America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era

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9781588342188: America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era
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In America Noir David Cochran details how ten writers and filmmakers challenged the social pieties prevalent during the Cold War, such as the superiority of the American democracy, the benevolence of free enterprise, and the sanctity of the suburban family. Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone featured victims of vast, faceless, bureaucratic powers. Jim Thompson's noir thrillers, such as The Grifters, portrayed the ravages of capitalism on those at the bottom of the social ladder. Patricia Highsmith, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, placed an amoral con man in an international setting, implicitly questioning America's fitness as leader of the free world. Charles Willeford's pulp novels, such as Wild Wives and Woman Chaser, depicted the family as a hotbed of violence and chaos.

These artists pioneered a detached, ironic sensibility that radically juxtaposed cultural references and blurred the distinctions between “high” and “low” art. Their refusal to surrender to the pressures for political conformity and their unflinching portrayal of the underside of American life paved the way for the emergence of a 1960s counterculture that forever changed the way America views itself.

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About the Author:

David Cochran earned his PhD in American history from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He currently teaches at John A. Logan College and lives with his wife, three children, and four cats in Herrin, Illinois.

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About halfway through Charles Willeford's debut novel, High Priest of California (1953), the narrator, Russell Haxby, a successful though amoral used-car salesman, drops off his date Alyce. Unsuccessful in his immediate attempt to seduce her, Haxby has nonetheless begun formulating a long-term strategy toward achieving his goal. Before returning home, he walks into a tavern and orders a drink. Sitting at the bar, he surveys the other customers, noticing the man next to him is approximately his size. Then, without warning or provocation, Haxby says, "I put my drink down, raised my elbow level with my shoulder, and spun on my heel. My elbow caught him just below the eye. He raised a beer bottle over his head and my fist caught him flush on the jaw. He dropped to the floor and lay still. I threw a half-dollar on the bar and left. No one looked in my direction as I closed the door." Returning home, Haxby puts the "Romeo and Juliet Overture" on the turntable. "I poured a glass full of gin and played the overture several times while I finished the drink. After this emotional bath I felt wonderful. I went to bed and slept soundly all night. Like a child."

With this one indelible scene, Willeford presented his vision of the quintessential postwar American man. Beneath the pleasant exterior of a successful used-car salesman lies a soul equally capable of lashing out in meaningless, anonymous violence or appreciating the beauty of Tchaikovsky. While at this point in the novel the events do not come as a complete surprise---earlier Haxby had kneed a parking attendant in the groin for pointing out that he had parked in the wrong spot---the realization that the core of his soul Haxby is utterly without conscience prepares the reader for the ultimate revelation that Haxby will treat the people in his life with the same cavalier disdain he shows toward his customers at the car lot.

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