1940s American Film Noir
Unexpected Noir
The Decade
Film Noir
Unexpected Noir


Film Noir


Most critics agree that film noir transcends genre to exist as a body of films characterized by their moody stylistic approach and an ambivalent undercurrent of cynicism.

During the 1940s, this dark mood and style found its way into other films that are not usually thought of as classic film noir, ranging from gangster films, westerns, comedies, and fantasies, to even films about that prominent symbol of an ideal America, the small town.


In discussing the depiction of Small-Town America in Film during the 1940s, Emanuel Levy remarks that considering the overpowering national unity and patriotic fervor called for by the war effort during first half of the decade, "it is surprising to find a number of small-town films that were critical of the American Dream and Dominant culture."

In a chapter entitled "The 1940s – Ambivalence and Cynicism," he writes that some of Hollywood's most important films about small towns were produced in the 1940s. He includes in this group: Kings Row, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Talk of the Town (all released in 1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (both in 1944).

Levy concludes that although these films contained varied themes and styles – and each introduced some innovation – they all shared one thing in common: a darker, more cynical vision of small-town America.


In 1946, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life was a leading contender for Best Picture, along with William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, which ended up the big winner, sweeping nine Oscars.

In Newsweek's review of a Wonderful Life, there was an expectation and interpretation of the film from a populist, idealistic viewpoint. "Like any number of Capra films that you can name at random – Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take it With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – his new film reiterates his identification with the kindly, possibly oversentimentalized, "Little" people of these United States."2

Yet James Agee, writing in The Nation, was more skeptical and saw a moral uncertainty in the film. "I mistrust even more deeply the assumption, so comfortably stylish these days, that whether people turn out well or ill depends overwhelming on outside circumstances and scarcely if at all on their own moral intelligence and courage. Neither idea is explicit in this movie, but the whole story depends on the strong implication and assumption of both."3

Despite Capra's celebration of an heroic life, the film contains many cynical elements reflecting wartime and postwar sacrifices. George's life was never under his own control, and his reluctant acceptance of domesticity was an interesting change from the usual portrayal of a woman forced to give up her dreams for her family. Despite its "happy" ending, Levy writes: "The train whistle will continue to remind George of lost opportunities and missed adventurism. In this respect, Wonderful Life is one of the gloomiest movies ever made."4


Although they argue for the basic optimism of films in the 1940s, especially during the war years, Leonard Quart and Albert Auster acknowledge these films often had "a dark side touched with pessimism and self-doubt" even as the films basically endorsed and reflected a feeling of triumph.5

While discussing the overriding purpose of some of these these patriotic films, they also note that the hero of Casablanca (1942) lapsed into the cynicism or malaise that occasionally made its way into wartime movies.

Philip T. Hartung finds a sense of conflict and uncertainty in the female lead as well, writing in The Commonweal that, "[Ingrid] Bergman plays this strange role [the wife of Paul Heinreid, a Czech publisher who is escaping to America where he will continue his fight against Nazi Germany] with subtlety and conviction, but the role itself is not entirely clear because of its continued vacillation."6


As Robert Sklar and Jon Tuska, among others, have noted, dark cynicism and pessimism were not limited to classic film noirs. Sklar agrees with Levy in citing Preston Sturges' slapstick satires, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero (both 1941) as containing elements of claustrophobia and entrapment. Miracle dealt with an unwed mother and the 4-F, would-be boyfriend she tricks into marrying her, while Hail lampooned America's obsession with war heroes. In each film, a man was trapped in false situations not of their own making – a conflicted noir hero played for laughs.7

Other films that are often described as having elements of noir include the gangster film, White Heat (1949), the western, Pursued (1947), and the comedy, Unfaithfully Yours (1948).

The undercurrents of uncertainty and ambivalence that existed in society could be found in many unexpected places.

Return to TopBack to Film Noir


The Decade
Film NoirUnexpected NoirResourcesOverview