- Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream by Mark Osteen
Mark Osteen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013, 324 pp.
For the past fifteen years, James Naremore’s More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (1998) has stood tall as the most perceptive and comprehensive book to read if one wants to understand the noir genre. Mark Osteen’s Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream is well written, witty, thoughtful, and well researched, and yet, ultimately, this book will not replace Naremore’s position on the throne.
In fact, Mark Osteen’s eight-chapter work is most similar to two previous books on noir: [End Page 56] Nicholas Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (1997) and Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo’s Noir Anxiety (2003). Like these three authors, Osteen uses repetition of particular ideas and insights and then supports his claims with examples from a mixture of classic noirs, unusual noirs, and non-noir dramas in order to construct an inventive reading and definition for noir. Whereas Christopher tried to make noir films fit the metaphor of the urban labyrinth, and Oliver and Trigo see noir as a psychoanalytic dream work, Osteen examines metaphors, metonymies, themes, characters, and historical archives to argue that film noir intuits the American dream as a “chimera” (249). Especially in the beginning and ending chapters, Osteen repeats the titular trope of the “nightmare alley,” connecting characters and their disquieting dreams to individual films. Osteen anchors his insights about noir by maneuvering exciting and unusual paths through Ralph Waldo Emerson’s versus Benjamin Franklin’s American Dream theories to tropology, political and cultural theory, and feminism. Often, this esoteric approach persuades. For example, one of the strongest chapters in the book, chapter 8, “The Left-Handed Endeavor,” employs the political theories of Marx and Engels to discuss the House Un-American Activities Committee, capitalism, and the films and filmmakers of so-called red noirs. Likewise, Osteen’s employment of Freud’s insights matches well with the psychological thrillers he examines in chapter 1, called “Someone Else’s Nightmare.” Yet this book also deemphasizes noir stylistics and occasionally could benefit from additional research. For example, Osteen claims in his introduction that he will chart the “political unconscious” of noir, but he does not employ Fredric Jameson’s foundational 1981 text from which he takes this term to define and support this declaration. Next, during discussion of “gender crossing” in chapter 4’s “Framed,” employing concepts of performance, parody, and subversion from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) would have strengthened Osteen’s position. Finally, in the writing about Ophuls’s Caught (1949) in chapter 7’s “Femmes Vital,” Susan M. White’s extensive work on the director and topic in The Cinema of Max Ophuls (1995) could aid Osteen’s analyses.
The key strength of Nightmare Alley is Osteen’s writing style and intelligence. He deftly utilizes wit, puns, metaphor, metonymy, and repetition. For example, when discussing the importance of cars to noir, he coins terms such as “automobility” and “convertibility” (152), and when discussing jazz and race, he claims of a gathering of characters influenced by the main character Mr. Brown in The Big Combo (1955) that they “are all thereby noired, or at least thoroughly browned” (176). His writing style is logical and sophisticated. Osteen’s twenty-nine pages of footnotes and thirteen pages of works cited list key cultural, historical, and film-criticism research and sources that benefit the reader. Osteen foregrounds women’s roles as noir writers and directors, and he refreshingly resurrects Ida Lupino as an important noir auteur. In analyzing the use of jazz music in noir more carefully than previous authors, the author reveals African American input in the genre and reminds us of the racism of classic Hollywood. He also discusses some lesser-known noirs that need more analysis such as High Wall (1947), Hollow Triumph (1948), Nocturne (1946), and The Strip (1951).
Yet such laudable skills also contribute to the limitations of Osteen’s book. The author applies very wide-ranging concepts to a...