It is customary to remember that in the 1940s the European influence on Hollywood cinema found a particularly evident result in the nascent noir genre, a type of detective that left great space for the dark atmosphere of the places and that insisted on the detective’s individuality and his way of relating to other characters rather than celebrating the logic of the investigation. In fact, the construction of nocturnal chiaroscuro in these films owes not a little to the luminism of German expressionist cinema, and the scenography itself recalls it through its obsessions, centered on the contrast between large and small or between broken lines and spiral. An eminently metropolitan cinema, noir marks the controversial recovery of urbanization which, which exploded towards the end of the nineteenth century, had forcibly marked the step – at least in theory – in front of the economic policy and the ideology of rural revival of the New Deal. Moreover, noir does not affirm an idyllic and positive vision of the city, but takes it as the only theater of human comedy (and tragedy), a place of sin, violence, corruption and eventual redemption (or in any case of revenge): often, if not more in homage to the Hays code of ultimate justice. In part derived from the fiction of D. Hammett, JM Cain and R. Chandler, the noirs of Hawks, Edward Dmytryk, F. Lang, R. Siodmak, Otto Preminger, Lewis Milestone and many others built an archetype with which American cinema afterwards he had to regularly measure himself, but we would not understand much of the 1940s if we did not take into account the enormous historical change experienced by the country. On the one hand, the profound frustrations caused by the Depression, painstakingly stemmed by action of the New Deal throughout the previous decade; on the other, the threat and the outbreak of the Second World War, which, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941), led FD Roosevelt to radically change his isolationism in foreign policy, with inevitable further sacrifices for the country. All this had heavy repercussions on the national spirit, of which the pessimism and cynicism of noir are perhaps the most eloquent face. Think of western melodramas such as John Huston’s The treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948; The treasure of the Sierra Madre), Duel in the Sun (1946; Duello al sole) by K. Vidor, Pursued (1947; Notte senza fine) by Raoul Walsh; think of the ferocious disenchantment that governs the first, the over-acute and unsustainable passionate tension exemplified by the second, the nocturnal regime and the psychological uncertainties of the third party; all different but analogous forms of expressing the loss of innocence that had been spreading in the country at least since the Great Crisis, and which had finally found a figurative representation in films that were not a flat recording of this loss, but, more finely, disturbing symptoms.
Even comic cinema provided clear examples of this oppressive and difficult atmosphere: the 1940s saw the directorial debut of Billy Wilder, already a formidable screenwriter, who from The major and the minor (1942; Forbidden fruit) onwards would have been forty. ‘years – along with other works of a dramatic nature – some of the most bitter comedies of the entire American cinema, and also the triumph as director of another eminently comic screenwriter, Preston Sturges, famous for his biting criticism of institutions, myths and taboos national. The mischievous and disguised licentiousness of the Lubitsch comedy had given way to a smiling and bitter cynicism that would dominate the entire decade. Which, however, did not prevent Hollywood from producing equally extraordinary brilliant comedies, far from that hard sensitivity but in any case not extraneous – albeit in light and affable ways – to an intention of social criticism, as for example. The Philadelphia story (1940; Scandal in Philadelphia) by Cukor, or a comparison between male and female in more unusual and modern terms, as in Adam’s rib (1949; Adam’s rib) again by Cukor.
For its part, black cinema underwent some changes in that decade. In fact, Hollywood began to take an interest in the world of color in a less occasional way than in the past. In 1940 for the first time, and perhaps for advertising purposes or to avoid controversy over the content of the film, the Oscar was awarded to a supporting actress of color, Hattie McDaniel, for the role of Mammy in Gone with the wind. In 1943 Metro Goldwyn Mayer and 20th Century-Fox produced two all-black films, respectively Cabin in the sky by Vincente Minnelli and Stormy weather by Andrew L. Stone, musical comedies before which there was no opera. Micheaux or others who from a spectacular point of view could hold the comparison. Of course, these films did not contribute to the cause of racial ransom at all, and indeed they emphasized widespread stereotypes. But it is also true that blacks entered the Hollywood agenda again as protagonists and not as funny extras.
The US entry into the war in 1941 would have in turn generated remarkable consequences also on national cinema. Not only for the large number of propaganda films that ensued (even if the massive production of war films hit the market, as often in the history of American cinema, only after the war), but also for the different role that women they hired in society. The massive male commitment on the Pacific front, and later on the European one, led to a strong insertion of women into the national productive fabric. The women found themselves occupying a space which, although not foreign to them in the recent past, had now become a kind of privileged territory for them. This explains the birth of a particular film genre, known as woman’s film, in which the woman is not only the main protagonist, but is observed and described in infinitely more active, aggressive, decision-making terms than those that had characterized her cinematic image in the past. The semi-divine and substantially static object of male adoration was replaced by a strong, modern, enterprising personality, in which this new soul coexisted with the traditional sentimentality and the classic passionate fragility that had always witnessed its vulnerability. Films such as The great lie (1941; The great lie) by Edmund Goulding or Mildred Pierce (1945; Mildred’s novel) by Curtiz or Random harvest (1942; Prisoners of the Past) by Mervin LeRoy, respectively played by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Greer Garson,
Even the musical, a genre of escape par excellence, adapted to the new spirit, passing from the sparkling choreographic and scenographic paintings of the Thirties to more realistic and everyday environments, and thus inaugurating a ‘domestic’ vein in which music, dance and singing were integrated by renewing, so to speak, the beauties of the family dimension (the couple Mickey Rooney / Judy Garland made school). This is a direction that the genre would never abandon, even if in some authors (especially Minnelli) the dreamlike, fabulous, exotic world of the past often reappeared, from The pirate (1948; Il pirata) to Kismet (1955 ; A stranger among the angels), both by Minnelli. And precisely in the musical – but even more so in the melodramatic genre – the forties inaugurated the fashion of the biographical film: from stage stars such as George M. Cohan (Yankee doodle dandy, 1942, Ribalta di gloria, by Curtiz) and Jerome Kern (Till the clouds roll by, 1946, Passing clouds, by Richard Whorf) to medical luminaries such as Dr. Ehr-lich (Dr. Ehrlich’s magic bullet or The story of Dr. Ehrlich’s magic bullet, 1940, A man against death, by William Dieterle) or Madame Curie (Madame Curie, 1943, by LeRoy) and literature such as Émile Zola (The life of Emile Zola, 1937, Emilio Zola, by Dieterle), the American screens were teeming with somewhat fictionalized biopics, which told of heartbreaking contrasts between duty, honor, love, just as was happening in non-biographical melodrama. If this practice could find a motivation based on intent to point out to the country the troubled lives of heroes who have now become mythical in popular consciousness, so as to exalt both national traditions and the strength, will, and courage necessary for the nation in difficult times such as those it was experiencing, perhaps less clear is the reason why foreign personalities appeared in this gallery (from Elizabeth I of England to Maximilian of Habsburg). In reality, the speech that Hollywood had elaborated was not difficult to decipher: anyone was called to a showdown with history and had to face an unstoppable reality with courage, determination, sacrifice. Traces of this new course developed by Hollywood in the 1940s can be found in varying degrees in almost every one of his films, but another, and less noble national appeal, he was getting ready in US cinema. When the war was over, a hysteria broke out in the country which resulted in many victims. The subdivision of Europe after the Yalta agreements (1945) threw the US into a state of irreversible paranoia towards communism: the witch hunt began. In 1947, at the instigation of Republican Senator JR McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Commettee (HUAC) was established, and Hollywood was its prime target (v. McCarthyism). Cinema – PI Goebbels, FD Roosevelt and I. Stalin understood it well – was a very powerful propaganda machine, and therefore it was not possible to leave it in the hands of potential enemies of national unity. The heads of those who did not want to testify in order not to incriminate innocent colleagues fell, and also those who testified out of fear, such as Elia Kazan and Dmy-tryk, victims no less than the others. The ‘Hollywood ten’ were ostracized, many persecuted returned or fled to Europe, and US cinema produced a series of ridiculous and tragic films together, in which the communist monster was portrayed in grim and unlikely hues. Melodramas and science fiction vied to show, directly or metaphorically, the atrocities of the reds in films that, revised after decades, are unbelievable.