Finding ‘50s Film Noir

Jan. 9, 2017
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The boundaries of film noir remain contentious, especially when considering what to include in the canon and what to omit. Likewise, the end date for the genre’s “classic era.” Despite the evidence of great noirs from the 1950s, some film historians have called 1949 the final year; more generously, some have granted an extension through 1953.

Robert Miklitsch sees it differently. He argues that “there may be more to ‘50s noir than meets the eye and ear.” He concludes his latest study on the genre, The Red and the Black: American Film Noir in the 1950s, with Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959), adding that it was the prelude to no less than three additional noirs by that same director, Underworld U.S.A. (1961), Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). Noir was changing, to be sure, but odds are Miklitsch’s next book will trace the genre through the ‘60s—maybe beyond. For him, noir has thematic and emotional as well as stylistic markers that remained relevant long after the era of trench coat-wearing gumshoes.

Miklitsch offers close (and generally trenchant) readings of important films noir from the ‘50s that even the narrowest critics can’t overlook, especially D.O.A. (1950) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), untangling psychological clues from the arrangement of faces and shadows, camera angles and editing. But he also detours down into a blind alley of cinema history to investigate what he calls the “anti-communist cycle” of film noir, a batch of ‘50s movies whose detractors have usually branded them as non-noir. The exceptional case is Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953), which greatly troubled Stalinist culture critics around the world for what they found to be a disturbingly artful rebuke to their belief system. Miklitsch gives the film a careful, nuanced assessment for its dramatization of “the lives of its small-time hoods and hustlers, for whom the threat of the red menace is less pressing than the day-to-day, dog-eat-dog grind of trying to remain in the black.” But he also scrutinizes such roundly despised productions as John Wayne’s Big Jim McLain (1952), teasing out unacknowledged strengths from the absurd plot and calling out left critics who ruled them out of order solely on political, not aesthetic grounds.

 Refreshingly, Miklitsch addresses readers from beyond academia while maintaining an idiosyncratically scholarly tone (his intro is called “Confessions of a Film Noir Addict”). Sticking a thumb in the eye of cultural studies professors everywhere, he condemns the “valorization of the general over the particular,” which is to say, those who value abstract one-size-fits-all theories over the evidence at hand.

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