Film Noir and Propaganda

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg 1951
Film noir is unique among the movie production of the 1940s and 1950s because more than any other style of cinema, it was thoroughly politicised.  

One need only look at how many film noir writers, directors and actors fell foul of HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) to see this.

Things had been bad in the early 1940s of course, with the world at war, but at least everybody knew where they stood, and who the enemy was.

Stuff got hairier still however around the turn of the decade, between the 1940s and 1950s.  In 1949 the USSR exploded its first atomic bomb and the Communists took power in China. In 1950 Senator McCarthy claimed there were 205 Communists in the State Department,  and four months after that the Korean War broke out when the Communist North invaded the pro-American South.  In 1951, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed, the judge in their trial stated that he held them directly responsible for the deaths of American soldiers in Korea.

America's well-being was linked at this time, as it is today, with its military might - which many people refer to as its expansionism.  Only by offering subsidy to the European countries broken by World War 2, could America increase its purchasing power and make exports to them, which meant a period of high employment in America, and a docile electorate, under an ethic that is properly called 'corporate liberalism'.  

Hollywood's destiny was to be a part of that expansion, and this meant not only films that could be sold abroad, but films which contained ideological messages concerning stuff like consumer hopes, and the might and right of the US military.

The Internal Security Act was voted in during the Korean War, sponsored by three memebers of HUAC: Richard Nixon, Harold Velde and Francis Walter.  Between 1947 and 1960 the Republican right had got their message into every sector of American society, and Hollywood was key to this, largely through pressure placed on the Screen Directors' Guild, which resisted at first, but ultimately came to accept a so-called loyalty oath which totally isolated the left in Hollywood.

The only place we can properly find a criticism of this forced message (propoganda you could call it) is in the dubious paranoia pertinent to film noir.  

In film noir, suburbia is not all it's cracked up to be, and the men are often weak, or lost, esepcially if they are war veterans.  In film noir there is a sense that racing under the goodness evident in the musicals of the era, is a doubt about the world, a feeling that lying in the long shadows, fate, greed and pride are set to destroy the solid looking constructions of middle class living.  

In film noir, America is paranoid, and more than this, movies like In a Lonely Place and Sunset Boulevard suggest that Hollywood was working hard to create these lies, that in some ways the film industry was the most unstable locus of all.

This is at least how we read film noir today, and with the beneift of hindsight it is easy to tell a film noir from the other films of the era, because simply stated, the paranoia generally rages in its celluloid veins  . . .

HUAC it appears could obviously see this, and this is why so many directors and actors that we now associate with classic film noir, were subpoened to some of its career-destroying hearings.

IMAGE ATTRIBUTION: "Julius and Ethel Rosenberg NYWTS" by Roger Higgins, photographer from "New York World-Telegram and the Sun" - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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