This post is brings together my ongoing interest in the films of Conrad Veidt (see introductory post here) and the history and definition of film noir.
Film noir can be read and defined in multiple ways, depending on one’s point of view. It’s cycle, style, and genre, for example. And within that trio of descriptors, there are implications for historical and cultural interpretation.
If noir is a cycle, that limits its range to a number of years, often delineated as 1941-1958 — from Maltese Falcon to Touch of Evil. The cycle is also often defined as American in origin, as explained by critics from France.
If noir is a style, its defining features are visual and sometimes aural. So, it’s about darkness, chiaroscuro lighting, back alley and underworld settings, lush romantic mood music alerting us to ill-fated romance and criminal doings, and the like. Such films can be made anytime and anywhere by anyone, and origins may be centered in Weimar German Expressionism and American pulp fiction.
If noir is a genre, then its mostly about character types and plots, like femme fatales and hardboiled dicks, gangsters and heists or murderous love. Again, anytime, anywhere, anyone, and America usually gets the kudos for its start.
Sometimes lost in this blend of descriptions and attempts at identifying origins is World War II. Sheri Chinen Biesen’s Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir (2005) stakes this claim persuasively — in an American context, emphasizing different pre-war, wartime, and post-war developments in what we call film noir that relate to social and psychological awareness, threats, and action. Women’s roles change, support for and challenges to nativism and race swell, and what it means to be a patriot or a hero is a subject for debate. It’s a productive way to read noir as cycle, style, and genre in America and beyond, especially within the context of emigre directors and other film players who escape Nazi Germany and face the box-office bottom line in Hollywood.
To keep this from becoming a book — that others have written better than I already — I want to place the film Nazi Agent (1942) within this context. My question is:
Can one discuss the film Nazi Agent productively as film noir?
When watching the film, I find myself wanting to consider it noir, but also hesitating. And I think I hesitate primarily because it’s so much more a war/spy film than a noir. For many, the answer is probably a simple yes or no. So, the question is probably best asked this way:
Can a spy film (also) be a film noir?
But does that get at what I’m looking for? This question can easily be answered by focusing on style and era. If noir is not a genre in and of itself, then any genre of film can be a film noir, or at least most. There is horror noir, noir melodrama, SF noir, even a dark noir comedy or two. So, a final tweak:
Is Nazi Agent film noir?
This I can attempt to answer. First, a summary (spoiler alert):
Nazi Agent the story of twin brothers (both played by Conrad Veidt) who’ve lived apart for a decade. Otto Becker has emigrated to America as the Nazis came to power. He is a middle-aged bookish bachelor who lives with his canary and collects stamps. He’s become a citizen, but he did so surreptitiously, using the false surname “Becker” and hiding his origins as a member of the aristocratic Von Detner family. His brother, Hugo, embraces his heritage and Nazism. The two meet again when Baron Hugo Von Detner, now German Consul, pays a visit to his lowly brother and blackmails him, making him an unwilling partner in the business of spying for the Fatherland. After months of sullen obedience, Otto rebels, and Hugo draws his gun. Yet, it is Hugo who ends up dead, and Otto then takes over his identity. Determined to subvert Hugo’s plans to destroy a major American naval ship as it enters the Panama Canal, Otto is thrust into Hugo’s life, including the exploitation of the beautiful and talented Kaaren De Relle (Ann Ayars). Kaaren is forced to spy for the Germans at the threat of the murder of her family. Before the film ends, love blooms, treachery is unmasked, and the “Good German” must sacrifice his happiness for his adopted nation.
Noir Cycle and WWII:
This film was made and released during WWII (1942). In fact, it came out only three months after Pearl Harbor. The focus of the film is entirely WWII-related. It’s an obvious WWII spy thriller. Just look at that title!
In terms of production context, we might also note that both Conrad Veidt and Martin Kosleck (who plays Hugo’s associate in the German Consulate) are both German actors who fled Nazi Germany, the latter with the SS on his heels. Veidt had a Jewish wife and even declared himself Jewish when he refused to divorce her before leaving the country. Kosleck played many a Nazi and never minded it, experiencing it as a kind of revenge.
The film is about criminality. While it lacks the private eye and the femme fatale, it does feature vicious criminals, guns and gunsels, and the noir binary of the bad woman vs. the good. Kaaren is the innocent victim, beautiful and worthy of love and admiration. By contrast, Miss Harper (Dorothy Tree), is a ruthless, emotionless Nazi-sympathizer who works for Hugo and takes over Otto’s store for passing secret information. She doesn’t merit a first name or a decent wardrobe.
Actors: The film is also identifiable for its noir-friendly cast (although one might argue that no film made in the US in 1942 could avoid casting someone who’d been in a noir). Here are some of the faces that link the film with noir for their performances before and after Nazi Agent:
- Conrad Veidt: Casablanca, A Woman’s Face
- Dorothy Tree: The Asphalt Jungle
- Martin Kosleck: Foreign Correspondent, She-Wolf of London
- Moroni Olsen: The Glass Key, Mildred Pierce, Notorious, The Strange Woman, Possessed, Call Northside 777
- Marc Lawrence: Lady Scarface, This Gun for Hire, I Walk Alone, Key Largo, Jigsaw, Asphalt Jungle
Director: Nazi Agent is also the first feature film of Jules Dassin‘s noir-infused directorial career. Dassin came to Hollywood in 1939 and apprenticed to Alfred Hitchcock and Garson Kanin. From 1947-1950, Dassin directed four powerful noir pictures in a row: Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway, and Night and the City. Soon after the 1950 release of Night, Dassin was reported to HUAC by directors Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle. He’s been an optimistic member of the Communist Party until 1939, when the Soviets made a pact with Hitler. This was enough to ruin his Hollywood career, which ended with official blacklisting when Dassin refused to testify in 1952. In 1955 in France, however, Dassin showed some of his best direction in the incomparable heist film Rififi. (When the Red Scare died down, Dassin did return to the US and even received Academy Award nominations for Topkapi.)
There are several beautifully dark scenes in Nazi Agent that one can easily point to as evidence of noir filmmaking. In particular, the night scene in which Otto sneaks out for a car ride with Kaaren is potent and beautiful. The two sit together, looking out at the stars, and turn on the radio. Mendelssohn is playing. He is a Jewish composer, so Otto-as-Hugo the Nazi should not be listening. “Verboten,” they declare. “Just this once,” Otto says softly, reflecting the importance of resistance, the allure of romance, and the fact that their love is to be short and ill-fated.
Taken together, the screen content plus production context point to the validity of identifying Nazi Agent as a spy film that is (also) a film noir. This may matter to few, but conducting this little analysis has helped me expand my understanding of noir in productive ways.