The Murder of Film Noir

Senator McCarthy’s witchhunt of 'communists' resulted in many film noir makers ending up on the Hollywood Blacklist. This was no coincidence: these were films that took a decidedly cynical look at post-war America, making their makers automatically suspect. Some were unable to work in Hollywood again. Others left for Europe.

By Jos van der Burg29 June 2021

How do you ruin lives? The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) set up by Congress in 1938 had a pretty good idea. The Committee’s stated aim was to root out ‘un-American’ activities. From 1947 on, as the temperature in the Cold War rapidly dropped towards absolute zero, this mainly meant focussing on the (perceived) ‘communist’ threat. The resulting dread of ‘reds under the beds’ led to a spotlight of suspicion falling on Hollywood. The Committee believed Tinsel Town to be a leftist bastion, sneakily spreading radical political ideologies through its films. Hollywood was out to undermine American society and lay the groundwork for a communist – or in any event leftist-inspired – takeover.

Film noirs, which depicted America as a cynical country in which no one could be trusted and where the naïve paid a high price, were seen as part of this strategy. Their makers had therefore to be suspect individuals, seeking to ruin America with their pessimistic movies. So they had to be run out of movie town.

still The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, US 1956)
still from The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, US 1956)

Hollywood Ten

This overheated, paranoid nonsense destroyed the careers of dozens of screenwriters, actors and directors. Friendships also snapped under the pressure of the system of informants employed by the Committee. People suspected of communist or other leftist sympathies could erase this suspicion by deflecting it onto their colleagues. Anyone who refused – invoking their constitutional rights – to share their political views with the committee risked imprisonment for ‘contempt of Congress’. Ten screenwriters, directors and producers, later referred to as the Hollywood Ten, were sentenced to terms of six to twelve months as a result.

Not everyone was able to withstand the pressure. Film noir actor Sterling Hayden, for example, who had briefly been a member of the Communist Party – and whose The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Killing (1956) can be seen in Eye – named names of Hollywood colleagues who had also been Party members. Through the FBI, the committee had threatened the divorced Hayden that he would never get custody of his children if he didn’t cooperate.

One of the colleagues denounced by Hayden was screenwriter and director Abraham Polonsky – who had even been a member of the resistance in France. Because Polonsky refused to betray his colleagues, he was placed on a Hollywood blacklist for no less than seventeen years. He was not completely idle during this period, however, as he could write for television. He also wrote screenplays behind the scenes, borrowing the names of other writers. This is why the titles of Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) – also screening in Eye – give the screenwriting credit to the author John Oliver Killens.

still Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, US 1959)
still from Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, US 1959)

Nom de guerre

Most prolific at writing under such a ‘nom de guerre’ was Dalton Trumbo – the biggest name among the Hollywood Ten. Having been the best-paid screenwriter in Hollywood in the ’40s, in 1950 he spent eleven months in jail for refusing to be interrogated about his political beliefs. After getting out, he emigrated to Mexico, where he wrote no less than thirty screenplays under pseudonyms and the names of other writers.

This resulted in some bizarre situations. For instance, in 1954 Ian McLellan Hunter won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for Roman Holiday, a rom-com starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck – although the script had actually been written by Trumbo. He also wrote the scripts for The Prowler (1951) and Gun Crazy (1950) – both screening in Eye – under false names.

Some filmmakers decided not to hang around until the paranoid madness caught up with them. Whereas in the ’40s German filmmakers had fled to America, now American directors sought refuge in Europe. Among them Jules Dassin, whose Night and the City (1950) is screening in Eye. He emigrated to France, where he was able to work. In 1955, he took the Best Director award in Cannes for the heist film Du Rififi chez les hommes.

Joseph Losey – director of The Prowler, among others – emigrated to England. However, the tentacles of the HUAC proved so long that for many years he was forced to work under a pseudonym even there, as actors were afraid of losing the right to work in America if they had been involved in one of Losey’s films.

still The Prowler (Joseph Losey, US 1951)
still from The Prowler (Joseph Losey, US 1951)

Fresh-faced

The witchhunt for communists in Hollywood not only destroyed film careers but also led to a spreading climate of (self-)censorship. Because making dark, pessimistic films – like the film noirs – could lead to total exclusion, this type of film died out in Hollywood. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1957), a sombre story of abuse of power, corruption and political terror, proved to be the swansong of film noir. The communist hunters, who saw any criticism of America as treason, had won. For the time being, Hollywood churned out only optimistic, fresh-faced films. Doris’ Day had come.

campaign image Film Noir – The Dark Side of Hollywood

This summer in Eye

This summer Eye is presenting an extended programme of classic film noir, featuring masterpieces such as The Third Man and In a Lonely Place starring Humphrey Bogart. With vintage 35mm prints and newly restored works.

See programme
still The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, US 1950)
still from The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, US 1950)

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Film Noir