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“Emergent Noir”: Film Noir and the Great Depression in High Sierra (1941) and This Gun for Hire (1942)


This article theorizes a new periodization for film noir through a prewar category of “emergent noir”: seven films released between 1940 and 1942 – including The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane – that defined the genre's thematics, aesthetics, visual style, and moral ambiguity. Using archival research and trauma theory, the article analyzes High Sierra and This Gun for Hire as case studies of “failure narratives”: each film resonated with American audiences by validating the recent suffering of the Great Depression, allowing for a vicarious sense of revenge, and creating new ideals of individuality and masculinity. Both films were surprise box-office hits and created new film icons for the 1940s: Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, and Veronica Lake. All three were embodiments of “cool,” a concept herein theorized as a public mask of stoicism.

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1 Foster Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir (New York: Da Capo, 2001; first published 1978), x–xi; Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” in Alain Silver and James Ursini, eds., Film Noir Reader (New York: Limelight, 2000), 52–63.

2 James Naremore, “Introduction,” in Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941–1953 (San Francisco: City Lights, 2002; first published 1955), ix; Borde and Chaumeton, A Panorama of American Film Noir, 21, 24–25, 33.

3 James Naremore, More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Edward Dimendberg, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (1991), 28.

4 Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African-American Culture between the World Wars (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

5 David Desser, “The Wartime Films of John Huston: Film Noir and the Emergence of the Therapeutic,” in Gaylyn Studlar and David Desser, Reflections in a Male Eye: John Huston and the American Experience (Washington, DC: Smithsonian University Press, 1993), 23; Krutnik, 35–36; Robert Porfirio, “Introduction,” in Robert Porfirio, Alain Silver, and James Ursini, eds., Film Noir Reader 3: Interviews with Filmmakers of the Classic Noir Period (New York: Limelight, 2002), 2.

6 For a concise summary of German expressionism and French poetic realism, see Mark Bould, Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City (London: Wallflower, 2005), 24–40; he calls these two genres “the prehistory of film noir.” For a methodical historical analysis of the aesthetics of Expressionism see Marc Vernet, “Film Noir on the Edge of Doom,” in Joan Copjec, ed., Shades of Noir: A Reader (London: Verso, 1993), 7–12.

7 On trauma and witnessing in literature see Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1992), xx and passim; Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 49–50, 67–68, 105–6, 179; Barloon, Jim, “Very Short Stories: The Miniaturization of War in Hemingway's In Our Time,” Hemingway Review, 2 (2005), 517; and Seals, Mark, “Trauma Theory and Hemingway's Lost Paris Manuscripts,” Hemingway Review, 2 (2005), 6273; on trauma and film see Joshua Hirsch, Afterimage: Film, Trauma, and the Holocaust (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003); Schrader, 55.

8 Jean Gabin's characters are entrapped by family, history, or local loyalties; the atomized protagonists of noir act upon an imagined agency. Bould, x, 32 (Lang quote), 36–40; Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973).

9 Nathanael West, “‘A Cool Million’: A Screen Story,” in idem, Novels and Other Writings (New York, Library of America, 1997), 745; Schrader, 58, 62. West's screen treatment is related only in name to his literary deconstruction of the Alger formula in A Cool Million (1934).

10 Warren Susman, Culture as History (New York: Pantheon, 1973), 196–97; see also Sherwood Anderson, Puzzled America (New York: Scribners, 1935), 29, 46, 147.

11 All of these generic aspects are formative to the genre, even as noir inflected toward postwar concerns.

12 Angela Martin, “‘Gilda Didn't Do Any of Those Things You've Been Losing Sleep Over!’: The Central Women of 40s Films Noirs,” in E. Ann Kaplan, ed., Women in Film Noir 2nd edn (London: BFI, 1998), 209–10, 218–25.

13 David Thomson, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (New York: Vintage, 1996), 151–55, 241 n. 35, 398; Michael Walker, “Introduction,” in Ian Cameron, ed., The Book of Film Noir (New York: Continuum, 1993), 32.

14 Welles quoted in Frank Brady, Citizen Welles (New York: Scribner, 1989), 81.

15 André Bazin, “The Death of Humphrey Bogart,” in Jim Hillier, Cahiers du Cinema: The 1950s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 100. Emphasis added.

16 Krutnik, In a Lonely Street, 57–72; see also Copjec, Shades of Noir; Kaplan, Women in Film Noir; James F. Maxfield, The Fatal Woman: Sources of Male Anxiety in American Film Noir, 1941–1991 (Madison, NJ: FDU Press, 1996), 10–11; George Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 286. Also see Mike Davis, City of Quartz (London: Verso, 1990), 40–41; Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 62–66; and Fredric Jameson, “The Synoptic Chandler,” in Copjec, Shades of Noir.

17 Thomas Schatz, Boom and Bust: The American Cinema in the 1940s (New York: Scribner, 1997), 3–5, 138, 204–6, 232–39; Sheri Chinen Biesen, Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2005), 1–6, 34–35 (on Citizen Kane), 59–95.

18 Naremore, More than Night, 104, 123–35; see also Davis, 40–41; and Paula Rabinowitz, Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). For the reception of hard-boiled fiction in the interwar period see Erin A. Smith, Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), passim.

19 Walker quoted in Cameron, 32; see also Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” 58–59.

20 William Marling, The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain, and Chandler (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1995), ix; Barton Palmer, Hollywood's Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir (Boston: Twayne, 1992), 4.

21 Vernet, “Film Noir on the Edge of Doom,” 14, 20.

22 Biesen, 43–45.

23 Schrader, 15; Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (New York: Free Press, 1997), 37–38; Andrew Dickos, Street with No Name (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002), 8; Thomson, Rosebud, 166, 206. Christopher's idea that noir mediates upon an extended industrial period (1865–1940) is synchronous with the lifespan of the fictional Charles Foster Kane (1871–1941).

24 Schrader, 53–64; Dimendberg, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, 1, 3.

25 Dimendberg, 3, 86–118.

26 Vernet, 12.

27 Christopher Breu, Hard-Boiled Masculinities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 188, 193 n. 1; see also Smith, passim.

28 The term was stamped on promotional stills from The Glass Key (1942), Margaret Herrick Library, Los Angeles, California (hereafter MHL).

29 Smith, passim.

30 Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (New York: Viking, 1971), 68; Breu, 197.

31 Joel Dinerstein, “Lester Young and the Birth of Cool,” in Gena Caponi, ed., Signifying, Sanctifying, and Slam-Dunking (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 239–76; Ben Sidran, Black Talk (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1971), 109–14.

32 Cavell, 55; Pressbook, Casablanca, Warner Brothers Archives, University of Southern California (hereafter WB/USC); Borde and Chaumeton, A Panorama of American Film Noir, 16; Williams, Linda, “Of Kisses and Ellipses,” Critical Inquiry, 32, 2 (Winter 2006), 36; Bazin quoted in Naremore, More than Night, 25–26, and in Hillier, Cahiers du Cinema, 98, 100.

33 Houseman quoted in Thomson, Rosebud, 73; John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory (New York: HBJ, 1976), 91.

34 Felman and Laub, Testimony, 7, 59–62.

35 Bogart telegram to Hall Wallis, 4 May 1940, WB/USC.

36 Cavell, 75–76. Thanks to Adam Newton for directing me to Cavell's book and this line of analysis.

37 Paula Rabinowitz, Black & White & Noir, 19–20, 106, 110.

38 Smith, 42–47.

39 Mat 208, Pressbook, HS, WB/USC; “Movies to Watch for,” Kansas City Star, 26 Jan. 1941, 12, clipping file, HS, WB/USC.

40 Various posters and mats, Pressbook, HS, WB/USC.

41 “Second Day Advance” (article), Pressbook, HS, WB/USC; Bosley Crowther, “The Screen: ‘HS’ at the Strand, Considers the Tragic and Dramatic Plight of the Last Gangster,” New York Times, 25 Jan. 1941, n.p.; and “‘High Sierra’ New Tenant at Strand”, New York Journal–American, 25 Jan. 1941, n.p., Clipping file, HS, WB/USC.

42 Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir (New York: Taschen, 2004), 112; Krutnik, In a Lonely Street, 198–201.

43 Internal memoranda, HS file, WB/USC.

44 Dickos, Street with No Name, 116;

45 Bazin quoted in Hillier, Cahiers du Cinema, 99.

46 Billy Wilder and Edward Dmytryk quoted in Robert Porfirio, Alain Silver, and James Ursini, Film Noir Reader 3, 108–9; see also Biesen, Blackout, 97.

47 Bould, Film Noir, 32.

48 Dmytryk, Wilder, Wise, and Lang are all quoted in interviews by Robert Porforio in Film Noir Reader 3, 30, 35, 101–2, 122, 133.

49 J. P. Telotte, Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1989), 1–2, 14; added emphasis.

50 Thomson, Rosebud, 167.

51 Naremore discusses the liberties Tuttle and screenwriter Albert Maltz took with Graham Greene's novel in more depth in his study, and analyzes the influence of Greene on the entire genre. Naremore, More than Night, 72–74.

52 Borde and Chaumeton, A Panorama of Film Noir, 37–38; Marilyn Henry and Ron DeSourdis, Alan Ladd: The Films of Alan Ladd (Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press, 1981), 15; Veronica Lake with Donald Bain, Veronica (London: W. H. Allen, 1969), 85.

53 There is a promotional still with the shadow of a raven coming out of Ladd's head. TGFH, MHL.

54 “The Tough and the Peek-a-Boo,” American Movie Classics, Aug. 1995, 14. Clipping File, TGFH, MHL.

55 “The Current Cinema: That Odd Miss Lake,” New Yorker, 13 May, 1942, n.p., Clipping File, TGFH, MHL.

56 Laura Mulvey perceives a similar hero-versus-heavy split in the postwar western, as early as Duel in the Sun (1946) and culminating in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Laura Mulvey, “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by Duel in the Sun,” in Constance Penley, ed., Feminism and Film Theory (New York: Routledge, 1988), 69–79.

57 Naremore, 73.

58 “Movie of the Week: This Gun for Hire – Lake and Ladd Make an Unusual Melodrama,” Life, 22 June 1942, 49–53, emphasis added; “The Current Cinema: That Odd Miss Lake”; “Alan Ladd, Lake, Cregar Intrigue in ‘Gun for Hire,’” LA Times, 26 June 1942, n.p., emphasis added; Alan Ladd, “The Role I Liked Most … ,” Saturday Evening Post, 28 Dec. 1946, n.p. Clipping file, TGFH, MHL, emphasis added.

59 Henry and DeSourdis, Alan Ladd, 13–14; Naremore, 74.

60 “T G F H,” Hollywood Reporter, 17 March 1942, n.p.; “The Current Cinema: That Odd Miss Lake”; “T G F H,” Variety, 17 March 1942, n.p. Clipping file, MHL. For Borde and Chaumeton, Ladd's cool-masked masculinity was both revelatory and disturbing; he exited each scene, “ever silent, ever unfeeling”; and, more importantly, his “expressionless features in situations of great tension reveal[ed] a fearsome, inhuman frigidity.” Borde and Chaumeton, 37–38.

61 Crowther quoted in Beverly Linet, Ladd: The Life, the Legend, the Legacy of Alan Ladd (New York: Arbor House, 1979), 71, emphasis added.

62 Promotional stills, TGFH, MHL; “Alan Ladd Added to Hollywood's List of ‘Heavies,’” unidentified clipping, 30 Oct. 1942, MHL; Borde and Chaumeton, 37–38.

63 “Bogart Packs Punch In New Hit” and “Third Day Advance,” Pressbook, HS, WB/USC.

64 “The Tough and the Peek-a-Boo”; “The Current Cinema: That Odd Miss Lake.”

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