Updated: Sep 14, 2022
Although I drew on many works for information and inspiration while writing After the Blue, Blue Rain, two historical sources were especially meaningful for me: John Huston’s 1945 documentary Let There Be Light and Dorothy Hughes’s 1947 novel In a Lonely Place.
The two works couldn’t be more different. Let There Be Light was so controversial it wasn't formally
released until 1980; In a Lonely Place received positive reviews and was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart in 1950. More significantly, the tone and themes of the two works were poles apart. Huston’s film, which documented in honest detail the mental sufferings of returning World War II troops and their psychiatric treatment, projects an air of hopefulness and reassurance. The anguish of the men, while disturbing, is depicted as curable and non-threatening. Its optimism is understandable, as it was part of a U.S. Army series meant to educate – and to a degree inculcate – the general public on all aspects of the war.
In a Lonely Place, on the other hand, is unapologetic in its depiction of veteran Dix Steele, a sophisticated drifter and misogynistic serial killer. While not graphic, the story is told completely from Steele’s increasingly paranoid point of view. Although Hughes never implies that Steele’s combat experience is the direct cause of his psychopathy, she does suggest the war’s sanctioned violence helped unleash his existing impulses. Hughes balances the picture somewhat by making the police detective assigned to the case Steele’s former Army buddy and an honorable man, but it is Steele who haunts the reader’s imagination.
That the documentary sat collecting dust for 35 years while the novel was lauded upon publication reveals much about the era. Produced by the U.S. Army at the end of the war, the film was doomed from the start. As noted by film historian Scott Simmon in an essay accompanying the documentary's restoration by the National Film Preservation Foundation, "an Army public relations group convinced the War Department to issue an order in March 1946 restricting screenings to a handful of Army hospitals and a few overseas military venues." The Army even went so far as to seize a print of the film moments prior to a 1946 screening at the Museum of Modern Art.
Officially, the Army justified shelving the documentary because, according to them, the filmmakers had failed to get the proper clearances from the participating servicemen (an accusation that turned out to be false). Huston offered a different rationale for the Army's ban: "I think it boils down to the fact that they wanted to maintain the ‘warrior’ myth, which said that our American soldiers went to war and came back all the stronger for the experience, standing tall and proud for having served their country well. Only a few weaklings fell by the wayside. Everyone was a hero, and had medals and ribbons to prove it. They might die, or they might be wounded, but their spirits remained unbroken.”
The differing reception between the novel and the documentary reveals an ironic, if not surprising, dichotomy between the arts and politics. Noir art works, including books, films and plays, were all the rage in the late 1940s. In a Lonely Place was one of many produced or published stories about the dark side of postwar America. Quite a few featured veterans affected in some way by their recent war experiences. Huston, himself, directed Bogart in the 1948 noir classic Key Largo, based loosely on a 1939 Sherwood Anderson play. In the movie, Bogart plays a veteran whose recent time in the trenches have left him ambivalent about conventional expressions of manhood, even when faced by a murderous gangster.
In the "real world," meanwhile, the War Department was working hard to maintain its positive, clean-cut image, and McCarthyism and the House on Un-American Activities committee were going into full swing at the Capitol. Not only did the Army prevent the release of Let There Be Light, they went so far as to produce a sanitized version of it. Titled, apparently without apology, Shades of Gray, the revamped film reproduced the original documentary's script using actors throughout (but only White actors, unlike the original, which included a number of Black servicemen), and its closing statement emphasized the rarity of the "weakling" soldier.
The tension between the noir and sunshiny sensibilities, between the darker imaginings of America's artists and the forced confidence of its government rests at the core of postwar America. It's a tension that resonates especially around postwar Los Angeles, a city that was home not only to artistic dreams but to military installations, defense plants and many, many veterans.