Academic journal article Social Justice

Class, Crime, and Film Noir: Labor, the Fugitive Outsider, and the Anti-Authoritarian Tradition

Academic journal article Social Justice

Class, Crime, and Film Noir: Labor, the Fugitive Outsider, and the Anti-Authoritarian Tradition

Article excerpt

OVER THE LAST TWO DECADES, PROGRESSIVES HAVE PRODUCED MUCH USEFUL AND astute analysis of the buildup of the police state (the prison-industrial complex, police seizure of assets, the rollback of civil rights, etc.) as a means of managing an increasingly disenfranchised working class. At times, however, these analyses have adopted the framework of the power structure in discussing "crime" and "criminals," and have de-emphasized the ways in which some forms of "crime" may also be about resistance to corporate power. This period witnessed the emergence of organized crime as an increasingly global corporate (and state sanctioned) entity in areas such as the drug traffic. In turn, analysis tended to adopt the framework of "crime" as a problem and then suggested its own ways of contesting the established need for dealing with that problem, instead of questioning the entire framework in which the problem was defined.

This was not always the case on the part of progressives. In the mid-1940s in Hollywood, a series of films validated not the gangster or organized crime, but the ordinary citizen, both working and middle class, who, either through the conditions of his or her everyday life, or, arbitrarily, seemingly by chance, ran afoul of the law. These films, with their dark, gloomy city streets and constant images of horizontal lines and bars framing down-on-their-luck lead characters, are most often referred to as film noir. They come directly out of a period of intense class struggle in Hollywood and the nation as a whole and represent certain left attitudes growing out of the Popular or Cultural Front era led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The films represent a moment of resistance to an increasingly centralized and anti-labor state and, later, a critique of a rapacious economic system whose representatives waged a frontal assault on Depression-era collective values of the 1930s and those of the wartime period of the 1940s.

This article will delineate how these films encouraged strong sympathy with their outside-the-law protagonists against social and corporate authority in a brief moment when, within one genre, in the heart of the culture industry, left ideas were hegemonic. The sympathetic fugitive's journey outside the law paralleled that of labor as a whole in the postwar period, when unions and wildcat strikers were criminalized first in a massive strike wave and later as victims of legislation (the Taft-Hartley Act) and governmental investigations (HUAC) that retroactively outlawed their actions during the strikes. This sympathy for working-class rebellion was systematically rolled back within the crime film, which emerged in the early to mid- 1950s at the height of the Cold War and labor's enlistment in the corporate state. In this period, the dominant form of the crime film was the police procedural, where the audience was positioned in the front seat of the squad car tracking down the sympathetic fugitives of the previous era, with outside-the-law characters now portrayed as "psychotic."

The sympathetic fugitive persistently reemerged, however. To illustrate this, I will look at three instances in which the character reappears in the crime film to engage in dialogue with more authoritarian tendencies. This includes a 40-year producer's duel in television between the anti-authoritarian creations of Roy Huggins ("Maverick," "The Fugitive," and "The Rockford Files") and the reassertion of authority in the work of Jack Webb ("Dragnet," 1950s and 1970s, and "Adam-12"). The second instance was the reemergence of film noir in the 1980s and early 1990s, with its values of critique, in reaction to Reagan and Bush administration policies and the conventional Hollywood support for those policies. Third was the temporary emergence of the fugitive government agent in the television series "24," which was initially critical of the workings of a secret government. This thrust was reversed at the height of the post-September 11 rollback of the suspense series and the positive restoration of home-front surveillance by domestic agencies (the forensics unit of "C. …

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