Continuing Education

Shedding Light on Film Noir in the Atomic Age

Few film genres are as wrapped up in a period style as Film Noir. As films, they reflect one of Imagethe most iconic periods of American fashion from the sleek cars and the sharp cut of men’s suits, to the women in pearls matched by a ubiquitous halo of cigarette smoke. Yet beyond the snappy dialogue, femme fatales and black and white film stock, the stories told through Film Noir nearly always feature some dark and untouchable threat looming in the background.For his latest class, Film Noir in the Atomic Age, Jon Noe has handpicked films reflective of a particular kind of threat—one that shaped American culture in the post War years that still hovers over us today.  “The five films I chose have either the threat of the atomic bomb, nuclear secrets, scientists, the red scare or a combination of those themes,” says Noe.

Noe’s fascination with Film Noir dates back to the early 1980s, when he saw Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949). “It's cynical tone, dark themes and stark visual style really caught my attention,” he recalls. “I started reading books on Film Noir. The Dark Side of the Screen by Foster Hirsch was one of the first ones I read. I'm fascinated by the dark side of human nature. Oftentimes in noir the protagonist knows he's doing a bad thing but does it Imageanyway.” For those new to the genre, Noe suggests the best points of entry are Double Indemnity (1944), Out of the Past (1947) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). “Obvious choices,” he says. “If those ones don't get you hooked on noir there's no hope for you.”

That aforementioned sense of threat found in early Film Noir manifests in any number of ways from crime lords to dangerous debutantes, but in the films Noe chose to screen this quarter that dread is reflective of the genre’s shift with early 1950s cold war anxieties. “Paranoia about the commies, who would drop the next bomb, The House on Un-American Activities—all had an effect on the movies coming out of Hollywood,” says Noe. “It was the dark side of the American dream. You've got your standard bad guy thugs in the 1940s movies, but now they're working for, or as foreign agents.”

Fans of Film Noir love their darkness and dread, so their definition of what makes a movie Imageenjoyable may not fit with that of your average movie-goer. For Noe, one film this quarter stands out above the rest of the lot is Shack Out on 101. “It's a low budget film that mostly takes place at a dingy little diner with various characters weaving in and out of the bizarre plot,” he says.  “Who's selling secrets to the commies, and who is the undercover FBI agent. It has to be seen to be believed. Lee Marvin plays a character named Slob. How can you beat that?”

In case you need further convincing to enter the stylishly dark, shadowy and morally ambiguous world of Film Noir in the Atomic Age, please click on the links below to see trailers for each film offering.

The Atomic City (1952)

Split Second (1953)
The Thief (1952)
Shack Out on 101 (1955)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Learn more about Film Noir in the Atomic Age.