Biographer and historian Richard Lingeman has a long list of impressive books on American history to his credit, and this one’s particularly intriguing, zeroing in on the five years between the end of World War II and the start of the Korean War. The Noir Forties is a perfect title. Lingeman explains, “I devote a large chunk of the book to what I’ve dubbed ‘noir culture’, after the body of crime films known as film noir which flourished between 1945 and 1950. I believe films noir are a key for unlocking the psychology (and) the national mood during those years”
Once the VJ Day euphoria wore off and the ticker tape was swept out of Times Square – and main streets all across the U.S. – there was much to reckon with. Over 400,000 Americans killed in combat and countless millions dead worldwide. The Holocaust and the atom bomb. Anxious hopes for postwar prosperity dashed by abrupt economic upheavals, housing shortages, a divorce boom, the “Iron Curtain” and rise of totalitarian Communism, the formation of the U.S. security state and more.
Part memoir, part conventional history, Lingeman’s book recounts key political, military, social and cultural events side-by-side with evocative personal stories and anecdotes from this five-year period. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ driving the emergence of noir culture becomes apparent, not only the many classic films noir from this era, but we could include the explosion of grim, violent and sexy crime novels populating the new paperback original market, an evolution in pulp magazines and comics, the emergence of abstract expressionism in the new global fine art capital, New York City. All of this occurred amidst racial strife, the Iron Curtain slamming down over Eastern Europe, the Red Scare and then a return of U.S. troops in combat in what many understandably feared would swiftly become World War Three.
I’ll leave it scholars to quibble about their definitions of ‘film noir’ and its timeline, including many proto-noirs from earlier in the 1940’s, or quite different films from the late 1950’s and even the early 60’s that might more justifiably be considered a bridge to what we later called ‘neo-noir’. All that’s fodder for university film studies classes and master’s theses, and my school days are behind me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy an incredibly well-written and readable book like Richard Lingeman’s The Noir Forties, and if you like what you see here at ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’, it’s a safe bet you’ll enjoy this book.