I recently read Jane Austen's Emma for a book group I belong to. A few days later, I watched an interesting minor noir, Too Late for Tears. And I got to thinking about the connections between Jane Austen and film noir.
Short answer for the impatient: film noir is what happens when a Jane Austen heroine discovers that the man she's married has way less money than she thought.
In Too Late for Tears, from 1949, Jane and Alan Palmer are a couple who unexpectedly end up with a bag of obviously illegally obtained cash. Jane sees the windfall as a way of escaping their life of installment payments, Alan isn't so sure. That's not a good stance for Alan. Jane maneuvers around everyone who threatens her hold on the cash, and is eventually brought low only by a narrative contrivance.
Emma is actually not a good example for my thesis, since Emma Woodhouse actually has a fair amount of money of her own. But Jane Austen heroines are compelled to make sure their passions match their interests, and fall in love with men able to support them.
Sometime later, I also watched the biopic Miss Austen Regrets, which deals with a slightly fictionalized version of Austen's later years, when she has to face the consequences of choices she made earlier in her life, and struggle to support her family through her writing. Olivia Williams is great as Jane Austen, BTW.
Immediately postwar America was on the verge of a boom, but it must not have felt that way after a decade of Depression and half a decade of war. Early 19th century Britain's Industrial Revolution had not yet had significant economic effects, and it was still a static economy. In such economies, if one person has more, someone else has to have less. The pie isn't growing. There is only so much productive land. Thus, it's easy to lose out, and live the entire rest of your life in penury. There are few second chances, particularly for women.
The women of noir also feel that the pie isn't getting any bigger. As with Austen women, their physical attractiveness is their only real asset in the search for secure wealth, while their cleverness is the hidden asset that allows them to leverage that attractiveness to get what they need to survive.
Too Late for Tears actually stimulated a lot of interesting thoughts. Lizabeth Scott as Jane is an oddly compelling high-cheekboned ice queen, though handicapped by a stiffly waved do almost as ridiculous as the one imposed on Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity five years earlier. The trusting and slow-witted Alan Palmer is played by Arthur Kennedy, who would have much more fun as the roguish and sly Emerson Cole in the superb Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart Western Bend of the River, a few years later.
And the somewhat pathetic baddy, blackmailer Danny Fuller, is played by Dan Duryea, specialist at the half sniveling/half snarling villain. He is a few notches below his best here, and handicapped by a big suit that can't hide that he's a skinny little weasel. He would do much better as Waco Johnny Dean in the Mann/Stewart Winchester 73, the next year. Some people think of those Mann Westerns as Western Noir, which would explain the commonality of actors, but that's not the genre-slip I'm concerned about here. Worth thinking about, though.
If you add some Emerson Cole to the somewhat dull-witted Alan, more Waco to Danny, and make Jane, well, Jane, I think you'd really have something. The once-flirtatious witty repartee has turned deadly, the home economics are grim, the wife is ready to use her quick wits to figure a way out of this situation. But Darcy...I mean, Allan, has a few more tricks up his sleeve than he was allowed to use in the current version.
A static economy leads to existential despair. A static economy that was once a growing economy leads to rage and murder. We'll see if the current impasse in our political system returns us to noir as a way of life, rather than just a style.