- America Is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture by Erik Dussere
Erik Dussere. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 299 pp.
That Erik Dussere, in his new book, has come up with a different take on what some call the critic-created genre of noir is fairly noteworthy. This new take is based on Dussere’s own unusual if not unique reading of the whole form: “I read noir as a response not to crisis but to affluence and national consolidation” (4). This response, he argues, is an attempt to portray a new American authenticity that runs counter to the postwar consumerist America.
In framing his argument, Dussere draws heavily on the conception of authenticity begun by Trilling—that authenticity is at heart a negation of an “other” that is false or at least compromised. Thus, Dussere argues that the noir hero, in rejecting the blandishments of the femme fatale and the bribery of the crime boss, is in essence rejecting consumerism. The fact that the noir hero usually ends up doomed—or, in the best case represented by Philip Marlowe, [End Page 58] dispossessed and disillusioned—supports the idea that this authenticity can be found only outside what actually exists.
Other critics have recognized this perpetual alienation of the noir hero as an existential issue. Dussere takes his argument a step further in arguing that the omnipresence of consumer culture in postwar America has actually created an environment in which the authentic America itself is, as the title says, “elsewhere,” not contained in or represented by any actual physical space. In other words, through its commercial success, America has created a national crisis for itself; whatever the “authentic” America is, it must exist in opposition to the “real” America, since commercialism has occupied the national landscape. Noir, Dussere asserts, has been striving against this consumerist inauthenticity at least since Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” in 1944. This manifesto of hard-boiled fiction posited noir as a reaction not only to the British classical detective story, but also to the commercialism of American fiction of the day. Whatever the differences among the films that have been catalogued as noir or the resulting amorphousness of the genre, Dussere maintains that this reaction is at the heart of noir.
In demonstrating this reaction, Dussere’s work takes another unusual turn. Rather than look at the bar, the nightclub, or the other spaces so often noted by other critics, Dussere directs his focus to the use of paradigmatically mainstream American commercial spaces in noir. Dussere’s long introduction explores the depiction of the supermarket in Double Indemnity (1944), The Long Goodbye (1973), and The Big Lebowski (1998). This is one of the strongest sections of the book. In his analysis of Wilder’s Double Indemnity, for example, Dussere notes that the director carefully uses the blocking of the actors and the movement of the camera to place his protagonists on opposite sides of a shelf stacked high with groceries. Although the symbolism of their increasing emotional estrangement is obvious, Dussere goes beyond that in noting that the aisle is stacked so high with mass-produced foodstuffs that the camera must move up to look down at the woman from the doomed hero’s perspective; it is literally consumerism that is keeping the two antiheroes apart, and our hero literally “looks down” on that. Dussere also notes that the murderous couple, who would not have drawn a second glance in the typical noir milieu, are astonishingly out of place in the brightly lit, spotlessly clean, and scrupulously organized supermarket. It seems impossible to believe that their hard-boiled guises and conspiratorial behavior would not have attracted attention—except that, as Dussere points out, all of the “normal” shoppers are so lost in their own consumer-alienated worlds that they give the criminals not even a second glance. On the other hand, Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe fits in as well in his era’s supermarket as he does anywhere—which is to say, not very well at all. Whereas Double Indemnity...