33 Comments

  1. In film noir in general, as you suggest, even brief and casual encounters with blacks could be important — treating blacks like human beings was a kind of code to establish the protagonist’s coolness and humanity, and also his solidarity with other social “outsiders”. See the scene in “Out Of the Past” where Mitchum visits a black nightclub looking for information about the heroine.

  2. Geez, Tony, this is really a spectacular post here, and it again examines an aspect of noir that is part of its fabric, but not as easily discernible as one might think. But while various art forms were born at a time of social upheaval, it’s inevitable that any one of them, including noir, would have formed some kind of an overall world view. After reading through this fantastic collection of capsules on some of the great Hollywood noirs (THE SET-UP, BODY AND SOUL, THE RECKLESS MOMENT,YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, BLUES IN THE NIGHT) I must agree with YOUR findings Tony, that the blacks were basically treated sympathetically. A particularly profound examination of self-realization (as you note) is presented in Josey Losey’s excellent THE BIG NIGHT, while there are still some “reminders” so to speak, as is teh case in Kubrick’s THE KILLING.

    As the same time some of the greatest noirs began to appear, B director Val Lewton crafted his B classic cycle at RKO, and the prevailing Hollywood liberlism of the period and general warmth toward blacks could be seen in Lewton’s humanist depiction of Sir Lancelot, the Calypso singer of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

  3. […] “Here I would like to cover some of these noirs from 1941 through to 1956. The Harry Belafonte produced Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) is not included in this discussion, as we are dealing here with white Hollywood’s portrayal of blacks.”  d’Ambra then posts some superlative capsule reviews on the following: Blues in the Night, Body and Soul, The Reckless Moment, Young Man With a Horn, The Set-Up, The Big Night, The Well and The Killing, and in each case there’s some compelling evidence.  Head over here to FilmsNoir.net for this fascinating piece: http://filmsnoir.net/film_noir/race-and-film-noir-black-and-noir.html […]

  4. John Greco

    Excellent and informative post Tony. The scene at the race track in THE KILLING must have been somewhat shocking for its time. I know I remember it vividly.

  5. Jamie

    A noir I love quite a bit that I talk about from time to time, 1947’s THE GANGSTER (directed by Gordon Wiles) handles race in an interesting way as well. Rather then the white/black dichotomy the titular character is (we assume) middle-eastern (?) and named Shubunka, and unsaid conflicts seem to emerge as he dates a beautiful blond American woman. As nothing is said it makes the proceedings that much stranger every time the main characters ethnic name is uttered. We know much of the conflict has to do with this but it’s never said.

    It would have had to have been strange in the mid-40s, as you’ve pointed out the black characters struggled to get a fair shake, what odds does an Arab who has modern art hanging in his apartment, a white girlfriend, and power/money stand in New York?

  6. Thanks Sam, John, and Jamie for your valued comments. It is great to get feedback like yours and Lloyd’s, as without it, I am never confident I have said something worth saying. Tony

  7. Frank Gallo

    What I find most interesting is the study of film noir from a sociological viewpoint, which connects the form with a more general view of American cinema made during the time when the movement flourished. In nearly all instances presented, there are facts to back up the conviction.

  8. Tony,
    This is an essay that will certainly have me seeking out those films. Thanks!!
    The subject of group membership in good standing is a fascinating one; and, much to your credit, you have found in noir narratives a way to explore this matter.
    Best,
    Jim

  9. Some thoughts occurring while reading your initial thesis and enticing capsules (The Big Night in particular, unavailable on Netflix unfortunately, sounds really intriguing). To be taken for what their worth as I haven’t seen a fraction of the noirs you have:

    I think you rightly profess skepticism towards the “noir-as-fear-of-blackness” perspective which, like many high-concept means, sounds cool in theory but isn’t really borne out by the facts. What you’ve keyed into here (and throughout your writings on noir, in fact) is the astute observation that noir is generally not a displaced representation of the masses’ fear and anxiety; rather it’s centered the wise and (in some regard or another) principled individual’s struggle to maintain dignity and standing in the face of said fear and anxiety. In this sense it’s less a cinema of repression than of stoicism (and is clearly very existentialist).

    I think to a certain extent the issue of race is repressed in noirs, but in a different way than in most Hollywood films – for one thing, it pops up explicitly more often (however briefly in most cases) than it does in other films; and for another, like the other partially submerged elements of many noirs – the palpable melancholy and stressful anxiety, the sense of a “lost cause”, likewise the moody nostalgia – it runs very close to the surface (just the fact of representing blacks in a humanizing way – let alone implicitly or explicity addressing their social status – was, as you note, quite rare in films of this era).

    To return to the original formulation you more or less reject, noir – to my limited understanding – does not seem to be a cinema about the “other” so much as a cinema embodying it: it does not place the cancer outside, to be fought, but within – in a sense we (to the extent we identify with the protagonist) are the cancer, or at least are indistinguishable from it. It’s resolutely, as you’ve noted before, a cinema of the outsider and as such notions that it represents a fear of darkness “outside” the norm seem to misrepresent the fundamental nature of the beast.

    Incidentally, are there any books you’d recommend about the left and film noir? I’m thinking of the intriguing co-incidence of noir’s emergence progressive disillusionment/anxiety (which perhaps began even before the HUAC era with the dissolution of the international Popular Front, the initiation of the fascist war, and the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact).

    With this in mind, what’s your take on Casablanca within the noir framework? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe it as a noir, but now that I reflect upon it, it does contain a number of elements or icons which were later taken up by many noirs. It’s got Bogie of course, but also the shady milieu, the notion of a “lost cause”, the sacrificial stoicism, the romantic nostalgia for a more idealistic past, and the sense of an alliance between political and social outsiders (Sam being an outlaw on the side of the underdogs). In all of read about Casablanca, I must have run across considerations of it in this context, but nothing comes to mind – indeed, these thoughts are creeping up on me with a fresh vigor.

    Of course, Casablanca too has a notable black character but I’d say he trends more towards the conventional sidekick role than the more sensitive, often socially aware representation you describe (still he’s relatively free of stereotype and treated with sympathy, so perhaps he’s a bridge in that sense).

  10. Sorry, I should have checked that comment over before posting. There are a number of unwieldy sentences and missing conjunctions etc. Hopefully what I’m saying is clear enough.

  11. Speaking of the Popular Front thing, I’m reminded that Le Jour se Leve – described by many (including yourself if I’m not mistaken) as a proto-noir – has always been rather explicitly connected to the disillusionment of the 30s left…

  12. Hi Joel. Thanks for your thoughtful contribution.

    TCM has the TV rights for The Big Night (1951) but does not have the movie currently scheduled. The French label Doriane Films has issued a Region 2 DVD.

    Part of the fascination of film noir is the deep layers of meaning that exist in the more original titles. At the same time, this complexity allows some film writers and academics to project questionable sociological theories onto these films. As you say noir is more concerned with an amorphous anxiety and dark fatalism than repression. Existentialism is indeed more relevant. Noir protagonists in many noirs echo the words of Jean Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness (1934): “I am responsible for everything … except for my very responsibility, for I am not the foundation of my being. Therefore everything takes place as if I were compelled to be responsible. I am abandoned in the world … in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”

    The progressive portrayal of blacks in classic period noirs is I think possibly a result of b-productions getting less attention from conservative studio executives. In an interview in 1954 Jean Renoir spoke to Francois Truffaut about b-movies: “When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see “B” pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that “B” pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”

    I agree with your take on Casablanca to the extent that there are noir elements: Rick is an outsider who claims he has no principles but in reality is as deeply moral as Chandler’s Marlowe. While Rick’s relationship with Sam is one of affection and loyalty, Sam’s race is only incidental. It is interesting that The Writers’ Guild of America in April 2006 voted the screenplay for Casablanca, co-written by blacklist victim Howard Koch, the best ever.

    I have read these books on the Left in Hollywood, and while not dealing exclusively with film noir, they are enlightening and fascinating reading:

    “UN-AMERICAN” HOLLYWOOD: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era
    Edited by Frank Krutnik, Steve Neale, Brian Neve, and Peter Stanfield

    HOLLYWOOD’S BLACKLISTS: A Political and Cultural History
    By Reynold Humphries

    The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten
    By Gerald Horne

  13. “Un-American” Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era is a fascinating read, Tony, and I thank you for telling others to seek it out. I have yet to read “Hollywood’s Blacklist” by Humphries, though I plan to very soon, actually, so this is great timing.

    Your piece is superb, and I could not agree more as it relates to noir and race.

    Your capsule reviews, especially of “Young Man With a Horn,” are exceptional. I completely agree. Great work!

  14. Thanks Joe!

    Hi Alexander, thank you, so great to have your input, and know that you are still around. I recommend all FilmsNoir.Net readers visit Alexander’s blog and check out his his movie reviews – he has written some great essays on a number of noirs.

  15. Way after the fact but when I returned to this page – to add those titles to my library queue – I saw that I wrote “(Sam being an outlaw on the side of the underdogs” – obviously that’s supposed to read Rick…

  16. Dan Flory

    I think you are right about race being dealt with sympathetically in many noirs from the classic era. The academic perspective that ALL of film noir transfers fears of blackness to the noir underworld is more theory-driven than supported by the actual films. In fact, one noir you write about in another context supports your claim as well: Ride the Pink Horse (1947), which subversively undermines its own surface racism by positively foregrounding the lives of its racial “others.” Similar positive characterizations of racial “others” can be found in Border Incident (1948), The Lawless (1950), The Breaking Point (1950), No Way Out (1950), and others. Plus, not all of these were “B” films, although I’m sure that it was easier to slip things past the censors in lower-tier productions: No Way Out for example was an “A” production — and it includes a race riot that the African-American characters win! I also think that the Bogart vehicle Knock on Any Door (1949) deserves some consideration here, because it centers around an “off-white” protagonist and clearly aims to criticize ethnic prejudice against recent Italian immigrants to America. Its source novel was also written by an African-American, Willard Motley. (I’ve written a little bit about these and other films noirs in my book, Philosophy, Black Film, Film Noir, although I’m mostly interested in more recent incarnations of the genre.)
    Anyway, thanks for the helpful reflections on race and film noir.

  17. Thank you very much Dan for your valuable contribution to this thread. I have your book in my ‘to read’ pile – looks like I should have read it before posting!

    I will have to revisit some of the movies you mention. I was particularly struck by your insight into Ride The Pink Horse.

  18. Some great comments – from ‘MovieMan’ and others!
    I would like to thank the author for noting ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ as I believe it is a landmark movie.
    Also, I’d like to add that not only did the beautifully-built ‘Body and Soul’ have a chance for Canada Lee to show what a marvelous actor he was but the creators of the film made a point to make absolutely no reference to the ethnicity of his character. The brilliance of that pictures personel (at least 7 of whom were blacklisted) and Enterprise Productions in general were ultimately what Lee deserved.
    For books, well, did anyone suggest ‘The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960’ or ‘A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left?’
    After all of this, it must be remembered that, despite many efforts, those in the film community were (like others throughout the nation) facing firm institutional restrictions that kept them from doing exactly as they wished. Often, as many of the aforementined movies show, the only option was to do their best to actively show African-Americans doing their best to maintain on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

  19. Ronena Solorzano

    I tried to find some early background information on Juano Hernandez. I wasn’t able to do so. Do you have any information about his background?

  20. What a very useful piece — I wish I’d discovered it before! Many thanks for it.

    I was watching Irish Luck (1939) the other night, the first of the Frankie Darro/Mantan Moreland collaborations (not noir, but it’s somewhere in noir’s ancestry, maybe). I gather the two men were good friends in private life yet, onscreen, Moreland had to be “properly respectful” to Darro for fear of offending Southern cinema managers/cinema-goers. Depressing stuff.

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