Corporate Gangsters, Rogue Cops, and Big Heists: on Gangster Noir (Preview)

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 other subgenres that I felt were essential to understanding midcentury American noir….”

For Film International, Theresa Rodewald interviews Robert Miklitsch about his recent book, I Died a Million Times: Gangster Noir in Midcentury America (Illinois, 2021). An excerpt is below, along with a link to the full piece at the bottom.

How did I Died a Million Times come about?

UI Press | Robert Miklitsch | I Died a Million Times

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?

The Big Heat movie review & film summary (1953) | Roger Ebert
The Big Heat

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.

Read the full piece here.

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). Her coverage of James’s Kestrel’s Five Decembers (Hard Case Crime) is forthcoming at Retreats from Oblivion.

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