Noir is subversive. Noir lifts the veil of normality to reveal the chaos below. The underbelly of reality. The insanity of sanity. The furtive destructiveness of obsession. The truth behind the lies. The disaster of success. The ‘ghost in the machine’.
Many of the artists of the classic noir cycle, from the writers of the hard-boiled fiction of the 20s, 30s, and 40s to those involved in the making of the films noir of the 40s and 50s, were ‘subversives’. Artists whose art was a politic statement, a social critique, a thesis on the nature of freedom and social responsibility.
Novelists like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ira Wolfert, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler. Screenwriters like Dalton Trumbo, John Paxton, A. I. Bezzeridis, and Carl Foreman. Film-makers and actors like Abraham Polonsky, Jules Dassin, Orson Welles, Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott, Joan Scott, John Garfield, and Marsha Hunt.
A number of these artists were vilified and their careers destroyed during the ‘red menace’ years of HUAC and the blacklist. What was ignored then and largely forgotten now is that these men and women were united and largely animated by a common cause: anti-fascism. These liberals and leftists were warning of the dangers of fascism well before the outbreak of WW2, when many of the rightists that later prosecuted the anti-communist hysteria of the immediate cold-war period were apologists of fascism.
Eric Ambler was a thriller writer whose best work was written during the late 30s and early 40s. His novels Journey into Fear (1943) and The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) were made into films noir during the war. In 1938 Ambler published ‘Cause for Alarm’ – not related to any movie with the same title – a story about a British munitions engineer, Marlow, haplessly caught up in espionage in Fascist Italy. The protagonist is aided in his escape from fascist death squads by a mysterious American, Zaleshoff, who may be a Soviet spy but is definitely a socialist. Caught in a snow storm just before crossing into Yugoslavia to freedom, the pair is given shelter for the night by an artist and her elderly father. It transpires that the father is a mathematician, a Professor Beronelli, whose career was destroyed after he refused to pledge a loyalty oath to fascism. The trauma has plunged the man into insanity. The two fugitives discover this after a reviewing the professor’s notes on a perpetual motion machine, and after they realize the daughter is helping them even though she is aware of their fugitive status. After the old man goes to bed, Zaleshoff says to Marlow:
‘Sure! That’s right. What a tragedy! We’re horrified. Hell! Beronelli went crazy because he had to, because it hurt him too much to stay sane in a crazy world. He had to find a way of escape, to make his own world, a world in which he counted, a world in which a man could work according to his rights and know that there was nobody to stop him. His mind created the lie for him and now he’s happy. He’s escaped from everybody’s insanity into his own private one. But you and me, Marlow, we’re still in with the other nuts. The only difference between our obsessions and Beronelli’s is that we share ours with the other citizens of Europe. We’re still listening sympathetically to guys telling us that you can only secure peace and justice with war and injustice, that the patch of earth on which one nation lives is mystically superior to the patch their neighbours live on, that a man who uses a different set of noises to praise God is your natural born enemy. We escape into lies. We don’t even bother to make them good lies. If you say a thing often enough, if you like to believe it, it must be true. That’s the way it works. No need for thinking. Let’s follow our bellies. Down with intelligence. You can’t change human nature, buddy. Bunk! Human nature is part of the social system it works in. Change your system and you change your man. When honesty really is good business, you’ll be honest. When rooting for the next guy means that you’re rooting for yourself too, the brotherhood of man becomes a fact. But you and I don’t think that, do we, Marlow? We still have our pipe dreams. You’re British. You believe in England, in muddling through, in business, and in the dole to keep quiet the starving suckers who have no business to mind. If you were an American you’d believe in America and making good, in breadlines and in baton charges. Beronelli’s crazy. Poor devil. A shocking tragedy. He believes that the laws of thermodynamics are all wrong. Crazy? Sure he is. But we’re crazier. We believe that the laws of the jungle are allright!’