Unlikely suspects 

America Noir examines cynicism in postwar era

Pulp novels, science fiction, exploitation films, drive-in movies, television; in his book, America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era, David Cochran argues that American culture in the decades between 1945 and 1965 found some of its most subversive messages in some unlikely, lowbrow places. Cochran's cultural history of the postwar period tells of writers laboring in the marginal, intellectually suspect ranks of dime store novels and quickly churned out, sex and violence-laden thrillers who, in their fiction, gave voice to a great cynicism and disease percolating beneath the culture of apparent complacency. Irony, ambivalence, chaos, alienation and paranoia, notes Cochran, defined the work of this cast of "underground" artists: Jim Thompson, The Grifters; Charles Willeford, High Priest of California; Chester Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem; Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley; Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451; Charles Beaumont, The Intruder; Samuel Fuller, The Naked Kiss; Roger Corman, Little Shop of Horrors; Richard Condon, The Manchurian Candidate; and Rod Serling, "The Twilight Zone."

Rejecting the popular conception of the postwar era as founded on blind consumption and lockstep patriotism before the cataclysm of the '60s, Cochran instead suggests that these writers and filmmakers registered protest of an often bitter and visceral sort over the deceptions of American life. In their distrust of the American system of work, family and consumption, these writers laid the groundwork for '60s radicalism, Cochran argues, and in their privileging of ambiguity and their pastiche of high and low culture, anticipated postmodernism.

For leftist intellectuals such as art critic Clement Greenberg, Dwight Macdonald or Harold Rosenberg, who sought a proprietary control of dissidence, the affiliation of writers like Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith or filmmakers like Samuel Fuller and Roger Corman with the mass culture that consumed their paperbacks and drive-in fare made their work suspect. And unlike such traditional, public liberals who championed progressive causes and political reform, the distinction of these underground individuals was their refusal to draw neat conclusions or offer comforting answers. Instead, it was their determination to raise doubts, ask questions, and end their works with an aura of defeat and disenchantment that distinguished their work as "noir."

Cochran's book, for all its insight and worthy slam-dunking of the preening, hypocritical pomposity of American party-line liberals, can often give the impression that the author is onto something new. However, many of the ideas Cochran proposes have, of course, been circulating in film since 1946 when French film critics took a look at the bleak, hopeless American films such as The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, made during and after the war, and coined them "film noir" (black film) to describe this rash of brutally pessimistic films.

Cochran makes a number of canny observations about the many varieties of social critique offered in these writers' and filmmakers' works. One of his most interesting is how the postwar American obsession with "personality" (the charismatic veneer which guaranteed economic and political success) was viciously reworked in pulp fiction such as Thompson's into the figure of the "confidence man" whose charismatic persona cloaked graft and deception. Like others in the underground racket, Thompson's many crime novels were a cutting blow to such a capitalist ethos of success. The lowbrow genres in which such writers and filmmakers labored gave them the freedom to say things more "respectable" genres might not have, offering pointed critiques of the family in Thompson's work, or of the homoerotic strain of male relationships in Highsmith's writing.

Though Cochran's strong start noticeably fizzles by the time he reaches for the more implausible examples of Serling and B-movie mogul Roger Corman as part of the radical underground, Cochran's America Noir remains an informative, appropriately skeptical study. And it is one so brisk and readable it doubly challenges that other intellectual elite presumption: that to be serious, a book must be dry, bloodless, and jargon-riddled. Cochran's thesis remains a good and necessary one in affirming that, despite the claims of academics and public intellectuals, lowbrow and popular culture are not the domain of uniform, thoughtless dreck, but often contain surly, vital and contentious forums for social critique. u

America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era David Cochran. Smithsonian Institution Press. 280 pages, $27.95.


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