Ron Briley: Review of Richard Lingeman's "The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to Cold War" (Nation Books, 2012)

tags: Ron Briley, book reviews, 1940s, The Noir Forties, Richard Lingeman

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of "The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad."

Within American popular culture, the 1950s are viewed with some nostalgic longing for a simpler time as depicted in such television fare as Happy Days, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best. Yet, this era was anything but a period free from global and domestic turmoil. By 1950, the so-called greatest generation of the Great Depression and World War II journeyed from the euphoria of victory over Germany and Japan to the development of a national security state which supported the Cold War, the manufacture of nuclear arms, and a shooting war in Korea; while perceiving the New Deal, reform movements and dissent in general as a threat to the nation’s existence. In the work place and the suburbs, conformity was a cherished value that allowed one to get ahead at the job and mingle with neighbors in the pursuit of consumption. Not everyone, however, shared in the values of the American liberal consensus, which was challenged in the 1960s by alienated youth, women who refused to embrace the feminine mystique, and a civil rights movement that questioned the promise of American life for all its citizens. The veterans returned from the Second World War with the hope that their sacrifice would usher in a world free of totalitarianism, war, and depression. Many would find post-war America disappointing.

Richard Lingeman, a senior editor with the Nation magazine and a literary biographer with books on Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser, argues that the foundation for post-World War II America was established during the period from 1945 to 1950 as the United States evolved from celebrating the victories over Japan and Germany to a new Cold War military front on the peninsula of Korea. The Noir Forties is a rather eclectic book which employs elements of autobiography, history, and cultural studies to examine the early years of the postwar period, when the insecurities of the American people were often explored in the popular film noir genre; where a dark urban landscape was populated by cynical detectives, strong women usually described as femme fatales, and a darkness of the human soul.

Lingeman maintains that post-war life and culture was reflective of the shadow of death cast by the Second World War. It is estimated that over 405,000 American military personnel perished during the war, while another 600,000 were wounded. To trace the impact of so many dead loved ones on survivors and family members, Lingeman traveled to the small town of Red Oak, Iowa which suffered the highest number of casualties per capita of any community in the United States. Lingeman concludes that the presence of death in the culture was evident in the classic noir D.O.A. (1950) in which Edmund O’Brien learns that he has been administered a fatal but slow acting poison. He wanders the dark urban streets searching for his murderer.

The veteran who survived death returned to a changed nation and encountered challenges adjusting to civilian life. Post-war traumatic stress syndrome was certainly not invented during the Vietnam War. Lingeman asserts that Hollywood and film noirs addressed such veteran readjustment issues as divorce, survivor’s guilt, alcoholism, women in the work force, and alienation from civilians who did not share their war experiences. For example, the noir Detour (1946) relates the story of a frustrated New York City piano player Al Roberts (Tom Neal) who decides to relocate to Los Angeles in pursuit of the American dream. While hitchhiking across the country, fate leads Al to become involved with the death of two strangers, and at the film’s conclusion he is arrested for murder. Lingeman writes, “Detour evoked the sense of drift millions of returning veterans and redundant war plant workers felt in that first postwar year. Uncertainties loomed: fears of another Depression, of the Soviets, of the A-bomb too. You’d lost agency; fate was in the driver’s seat” (66).

Lingeman also suggests that the loner-outsider protagonist of film noir correlates with the plight of organized labor following World War II. During the war union membership exceeded thirty percent of the work force. After making sacrifices during the conflict, a record number of strikes occurred in 1946, but businesses welcomed the opportunity to reduce the clout of organized labor and succeeded in painting labor with the red brush of communism. To document the problems confronting labor, Lingeman focuses upon the Hollywood labor conflict between the Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States (IATSE) led by Roy Brewer and the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) under the direction of Herbert Sorrell. Although the IATSE was often associated with organized crime, the producers believed they could do business with Brewer, accusing the more democratic CSU of being under the influence of the Communist Party. After a bitter and often violent strike, the CSU was crushed. Lingeman argues that the studios then proceeded to exercise similar control over such craft unions as the Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild, and Screenwriters Guild by inviting Congressional investigation of communist influence in Hollywood. The ensuing imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress and unofficial blacklist silenced dissent and labor unrest in the film industry. Lingeman laments that filmmakers eschewed addressing social problems for fear that they would be labeled as communists. Instead of films on racism or economic inequality, Hollywood sought refuge in Biblical epics and romantic comedy. And to really curry favor with the right wing, the studios produced such forgettable anticommunist propaganda as I Married a Communist (1948). On the other hand, some filmmakers relied upon science fiction or noir to make allegorical statements regarding American life and politics in the 1940s.

Women were also a significant force in the noir universe. Many men were insecure regarding working women and hastily contracted war time marriages. Lingeman observes that Mildred Pierce (1945), featuring Joan Crawford, was a noir mystery in which Mildred demonstrated that she could, indeed, successfully manage a chain of restaurants, but with her attention not focused upon the home, Mildred’s daughters are both neglected and pampered with tragic results... Mildred found redemption in returning to her first husband and domestic duties. The femme fatale was also a staple of noir cinema. Lingeman argues, “The rise of the femme fatale in film noirs reflected male ambivalence and anxiety about World War II women, those Amazons unleashed by the war who worked at men’s jobs, had sex with whomever they wanted, and rejected home and motherhood” (201). The realities of power in post-war America was certain far from this noir nightmare. Lingeman devotes considerable time and attention to gender during the immediate post-war years, but, similar to the Hollywood cinema, he gives less space to the plight of African Americans in post-war America.

Students of American history may find Lingeman’s chronicling of the 1945 to 1950 period to be familiar ground. Although engaging in little primary research, Lingeman demonstrates a good grasp of secondary sources on World War II and its aftermath. In exploring the Cold War and McCarthyism, Lingeman puts forth an interpretation that is not all that different from The Untold History of the United States (2012) by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick. The Cold War was not inevitable and less bellicose policies and attitudes by the Truman administration might have found some common ground with the Soviets. In fact, as with Stone and Kuznick, Henry Wallace emerges as the voice of an alternative post-war policy for the United States (the validity of this interpretation is still widely contested). Instead, Lingeman observes that American leader began to place their faith in a nuclear solution which deprived his generation of the better world for which they fought and sacrificed. Lingeman concludes his provocative book with an epilogue, describing his military service in the occupation of Japan. He visits Nagasaki, where he achieved an epiphany, “the beginning of the search for understanding of my times. And the beginning of the end of illusion” (377). Indeed, as Tom Engelhardt suggests, the Second World War was the end of victory culture with the unleashing of the atomic bomb. In the shadow of the bomb, American culture was well reflected in the film noir genre; a gray world in which the grasp for security found in the national security state, McCarthyism, and the Cold War trumped post war dreams of greater democracy and social reform.