Editor’s Note: With current television programs and movies containing increasing levels of objectionable content, many people are turning to films of the 1940s and 1950s for entertainment. Among these classic films are those categorized as “film noir” — movies that explore the darker side of human nature. Herald columnist Sean M. Wright recently interviewed Eddie Muller, host of “Noir Alley” on Turner Classic Movie network and author of “Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir,” published by Running Press, to discuss why these movies are worth revisiting.
Sean M. Wright: Eddie, first off, allow me to compliment you on assembling a massive amount of information presented in an entertaining, well-written, and attractive format. Naming chapters after various byways and regions in the “Dark City” was a stroke of inspiration.
Eddie Muller: Thanks very much, Sean. I appreciate your saying that. I’m very pleased with the deluxe treatment Running Press gave the book.
SMW: Getting down to business, Elia Kazan’s Oscar winner “Boomerang” (1947), and Mark Robson’s “Edge of Doom” (1950) both detail the murder of priests, a shocking, almost unheard of, concept to people in the U.S. of the 1940s and 50s. Yet you don’t spend much time on these two movies. Any second thoughts?
EM: I have second thoughts all the time about stuff I didn’t include, but you can’t fit in everything. I bypassed Boomerang because it’s more of a courtroom drama than a true noir. Discussing theological aspects of film noir, I see them as part of an organic artistic movement, I can’t know the actual intentions and motivations of the writers, directors and producers.
SMW: But isn’t there often a theological basis behind film noir storylines?
EM: I find it dangerous and misleading to declare “film noir represented this, or film noir represented that.” Given that, I will say that if there’s an overriding theological interpretation one could ascribe to the noir movement, it would be that the films, taken as a whole, are suggesting for the first time in popular entertainment that we may exist in a godless world.
SMW: Would you say that noir at its best emphasizes the struggle between light and darkness?
EM: Well, I don’t believe there is a single movie that directly expresses that idea. Rather, it’s the cumulative effect of so many similar films made and released at the same time, the “movement.” Were I to sum up the overriding attitude of noir in one line of dialogue (my own), I’d say, “Prayers aren’t gonna be answered; try another plan.” In noir that other plan usually isn’t legal.
SMW: Did the rise of dictators in the 1930s and the necessity of destroying their evil by force of arms create an air of disillusionment replacing the certainty of the basic goodness in mankind so popular in America cinema up that time?
EM: Hey, we’d been through World War I, “The War to End All Wars.” That gave rise to the first wave of pessimistic, “hard-boiled” American fiction, out of which 20s and 30s “pulp fiction” grew. The one-two punch of the Depression and World War II showed the devastating effect of man’s rapacious greed and evil. The cost of countering it, and conquering it, was paid in human lives.
SMW: And the disillusionment?
EM: I suspect it had a profound effect, especially on writers. However, I think all these calamities bred distrust in man, not God. The political writers told stories about the ease with which the capitalist system could be corrupted — a big theme in noir — and they were blacklisted for it.
SMW: So, you see noir as a reaction against reactionary politics?
EM: The writers’ issue wasn’t with God; it was with their fellow man. Writers and producers also bristled against the (largely Irish Catholic) Production Code Office, which operated as an arm of the Catholic Legion of Decency.
SMW: You don’t see the good intentions of the Production Code and Legion of Decency?
EM: Well, essentially both systems saw no difference between God’s Law and man’s law. Writers and artists, who are natural contrarians, often simply wanted to tell stories.
SMW: They were sometimes scandalous stories, according to the lights of American culture at the time.
EM: They were an alternative to the eternal optimism required of Hollywood product during those tumultuous years of Depression and war.
SMW: Getting back to theology, can it be said that film noir emphasizes sharp encounters between good and evil, God and Satan, while cinematically describing rather confusing, murky and otherwise tawdry aspects of ordinary lives? Isn’t noir marked by moody pessimism, a cynical conviction of the futility of life and a despairing rejection of Divine Providence?
EM: I think that’s overstating it. The stories don’t reflect the futility of life, but the futility of humans who succumb to material or sexual desires at the expense of morals, ethics, and common decency. Far from a refutation of Christian principles, these stories are like a catechism. I’ve many times described the essential noir plot as a “tale of karma.”
SMW: Karma is not a Christian belief.
EM: Well, it’s largely the same thing as reaping what you sow (Gal 6:7).
(Part 2 of the interview with Eddie Muller interview will appear in the next issue of the Herald.)
(Sean M. Wright, MA, an Emmy-nominated TV writer, is a Master Catechist for the archdiocese of Los Angeles and a member of the RCIA team at his parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Santa Clarita, CA. He responds to comments sent him at Locksley69@aol.com.)