SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 135 - February 2010

More on noir…

I THOROUGHLY enjoyed Joel Lane’s review of noir fiction in Socialism Today No.132, October 2009. One of the reasons I like this genre is that in contrast to the traditional crime ‘whodunit’ as typified by Agatha Christie, noir fiction is more likely to feature ordinary people living everyday lives. Often the hero or heroine would be struggling to survive, trapped in a nightmare world of crime as an accessory, or as a victim. Even the criminals tended to be small scale ‘grifters’, sandwiched between organised crime and corrupt cops. Often the ‘hero’ of the story will not even be aware of their predicament until it hits them smack on the head.

In the same way that John Steinbeck exposed the ‘American Dream’ in mainstream novels like Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men so the noir writers reveal a picture of America that shows its rottenness, corruption and irrationality. An increasingly literate working class readership who bought these books in their tens of millions in the 1940s and 50s could easily identify with the plots and characters. This was the generation that had battled against the capitalist depression of the 1930s, the carnage of the second world war, and the paranoia and bureaucracy of the post-war period.

Not surprisingly, the politics of some of the noir writers were left wing. Jim Thompson, mentioned in Joel’s article and arguably the best known to a modern audience through films such as The Grifters, was a case in point. He was certainly sympathetic to if not a member of the Communist Party. His own experiences in the 1930s as an itinerant worker in Oklahoma and later as an oil worker in Texas informed his outlook on the brutality and corruption of life in the USA.

Another writer of interest is Bruno Fischer. He was a member of the American Socialist Party, editing Socialist Call in the 1930s and standing for the New York senate in 1939 on behalf of the party. Fischer is less well known but his novels stand up well. Allegedly, one of his series characters (PI Ben Helm) was based on Norman Thomas, the American socialist leader and three-time presidential candidate (1940, 1944 and 1948). The New York Times Book Review critic Anthony Boucher once wrote that Fischer had "a fine sense of the impinging of crime and violence on ordinary life, a biting handling of the economic factors in human motivation".

Of course not all hardboiled and noir writers were socialists. Tony Aitman in his letter in Socialism Today No.134, Dec-Jan 2009-10, identifies Mickey Spillane as being "somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan". This is true but his first breakthrough novel, I, the Jury, is a masterpiece of hardboiled writing. It has been vilified by liberals because the ‘hero’ of the story – Mike Hammer – is forced to act violently outside the law due to the corruption or inability of the police to solve the murder of Hammer’s best friend from the second world war.

Written in 1947, the context is important. Demobbed soldiers who were treated as heroes in 1945, had been largely forgotten by 1947. The ideals of justice and peace that they had fought and died for had been ignored by the bourgeois politicians of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Mike Hammer cuts through the bureaucracy of the official justice system, acting as judge, jury and executioner. Not surprisingly workers identified with Hammer and Spillane’s books sold in their millions.

Raymond Chandler was extremely critical of Spillane but Chandler’s view of the world, for all the cynical wisecracks of his main character, Philip Marlow, was a romantic one. Spillane in I, the Jury was a populist and he reflected the brutal experience and outlook of the generation that had fought in Europe and the Pacific. Spillane’s later works unfortunately were infected with McCarthyist venom, and he and his main character Mike Hammer became literary defenders of the American establishment.

It is possible to see parallels between what happened to Spillane’s Mike Hammer stories and an iconic film character from the 1980s. In the first Rambo film First Blood, Sylvester Stallone’s character Rambo is a victim of American imperialism. Having created a ‘killing machine’ to carry out its war in Vietnam, the bourgeois politicians were not interested in investing in rehabilitating back into civilian society Rambo and hundreds of thousands of other soldiers who had served in Vietnam. The first Rambo film is a bitter attack on the morality of US imperialism. As the series developed however, under the Reagan presidency, Rambo was transformed from a victim of US imperialism into an international symbol of US imperialism.

In both Spillane’s books and the Rambo films, the capitalist class recognized the power of populist characters and the affect they could have on a wide audience. Both I, The Jury and the first Rambo film reflected important social concerns. Through their ownership and control of the media, the capitalist class were able to steer both Mickey Spillane and Rambo away from those concerns on to a different pro-establishment agenda.

A democratically run nationalised film and publishing industry would be the way to ensure that working class aspirations and concerns are reflected in film and book.

Mick Whale, Hull


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