Yet when film noir starts in 1940, she is on hand, present at the creation. Her appearances are a roll call of war noirs.
Executing a plan that Constance Moore and Frank Albertson devised “between kisses,” Moore convinces the killer of the witness to the murder Albertson is blamed for that she, not Albertson, is guilty. Moore gets this killer to return with her to the scene of the first crime, where he is arrested for the second murder – and where Albertson reveals who committed the first one. The witness, a woman, was killed after Albertson tracked her down. Of all the women known to have associated with the man Albertson supposedly killed, she was the only one to wear a very expensive perfume. It is Moore who realizes the significance of the perfume and, furthermore, identifies it so that Albertson can begin his search through a list of the dead man’s female companions (Framed).
Margaret Lindsay removes the bullet from the left arm of a hunted man. This gives him the strength to work with her to prove he is innocent of murder (A Tragedy at Midnight).
After Margaret Tallichet’s fiancé is jailed for his neighbor’s murder, she leaves work early and scours the neighborhood until she finds the real killer (Stranger on the Third Floor).
More than once Betty Grable outwits the police to help her lover stay at large and discover the murderer of her sister (I Wake Up Screaming).
Joan Bennett refuses to tell Nazis the whereabouts of a man she befriended. She pays for her loyalty with her life. However, the man is later able to save himself by using a chromium arrow-shaped hatpin, which she had him buy her, as the tip of real arrow (Man Hunt).
A radio broadcast announces that Robert Preston, on his way to the state penitentiary to be executed for murder, has escaped. Still handcuffed, he runs into Martha O’Driscoll in a park. They take a table at a tavern, and she says that had recognized him in the park from his picture in the paper. He urges her to go away, but she refuses. When a policeman, searching the tavern, gets to their table, she hides Preston’s face behind her hands, pretending to wipe off some dust. A suspicious waiter wants to see Preston raise his hands above their table to pay him. O’Driscoll quickly says, “I pull the purse strings in our family” and gives him the money. The waiter lingers to watch Preston drink a beer. O’Driscoll puts on a performance to explain why she has to raise the mug herself to Preston’s mouth. She gets a co-worker to distract the night watchman at a garage so that she and Preston can look for a tool to free him of the cuffs. When a file doesn’t work, O’Driscoll picks up an axe. Just before she swings it, Preston closes his eyes. So does O’Driscoll, but she cuts the chain perfectly. A hotel clerk sees the cuffs, pulls out a gun and tells Preston to phone the police. Standing behind the clerk, O’Driscoll knocks him out by smashing a ceramic water pitcher on his head (Pacific Blackout).
Ingrid Bergman was “the only intelligent witness [who] at least suspected that [her] late husband (Robert Montgomery) was insane,” according to the psychiatrist (Oscar Homolka) who once treated him. Homolka is sure that Montgomery was not killed by his best friend, George Sanders, but committed suicide in such a way as to frame Sanders. Furthermore, he is convinced that Montgomery will “want to show off and tell the world, ‘I’m cleverer than you.’…Your husband will want to speak to you from beyond the grave. His crime will not be final until you know the truth. Madame, I stake my reputation on it, a message exists.” During their search in Montgomery’s mansion outside London, they come upon his collection of diaries. The last one is missing. When Bergman notices that each diary is bound in expensive leather by a firm in Paris, she realizes that across the Channel is the “message.” Bergman and Homolka fly to Paris, obtain the diary and, in the nick of time, Bergman telephones “the governor” (in Britain!) and reads the passage that clears Sanders. Diabolically, Montgomery had intended the last bound diary to be sent to Bergman months later. She would have learned too late how he had staged his death and planted evidence so that Sanders would be arrested, tried, convicted, and hanged (Rage in Heaven).
Kaaren Verne, seeing that Peter Lorre is about to shoot Humphrey Bogart, knocks him out with a small statue. Later she tries to untie the ropes binding Bogart and William Demarest. She also reveals to Bogie that Lorre, Conrad Veidt and other Nazis have plans to do something big that night, like blowing up a U.S. battleship in the New York harbor (All Through the Night).
When a spy, who is holding a gun on Richard Carlson and Nancy Kelly, tells them to turn over a valuable baggage check, Kelly says, “Don’t pay any attention to him. The gun isn’t loaded.” While the spy is momentarily confused, Carlson and Kelly make their escape. Henchmen of the spy track Carlson and Kelly to the home of a Justice of the Peace. To keep up appearances and get a room for the night in the JOP’s house, Kelly consents to marrying Carlson. The next morning Kelly tells Carlson that she has a plan to help him find the man who can clear him of murder (Fly-By-Night).
Before a police captain can take her husband away for an alleged murder, Margaret Lindsay helps trip the cop so that she and her husband can get away and begin to figure out who the killer really is (A Tragedy at Midnight).
Brenda Joyce’s boyfriend, Preston Foster, is being held for a murder. After she visits him in jail, she helps him escape and prove to the L.A. police not only that is he innocent but also the existence of a nefarious spy ring (Little Tokyo, U.S.A.)
Priscilla Lane sees to it that a saboteur fails to catch the ferry from the Statue of Liberty and escape capture (Saboteur).
Veronica Lake is asked by a U.S. senator to work undercover to penetrate a business network that is providing chemical formulas to the Axis. Her ally is a hit man who is humanized by his relationship with her (This Gun for Hire).
Dolores Del Rio has a Nazi assassin kept occupied so that an endangered friend can search his room (Journey Into Fear).
Anna Lee misdirects Nazis who are chasing the murderer of Richard Heydrich, the “Hangman of Prague. She also allows him to stay in her house, even though his discovery would mean her own death and that of everyone else in her family (Hangmen Also Die!).
When the Nazis make her father one of 400 Czechs to be executed in retaliation, Anna Lee decides to betray the killer, Brian Donlevy. However, at the Gestapo’s office, she witnesses an elderly, poor female shopkeeper, who saw her deceive the Nazis, refuse to give her away, perhaps at the cost of the old woman’s life. Realizing her mistake, she invents a reason for having voluntarily gone to see the Gestapo. Lee is a unique ally. She doesn’t have a job, and the stakes for helping a hunted man are immeasurably greater than for any other woman in a war noir. The Gestapo interrogates Lee, her father, her mother, her aunt, and her teenage brother. None of them reveal anything about the man who spent a night at their house. When Donlevy comes to her home, she deceives the Gestapo, who are listening to their conversation, into believing he is a suitor, not the man they seek. Just before her father is executed, Lee has one last chance to save his life by telling the Gestapo who killed Heydrich. She says nothing. When the Gestapo burst into Donlevy’s bedroom in search of a wounded member of the underground resistance, they find Lee there. The Gestapo have brought with them Lee’s fiancé, Dennis O’Keefe. After the Gestapo leave Donlevy’s bedroom, Lee starts to tell O’Keefe that there is nothing between her and Donlevy. Then she sees the Gestapo inspector’s shadow outside Donlevy’s bedroom door. Turning on a dime, Lee tells O’Keefe that she has fallen in love with Donlevy. Standing only in her slip, with her hands on her hips, she declares, “Well, what are you staring at? Do you think you own me?” O’Keefe says, “You were lying to me all along.” Lee retorts, “Yes, I was. I just fell in love with him. And that’s all there is to it. Can’t you understand that?” Outside the door the inspector hears O’Keefe softly reply, “I can.” The inspector walks away, leaving the wounded man to be nursed back to health by Donlevy and Lee. Finally, in an elaborate plan devised by the resistance, Lee initiates the incrimination and ultimate arrest of a Gestapo informer (Gene Lockhart) as Heydrich’s murderer. Anna Lee is the female ally who does the most in any war noir to assist the hunted man.
With three male companions Kim Hunter takes on a murderous sect in search of her older sister (The Seventh Victim).
Marjorie Reynolds kills her brother, who had secretly been a Nazi, to save her lover’s life and prevent a microfilm of the layout of the minefields in the English Channel from reaching the Third Reich (Ministry of Fear).
In three war noirs, based on novels by Cornell Woolrich, the criminal-catchers find out their ally is false.
Ella Raines doggedly and bravely tracks down leads to exonerate her boss of murder. His best friend is her ally, the real killer (Phantom Lady).
Kim Hunter first helps her husband elude capture by the police. After he is found and jailed for robbery and murder, she figures out the killer is her ex-boyfriend, who has pretended to be her ally. However, she cannot convince the chief detective of the truth. It isn’t until the killer becomes wild-eyed and frantic that cop can see what she deduced (When Strangers Marry).
Because she believes they have a romance, Claire Trevor reluctantly gives a man whatever assistance he wants so that he can prove himself innocent of murder. However, she is the killer, and he is married. Moments after their mutual discoveries, she is shot by a police detective. Before dying she clears him of the killing, for he has pretended again to love her (Street of Chance).
An aside, but an illuminating one, is that Trevor’s character is a false female ally in the adapted screenplay, whereas she is a true ally in Cornell Woolrich’s original novel, The Black Curtain, published in 1941. (Quotations below from the Ballantine Books edition, 1982.)
She helps the man that she loves to solve the mystery (in the same ways as in the film). Then she is unintentionally shot to death by the killer. The man never reveals to her that he is married. He says to a police detective, “She was a great kid. Without her–” (137)
On the last page of the book, as the man is returning by train to his wife, it says:
[He] caught a fleeting glimpse of a familiar mound. He saw the small headstone that had been his only gift to Ruth Dillon. Ruth who had given him so much, the past and the future. He raised two fingers to his temple, brought them out again in salute. Salute and farewell. (148)
A salute indeed, to his ally.
Not only are private civilians the criminal-catchers in war noirs, they are also working class. Moreover, their class character is the key to grasping the double meaning of the war noir formula.
In Saboteur Robert Cummings tries to fight off some county police who, on a tip from Nazi spy, Otto Kruger, have arrested him. He is outnumbered and will certainly be rearrested. However, a passing truck driver, who had earlier befriended him, misleads the cops to allow Cummings to get away. This is a minor example of a man who is a working class ally. The significant allies in war noirs, women, are not only shown as being of the working class, they are clearly established as workers.
Constance Moore is the private secretary of a high society man, who is a witness in an extortion trial and then is murdered (Framed).
Margaret Lindsay is a writer in two war noirs, with a very different outcome in each one. In 1940, she is an aspiring “newspaperman,” trying to get out of being stuck churning out a health column. She falls in love with a man accused of murder and helps him expose the real killer. Rather than phone in the story to her editor, she quits the paper in order to get married (Double Alibi). Her abandonment of a career may be attributable to the early date for this war noir — before greater equality between the sexes occurred in WWII crime noirs. In contrast, in 1942, Lindsay is the author of the scripts for each murder mystery (“real-life thriller, crimes the police couldn’t solve”) that her “radio detective” husband broadcasts. The police have been chasing him for allegedly committing murder. At the end of the broadcast in which he proves his innocence and reveals the actual killer, Lindsay grabs the microphone and says, “Next Monday night at the same time you’ll hear from Beth and Greg Sherman, radio detectives in crimes the police couldn’t solve.” In other words, to the surprise (if not chagrin) of her husband, Lindsay promotes herself from being not only the writer but also the co-star of their radio program (A Tragedy at Midnight). During America’s effort to win the WWII, the greater equality between the sexes that occurred may explain the difference in the outcomes between Lindsay’s two war noirs.
Margaret Tallichet is a secretary/stenographer (Stranger on the Third Floor).
So is Betty Grable (I Wake Up Screaming).
Martha O’Driscoll is a telephone operator (Pacific Blackout).
Kaaren Verne is a nightclub singer, or “a thrush,” as Bogart calls her (All Through the Night).
Nancy Kelly is a sketch artist (Fly-By-Night).
Brenda Joyce is a radio broadcaster, whose show is called, “News from the Woman’s Angle” (Little Tokyo, U.S.A.).
Joan Bennett’s character is a prostitute in the Atlantic Monthly article, “Rogue Male.” In Man Hunt, this is only hinted at, by the stress on money exchange between her and Walter Pidgeon throughout the film, and her impersonation of a streetwalker to a policeman. There is a suggestion, by a sewing machine in her apartment, that she earns money as a seamstress.
Ingrid Bergman is a private secretary before marrying ne’er-do-well industrialist Robert Montgomery. After she marries George Sanders, she will be the wife of an industrial engineer (Rage in Heaven).
Priscilla Lane is a photo model for billboards (Saboteur).
Veronica Lake is a nightclub entertainer with an eye-tricking magician’s act (This Gun for Hire).
Delores Del Rio is a nightclub dancer with an eye-catching leopard’s costume (Journey Into Fear).
Marjorie Reynolds is a staffer for a non-profit organization, The Mothers of Free Nations (Ministry of Fear).
Ella Raines is another secretary destined to marry an engineer (Phantom Lady).
In its most basic form the plot for allied or lone civilian criminal-catchers is a puzzle. In postwar film noirs, when women no longer help figure out mysteries, the intelligence to solve them is men’s. After law enforcement officials take center stage from civilians, puzzles exit altogether.
The private detective, of course, has achieved status as a film noir icon. Yet it is actually rare for a hardboiled dick to be a central character. He may rule in a few renowned movies, but the two superpowers of film noir are civilians and cops; and which one is in charge in the formulas depends on whether the movie was made before or after 1945.
A social context always conditioned the plot elements of film noir, thus the need for periodization. The key elements of the war noir gave way to other ones after the war, such as crimes about public property, masterful law enforcement officials, femme fatales, or women in distress. Understanding this transition means reviewing the connections between film noir and society from their start.
Film noir began under the storm clouds of war, when armies were already marching in Asia and Europe. Exactly a year before the release of Stranger on the Third Floor, the Nazis invaded Poland. In the intervening time the Axis was formed, lend-lease ratified, and the Atlantic Charter signed. Although there was opposition to entering another war, there was mainly widespread anxiety that U.S. involvement was inevitable. Then came the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The rise of film noir, therefore, belongs to the decline and fall of national peace and isolation.
The guarantor of “national security” is the state. However, once at war, things change. The people become the defenders of the nation. The role of the working class, that makes the weapons and fires them, is especially crucial. These points suggest an explanation of the relationship of cops to civilians in war noirs.
Crime stories are a displacement of class conflict in the real world. The usual root of struggle is property. Insofar as true class struggle isn’t waged around the house but rather throughout society, the property at stake is in the public arena. The capitalist class, of course, possesses almost all property. On the other hand, the working class is essentially propertyless. In the class struggle, workers aim to advance their material position; capitalists try to constrain them. Therefore, workers, as displaced in crime stories, are criminals.
State power, through law enforcement, serves to protect the propertied against assault by the propertyless. Law enforcement officials, therefore, are the displacement of state power, standing for the interests of capitalists.
Social disharmony is, by definition, a constant feature of the crime story; yet the underlying social tension in it can vary. The U.S. entry into WWII radically affected the “normal” crime story’s focus on public property. Common cultural representations of class conflict were abandoned as the social context made it desirable instead for representations of cross-class ceasefire, if not cooperation. For example, the no-strike pledge contributed to forming this context.
Film noir, consequently, began without public property in plots because displaced “normal” class struggle wasn’t appropriate for wartime crime stories.
Being appropriate means attracting an audience, making a profit, and meeting the propaganda needs of the state (which Hollywood would never have blatantly and constantly contradicted). Therefore, although they are structured as crime stories, war noirs convey a coded message that is consistent with the same win-the-war line of battlefront movies. The latter, of course, lack displacement and coded messages about winning the war because they intentionally approach overt government propaganda.
In war noirs the message deals with mobilization and commitment to the war effort. By showing characters compelled to involve themselves as a last resort (after the collapse of law enforcement), war noirs indicate that extraordinary public engagement and sacrifice is urgent. To be sure, while trying to solve crimes, war noir allies endure dangers and anguish. Nonetheless, it is their ultimate triumph over these threats that filmmakers, in service to Washington as well as Mammon, wished moviegoers to believe would be matched in their own lives. The “all’s well” endings of war noirs are displaced promises to audiences of a happier, better America after Victory.
The plot elements reviewed so far are appropriate in the context of WWII, but they don’t establish a full formula. Other elements exist, which aren’t combined by accident. In the historical conditions at that time, a specific set of plot elements “fit” together for a marketable crime story. The war noir formula is the approximate sum of these elements.
To elaborate the point, if the film noirs of the war noir period are considered ahistorically, then there is no way to explain the calculations by the studios to use these elements. There are no grounds for justifying how these elements per se would have produced better or more popular crime movies than by using markedly different ones (such as those that were used in postwar crime movies).
However, the repeated use of a discernible and exclusive formula in a specific number of years shows that the Hollywood studios thought they were giving audiences, the government agencies monitoring their scripts and final releases, and their expected return on investments what was called for. The fact is shown, that is, only when these film noirs are considered historically.
For instance, in the real circumstances of the people having lead responsibility for defeating the Axis, it became appropriate for civilians instead of cops to solve crimes. The personal nature of the robberies and murders attests to the shift away from social property relations as the claim on audience interest. Insofar as personal problems are a displacement of the war crisis, for a historically given period civilians themselves overcome their adversities and adversaries.
Complementing the distinctive crimes and criminal-catchers of the war noir period is a different kind of “criminal.” Indeed, these film noirs most defining plot element is the suspected lawbreaker who is an innocent man.
Examples include: Wayne Morris (Double Alibi); Elisha Cook, Jr. and John McGuire (Stranger on the Third Floor); Albert Dekker (Among the Living); George Raft (They Drive by Night); Victor Mature (I Wake Up Screaming); Chester Morris (Meet Boston Blackie); Robert Preston (Pacific Blackout); George Sanders (Rage in Heaven); Humphrey Bogart (All Through the Night); Richard Carlson (Fly-By-Night); John Howard (A Tragedy at Midnight); Robert Preston (Little Tokyo, U.S.A.); William Powell (Crossroads); John Loder (The Gorilla Man); Brian Donlevy (The Glass Key); Robert Cummings (Saboteur); Burgess Meredith (Street of Chance); Brian Donlevy (Hangmen Also Die!); Ray Milland (Ministry of Fear); Alan Curtis (Phantom Lady); Dean Jagger (When Strangers Marry); and Paul Henreid (The Conspirators).
Similarly, although Joan Fontaine suspects Cary Grant of killing Nigel Bruce and planning to murder her, she is wrong (Suspicion). And, although Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson think he has killed her boyfriend, they are wrong (Woman in the Window).
While serving time in jail, civilian men are taken out of the story of the movie. Soldiers were similarly out of the picture during their military service. (Furthermore, in film noirs released after the war noir period, male characters tend to “come back” after varying lengths of absence. Some are explicitly veterans, such as Alan Ladd in The Blue Dahlia. But usually the war is displaced. They return from trips, hospitals, prisons, and bouts of amnesia.)
While these men are on the run or behind bars, women dedicate themselves to disproving the guilt and ending the persecution. So too, people on the home front sacrificed and worked to win the war and bring the boys home. The romantic ending when the wrongly accused man is freed and can embrace his wife or girlfriend played to the hopes that when the fascist nightmare ended, friends, relatives, and lovers would be safely reunited.
However, even before the armistices, film noir’s plot elements begin to change, signaling the finish of the war noir formula. Some key changes have already been mentioned: crimes become committed for public property, and criminal-catchers become professional law officers instead of private citizens. In addition, innocent civilian men become guilty outlaws, either for crimes committed before the start of the movie or during it. By the end of the Forties, film noirs aren’t about individuals but of organized gangsters. The causes of these changes were the conditions of postwar America.
The impending conclusion to international hostilities meant the end of the national cross-class ceasefire. Labor militancy was but one dramatic factor in making it appropriate for film noirs to turn to public property. But even a great strike wave wouldn’t necessarily have made law enforcement appropriate. However, over the course of the America’s period of greatest worker “unrest” (late 1945 to early 1946) public opinion shifted. Perhaps it was due to a multi-million dollar business sponsored public relations campaign. At any rate, respondents to a survey indicated they had become less favorably disposed to unions and slightly more so to business.
In Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (University of Illinois Press, 1997), Alex Carey quotes a State Department public relations officer.
The public opinion climate changed completely in America. While the rest of the world has moved to the left, has admitted labor into government, has passed liberalized legislation, the United States has become anti-social change, anti-economic reform, anti-labor. It is not moving to the right, it has been moved – cleverly – to the right. (35)
In the fall of 1946 the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress. Passage of more pro-labor reforms (such as “full-employment”) stopped, and anti-labor legislation (such as Taft-Hartley) became the laws of the land instead.
In these circumstances, the return of the police would have been appropriate. However, by then, the advanced level of U.S. industrialization was mirrored in large-scale division of labor in the organizations of law enforcers. Keeping up with these changes outside the Bijous and Roxies, inside on their silver screens the familiar local police department, not to mention the infrequent freelance private eye, gives way to bureaucracies, especially federal agencies. Generally introduced by a stentorian “Voice of God,” it seems by the late Forties that everywhere in film noirs there are uniformed and plainclothes operatives of the FBI, Secret Service, Coast Guard, and the departments of Justice/Immigration, Post Office and Treasury.
The bureaucratization of “justice” is paralleled in crime. Hollywood’s flatfeet and G-men confront citywide rackets and national syndicates. Their job isn’t to discover the existence of a mob, but to secure evidence and witnesses (usually women) to indict the mobsters.
This plot change means that puzzles give way in the late Forties and early Fifties to police procedurals. Furthermore, the film noir parallel to the blow-by-blow of cops busting gangsters is the step-by-step of crooks pulling capers. The appearance of procedurals, whether showcasing heroes or villains, is in the same period because they were two sides of the same coin, generated by an identical historical context.
In the immediate postwar years the social factors influencing film noir are still weighted toward civilian anxieties (e.g., war, demobilization, unemployment, infidelity). However, the representation of these anxieties is typically through gender conflict. For example, male anxieties seem related to women, whose great entry into the wartime job market resulted in changes in economic and sexual relations. Through the mid- to late Forties, film noirs are generally displacements of those anxieties. Therefore, civilians, innocent or guilty, are the dominant characters.
The next transformation of plot elements and formulas corresponds to the transition from the Second World War to the Cold War. As demobilized men get jobs and deindustrialized women get mops, the incidence of film noir’s displacement of anxieties of working class civilians falls while displacement of anxieties of non-working classes rises.
Returning to their “normal” existence in crimes stories as criminals, working class people are replaced as the central characters in film noirs by law enforcement officials. Whereas the focus of film noirs began on the hunted in the war noir period, it logically turns to the hunters in the cold war period. Lots of men with many types of badges combat threat upon threat to the social order. Hollywood’s focus on their crusades relates to containing, if not rolling back, extremists who supposedly are invading and undermining the nation: communists, mobsters, rogue cops, psychopaths, white supremacists, juvenile delinquents, and on and on.
In retrospect, it seems predictable rather than paradoxical that new elements in film noir are frequent in 1945, and even first appear the year before. The armistices didn’t mark the shift from war noir to postwar formulas. The process of transition, like others later, took place as follows: the appearance of new elements, coexistence with old ones, dominance of the new, and (virtual) disappearance of the old. New elements were appropriate during the late war years because the postwar social context began before the victory.
In the summer of 1944, the Normandy invasion ends the long delayed second front in Europe; U.S. air strikes start against Japan’s home island cities; and the postwar economic order is planned at Bretton Woods. Military success abroad leads to industry layoffs at home. This, and government-ordered pay limits, provoke strikes, mostly wildcats, which surge to a tidal wave two years later.
The class struggle doesn’t end during the war, but it is muted, even suppressed in the culture industry. The coming of the end of the war not only intensifies class conflict, it necessarily marks the appropriateness of using new plot elements, which pertain to the displacement of class struggle in crime stories. In other words, changes in the national and world scene promptly impact the plots in film noirs.
The first new key plot elements are introduced in Double Indemnity (released in 1944 and shot a year before). Most important of these is film noir’s first full-fledged femme fatale, Barbara Stanwyck. Two earlier female killers brook no comparison with her.
Bette Davis opens The Letter by emptying a chamber of bullets into her lover because he intended to stop an affair with her. She doesn’t spin a web. She reacts spontaneously, and then spends most of the rest of the film trying to beat her murder rap. Nor is Mary Astor a true spider woman in The Maltese Falcon. It is only at the very end of the movie when Humphrey Bogart unravels the puzzle and reveals that she did his partner in. And rather than simply telling her that he is going to send her over for murder, he and she have a extended conversation about whether they are in love with each other! (For more analysis of Mary Astor’s character, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, as a “soft” femme fatale, see the page International Lady.)
In Double Indemnity there is no puzzle, and a bureaucratic institution, an insurance corporation, conducts the investigation. The property involved can be considered “transitional.” The insurance policy is personal because it belongs to Stanwyck’s husband, but it is paid out by a public enterprise.
The second most important new element of the movie is Fred MacMurray’s guilt. There is male guilt in three earlier film noirs, but none of the characters remotely resembles Walter Neff.
In Angels over Broadway John Qualen’s boss blames him for embezzling $3000. With the help of several friends (Thomas Mitchell, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Rita Hayworth) he cons some racketeers in a card game and is able to square the debt. However, he was never guilty of the theft in the first place. His wife took the money when she ran off with another man. After making amends, Qualen can have his job back.
In Suspicion Cary Grant embezzles some company funds and is discovered. But his employer is his cousin, who hesitates to press charges. His efforts to raise enough money for the payback successively fail. His wife, Joan Fontaine, starts imagining he intends to murder her (and that he has already killed his best friend). As Grant drives recklessly on a cliff road, Fontaine’s car door flies open. He grabs her arm to save her, but she pulls away. He holds onto her and stops the car. A heated argument begins.
Grant is incensed that Fontaine has stopped sleeping with him and now wants to visit her mother. He says that she won’t have to put up with him anymore. “I won’t bother you again.”
Suddenly, she sees why he wanted to know about an untraceable poison. He was planning to commit suicide because of his debt. Explaining that he had realized it would be “the cheap way out,” Grant says, “I’m going to see it through, prison time and everything.”
Fontaine’s response is significant as example of class being the key to unlocking the secrets of the war noir formula.
“Oh, Johnny, if I’d only known. This is as much my fault as yours. I was only thinking of myself, not what you were going through. If I’d been really close to you, you could have confided in me. But you were afraid to. You were afraid to come to me. Oh, if I’d only understood! Oh, Johnny! But it’ll be different now. We’ll make it different.”
“People don’t change overnight, Lena. I’m no good.”
“Let’s turn back. Johnny, let’s go home and see it through together.”
“No. It won’t work. I’m driving you on to your mother’s.”
“It will work. I know it will. Oh, Johnny, please!”
“This isn’t your problem, Lena.”
“But it is! You can’t shut me out! Johnny, turn the car around and let’s go home. Please, Johnny, please.”
“No, Lena, no.” [Grant goes to the car.]
“My darling!” [Fontaine goes to it too.]
For a moment they drive forward. Then he turns around the car and Suspicion ends. That is, her suspicion ends. The significance is that until the final scene she refuses to be his ally. The explanation for it is her class difference. He is broke, propertyless, a displaced proletarian. Despite being madly in love with him, she doesn’t fully accept him; thus he could not, would not, confide in her. Social leveling, on his terms, means that now they really can “see it all through together.” It also implies that an overnight change in people to effect a cross-class alliance, with pride of place given to the working class, can see through the trials of the future.
In Shadow of a Doubt Joseph Cotten makes ends meet by robbing and knocking off widows. (The fact that there were so many war widows is played on; in a macabre way the victims are “appropriate.”) The property Cotten takes is theirs personally. He is a killer and a thief, and yet how guilty is he? After he dies (trying to murder his niece, Teresa Wright), there is a crowded church service given to commemorate him. Wright and her boyfriend, police investigator MacDonald Carey, stand outside and promise to keep what he did a secret. So, in the final analysis, on the public record that is, the Merry Widow murderer is an innocent man!
On the other hand, by killing to defraud a business, Fred MacMurray initiates a critical change in film noir crime and character. Simultaneously with one transformation of hot property from personal to public is the other change of the hunted man from a law abider to a transgressor, from a victim of injustice to a deliberate outlaw.
As befits transition, although the place of property in Double Indemnity is public, it is also as personal as a house or purse rifled by Joseph Cotten. The explanation is that this is a crime story about an inside job: MacMurray works for the firm making the payout to Stanwyck. That is why the chief claims examiner, Edward G. Robinson, gets taken in. Uncharacteristically sensitive, Robinson listens as the man who was more than just his favorite insurance agent, and is now bleeding to death from a gunshot by Stanwyck, cracks wise once more.
“You know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell you. ‘Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from you.”
“Closer than that, Walter.”
“I love you, too.”
That is personal. For later criminals, however, the place of property would be public and impersonal.
The transition from wartime to postwar film noirs is complex because there is no one-to-one switch in formulas. In the first years of film noir there is a relatively limited range of plot elements and only a single formula, the war noir. But after the war there is a much wider range of elements and several formulas emerge (to be joined or replaced by different formulas in later years). One of the principal postwar formulas concerns the other lead female character, the woman in distress.
A telltale blind spot in the history of critical writing on film noir is that, while the femme fatale is a standard topic of interest, the woman in distress has been largely ignored. (Similarly, hardboiled fiction, whose novels and pulp stories were targeted to a male audience, is always cited as a “source” of film noir. However, melodramatic fiction, whose novels and popular magazine articles were aimed at a female readership, has been overlooked as a key “source” of film noir.) This oversight is especially unjustifiable because, in the years of the so-called “classic” film noir era (1940-1959), there are more appearances of the woman in distress than the femme fatale. It is additional evidence of transition taking place in 1944 that this is the year of first crime noir with a full-fledged woman in distress.
In the war noir, a working class woman goes about the city to prevent the capture and/or execution of her husband (to-be). The reversal of these plot elements begins in Gaslight.
Instead of holding a job, Ingrid Bergman is a housewife, with inherited wealth. Instead of voluntarily searching through the streets to solve the puzzle of a crime, she involuntarily wanders upstairs downstairs, and is puzzled about her mind. Instead of using her intelligence to reject and disprove the word of official authorities, she doubts her sanity when confronted by her husband’s “proofs.” Instead of trying to end the threat to her husband’s life, hers is threatened by him. Meanwhile, instead of being a man who is innocent of murder, Charles Boyer is guilty of it (killing her aunt). Instead of finally being released from prison, he is at last sent there. And when her ordeal is over, instead of embracing the man she rescued, Bergman embraces Joseph Cotten, the man who rescued her.
At first glance, two of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies released before Gaslight might seem to be woman in distress film noirs, but they are not. In Suspicion Joan Fontaine imagines Cary Grant wants to do her in, but she is mistaken. In Shadow of a Doubt Teresa Wright has more in common with the woman of the war noir formula than a woman in distress.
Wright is, indeed, imperiled. However, it isn’t from simply being in the way of a man getting rich or taking up with another woman. Rather, her danger comes from intentionally getting in the way, going outside the house, and figuring out what the police across the country have not – that her beloved uncle is a murderer hiding out in her family’s home. By using her wits Wright is comparable to the women in war noirs, which were released in the same period as Shadow of a Doubt. If Wright would mind her own business, Cotten would gladly, merrily, leave her alone.
But no such situation exists for the true woman in distress. She willingly does nothing, other than to marry the wrong man. Therefore, as the basis of this formula, the woman in distress, who expects security homemaking in her rooms, is menaced although she is passive. In contrast, the woman (ally) of the war noir formula, who accepts risks venturing in the streets, is threatened because she is active. Teresa Wright isn’t an ally, and Shadow of a Doubt isn’t a war noir. But, as she hurries through traffic to get to the public library before it closes so that she can read the page of a newspaper Cotten has manipulated her from seeing, Wright is the kind of woman frequently presented by Hollywood in these special years of the war noir period.
The concurrent appearances in 1944 of the femme fatale and the woman in distress reinforce my point that this is the year of transition of film noir plot elements and formulas. The social contexts of drastic changes in women’s roles in society and their relationships with men make it appropriate that plot elements alter in film noir.
The war noir’s displaced representation of an alliance between the sexes transformed to an anxiety about hierarchy in each gender toward the other. For men it was confronting and competing for jobs with independent women. This anxiety was experienced “outside.” In film noir it is displaced in terms of the femme fatale and the renewal of crime stories with public property.
For women it was losing their independence, economic if not also sexual, by leaving their jobs, staying at home, and raising a family. This anxiety was experienced “inside.” It is displaced in terms of crime stories about personal property, and the woman in distress, separated from postwar city life by way of place (confined within a house, often rurally located) as well as in time (the nineteenth or turn of the twentieth century). When her (next, better) husband finally rescues her, the inference is that their marriage will strike a balance between the demands of the social structure of postwar America and her needs. However, these needs are framed by two conditions, her banishment from the job market and her placement in the kitchen.
To recapitulate, these are the key elements of the war noir formula: absence of public property; absence or failure of law enforcement officials; presence of personal property; innocence of a male civilian, considered guilty by law enforcers; vindication of his innocence by his own efforts and those of a woman’s; or, if he is jailed, restoration of his freedom by the efforts of other civilians, especially a woman’s; solution of a mystery by these civilians; revelation that the real killer is another male civilian, the “unsuspected;” romantic coupling of the innocent male civilian and the female ally.
Although they were hardly ever frequent in peacetime, downbeat endings were especially unacceptable in wartime. The Roosevelt administration, the military services, the Hollywood studios, and the audiences wanted upbeat endings. That the film noirs of the war noir period don’t deviate from this may explain why they haven’t been given much attention. Film noir fans may prefer characters in the formulas developed after the war. At any rate, however much I enjoy postwar film noirs, the appeal of the war noir is just as strong, not only because of its mise-en–scène, but because of what is signified by its plot elements.
To begin with, I enjoy watching clever and courageous women in war noirs. There may be excitement when femme fatales deceive and doom the opposite sex or women in distress flee their homicidally inclined husbands, but both these character types are deeply flawed. Women in war noirs, of course, aren’t flawless role models; for instance, they must always get a man. But they have the guts and smarts for a good cause (justice, freedom). They aren’t so materialistic as to be murderous to men, nor so vulnerable as to be victimized by men. They go shoulder to shoulder with men.
Then, too, I enjoy watching working class people do for themselves what cannot be done for them by official authorities. This theme is typically forbidden. I don’t mean working class people winning something; I mean their resolving something. After all, a boxing match or a fortune can be won without implying power relations between classes have changed. They, of course, have not. It may mean that hard work pays off, or America is strong (again), or women and people of color deserve equal treatment and respect. But it doesn’t mean the working class is more capable than the ruling class and its agents to solve crises.
Crime stories are displacements of crises. In postwar film noirs one force is shown for solving crimes, for resolving crises, and it is law enforcement authority.
But in war noirs innocent people are repeatedly chased, jailed, and sentenced to die. What do the authorities do? They are responsible for the persecutions. How do they make things aright? They do not. Either they are disappeared from the plot or they encumber those trying to restore order. What takes place in war noirs to solve crimes, to resolve crises, is the appearance of another force, and it is the working class.
A dialogue in I Wake Up Screaming is revealing.
Laird Cregar, the police department’s chief detective, already knows Elisha Cook, Jr. is guilty of killing Carole Landis, but he wants to pin the rap on Victor Mature. Betty Grable, Mature’s girlfriend and Landis’ younger sister, has just been arrested. Mature comes up behind Cregar on a street corner and pokes a Tootsie Roll in his side, as though it were a gun.
“You’ve taken Jill. She hasn’t got anything to do with this. Let her go and I’ll give myself up.”
“You’ve turned into quite a Lochinvar, haven’t you? Self-sacrifice and everything. Well, it’s no use, Frankie. I don’t have to make bargains with you. I’ll get you eventually. If not tomorrow, next week. If not next week, next year. Time’s nothing in my life, it is in yours. Each minute is an eternity to a man in your shoes.”
“You’ve got the wrong steer this time, Cornell. They told me at headquarters that you’re a pretty sure thing. But this time you’re trying to convict an innocent man.”
“That’s what you say. But you can’t sell me on it. I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.”
“You’re not a cop looking for a murderer. You’re crazy, Cornell. You oughta be put away.”
“Sure. Why don’t you call a policeman?”
Law enforcement isn’t just unallied with the working class; it is pitted against it. This point is made in the text of Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Curtain (Ballantine Books, 1982, 78-79), the novel on which Street of Chance is based.
A hunted and confused man, Frank Townsend, has had another identity, “Dan Nearing,” while he is an amnesiac for three years. (In the film his amnesia is for a much shorter time, in fact not much longer than the U.S. has been at war.) Going to a library, he discovers in an old newspaper article why he is being pursued. He is wanted for murder. The police believe that, while he was an invalid’s guardian at a suburban mansion, he was caught robbing a safe by his employer. The police hold “Nearing” responsible for killing this old man with a shotgun. Woolrich continues:
He brushed the back of his hand across his mouth, as if to wipe off some sort of foul taste. He was one of them now. He could be killed by the law. He was a murderer.
There was no refuge for him, no mercy. Earthly laws only fulfilled what divine law itself sanctioned. “Whose sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”
He was a murderer. Outcast, taboo.
Now he knew, now he understood; the meaning of the man in gray, the silent grim pursuit, that raid in the dead of night on his home. Now the curtain had lifted and he saw what lay before him. No personal vengeance, no private enemy stalking him from out the miasmas of the past. That had been organized society itself. That man must have been the police. Who else would have dared draw a gun on a crowded subway platform and shatter a car panel?
Although the absence of public property alters the terms for plotting crime stories in war noirs, it doesn’t remove the representation of class struggle. This holds true despite the separate representation, discussed earlier in terms of propaganda, of another kind of struggle: marshaling popular commitment to the war effort. Multiple meanings, therefore, coexist in war noirs, and they are related to each other. That is, specific historical conditions lead to certain plot elements that are appropriate for conveying, albeit through displacement, a win-the-war message. However, and the point is key, the logical consequence of having these elements to offer a politically centrist message is to imply at the same time another, politically leftist one.
Because of the WWII context (demanding win-the-war movie themes, displaced or otherwise), there is a shift toward favorable representation of the working class, in crime films as well as battlefront ones. Due to the same conditions the ruling class loses favorable representation. Then, in postwar and especially cold war film noirs, the ruling class regains favorable representation, as shown by law enforcement being successful and good to the innocent. But in war noirs displacement shows us again and again that the working class by itself can overcome physical and psychological threats. Chief among these threats is official authority.
What is wonderful about the war noirs is that they consistently show the side of the underdog — instead of the overlord — victorious. In this way, these B movies reveal A politics.
In the list below, an asterisk indicates that the war noir is also a spy noir. Insofar as national security is threatened, espionage isn’t concerned with either personal or public property. Instead, it deals with “possessions” of the state, such as documents and weapons, as well as the lives of spies, government officials and a country’s people.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood barely releases any spy noirs – or espionage films of any type – after 1946. However, during WWII, the most frequent film with the plot elements of a war noir is a spy noir.
War Noirs: title, date, director, and main actors (the innocent/hunted man and his female/worker ally).
Double Alibi, 1940, Phil Rosen, with Wayne Morris & Margaret Lindsay
Stranger on the Third Floor, 1940, Boris Ingster, with John McGuire & Margaret Tallichet
I Wake Up Screaming, 1941, H. Bruce Humberstone, with Victor Mature & Betty Grable
Man Hunt*, 1941, Fritz Lang, with Walter Pidgeon & Joan Bennett
Meet Boston Blackie*, 1941, Robert Florey, with Chester Morris & Rochelle Hudson
Pacific Blackout*, 1941, Ralph Murphy, with Robert Preston & Martha O’Driscoll
Rage in Heaven, 1941, W. S. Van Dyke, with George Sanders & Ingrid Bergman
All Through the Night*, 1942, Vincent Sherman, with Humphrey Bogart & Kaaren Verne
Fly-By-Night*, 1942, Robert Siodmak, with Nancy Kelly & Richard Carlson
A Tragedy as Midnight, 1942, Joseph Santley, with John Howard & Margaret Lindsay
Little Tokyo, U.S.A.*, 1942, Otto Brower, with Preston Foster & Brenda Joyce
Saboteur*, 1942, Alfred Hitchcock, with Robert Cummings & Priscilla Lane
Street of Chance, 1942, Jack Hively, with Burgess Meredith & Claire Trevor
This Gun for Hire*, 1942, Frank Tuttle, with Alan Ladd & Veronica Lake
The Gorilla Man*, 1943, D. Ross Lederman, with John Loder & Marian Hall
Hangmen Also Die!*, 1943, Fritz Lang, with Brian Donlevy & Anna Lee
Journey Into Fear*, 1943, Norman Foster (& Orson Welles), with Joseph Cotton & Dolores Del Rio
The Conspirators*, 1944, Jean Nugelesco, with Paul Henreid & Heddy Lamarr
Ministry of Fear*, 1944, Fritz Lang, with Ray Milland & Marjorie Reynolds
Phantom Lady, 1944, Robert Siodmak, with Alan Curtis & Ella Raines
When Strangers Marry (aka Betrayed), 1944, William Castle, with Dean Jagger & Kim Hunter