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Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship by Jonathan Auerbach (review)
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Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship, by Jonathan Auerbach. Duke University Press. 2011.

In Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citzenship, Jonathan Auerbach links the alienation often cited in film noir to cold war obsessions about who and what constituted "Americanness." Drawing a connection between such concerns and continued doubts about noir as an analytic category, Auerbach likens the concept of noir to "a ghost, a vampire or a zombie" that "remains powerfully haunting, undead, like a spectre that will not stay in the grave." While reading Dark Borders I was indeed haunted by precisely the kind of [End Page 53] spectre Auerbach describes, but it had nothing to do with critical concerns over the blurred boundaries of film noir and everything to do with the cultural and political climate of "secrecy, power, fear, and suspicion" underlying Auerbach's study. While Auerbach makes no reference to it, the eerie relevance his study holds for our current political climate is striking: when our President's natural citizenship is subject to unremitting assault; when hysteria over border security, illegal immigration, and undocumented "aliens" rages; when voter ID laws, "stop and frisk," and airport security define every citizen as suspect; when undercover infiltration and surveillance of mosques, Muslims, Middle Easterners, and domestic political movements is pervasive; and when our government systematically assassinates U.S. citizens abroad, it is only natural that one might sense a haunting presence while reading about cold war attempts to "cleanse the homeland of undesirable elements representing a danger from within."

While acknowledging that film noir was "not ostensibly concerned with national politics," Auerbach does see "politics at the core of noir's mood of disquiet," and its very existence as tied to the "irrational intensity of anti-communist" fears regarding "who and what counted as American, how to tell friend from foe." Citing J. Edgar Hoover as the "tutelary spirit" of his study, Auerbach suggests "there could be no film noir without the FBI."

Central to Auerbach's argument is the notion of "the uncanny." Auerbach's explanation of this concept is a bit fuzzy. Working from Freud's essay on "The Uncanny," he proposes that within "the ostensible opposition between familiar and unfamiliar," there lies a single "core of feeling."

Auerbach pairs "the uncanny" with 'un-Americannness," a concept given "institutional status" with the formation of HUAC. For Auerbach's purposes, the two concepts "function identically" - as "boundary crossing, where inside and outside grow confused as (presumed) foreigners enter domestic space and conversely, the home reveals dark secrets hidden within."

As his focus on the uncanny suggests, Auerbach is more interested in the "emotional undercurrents" of these films than in their manifest content, and it this aspect of his study that sets it apart from those that overlook "how these films engage confusing and sometimes incongruous 'structures of feeling'" and "flatten out contradictions and ambiguity such as the flipping back and forth between American and un-American."

Auerbach analyses a dozen films and groups them according to how they specifically relate to cold war concerns about nationality and citizenship. In Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), each of which features the threat of deportation, Auerbach sees "the fear of a spreading stain of un-Americanness that must be excised from the nation." As he does throughout, Auerbach places these films in their historical contexts, citing, for example, the passage of the 1940 Smith Act and other official policies that associated foreignness with criminality. Thus, in Confessions, the culture of surveillance can be seen in the Gestapo which, Auerbach argues, [End Page 54] functions as the "uncanny shadow" of the FBI, while in Stranger, the figure of a nosy neighbor named "Meng" serves as both a personified fusing of the Axis enemies and an instrument of surveillance and censorship. The linchpin of Auerbach's analysis is his reading of this film's seven-minute long dream sequence in which the film's protagonist finds himself subject to a Kafkaesque trial. Auerbach focuses on two shots - a district attorney in Nazi salute, and "patterns of shadow resembling swastikas projected on the courtroom wall" - that place foreignness at...