Subversive Viewing/Viewing Subversives

Against the Current, No. 161, November/December 2012

Paula Rabinowitz

Dark Borders:
Film Noir and American Citizenship
by Jonathan Auerbach
Duke University Press, 2011; x, 268 pages, illustrations, $23.95 paperback.

Cold War Femme:
Lesbianism, National Security, and Hollywood Cinema
by Robert J. Corber
Duke University Press, 2011; x, 225 pages, illustrations, $23.95 paperback.

THE EDGES OF bodies and nations — how to find them, secure them, shift them, and how shifty they can be — drive the quest for knowing behind the films these two books survey, and also compel the authors of the books themselves.

In a way, these books are concerned with the “Baroque excess” that characterized the culture of the Cold War. Stephen Whitfield’s survey revealed just how messy and messed up postwar American popular culture became, as television came to dominate mass media and the emergent figure of the teenager opened a new arena for commerce and anxiety.(1)

In 1958, Harrison Salisbury published his report on “the shook-up generation,” exposing to popular scrutiny a newly-feared phenomenon — the juvenile delinquent. The cover of the pulpy Signet paperback reveals the mean streets of a city overridden by tough boys and girls who terrorize their parents, their schools and their neighborhoods.(2)

In 1953, Marlon Brando, the wild one riding into town on his motorcycle, could seduce a nice girl, a waitress in her father’s café, into falling for him. But even before that, as early as 1947 — just weeks after being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee — Dalton Trumbo was writing the campy story of Bart and Laurie, both “Gun Crazy.”

The film did not appear until 1950, by which time the blacklisted Trumbo had relocated to Mexico, his name changed on the film’s credits.

This connection of Cold War politics, aberrant (sexual) behavior and border crossings, forming the subject of these two books, might be said to have its origins in the youth rebellion/road movie/bankrobbing spree of “Gun Crazy,” which Jonathan Auerbach sees as among the first of the self-reflexive late noirs, one that allegorized Trumbo’s situation: virtuoso and yet disguised (as the lovers dress up in costume to commit their crimes), forced outside the boundaries of genre and nation in order to work.(3)

Or it might be seen in another campy extravaganza: this time with top-billed stars and the first spoken part by Marilyn Monroe, as Robert J. Corber also locates a 1950 film “All About Eve,” itself a self-reflexive look at stardom (Bette Davis) and fandom (Anne Baxter) as a key to understanding how insidious paranoia about the femme operating as a secret agent of disruptive sexuality mirrored fears of trespassing.

This, as Roy Blick testified to the 1950 Senate hearing on “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government” (Corber, 195n13), was especially dangerous because “many female homosexuals have every appearance of femininity in their outward behavior” (quoted, 31). According to Corber, “The film treats identification with the female star as the first step of the female spectator’s path to lesbianism.” (38)

Policing outlaws seemed a futile gesture — the youth of America was out of control, even as the national security state was exacting brutal restraints on its citizens — moreover, as Corber suggests, the act of policing or even surveying, in fact, made visible new forms of female desire that “did not express itself in her gender presentation.” (30)

The Gifts of Film Noir

Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship is a terrific book, showing that film noir is the gift that keeps on giving — as seen in the seemingly bottomless pit of scholarship on the cycle of films made roughly between 1941 and 1958 (from “The Maltese Falcon” to “Touch of Evil”).

Jonathan Auerbach argues that the Cold War actually began even before the United States entered the already very hot wars raging in Asia and Europe.

Auerbach dates film noir’s emergence earlier too, in 1939 with the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League’s film made at Warner Brothers’ studio, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” which set the tone for what he sees as an under-recognized imprint in film noir: its anxiety about America’s political and corporate borders, who’s within (potentially unknown and unknowable enemies) and who has crossed over to the other side.

Rather than focus on the already analyzed discomfort engendered by the enigmatic femme fatale whose sexuality, while expressing an exaggerated heterosexual allure, is more complex (more on this below, the subject of Robert J. Corber’s wonderfully titled Cold War Femme) and thus more threatening than the usual Hollywood formulas, especially as she often exudes it outside the bounds of domestic or national space (think Kathy on the Mexican beach in “Out of the Past”), Auerbach connects noir to the ascendancy of the FBI’s secret directive (issued anew by FDR immediately after Hitler invaded Poland) to investigate “a wide range of ‘subversive activities’ not previously part of the bureau’s mission.” (5)

Incredibly — here I’m as guilty as anyone — while everyone and his mother has investigated the debt film noir paid to Sigmund Freud, or at least his Americanized popularization, almost no scholar of film noir has looked into the J. Edgar Hoover connection which is a prevalent aspect of studies of noir’s precursors, the crime and gangster films of the 1930s.

In our current national security state of emergency, one also connected to economic malaise and rampant fears of enemies within and without, Auerbach’s and Corber’s look back to its mid-20th-century iteration shows Hollywood’s collusion in perpetrating the culture of cold-war anxiety through complex and displaced forms.

Corber sees the postwar acknowledgement of the femme as a new kind of lesbian identity, one not tied to gender appearance, and thus akin to the subversive communist lurking among us — a danger precisely because her allure is seemingly so normal as to be invisible. Like Auerbach, he too returns to the 1930s and traces this new type of homosexual panic to movie stars’ personae which blended excessive femininity with broad-shouldered (Joan Crawford) or mousey (Bette Davis) defiance, especially in their films — “Mildred Pierce” or “Now, Voyager” — where an overt attachment to maternity displaces heterosexual relations.

Doris Day, America’s 1950s saccharine sweetheart, comes out (so to speak) as a much more enticing figure than I recall in Corber’s reading of her tomboyism as it morphs into cute career girl with a DA haircut — thus demonstrating how she moved from butch to femme, from “Calamity Jane” to “Pillow Talk” (where she ultimately hooks up with Rock Hudson, enough said).

DANGER: Secret Lesbian Menace

If Auerbach retrieves Hoover as a significant force behind film noir anxiety, Corber, who has written about cold-war noir and masculinity in the past, sees the 1965 publication of sensational journalist Jess Stearn’s The Grapevine: A Report on the Secret World of the Lesbian as codifying the particular concerns raised by the femme in postwar America. The new femme presence threatened because lesbians might not want to dress like men, be like men and date women — they might want to look like “women” and still desire women.

Cold War Femme’s thesis is absolutely fascinating, especially in the chapter on Lillian Hellman’s various versions — play, film and remake — of “The Children’s Hour,” which carefully shows how the entwined stories of lesbianism and lies developed and transformed depending upon the influence of the Hollywood Production Code and HUAC on Hellman’s writing. Its limitations lie in the limited number of films and selective argument and the rather tedious summary of plot, dialogue, costuming and make-up, and the continual reassertion that the femme works in Hollywood cinema as the communist worked in American politics.

Auerbach also condenses his analysis to a few films — often those that have not been fully explored in studies of noir, such as the great and eerie “Ride the Pink Horse” (1947) based on a novel by Dorothy Hughes (who also wrote In a Lonely Place) or Anthony Mann’s “Border Incident” (1949). Both films demonstrate “that Mexico in many ways served as American noir’s geopolitical unconscious” (123), but also that these noir films acted to naturalize ideas about citizenship, immigrant labor and state violence.

Auerbach does a rich and thorough reading of the “deportation panic’ and “exile anger” (116) lurking within many films’ “word and image,” and of the link these films had to a series of complex legislative acts and executive orders to show how, as he puts it, the “un-American” became the “uncanny” (5) and could be experienced viscerally by watching these movies.

Surprisingly, neither of these books mentions the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — a story replete with uncanny and un-American episodes linking communist spying, weird domesticity (think of the typewriter and brother-in-law), even aberrant sexuality as President Dwight D. Eisenhower portrayed Ethel as “the strong and recalcitrant character, the man is the weak one.”(4)

It’s hard not to see that Sam Fuller’s 1953 “Pickup on South Street” (released in New York on June 17, two days before the Rosenbergs’ executions) as a response to the charges of atomic spying (which included transfers of microfilm) for which they were arrested in 1950. Auerbach’s extensive discussion of the film, in part as an allegory of Fuller’s fraught relationship with Hollywood studios, fascinating in its attention to questions of scale and the materials of film, thus performs an act of repression worthy of its own noir scenario.

Likewise, neither book mentions Marilyn Monroe, who acted in a number of 1950s noiresque films (“Niagara” [1953], “Don’t Bother to Knock” [1952]), who certainly vamped it up as a the femme-par-excellence (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” [1953]) and was married to Arthur Miller, whose passport was denied by the U.S. State Department in March 1954 because he was “believed to be supporting the Communist movement.”(5)

Obviously, one can go on and on about what is absent from these books; what counts is what’s inside them. As I hope I’ve made clear, almost every page is packed with gems, although of course each author is supremely attentive to what Pierre Macherey called the “non-dit” or how exclusions and gaps produce emotional responses as surely as do that which is present and uttered.

These two books are truly significant additions to films studies, American Studies, queer studies and studies on the left, providing deep insights into the Cold War and its affects — and effects. Both are absolutely necessary — and they make clear that there is more to be done.

The authors have opened new paths to studying sexuality and citizenship through film. Who would imagine that there is anything new to be said about “Double Indemnity” (Auerbach) or “Mildred Pierce” (Corber)? But both books made me want to re-watch these films — films I’ve seen dozens of times — with the new lenses they provide.


  1. See Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).
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  2. See Harrison E. Salisbury, The Shook-Up Generation (New York: Signet, 1959).
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  3. See Rebecca M. Schreiber, Cold War Exiles in Mexico: U. S. Dissidents and the Culture of Critical Resistance. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 106.
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  4. Quoted in Virginia Carmichael, Framing History: The Rosenberg Story and the Cold War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 104.
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  5. “Playwright Arthur Miller Refused Visa for a Visit to Brussels to See His Play,” The New York Times (March 31, 1954).
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November/December 2012, ATC 161