How film noir explains Donald Trump

The ruthless, hyper-materialist white-male world of the US president is by no means new.

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One year ago, on that morning after optimism when America shot itself in the foot with a machine gun by electing Donald Trump as President, I found myself slamming the door on the outside world. Having spent much of the previous night explaining this act of collective insanity on French radio from my home town of Manhattan – and then taking distraught pre-dawn calls from friends as far-flung as Sydney (“Fucking hell, mate, what have you lot done?”) – I woke in the early afternoon with a hangover induced by bourbon and the impending dystopian future.

Ignoring the temptations of the mobile phone, the laptop, or that still extant Voice of American Reason called National Public Radio, I kept the sitting-room curtains closed. I decided that a Bloody Mary was an appropriate eye-opener, then headed to a shelf of old DVDs. It only took a moment to determine what film seemed appropriate given the triumph of double-speak, double-dealing and the most specious form of patriotism that had resulted in this deeply American catastrophe: that ultimate McCarthy-era shot of cynicism,  Sweet Smell of Success.

Of course a foreigner – an American-born Brit – directed it. Alexander Mackendrick was best known for his very English Ealing comedies such as The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers, so he was a curious choice to direct a dark New York story of autocratic power and the fragile veneer of ethically unchecked ambition. He shrewdly brought in one of Hollywood’s most brilliant cameramen, the Chinese-American James Wong Howe, whose work on the film is still recognised as one of the great summits in cinematographic art. Wong Howe and Mackendrick – clearly influenced by film noir and the famed tabloid photographs of the New York crime photographer Weegee – created a black-and-white look for the film that brilliantly captured the tawdry energy and rain-stained sidewalks of mid-century Manhattan.

Hiring the composer Elmer Bernstein was also a masterstroke. His driving 1950s big-band jazz score is one of the most memorable (and atmospherically pitch-perfect) of all film soundtracks, mirroring the Manhattan nocturne feel that pervades the movie. And then there was the masterful screenplay, originally written by Ernest Lehman and then polished and resharpened by the great American playwright Clifford Odets, some years after this one-time Depression-era socialist named names during the McCarthyite witch trials. Odets infused the screenplay with his exceptional flair for hard-punching dialogue and his understanding of the way those in American life who are desperate to make it are ruthlessly beholden to those who flip the levers of power.

After fighting hard for the role, Tony Curtis was cast as Sidney Falco (perhaps his greatest performance), a down-on-his-luck Broadway press agent in thrall to the city’s most powerful columnist, JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Hunsecker was based directly on Walter Winchell, the journalist who, for more than three decades, could make or break careers in the city, and who also happily aided Joseph McCarthy in his blacklisting activities. In the film he commandeers a corner of New York’s 21 Club (one of the famous speakeasies turned beau monde showbiz haunts of the 1950s) as his own personal fiefdom, where all manner of press agents, starlets and politicians pay court, hoping for a line or two in his column.

Sidney Falco looks upon Hunsecker as the endlessly rejecting father who could send his career stratospheric, but who instead chooses to keep him desperate, hoping to be fed a few crumbs from his table. Hunsecker is unmarried and deeply solitary. But his twentysomething sister lives with him and it is clear that the great columnist is unhealthily obsessed with his sibling, to the point where – when he learns that she is having a relationship with a jazz musician  – he decides to test Falco’s loyalty and tells him to destroy the man.

Sixty years after its premiere – when it was a critical success and a box-office failure – Sweet Smell of Success remains one of the key films in the American cinematic canon. Its vision of our media-driven, fame-obsessed culture remains as pertinent and unsettling today as when it was released in 1957. The moral issues it raises – and cannily never tries to answer – show that social Darwinism remains the central driving force behind American life. For all our talk in the States about community and family life, what Sweet Smell of Success posits is the idea that it is every man and woman for him/herself in our ferociously competitive culture. And those who think they can play the game by ethical rules will get pushed aside.

As such it is now the perfect film for the age of Trump. Though never mentioning McCarthyism or the blacklist, the film is completely attuned to the way a demagogue can gain traction in American life, just as it shows how sex, money and blackmail are always the weapons of choice in the quest for power. Then there is its extraordinary depiction of New York as a dangerous, glittering but grubby prize – a place where it is almost always night and where you are likely to fall hard as you chase the vagaries of success.

Trump has always seen himself as Mr New York, with a narcissism as vertiginous as the city’s skyline. He embodies that mindset which (to borrow a line from David Mamet) can best be described as “I’m from the United States of kiss-my-ass”.  And he has made a career of trampling others underfoot and embracing a capitalism as unbridled as it is mendacious. Which makes him a perfect exemplar of the down-and-dirty ethos so brilliantly examined in that most European of American cinema genres: film noir.

Although Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here prefigured the rise of a Trumpian populist, it is the great masterpieces of this shadowy cinematic genre that truly reveal the roots of this deeply American catastrophe.

Film noir is a term coined by the French film critic Nino Frank to describe a style of American movie – notably in the 1940s and 1950s – “marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism and menace” and shot in a monochrome that often nodded in the direction of early German expressionism. Not surprisingly many of the great exponents of film noir were European émigrés who had fled to Hollywood as Hitler went berserk, reinventing the expressionistic vocabulary of the early German cinema under that hot white Californian sun. Fritz Lang’s M (1931) – his first sound film and the prototype for future noir classics – remains a shadowy, nightmarish vision of a child murderer wandering a backstreet Berlin where night is omnipresent. Fleeing the Nazis, Lang became a pioneer of Hollywood noir, casting stealthy European eyes on American mores and hypocrisy. Lang’s 1953 masterpiece The Big Heat, for example, is a tale of the obsessive male need to seek revenge and settle scores – themes that resonate in the Oval Office today. The film ruthlessly contrasts suburban white-bread conformity with nasty civic corruption. There are men in high places paying off the judiciary, a very American need to resolve disagreements with violence, not to mention the casually accepted brutality against women that chimes with Trump-era misogyny. (In one of the more psychotic moments in 1950s cinema, Lee Marvin scalds the face of Gloria Grahame with a pot of coffee.)

Sex was a serious component of most film noirs – with émigré directors often using it as an ironic take on American puritanism and its toxic interaction with machismo and money. The insistence on winning at all costs – especially when it comes to getting the woman – brings to mind not only Trump but the recent revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. In these movies it leads many a sucker down a dark path. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) – based on the pulp classic by James M Cain, with a scorching script co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler – follows the downfall of a slick, corporate insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) who falls for a classic femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he plots to murder her elderly husband and live happily ever after off the insurance payout. But in the world of film noir, co-conspirators are inevitably scheming against each other. In a survival-of-the-fittest culture, loyalty counts for bupkis.

In addition to Wilder, Lang and Mackendrick, the many Hollywood Europeans who turned film noir into one long night of the American soul included the German Robert Siodmak (his 1944 movie Phantom Lady is a crazed tale of double-cross) and the French Jacques Tourneur, whose 1947 classic Out of the Past (with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas) remains one of the darkest depictions of small-town Americana ever committed to film.

American directors were also beginning to explore the country’s shadowy morality with film noir. Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), about a racetrack heist that goes very wrong, can be seen as yet another gritty treatise on the “every man for himself” ethos. Set in Mexico, Orson Welles’s magisterial Touch of Evil (1958) concerns itself with  racism, American suspicion of all things “south of the border” and one very fat and very bent copper (brilliantly played by Welles himself) intent on destroying a Mexican policeman for the sin of having a white wife. These are themes that we thought were lying dormant until the election of November 2016 reminded us how much bloated white male anger still underscores the national agenda.

And then there’s Robert Aldrich’s truly weird Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Based on a hyper-hard-boiled novel by Mickey Spillane, it follows a sleazoid detective – as misogynistic and brutal as they come – chasing after a Pandora’s Box (referred to as “the Great Whatzit”). The apocalyptic finale of this masterpiece of Cold War paranoia involves an atomic bomb going off on Malibu beach in California. The strange brilliance of the film is that we never know which government or Kim Jong-un-style madman is responsible for this mushroom-cloud nightmare. Seen now, as Trump and North Korea’s supreme dictator trade threats about a nuclear exchange, Kiss Me Deadly is a sober reminder that the Armageddon remains an American preoccupation.

No doubt, were he alive today the extraordinarily underrated John Frankenheimer would have found Donald Trump to be in keeping with the power-berserk personages – controlled by sinister forces from elsewhere – that formed the cornerstones of the first two films of the director’s “paranoia trilogy”: The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). But it is the final film of this hat-trick, the hallucinogenic neo-noir Seconds (1966), that sums up best the underlying theme of Trump’s world view: money can indeed buy you anything in America – even a reinvented, younger you. You can be the man you always wanted to be.

Shot by Wong Howe in a skewed, angular, black-and-white, Seconds tells the tale of the sad-sack American businessman Arthur Hamilton, living in the New York suburbs, commuting daily into the city to a desk job that (despite the trappings of success) he hates, and a marriage that has stalled in midlife. But Hamilton is now in possession of a secret. A friend has put him in touch with a shadowy organisation simply known as “The Company” and he has agreed to a Faustian bargain: in exchange for a portion of his estate, his death will be arranged by The Company (using someone else’s body) and through plastic surgery he will be transformed into a far more handsome and younger man. When Hamilton gets cold feet, The Company blackmails him into going through with their scheme. He has sold his soul and there is no turning back.

Emerging from surgery he is now Tony Wilson (superbly portrayed by Rock Hudson). He is the young, elegant artist that he always wanted to be. He is living the bourgeois bohemian California dream on the beach in Malibu, with a beautiful girlfriend and all the trappings of la dolce vita.But Wilson/Hamilton cannot adjust to his new identity. Family ties and a deep sense of guilt draw him back to his old life – and then  The Company intervenes in a horrific way.

The ending of Seconds remains, for me, one of the most disturbing final five minutes in the history of cinema. Watching the film for the first time you feel as if you have borne witness to a Poe-like phantasmagoria about the dissatisfaction that is at the heart of modern America’s hyper-materialistic culture and its endless search for physical perfection.

Intriguingly the people behind Seconds were all artists who had been victimised by the extremities of American politics and culture. Wong Howe had his American citizenship blocked until after the Second World War owing to anti-Chinese immigration restrictions, and his marriage to a white woman was not recognised at the time because of anti-miscegenation laws. John Randolph  – the actor who played Hamilton – had been blacklisted for his one-time political affiliations during the national trauma that was McCarthyism. And Rock Hudson – Hollywood’s all-American heterosexual heart-throb – was, in truth, a deeply closeted gay man, terrified that his sexuality would be exposed and lead to the  ruination of his career. No wonder that the themes of Seconds appealed to him: it is an astonishing performance that speaks volumes about a double life lived under the threat of exposure.

Frankenheimer, a true leftist in Hollywood, struggled with alcoholism, but with his team of outsiders he fashioned one of the great subversive postwar horror films. Yet the horror in Seconds isn’t rooted in monsters or demons or psycho killers. Rather it is to be found in the quotidian conformity of American life and the way we have allowed the forces of money and state power to act as the grand puppeteers of contemporary existence. The disquiet in Seconds is so profound because it is one that we ourselves have created.

With the US election a year ago we created a new noir world. Money may remain the civil religion in the United States, but in the world according to Donald Trump only the winner goes to dinner, while everyone else – “losers” in his simplified world-view – can simply starve.

Douglas Kennedy’s latest novel is “The Heat of Betrayal” (Arrow) 

This article appears in the 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over