Interviewed February 12, 2010
I would like to start with your assessment of the film gris period in Hollywood and what it represented in the context of film noir. How do you respond to Thom Andersen’s reading of this movement as the highest expression of noir, with its heightened social and psychological realism?
It comes at the tail end of the film noir period and I see that group of films that Andersen calls film gris as a transition period with some of these films being in the noir period and some of them in the period of counter reaction. I see the noir period, from 1945 to ’49, as a kind of a resistant period, but then after it comes the period of reaction from 1950 to ’55, and then the period is essentially over.
You talk about the three periods in which a different emphasis was placed on each.
There is a pre-noir period which is World War II, 1941 to ’45, then 1945 to ’49, and then 1950 to ’55, and that’s the rolling back of what those directors had accomplished.
I would like to proceed with some general questions before I get into this. In your opinion, what are some of the mistaken conceptions about the anti-communist witch-hunt? For example, was that period an aberration in the long American tradition of liberalism and democracy?
Well, elements of that period have certainly returned to haunt us today. I do have an article on the police procedural and it’s called “Genre Regression in the New Cold War: The Return of the Police Procedural.” It seems to me that what happens in the Cold War gets recalled quite often and that there’s a sort of a long history of always needing to have an enemy and thus always needing to have repression around that enemy. In the contemporary period, it wasn’t too long after people started talking about the peace dividend that the powers-that-be got very, very nervous and were looking for a new enemy. Then, just like in Acheson’s famous phrase, “Korea came along and saved us,” meaning we got to install the Cold War and the repression that goes with it, similarly 9/11 came along and “saved us” again. Maybe it didn’t just come along, who knows? But perhaps in a similar way that the Cold War was used to prop up the economy after World War II, 9/11 saved the now-permanent war economy from having to face the peace dividend. Now of course we’re in a situation with Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, et. al., of a perpetual war and they’ve scared the populace into believing that that’s what the function of government is.
Could you also consider what some writers refer to as a larger political legacy of the blacklisting, that it still persists?
Probably. In Hollywood, of course, the story is that there was this massive repression and then there was a letting loose in the 1960s and so a lot of those directors did come back and got to make some films. But that story continues with a return to repression again by the middle to late 1970s. So, it’s continually a period of opening and closing, but by the late 1970s particularly, Hollywood has returned to the blockbuster form and censorship is pretty highly in place again. Only this time it operates not primarily politically, but economically and it’s much harder to find the money to make meaningful films. I wouldn’t say that the Cold War or the repression around the Cold War was so much an aberration, but I would say that Hollywood history is a series of openings and closings, and for each opening there’s also a closing. I think that’s probably a little closer to how I would see it.
Can we turn to the business side of the blacklisting issue, the business strategy underpinning it? It is a complex question, but what is the long-term industrial effect of the blacklist in terms of the business strategy, in terms of the way Hollywood does business?
This was another moment in the rationalising of the system. Before the blacklisting, 1946 was the most profitable year in Hollywood history up to that point. But 1947 is a complete downturn, and so it was a new strategy in that you could actually use politics to mask mass layoffs. So, with Howard Hughes (RKO), you got four hundred writers, actors, directors, basically unemployed and you didn’t have to talk about mass firings, you talked about how they were communists. But before being communists they were employees and so it starts to rationalise a business model. The blacklist disguises the ebb and flow of capitalism and the periodic crises by covering it over with some supposed overlay of a red scare. A lot of the decisions were labour issues that got obscured by the blacklist.
And going back to the so-called original moment in that history, the key year you’ve raised is 1947, the year of the Paramount decision and also the year of the first Congressional hearings. This is more than a coincidence.
That’s true. Those are two great points: the Paramount consent, which limited studio power because it was the beginning of the end of vertical integration since the studios had to divest themselves of their theatre holdings, and it’s the same year as the beginning of the [communist] crackdown.
It’s interesting that you raise it as a huge labour issue and wasn’t just ideological.
And the other thing is that great book by Mike Nielsen and Gene Mailes, Hollywood’s Other Blacklist, about top of the line talent, the creative talent, in what we’re discussing here. When you talk about below-the-line talent and the craftspeople, they were the ones who really got injured because they were all blacklisted. There you had a moment with the Consolidated Studio Unions (CSU) and their leader Herb Sorrell, a moment where a really militant union emerged in Hollywood for the first time, that really was challenging the company union, IATSE. At a certain moment, the CSU had 10,000 members and IATSE had 16,000 and they negotiated one of the best contracts ever negotiated. Part of the whole thing of the red scare was to use politics to defeat this union, which the studio heads really felt was dangerous. When they did, I think of those 10,000 who went out in that last strike, many of them never came back to work in Hollywood. There you have again a complete remaking of a labour environment in Hollywood, and of using the red scare to cover it. But really what they were largely reacting against was an organised work force pressing for changes.
And if you include in this volatile mix the election of Eric Johnston as the head of the MPAA …
From the Chamber of Commerce and State Department!
Do you feel there’s a greater political significance to that election?
Yes. Consider also his famous statement, “There will be no more Tobacco Roads, there will be no more Grapes of Wrath.” He came in with an agenda too. Part of it was an excuse to get rid of labour, and part of it was that they were reading the tea-leaves because what happened in Hollywood was within the larger context of a general red scare, which was being used against labour. One of the things I point out in my book is that HUAC really attacked all kinds of labour formations and all kinds of strikes, not just Hollywood. HUAC was primarily something that was attacking unions. That’s what it was about in its larger manifestation. You have the fact that at the HUAC hearings the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”, was accompanied by, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Screen Writers Guild?”, which is a most revelatory question and really tells you what it was about.
Obviously it seems that the studio bosses and the MPAA certainly feared not just organised labour, but a new kind of cinema that could emerge from this kind of challenge.
Yes, there were two interrelated aspects. One was what Herb Sorrell was talking about in terms of labour, about the craft workers, the below-the-line talent, uniting with above-the-line talent and would wage a sort of united front to get what they wanted in negotiations. That was very, very scary, and that was probably when someone tried, literally, to knock Sorrell off.
Now the second aspect counters the Douglas Gomery school: that the only thing worth studying here is the industrial formation itself, which doesn’t have that much to do with what’s actually produced on the screen, that certain business decisions are made and that’s really all that we’re talking about. But there was indeed an onscreen manifestation because Hollywood as a whole was coming out of a fairly progressive period and they reacted to it. You had a loosening in World War II in terms of film content and then that just goes further, at least in film noir. Not everywhere. But everyone kind of gravitates all of a sudden to the crime film and it becomes a place where you can really critique American society and aspects of capitalism. All these progressive directors, émigrés and directors from the Popular Front of the 1930s gravitate to it, and then the key thing is HUAC’s direct mentioning of Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk, 1947). Crossfire becomes the film of which they’re going to make the example because Crossfire really is the best example of a kind of combination of industry economics with industry politics. MGM head of production Dore Shary really had decided that that something extra he was going to put in the film would be in the script, and it would be social content. So, it was the director Edward Dmytryk and the producer Adrian Scott who were called to task for that film, the only two of the Hollywood Ten who were not writers. They were the only two who made larger decisions, the others were all writers, and it was specifically that film that was cited. Crossfire was designed to be and would have been a kind of blueprint for a different kind of cinema which could have, would have, been affordable, and really would have introduced more social content and pushed things further.
Something akin to Open City (Roma città aperta, Roberto Rossellini, 1945), which apparently had a huge impact.
It’s true, that’s a good way of seeing that, as a kind of an American Open City. Yes, Crossfire was that in a perhaps more limited way.
Do you envisage a cinema alternative to how things proceeded back then, some kind of American neo-realism? Could we conceive the possibility of something like that happening in that progressive manner?
What happened was a regressive sort of bringing in of the traits of neo-realism, the tropes, and you can see that battle in Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948). The whole film is a battle about that. It’s a contested terrain, where the first version of the script is by a blacklistee, Albert Maltz, and the script stresses class. Then it’s rewritten to introduce the elements of surveillance, the elements of the cops, all of the Cold War themes that are added on top. So Naked City is a battleground itself, and the director, Jules Dassin, said that he was disgusted with the film because he had shot one film, then sent it to Hollywood, didn’t have final cut on it, and what was released was not the film he shot. Dassin was really going to use all of New York, he was going to use all outside locations in an incorporation of neo-realism. Unfortunately Italian neo-realism got incorporated at the moment when the blacklist was starting to hit and they transformed it in a conservative way. So, instead of actually having films about poor people and poor neighbourhoods and the goings on in those neighbourhoods, what we got were films about cops surveilling poor people in poor neighbourhoods and how to use the threat of that. That’s where the documentary techniques came in and that’s how they got mobilised. It averted an actual neo-realism and instead it was a kind of pseudo neo-realism that was given a conservative feel, or a conservative patina attached to it. So one of the things that the attack on noir did was lessen the impact of Italian neo-realism and made it sort of purely commercial, translated it into an added value where it was cheaper to do on-location shooting, and people would accept it but without the ideas of the Italians, or their approach where on-location shooting meant actual stories about neighbourhoods and working class people. Naked City turned out to be about surveilling working class people and so they contained it.
Yes, the same tropes as you said. If we can skip some decades, and this may seem off the topic, but there have been some recent attempts, for example Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009), the George Clooney vehicle, which expresses a lot of arguments and contradictory ideas about this milieu. It’s beginning to show some signs of a way forward, or perhaps maybe a way back into that period. Is that stretching it too far maybe?
Well, you have to remember now that Up in the Air is so far the only film that Hollywood has made that even deals remotely with an actual recession, which in some communities borders on Depression. Yes, it does have that and there are some interesting things about the film. However, it’s also focalised through the business executive entirely, someone who is really “up in the air”, who really is sort of above all of these things. In the last sequence it does have all the people talking about employment and it’s respectful of them, and that’s a good thing. But in the end it really is about the pitchman’s personal growth, which is interesting, and somewhat interesting about George Clooney. I think it is an interesting film in that, as the single film to comment on the recession, it’s as much about how not much is getting through, as it is about how something got through.
Would you say that demonstrates a completely opposite approach to what the so-called radical filmmakers like Abraham Polonsky and Joseph Losey adopted in the late 1940s, with, for example, Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)?
Or even working-class filmmakers today. I just saw Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009), which is excellent, a really great film about how the working class in Britain is shot through with all these sorts of commodity relations. They’re still being done. Ken Loach is still doing this kind of thing and is able to do it more openly. There is at least some sort of taste for working-class films in Britain. Here, it is much harder. Barack Obama calls everyone middle-class, you can’t be called working class because it’s seen as pejorative. It’s an insult.
Speaking of Obama, what is your view on the filmmakers that seem to peddle illusions in him. Mike Moore springs to mind as someone who is, I guess, one of the few high-profile filmmakers who dares question America’s class relations. But do you feel that he never really goes beyond that?
No, I think he does. I liked Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), I think that has things to say, and particularly Sicko (2007), I think is great and catches all the class contradictions around health care in a really wonderful way. I think he does good work. I think Michael Moore’s idea about Obama was, “Let’s keep his hand in the flame and let’s make sure he does the things that he says he’ll do”. But it’s pretty clear now that he’s not going to do any of those things. The moment seems to have passed where he could even have accomplished anything and he didn’t. Now he’s trying to go back and recapture that moment and it’s gone.
Now what follows is the most complicated question, perhaps something a whole book could be written about. It’s the intellectual or aesthetic consequences of the anti-communist purges. The aforementioned Polonsky and Losey and Dassin, John Berry and numerous writers that were excluded, a kind of lost generation was created and many others were driven out, most notably Orson Welles and Charles Chaplin. This is a very complex issue, but what did the blacklist remove in an aesthetic sense in terms of themes unexplored, in terms of the corresponding heightened level of realism, if that’s possible to say?
I think the most global way of talking about it is that it removed the idea of working class mentality and working-class sensibility from Hollywood. They got it out, they uprooted it, so that you could still do some working-class subjects but these would now be effects. It would be an interesting phenomenon, “Oh, look here’s Roseanne (TV series, 1988-97), a show about working-class parents. Isn’t that strange?”
Or the beginning of Up in the Air maybe?
Yeah, a sense of ‘Wow, people don’t see this on screen anymore, this might really be a different kind of thing.’ Whereas in the 1940s you had a general sense, especially in film noir, that the mode of thinking, the dialogue, the slang, all these were very close to working-class ways of thinking, and I think generally in the 1950s what was achieved was the eradication of that mode of thinking, of making sense. That was a major, major accomplishment for the corporate class against its class enemy.
Yes, it’s a real class strategy at work here, which leads me to the next question. If the film artists, again a list of the same half dozen – Losey, Polonsky, Berry, Dassin spring to mind – were allowed to work or develop noir beyond 1950 in the way they began after the war, what impact would that have on the aesthetic direction of American cinema?
I’m not sure because it didn’t, so it’s hard to say and it’s also connected to the cultural context that they’re coming out of. By 1950 that context had started to change and you can watch the 1950s crime film rolling back what had gone on in the last ten years in the crime film, getting rid of it. That’s what its ideological work was and so it’s hard to say what would have happened. For that change in direction to have occurred, the Cold War had to have been defeated. If the Cold War had been defeated as a strategy, as a way of facilitating corporate capitalism, then you would have had the continuation of this kind of Popular Front mentality, what Henry Wallace termed “the century of the common man (and woman).” But without it, it’s hard to talk about the individual directors because the individual director is really the expression of a moment. Yes, they bring something very wonderful to the moment, and they express and focus it in a certain way. But once the political climate has changed, and though you can be as brilliant as you want, in some way the work will be compromised at some level. If you’re really brilliant, you may get your film made and distributed, like There Will be Blood (2007), the film by Paul Thomas Anderson, who is a totally brilliant director, but nobody ever talks about what are the implications of what he’s actually saying. There Will be Blood gets nominated for an Academy Award, but no one will talk about it as a story of the history of the US relationship with oil at a moment when the Americans are in Iraq and all over the world, waging these resource wars. The industry has developed ways of commodifying the conversation about film so that you can even put something out there that’s radical and no one will know that it is.
Even Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), I think, makes a very progressive statement, but there’s no conversation about that. It really has definite things to say after the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Change Convention, about a world that’s allowing itself to be destroyed, about a corporate agenda that’s succeeding while the earth goes to hell. I think it’s a tremendous rallying point for what to do after Copenhagen, where now even the scientists are being questioned, and now the Right is back on the offensive again. Or, not the Right but the corporate strategists are back on the offensive and they’re beginning to again question the idea that there is any such thing as global warming.
Yes, it does seem that these things are inseparable from the broader context.
Because there are sometimes fairly interesting filmmakers who do come up and continue to make interesting films, but there’s not a context, there’s not a collective sort of idea.
Perhaps intellectual climate is what you would call it? Actually, speaking of noir, the permutations that you discuss in your approach to noir is very unusual and very illuminating because you link it to class struggle, and relate it to the broader socio-political context which gave rise to this type of crime film. Could you elaborate on what you call the structure of feeling in these noirs, which is contradictory?
“Structure of feeling” is a much-maligned term, a Raymond Williams term, which I think has some use and I try to use it in my conceptualisation in the book. I suggest that there’s essentially “structures of feeling” that are vaguely representational of American labour in the three periods that noir is evidencing, and you have to sort of talk about what these structures might be. These are also more underground structures, as Raymond Williams says, or the idea of structures of feeling that are not totally above ground. These are emergent feelings and feelings that may never ever be fully represented within the dominant media. That’s kind of my argument, and in the three periods in World War II, this is expressed in a contradictory idea that the American workers were anti-fascist and pro fighting the war, but they were also looking at corporate profits going up 600% during the war while they were starving. There was nothing in their lives but their own kind of sacrifice, and they were looking at these huge corporations which didn’t seem to be sacrificing at all. Thus, I argue that the structure of the detective film, as it changes, is that at first you have the detective who’s solidly in favour of the law, even though they’re outside the law. In, say, The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) the detective is someone outside the law but in the end he reaffirms the law. That film appears at the beginning of the war, during Lend Lease, which was boosting the economy in 1941. But then during the war, by 1943 and Farewell, My Lovely, the Chandler detective is much more of an outsider, he’s outside the law right from the beginning. The beginning of the film is his interrogation and he travels outside the law, and it seems to me that there’s a general slippage, as there is in the war, of backing Roosevelt’s plan as people begin to see more and more that they’re not benefiting from this and that huge profits are being made. The detective film mirrors some of this as the detective himself moves further outside.
Then, if you follow that and trace it into what becomes the dominant adaptee – after the war it is Cornell Woolrich and Woolrich’s characters are just completely outside the law. A lot of the time the criminal will be the police detective. The characters who you follow outside the law are not the representatives of the law, they’re secretaries or whatever, women whose men have been arrested but were trying to help them. They tend to be much more outsider figures anyway. So, I think there’s a general progression in the course of the detective film in terms of a breakdown of the law that I would say equates roughly to the structure of feeling of the American working class during the war as strikes proliferate.
The second period then is about the idea after the war that now is the time for us to be rewarded for our sacrifice. That begins a whole series of strikes right afterwards-September 1945 to April 1946 is the greatest strike period ever in US history. That period is about American workers being rewarded for what they had sacrificed during the war, to which all of a sudden the companies, one major industry after another, respond with, “No, no, no!” There are no more profits for you. George Lipsitz is the really great chronicler of this in Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s (1994). There were general strikes in four mid-major American cities including Oakland. However, then what happens is the Republicans come to office in the big election in 1946, charged with one really big task and that was to make sure that American labour never did that again, and that was what they went to work on in February 1947 in Taft-Hartley. So then the labourers who had gone on strike all of a sudden now found themselves outlawed, literally outlawed by the law, and this was all in that noir period.
Now, I have been accused and criticised for being too specific about tying these things. So let’s say it’s a general structure of feeling outside the law, feeling oneself at first to be in a legitimate position but then eventually feeling that the weight of the society is against you. Let’s just look at the characters and what happens to them. In the early part of the period, 1945–46, frequently the character is outside the law but comes back in at the end. By 1947–48, often there is no reconciliation, as in Raw Deal (Anthony Mann, 1948) the lead character is dead and his working-class, lifelong female companion from the projects is in handcuffs bound for jail. They do not come back inside the law. I think you can look at genres and detect a structure of feeling by looking at not the individual film but at the progression of the genre, and increasingly the noir heroes are dead at the end, or really struck down and outside the law.
Then the third part is, unfortunately, the disciplining of the radical wing of the labour force and their ouster, as the American working class enrols in the corporate consensus and becomes the junior partner in that consensus. The working class is very much charged then with maintaining labour peace or power throughout the rest of the world, and they begin to do that. They begin to actively act as disciplinary agents of labour throughout the world as the State Department deploys Walter Reuther and some of these other people. So, in film noir you get the working class cop who’s now enrolled back inside the law, and at a very big distance from Woolrich’s noir outsiders. They’re back inside the law. They still got working-class characteristics but now they’re, as Theodor Adorno would say, effects. It’s not a whole working-class culture, it’s just an effect, like they’ll talk about money, the cops will have problems with money, the cops will have problems with their wives, the cops will have whatever issue. But it’s just an effect, and it’s just a conversation, and mainly what they’re doing is hunting down the fugitive from the prior period. This is about American labour, this is the beginning of the period characterized by the famous phrase “sleepwalking through history,” and this charts the beginning of that structure of feeling and you can see the beginning of this sleepwalking through history. Now the working-class outsiders themselves have become part of the law, and that’s what the junior partner is. The junior partner is charged with maintaining labour peace across the rest of the world, making sure that the labour unions in Europe do not come to power, and they did a lot of that work in Italy and France.
Still, despite some criticism about the approach, it seems undeniable, at least from the empirical evidence, and just going through the examples you elaborated, that between 1945 and 1949 it seems undeniable that progressive themes became dominant.
I call it socialism in one genre. That’s true.
I was wondering if you can comment on the idea that this kind of outside-the-law fugitive, sympathetic or otherwise, resembled less a pre-industrial bandit than an industrial era unionised worker, in terms of the feeling or in terms of this structure of feeling?
Well, yes, the noir figure is really most often a figure of the city, not so often a figure of the country. That’s one thing. But I think there is, as George Lipsitz calls it, a materialist memory of the bandit, because the noir figure does have some relationships to the earlier bandit. That is, a figure who is sort of somewhat protected by the community and outside it, and who seems to rob from the rich to give to the poor. It’s not quite that. What happens in these films though is that frequently, from 1945 to 1949, the villain is the most upper-class character in the film. I wouldn’t say they’re corporate but I would say they are sort of corporate gangsters in a sense, they are always dressed in suits, they are always like the character of Rick in Raw Deal, who lords it over the Corkscrew Alley, over the ghetto. Often they are nightclub owners or similar, but they are always probably in the highest position of authority within the film itself. It turns out usually that the noir figure traces evil back to the upper class or to some kind of ultimate figure of authority. After 1950 that doesn’t happen any more and this is very conscious. The villain really is a splintered form of the noir figure, the psychotic fugitive, who’s capable of anything, wants to just gun people down for the sake of it, very anti-social and of course above any kind of class analysis, cut off, severed from any actual class position but most often associated with a working class milieu, and so now you’re talking about a different thing and it’s very interesting.
There’s also that kind of 1950s sado-masochistic violence, and when that character is gunned down at the end the sentiment is different. The sentiment in the 1940s is one of tragedy, the character, in Raw Deal, for example, didn’t get what he wanted and he was cut down in the prime of his life. That’s very sharply reversed by 1950–51. In films like Armored Car Robbery (Richard Fleischer, 1950) the thief is machine-gunned at the airport and the money flows on to the runway. The sentiment is that he was just a greedy bastard and the society is much better with him gone.
Look at Niagara (1953), which is a really good example by Henry Hathaway, who is one of the more conservative directors in this period. The character in Niagara is played by Joseph Cotton, an actor whose persona has a lot of film noir associations from being with Welles, and has 1930s associations too. He’s a noir figure at the opening but he kills his wife, Marilyn Monroe, and then he has to be eliminated, and he is eliminated because he steals the property of the up-and-coming corporate head, the new shredded wheat king at the Falls with his young wife. And the young wife is an interesting figure because she’s the audience’s figure for moving out of the noir period and into this more repressed period. In the end he threatens her, but then lets her go and he has to go over the Falls, and when he’s gone over the Falls there’s a sense that the world is now restored.
There’s also the sense that George (Cotton) and his wife, Rose (Monroe), are these kind of creatures for whom sexuality is a big problem – George with his kind of stuffed repressed sexuality, and his wife with her open sexuality that’s overflowing everywhere. But then with Rose murdered and George goes over the Falls there’s a sense that sexuality is back in balance and the American marriage is back, and repression reigns. The Falls at the beginning of the film is about all kinds of power being unleashed, sexual power as well. In the end they are about a final repression of that, thus making the world safe for American corporate power, for the shredded wheat king.
Which is a very different approach from the one Robert Rossen took with The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946) and the two very different relationships which are under tremendous material or social pressures. I don’t know whether you agree, but in Martha Ivers the problems of each of her relationships with the two men, Sam and Walter, seem to demonstrate two completely different sets of pressures of different class stations in life.
They definitely do, and the film continues to understand Martha, but to eventually side against her. She does want the drifter, Sam. He has to kill her husband Walter, and then he will have committed a crime like she has committed, and he will be, as Althusser would say, interpellated into her social realm. It’s his refusing to do that which is a kind of working class drawing-of-the-line that distinguishes him from her. She even says to him, “You’ve killed, I’ve seen it,” and he says, “Never intentionally.” He talks about how he’s had a tough life and he’s had to make some decisions he’s not proud of, but that’s different than killing intentionally for money. That’s the place where he won’t go and that’s where he draws the line on and chooses to leave Ivers’ town, which is the biggest, the best industrial town in America.
It’s like capitalism is dripping literally, or very symbolically, with blood from all pores, to use a famous phrase from the classical sources. Moving for a moment from male and female alliances or relations in post-war film noir, could you comment on something that is regarded as one of the biggest achievements of HUAC, the splitting or rupturing of the alliance between the proletarian or socialist sections and the middle class or liberal sections of the community?
That’s part of the Cold War liberal who had begun to let go of his connections with the working class, and this is a standard trope now in US politics. You get the Cold War liberal now too.
Yes, and the socialist and liberal alliance was a really powerful class bloc in that period.
One of the things I argue is that before people had always seen noir as kind of divided, some people would talk about working class noir in various shades, but without quite identifying it. They would identify the tropes, they would identify the language, they would identify the ways of thinking, but they wouldn’t call it working class. Remember you are in the United States and not much writing is going to acknowledge class openly. That’s just the nature of it, and various people would write about the conservative middle class films. So, what I thought was, or perhaps to just kind of conceive it in a different way rather than calling those films conservative, I didn’t see that a lot of them were, even though there’s a conservative side to noir, I saw that what was going on was the establishment of an alliance in 1945 to ’49 between working and middle class figures. By far the majority of them were middle class, but that was still an alliance. Okay, that alliance is severed by 1950 and, well, I don’t know that you even have that by 1950. There’s the idea that everyone is in the middle class, and also the idea that there is no real working class. If you’re not in the middle class, you’re a troublemaker.
That concept is foreign in Australia and probably Britain and other countries where, for example, labour parties or social democrat parties used to be mass movements. There is no equivalent in America?
It’s very different. Look at the Australian cinema, it has a strong working-class bent in the 1980s, some great films came out of Australia that were very centred around the working class. In the United States, you don’t have that kind of thing, and 1950 was the moment when it was severed, when these classes are detached.
You analyse an interesting development in the early 1930s, the beginnings of the urban gangster film, Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931) with James Cagney, films with Edward G. Robinson and others. But then the government and their representatives came down pretty heavily down and there was a reaction against this kind of a gangster film. What was the Production Code in essence a reaction against?
I have a class called “Corporate Structure of Media” where I use a very good book called Movies and Money: Financing the American Film Industry (1982) by Janet Wasko, who has a chapter on the coming of sound, which is really the coming of the Depression, which is I think is 1929 to ’36 in Hollywood. What she says is that whenever banks get involved and get involved heavily, two things happen: one is the centralisation of production because it’s more rational, and the second is that the money takes precedence over creativity. What she points out in relation to all the major studios is that there was this moment where at first the studios were doing well in the Depression, 1930 and into 1931, and so they scheduled all these films for production and started to spend money. Then they got caught out because they were losing their audience and one by one they go into receivership. The studios became essentially taken over by the banks in the East. Then they went through a whole process where the first thing that happened is that the banks put their own people in the studios, but they didn’t know how to run the studios. So then they took them out and replaced them with some of the old Hollywood people, but it still had an effect. I would say that the Code in 1934 is the expression of this moment of the takeover of the banks – that is, what they were doing was rationalising production and trying to make sure that nothing escapes, that everything was totally bland to appeal to a wider yet amorphous audience. The Code was really a kind of rationalising of production, of how the factory works, but that there should not really be very much difference in content. Of course what brought on the Code was the gangster film and the fallen woman film, or the female equivalent to the gangster film. But to me it was also the expression of the new power of the banks in running the studio and one of the things [this new power] did was eliminate most direct working class expression.
I had a teacher, William Everson, who considered the greatest year of Hollywood cinema to be 1932. When sound was coming in, 1931–32, there was still a lot of working class expression and there was a lot of street expression and there was a lot of corruption that was talked about. It was not just the gangster film; it was all over what are now called pre-Code films. A lot of this was eliminated after 1934. Hollywood moved into a period from between 1934 and 1939 where the Code remained supreme, and there were very few contemporary films made, most of the films are historical dramas or romances or that kind of thing. The only contemporary comment on the Depression is the screwball comedy, while almost all other genres had all but eliminated it. Hollywood really began to take on this aspect of the spectacle and so it became this sort of complete moment where the further from reality the better it fared in this period, and you would then think that it might mean the Depression was over. Yet 1937 was actually the worst year of the Depression. It was not over. It was just that it had almost entirely disappeared from the American motion picture screen.
I suppose these were Hollywood’s coping mechanisms.
Well, they could have been mechanisms. But also with the new investment of the banks, there was going to be less room for content which might be judged in any way as anti-capitalist, so there was an ideological undertone to this.
Which brings me to Robert Rossen and a couple of his B films, rare films nowadays, Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon & Michael Curtiz, 1937) and Racket Busters (Lloyd Bacon 1938). Would you say that by 1936 or 1937 when Rossen wrote, or made these films, the tide had somehow turned, because what we have in Racket Busters is a very unscrupulous and unsympathetic Humphrey Bogart leading the mobsters and the monopoly?
Marked Woman is an interesting film. Also in 1936 and 1937 you have Fritz Lang’s two films, Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937), but I don’t think the tide had turned. I think those films are the exceptions because you also have in that period these very strange things like Brother Orchid (Lloyd Bacon, 1940), which is more the standard in the crime film, where Edward G. Robinson goes into a monastery [because] he’s being chased, he comes back out to avenge himself, then he goes back into the monastery in the end. This was the most ridiculous film ever made, but you had a lot of those.
I think that 1935 is when you have the real change in the crime film, the conservative reaction to the gangster films, and that would be G-Men (1935) directed by William Keighley and with Cagney. Cagney, who made Public Enemy, the best of the three gangster films, and the most working class, within a few years becomes a working-class cop. That’s a pretty rapid shift, and it doesn’t get undone until the war. I think it’s really the war that begins to turn that tide. During World War II, one part of the cinema is the platoon films, which are celebrations of the American Popular Front at war with the ethnically integrated platoon, but it is also when you have the noirs, which are really sort of saying “things are not really that great on the home front.”
And the other group of films are Val Lewton’s horror films. Each one of Lewton’s films is really critical of an aspect of American life on the home front and they’re mostly made during World War II.
Actually Buhle and Wagner refer to those years of 1936 to ’46 and they comment that it was when the ways of working class attitudes and ways of life began to proliferate, and, of course, culminated in post-war noir.
For me, maybe that’s true in general. I think there’s a conservative bent to the crime film up until about 1939, and then it starts to change.
Do you think the Production Code played a major or immediate role in those kinds of pressures?
I do because I think it was about patrolling, sort of getting rid of working-class attitudes, or attitudes that were softer, more lenient on sexuality, or, in other words, there was an embracing of more types of sexuality that were antagonistic to aspects of the law. There was also a generalised attitude that saw the world as essentially corrupt.
I find your challenge to the orthodox or dominant reading of noir from the so-called apolitical or erotic thriller angle, which is seen as noir’s master-plot, interesting since your response is to completely shift the critical axis of this reading.
Yes, my emphasis is to shift away from the erotic thriller angle. It’s James D’Amico who most fully renders noir in this way. For him the noir master-plot is the woman who does the man wrong. I think that’s a conservative way of reading it, a way of reading a subversive that validates the dominant order. Now I will say that that’s the way many Hollywood directors have subsequently interpreted that era. Because that is the single most powerful image they summon up, but I think that’s wrong if you look at what the films are about.
What accounts for the dominance of this interpretation?
It’s reactionary gender politics. What could be more attractive? And then you can kind of use this image to revive a conservative gender politics. For me what gets lost, and I tried to make this point, is that yes, there’s the femme fatale and yes, there’s the redeemer, but there is also the female image of the class ally and that’s what I try to read in Strange Love of Martha Ivers, particularly the Toni Marachek character. But there are others too. In Raw Deal as well, Pat is a class ally, and I think that that position has been lost and so I think that needs to be added to what the feminist viewpoint has usefully constructed.
Yes, because if I’m not mistaken there aren’t many challenges to that dominant identity viewpoint, and the remarkable thing is that positing or counter-posing this kind of perspective would dramatically shift or have the potential to dramatically shift both the practice of filmmaking and criticism.
It would actually. It would recapture noir as a working class formation that would be available to be used if you are interested in constructing other working class formations in the present. That would be really useful. That’s really what my book is trying to do, recapture a lost imaginary and to say that the imaginary of noir is not the imaginary of reactionary gender politics. That is not what kept it afloat. What the impulse was at the time were these sorts of working class ways of thinking, and, as we talked about, structures of feeling.
Recapturing the original, the feeling of the time or the atmosphere, the intellectual climate …
But again, in order to do that, you also have to have a progressive political context. We’re in the middle of the 9/11 era, which is still the dominant ideology. For example, there was a show on ABC two seasons ago and it’s about this guy and his two friends, three medical students, and it turns out that one of his friends actually sets off a bomb. It suggests that terrorism may come from the home front and, believe me they shoved it off the air very fast. The ABC judged that maybe the time was right for an opening, for a thawing, but definitely the time was not right and we went right back to the CBS NCIS boys-night-out style of featuring the teams of law enforcement.
In relation to that you discuss the emergence or re-emergence of shows like 24 in your Framework article (“The Return of the Police Procedural”), but, interestingly, why do you say then that there’s still a liberal or traditional liberalism, or should I say a radicalism that prevailed in the late 1940s, which somehow still finds some expression today, and so that tradition is still been upheld or maintained?
Well, because I think noir itself is a kind of resistant formation that returned again in the 1980s, for example, during Reagan and Bush, in the figure of the corrupt cop. That was the dominant, so now instead of calling neo-noir everything that happens after the classic period, I have this argument in the book that neo-noir is a bounded period. There was noir under Reagan and Bush and that’s what it is, and along with this periodisation goes the assumption that noir does flourish better under conditions of repression because it’s a kind of aesthetic formation that talks about conditions of repression. It re-flourished again under Reagan and Bush and did quite well, and then I think it lost its political import around 1992 or so.
The Clinton years?
Yeah, I think so. I’ll say one place where I think it still exists is in this thing called Mediterranean noir. I think that’s a very interesting formation actually, and there have been films too, because you know in Italian cinema now they talk about neo-neo-realism, those kinds of films that came out a couple of years ago like Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008, based on the book by Roberto Saviano). There’s a really great one called Arrivederci amore, ciao (The Goodbye Kiss, Michele Soave, 2006), which is from a very interesting Mediterranean noir novel (of the same title by Massino Carlotto). It’s a terrific film and it’s really a great way of talking about Silvio Berlusconi, and we’re seeing real dark Italian cinema right now actually. I think that’s one of the places where it’s resurfacing a bit.
That’s in your latest book, as you were saying.
Yes, it’s called Globalizing America’s Dark Art: Class, Crime and International Film Noir (2014). There’s a great film called The Sicilian Girl (La sicilianna ribelle, Marco Amenta, 2009), which is good also, Girl by the Lake (La Ragazza de lago, Andrea Molaioli, 2007) is a really great film, there’s a bunch of really interesting Italian films. In Berlusconi you have a fairly repressive atmosphere, so noir is perfect for comment, for talking about it.
And as a genre obviously it offers itself to the conventions one can critique.
And I think that’s where it’s still in touch with the original.
Can we talk about the impact or the long-term impact of criminalisation of socialist thought in America, or in American cinema, and its implications? Is it possible to assess that in relation to the aversion to Marxism, for example, which is a feature of intellectual life, and not just in America?
But more so in America than other places. In other places, as you pointed out, in Australia and Britain, since you have working-class formations, and since they’re overt, those formations are naturally going to be attracted to communist and socialist thought. Here there is no overt working-class formation, or there’s disorganisation, so then you also have a sort of attack on any kind of socialist thought.
What was the long-term impact of a de facto criminalisation of this left, even socialist, thought?
The effect was a cutting off of what could have been expressed in terms of public opinion. With the defeat of Henry Wallace in 1948, the whole left-wing of the Popular Front went and was cut out of the national dialogue, and it has never really returned, never really come back. Look at the debate on the war on terrorism, there’s no place where someone can say the war on terrorism is entirely false, there is no such thing, it’s an excuse for energy imperialism.
There’s no platform for this kind of discussion …
There’s no place to say that here. All you can really do is argue about how the war should be fought. Should it be fought justly? Should it be fought fairly? Is torture wrong? But if you believe that the entire thing is wrong, you don’t really have a platform for saying it here. That’s very similar to what happened during McCarthyism and so the change in public opinion that McCarthyism effected has been permanent.
That’s a pretty strong statement to make about the legacy of McCarthyism.
Yes, and unfortunately it’s mostly true.
But do you see signs of positive change?
No, not here. I don’t look that much for change here. I see signs of positive change but they’re in other parts of the globe. Latin America’s very hopeful, or was until Obama came in. Now it’s starting to turn and we’ll see what happens. I do also retain a romantic belief that China will rule better and more justly and will not rule through the military, and so I believe in something around China. I believe in the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – and that by 2030 the total GDP of the BRIC countries is going to be greater than that of the G7. That is the kind of thing that makes me feel hopeful. Then you start to see Third World countries producing, because once they produce then they also will be cultural producers, and once they reach that level of economic production, they’ll reach that level also of cultural production, cultural significance. Not that Brazil hasn’t been very significant, and China also. But worldwide, globally, they will challenge Hollywood.
Speaking of challenging Hollywood globally, I think that’s something confronted by every single national cinema including Australia. I think we’re painfully aware of this relationship between the periphery and the centre of the culture.
What people may not realise is the statistic – a statistic that came out of Cannes (in 2012), I believe – that only 1% of the total revenue in the US is from films released here from outside the country. Americans don’t know that. We think we project our culture out onto the world but that we’re tremendous receptors of culture also. We aren’t. Most of the flow goes one way.
But then would you say, for all intents and purposes, that Hollywood is a world cinema? I guess there’s more than one way of looking at Hollywood.
I guess it’s a world cinema but it’s one, as you said, whose purpose is to stamp out other national cinemas. I was really stunned when in 2001 I went to London and in Piccadilly Circus the major cinema there had no British films playing. They were all Hollywood films. In that same week I was startled that the big story was that there was a British film playing in the cinemas downtown, called East is East (Damien O’Donnell, 1999), and they did this interview asking, “How did you do this?” This was absurd, to have to ask the question, “how did you get a British film into one of the major theatres in your own country?” That’s ridiculous.
I’m familiar with such debates in Australia where people in the industry are wracking their brains over how to overcome this economic disadvantage.
Let me just ask you, in terms of Australian cinema do you see a working-class Australian cinema that’s still strong?
Well, yes. Australia has developed under the shadows of a hundred or so years of Labourism, the Labour Party. The 1970s was the peak of the creation of national identity and what emerged out of the 1970s really set the tone. But then the 1980s was a really commercial era, Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986) and such films leading the way and trying to break into the global market. The 1980s was all about trying to break into the market. In the 1990s, films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994), another quirky film but with different strategies, not too dissimilar to what you were discussing today about Hollywood trying to adapt, but in our own national way. At the moment the Australian government is just really trying to give tax breaks to filmmakers, and this year (2012) has been a record bumper year for film production in Australia in terms of quantity. The government is really trying to reverse these trends. The last decade was pretty poor, but in the last couple of years they’ve really injected massive capital. I don’t know how that’s going to pan out. Australia, unfortunately, is like many other national cinemas, still a bit behind the times in terms of cinema culture. Hollywood is still inventive, even if not Hollywood proper, at least in the fringes of Hollywood where they do their independent thing. National cinemas around the world still have to learn this is a centre of world cinema and, instead of rejecting it, we have to embrace it.
I’m writing an article now on the film Der Indianer (Rolf Schübel, 1988). The GDR, German Democratic Republic, made twelve westerns from 1966 to 1983 all from the viewpoint of the Indian. So perhaps they’re challenging Hollywood, but they’re also challenging them by altering the tropes of the Hollywood western, so it’s a dialogue really.
And that dialogue, I guess, only exposes the problem of a lack of such dialogue today. Australian cinema, or its funding bodies I should say, still relies on that crude realist style that proliferated in the 1970s and haven’t moved beyond that conceptually, as, for example, using genre creatively as Americans do. You describe Italian films, the neo-noir, using genre and being more versed in cinema culture itself. Australian cinema is still reliant on that one-dimensional gritty realism. The British have that, you mention Loach today and others, but …
Including, as I already mentioned, Fish Tank, about a working class girl aged fifteen, a terrific film, and best film I’ve seen in a long time.
A short answer to your question would be yes, there is still a strong presence in the Australian cinema of the working class, which is good, but it needs to be built on in terms of more sophisticated forms of cinematic expression, like many inventive American films that deal with exactly the same topics. But there’s a mile of difference in terms of the impact because cinema is not just about a good story, it also relies on good cinema. Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971), a seventies classic, has been re-released, as many such films set in Australian outback. The story unfolds against the backdrop of a struggle between the natural elements and the protagonists.