Noir and Masculinity

The American definition of masculinity has changed greatly in the 20th century. At the turn of the 20th century, it was defined by a shared cultural identity that stressed a white, middle-class, frontier-era mythology of America that was built on societal ideals of individualism and self-reliance.

At the end of the century that shared cultural identity has become fractured and is now defined by conflicting racial, ethnic, sexual and societal norms. For most of the century this had been a gradual metamorphosis in the societal role of the American male but World War II brought about that massive societal change quickly. The popular culture of the time, especially the moody film noir thrillers of the 1940's and 1950's, recorded that change.

In the 1944 film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo a young American aviator tells his friends about his expectations returning home after the victory in World War II. "When it's all over, just think, being able to settle down and never be in doubt about anything." The typical World War II veteran was optimistic that victory abroad would return him to his proper role and place in society. The war had ended decades of economic stagnation, and winning on the battlefield renewed a lost faith in his masculine identity. It dispelled, for a time, the fears and inadequacies that he had lived through as a child of the Great Depression. He yearned to return to his traditional American role as the unchallenged benefactor; giving aid to those at home and at work.

It was a heroic ideal that hadn't existed in America since the turn of the century. Women and minorities had continued to carve themselves new niches in the wartime economy and would not return to what was considered their proper place before World War II. The veteran may have wished to return to the America of his grandfather's day, but the post-war landscape he would grow to inhabit, was colder, and far more cynical than he had ever imagined.

A growing paranoia fueled by the hysteria of the Cold War, and the vague unhappiness that suburban life would bring, would taint the effervescent postwar climate. Though made only three years after Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Edward Dymytrick's 1947 film Crossfire seems like generations have passed in between the two films. It gives us a portrait, not of the idyllic nature of the earlier film, but an America as violent and untrustworthy as the environment the G.I. encountered in Europe during the War. The protagonist of Crossfire is Jeff Mitchell, a conflicted and apathetic marine who epitomized this new post-war attitude, "A guy like me after the war hates
himself because he's scared to get going again." In the film a violent bigot and fellow marine played by Robert Ryan frame Mitchell for the murder of a Jewish character in the film. The film tackles the controversial issues of anti-Semitism and institutional racism and criticizes an America still enraptured with itself from its victory overseas. Crossfire reflects the uneasy transition that veterans made to civilian society and captures the darkly cynical mood that permeated beneath the surface of post-war America. It is one of the finest examples of postwar film noir.

It was a year before Crossfire was released that French film critic Nino Frank actually coined the term film noir to describe what he perceived as a current trend within Hollywood wartime cinema. These "dark films" were filled with characters whose ambitions and passionate obsessions rule their lives and lead them to committ either moral or ethical transgressions that they are invariably punished for at the end of the movie. Often noir films have a message warning the audience not to overstep their societal obligations and maintain their moral fiber.

Janey Place, in her feminist reinterpretation of the films, Women in Film Noir, states that "film noir is a male fantasy, as is most of our art." She focuses on the interpretation of female roles and stereotypes in film noir and how they reflect the changing male attitudes towards women. Still, that´s a very narrow interpretation of the films. A similar interpretation needs to be done, according to new scholarship available in men's studies, to show the active progression of male roles and stereotypes during the century and the specific masculine preoccupation's that post-war popular culture reflected. The film noir hero is an archetype of that post-war American masculinity.

The important element of classical film noir is that it follows a finite life cycle with a tangible beginning, middle and end. It reflects a period of American life that begins primarily with the end of the Great Depression, is in no small way connected with the impressions of World War II, and ends with the burgeoning social and political revolutions of the 1960's. Paul Schrader, a noted film historian and screenwriter (Taxi Driver), pinpoints this period as having starting with The Maltese Falcon (1941), then reaching its pinnacle with Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and ends with the superb epitaph Touch of Evil (1958). If we were to examine these three very different films from varying historical periods of the noir life-cycle, and examine them according to the changing masculine and feminine roles in general society, a clearer picture of the process by which culture affects change in society, and is then effected by it emerges.

The Maltese Falcon is generally regarded as the starting point of film noir. While it is ostensibly about private investigator Sam Spade's very personal search for the killer of his partner Miles Archer the tale quickly finds him embroiled in a search for the priceless, jeweled encrusted artifact that the title refers to. This "black bird" is sought out by a group of deadly eccentrics who test Spade's personal, ethical and moral code. It is his masculinity that is
ultimately threatened.

The film, which was released in 1941, and the novel, which was released in 1930, are both indicative of the progressive, social and political ideals of the 1930's and early 1940's, and also the changing face of American masculinity to that point. Certain factors would influence the collective psychology of American men at the turn of the century. When World War I ended in 1917, and the American soldier returned home as a confident victor, few people realized the ramifications of that victory.

Ernest Hemingway, like other writers of the "Lost Generation", knew altogether too well of the veterans' conflicted inner
psyche. Hemingway had left for Europe, during the early days of the war, in part to search for an arena to test his manhood. Even then the American male had considered modern life contrary to the principles by which men had traditionally won their adult masculinity. War was still considered the ultimate testing ground. Hemingway, like many others, would return deeply scarred from his experiences on the front. In his short story, "Soldier's Home," he writes of a protagonist that "returns [home] only to feel suffocated in civilian life and tries to disengage from the world, to live alone without consequences." This mirrored his own internal struggle in readjusting to civilian life and illustrated a similar disaffection that other WWII veterans would face.

Increased economic competition in the next decade would affect the dominant masculine ideal in America. The 1920's saw blacks and immigrants entering the workforce in greater numbers. This gave rise to an orchestrated campaign fueled by scathing newspaper rhetoric that called for legislation to curb the inroads of blacks and immigrants in the workforce.

The more severe racial epithets were expressed in terms of gender slander. Blacks and immigrants were depicted as either "feminized and effete or wildly savage hyper masculine beasts." It was an instinctual attack on the masculinity of others in the hopes that it would relieve collective fears or recapture lost masculinity in a small way. This backlash culminated in "the Immigration Act of 1924, which passed after bitter controversy and significantly reduced the number of immigrants allowed into the nation." This would be the most important reaction to the diminished role of American masculinity and would be seen repeated often throughout the coming decades.

The next perceived threat would be American women. As black and immigrant men were "feminized" to remove their perceived threat to American masculinity, women were also placed in a similar category because of their own equally important economic gains. By 1920 about one half of the college students and one-third of all employed Americans were women.9 Their entry into the American workforce would coincide with other unprecedented cultural ripple effects, including the Great Depression in 1929, that would and severely damage the traditional American masculine ideal.

On Friday, October 28, 1929 the U.S. Stock Exchange suffered one of the greatest economic disasters of the 20th century. By the following Monday, U.S. securities would lose 26 billion dollars in value. Between 1929 and 1932 the income of the average American family was reduced by 40%, from $2,300 to $1,500.11 Women were blamed for causing the Great Depression and continuing the protracted economic decline by staying in the workforce. Author Norman Cousins held a popular opinion held that massive unemployment could be eliminated if women returned to the home and men went about their traditional role as breadwinners. He proposed to simply "fire the women . . .and hire the men. Presto! No unemployment. No relief rolls. No Depression!"

American men, who were accustomed to their role as unquestioned economic provider for their families, began to feel their reduced leadership role as head of the American family. As a result, many men sought solace in the comfortable familial environment of the home and their own, often neglected, fatherhood:

"The workplace was too unreliable, to enable men to prove their manhood; in fact it eroded their authority at home. Many men returned. . . in the hope that by raising their sons to be successful men they could themselves achieve some sense of masculine redemption."

The upbringing of these children, that would one day grow to fight in World War II, would be effected by the changing masculine preoccupations of their fathers and the manner in which they would pass on their changing masculine roles to their sons.

In a traditional sense American men defined their masculinity by the achievement of social or financial success as determined by exterior sources like society, employment, and family. After the Great Depression, masculinity was "redefined away from achievement in the public sphere and reconceived as the exterior manifestation of a certain inner sense of oneself." and determined by acquired traits from infancy and early development.

This change in the acquisition of masculinity, from exterior to interior methodologies, is important. The next decade in the study of American masculinity would follow this developmental process in the male sex-role identity. The adult sense of masculine "normalcy" is approached with the idea that it can be passed on to the next generation as if it were considered an immunity or an acquired trait.

During the 1930's "having the sex-appropriate traits, attitudes and interests that psychologically 'validate' or 'reaffirm' their biological sex manifests this new ideal of adult masculinity." Parents requested a separation of the sexes in schools because they believed that masculine traits were being corrupted by the influences of female teachers. It led to nationwide
testing of children to distinguish the varying levels of masculinity and
femininity in a child.

Masculinity /Femininity Tests were used as barometers to determined the acceptable social levels of opposing traits in male and females. Certain physical attributes and behaviors are used in these tests to distinguish "real men" from not only women but also from the physical traits of effeminate men. This new ideal of masculinity is dependent on the idea that if heterosexual men are different from women, and homosexual men are different from heterosexual men, that women and homosexual men are different in the same way from heterosexual men. Also, the traits that homosexual men and women share can be measured and guarded against by heterosexual men.

In a sense, American masculinity was now defined by what it wasn't rather than what it was, and like a dual edged Sword of Damocles, American masculinity during the 1930's is used to pass judgement on others as it also does on itself.

The Maltese Falcon is a work purely of this time in American history and reflects the direct preoccupations that American readers had at the end of the 1920's and early 1930's. Written in 1930 by the American crime novelist Dashiell Hammett it is, like many of Hammet's other crime novels, a response to the genteel and mannered British mystery novels of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. These purely American mysteries were direct and forceful, featuring masculine detective heroes that prove and define themselves by their ability to overcome the dangers that the narrative places in front of them. In referring to an early Hammett novel Red Harvest James Naremore states that:

"Sometimes the heroes toughness is exaggerated to the point of burlesque: at one point in Red Harvest (1929), [he] spends all night drinking gin with a blond floozy, takes a cold bath, and has a fight with a killer . . . and without any benefit of another cold bath, he captures an escaped convict and solves a murder mystery that has baffled the police for years."

Hammett's protagonists were often loners with a strict moral code that may or may not be tied to a definite social order or common morality and this philosophy is very much in tune with the modern internally based identification of masculinity. Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon, is a loner who walks the mean streets of San Francisco and transcends the societal mores of the conventional society that he dislikes and the criminal society that he often admires. At the end of film, when faced with a rather difficult decision to turn the killer in or not, Spade decries:

"When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. . . it's bad for business to let the killer get away with it. Bad all around. Bad for every detective everywhere." This world view is based on strict ideals of a working society and the individuals' responsibility to make it work, especially when considered after the effects of the Great Depression society itself and its institutions seemed no longer to work. Spade seems to be saying that it is the individual and not society who is ultimately responsible for the success and even the failure of the society in which The Maltese Falcon was written.

The most important theme discussed in The Maltese Falcon is the recurring trial of masculinity that Sam Spade endures and it is typical of the popular mystery and detective fiction of the time. These stories usually include:

"The presentation of an exotic milieu of crime and corruption; a representation of characters who scorn the regimentation of 'conformist society'; a sequence of scenes structured around principles of masculine testing where the hero defines himself through the conflict with various sets of adversaries (criminals, women)."

In Dashiell Hammet's The Maltese Falcon, Spade seeks to prove his own masculine professionalism by outwitting his criminal adversaries and by triumphing over the dangers presented by the story's feminine presence; represented in the abstract by many of the supporting characters in the story. Spade serves as the reader's proxie who offers, through the sheer force of his personality, a means to recapture lost masculinity.

John Huston's 1941 adaptation of the tale is indicative of the popular culture of the 1940's. The Maltese Falcon reflects the general unease that often hangs between masculine and feminine gender roles. The film reflects the manner in which American men were being accu

lturated at the time and is clearly contemptuous of not only women but effeminate men. Other groups that did not fit in with the narrow white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle- class and heterosexual definition of American masculinity were also scorned.

In it Sam Spade is confronted with three male antagonists that reflect the dominant societal challenge to the masculine ideal. The character Joel Cairo, a stylish fop played by Peter Lorre in the movie, is one of three rather repulsive homosexual images. Cairo is a distinctively perfumed European-Continental stereotype who is enthralled with wealth and decadent in his
tastes. Sidney Greenstreet's character Gutman is a large man of esteemed refinements, who is also engorged with the corruptions he keeps; one of which is his personal bodyguard Wilmer. Wilmer is a violent but naive character, a bodyguard in more than name, and in the novel characterized as
ìimplicitly a homosexual. In the movie, Wilmer is referred to, "as 'sonny','boy' and 'kid', and Bogart derisively calls him a 'gunsel."

The term "gunsel" has an apt meaning for the topic, especially by tracing its transformation in usage. Since about 1915 the "gunsel" had been used to describe a passive sodomite, especially a young or inexperienced companion. From the mid 1920's it gradually came to mean a sneaky or
disreputable person of any kind. By the 1930's it meant a petty gangster or hoodlum. This progression of the term denotes the venom in which homosexual stereotypes were portrayed in popular culture.

Spade outwits these "lesser" men and defines his own masculine persona by disarming both Cairo and Wilmer of their weapons, which is clearly phallic gesture, and outsmarts Gutman's master plan to seize the valuable "black bird" for himself. The falcon turns out to be a worthless piece of lead, but that isn't important for the impact of the story. The Maltese Falcon is resolved by the trials that Sam Spade meets. He is defined by all that he rejects, whether it is wealth, decadence or frailty. He even rejects love when it conflicts with that moral direction.

The female character's in The Maltese Falcon are important. As in most film noirs they they help define Sam Spade, since is often defines himself by his relationship to them. Miles Archers' widow, with whom Spade has been having an affair all along, is the mother-like figure who seeks to marry and save the male protagonist from himself. As comforting as her role may seem she is the most threatening female figure of them all. She comes to Spade after her husband's death and offers him stability and security and he rejects her advances because she threatens his independence and self-reliance: two ideals that are fuled by his masculine libido.

A professional barrier keeps Sam Spade and his secretary Effie Perrine apart. Spade protects and shelters her but never makes any sexual advances to because he realizes that no relationship with her could flourish and again she would stifle his masculine independence. Effie is the female noir archetype of the pure and virginal woman.

In her guise as Miss Wonderly, as she is known in her first scene with Sam Spade, or as the habitual liar Brigid O'Shaunessy, Mary Astor plays one of the film noirs primary "femme-fatales" or fatal woman. The femme fatale tempts the hero with romance and the sexual freedom of youth, which offers a manner to placate his masculine independence and libido, but her own savage sexuality usually destroys the film noir protagonist, although Sam Spade is another man altogether.

"We may find ourselves admiring her for she is indeed powerful, dangerously so from a male point of view. And her power and intelligence, though presented in terms of her destructive potential, are always fueled by her sexuality."

Brigit is smart and conniving, and usually able to manipulate events to suit her needs, but in this case is no match for either her own long neglected emotions, as she develops romantic yearnings for Sam Spade.

Often these images of feminity are perceived as demeaning to women. In film noir the only female that suffers the penalty in the end is the sexually active femme-fatale. These women are actually quite strong and independent and one of the first instances, in popular film, where women are empowered by their control over the weak male protagonists. Her power would grow throughout the decade as feminine status in society would grow. The female in film noir begins to take on the traditionally masculine role and becomes the instigator. Men in film noir would tend to gravitate toward the traditional feminine of the victim.

The typical film noir protagonist is usually "isolated either physically or mentally, from his surroundings and is often foredoomed and aware of his ultimate fate, he faces it with stoic determination." He is usually "between the ages of twenty-five and fifty . . . the time is 1940 to the present, with a special concentration on the years 1945-1958."23 Any study of wartime America and post-war American masculinity in film noir needs to follow the progression in the male protagonist from hero to victim, or from the traditionally masculine to feminine role.

Even though The Maltese Falcon is cited as having started the film noir cycle, Sam Spade is not the prototypical noir hero. Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade has not yet lost his moral compass and is still the epitome of the Depression era image of masculinity. A more typical representation of the film noir protagonist is Walter Neff, the amoral insurance agent who conspires to kill his lover's husband in Double Indemnity, or Joe Gillis, the failed Hollywood screenwriter who is captured like a fly in amber by the decadent leanings and easy money of silent screen star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. They are both typical stereotypes of the later noir male protagonists. Neff betrays his trusting employer and Gillis betrays Desmond for a younger woman. Both movies are told by them wry flashbacks, Gillis or Nefff being either dead or dying, and reminder of where their indiscretions have led them: trapped by circumstances or their own varying levels of ambition. Compared to Sam Spade, Neff and Gillis would foreshadow the changes in American masculinity that would see in the ensuing decades influenced by massive societal change.

After the bombing of Pear Harbor, American society would no longer be the same. World War II would define the popular culture of the ensuing decades. After years of depression and war, the American public was buoyed by a newfound confidence that winning the war brought. The per capita income had doubled from $1231 to $2390 per year from 1939 through 1945. To add to that figure the national unemployment rate maintained at a relatively steady low of about 4.5% average during the same period, and more shocking was that it had dropped "from a pre-World War II average of around 20% unemployment." The growing economic windfall raised the public's confidence further and it was this assuredness that brought about the drastic societal changes that would follow in the ensuing decade. Americans accumulated an astounding $29 billion of savings in six years during the war, up from $2.6 billion in 1939. This created a boom in numerous levels of postwar American society.

Construction increased significantly during the decade as, "housing starts never fell under 1.3 million annually, except once, for the remainder of the 1950's."7 The federal government was able to create and fund new public works projects that helped build roads that connected the inner cities to the growing mass of suburban tract homes that veterans were buying. Secondly, the G.I. Bill was passed that would impart a series of low interest home loans to fund the reconstruction of cities and suburbs and a comprehensive education fund that would educate the workforce. Veterans were hardworking, family oriented and quick to take advantage of these social programs that encouraged them to invest in themselves and their communities.

The ultimate barometer of that prosperity was seen in the postwar bedroom. The ensuing decade demonstrated one of the largest post-war population booms in history. As a result, "1.12 million babies were born in 1946 and grew every year but one until a peak was reached in 1957 when the birth rate reached 1.837 million." The veteran of World War II who returned after years abroad and remade his society to work in the orderly fashion that he had grown accustomed to. He had faith in the technology, prosperity and the inevitability of progress.

As much as the popular culture reflected that bright and optimistic reflection of the American psyche it also reflected a darker image of America. Despite the economic and social gains, the popular mood was often downbeat. In the decade of the 1950's people were afraid of the enemy and the bomb and even those that had supplied the enemy with the bomb.

The eras' most popular author was Mickey Spillane. He was very much in tune with the zeitgeist of society, and much like Sam Spade was to the late 1930's and early 1940's, his Mike Hammer would be to the popular culture of the early 1950's. Hammer's investigations were fueled by unadulterated rage and paranoia, and livened up by the titillation of his pneumatically endowed "lust" interests. Spillane wrote novels long on sex and violence and short on logic and perspective, since the only correct perspective is Hammer's. The villains are ineffective figures, as are the police and any other authority figure, neither one capable of withstanding the gale force that is Mike Hammer. The character clearly touched a nerve in the public. He was a perfect foil for Spillane's readers and their collective anger and fear that revolved around women, who were the primary villains in Spillane's fiction, and more vehemently the Communists.

The Cold War began as soon as the Soviet Union expanded its borders into Germany after the fall of Hitler in 1945. It was only four years later, when
the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb that they were actually taken
seriously as a threat to American dominance in the 20th century. It was two years later that Americans would hold somebody personably responsible for the Cold War. In 1951 Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were tried, convicted and in 1953 executed for treason; having sold top-secret documents to the Russians regarding the United States nuclear program.  The general mood was shattered further by the effect of the Korean War between 1950-1953. The prolonged fighting gave fuel to the domestic paranoia of the Red Scare. The HUAC committee hearings, which had begun shortly after the war, and continued throughout much of the 1950's, sought to weed out Communist influences in society. Hollywood films would become a primary target for their rhetoric. Edward Dymytrick's, who directed the 1947 film Crossfire, was tried shortly after the release of the film, in front of the congressional hearing, and like other "members of the "Hollywood Ten' [was] imprisoned for contempt of Congress." The fear Communism would lead to other purges in government of suspected Communists that, whether true or not, "during the period 1947-1956. . .there were 2,700 dismissals and 12,000 resignations of government employees."

The difference, between a pre-war thriller like The Maltese Falcon and a nuclear age-noir like Kiss Me Deadly, would be enormous and primarily in their differing portrayals of the ideal masculine protagonist. Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly and Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon are as different as the times in which they "lived": "Premeditated murder has given way to spontaneous sadism; individual paranoia to general anarchy; the prospect of a lifetime's jail sentence to the numbing terror of nuclear holocaust."

Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer was characteristic of both the changes in the ideal of masculinity and its portrayal in post-war popular culture. In Joseph Pleck's theory of the changing roles of masculinity and femininity,
"World War II caused a temporary reversal in the long term historical decline of the traditional male role and of the shorter-term, more specific crises of the
depression."34 The economy was righted and men returned from the war
having experienced a camaraderie that was seen as almost a return to the traditional American ideal of masculinity. Still they returned to a landscape
greatly changed.

The 1950's also saw theories of masculine role development that added
meaning to established theories of Masculine/Feminine. Two important theories were added that allowed researchers to study the levels of masculinity versus femininity in a test subject. The first was Identification, which dealt with the causes or developmental origin of abnormal masculine/feminine traits. Developmental problems in men were caused by too close of an attachment with their mothers as young boys. Women did not have these developmental problems because early bonding with their mothers only enhanced their sex-role typing.35 Soon after, Hypermasculinity would hold that "exaggerated, extreme masculine behavior was a defense against the male's unconscious feminine identification." 36 Either one of the changing fixations of post-war theorists could easily have influenced Spillane's Mike Hammer.

In 1955 Robert Aldritch directed his version of Mickey Spillane's 1952 novel Kiss Me Deadly. Written at the height of the Cold War, and in the middle of the Korean War, the novel holds to a different cultural standard than Aldritch's movie, though only three years separate them in time. Aldritch brought his own highly critical approach to the story by commenting on the highly conservative nature of the 1950's.

In the movie Mike Hammer is a much different character than the rage-filled Neanderthal of the novel. In his screenplay A.I. Bezerrides places the primary criticism of Hammer in the hands of the films' female characters and gives us an ongoing commentary into Spillane's excessively violent protagonist. Hammer, in fact isn't so much a a heroic private investigator but a sleazy "bedroom dick."37 Mike Hammer is described as being a bit shallow and egocentric, as typified particularly by his choice of cars. Christina, who is murdered at the beginning of the movie, tells him shortly before, "You're one of those self-indulgent males who thinks of nothing else but his clothes, his car, his stuff."38

When Hammer comes out of an apparent coma in the Aldritch film he remarks to Velda his faithful secretary, "You're never around when I need you." She quips back, "You never need me when your around."39 Again this is Bezzarides' plain contempt for the material and a response to the individualistic nature of the Spillane hero and the callousness with which he uses people; especially those closest to him.

As Bezzarides describes him, "he looks rather like a cross between Spillane's character and a Playboy male."40 A jet-set man's man who has time for a martini and a cigar, but little time for the drudgery of domestic life. It is precisely during this time that Hugh Hefner is creating a scandal with the publication of Playboy magazine in 1953 and Hammer reflects this primary change in American masculinity in the middle of the 1950's. The stereotype of the modern man had changed greatly in the ensuing years between Spillane's depiction and Aldritch's of the main Mike Hammer.

Aldritch's portrayal of the female characters is also different in the film. The assumption in the book, along with the particulars of the film noir genre, is that Hammer's secretary Velda is in the same vein as Spade's Effie Perrine. Like Effie, Velda is the virginal love interest for the roving masculine protagonist. In Velda however, by all indications from Spillane work, the virginal woman more than holds her own as a competent private investigator in her own right. She in fact comes off as one of the only other finely realized characters in Spillane's one-person narratives. In Aldritch's film Velda is something else entirely. She is somewhat of a kept women, used primarily in entrapment schemes on the unsuspecting husbands or wives of his clients, or a prostitute by any modern sense of the word.

Gaby Rodgers, who plays the primary femme-fatale in Kiss Me Deadly is also used differently. She is more than willing to use force of violence to get her way. The "iconography of violence (primarily guns) is a specific symbol of her 'unnatural' phallic power."41 It is a testament to the changing roles of women that allows us into the subtext and explains how they are perceived by the patriarchal establishment in film.

Much of the meaning of the movie lies squarely in the plot. Kiss Me Deadly begins as a search for the killers of the beautiful and intelligent Christina that Mike Hammer befriends at the beginning of the novel. Where movie and novel differ is in the antagonists. In the novel, Hammer's search leads him to her ties to the Mafia and stolen drugs hidden that were she had hidden away in a box. Because of "censorship restrictions against drugs in movies"42 the box in Aldritch's film becomes, what Hammer refers to as, the ìgreat-whatsitî- an unstable amount of radioactive material stolen from the Manhattan Project. The antagonists of the movie are greedy Americans willing to sell nuclear material on the open market to the highest bidder. The movie ends with a nuclear meltdown and the supposed death of everyone involved. It is a testament to the changes that have occurred in society between The Maltese Falcon and Kiss Me Deadly. The "great-whatsit" becomes almost an allegorical symbol of the inherent nihilism of the age.

In 14 years, Sam Spade's search for justice as a had lost all meaning with the threat of nuclear anhilation hovering over society's collective head. Kiss Me Deadly is a clear commentary on the climate of fear and resentment that many people shared living in the 1950's. This disparity of vision, between novel and film, shows a great change between just three short years in the 1950's and opens the door for more radical discourse to follow. Robert Crumb, the noted 1960's counter-culture cartoonist, summed it up best when he referred to the 1950's of his youth as a: "Big false front that was just so dreary and depressing. O.K. they [his parents] grew up in the depression and they went through the War and they wanted this thing that was so tight and unthreatening and flat and they wanted a dull lifestyle. Perry Como and this Ozzie & Harriet shell that we grew up in. The whole thing had this creepy, nightmarish quality to it."43 It was this creepy and nightmarish quality that would seep through, not only the work of Robert Aldritch, but also in that of Orson Welle's in his Touch of Evil. It was filmed in the twilight of Welles' Hollywood career and in the twilight hours of a California summer in a Venice, California that was masquerading as a corrupt Mexican border town.

As Orson Welles staggers to his death at the end of the film, his enigmatic partner Tanya underscores the moment by rendering him with an equally biting epitaph. "He was some kind of man."44 Welles plays Hank Quinlan, a corrupt American detective, who lives in that Mexican border town and running schemes that create a web of intrigue and corruption that envelopes everyone in the movie. He is grossly obese, with a half-chewed cigar constantly in place, and cuts an imposing figure despite his pronounced limp. He is a fallen man, torn by not only the murder of his wife but his inability to find and convict her killers. Though he is the villain of the movie, who antagonizes Charlton Heston's Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas, Welles' Quinlan becomes the protagonist of this as in any other Welles movie. Quinlan's fall from grace in the movie signified the end of the classic film noir protagonist and gave the genre a worthy epitaph. This, Welle's last American movie was a squalid crime movie that tapped into the seediness that lay just below the surface of late 1950's American society. In late 1956, when a 29 year old New York student, named Herbert Stumpel, testified to Congress of his complicity in rigging the game show Twenty-One it created a scandal that rocked a nation that had grown to trust anything that television had to offer.
As the Eisenhower era was coming to a close the society was also rocked by numerous positive changes. The Civil Rights movement would begin in earnest on December 1, 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama. It led to a boycott, by "30-40,000 bus riders out of a total black population of 50,000" that would eventually break the color barrier in the deep South. It would bring Martin Luther King onto the national stage. The Kinsey Report, which was published in 1948, would herald an entirely new classification of modern sexuality, not only for men but also for women. He established a scientific basis of male sexuality that was not limited to an "either/or" classification. As Kinsey put it, men were not limited to homosexuality or heterosexuality, but most fell somewhere inbetween.  This would slowly spark the beginnings of a Sexual Revolution, and in part influence other political and social reforms that would lead to the beginnings of the feminist movement and gay-rights movement.

By the time Orson Welles' 1958 film Touch of Evil was released, the era of the classic noir thriller would be over. Touch of Evil reflected the changing society and 1950's era view of masculinity The "crack-pot sheriff who dominates [Touch of Evil] is a direct descendent of the Sam Spade character in The Maltese Falcon . . .[whose] cool outsiders view of the criminal scene is replaced by the agitated viewpoint of [Frank Quinlan] who dominates. The heroic ideal that Hammet so eloquently wrote about in Red Harvest, and was put to film in John Huston's adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was brought to its logical conclusion in lieu of the massive changes that four decades brought. The noir cycle runs in a direct line from the investigator of 1941 to the criminal of 1958.
Although Touch of Evil ended the cycle, its influences would be great. Every few years a revival of the film noir "genre" would appear and these new would use some of the same themes and many of the images and archetypes that the classic noirs used. In Robert Altman's 1973 film The Long Goodbye, which was a fractured parody of Raymond Chandler's classic novel or Roman Polanski's 1974 film Chinatown, which was screenwriter Robert Towne's criticism of Watergate era America, or even Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction in 1995, were self-conscious reworkings of noir iconography.

This self-referential nature of the new noir films being made is what distinguishes them from the classic noirs. The cultural underpinnings that held film noir together no longer existed. The genre had fulfilled its role, which was "to create the specific malaise and to drive home a social criticism of the United States." and specifically of classic American masculinity and Touch of Evil confirm its end. As Joe Jackson so eloquently put in his song, "Real Men": Take your mind back-I don't know when. Sometime when it always se be just us and them. Girls that wore pink and girls that wore blue. Boys that always grew up better men than me and you. What's a man now-what's a man mean?"50 The song brings up the hidden cultural nostalgia for "simpler times" of the 1950's and the nostalgia that often revolves around these outmoded masculine and feminine role models. It also confronts these stereotypes with some pointed imagery. Jackson seems to be saying that we may often want to return to a simpler time when roles were more clearly defined, but with that clarity of purpose can often spring dangerous consequences. Any nostalgia that is referred to culturally fails to take into account the general trend of American masculinity. Societal mores and gender roles were changing long before World War II. Only the degree of change was affected.


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