Paranoia and Hopelessness in a World without Future: Communism and Film Noir

Yes, another school essay. No, I’m not posting all of them… so don’t think I’m some kind of whore. Some were crap, I pretend they don’t exist. Also, possible spoilers for Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly and Sweet Smell of Success.

A major characteristic of noir cinema is the brutality of the violence. Few noir protagonists’ escape unscathed and not all are lucky enough to escape with their lives. As a genre that comes into fruition during a time of war, the presence and viciousness of violence is unsurprising. Nino Frank, a film critic, describes this particular effect present in noir as “the dynamism of violent death”, suggesting the crucial role death plays in the tone and style of these films (Borde 221). The hysteria of the World War inspired a new fear and the use of Hydrogen bomb especially, fuelled the subsequent red scare, and only contributed to a national sense of paranoia. In Film noir this paranoia culminates in violence, which reflects an increasingly weary and wounded sense of national identity within American society.

In Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay, “The White Negro”, he describes a new generation that emerges from this context of fear. This group is primarily young; they have their own language, live outside of the realms of conformity and violence plays an important role in their identity (Mailer). The protagonists of Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950) fit this description comfortably. Though the language does not stand apart from other films from the era, at least not other noir films, it works effectively as a protest against predominant social norms and reflects an escalating social tension between normal and deviant society (Kitses 58). Though Gun Crazy emerges before the height of the cold war, it nonetheless portrays a generation coming to age during great fear and anxiety.

The film’s screenwriter is Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted in 1947 and worked under a pseudonym to write the film (“Dalton Trumbo”). During his hearing before the HUAC he likened the proceedings to “the beginning of an American concentration camp” (Mast 524). As someone directly implicated by the scare politics of the era, Trumbo had a radical understanding of how powerful this movement was, and the potential consequences it had on individual freedoms within American society. Norman Mailer explains in his article, that context dominates the man, because “character is less significant than the context in which [one] must function (Mailer). The context of Gun Crazy is a world in chaos filled with betrayal and anxiety, as two young people are brought together by their mutual love of guns and go on a crime-spree that eventually leads to their death.

The protagonists of Gun Crazy are driven by violence and an obsession with monetary success. Guns are very representative of this quest, as both symbols of their violence but also as their tools (Kitses 20). They offer for the characters a sense of freedom, which Peggy demonstrates when Bart suggests they sell their guns for the money; she says “I don’t want to be afraid of life or anything else”. Without the gun, Peggy feels at loss, completely vulnerable and victimized. It also suggests how she uses guns to differentiate herself from the status quo, as normality within the film is presented as quite bleak (Kitses 48). Never in the film is it suggested that any of the characters who live a “normal” life are anything but unhappy. They seem to be accepting to a fault, and even Bart’s sister would rather believe the negative things said about him in the news outlets then to trust her own relationship with him.

Gun Crazy is quite critical of the contemporary political climate in the States. On one hand, it implicates capitalist ideals as promoting a rather dangerous way to live, one that leads its characters to their deaths. Mailer would likely argue, that individual violence is, at least from the perspective of this young “hipster generation” more justified in their acts than state instituted violence, as he argues “at no matter what price in individual violence, is the affirmation of the barbarian for it requires a primitive passion about human nature to believe that individual acts of violence are always to be preferred to the collective violence of the state” (Mailer).

The years following Gun Crazy’s release meant great change for the world. Tensions rise after 1949 as the USSR begin testing nuclear weapons. Stalin’s immediate successor (Stalin dies in 1953) Georgy Malenkov discusses his ideas on world peace and maintains that the United States has “no monopoly in the production of the hydrogen bomb” (“Russia the Man in Charge”). That same year, President Eisenhower gives his speech, “Atoms for Peace”, where he addresses the possibility of Atomic War and suggests that it would be best to harbour Atomic energy in order to make the world a better place (Eisenhower).

Senator Joseph McCarthy, however, begins to lose prominence in 1954 and is censured by the Senate for an abuse of his powers and for seeking preferential treatment (“Censure Case of Senator”). He had already begun losing respect among the American people, as the television broadcasts of the hearings into aspects of security in the United States Army, showed him in an “increasingly negative light”, as he, “badgered witnesses while ignoring parliamentary procedures and the rules of common courtesy” (“Censure Case of Senator”). The damage had been done though, and his loss in favour did little to quell fears, if anything it inspired a new sense of suspicion in authority figures.

The effects of the witch hunts and fear of nuclear annihilation are felt across the arts. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, about the Salem witch hunts as an allegory for the current state of American oppression, is first performed in 1953. In a favourable review for the New York Times Atkinson says, “Neither Mr. Miller nor his audiences are unaware of certain similarities between the perversions of justice then and today” (Atkinson). It is not unreasonable to think that audiences watching Film Noirs of the era were also aware of the explicit and implicit meanings of the films they were watching.

One Film Noir in particular that emerges during this era is Kiss Me Deadly (1955) which addresses the growing nihilism of the American people and the escalating fear of Atomic Warfare. Where the characters in Gun Crazy were celebrated and idealized, there are few sympathetic characters in Kiss Me Deadly as “no one, male or female, enjoys any of the transcending benefits of the romantic aspects of film noir. Only the victims Christina and Nick are sympathetic: the rest are doomed by their own greed” (Place 273). Criticism of capitalism has turned into misanthropy as the worlds’ greed has become completely destructive.

Kiss Me Deadly begins with a woman, Christina, jumping out in front of Mike Hammer, a private detective’s, car. She claims to have been held against her will and asks him to take her to the nearest bus depot. Things quickly descend into madness, as their car is run off the road. A subsequent scene shows Christina tortured to death, and an attempt made on Mike Hammer’s life. He wakes up in hospital, barely alive… and he begins his investigation.

German critic Siegfrid Kracauer describes postwar American films as having, “sinister conspiracies incubate next door, within the world considered normal- any trusted neighbour may turn into a demon” (Tellotte 229). This is especially fitting of Kiss Me Deadlywhere no one can be trusted, not even our noir detective, who is a sexist, careless bully who has few if any redeeming features. More often than not, he is the betrayer, though he himself is also double crossed on more than one occasion. The film almost literally embodies Kracauer’s quotation, as it is a young woman pretending to be Christina’s roommate (instead of a neighbour) who pulls the film’s ultimate treachery. It is not without irony that she also brings upon what might effectively be the end of time as we know it as her curiosity and greed motivates her to open the forbidden box filled with destructive atomic power.

Meanwhile, the world finds itself in an atomic deadlock, “As what was once a dim prospect takes the form of hard reality, strategic planners see that atomic deadlock does not offer a stark, final choice between absolute mutual destruction and perpetual peace based on absolute mutual fear” (“The Pistol and the Claw”). The film seems to offer the worst of these solutions, the acknowledgement that once you open up the box, there is no turning back. The destruction of your enemy is almost secondary, as unleashing an atomic attack will unavoidably lead to your own destruction. If one argues that the protagonists in Gun Crazy exhibit self-destructive tendencies, at least it is in part an expression of fear; the self-destructiveness in Kiss Me Deadly is psychopathic. Robert Lindner, in his book Rebel without a Cause, describes the post-war psychopath as “an agitator without a slogan, a revolutionary without a program: in other words, his rebelliousness is aimed to achieve goals satisfactory to himself alone…” (Mailer).

If Kiss Me Deadly’s ending is to be understood in this light the self-destruction of the roommate character is neither political nor rational. She is acting solely to satisfy her own whims and desires, at the sacrifice of everything, including herself. It also suggests that the anxiety felt during this era is more than an issue of politics; it reflects disillusionment with social structures that are motivated almost entirely by the pursuits of the individual at the expense of the collective. During Mike Hammer’s investigation, nearly every person he encounters demands money before they will participate, regardless if they feel their information may be valuable. With one or two exceptions, everyone in this film has a price.

The film’s language also echoes social discomfort during this era. As Mike Hammer investigates what may have caused Christina’s death, he encounters the name of another person who died under similar circumstances, Raymondo. When Hammer visits Raymondo’s friend, an opera singer Carmen, the singer discusses how right before Raymondo’s death he would often talk about how sad he was about the state of the world. Repeated words and references are used throughout, simple ones like ash and allusions to hell and fantastic monsters are used generously.  Words are used most potently near the end of the film, as Mike’s friend the Lieutenant informs him as to the contents box, and why it burned his hand:

Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I’m going to pronounce a few words. They’re harmless words. Just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean. “Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity.”

The significance of these words would have a strong impact on audiences of the era, who would immediately understand them as being in reference to the creation and testing of Nuclear weapons. There is also a certain irony in the use of the word harmless, especially during a time in American history when all it took was an accusation to destroy someone’s life or career, regardless of whether or not the claim had any weight.

Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 film, Sweet Smell of Success, does not contain the same physical violence as Gun Crazy or Kiss Me Deadly but explores with ruthlessness a social microcosm where the wrong people have the wrong kind of power. The power of words is crucial to the film, as it centers on a megalomaniac columnist, J.J. Hunsecker, who can make or break anyone through the use of newspapers. As terrible as most of the characters were in Kiss Me Deadly, they reach new heights of reprehensible in this film, as even apparent acts of nobility are tainted by selfish pursuits.

In many ways, the film twists the violence of the two previous films without graphically demonstrating the physical aspect of the violence itself. The film is very much a tug of war between the “machine” and the individuals who inhabit it. Even acts of defiance against the newspapers or Hunsecker only further demonstrate the hopelessness of the individual. Hunsecker saw an opportunity to exploit this fear and powerlessness. In a confrontation with the pathetic publicist, Sidney Falco, Hunsecker accuses vehemently “Sure you’re in jail, Sidney. You’re a prisoner of your own fears, of your own greed and ambition; you’re in jail.” These words are used against Falco, demonstrating very graphically that no matter what happens, Falco will always be dependent on Hunsecker and men like him, and he will never have his freedom in part because his own nature prevents him from it.

The range of Hunsecker’s influence is made explicit throughout the film. He is seen to have more power than political figures like a Senator whom he humiliates, he has the ability to destroy careers like that of a young musician working in a local club by accusing him of being a communist and he even has control over the police force as he is able to get privileged information directly from some corrupt officers, as well as the powers to frame someone for a crime they did not commit. Much like the escalation of a mischievous accusation of someone being a witch to having someone being burned at the stake in Miller’s The Crucible, all it takes is the affirmation from Hunsecker that someone is not on the level to see their lives spiral into oblivion.

Hunsecker’s character is based on a real life columnist, Walter Winchell, who held enormous influence during the post-war era (Cavett). Winchell had a reputation that he could make or break a person’s life with his column, and was a huge supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy (Gardner). He was fond of disparaging his enemies with criticisms that implicated them with communism, and as a personality who was carried by over 200 dailies along with his weekly radio program, his realm of influence was enormous (“The Press: An Abject Retraction”). Though his own star fell not long after that of McCarthy’s, the power he wielded and abused served to further estrange the American public and contributed greatly to an atmosphere of distrust and hatred.

The film’s lack of a violent death is perhaps more upsetting then those of the two previous films. The closest we come to the “dynamism of violent death”, is when Hunsecker’s younger sister attempts to kill herself after her boyfriend’s career has been destroyed. Her impulse for self-destruction only comes after her will to live has been completely whittled down by the influence her brother holds over her life, and she sees it as the only escape. The two young characters lack any kind of hope by the end, and the implication that she may try to kill herself again hangs over the film’s ending even though she has finally cast her brother from her life.

Rehearsing for his radio program, Hunsecker practises a speech;

From Washington through to Jefferson, from Lincoln and F.D.R. right up to today – the Democratic Way of Life!  That’s what the man said!  Nowadays it doesn’t export to well… But you know…and I know…that our best secret weapon is D-E-M-O-C-R-A-C-Y. Let’s never forget it, ladies and gentlemen.”

As this statement seems to contradict all of the actions and sentiments in Sweet Smell of Success, it similarly fits other noir films of the post-war era. It is a time that can be characterized by the individual’s lack of control, be it against poverty or the possibility for nuclear war; the common denominator is a sense of powerlessness. The illusions that cinema creates are eventually destroyed, just as the concepts of American ideals and values are held up, only to be revealed as lies. Fundamentally, these are films made in a world that feared there would be no future. This sense of hopelessness pervades the films of the era, as people felt that there was nothing they could do to prevent their impending doom.

Works Cited

(I apologize for how disorganized this is, copy paste isn’t always my friend, if you would like a direct link to anything, don’t hesitate to ask)

Atkinson, Brooks. “The Crucible.” The New York Times.23 January, 1953. Web. 10 March            2010.

Borde, Raymond and Étienne Chaumeton. “Towards a Definition of Film Noir.”  Coursepack for

FMST 211 2009 ed. 221-225. Print.

Cavett, Dick. “The Ghost Ship ‘W.W’.” The New York Times. 4 December, 2009. Web. 11

March 2010.

Eisenhower, Dwight D. “Atoms for Peace.” Atomic Archive. 8 December, 1953. Web. 12 March

2010.

Gardner, Ralph D. “The Age of Winchell.” Eve’s Magazine. 2001. Web. 11 March 2010.

“Hearings Regarding the Communist Infiltration of the Motion-Picture-Industry Activities in the

United States (1947), U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Un-American

Activities.” The Movies in our Midst: Documents in the Cultural History of Film in

America. Ed. Gerald Mast. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago: 1982. 496-565

Kitses, Jim. Gun Crazy. London: British Film Institute, 2008.

Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro.” Dissent Magazine. Fall 1957. Web. June 20, 2007

Place, Janey. “Women in Film Noir.” Coursepack for FMST 211 2009 ed. 271-281. Print.

“Russia the Man in Charge”. Time Magazine. 17 August, 1953. Web. 10 March 2010.

Tellote, J.P. “Noir Narration.” Coursepack for FMST 211 2009 ed. 227-245. Print.

“The Censure Case of Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin (1954).” United States Senate. Web. 11

March 2010.

“The Pistol and the Claw: New Military policy for age of Atom Deadlock.” Time Magazine. 10

Jan, 1955. Web. 10 March 2010.

“The Press: An Abject Retraction”. Time Magazine. 21 March 1955. Web. 11 March 2010.

“Trumbo, Dalton.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 2010. Web. 12 March 2010.

3 responses to “Paranoia and Hopelessness in a World without Future: Communism and Film Noir

  1. I can’t believe you are posting your school essays. I would never have that much guts.

    And for all that, it is really difficult for me not to hand you a bunch of edits and notes (as I have been doing with some of DG’s essays). What is this compulsion of mine for academic writing? Look at my restraint!

    Those pics weren’t part of the final hand-in, were they? I never had pics in my school work. It’s too bad because pics are awesome. (Ah, but you could have picked far more expressive shots than these! These three films are gorgeous.) Pics are the reason blogs rule.

  2. These are definetely post-handing in, and are still pretty lazy stuff. I only post things long after I’ve gotten them back, and I’ve gotten all my final grades for the class. I think in nay other case I’d love and appreciate notes and edits, but since I’ve already “finished” these, I always hate to know what I could have done better, if that makes sense.

    Oh no, no pictures. I never hand them in with them, except in the very rare case I reference something incredibly specific, especially in a non-film/art class. I have once or twice included a painting image in an appendix though, just for ease.

    I know, I was looking for great pictures but was completely at a loss! These were the best I could manage, and I completely agree, they are hardly reflective of how awesome any of these movies are.

  3. AAAAAAGHHH!!! Your widescreen “Nightmare” banner gave me the willies (has the banner-cropping distorted the aspect ratio even wider, or is it that vertical cropping makes it more severe?).

    Anyway I was wondering if that was part of your ‘paranoia’ theme, or if you are gearing up for more horror commentary.

    And is there indeed some sort of Elm Street ‘remake’ in the pipes?

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