Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mexico and the Blacklist

For all its vaunted black & white visuals, film noir was not a unique phenomenon; there were scores of movies being made in the 1940s, and even earlier, that, shadow for shadow, angle for angle, had all the look of noir but could hardly be called film noir [1]. What makes the genre black is something more elusive -- a mood, angst, or zeitgeist, call it what you will [2]. Perversely, then, a defining feature of noir is a certain undefined menace, always lurking subliminally in the background, overlaying every scene with a larded sense of dread. The smell of fear, perhaps, as one writer so famously put it.

And while it may be an oversimplification to invoke the much-used term paranoia [3], certainly the Red Scare which coincided with the noir heyday of the late 1940s and early 1950s was a major contributing ingredient, ubiquitously fanning the flames of suspicion, recriminations and counter-recriminations, and in the process infusing the noir universe with its own special brand of pungent atmospherics.

To wit - and in one of the more infelicitous coincidences in film history - it happened that many of the artists who came to be associated with what we today call film noir tended toward the Left in their political sympathies [4]. Suffice to say that the Congressional investigations into ‘subversive’ elements in the film industry had an especially telling impact on the writers, editors, directors and actors who worked in film noir [5], in the process ruining, shortening or compromising entire careers, and in some cases, shortening lives.

Paraphrasing Raymond Chandler yet again, American society in the late 1940s and early 1950s had become dark with something more than night. As a result, Mexico and France in particular became popular alternatives for those who wished to escape the accusatory atmosphere of the times, especially those who found themselves under the watchful eye of the Red Scare police. The refugees on the Hollywood blacklist, as well as intellectuals and artists in other contexts, who ‘escaped’ to Mexico [6], continued to eke out a living, as screenwriters, ghostwriters, actors, directors, etc., or they worked in related fields, in any case under varying, usually greatly reduced circumstances (Gordon, p. 33).

There’s a further, rather cruel irony in that a common theme in American films noirs, to the point of cliché, is the notion of escape to Mexico. For the blacklistees, however, the flight to Mexico was a transmogrified, real-life variation on the noir formula. Their crime had been ideological incorrectness, and - however imperfect - Mexico represented a welcome refuge in an ever-unforgiving, indeed, noirish universe.

[1] Just a few examples : Casablanca, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Uninvited, The Black Cat, The Song of Bernadette, The Razor’s Edge, 39 Steps, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Cat PeopleSince You Went Away, Brief Encounter.

[2] As one source puts it : "Film noir reflected an existential dread far deeper than politics could encompass. ‘The death of God’ gets closer to expressing this than ‘the corruption of Capitalism’." (Film noir and the Death of God and More on Film Noir and the Death of God).

[3] For more on Cold War nuclear paranoia in particular and its connection to film noir, see : Mark Osteen, “The Big Secret : Film Noir and Nuclear Fear,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 22(2), Summer 1994, pp79-90; and Walter Metz, ''Keep the Coffee Hot, Hugo” : Nuclear Trauma in Lang's The Big Heat, Film Criticism, 21(3), Spring 1997, pp43-65.

[4] The resultant House Un-American Activities Committee's persecution of progressive actors, directors and especially writers has been dealt with in detail elsewhere. The many books include : Thomas Doherty, Cold War, Cool Medium : Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture, New York, Columbia University Press, 2003; Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, Tender Comrades : a Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, New York,  St. Martin's Press, 1997; "Un-American" Hollywood : Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era, edited by Frank Krutnik [et al.], New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press, 2007; Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, Hide in Plain Sight : the Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950-2002, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; Reynold Humphries, Hollywood's Blacklists : a Political and Cultural History, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2008. See also : Philip Kemp, "From the Nightmare Factory : HUAC and the Politics of Noir," Sight & Sound v55 (1986), pp266-270.

[5] Two good analyses of film noir and the Blacklist can be found here and here. And there’s a nice collection of articles and posts at The Hollywood Left and the Blacklist Era. Two good books on film noir and its connection to the Red Scare are : Wheeler Winston Dixon, Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press, 2009); and Ray Pratt, Projecting Paranoia : Conspiratorial Visions in American Film, (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2001). See also : Handwringing Over Mass Culture 1950-1959, a Chronology, by Richard Keller Simon.

[6] There’s an extensive literature on Mexico exiles and the prevailing culture of the times. The best source is Rebecca M. Schreiber’s richly detailed Cold War Exiles in Mexico : U.S. Dissidents and the Culture of Critical Resistance (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2008), which covers visual artists and writers as well as filmmakers, and in addition examines African Americans fleeing racial prejudice. Other sources include Bernard Gordon, Hollywood Exile, or, How I Learned to Love the Blacklist : a Memoir, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1999; and Diana Anhalt, A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer, 2001).

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