The Velvet Light Trap 55 (2005) 3-18
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Film Noir and the American Dream:
The Dark Side of Enlightenment
This essay argues that light in post–World War II American films noir is not only an aesthetic feature but a thematic and ideological one as well. These films useEnlightenment conceptions of light to explore postwar subjectivity in ambivalent and contradictory ways. I proceed from an understanding of film noir as an historical movement and argue that noir protagonists in films such as Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944), Mildred Pierce (Curtiz, 1945), The Dark Corner (Hathaway, 1946), D.O.A. (Maté, 1950), The Big Heat (Lang, 1953), and The Big Combo (Lewis, 1955) reflect an existential, often despairing, awareness of the impossibility of their own enlightenment and, by extension, of ever realizing the American Dream.1 This journal issue focuses on media interrogation of the construction of identity within and beyond national boundaries, and the cycle of films now iden-tified as film noir is central to understanding the formulations of postwar American identity and its relationship to the meaning of citizenship. For late 1940s and early 1950s audiences, noir protagonists—however personally to blame for lack of enlightenment they may be depicted as being within any one film's diegesis—update the Nietzschean tragic hero: a suffering andreluctantly cosmopolitan figure cast into a dark world of eternal recurrence and from whose performance geographically uprooted and socially buffeted audiences might derive a modicum of ambivalent pleasure through identification. Audiences have the opportunity to sympathize with noir's failed protagonists and so-called femmes fatales because, in terms of the structure of order, disorder, order that organizes the narrative of so many of these films, during the "disordered" middlesection—when the powers of the state, the law, andthe father are most under question and attack—protagonists enact certain qualities of oppositional,often unexpressed, politics of audience members.
The success of classical Hollywood narrative cinema relies on audience identification with an on-screen character or characters. Yet while audiences may experience sympathy with postwar noir protagonists, as David Hume understood, sympathy allows us to understand that "there but for the grace of god go I" even as it also contains within itself the understanding that it is not, in fact, I who actually stand there in the place of the other. Sympathy, then, including that felt by audiences for on-screen characters, is always contingent and partial. As Hume argues in A Treatise of Human Nature, sympathy that exists only in the present is not intrinsically moral if it does not also extend into the future. While there is no necessary requirement that audience members do so, at that point near the end of the film when noir narratives move to reestablish order and punish the transgressions of the so-called femme fatale or aberrant protagonist, audience members are asked by these films to shift their identification away from the tragic protagonist to one more aligned with the interests of the father or the state.2 While audience members may sympathize with protagonists as individuals overwhelmed by "fate" or an unfortunate past they cannot escape, when order returns to the screen and the protagonist is punished, his orher individual quality of tragic and "disordered"heroism cedes to something akin to a failed citizenship worthy of state punishment. Further, films noir frequently promote the value of reconfiguring the meaning of individual identity away from the idea of the productive [End Page 3] citizen and toward one of the consumer as the centerpiece around which the new postwar economy of consumption will revolve. Yet noir protagonists, understood as placeholders for American citizen-spectators, also enact an ambivalent, imperfect Hollywood realization that somewhat confounds this ideal of consumption: while the Enlightenment idea of a universal unitary subject taking his or her place in the sun achieved cultural influence through daily rituals and belief systems, for many Americans the idea's promise would never come to pass.
In Sources of the Self philosopher Charles Taylor argues that the early modern bourgeois individual was expected...