A short history of film “Film Noir” in Postwar America
Film noir, which had been bubbling under the surface in Hollywood since the early 1940s in movies such as Detour, exploded into a major genre in the postwar era, with RKO Radio, “the house of noir,” leading the way. The world of noir is a continual pattern of betrayal, deception, and violence in which no one can be trusted and everything is for sale at a price. Such films as Joseph M. Newman’s Abandoned (a k a Abandoned Woman, 1949), a tale of murder, impersonation, and black market babies; Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), based on the Ernest Hemingway short story, with Burt Lancaster, in his first major role, as a doomed hoodlum; or Jean Negulesco’s Nobody Lives Forever (1946), with a typically complex plot involving con men, murder, and a string of double crosses, perfectly captured the new mood of the nation. Noirs were cheap to make, requiring little in the way of sets or costumes, just a lot of shadows and dark alleyways.
Neorealism’s impact on noir was enormous; directors competed with each other to see how much filming could be done on location to increase authenticity, as in Jules Dassin’s New York murder mystery The Naked City (1948), which prided itself on using nonprofessionals and actual street settings to enhance the grit-tiness and realism.
Adultery and murder were staples of the genre; in Henry Levin’s Night Editor (1946), Tony Cochrane (William Gargan), a crooked cop, falls for the worthless Jill Merrill (Janis Carter) and leaves his faithful and trusting wife, Martha (Jeff Donnell), at home so he and Jill can park on lover’s lane. One night, the two witness the murder of a young woman and clearly see the identity of the killer-Douglas Loring (Frank Wilcox), the vice president of a local bank-but Tony fears that an investigation would expose his illicit affair. For her part, Jill is sexually excited by the woman’s brutal killing, much to Tony’s disgust, but since the two now share the secret of both their affair and the young woman’s murder, Tony has no choice but to cover up clues to the crime, while Jill returns to her palatial mansion and her much older husband, Ben (Roy Gordon).
When Tony finally decides to make a clean break from their affair and to turn Loring in to the police, Jill stabs Tony in the back with an ice pick in a frenzy of jealousy; if she can’t have Tony, no one can. Night Editor runs a tight sixty-six minutes, and no one can accuse it of being a lavish production. But the film struck a responsive chord in postwar audiences, who no longer trusted anyone or anything and wondered what they had actually accomplished by winning the war.
When Johnny confronts Helen, she tells him to get out and he leaves in a fury; thus, when Helen turns up dead shortly thereafter, Johnny is a prime suspect. With the help of two war buddies, Buzz (William Bendix) and George (Hugh Beaumont, who would later play the father on the television series “Leave It to Beaver”), Johnny tracks down the real murderer, a rundown detective named “Dad” Newell (Will Wright), who is also a Peeping Tom and a smalltime blackmailer-another authority figure proven bankrupt. Noirs continued to be produced through the early 1950s in abundance, as Cold War fears deepened, but without a doubt the Golden Age was the late 1940s, when those who had fought the war were coming home to a transformed society.