By Theresa Rodewald.
In my books on ’50s noir, I was particularly intrigued with how certain ‘structures of feeling’ impact the genre, be it ‘the Bomb’ or the ‘red scare,’ the civil rights movement or the beginning of the end of the classical studio system.”
The 1940s and 1950s are generally regarded as the classic period of film noir. Yet, while 1940s films such as Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946) and Gilda (Charles Visor, 1946) tend to rank high in the noir canon, 1950s noir receives less critical and scholarly attention – exception for of a handful of films such as In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950), The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953) or Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958). With I Died a Million Times: Gangster Noir in Midcentury America (Illinois, 2021) film scholar Robert Miklitsch takes another step towards rectifying this oversight. In his new book, Miklitsch continues the exploration of 1950s film noir which he previously embarked upon in The Red and the Black: American Film Noir in the 1950s (2016).
Miklitsch prefaces I Died a Million Times by stating that “[i]ndividual films should not be subordinated to an overarching argument or theoretical approach.” This premise, which is both bold and distinctive, seems surprising at first. After all, is not a work like Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay on the male gaze the result of an overarching framework, i.e. feminist (film) theory? Miklitsch takes a different, yet valid approach to film analysis. His book revolves around the films he analyses, encountering them, as it were, on their own terms, instead of regarding them first through a prism of theory. This is not to say that Miklitsch neglects the bigger picture, he identifies several interesting motifs such as the individual versus the collective that echo across 1950s gangster noir. The results are enlightening. I Died a Million Times is a fruitful contribution to the study of film noir with case studies that highlight the individuality and complexity of each film without glossing over their more problematic aspects. In the 1950s, Miklitsch shows, progressive films existed alongside more conservative ones – just as they do today.
With regards to structure, I Died a Million Times is divided into three parts, dedicated to the syndicate film, the rogue cop movie and the heist picture, respectively. Thus, the book sheds light on three narratively and stylistically rich subgenres that have previously received little scholarly attention. Miklitsch’s case studies are a well-chosen mix of celebrated classics like The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953) and more obscure films such as 711 Ocean Drive (Joseph M. Newman, 1950; see top image). This fusion is important as it allows us to recognise and relate to the better-known films while also generating interest for less familiar movies.
I Died a Million Times is aimed at both scholars and film fans, making the book an accessible and informative read. Miklitsch successfully avoids getting bogged down in hard-to-grasp academic discourse while simultaneously offering an illuminating contribution to film noir scholarship. The book caters to both fans and scholars by providing new readings of 1950s noir as well as insightful historical context. Miklitsch sheds light on how films reverberate the societal concerns of their time, for example by exploring the relationship between the syndicate film and the Kefauver hearings on organised crime.
I Died a Million Times is a must-read for fans of film noir or gangster movies and a recommendation for everyone interested in 1950s cinema and society more broadly. The book is impressive yet accessible. It exudes a passion for film noir that leaps off the page, making you want to (re-)watch films like The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955), Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger, 1950) or The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956).
Robert Miklitsch is a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Ohio University and author of The Red and the Black: American Film Noir in the 1950s and Siren City: Sound and Source Music in Classic American Noir (2011). Now,Miklitsch has published a book that examines the interplay of gangster movies and film noir in the 1950s. I Died a Million Times. Gangster Noir in Midcentury America examines the often-overlooked subgenres of the syndicate film, the rogue cop picture and the heist movie, analyzing and discussing classics like The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953) alongside lesser-known films such as 711 Ocean Drive (Joseph M. Newman, 1950).
Film International had the pleasure of talking to Robert Miklitsch in-depth about the approach to film analysis that he takes in his new book, the influence of television on film noir and the importance of sound in gangster movies.
You’ve published several books and essays on film noir, why is film noir so close to your heart?
I do have a real passion for film noir. One reason, I think, is that the films tend to be dark and, for some reason, I’m drawn to dark or “blue” things, like Kind of Blue. More specifically, I first fell in love with detective fiction, in particular, Raymond Chandler, who wrote the screenplay for, among other things, The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall, 1946) and co-wrote Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder (1944). I’m also part of a generation that began to see a paradigm-shift from print to audiovisual or moving-image culture, so the move from “pulp fiction” to, say, Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) seems, in retrospect, like a fait accompli. I like the fact that you ask about film noir being “close to my heart,” since it has been a romance – a long-standing one (a marriage, perhaps?) – and I do feel that, over the years, my relationship to it has become intimate: close to my heart, as you put it.
I am intrigued by the approach to film analysis you take in I Died a Million Times. It’s interesting and bold to say that films should not be subjected to theoretical frameworks such as feminist or Marxist theory. I wondered how you arrived at this conclusion, especially as I saw that you edited a volume on Psycho-Marxism in the late 1990s.
The relation between interpretation – I want to say, remembering one of my graduate classes, “hermeneutics” – is a complicated one. In my case, I started out as a poet-critic, then turned to theory and eventually took a tenure-track job in Critical Theory. I taught theory for many years and “applied” it to popular-culture texts. But I began to feel, perhaps because I was writing on popular culture, that too many theoretically inclined critics were using “works of art” to illustrate a specific theory or were producing readings that, it seemed to me at the time, were too one-sided, too negative: not, as it were, dialectical. This critical practice has been referred, pejoratively speaking, as a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” I did not subscribe to this methodological posture because I was never interested in writing about art that didn’t, in some fashion, positively engage me.
I was also influenced, theoretically speaking, by Derrida’s practice of “affirmative deconstruction” first formulated in, I believe, Éperons. In short, in the wake of the fall of deconstruction, I felt one way out of the above aporia was dialectics. This brought both Hegel and Marxism into play: hence my first book, From Hegel to Madonna: Towards a General Economy of “Commodity Fetishism”, which is a synthesis of Marx (commodity fetishism) and Derrida (general economy, “putting into quotations”) as well as so-called “high” theory and American popular culture (Madonna, music video).
Basically, I was trying to look at popular-cultural texts as both commodities and texts – that is, their significance could not be reduced to their status as commodities. I still believe this is important when you’re talking about popular-cultural texts, especially super-popular-cultural texts. It’s less important with respect to classic noir because many of the films didn’t, and don’t, circulate in the same way as, say, a Beyoncé music video like Lemonade or, to take a topical example, the most recent James Bond film, No Time to Die (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2021).
I would say that the biggest risk in submitting any work of art to an overarching theoretical framework is that it almost always results in a diminution of the complexity of the text. Sometimes, it’s worth it when a critic is able to make insightful observations about either a text or across a series of texts.”
So, the problem with an overarching theoretical framework is that it doesn’t do justice to the complexity of a film?
Yes, I would say that the biggest risk in submitting any work of art to an overarching theoretical framework is that it almost always results in a diminution of the complexity of the text. Sometimes, it’s worth it when a critic is able to make insightful observations about either a text or across a series of texts. Having taught theory for some thirty years, I’ve become familiar with a lot of different theoretical approaches, so it’s not so much that I never “use” a theory when discussing a text; rather, I try to listen, if you will, to the text and then if a particular theoretical lens seems like it might be useful, I use it. However, as much as possible, I try to approach texts without any theoretical preconceptions. Since it’s equally important, of course, not to fetishize the individual text, which would produce a mere reversal of a too-hegemonic theory, I’ve become more and more interested over time in the industrial as well as social and historical contexts of film noir. Thus, in my books on ’50s noir, I was particularly intrigued with how certain “structures of feeling” impact the genre, be it “the Bomb” or the “red scare,” the civil rights movement or the beginning of the end of the classical studio system.
So, how did I Died a Million Times come about?
I Died a Million Times: Gangster Noir in Midcentury America is a bookend to The Red and the Black: American Film Noir in the 1950s, both of which texts were a response to my first book on film noir, Siren City: Sound and Source Music in Classic American Noir, and a collection that I edited, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands: On Classic Film Noir. I wrote Siren City because I didn’t think enough attention had been paid to the sound track (two words) of classic noir. My book was part of a larger movement, a turn toward sound in film studies. Then, having written on sound in ’40s noir and edited a collection on classic noir, it struck me that the extant literature on American film noir either ignored or marginalized the 1950s. So, in The Red and the Black, I wrote about what I felt were two of the major subgenres in the 1950s – the anticommunist noir (e.g., I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. [Gordon Douglas, 1951]) and “nuclear” or “atomic” noir (e.g., Kiss Me Deadly [Robert Aldrich, 1955]) – in addition to new technologies such as color, 3D, and widescreen (e.g., Niagara [Henry Hathaway, 1953], The Glass Web [Jack Arnold, 1953], and House of Bamboo [Samuel Fuller, 1955], respectively). Since in the course of my research for The Red and the Black I realized that ’50s noirs were both more numerous and richer than I had originally imagined, in I Died a Million Times I returned to the topic and addressed three other subgenres that I felt were essential to understanding midcentury American noir: the “syndicate” picture (e.g., The Big Combo [Joseph H. Lewis, 1955]), the “heist” picture (e.g., The Asphalt Jungle [John Huston, 1950]), and the “rogue cop” film (e.g., The Big Heat).
How do the various subgenres of 1950s noir connect?
There are all sorts of thematic correspondences between the various subgenres discussed in the two books on ’50s noir such as the individual versus the “system”. Indeed, another critic might see this theme as an overarching one and, therefore, an organizing principle for a book, but I really tried to resist the impulse to read the decade in these terms, not least as it might reinscribe precisely the sort of totalizing gesture that the films themselves are exploring. Equally or more important, most academic books on noir tend to subordinate the text to the argument, the particular to the general, and I wanted to try to respect what I think of as the otherness of works of art. This impulse probably comes from the fact that my mother was a poet and that I wrote poetry seriously for ten years. The net effect is that in conflicts between art and critics, my allegiance tends to be with the art, if not the artist. I’ve been influenced here by Adorno who talks about doing justice to the radical eccentricity of works of art.
The idea that movies express tensions or concerns of their time is sometimes criticised, for example, because films tend to be in production for several years. What is your take on this with regard to the films of the 1950s?
Movies “express,” to a greater or lesser extent, “the tensions or concerns of their time.” How could they not? The thing is, and that’s why a word like “express” may not be the most resonant, the relation between a film and its historical conditions of possibility is not a simple, mimetic one. The key here, for me at least, is the notion of mediation, which I take from Adorno. Movies mediate – in the largest, most complex sense – history, or to adopt the passive voice, movies are mediated by their historical conditions of possibility. The other, critical aspect of mediation, which I also derive from Adorno, is that it’s more productive to look for this “expressive” element in a film’s form, not its content or themes where form can be understood as the syntax or, more generally, genre of a given film. Take The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956), which I would argue is, like The Asphalt Jungle a paradigmatic heist picture. If we can agree that Kubrick’s film is a heist picture, what does the heist picture say about midcentury America? I would submit that Fordist systematization is writ large in Kubrick’s film. This systematization of everyday life is manifest not only in the individual gang members’ relation to the gang but in the film’s fragmented, picture-puzzle structure, which represents an advanced understanding of the contradictions of capitalism. Consider in this context the racetrack money, paper money, that’s fluttering like confetti in the film’s penultimate sequence; this money seems very different than the precious stones that constitute the currency of The Asphalt Jungle. With this in mind, I think it’s possible to predict that we’ll soon be seeing heist films about bitcoin and cryptocurrencies!
You mentioned the contradictions of capitalism: The syndicate picture is a fascinating subgenre of the gangster film that frequently draws parallels between big business and organized crime, yet it tends to be under-appreciated.
I agree. The syndicate film has been under-appreciated as a subgenre, particularly in film noir. One reason is that film noir tends to be associated – wrongly, I think – with the individual: say, the private detective or rogue cop. But if the rogue cop is a criminal double of the private detective, the syndicate picture can be said to be the dialectical other of the detective film. In fact, the ’50s syndicate picture can be said to succeed, historically speaking, the ’40s detective film as big business and its mirror-image, organized crime, become the capitalist and criminal systems or “totalities” that threaten the integrity of the rugged or possessive individualism so beloved in the American political imaginary. A perverse, because right-wing, example would be Big Jim McClain (Edward Ludwig, 1952). In this classic anti-communist film, John Wayne is a HUAC special investigator who discovers that communists have infiltrated a longshoremen’s union. In other words, the trouble in Big Jim McLain is located not in the increasing corporatization of everyday life as in a syndicate film like The Brothers Rico (Phil Karlson, 1957) – note that big business is a reversible figure of both communism and Murder, Inc. – but in a union: not in capital, but labor. So, from the paranoid perspective of Big Jim McLain, the union is always already suspect because it threatens to muddy the direct, exploitative relation between the individual worker and management and thereby disrupt the streamlined functioning of Fordist-styled big business: America, Inc.
How did you select the films you analyze?
Good question. With respect to I Died a Million Times the simple answer is that, having screened as many ’50s noirs as I could (I used various reference books for titles), I wrote about those films that I felt were the most significant, formally and/or thematically. Of course, this is always something of a judgment call, especially when you get beyond those films that noir critics consider central to the canon, whether it’s Kiss Me Deadly or Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953), The Killing or Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958), Odds against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959) or Underworld U.S.A. (Samuel Fuller, 1961). However, I believe that it’s imperative for critics to work against the impulse to write on the same, canonical films. For example, I’m not sure we need another reading of Double Indemnity. I’m not sure we need yet another book on Hitchcock. In my books, I’ve tried to write about film noirs that are considered central to the canon as well as films that are more marginal. In fact, I sometimes find that the latter, peripheral films are more instructive in terms of the genre than canonical ones. Consider two minor ’50s noirs starring Edmond O’Brien, 711 Ocean Drive and Shield for Murder (Howard W. Koch, Edmond O’Brien, 1954), neither of which film had, before I Died a Million Times, attracted much critical attention outside of encyclopedia entries. 711 Ocean Drive is a remarkable example of the syndicate picture and the subgenre’s dramatization of the conflict between the individual and the “organization” because, in the end, the syndicate wins and the mob boss is flying off to see his grandchildren. In Shield for Murder, a rogue cop film that O’Brien also co-directed, the desire for the middle-class life in the form of a suburban tract home is exposed as a dangerous fiction. O’Brien’s character, Barney Nolan, is a policeman whose “shield” does not protect the polis from crime but signifies a murderously “rogue” element that italicizes the dark side of the American Dream.
The interesting thing about film noir is, of course, that it’s not strictly a genre, neither is it limited to a specific point in time…
Film noir may not be a genre, strictly speaking, like the Western or musical, but then film genres for me are more heuristic than not. This seems to me the most productive way to think about film noir since it is, for some critics, a meta-genre that exemplifies the antinomies of what Derrida calls the “law of the genre.” Accordingly, I do think it’s useful, practically speaking, to think of noir as a genre rather as a style or mood, period or movement – as, that is to say, a body or corpus of films that shares certain formal and thematic motifs. I address this issue, if only obliquely, in I Died a Million Times in the context of gangster noir. I raise the question: Are certain films like The Brothers Rico instances of film noir or the gangster picture, or are they hybrids – part gangster film, part film noir. From one perspective, Phil Karlson’s film appears on the face of it to be a gangster picture since it’s about being a member of the mob; from another perspective, it’s about a gangster who, having seen both of his brothers ruthlessly executed by the Family, wants out. In the end, the protagonist’s existential anguish seems closer, in mood or sensibility, to film noir than to the classic gangster picture. In fact, The Brothers Rico appears to derive from a film like High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941) where High Sierra is itself the not-so-vanishing mediator, like Bogart, in the sea-change of the classic gangster picture to film noir in the guise of The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941).
In I Died a Million Times you also reflect on the influence of television on film noir. Why is it important to make that connection?
Television is crucial to understanding movies ever since it reared its monstrous hydra head. (I’m metaphorically evoking the motion-picture industry’s anxiety about TV dramatized in a ’50s noir like The Glass Web.) I explore this issue in the final part of The Red and the Black where I examine ’50s noirs that mobilize color, 3D, or widescreen to combat the increasing popularity of the “small screen.” I also touch upon the issue in I Died a Million Times in the context of the syndicate film since the congressional hearings on organized crime were televised in the 1950s and attracted a lot of “eyeballs.” Televisuality is also apparent, however, in ’50s noir in certain formal attributes like flatter, low-contrast lighting, so much so that The Brothers Rico looks as if it were made for TV. In sum, I’d go so far as to say that you can’t understand ’50s noir without understanding the emerging paradigm-shift in the mediatic constellation where TV is the new sun around which “cinema” is fast becoming a satellite or moon.
Your scholarly focus is not just on film noir and gangster films, but also on musicals. Sound plays an integral role in gangster films, especially the classic cycle. Could you talk a bit about that connection?
Sound is crucial to post-silent cinema – with the proviso that silent cinema was not really silent. Can one imagine a classic gangster film without ambient sound effects, the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns? Similarly, sound is also crucial to how we experience film noir. Think of one of the major sonic tropes of the genre, voice-over, and Walter Neff confessing his crimes into a Dictaphone in Double Indemnity. Or, to cite one of my favorite acoustic scenes (it’s wonderfully sadistic), Mr. Brown using a hearing aid and a radio turned up extra LOUD to torture the police detective in The Big Combo. In addition to ambient sound and source music, there’s also of course non-diegetic music in the form of scores – I personally can’t imagine Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949) without hearing Miklós Rózsa’s haunting music – as well as musical numbers, a topic that I explore in detail in Siren City where I suggest that “siren” songs in film noir are like the numbers in a classic American musical. Finally, I’ve always tried to keep an ear open to the play of silence in film, which is not unlike – come to think of it – trying to keep your eye open to off-screen space. One example that I find incredibly moving is the final sequence of Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947) where the mute boy who works for Jeff Bailey, having lied to Jeff’s beloved so that she can go on with her life, salutes the gas-station sign – a semaphore of sorts that speaks volumes.
What’s next for you?
In the past year, I completed a memoir, My Movie Life: A Memoir as Montage of Attractions, that uses movies to tell the story of my life. More recently, I’m in the process of completing a novel provisionally titled The Secret of the Girl at the Columbus Zoo that’s set in Columbus, Ohio. The title of each chapter references a film noir or “mystery” such as Nancy Drew’s The Clue of the Black Keys. The story revolves around a young man who works in Film & Video at the Wexner Center of the Arts who meets a “mysterious” young woman at the Columbus Zoo who’s sketching, like Irena in Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942), a panther. When she leaves abruptly at the end of their first date after they’ve paused in front of a Victoria’s Secret store at an outdoor mall, he wonders why. What is the “secret” of the girl at the Columbus Zoo, will he ever be able to divine it, and if he does, how will it impact their blossoming romance, a romance – see Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947) – that a Tarot reader has foretold?
 The House Committee on Un-American Activities which investigated allegations of communist activity in the United States. In 1947, the HUAC investigated major Hollywood studios which resulted in blacklisting industry professionals that were believed to be Communists.
Theresa Rodewald, MA, studied Cinema Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden and Cultural Studies in Germany and Ireland. She writes for a number of independent film magazines, including L-MAG and Berliner Filmfestivals, and has written about critiques of capitalism in current gangster films, images of masculinity in Scarface (1932) and the representation of queer women in mainstream cinema. She is a contributor to David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, December 2021).