In Mythologies, Roland Barthes has written, “Wrestling is not a sport, it is spectacle, and… the public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees…. Thus the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go through exactly the motions which are expected of him… in wrestling, a man who is down is exaggeratedly so, and completely fills the eyes of the spectators with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness.” Which reads like yet another mini-definition of noir. For, along with boxing, wrestling is one of the unabashedly noir sports. Conducted in the “most squalid” urban arenas, Barthes goes on to say, it partakes “of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.” In noir, the converse is true: a shadow without light can generate restraint, withdrawal, or outright paralysis, with no show of emotion. (81)
Thus in film noir, scapegoats, betrayers, dangerous and mysterious strangers, people with double identities, mistaken identities, and those who simply, or subtly, aren’t what they seem to be–in society, in organizations, even within families–are constants. As are, on the other side of the coin, McCarthyite elements representing blind authority, intimidation, biased inquisition, and intolerance. The comic book-style catchwords of the Cold War–“Red menace,” “Red-baiting,” “commie-hunter”–in all their permutations, make their way into noir films. But aside from the obvious Red-scare noir films […] there are countless films noirs that make no overt reference to communism and are apolitical in theme and content, but nevertheless sharply evoke the political climate of the times in their obsession with, and cultivation of, these same characteristics of the noir city. The alienating, twin darknesses of paranoia and dread, spawned by communism and the nuclear threat, that so seized the collective consciousness of urban Americans during the Cold War are also the twin pillars that might be erected at the entrance to the noir city–the Cold War’s true capital–whose apotheosis is no doubt the Atomic City. (52)
Christopher, Nicholas. Somewhere in the Night : Film Noir and the American City. New York: Free Press, 1997.
Replace Communist with terrorist and McCarthyite with Bush-ite in that second quote. I wonder how much we see a resurgence of these themes in contemporary films.