Review: The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to Cold War

By Richard Lingeman

Many of us only know about the anxiety that followed the Second World War because of the movies—specifically, the late ’40s cycle of dark, cynical crime films that later became known as film noir. Now Lingeman, who previously wrote a cultural history of the wartime period, follows it up by showing us the culture that produced all those dangerous women and cigarette-smoking fatalist heroes. Both the war and the Depression were over, but so was the left-wing optimism of the New Deal, replaced by a new mood of fear—the famous era when “Reader’s Digest, HUAC and FBI pamphlets told people that Communists were everywhere,” and a conservative mood in politics went hand-in-hand with a pessimistic mood in pop culture.

Many of the stories in the book are familiar signposts on the road to the Cold War, such as former vice-president Henry Wallace’s doomed bid for president in 1948: Communist party support provided him with volunteers but eventually tarnished his campaign and damaged the cause of progressivism in America. But other stories are less well known, such as the attempts of mass media to guilt women into accepting subservient roles in postwar households: Lingeman quotes Good Housekeeping telling unhappy wives, “He’s yours. In heaven’s name stick with him.”

As with many books that try to look at the intersection of real-life history and popular culture, The Noir Forties can sometimes get a little superficial when it examines movies; his description of the visual style of film noir, and the actors who appeared in these movies, are well-trod territory. He seems to have a more personal sense of engagement with the lost liberal promise of the FDR years and the sense of dread that produced all those films, maybe because he lived through some of it himself: the book begins with an account of his two years in Japan in the ’50s, working as a less-than-glamorous spy for the army. The world of film noir and the world of postwar snooping and paranoia weren’t so far apart.

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