The Unrecognized History in Film Noir
In Five Graves to Cairo, Corporal John J. Bramble, like many men and women in an espionage story, becomes an imposter. He is a survivor of the British Eighth Army in North Africa, which was, according to the film’s introduction, “beaten, scattered, and in flight” in June 1942. He makes it across the desert to an isolated hotel.
A short time later, the German Afrika Korps arrive, and the hotel is commandeered by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Bramble pretends to be the hotel’s French waiter, Paul Davos, who was killed when the Nazis bombed the area the night before. Bramble later discovers that the real Davos also had a secret life – he was a German agent. Taking advantage of this knowledge, Bramble deceives Rommel and gains his confidence.
The Desert Fox shows Bramble a map of Egypt. He says the British officers he has captured wouldn’t be able to figure out where the Germans had “dug supplementary supplies into the sands of Egypt,” even if they were to see the map. Because Rommel thinks Bramble isn’t British, he assumes the waiter can simply look at it and spot “the five graves to Cairo,” the locations with buried “petrol, water, ammunition, and spare parts for tanks.”
Bramble knows that if the British destroy these depots, the Nazis can be defeated in North Africa. As he studies the map, he disguises his inability to decipher it by saying to Rommel, “I’m trying to look at it with an Englishman’s eyes. Not a clue. Just an ordinary map.”
Hours later, he realizes the supplies are hidden where the map has the letters E, G, Y, P, and T.1
[The reference for footnote #1 above, and the references for 61 more footnotes below, are at the end of this post under “Notes.” Afterwards, there are citations of books, alphabetically listed in three categories, under “Bibliographies.”]
Similarly, since 1946, with the publication in France of “the two earliest essays on Hollywood film noir,” mass media journalists and academic historians have not seen what was fundamental in the origins of film noir, though it was right in front of their eyes.2
Here, I offer a new interpretation about the beginning of film noir in Britain and America. Put simply, the earliest film noirs in these countries were spy films nearly as much as crime films. These “spy noirs” were released in the UK and the US in the Second World War era – the late 1930s through the mid-1940s.
Recognition of spy noirs makes undeniable the historical context of the WWII era in the origins of Anglo-American film noir. (This post does not address French film noirs released in the 1930s.3)
Please see my accompanying four tables of UK and US spy noirs. For each country, one table presents spy noirs that are cited in film noir reference books (although they aren’t called “spy noirs,”), and also for each county there is a table in which I present spy noirs that have not been cited in any reference books.
Key to the Definition of Spy Noir: Visual Style
While it is not a condition of a crime film, any spy film, no matter how far removed from events in the real world, is unmistakably associated with politics. A spy film has at least one main character whose real identity is unknown to the political enemy and who is engaged in secret activity against that enemy, which is typically a rival nation. The laws that are broken in spy films, as with the lawbreakers themselves, are unlike those in crime films. In short, spy films are distinct from crime films.4
What differentiates spy noirs from other spy films is the same “noir visual style” (or “noir style”) that separates crime noirs from other crime films.5 Therefore, it stands to reason that spy films with the noir style comprise a unique category of film noir. It is on this basis that I use the term spy noir and counterpose it to crime noir.
Spy films are included in several film noir reference guides, yet none of them recognizes spy noir as its own classification within film noir.6 My research indicates the number of spy noirs in these filmographies is less than half of the actual total. My own selections of UK and US spy noirs tend to exhibit at least as much – if not more – of the noir style as spy films cited in the reference books.
There have always been disagreements as to whether a particular crime film is or is not a film noir. I expect conflicting opinions about spy films. I acknowledge I have stronger selections (China Girl) and weaker ones (Conspiracy). Regardless, a sufficiently obvious and consistent noir style is evident in all of my choices. Spy films that lack an unambiguous noir style are not in my tables.
Of the hundreds of WWII-era spy films I analyzed, I was able to use the noir style as the criterion to discern which ones were spy noirs because there was never a doubt whether the story in any particular spy film was “noir” enough. That is, the plots and characters in spy films don’t need to be scrutinized to determine if they are adequately equivalent to those in crime noirs. For example, in England’s Secret Weapon: The Wartime Films of Sherlock Holmes, Amanda J. Field’s insight about Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror suggests an essential difference between a crime film and a spy film.
“If Holmes is serving the Allied cause, then it follows that his enemy will be the Nazis. This involves an interesting departure from the usual pattern of the classic detective genre, in which crime is assignable to one errant individual. In a war, the enemy is like the hydra – in cutting down one, a hundred more spring up to take its place.”7
Espionage means clandestinity, conspiracy and treachery. Film characters (and movie audiences) may only find out who is on which side in or near the last scene. During the WWII era, men and women, whatever their political allegiances, are at least as ruthless in spy noirs as crime noirs. Unsurprisingly, in these years, there is much more violence in spy noirs than crime noirs.8
The Five Main Types of Plots in Spy Noir
The main types of plots in spy noirs are as follows: Good Spies, Bad Spies, Resistance Fighters, Fifth Columnists, Converted to the Allied Cause.
For some films, of course, more than one type may be suitable. To illustrate a specific element of a plot type, I include one or more titles of relevant spy noirs.
Following each explanation of a plot type, I cite multiple titles of appropriate spy noirs from the UK and the US. These examples favor films with lead roles by women to highlight the significance and scope of females in spy noirs. (Throughout this post, titles in groups are named in the order of their release.)
I. Good Spies
The key undercover activity is by at least one spy who is British or American. Good spies are trained government agents or if they are civilians, they are either working for their country or acting on their own. The following nationalities are on the side of a good spy: Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, Norwegian, Polish, and Russian.
A good spy is as likely to be a woman as a man. When someone is revealed in the finale to be a secret government agent, it is usually a woman. In Navy Secrets, a woman and a man spend an evening together, at the end of which they bust up a spy ring. All along each of them had thought that the other was an enemy agent. At the conclusion they find out they are both in US Naval Intelligence. Still, the female is cleverer, more adventurous and assertive.
A good male spy who pretends to be a different person whom he identically resembles is always British, never American. Not only does he fool the real man’s friends but also his wife, girlfriend or mistress (The Great Impersonation, Assignment in Brittany).
In each example below, the good spy is a woman.
UK – government agent: Contraband, Yellow Canary
UK – civilian: The Crouching Beast, The Man from Morocco
US – government agent: The Devil Pays Off, Dangerously They Live, Storm Over Lisbon
US – civilian: Espionage Agent, This Gun for Hire, Notorious
Raymond Lovell is Hobson and Veidt’s Nazi nemesis.
II. Bad Spies
The key undercover activity is by at least one spy who is German or Japanese. (Before the US entered WWII, many films did not explicitly refer to the Nazis as the enemy. In Blockade, neither side in the Spanish Civil War, the Nationalists nor the Republicans, is named. Hollywood studios did this to avoid being politically attacked by “isolationists,” as discussed below, and to retain access to the movie market in the Third Reich.9)
The first female star in both UK and US spy noirs was Madeleine Carroll. In Blockade, she and Henry Fonda evade a bombing attack by the unidentified bad side (i.e., fascists) on their unidentified good side (i.e., Spanish Republicans).
Bad spies are trained government agents or civilians who are recruited for espionage. A bad spy is as likely to be a woman as a man.
A bad male spy who masquerades as someone else based on physical resemblance is always German, never Japanese. He may be a natural double, with a proper accent, like the Prussian who replaces a member of Britain’s elite and, on becoming a high government official, prepares a Nazi invasion of England (Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror). Or he may use theatrical artifice, like the stage actor who, with make-up and the ability to mimic another person’s speech, impersonates an English aristocrat in a Nazi scheme to kidnap Winston Churchill (Warn That Man).
In the UK examples below, the bad spy is a man, and in the US examples the bad spy is a woman.
UK: The Spy in Black, Cottage to Let, The Next of Kin
US: The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, Eyes in the Night, The Hour Before the Dawn
For an analysis of this spy noir, see the page The Spy in Black.
III. Resistance Fighters
The key underground activity is by resistance fighters who are on the side of the Allies. Like spies, if they are caught, they can expect to be put to death. They are Chinese (against the Japanese) or Czech, Dutch, French, Norwegian, Polish, and Yugoslavian (against the Germans).10
Although most resistance fighters are male, important leaders are often women. The underground may aid British or American servicemen to complete an espionage mission and/or escape from an occupied country (Nurse Edith Cavell, Bomber’s Moon, The Seventh Cross).
In The Seventh Cross, seven men are on the run after they escape from a Nazi POW camp.
Six of them are rounded up and lashed to makeshift crucifixes. Only Spencer Tracy gets away for good.
Resistance may be with words instead of weapons. Because they courageously speak out against the Third Reich, the Nazis execute a minister (Pastor Hall), a schoolteacher (This Land Is Mine) and two clandestine radio broadcasters (Freedom Radio, Underground).
Compared with all other film noirs, the most gruesome acts of violence are committed in this type of spy noir. When women refuse to obey, fascists beat them (Above Suspicion, Underground), whip them (Hitler’s Children, Women in Bondage) or pull out their fingernails (Behind the Rising Sun).
Females die keeping mum. Along with the shooting of the hotel maid in Five Graves to Cairo (see Note 1), here are two other examples. After a Japanese agent cannot get a woman to talk, his German accomplice shoves her into a steam room and raises the heat until she is dead (Betrayal from the East); and a teenage girl who will not break is pushed out of an upper-floor window (Confidential Agent).
Kaaren Verne is beaten up in Underground.
Ginger Rogers is whipped by the Ku Klux Klan in Storm Warning (1951). I provide this image as evidence to support my assertion above about spy noirs and resistance fighters: “Compared with all other film noirs, the most gruesome acts of violence are committed in this type of spy noir.” Storm Warning is an effective exposé of the KKK, but it shies away from depicting the level of violence that is routinely shown in spy noirs, whether carried out by Germans or Japanese.
Axis pilots bomb and strafe defenseless populations, mass murdering women and children inside cities (North of Shanghai, Bombs Over Burma) or on country roads (Paris Calling, China). Occupying forces threaten local civilians with death unless resistance fighters give themselves up. If the commoners refuse to betray their compatriots, they will be butchered (Hangmen Also Die!, Uncertain Glory).
Sometimes the firing squads use rifles. After a French woman informs on a good spy, her parents are shot nonetheless (Tonight We Raid Calais). Five boys admit to a Nazi officer that they helped their schoolmistress escape to join the Yugoslavian partisans. The officer tells one of the students, “I’m going to plant a picture in your mind you’ll carry with you all your life.” The youth must watch as his four friends, plus two randomly picked classmates, are summarily executed in the schoolyard (Undercover).
In Tonight We Raid Calais, a French villager (Annabella) reveals a military secret to the local Nazi commander (Howard Da Silva) because he promises to spare the lives of her parents. Just before he has her watch them be gunned down, he says, “This is war.”
In Lady from Chungking, the Japanese “overseer” of Chinese “coolies” in a rice field is found murdered. A general wants a firing squad to kill everyone who was working in the field. The secret leader of the Chinese resistance, with her beauty and cultured manners, has won the general’s love and respect. As he is about to order the first execution, she suggests that he should spare the young workers or else his own troops will have to toil in the rice fields. Although she saves these lives, the elderly cannot escape the general’s retribution. He says, “Let the young ones see that for their crimes their fathers will pay.” She sits and watches, barely holding back her tears, as the village’s old men are shot, “two at a time; it saves ammunition.”
More vicious extermination is by machine guns (China Girl, Tomorrow We Live, Hostages). In retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “Hangman of Prague,” near Lidice, Czechoslovakia (May 1942), the Nazis mow down all the village’s male inhabitants “over the age of 16” – it was actually 15 – and burn it to the ground (Hitler’s Madman).11
In spy noirs about resistance fighters, there are many female victims of sexual assault. Teenage girls commit suicide after they are raped (Hotel Imperial, Pastor Hall, China) – or beforehand. In Hitler’s Madman, the “Hangman” chooses young Czech coeds to be sent to the Russian front “to entertain our courageous German soldiers.” Before one of them can “be examined like cattle,” she jumps off a window ledge several stories high.
In Behind the Rising Sun, a Japanese soldier grabs a Chinese boy from his mother and throws him up in the air so that he will fall on a bayonet. In another scene, one soldier removes a baby from its mother, and two others take her back inside her house and shut the door. Above the screaming infant there is a flyer that says, “PROCLAMATION! ALL women in this area will remain at home until further notice. All women will welcome all Japanese soldiers.”
In Edge of Darkness, a Norwegian village is under the jackboot of a Nazi battalion and a merciless commandant. To forestall a revolt, he issues an order, “All restrictions on our troops are to be lifted. They are free to do in this town as they please.” After a soldier rapes a woman (who is a leader of the underground), her father kills the rapist. The woman, her father and the others in the resistance are ordered to dig their own mass grave. Just before they are shot, the townsfolk launch the revolt. When the mutual slaughter is over, the village is depopulated – the corpses of hundreds of Nazis and Norwegians lie in heaps wherever the camera pans. With his troops all dead, the commandant blows out his brains. A handful of locals who survive, including the raped woman, continue their anti-fascist fight as guerrillas based in forests.
Rape is not the only way females are sexually violated. In Women in Bondage, according to “the principle guiding the life and existence of all Hitler women and Hitler girls…children and ever more children will make the Reich eternal.” A girl in this film – and also in Hitler’s Children – who will not submit to assembly line reproduction is executed. At a Prague restaurant next to the Vitava River in Hostages, a drunken and sobbing Nazi lieutenant says to a washroom attendant, “It’s more than a man can bear. The girl I was to marry – they’ve sent her to a breeding colony.” Once he is alone, the officer drowns himself.
In The Silver Fleet, a wife locks her husband (Ralph Richardson) out of their bedroom because she believes he is a Nazi collaborator. Later, she reads his diary and discovers how he made himself a martyr for the Dutch resistance.
In the first example below the resistance is by an English village against an invasion of Nazi paratroopers; in the second it is by a Dutchman who designs a U-boat; and in the other four examples the central character is a woman.
UK: Went the Day Well?, The Silver Fleet, The Lisbon Story
US: Conspiracy, Desperate Journey, First Comes Courage
IV. Fifth Columnists
The key secret activity is by fifth columnists, who are, generally speaking, a group of people that, overtly or covertly, act in support of an enemy of their own country.12 In spy noirs, every ring of fifth columnists is mostly male, but the ringleader is often a woman.
A film’s central characters may be the opponents of fifth columnists – good civilians or good government agents. For example, when fifth columnists commit a crime that the police blame on an innocent man, the lead roles belong to the accused and a woman who is critical to proving he is not guilty. In the WWII era, there are many crime noirs featuring a hunted man whose “ally” is a woman with a job.13 This plot is even more frequent in spy noirs (Man Hunt, Meet Boston Blackie, Pacific Blackout, All Through the Night, Fly-By-Night, Little Tokyo, U.S.A., Saboteur, This Gun for Hire, The Gorilla Man, Hangmen Also Die!, Journey Into Fear, The Conspirators, Ministry of Fear).
While it may be the rule that British and American authorities only round up and put away actual fifth columnists, there is an infamous and historically true exception. At the end of Little Tokyo, U.S.A., we see documentary footage of Japanese in Los Angeles, their belongings piled high on sidewalks, waiting to be transported to internment camps. A newspaper headline says, “LAST JAPS LEAVE L.A. AREA TODAY – Military Area Cleared of Possible Saboteurs.” With a long line of buses on the move in the background, a female radio announcer faces us and speaks into her microphone, “And so, in the interest of national safety, all Japanese, whether citizens or not, are being evacuated from strategic military zones on the Pacific coast. Unfortunately, in time of war, the loyal must suffer inconvenience with the disloyal.”14
In the first two US examples below, the hero is a civilian (medical intern, aircraft worker), and in the third he is a secret federal operator (shipyard worker). Each man successfully smashes a ring of fifth columnists with the close aid of a woman – an undercover UK and US agent, respectively, in the first and third films, and a billboard model in the second.
UK: Traitor Spy, Spies of the Air, The Next of Kin
US: Dangerously They Live, Saboteur, Secret Command
V. Converted to the Allied Cause
In this plot type a man or a woman is at first either unconcerned with or opposed to the UK or US winning the war. Due to their subsequent experiences, they change their minds and take sides against Germany or Japan.15 At the end of the film they may still be fighting or they may have sacrificed their lives.
In Four Sons, an anti-Nazi in Germany (Don Ameche) is betrayed by his sister-in-law. Much later, realizing she has supported the wrong side, she leaves Germany to keep her son from being called up to the Wehrmacht.
In Tonight We Raid Calais, before her conversion, it is especially poignant why a local female leader of the French resistance refuses to assist a British commando with his mission. Her brother was among 1297 servicemen killed on 3 July 1940, when the British bombed the French fleet at the port of Mers-el-Kébir, outside Oran, Algeria.16
Two older men who once believed, respectively, in the New Order in Germany and Japan, come to realize it is abhorrent. In the climax, one faces execution (Address Unknown), and the other commits hara-kiri (Behind the Rising Sun). Crucial to each man’s conversion is the tragedy that occurs to a young woman who was going to marry the man’s son.
In Address Unknown, the fiancé is to star in Berlin in a performance of the Passion Play. An agent of the Department of Censorship orders certain lines to be deleted. He warns, “Disobedience is treason.” When the woman speaks the forbidden words, the agent stops the show and reveals her secret to the full house – she is a Jew. The revelation whips the audience into a frenzy, and it charges the stage after her. With the crowd hunting her on the streets, she flees from the city. Closely pursued by Nazi police over marshlands and through woods, she reaches the home of the man who once was to be her father-in-law. He refuses to let her in and, from the inside the front door, he hears her being shot.
In Behind the Rising Sun, the man’s son is an army colonel. He and his fiancé accidentally discover that her parents have sold “little sister” to Yoshiwara, the historic red light district in Tokyo. At first the colonel is proud of the girl for making “a wonderful sacrifice.” Then, war is announced between Japan and the US. As the woman searches for her sister to “buy her back,” she is arrested on trumped up charges of being a spy. Her crime is friendship with three Americans, who are also accused of espionage. To get confessions, they are tortured – one of them to death. At a kangaroo court, the colonel renounces his fiancé, and his testimony seems to seal her fate for capital punishment.
In the first example below the converted is an Irish working-class woman; in the second it is a female German aristocrat; and in the other two examples it is a male American ex-patriot entrepreneur (a nightclub owner and a freelance pilot, respectively).
UK: I See a Dark Stranger
US: Escape, Casablanca, China Girl
Three Key Aspects of Spy Noir
I. International from the Start
Spy noirs, from their first years, were released both in Britain and the United States. Spy noir begins as international and, therefore, film noir should not be defined as uniquely American. (See Note 3 below for filmographies of early French film noirs.)
II. Spy Noirs Begin before 1940
There is no consensus on the time frame of film noir. While it was once customary to start “the classic period” in 1940, there are filmographies with film noirs from the 1930s. For example, John Grant includes UK and US film noirs from the 1930s; Michael F. Keaney’s earliest British film noirs are in the late 1930s; and there are British film noirs throughout the 1930s in Robert Murphy’s list.17
As my tables indicate, in 1939, the year WWII begins in Europe, the release of spy noirs takes off in Britain and, especially, America. Before then, most spy noirs were British. John Grant and Robert Murphy are the only historians whose filmographies include pre-1939 spy noirs. They both cite The Man Who Knew Too Much and Sabotage, and Murphy adds Dark Journey and Strange Boarders. I include four more from the UK – The Crouching Beast, The 39 Steps, Secret Lives, Under Secret Orders – and the first two from the US, Invisible Enemy and Blockade.
For an analysis of this spy noir, see the page Under Secret Orders.
III. Greater Gender Equality
In crime noir, women have been repeatedly categorized in specific and limited ways. For example, Jon Tuska’s opinion is representative.
“There are two basic kinds of women in film noir, with a third, subsidiary type only occasionally present. The two basic types are the femme fatales and the loving wives and mothers…The third type of noir woman is the beautiful neurotic. She is not found as often as the femme fatale, but when she is, as in Sorry, Wrong Number (Paramount, 1948), she is still the primum mobile which brings both herself and the noir male protagonist to catastrophe.”18
Women in spy noirs, on the other hand, share with men nearly all of the same roles. There are female airplane pilots, newspaper reporters, radio broadcasters, underground resistance fighters, fifth columnist ringleaders, good and bad secret agents, and so on. Although females are not private detectives or on-the-run from the police, a woman usually assists a PI and always helps an innocent hunted man. In Candlelight in Algeria, the self-consciousness that a woman has of her equality with a man is expressed this way, “The only job a man can do that a woman can’t is…to grow a mustache.”
The greater gender equality in spy noirs is due to its historical period, the WWII era. British and American women markedly contributed on the home front and in the armed forces. With increased economic and social independence, women were a different kind of movie audience than they had ever been before. Accordingly, the studios responded with plots and characters more appealing to and appropriate for these self-confident females.19
A woman makes the resistance struggle her highest priority when she refuses to accompany a man to America or Britain, where their love affair could safely continue (Conspiracy, Desperate Journey, First Comes Courage, Tonight We Raid Calais, The Lisbon Story). At the end of the film, she remains in her home country to keep on with the “secret war” against the Nazis.
In Desperate Journey, a member of the underground resistance (Nancy Coleman) helps an RAF team escape from Germany after their plane is shot down.
The RAF pilot (Errol Flynn) wants Coleman to return with him to Britain. He says, “You’ve done your share and more.” She replies, “No one’s share will be done until the war is over. There will be other men, from the prison camps, the concentration camps, the conquered countries. It’s our job — the job of the underground — to return them to the fight. We must all do our work before we can go back to doing what we like.”
As was actually happening between couples in the UK and the US, romance is put on hold for the duration. In Escape, a countess insists on staying in Germany so that her former lover, a Wehrmacht general, cannot “torture” two local residents who enabled her new American lover to get across the border. She promises to meet the Yank later “on 57th. Street.” The namesake of Joan of Paris, knowing it means her death, stays behind to prevent Nazis from capturing her lover and his four RAF crewmen.
In spy noirs, not only are there true romances but also false ones. Whereas men do not do it, women go under covers and sleep with the enemy. When she is a wife, she outlives her husband and then may have real love with another man, a hero on her side (Paris Calling, First Comes Courage, The Man from Morocco, Notorious). When she is a mistress, the man kills her in revenge for her duplicity (Lady from Chungking, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Edge of Darkness). In The Spy in Black, a female British secret agent pretends to be a German spy. She tells a real German spy that, in order to make plans to destroy a British fleet, they are getting help from “a British navel officer with a grudge against the service.” He has no objection or regret when she says the traitor’s “rather high” price was paid by Germany “and me.”
For an appraisal of Robert Florey’s strong women in his spy noirs, see the page Florey: First Director of Many Noirs.
Spy Noirs Contradict Film Historians’ Conceptions of a Unitary “Asia”
In what follows, I examine discussions by two historians who treat “Asia” in film noir as a single geographical entity and, consequently, as inhabited by people without differences, such as political and military. However, spy noirs (as well as other spy films) contradict this treatment. These historians fail to recognize that during the WWII era Hollywood represented the “East” not as unitary but as binary. That is, there were consistent positive portrayals of China and the Chinese versus extreme negative depictions of Japan and the Japanese.
As Rana Mitter explains in Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945, there has been a loss to the public’s historic memory of China’s war with Japan.
“Most Westerners have scarcely heard of the bombing of Chongqing [formerly known as Chungking]. Even for the Chinese themselves, the events were concealed for decades. Yet they are part of one of the great stories of the Second World War, and perhaps the least known. For decades, our understanding of that global conflict has failed to give a proper account of the role of China. If China was considered at all, it was as a minor player, a bit-part actor in a war where the United States, Soviet Union, and Britain played much more significant roles. Yet China was the first country to face the onslaught of the Axis Powers in 1937, two years before Britain and France, and four years before the United States. And after Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), one American goal was to “keep China in the war.” By holding down large numbers of Japanese troops on the mainland, China was an important part of the overall Allied strategy.”20
Spy noirs about China include all five of the plot types that I describe above. They feature the Japanese armed forces bombing, machine-gunning and raping Chinese civilians. The opening of China Girl says, “The Jap invaders bring the New Order into China – – with bullets.” Spy noirs in which the Japanese viciously assault Chinese cities include: Bombs Over Burma (Chongqing), China Girl (Luichow, Kunming), China (Meiki), North of Shanghai (Shanghai).
Today, Americans are unlikely to know either that Chongqing was China’s wartime capital or the importance (and perils) of supply trucks traveling there. In the WWII era, Hollywood was a source of this information. For example, Burma Convoy opens with a “Foreword” that scrolls on the screen.
“Through the teeming heart of Asia, halfway between Rangoon and Shanghai, twists the hand-hewn Burma Road, lifeline for the embattled Army of China, headquartered at Chungking. Over this seven hundred mile highway roars a stream of trucks – – hell-drivers at their wheels – – trucks loaded with fuel, munitions, guns – – blood and sinew of the defenders of the ancient soil of China.”
It was vital to Japan to close the Burma Road, which it did in April 1942. Besides Burma Convoy, films about the “lifeline” to sustain China’s resistance include: A Yank on the Burma Road, Bombs Over Burma, Half Way to Shanghai, China Girl, Night Plane from Chungking.
In most spy noirs about China, Anglo-Americans are the lead characters. Asian Americans, however, are not limited to being villains. For example, Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese-American film star, is the hero in Bombs Over Burma and Lady from Chungking. Several Asian-American men are frequently cast in roles, varying from film to film, in which they are either good Chinese or bad Japanese. These actors include Korean-American Philip Ahn and Chinese-Americans Richard Loo, Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung.
In the sub-chapter, “Asia,” of his book, Nothing More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, James Naremore inaccurately sees a unitary Asia as represented in film noir. Furthermore, the basis of his error is that he considers film noir as derived from hardboiled fiction. As I explain below, this is a “myth” of the origins of film noir that spy noirs contribute to debunking.
“The Asian theme [in film noir] can in fact be traced back to Dashiell Hammett’s earliest hard-boiled stories for Black Mask, which are saturated with a low brow Orientalism reminiscent of the Yellow Peril years before and after World War I. In ‘The House on Turk Street,’ the Continental Op encounters a gang of killers led by Tai Choon Tau, a wily Chinese man who wears British clothes and speaks with a refined English accent. According to the Op, ‘The Chinese are a thorough people; when one of them carries a gun he usually carries two or three or more,’ and when he shoots, ‘he keeps on until his gun is empty.’
“…[In 1942, John] Houston filmed Across the Pacific, a [Maltese] Falcon spin-off, in which Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor battle Japanese spies in Panama. This film was, of course, produced during World War II, when images of deceitful and violent Asians from earlier pulp fiction were easily incorporated into anti-Japanese propaganda.”21
What Naremore sees as consistent, from hardboiled fiction to film noir, is how “Asians” are deceitful and violent – first the Chinese in “earlier pulp fiction,” then the Japanese in WWII film noir. Given that Hollywood politically polarized the bad Japanese against the good Chinese in the WWII era, “Asians” are not always deceitful and violent. Naremore’s mistake is inherent in his interpretation of film noir. He posits an “affinity” between film noir and “modernism.” His discussion of the latter focuses on literature. Modernist literature, he says, is “masculine.” Thus, film noir derives from a literary tradition exemplified by hardboiled fiction.22 He ignores Hollywood’s representation of the Chinese in the historical context of World War II. Instead, he takes a literary tradition (“hard-boiled stories”) as the basis of a single theme about Asians – they are deceitful and violent – and because film noir is derived from this literature, Naremore concludes that this “Asian theme” was extended (“easily incorporated”) into film noir.
A related error in treating “Asian ethnicities” as a single collectivity is committed by Dan Flory in his essay, “Ethnicity and Race in American Film Noir, in the anthology edited by Andrew Spicer and Helen Hanson, A Companion to Film Noir. Florey’s sole focus in the essay’s subsection, “Ethnicity in Classic Film Noir,” is about different “ethnicities” and “whiteness.” He begins as follows:
“Issues of ethnicity are often taken up constructively in works of what might be termed ‘progressive noir’ in the classic period, especially in the years immediately after World War II. In some cases the origins of these films are in literature concerning ethnic prejudice itself. Hierarchies of whiteness that determined disadvantages for ‘borderline whites’ in the United States, such as Italians, Greeks, Poles, and Hispanics, play crucial roles in novels and short stories that serve as the foundation of several noir films….”23
Flory says that some ethnicities (such as Italian Americans and Greek Americans) could have a “positive portrayal” in film noir because “US audiences” (i.e., WASP Americans) “now possessed a less restrictive sense of whiteness in the wake of their wartime experiences.”
“During and after World War II, when millions of US citizens were pulled from their neighborhoods, communities and regions to serve in the armed forces or train far from their places of origin, dedication to a common cause and the mixing of diverse individuals instigated a breakdown of ethnic prejudice and greatly expanded people’s sense of who should be included in the category of whiteness.”24
In short, these “hyphenated Americans” benefitted from an “enlargement of whiteness.”
Flory then considers problematic ethnicities.
“Americans of Hispanic descent and Mexican nationals benefitted as well, but in a noticeably reduced fashion. The former were classified as ‘white’ by the armed forces and unstably joined the dominant racial group. Increasing numbers of both Mexican American and Mexican national characters in film noir reflect this uneasy accommodation….25
“Asian ethnicities present a slightly different constellation of problems. Like the status of Hispanic ethnicity, being Chinese, Japanese or some other Asian group proved more difficult to absorb into whiteness. However, as the noir classic period progressed, some positive characterizations of these groups arose, even if that seemed unlikely at the outset. Early in the noir cycle The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941) conveys a sense of moral panic concerning the ‘yellow peril,’ with the film representing decadence as peculiarly ‘Oriental.’ [Alain] Silver and his fellow authors rightly describe the film as ‘nightmarish,’ but they fail to note that the film roots this quality in racist conceptions of the ‘Orient’ as decadent and something to be feared. What counts as the East here, stretches from Persia to Shanghai and represents exotic, forbidden pleasures and illicit desires….”26
What “Shanghai” is Flory talking about? Flory acknowledges the “racist conceptions” at the “root” of Josef von Sternberg’s film. And, it is worth noting, von Sternberg’s “Shanghai” was a “heavily bowdlerized” version of the original in John Colton’s 1918 play, also called, The Shanghai Gesture. From theater to cinema, “Mother God Damn became Mother Gin Sling. The brothel became a casino. Poppy, instead of being a drug-and-booze-addled nympho, became a compulsive gambler.” The Hollywood version eliminates “a scene of a white girl being auctioned off as a sex slave to lascivious Chinese coolies.” (In the play, the seller is Mother God Damn and the girl is her daughter, who grows up to be Poppy.) No wonder that it was a “controversial play, with protests from the Chinese embassy and accusations of morbid racism.”27
At a dinner party in The Shanghai Gesture, Mother” Gin Sling (Ona Munson) surprises tycoon Walter Huston with his dissolute daughter, Poppy (Gene Tierney), before being shocked to learn that she is the other parent.
Flory accepts von Sternberg’s “Shanghai” as representative of the “East,” but only “early in the noir cycle” (during WWII). However, the text at the opening of the film denies that this “Shanghai” can be considered part of the real “Orient” at that time.
“Years ago a speck was torn away from the mystery of China and became Shanghai. A distorted mirror of problems that beset the world today, it grew into a refuge for people who wished to live between the lines of laws and customs – – a modern Tower of Babel. Neither Chinese, European, British nor American it maintained itself for years in the ever increasing whirlpool of war. It’s (sic) destiny, at present, is in the lap of the Gods – – as is the destiny of all cities. Our story has nothing to do with the present.”
Von Sternberg’s decadent “Shanghai” is imaginary and ahistorical because it has “nothing to do with the present.” In the film an Englishman is taking over large swaths of real estate in the city. In fact, the Japanese had invaded the actual city in 1932, and they didn’t wrest full control from the Chinese until three weeks before the release of the film (December 25, 1941). This Shanghai, the the one that was under siege by the Japanese, can be found in film noir – in spy noir. For example, North of Shanghai (released on January 24, 1939), is the first spy noir in which the Japanese are explicitly made the enemy. Here, the things the Chinese do aren’t “illicit”; what they do is heroic.
Hollywood’s uplifting depiction of the Chinese didn’t occur because war-time experiences led American WASP audiences to tolerate an “enlargement of whiteness” that extended beyond “hyphenated Americans” of European descent. That is, it didn’t occur because of a racial consideration – the only one that Flory is concerned with. Instead, the positive portrayal of the Chinese (and its opposite, the negative one of the Japanese) was based on political and military considerations: the Chinese were a US ally, whereas the Japanese were an enemy. Spy noirs and other spy films consistently show this dichotomy.
Flory is wrong to allege that “some positive characterizations” of Asians in film noir didn’t occur until the post-war years (“as the classic period progressed”). In the WWII era – in the immediate years before and after the release of The Shanghai Gesture – Hollywood made sure audiences saw the gruesome brutality the Chinese suffered from the Japanese as well as their unbreakable resistance.
In North of Shanghai, a pistol-toting cameraman (James Craig) and a star reporter (Betty Furness) bust up a pro-Japanese spy ring and avenge the murder of his Chinese friend (Keye Luke), a fellow news photographer.
Dan Flory and James Naremore’s share the same two drawbacks in their respective treatments of “Asia” and “Asians.” First, they don’t understand that there is more than crime noir in the noir filmography – there is also spy noir. Second, they don’t recognize the historical context of Asia in World War II, which results in their unitary treatment of Asians.
According to Rana Mitter, the influence of Cold War and post-Cold War politics on American historiography about China explains the ignorance of Americans about the China-US relationship in WWII. Although that argument is beyond the scope of this post, Mitter presents it in the Epilogue of his book. What I want to emphasize is that Hollywood was unwaveringly pro-China during the WWII era in spy noirs (and other spy films).
To see Hollywood’s depiction, at that very time, of America’s “forgotten ally,” as well as to see a different representation of “Asians” in film noir than is given by James Naremore and Dan Flory, I recommend watching the spy noirs that I cite above.
Spy Noirs Refute Claims that Film Noir is Derived from Hardboiled Crime Fiction
For decades, mass media journalists and academic historians have repeated the same two claims about the origins of film noir. First, its content derives from literature, foremost of which is hardboiled crime fiction. Second, its visual style derives from European émigré film professionals, who drew on their familiarity with expressionism once they were in Hollywood. Spy noirs contribute to exposing both claims as false, that each is only a myth.
The commentary below, in Andrew Spicer’s Historical Dictionary of Film Noir, under the subsection “THE ORIGINS OF FILM NOIR,” is representative of the first myth.
“Like any cultural phenomenon, film noir evolved gradually from a variety of different influences. The most obvious and fundamental was indigenous hard-boiled fiction. The works of influential writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich provided the source for many films noir. Nearly 20 percent of noir crime thrillers produced between 1941 and 1948 were direct adaptations of hard-boiled novels or short stories, and far more were imitations or reworkings….The hard-boiled authors decisively shifted the locale of crime from the country house drawing rooms of the “English school” onto the “mean streets” of the fast growing American city, providing film noir with its characteristic image of the city as a dark, corrupt, threatening, and confusing labyrinth, populated by criminals, tough private eyes, and duplicitous femme fatales.”28
Spicer’s figure of “nearly 20 percent” may be appropriate for his own list of film noirs, yet it cannot be taken as a fact, given that other reference books contain fewer or more titles. Each of the other filmographies would need to be separately assessed. He mentions “far more…imitations and re-workings,” but he does not offer an estimated percentage for these films. In his selected years, by his own calculation, most film noirs are not derived from hardboiled fiction. From my analysis of 69 crime noirs, 1940-1944, only 10 (14.5%) come from hardboiled novels (nine) or stories (one).29 Even if my time period is briefer than Spicer’s, were hardboiled fiction, in fact, the “fundamental” influence on film noir, it would have to be demonstrated in the earliest years, which is not the case.
What are the sources of other crime noirs? Frequently, it is women’s literature – novels, short stories and plays.30 There are many original screenplays, or screenplays based on unpublished stories, that are unrelated to the hardboiled tradition. The actual number of film noirs featuring private eyes and/or femme fatales suggests that their significance is overrated or, at least, that other characters, like the hunted man and the woman in distress, should get equal billing. In Spicer’s selected years, there are indisputably more crime noirs with a woman in distress than a femme fatale.31 Since I find a paltry 20 crime noirs with a private detective during those years, there is ample reason to challenge the validity of the PI as being an “iconic” character.32
Once we recognize that film noir consists of spy noirs as well as crime noirs, the case grows against hardboiled fiction as “the obvious and fundamental” influence on the origins of film noir. In fact, spy noirs boost the argument against literature as the primary source of film noir. According to my tables, hardly any spy noirs come from “the new school” of espionage literature, personified by Eric Ambler and Graham Greene.33 Yet, in the sole published work I have found that links “spy dramas” with film noir, these films are only derived from spy novels. In Dark Cinema: American Film Noir in Cultural Perspective, Jon Tuska makes a couple of connections between espionage literature and film noir.
First, in his chapter on the literary roots of film noir, the section that follows “Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction” is “Other Varieties of Romans Noirs.” Tuska begins with one spy novelist, Eric Ambler, and proceeds to crime writers, chiefly Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain. He does not mention another author of espionage fiction.34
Second, in the chapter, “The Film Noir Canon,” Tuska says, “But other genres, or sub-genres, were influenced by the noir visual style and ethos besides Westerns and detective stories. Two primary examples would be ‘fight’ pictures and spy dramas…The noir film style also affected the spy film, particularly those based on the works of Eric Ambler.”35 The only spy noirs Tuska discusses are Journey Into Fear and The Mask of Dimitrios.36
To his credit, Tuska is aware there are spy films that should be included in the filmography of film noir, and his rationale is their visual style. Unfortunately, he restricts his commentary to one factor – the contribution of espionage literature. My research attests that spy noirs arose parallel with this literature. Spy noirs weren’t principally adaptations of spy novels. In fact, there were too few authors in the new school to have written the books for all of the spy noirs released in the WWII era. The writers and the written sources for UK and US spy noirs, which I provide in my tables, are evidence that spy noirs were not derivative from spy novels.
Spy Noirs Refute Claims that the Noir Style is Derived from European Émigrés
Two quotes from Andrew Spicer are representative of the second myth of the origins of film noir.
“There were equally important European influences on film noir, notably expressionism…In Germany, expressionist films…formed part of an international artistic movement that attempted to express the alienation and “irrationality” of modern life through the presentation of protagonists who are tormented or unbalanced. The narratively complex expressionist films created an overall stimmung (mood) and distinct visual style by using high-contrast, chiaroscuro lighting where shafts of intense light contrast starkly with deep, black shadows and where space is fractured into an association of unstable lines and surfaces, often fragmented or twisted into odd angles…[Peter] Lorre was one of many émigrés who fled from Nazi Germany to Hollywood that included [Fritz] Lang and fellow directors Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Billy Wilder together with cinematographers John Alton, Karl Freund, and Rudolph Maté, and various set designers, scriptwriters, and composers. Carrying with them knowledge and understanding of expressionist cinema, these émigré personnel decisively influenced the development of film noir.37
“Of almost equal importance, though less well-known, was the influence of poetic realism (Réalisme Poétique), cycle of dark films that flourished in France during the 1930s…Poetic realism was indebted to expressionism, but the lighting was less extreme and more atmospheric, its depiction of an urban milieu more realistic and specific…Because poetic realism was not only successful in France but also widely admired internationally, including in America, and because several Austro-German émigrés worked in Paris before going to Hollywood, it acted as a bridge, culturally and historically, between expressionism and film noir.”38
Spicer’s list of émigrés is typical. Logically, to justify the claim that European émigrés “decisively influenced the development of film noir,” their careers in Hollywood had to begin either before or exactly concurrent with the earliest film noirs. If their US careers began later, the claim cannot be valid.
Spicer’s five directors and the three cinematographers are below. Information about their careers and their film noir histories does not support his claim that the American noir style derives from émigrés. For each one, I provide the current name of the country of birth, the date when the career began in the US (or, if the career was entirely in the US, it says, “US career”), and the titles and release dates of the earliest film noirs, including spy noirs and/or crime noirs.
Fritz Lang (Germany; US career: 1934) – Fury (1936), You Only Live Once (1937), Man Hunt (1941)
Otto Preminger (Ukraine; US career: 1936) – Laura (1944), Fallen Angel (1945)
Robert Siodmak (Germany; France, US career: 1933) – Fly-By-Night (1942), Phantom Lady (1944)
Edgar G. Ulmer (Czech Republic; US career) – Prisoner of Japan (1942, uncredited), Bluebeard (1944)
Billy Wilder (Poland, US career: 1934) – Five Graves to Cairo (1943), Double Indemnity (1944)
John Alton (Hungary; US career) – The Devil Pays Off (1941), Storm Over Lisbon (1944)
Karl Freund (Czech Republic; US career: 1929) – The Seventh Cross (1944), Dangerous Partners (1945)
Rudolph Maté (Poland; US career: 1935) – Blockade (1938), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Address Unknown (1944)
The information above highlights two additional problems for historians who claim the American noir style derives from émigrés. Spicer’s filmography has both of them.
First, most historians have not acknowledged that US film noir begins before 1940. Thus, the 1930s titles by Lang and Maté do not appear in their filmographies.
Second, historians have not recognized “spy noir” as a category of film noir, despite a few spy films perhaps being included in their filmographies. Thus, the earliest crime noirs for Ulmer, Wilder, Alton, Freund, and Maté are dated after the spy noirs in my tables. For historians like Spicer, the influence of these émigrés on film noir’s development only begins with their crime noirs, yet they were released years after the first spy noirs and also the first crime noirs!
The careers of Ulmer and Alton were not formed in Germany but in the US. Without professional experience in Europe, how could they have been, in Spicer’s words, “carrying knowledge and understanding of expressionist cinema” to Hollywood? Besides, neither their spy noirs nor their crime noirs are among the earliest of all film noirs.
There are British spy noirs and crime noirs in the WWII era (see Note 12). What explains the visual style of UK film noirs? Referring to German émigrés, Tony Williams says, “[F]oreign cinematographers certainly influenced their British counterparts….”39 The cinematographers he names are included in my table of UK spy noirs. Compared with the credits of non-German cinematographers, the credits of these émigrés are only a minority, and they mainly come after those of native British cinematographers. Furthermore, on the following page Williams argues that contemporary conditions, not foreigners, led British filmmakers (in this instance, directors) to use a noir style.
“Despite forties journalistic attacks on certain British directors borrowing from ‘morbid’ elements of German expressionism, such appropriations actually resulted from choosing the correct visual style to express particular problems within the British cultural psyche.”40
As my tables indicate, with few exceptions, the directors and cinematographers who were responsible for the development of spy noirs in Britain were born in the UK, and those responsible in America were born in the US. Of nearly all the directors and cinematographers who were born in other countries, their careers were substantially if not entirely in the UK or the US, respectively.
Also, in US crime noirs, 1940-1944, the noir style was principally due to the craft of native-born American directors and cinematographers, not émigrés.41
To claim that film noir (spy noir or crime noir) was developed by European émigrés, from their experience with expressionism and/or poetic realism, is propagating a myth instead of asserting a fact.
What Explains the Noir Style in the Origins of Film Noir?
If the directors and cinematographers who were responsible for the development of film noir weren’t European émigrés well-versed in expressionism, what explains the noir style?
We must consider the timing of the origins of film noir. In the UK and the US, the release of spy noirs began in the mid- to late 1930s and flourished during WWII. And, in both countries, the release of crime noirs started in the mid- to late 1930s, substantially increased throughout the war and flourished in the postwar years. Put simply, the historical context of the WWII era was the primary cause of the noir style. Its anti-classical imagery contrasted with the “classical style” of the pre-WWII era, epitomized by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with its generous lighting, frontal compositions in “natural” perspective, and “invisible” editing.42
Valuable evidence of the WWII historical context as the basis for an anti-classical film style was given on the spot in Prelude to Victory by James Reston, a journalist for The New York Times, who specialized in diplomatic and foreign affairs. His book was published in the summer of 1942, at the same time the Allies on the battlefields in Asia and Europe, not only North Africa as in Five Graves to Cairo, were reeling from defeats.
“It is necessary now that we admit the facts: many things we have laughed at, or taken for granted, or minimized, or despised in the last few years have risen up to plague us. The little man with the Charlie Chaplin mustache who merely wanted living space for the Germans and could not attack us even if he wanted to is the master of Europe whose submarines are taking pot shots at our East Coast. The little grinning yellow men, the growers of our vegetables, the makers of our cheap toys, the imitators of the West whom we brought into the modern world and could vanquish in three months, are the conquerors of the East. The people we revered, the immortal French, are stricken down and silent; the people we counted out, the plodding English, are still alive; the great mysterious peoples of the East, the Chinese, who were good enough to wash our shirts, and the Russians, who were not, are helping to save our lives. What is this phantasmagoria? How did this come about? What can we do about it? Where do we stand late in the year 1942?43
“…The alternatives before the American people in the closing months of 1942 are both simple and desperate: we must conquer or be conquered; we must learn the lessons of our mistakes or be destroyed by them.”44
In his Preface, Reston says, “We shall lose this war unless we clear out of our minds several fundamental illusions that are minimizing our effort.”45 Each of the book’s eleven chapters is about a different public “illusion” that could prevent an Allied victory. Reston understands that “in the last few years” the world has been turned upside down. The times must have been frightening indeed to warn of the possibility of an Axis conquest of the United States.
Five Graves to Cairo opens in June 1942, the nadir for the Allies in WWII. “By May 1943, after the Germans’ epic defeat at Stalingrad and expulsion from North Africa, there was no doubt among the Allied nations, and little among the Axis peoples, about the outcome of the war.”46 Understandably, as the film was made in the winter of 1943 and released in the late spring, its conclusion is one of confidence that the Allies will be victorious. Another spy noir, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, which was created contemporaneously with Prelude to Victory – in the historical context of American anxiety if not fright – reveals how the world had been turned upside down.
A man named Gavin is knifed just before he can give vital information to Holmes. As he dies, he gasps one word, “Christopher.” Going back to the late 19th. century, with Holmes’ legacy of solving cases in print, on stage and on screen, one would assume that the great detective himself would conduct the investigation to discover the meaning of that word. After all, he is Sherlock Holmes, and his knowledge of London, and seemingly everything else, is peerless. Such an assumption, however, would fail to take into account the historical context when the screenplay was written. As we have seen, it was then an open question whether the Allies could defeat the Axis. That is the explanation why this Sherlock Holmes lacks his unrivaled intellectual prowess. By himself, he is unable to solve the riddle of “Christopher.” So he goes to an underground beer hall, among the dark and sinister alleys of Limehouse, an East End district in London populated by the working class – and criminals. Risking his life (an attempted assassination fails), Holmes seeks out Kitty, the wife of the murdered man.
At first Kitty refuses to help Holmes, since it would mean aiding the police, which she and those of her social class despise. Holmes pleads with her.
“I’m sorry…I’m not asking this for myself. Our country, England, is at stake. Gavin was killed not by his own enemies, not even mine, but by the enemies of England…The Nazis killed him. Think, Kitty. The cutthroats of the world menace us all. You can help stop this savagery. Yes, you, Kitty. It would take the police weeks, months perhaps, to find out a certain piece of information we must have. That’s not so with you and your friends. You know every nook and corner of London. Get them to help us. We need their help. Your friends will become an army. You understand? Secret. Invisible and mighty. And you will be their head, Kitty. You will be their leader.”
Convinced by Holmes, Kitty walks from one table to another asking what “Christopher” means. No one helps her.
Standing before everyone, she makes a speech. What Kitty wants to do with her suspicious listeners is what James Reston wants to do with his skeptical readers: convince them that their country and, indeed, their own freedom are at stake. In fact, the audience is the same for Kitty and Reston. Whereas they are East End proletarians in the beer hall, the people in the movie theaters were Americans of all walks of life. At one level, for the British in the film, Kitty’s speech is class-collaborationist and nationalistic propaganda. At another level, for the Americans watching the film, it is a post-Pearl Harbor cross-class rallying cry.47
Holmes relies on a woman (Evelyn Ankers) to mobilize support of London’s working class against Nazism. For an analysis of this spy noir, see the page Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror.
When Kitty finishes, voices cry out demanding what she wants to know. She answers, “Spread out all over London. But find out what ‘Christopher’ means.” Holmes says, “Thank you, Kitty.” Dr. Watson adds, “Well done, my dear.”
Later, after Kitty reports to Holmes the meaning of “Christopher,” she seduces a top Nazi leader and becomes his mistress in order to find out the plans for an invasion of England. Just before the plot is foiled, thanks to Kitty, the Nazi shoots and kills her. In his memoriam, Holmes says, “This girl merits our deepest gratitude. Our country is honored in having such loyalty and devotion.”
After taking Watson aside, Holmes gives, virtually word for word, the East Wind speech from the conclusion of “His Last Bow,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story on which the film is (very loosely) based. It was first published in The Strand Magazine in September 1917, a year after the battle of the Somme and prior to the end of the battle at Passchendaele – another public shocker of ghastly carnage. The context in which Americans heard these lines by Holmes and Watson in the film echoes the one a generation earlier when British read them in the story. Holmes’ speech acknowledges and commemorates the sacrifice of lives, like Kitty’s, that has to be endured. For the audience in each World War, the message is the same: as dark as the times are now and may remain in the days ahead, hope and resolve to win the war must not waver.48
Watson: It’s a lovely morning, Holmes.
Holmes: There’s an east wind coming, Watson.
Watson: I don’t think so. Looks like another warm day.
Holmes: Good old Watson. The one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same. Such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less. And a greener, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm is cleared.”
In the midst of a worsening nightmare of global scope, the WWII historical context explains why, for an increasing number of British and American spy films and crime films, cinema professionals – whose careers were mainly if not exclusively in the UK and the US – used an anti-classical visual style. (European émigrés were not responsible for introducing this imagery.)
Under the dire circumstances of the WWII era, aspects of the classical style were inappropriate for espionage and crime stories. Unlike comedies, musicals and dramas, espionage and crime stories are inextricably involved with some enemy, one that is likely to be evil.49 Within the UK and the US, there were conditions for the psychological escalation of “fear itself,” insofar as war’s savagery and terror, already existing in much of the world, imperiled Britain and threatened America, too. Consequently, for spy films and crime films, it makes perfect sense that the aesthetic response by British and American film craftsmen was to use aspects of anti-classical cinema, the sum of which was the noir style.50
The rise of film noir in the UK overlapped Britain’s war against the Nazis to survive as an independent nation. In the US, film noir emerged at the time of a domestic clash about whether America should or should not remain a neutral country. And this battle was related to a broader political struggle, triggered by the resurgence of anti-New Deal forces following the “Roosevelt recession.” In other words, the origins of US film noir are to be found in the grim domestic and foreign conditions that heightened insecurities among the American people in the late 1930s.
The Roosevelt Recession and the Return of Economic Fear in America
In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt won re-election as president in a historic landslide, losing only Maine and Vermont. Riding on his coattails, huge Democratic victories in both houses of Congress reduced the Republicans to a marginal political party. However, this heyday for American liberalism was to be very brief. By the spring of 1938, FDR had emboldened the GOP opposition following decisive legislative defeats of his proposals to “pack” the Supreme Court and to reorganize the executive branch. Still, what most undermined FDR’s stature – and turned millions of Americans against the Democrats – was the so-called Roosevelt recession. Alan Brinkley reviews this calamity in The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War.
“The economic crisis of 1937…had ominous similarities to its 1929 counterpart–most visibly in the behavior of the stock market, which collapsed in a great wave of panic selling in mid-October. By the end of 1937, stock prices had fallen by more than a third from their peak in August, by the following spring, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had dropped by 48 percent, achieving in seven months a decline that had taken more than a year in 1929 and 1930…
“But the more disturbing similarity to 1929 was that the collapse of the financial markets in 1937 was only the most dramatic sign of a much broader economic decline…By the end of that winter, industrial production had dropped by more than 40 percent, corporate profits had fallen by 78 percent; four million more workers had swelled the already large unemployment rolls; the national income had slipped by 13 percent from its post-1929 peak of the previous summer. ‘In several particulars,’ Time noted in late November, ‘the Recession is more remarkable than the Depression. It is remarkable because the 35% plummet from last summer’s high is the swiftest decline in the history of U.S. business and finance…’
“And always, behind the strained optimism and the panicky warnings, there was the one great fear: the fear that this crisis, like the 1929 crisis, might move beyond the administration’s control; the fear that the New Deal, so triumphantly vindicated only a year before, might end in failure. The recession was already an economic disaster. It threatened to become a political catastrophe as well.”51
Indeed, the recession did become a political catastrophe – the 1938 mid-term elections “dealt what many considered a death blow to hopes for further New Deal achievements. The Democrats lost eighty seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate. And while the party retained majorities in both chambers, liberals no longer had effective control of Congress.”52 With the second collapse of the US economy within a decade, “fear itself” could not be banished from the public mind. Moreover, as the specter of a second world war within a generation convulsed Asia and Europe, Americans were buffeted by scary circumstances both home and abroad.
Gathering strength from the weakening of the New Deal was its antagonist, America’s conservative movement. In addition to combating the expansion of social welfare programs and government “interference” with markets, anti-liberals waged a fight against Hollywood.
Spy Noirs and Interventionists vs. Isolationists
Before Pearl Harbor there was a raging national debate about whether the US should go to war. Pro-interventionists and isolationists accused each other of being fifth columnists. Hollywood was at the center of this controversy, as noted by Thomas Doherty in Hollywood and Hitler 1933-1939.
“As the major studios made tentative incursions into foreign affairs, the actions were cheered or denounced by the interested parties watching from opposite sides in the stands. In a sense, two fifth columns operated behind the scenes in Hollywood—the anti-Nazi activists who sought to inject democratic ideals into Hollywood cinema and the pro-Nazi axis, foreign and domestic, who sought to deflect any criticism, implied or explicit, of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany.”53
Spy films about fifth columnists were understood by Hollywood’s friends and foes alike as warnings that US neutrality enabled Axis supporters, unhindered, to work at weakening the nation’s industrial and military preparedness. Today, like the Chinese-Japanese war, the general public has forgotten the interventionist-isolationist conflict.
The significance of spy films (including spy noirs) is seen in the attack by isolationists on Hollywood. Their motive is unpacked by H. Mark Glancy in When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood ‘British’ Film 1939-45.
“Between the outbreak of war in September 1939 and the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Hollywood’s war films had progressed steadily and each cautious evasion had been breached. Films that did not mention Germany by name, films that avoided any mention of German Jews, and films that made their statements against dictators in historical costume were followed by increasingly direct portrayals of the need to fight Germany and to support Britain…The box-office success of these films indicates that the American public was ready for them. However, there was still a very vocal isolationist movement in the United States, and organizations such as ‘America First’ – which was reported to have 50,000 members in 1941 – found their last rallying cry in attacking Hollywood.54
“…The isolationists had a list of seventeen films to prove their assertion that Hollywood was undeniably on the side of intervention.”55
In August 1941, largely drafted by America First, a resolution was introduced in the US Senate to investigate Hollywood’s alleged warmongering. In a national radio broadcast, with anti-Semitic innuendos against the Jewish studio moguls, one of the resolution’s sponsors, Senator Gerald P. Nye (Republican, North Dakota), said, “Go to Hollywood. It is a raging volcano of war fever…[It is] the most potent and dangerous Fifth Column in our country.”56
The Congressional hearings took place during September 1941. “To back claims that the industry had purposefully set out to ‘incite the American people to war,’ the list of seventeen films was produced.”57
The list below of the 17 films has the following information: film title, studio, year of release. Eight are spy noirs; three are spy films that lack the noir style; two others are about Nazis and Jews. (They are presented in order of their release.)
Four Sons (Twentieth Century Fox, 1940) – spy noir
The Mortal Storm (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1940) – rise of Nazi violence against Jews
The Man I Married (Twentieth Century Fox, 1940) – Nazi party member revealed to be Jewish
Mystery Sea Raider (Paramount, 1941) – spy film (Nazi naval saboteur)
Foreign Correspondent (United Artists, 1940) – spy noir
Pastor Hall (United Artists, 1940) – spy noir
Escape (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1940) – spy noir
Contraband (United Artists, 1940) – spy noir
Night Train to Munich (Twentieth Century Fox, 1940) – spy film (British double agent)
The Devil Commands (Columbia, 1941)
Freedom Radio (Columbia, 1941) – spy noir
So Ends Our Night (United Artists, 1941) – spy noir
The Great Dictator (United Artists, 1941)
That Hamilton Woman (United Artists, 1941)
They Dare Not Love (Columbia, 1941)
One Night in Lisbon (Paramount, 1941) – spy film (Nazi spy ring)
Man Hunt (Twentieth Century Fox, 1941) – spy noir
No film released before Pearl Harbor better stressed the mortal danger the Third Reich posed to the US than Confessions of a Nazi Spy.58 Nonetheless, the film ended with confidence that Americans could take care of themselves and what had happened in Europe would not repeat here.59 We have seen the effect of subsequent events three years later on James Reston – such confidence was gone.60
Despite their different initial military and political experiences, Britain and America shared a response in their filmmaking to the rise of fascism. In both countries, dread of Germany and Japan ran parallel to an increasing number of spy films and crime films with an anti-classical imagery. Most of the spy films the isolationists targeted, plus many other spy films released before and afterwards, have an equivalent mise-en-scène with crime films that are considered film noir. Originating in the historical context of the WWII era, the spy films with the noir style are the UK and the US spy noirs in my tables.
A month after the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The House on 92nd Street was released. Referring to an early scene in the film, in his otherwise perceptive commentary for the DVD, Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation, says:
“Scenes like this one were actually pretty common in British spy novels and movies. Eric Ambler and Graham Greene specialized in all that British intelligence and espionage type of thing, but it really was not that common in America at this point. The development of a spy network and a counter-spy network just was not really common knowledge to the American people. So the kind of stuff you’re seeing in this film…was pretty new to the American public when this film came out.”61
On the contrary, according to my tables, there were far more US than UK spy noirs in the WWII era. From stories by Ambler and Greene, the ratio of American to British spy noirs was 3:1 for each author.
Ambler – US: Journey Into Fear, Background to Danger, The Mask of Dimitrios
Ambler – UK: Hotel Reserve
Greene – US: This Gun for Hire, Ministry of Fear, Confidential Agent
Greene – UK: Went the Day Well?
In The House on 92nd Street, a voice-over says, “The Bureau went to war with Germany long before the hostilities began. No word or picture could then make public the crucial role of the FBI. But now it can be told.”
In fact, by 1945, there had already been many films about good spies from various US government departments, including FBI agents, arresting if not killing fifth columnists and bad spies. Even six year earlier, Confessions of a Nazi Spy had the following similarities with The House on 92nd Street. It drew on real events; it showed FBI methods to break up a spy ring; it used “semi-documentary” techniques; and it had a “Voice of God” narrator.
The “development of a spy network and a counter-spy network,” which Muller asserts was “not really common knowledge to the American people” as of 1945, was actually the theme of Espionage Agent, a spy noir released a few months after Confessions of a Nazi Spy.
Two married Americans go to Europe to get proof that there is an organization of enemy agents within the US. Their success results in Congress passing legislation to enable government agencies to engage in counter-espionage. (In the opening of the film we learn there was such a law on the books by the end of WWI, but Congress let it lapse after the Armistice. Twenty years later the US had no legal recourse to defend itself from fifth columnists and foreign spies.)
Films like Espionage Agent and Confessions of a Nazi Spy gave audiences insight not only to the threats fifth columnists posed to America before the US entered WWII, but also the counter-espionage actions that federal agencies were taking prior to Pearl Harbor.
Furthermore, well before The House on 92nd Street, that “espionage type of thing” was pervasive on US movie screens: in dramas, comedies, westerns, and whodunits (including films with all of Tinseltown’s serialized private detectives). From Poverty Row studios to the majors, the Hollywood dream (nightmare!) factory rolled out spy films almost like armaments plants produced weapons.
With the defeat of the Axis, the historical context was over for the rise and flourishing of the original spy noirs. Consequently, a new theme emerged – the future resurgence of the Nazis (Cornered, Step by Step, Notorious) – which ended in 1948 with the following US spy noirs: Berlin Express, Counterblast, Rogues’ Regiment; and a UK spy noir, Snowbound (released in 1948, but the film’s credits cite 1947.)
Spy noirs, however, did not disappear in the late 1940s. Far fewer in number, they continued to be released in the same years of the classic period of crime noirs. In a changed historical context, there were different threats: the growing Red menace (I Was a Communist for the FBI, Walk East on Beacon, Pickup on South Street), smuggling illegal immigrants (Illegal Entry, Border Incident, A Lady Without Passport) and stealing secrets for super weapons (The Iron Curtain, Walk a Crooked Mile, 5 Steps to Danger).
Spy noirs are an important cultural record of ways the Second World War was depicted and interpreted through cinema in the UK and the US. In the WWII era, the number of spy noirs released in America and Britain, respectively, was nearly equal to the crime noirs from each country. It is time to improve the accuracy of the history and filmography of film noir by including spy noirs.62
Below, when there is a quotation from a book within a note, the page reference is provided in parentheses following the quote.
1. For a grand-scale history of espionage by the Allies and the Axis, see Max Hastings, The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 (New York: Harper, 2016).
Below is a quote from the book, which aptly expresses the sense of the ending of Five Graves to Cairo, as well as many other UK and US spy films. In the film, Mouche, the hotel maid, takes responsibility for the murder, which Bramble actually committed, of Rommel’s favorite junior officer. Her confession enables Bramble to go ahead with a mission for Rommel to Cairo. And, as Mouche knows, it means Bramble can deliver to the British army the locations of the underground depots. After the Afrika Korps are defeated, Bramble returns to the hotel. Mouche had longed for a special ivory-handled white parasol, and Bramble has it with him to give her. But, as the hotel manager tells him, for standing up to the Nazis, “They beat her and beat her. Then they let her out. One bullet would have been enough.” In the final scene, Bramble goes to a cemetery, opens the parasol and places it in front of the wooden cross that marks Mouche’s grave. In the last two sentences of his Preface, Max Hastings says:
“Hundreds of thousands of many nationalities risked their lives, and many sacrificed them, often in the loneliness of dawn before a firing squad, to gather intelligence or pursue guerrilla operations. No twenty-first century perspective on the personalities and events, successes and failures of those days should diminish our respect, even reverence for the memory of those who paid the price for waging secret war.” (15)
2. James Naremore, Nothing More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 15-16.
3. The most notable current film noir reference books that cite French film noirs from the 1930s are as follows: Ginette Vincendeau, “French Film Noir,” in editor Andrew Spicer, European Film Noir (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 49-50; Andrew Spicer, Historical Dictionary of Film Noir (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010), 97-98, 452-456; John Grant,A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide (Milwaukee: Limelight Editions, 2013).
The forthcoming book by Don Malcolm will be the first thorough study in English of French film noir. His chronology, from 1931 – 1966, will include over 400 films. For a sampling, see the films Malcolm has presented in four programs at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
4. For an overview of Hollywood’s spy films in the WWII era, see “Hollywood Spy Films, 1937-1941” and “Loose Lips Sink Ships: Spies, Saboteurs and Traitors,” in Michael S. Shull and David Edward Wilt, Hollywood War Films, 1937-1945: An Exhaustive Filmography of American Feature-Length Motion Pictures Relating to World War II (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1996), 42-46 and 246-254, respectively.
My definition of spy films is consistent with Alan Furst’s assessment of spy novels in his introduction to The Book of Spies: An Anthology of Literary Espionage (New York: Modern Library, 2003).
“For a collective description of the selections in The Book of Spies, the best phrase I could wrestle out of the language was the literature of clandestine political conflict [italics in the original].” (viii)
5. On the “noir visual style,” see Janey Place and Lowell Paterson, “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir,” in editors Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir Reader (New York: Limelight Editions, 1996), 64-75; Alain Silver and James Ursini, The Noir Style (Woodstock: The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc., 1999); Andrew Spicer, Film Noir (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2002), 46-47.
6. The most notable current film noir reference books that cite spy films are as follows. Michael F. Keaney, Film Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classic Era, 1940-1959 (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003); Michael F. Keaney, British Film Noir Guide(Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008); Robert Murphy, “British Film Noir,” in Andrew Spicer, European Film Noir; Spencer Selby, The Worldwide Film Noir Tradition (Ames: Sink Press, 2013); Grant, A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir.
Spicer is a good example of the failure of authors of reference books to recognize spy noirs as a category of film noir. In his Historical Dictionary of Film Noir, Spicer has entries for the following types of film noir: boxing, caper/heist, country, gangster, gothic, troubled veteran. He does not mention either Germany or Japan in terms of World War II, nor does he associate film noir with espionage, spies or fifth columnists.
7. Amanda J. Field, England’s Secret Weapon: The Wartime Films of Sherlock Holmes (London: Middlesex University Press, 2009), 118-119.
8. Sheri Chinen Biesen, Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).
The greater violence and bloodiness in spy noirs, compared with crime noirs in the WWII era, contributes to the refutation of an alternative interpretation of the origins of film noir. Sheri Chinen Biesen devotes a richly argued book to explaining the emergence of a new kind of crime film cycle toward the end of the Second World War. Although she raises many other issues deserving of rejoinders, in keeping with the key themes of this essay, I will address the following four, one at a time.
I. “[T]he proliferation of the noir series began during – and in many ways, because of – World War II, as a trend spurred by Double Indemnity and enabled by the distinctive wartime factors that created the brooding 1940s period style.” (12)
Biesen considers film noir only in terms of crime films. She ignores spy films and, therefore, spy noirs. Crucially, for her, these crime noirs feature a hardboiled “hero” (e.g., private eye) and a “femme fatale.” Thus, she sees film noir as derivative from hardboiled crime fiction, an error of interpretation that I take up later in my essay.
II. “[F]ully articulated film noir emerged in the United States as an aspect of film production and spectatorship under wartime conditions. Noir evolved as a dark style of ‘realism’ and a wartime Hollywood crime trend described and clearly identified by a term circulated widely, as red meat.” (189)
Biesen dates the beginning of film noir in 1944, with the release of Double Indemnity, which is nearly at the end of WWII. Movies released in prior years, which are considered film noirs by most other historians, she calls “prenoir” or “proto-noir” because they are not “red meat.” This term is a synonym for hardboiled, and it pertains to violence, whether it is implicit or explicit in a movie. Biesen associates the origins of film noir only in the American experience. She ignores Britain and France, contrary to most other historians in recent years. She believes WWII, during the early 1940s, was the historical context that led to red meat film noir at the end of the war. She ignores how the historical context both before and after 1939, was the basis for the noir style in spy films, years before 1944.
III. “[R]ed-meat crime men roughed up tough, sexually transgressive women in late wartime and early postwar narratives.” (156)
Biesen ignores the violence in spy noirs, which is considerably greater than Double Indemnity and other crime films she considers film noir in the WWII era. Below in this essay, I discuss physical – including sexual – violence against women in spy noirs, compared to which “roughing up” women in crime noirs utterly pales.
IV. “In the studio system’s shift from wartime to postwar narrative film strategies many companies moved away from portraying simplistic ‘Nazi’ or ‘Jap’ combat enemies to a more complex criminal on-screen.” (190)
Biesen only acknowledges Germans and Japanese as “combat enemies,” which suggests she is restricting portrayals of Axis armed forces to “war movies.” She not only ignores the extreme violence but also the complexity that did get depicted of pro-Axis enemies (spies, fifth columnists) in spy noirs.
For a perspective that is similar to Biesen’s, see Richard Lingeman, The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to Cold War (New York: Nation Books, 2012), 54-61, 197-200.
9. Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013); Ben Urwand, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2013).
10. For an overview of Hollywood’s films of resistance fighters, see “Soldiers Without Uniforms: Wartime Resistance Films,” in Shull and Wilt, Hollywood War Films, 235-246.
In The Secret War, in his chapter, “Guerrilla,” Max Hastings indicates the appropriateness of resistance fighters as one of the five plot types in spy noirs.
“[G]uerrilla campaigns became critical elements of the secret war, eventually commanding resources as large as those expended on intelligence-gathering, and often overlapping with it.” (261)
11. “Lidice.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 01 Mar. 2016. Web. 19 Mar. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lidice>
12. Enzo Traverso, Fire and Blood: The European Civil War 1914-1945 (London: Verso, 2016).
Enzo Traverso explains the origin of the term, fifth columnist.
“The Spanish [Civil War, 1936-1939] gave birth to a new concept that found its way into every day language: the ‘fifth column.’ In November 1936, when Madrid was under siege by the fascist army, the nationalist General Mola was questioned by the press on his military formation, made up of four columns. He replied that his strategy relied above all on a ‘fifth column,’ that of his supporters inside the besieged city. The ‘fifth column’ thus became synonymous with the ‘enemy within.’” (56)
See also “Fifth column.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 09 Mar. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_column>
13. Daniel M. Hodges, “The Rise and Fall of the War Noir,” in editors Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir Reader 4: The Crucial Films and Themes (Pompton Plains: Amadeus Press/Limelight Editions, 2004), 207-225; Daniel Hodges, “Film Noir Plot Elements: WWII vs. Postwar.” The Film Noir File. WordPress. 13 Oct. 2012. Web. 15 Mar. 2016. <http://www.filmnoirfile.com/film-noir-plot-elements-wwii-vs-postwar/>
14. “Internment of Japanese Americans.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 14 Mar. 2016. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internment_of_Japanese_Americans>
15. Larry May discusses the “conversion narrative” in WWII films and its relationship to postwar US culture and politics, but he does not directly address spy films (although some titles are cited). Larry May, “Making the American Consensus: The Narrative of Conversion and Subversion in World War II Films,” in editors Lewis A. Erenberg and Susan E. Hirsch, The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness during World War II (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 71-102.
See also Larry May, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 230, 277-287.
16. Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 79; Clive Ponting, 1940: Myth and Reality, The Truth About Britain’s ‘Finest Hour’ (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990), 181-183. “Attack on Mers-el-Kébir.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 02 Feb. 2016. Web. 14 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attack_on_Mers-el-Kébir>
17. Grant, A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir; Keaney, British Film Noir Guide, 230. Murphy, “British Film Noir,” 105-106. (The conclusion of the classic period is also being re-evaluated, as an increasing number of historians propose that the longstanding end date of 1959 should be revised to the mid-1960s.)
18. Jon Tuska, Dark Cinema: American Film Noir in Cultural Perspective(Westport: Greenwood Press, 1984), 202, 203.
The dominant female character types named by Tuska are repeated over the following decades. For example, Spicer, Historical Dictionary of Film Noir, under the entry, WOMEN, says:
“The figure of the deadly female – the femme fatale or spider woman – is the most conspicuous representation of femininity in film noir…The antithesis of the femme fatale…is the figure of the innocent, wholesome homebuilder, the wife or sweetheart…Between these two poles is the “good-bad girl” who combines the sexuality of the femme fatale with the fundamental decency of the homebuilder.” (329-330)
Tuska and Spicer, like other film noir historians, ignore the woman in distress.
19. For an astute analysis of the interaction during WWII between female audiences and female screen characters, see Christine Geraghty’s “Disguises and betrayals: negotiating nationality and femininity in three wartime films,” in editors Christine Gledhill and Gillian Swanson, Nationalizing Femininity: Culture, sexuality and British cinema in the Second World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).
Geraghty assesses three British films, and each one is a spy noir: Yellow Canary, Silver Fleet and Went the Day Well?
20. Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 4-5.
For an analysis of Hollywood’s representation of China and the Chinese during the WWII era, see “The Eagle and the Dragon,” in Shull and Wilt, Hollywood War Films, 209-211.
21. Naremore, Nothing More Than Night, 225.
22. See chapter 2, “Modernism and Blood Melodrama,” in Naremore, Nothing More Than Night, 40-95.
Because Naremore associates film noir with modernism, especially literature, which is masculine, he ignores sources outside the hardboiled tradition, such as women’s literature (stories, plays, novels) – see Note 21 – as well as original screenplays that are not, in Spicer’s terms, hardboiled “imitations or reworkings.”
Futhermore, Naremore’s conception of hardboiled fiction as an expression of masculine, modernist literature is contradicted by Leonard Casssuto.
Leonard Cassuto, Hardboiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
“Sentimentalism is stereotypically female in the United States, with the majority of sentimental novels written by women…The heyday of sentimental fiction lasted from the 1820s until the 1880s or so, but the sentimental outlook ranged widely before and since then, and has dispersed throughout the culture. One of the places that sentimentalism dispersed to is hard-boiled storytelling, and there it has made a decisive and long-lasting impact. Hard-Boiled Sentimentality locates the sentimental in the hard-boiled, and ties the persistent place of the sentimental to the development of twentieth century American crime fiction.” (41)
For more on this by Cassuto, see 25-91.
23. “Ethnicity and Race in American Film Noir,” in the anthology edited by Andrew Spicer and Helen Hanson, A Companion to Film Noir (Wiley Blackwell, 2013, 391).
24. Florey,“Ethnicity and Race in American Film Noir,” 392.
25. Florey,“Ethnicity and Race in American Film Noir,” 392.
26. Florey,“Ethnicity and Race in American Film Noir,” 395-396.
27. Vagarian, “THE SHANGHAI GESTURE and John Colton.” Dust and Corruption. 27 Jan. 2012. Web. 04 Dec. 2017. <http://dustandcorruption.blogspot.com/2012/01/shanghai-gesture-by-john-colton.html>
28. Spicer, Historical Dictionary of Film Noir, xl–xli.
29. Daniel Hodges, “Noir Style: Natives – Not Émigrés.” The Film Noir File. WordPress. 18 Oct. 2012. Web. 14 Feb. 2016. <http://www.filmnoirfile.com/noir-style-natives-not-emigres/>
30. Daniel Hodges, “Published Sources: Women’s Noirs.” The Film Noir File. WordPress. 18 Oct. 2012. Web. 14 Feb. 2016. <http://www.filmnoirfile.com/published-sources-womens-noirs/>
31. Daniel Hodges, “Woman in Distress vs. Femme Fatale.” The Film Noir File. WordPress. 19 Oct. 2012. Web. 14 Feb. 2016. <http://www.filmnoirfile.com/woman-in-distress-vs-femme-fatale/>
For an impressive revisionist assessment of the femme fatale, see Julie Grossman, Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close-Up (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
32. Daniel Hodges, “The Missing PI in Film Noir.” The Film Noir File. WordPress. 22 Sep. 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2016. <http://www.filmnoirfile.com/the-missing-pi-in-film-noir/>.
For a historical critique of the private eye as iconic, see Daniel Hodges, “The Film Noir PI: Made in the ‘70s.” The Film Noir File. WordPress. 22 Sep. 2013. Web. 14 Feb. 2016. <http://www.filmnoirfile.com/the-film-noir-pi-made-in-the-70s/>
33. Brett F.Woods, Neutral Ground: A Political History of Espionage Fiction (New York: Algora Publishing, 2008), 53.
34. Jon Tuska, Dark Cinema, 73-80.
In his chapter, “Modernism and Bloody Melodrama,” James Naremore discusses at length Graham Greene. However, in his analyses of film noirs based on Greene’s novels, he makes no connection between film noir and espionage literature. Naremore, Nothing More than Night, 63-81.
35. Tuska, Dark Cinema, 183.
36. Tuska, Dark Cinema, 187.
37. Spicer, Historical Dictionary of Film Noir, xli–xlii.
38. Spicer, Historical Dictionary of Film Noir, xlii.
39. Tony Williams, “British Film Noir,” in editors Alain Silver & James Ursini, Film Noir Reader 2 (New York: Limelight Editions, 1999), 244.
40. Williams, “British Film Noir,” 245.
41. Daniel Hodges, “Noir Style: Natives – Not Émigrés.”
42. On the “classical style,” see David Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema. Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 1-84;
See also Spicer, Film Noir, 45-46.
43. James Reston, Prelude to Victory (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942), 3.
The Preface is dated May 1, 1942. Reston wrote the book during some of the darkest days in US history. See Note 59.
44. Reston, Prelude to Victory, 54.
45. Reston, Prelude to Victory, ix.
Some of the “illusions” Reston unpacks are: “Freedom Comes Easy,” “You Can Do Nothing About It,” and “Time and Money Will Save Us.” About the third illusion, Reston says, “Time is not on our side.”
46. Hastings, Inferno, 368.
47. Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was released in the US on 18 September 1942. It not released in the UK until October 1943. For this reason, I have associated the historical context of the film’s production and reception with early to mid-1942 America.
Kitty’s speech is as follows.
“You gotta help me find out…Are you gonna creep in the corners all your life? Are you gonna sneak away at the very sight of a man like this [Sherlock Holmes] and show him what cowards you are? What are you afraid of? All right, don’t help me, then. Cut your own throats, that’s what you’re doing. Help me or help the Nazis. Sure, the Nazis killed Gavin. They might be your friends, protecting them the way you are. Don’t you know all the crimes they commit are being blamed on you? Well, they are. And I hope you hang for them. You can have ‘em. As for me, I’m British, and I’m proud of it…I’m not asking this for myself. England’s at stake. Your England as much as anyone else’s. Got no time to think about whose side we’re on. There’s only one side – England. No matter how high or how low we are – You, You, You, and You – we’re all on the same team. We’ve all got the same goal – Victory!”
48. Lawrence Sondhaus, World War One: The Global Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Lawrence Sondhaus explains the significance the Somme and Passchendale.
“The first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, was ‘the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army…[with] a staggering 54,470 casualties including 19,240 men killed, most of them by machine-gun fire…The action at the Somme finally ended on November 18.’” (213-214)
“The battle of Passchendaele (also known as the third battle of Ypres) lasted from 31 July-10 November 1917. Total British and Imperial casualties were 420,000 including 146,000 killed. ‘Other than the Somme, Passchendaele ranked as the British Empire’s costliest battle of the war.’” (257)
49. Richard Lingeman, Don’t You Know There’s a War On? The American Home Front, 1941-1945 (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2003).
About the US, Richard Lingeman says:
“The first months of the war and the time immediately prior to it, brought a wave of spy pictures…These spy melodramas probably mirrored the general anxiety in the air, for intrigue implies a shadowy world, where identities are not what they seem and the enemy lurks in his secret hideaway doing his damage.” (193-194)
Robert Murphy, “British Film Noir.”
About the UK, Robert Murphy says:
“During the war, the impetus to show ordinary people implicated in murky events shifted from murder mysteries and crime thrillers to films dealing with espionage and resistance.” Calling them “perhaps the darkest examples” of these kinds of films, Murphy then cites nine titles, all of which are spy noirs: Traitor Spy, The Spy in Black, Contraband, Cottage to Let, Uncensored, Tower of Terror, The Next of Kin, Unpublished Story, Yellow Canary.” (89-90)
50. The consequences in various forms of art and literature during the global epoch in which the Great Depression was bookended by World War I and World War II include the anti-classical cinema style in the origins of film noir. Four centuries earlier, the marked economic and social changes in Europe led to another reaction against classical styles in multiple art forms, especially in painting and centered in Italy.
For a magisterial study that shows, however unintentionally, the imagery in these paintings is comparable with the noir style, see Arnold Hauser, Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1986).
51. Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995), 28-30.
For the significance of the two legislative defeats, see Brinkley, The End of Reform, 15-23.
For an interpretation of the rise of the “conservative coalition” of Republicans and southern Democrats, which emphasizes the two factions’ mutual hostility toward the increasingly powerful and militant labor movement, see Tracy Roof, American Labor, Congress and the Welfare State, 1935-2010 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2011), 21-33.
52. Brinkley, The End of Reform, 103.
53. Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 210.
54. H. Mark Glancy, When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood ‘British’ Film 1939-45 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 61.
55. Glancy, When Hollywood Loved Britain, 62.
56. Michael E. Birdwell, Celluloid Soldiers: Warner Bros.’s Campaign Against Nazism (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 155; Glancy, When Hollywood Loved Britain, 62.
57. Glancy, When Hollywood Loved Britain, 63.
After the Congressional hearings in September 1941, there was a break. They were supposed to resume in January 1942, but, after Pearl Harbor, isolationism was a lost cause.
58. Confessions of Nazi Spy was released on 6 May 1939. It was the first film from a major studio (Warner Bros.) to attack explicitly Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
For an account of the controversies raised by the production, see Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 335-346. Other films, from other studios, continued to be released that did not name the Nazis as an enemy of the UK or the US.
59. In the final scene of Confessions of Nazi Spy, FBI investigator Edgar G. Robinson (EGR) is at a diner with Henry O’Neill (HON), the district attorney who has just successfully prosecuted four fifth columnists. Their conversation has three significant aspects: the noir-like world they were living in, the “terrifying” menace facing the US, and their confidence that America would be spared the fate of countries already invaded by the Wehrmacht.
(EGR) “You see these Nazis operating here and you think of all those in Germany, you can’t help feeling somehow that they’re, well, absolutely insane.”
(HON) “As a matter of fact, you begin to doubt your own sanity.”
(EGR) “True. We see what’s happening in Europe. We know what they’re trying to do here. And it all seems so unreal. Fantastic. Well, like an absurd nightmare. Absurd. Yet when you think of its potential menace, it’s terrifying.”
(HON) “I don’t think [the fifth columnists] are going to have much luck in this country. True, we’re a careless, easygoing, optimistic nation, but when our basic liberties become threatened, we wake up.”
The diner’s employee and two other customers assert that what has gone on in Europe will not happen in America.
(HON) “The voice of the people.”
(EGR) “Thank god for such people.”
(HON) “Yes, thank god.”
60. Geoffrey Perrett, Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph: The American People, 1939-1945 (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).
Among the events undermining Americans’ confidence in those three years was the Nazi conquest of Greece in late May 1941. Geoffrey Perrett says:
“[T]he performance of the British had been pathetic and that of the Germans so undeniably brilliant that people once again talked openly and fearfully of Britain’s imminent conquest…Thus, when Roosevelt addressed the nation on May 27, he addressed a people afraid, unhappy and bewildered….” (79)
Reston’s book underscored the same sense of foreboding conveyed by Time magazine after the fall of Singapore in mid-February 1942. As quoted by Parrett, “Time mourned: ‘This was the worst week of the war…It was the worst week of the century…Now, as in 1864, the fate of the nation was in the balance.’” (208)
61. The House on 92nd. Street. Dir. Henry Hathaway. Perf. William Eythe, Lloyd Nolan, Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, and Leo G. Carroll. 1945. Fox Film Noir, 2005. DVD.
62. As an aid to determining post-1946 spy noirs, UK and US spy films in the reference books below may be matched with espionage film noirs cited in the reference books above in Note 2. However, as with spy noirs, 1935-1946, the film noir reference books cannot be relied on to contain all the actual post-1946 spy noirs. In other words, the spy films themselves should be viewed and evaluated. For extensive filmographies of spy films, see: Alun Evans, Brassey’s Guide to War Films (Dulles: Brassey’s, 2000); Paul Mavis, The Espionage Filmography: The Studio Years 1898 through 1999 (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001); James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts, The Great Spy Pictures (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1974); James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts, The Great Spy Pictures II (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1986); David Quinlan, British Sound Films: United States Releases, 1928-1959 (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985); Terry Rowan, World War II Goes to the Movies & Television Guide (Lulu.com, 2012).
UK and US Film Noir
John Grant, A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide (Milwaukee: Limelight Editions, 2013)
Michael F. Keaney, British Film Noir Guide (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008)
Michael F. Keaney, Film Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classic Era, 1940-1959 (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003)
Robert Murphy, “British Film Noir,” in Andrew Spicer, editor, European Film Noir (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)
James Naremore, Nothing More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998)
Janey Place and Lowell Paterson, “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir,” in editors Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir Reader (New York: Limelight Editions, 1996)
Spencer Selby, The Worldwide Film Noir Tradition (Ames: Sink Press, 2013)
Alain Silver and James Ursini, The Noir Style (Woodstock: The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc., 1999)
Andrew Spicer, Historical Dictionary of Film Noir (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010)
Andrew Spicer, Film Noir (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2002
Jon Tuska, Dark Cinema: American Film Noir in Cultural Perspective (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1984)
Tony Williams, “British Film Noir,” in editors Alain Silver & James Ursini, Film Noir Reader 2 (New York: Limelight Editions, 1999)
UK and US Spy Films
Alun Evans, Brassey’s Guide to War Films (Dulles: Brassey’s, 2000)
Paul Mavis, The Espionage Filmography: The Studio Years 1898 through 1999 (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001)
James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts, The Great Spy Pictures (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1974)
James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts, The Great Spy Pictures II (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1986)
David Quinlan, British Sound Films: United States Releases, 1928-1959 (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1984)
Michael S. Shull and David Edward Wilt, Hollywood War Films, 1937-1945: An Exhaustive Filmography of American Feature-Length Motion Pictures Relating to World War II (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1996)
History and Politics of World War II, Cinema, and Spy Films
Michael E. Birdwell, Celluloid Soldiers: Warner Bros.’s Campaign Against Nazism (New York: New York University Press, 1999)
Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995)
Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler 1933-1939 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013)
Amanda J. Field, England’s Secret Weapon: The Wartime Films of Sherlock Holmes (London: Middlesex University Press, 2009)
Christine Geraghty, “Disguises and betrayals: negotiating nationality and femininity in three wartime films,” in Christine Gledhill and Gillian Swanson, Nationalizing Femininity: Culture, sexuality and British cinema in the Second World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996)
H. Mark Glancy, When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood ‘British’ Film 1939-45 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999)
Max Hastings, The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 (New York: Harper, 2016)
Larry May, “Making the American Consensus: The Narrative of Conversion and Subversion in World War II Films,” in Lewis A. Erenberg and Susan E. Hirsch, The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness During World War II (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996)
Larry May, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000)
Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)
James Reston, Prelude to Victory (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942)
Ben Urwand, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2013)