Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia

Wheeler Winston Dixon,
Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia.
Edinburgh University Press, 2009
ISBN: 978 0 7486 2400 3
£18.99 (pb)
Review copy supplied by Edinburgh University Press.

Most film people, I believe, think of film noir as a phenomenon that emerged in the late 1930s, blossomed in the next two decades, then slowly subsided, generating the occasional new noir film and influencing other genres, even to the present era. Not Wheeler Dixon. For him, film noir had its roots in the pre-Code area, emerged in the late 1930s, blossomed in the next two decades, and kept blossoming, replicating, expanding, eventually dominating cinema. And while film noir is conventionally thought of as a genre or sub-genre of film whose “dark” cinematic style underscores its grim vision of American society, usually experienced from the point of view of an ordinary man buffeted by forces of which he is dimly aware or cannot fully comprehend, at least not in time to save himself, Dixon’s conception is far more expansive. He endorses (giving full credit) Raymond Durgnat’s view of forty years ago (“Paint It Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir,” Cinema 6/7, 1970) that film noir is “everywhere” but takes it further and makes it current. Almost any film, for Dixon, qualifies as a film noir if it has a sad ending, or a nasty villain, or an alienated character, or a lot of brutality, or a critical view of modern society.

Thus, for Dixon, film noir not only bleeds into many other genres (and media), it takes them over like body snatchers. Rebel Without a Cause (USA 1955) is a teen noir. Leave Her to Heaven (USA 1945) is the first Technicolor noir. Performance (UK 1970) is “the quintessential domestic noir of the decade” (p. 97). Accident(UK 1967) is “that most British of noirs” (p. 119). John Carpenter’s The Thing (USA 1982) is “a classic noir science fiction film” (p. 137). Dangerous Liaisons (USA/UK 1988) is a “lavishly appointed period noir” (p. 137). Apocalypse Now (USA 1979) is “perhaps the most noir of all war films” (p. 150). There are feminist noirs, rural noirs, television noirs, and noir daily news. Scores of classic films are retroactively designated as noirs, including On the Waterfront (USA 1954), King Kong (USA 1933), High Noon (USA 1952), Stalag 17 (USA 1953), Ride Lonesome (USA 1959), and most of Hitchcock.

Dixon’s all-embracing conception of noir is probably harmless, as it is unlikely to take hold. It’s one thing to see a western such as Pursued (USA 1947) or a science-fiction dystopia like Blade Runner (USA 1982) as noir, but a stretch to include films like The Searchers (USA 1956) or The Incredible Shrinking Man (USA 1957). Dixon mentions and summarizes many films not usually thought of as noir, but he infrequently lays out a case for his calling them noir. Often the reader has to infer Dixon’s reasoning – or impute some overarching concept guiding his choices.

If Dixon is guided by some general principle embracing the various characteristics any of which apparently qualifies a film as noir, I thought it might be suggested by the phrase “the cinema of paranoia” in the book’s title. After all, film noir’s characters often exhibit symptoms of paranoia in the sense of living in fear without knowing completely the source or cause of what they fear. To help me find out if this was a useful way of understanding Dixon, I decided to watch eight of his allegedly noir films that I either hadn’t seen or at best vaguely remembered: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (USA 1946), Leave Her to HeavenKings Row (USA 1942), The Blue Dahlia (USA 1946), Re-Animator (USA 1985), Point Blank (USA 1967), Accident, and Vanishing Point (USA/UK 1971). In each film, I looked for paranoia, either in the protagonist or embodied in the overall atmosphere of the film; failing that, I would look for other, traditional markers of film noir.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers ends with the two bad characters killing themselves and the two sympathetic ones free to commit to a life together. The female protagonist of Leave Her to Heaven is a deadly woman but not a femme fatale; she “loves” her husband so much that she kills anyone who wins his innocent affection. The film ends happily, with her dead, and her husband and sister joined in love. Despite being the victim of an unnecessary double leg amputation, the hero of Kings Row decides to face his future with joyous optimism. No good characters in The Blue Dahlia get killed, only a venal wife and an evil private security guard. Re-Animator, a cross between Night of the Living Dead (USA 1968) and Frankenstein (USA 1931), is too laughable for noir. In Point Blank, Lee Marvin is often filmed looking as if lost in existential hopelessness, but he knows his enemies and succeeds methodically in outwitting and out-toughing them. There’s a lot of tension among the characters in Accident, but no murder or hidden manipulative power. Vanishing Point’s existential hero ends his inadequately motivated cross-country speeding jag by committing a comparably unmotivated spectacular suicide.

All but one of these films are engaging, but there’s no significant paranoia in any of them. Where there is fear in these movies, there’s good and clear reason for it. But when Dixon looks at a film, fear is what he sees, and maybe even experiences himself.  The “true message of noir [is] that today is horrible, and tomorrow will be worse [and] that hope is an illusion” (p. 4). Throughout the book, Dixon describes society itself with noirish pessimism, each decade worse than the last. Returning servicemen in the 1940s were disillusioned with American society; postwar inflation was “spiraling out of control” (p. 34). The films of the 1950s revealed “the rot behind the placid exterior of suburban society” (p. 90). In the 1960s, “the American dream was [certainly] collapsing” (p. 99). The 1970s were “nightmarish” (p. 132). The mood in America in the early 1990s was one of “fatalism” (p. 139). “We live with horror, now, every day” (p. 128). Dixon ends his book with a jeremiad against contemporary culture. It’s hard not to conclude that the vision of society that Dixon finds in cinema is largely put there by himself. His dark vision of society may be warranted, but his projection of that vision onto almost any film that is neither a comedy nor a musical is – although amusing, even endearing, and single-mindedly enough presented as to provoke at least one reader to screen eight of his examples – does not stand up well under scrutiny.

D.B. Jones,
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Friday, 24 July 2009

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →