December 2000

Behind the noir movement

By David Cochran
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In the years following World War II, Americans entered an era of unprecedented tranquillity and prosperity. True, there was that pesky Korean War business and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Basically, though, the immediate postwar years evolved into the gentle stability of the Eisenhower era. The '50s saw the emergence of television as the primary medium of mass entertainment, with programs like Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver and I Love Lucy emerging as the most popular portrayals of American life. We looked in the mirror, and most of us liked what we saw.

But as two French film critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton observed in their 1955 landmark study, Panorama du Film Noir Americain, all was not well in the American psyche. Beneath the images of clean suburban houses and well-kept lawns, there was a darkness, a moral ambiguity and a sense of chaos haunted our perceptions of life. The most powerful reflections of this uneasiness came through in a subgenre of American films which became known as film noir: films such as Rudolph Mate's D.O.A. and Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.

As David Cochran's thoughtful new study of noir sensibilities America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era reveals, the expression of America's most profound neuroses was in no way limited to film. Many forms of mass media crime and science fiction, popular commercial fiction, television and the best of B-movie production reflected apprehension, anxiety and a dark, ugly side of the American persona. Cochran divides mass culture into five majors areas and picks two artists from each who embody the noir consciousness in their work. With writers as diverse as Ray Bradbury and Chester Himes, Cochran highlights how the cynicism and moral doubt of the postwar era was expressed through literature that was often repressed, criticized and in some cases, forced to go underground. In film, he highlights independent filmmakers Sam Fuller and Roger Corman as practitioners of the dark side of American storytelling.

Scholarly yet accessible, America Noir is a must for any serious student of noir tradition in American culture. Even for the less-than-serious student, Cochran's study is an entertaining and enlightening one.

Edgar Award-winning novelist/screenwriter Steven Womack is a professor of screenwriting at the Watkins Film School in Nashville.

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