Nonfiction Review: “Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream” by Mark Osteen

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nightmarealley“After Hiroshima, after the death of Roosevelt, and after the [House Un-American Activities Committee] investigations, only then did one begin to see the complete unreality of the American dream.”

So (late in life) declared filmmaker Joseph Losey, who directed the creepy and provocative 1951 film noir, “The Prowler,” and was rewarded for his artistry with a HUAC subpoena, membership in the Hollywood blacklist and lifelong exile. His statement, according to “Nightmare Alley” author Mark Osteen, can serve as a description of film noir, the shadowy and critical genre that served as a reality check for America during the period between World War II and the Korean War.

Osteen, who teaches English at Loyola University in Maryland, notes that noir flourished at a crossroads moment for the nation, as New Deal populism and humanism clashed with nascent Cold War paranoia and reaction. In Hollywood, the conflict played out tragically, with consequences that still linger. In the media-inflamed, witch-hunt atmosphere, studio bosses refused to stand up for their top writers, directors and performers (many of whom were associated with noir), while opportunistic former colleagues (such as Ronald Reagan) proved willing to purge their own unions of left-leaning members. The best thus crashed and burned, and those who survived grew cautious. It was the real beginning of our own postmodern, post-political, post-ethical era.

The tone was set by Eric Johnston, head of the Motion Picture Association of America (and former president of the Chamber of Commerce), who announced, “We’ll have no more films that deal with the seamy side of American life. We’ll have no more films that treat the banker as a villain.” In his view, Hollywood’s creative forces could best champion American freedom in the battle against Stalinist repression by wearing a muzzle and sitting at heel, in order to protect a sensitive audience from the pain of too much reality. According to Dalton Trumbo—America’s highest-paid screenwriter in 1947, reduced to submitting scripts through “fronts” a couple of years later—HUAC’s goal was “to destroy the trade unions, to paralyze anti-fascist political action, and to remove progressive content from films.” Much of that progressive content was expressed through what would later be called film noir, which focused single-mindedly on the seamy side of American life and had its share of banker villains.

Many members of the Hollywood Left—such as Trumbo, Jules Dassin, Robert Rossen and John Garfield—did their best work in a noir mood. They were products of the anti-fascist Popular Front moment of American culture, and while many lost their faith in Soviet-style Communism, they retained their underdog orientation and their willingness to create art with social content. According to Osteen, they were driven by “a sincere desire to make the world better: to combat prejudice, work for communitarian ideals, fight fascism, resist corporate tyranny, bolster organized labor, and, not incidentally, give themselves ownership of their own creative work. … Their alleged ‘un-Americanism’ was motivated, in other words, by a faith in the American Dream.”

Film noir, even at its blackest, is driven by a romantic longing for that dream, and a grim outrage at its betrayal. Only a culture dedicated to the pursuit of individual happiness, and driven by a concomitant belief in the possibility of endless self-reinvention, could have produced a drama of disillusionment as searing and angst-ridden as the best film noir of the late 1940s. In the most succinct line of his sometimes ponderous study, author Osteen describes noir as “an underground theater where Americans staged the most urgent concerns of a society in transition.”

How could the more radical creators of noir not convey urgency? Unlike academic critics, they had taken sides and made their bets. As the postwar climate grew chilly, they shivered, and their characters enacted their own sense of isolation and entrapment, of living in a gilded jail cell. Thus, in “Force of Evil,” with its Brechtian feel and Edward Hopper look, the plot turns on the question of a tapped office telephone. The device reflects writer/director (and eventual blacklistee) Abraham Polonsky’s own experience with Hoover’s FBI, which was eavesdropping on him during the filming. Similarly, the fraught question of informing on comrades, a frequent motif in film noir, mirrors the pressure on the Hollywood Left to “name names” and so prove they were “friendly witnesses.” Actor Sterling Hayden, who did name names and forever after was assailed by guilt and remorse, explained his dilemma: “Cooperate and I’m a stool pigeon. Shut my mouth and I’m a pariah.” It is a pitch-perfect film noir line.

This intermingling of life, politics and cinema is the real story of the film noir period, but unfortunately Osteen addresses what he calls “red noir” only at the end of his book. His larger theme is how the question of identity is treated in film noir, contrasting a Benjamin Franklin-like emphasis on the plasticity of the success-seeking personality against Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of the true self as a changeless and inescapable essence. Osteen uses this template to analyze notable films of the period, grouped by certain affinities: the missing-person plot, the veteran’s return to civilian life, the theme of art and forgery, the automobile and the noir road picture, jazzy noir and woman-made noir.

Osteen’s conceptual framework suggests that film noir, which was so completely a product of its time that its interwar efflorescence has never been equaled or recaptured, is more timeless and archetypal than it really is. The author does better when he approaches noir not as abstract philosophy, but as grounded critique. Speaking of the “red noirs,” he observes that “for these films’ lower-class characters, indeed, crime seems the only pathway to success in a society in thrall to conformism and corporatism … [the films dramatize] how the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the American Dream camouflages the rapacious pursuit of power.” Which is to say, if one person is on the make, it is a moral issue and a melodrama; if the society as a whole is on the make, it is a crisis and a film noir.

Osteen’s close, scrupulously footnoted readings of individual films—including many apparent gems that this rabid film noir fan had never heard of—tend to be cool, thin and wan. A certain laboriousness is evident throughout, as the author struggles for an insight or telling detail, and too often settles for a pomo cliché or pettifogging triviality. His prose clanks with English department pedantries, as adumbrated imbrications jostle against imbricated adumbrations, and he quotes the pomposities of fellow academics constantly, perhaps to excuse his own strained style. Thus we learn that musical themes in films often indicate “temporal disphasures … [expressing a wish to] reach back from an unlovely present to the past, and there to construct a lost beauty.” Translated into non-tenured English, this unlovely phrase seems to suggest that movie music can trigger strong emotion, including feelings of nostalgia. Eureka!

The book’s tone of academic pretentiousness is far from the tough, shrewd and engaged spirit of classic noir, which was rooted in the language and energy of the city streets. The great interwar film noir cycle is now recognized as the most important of Hollywood’s creations because the pictures are so flamboyantly alive, so open to the shadow side and the sly ambiguity, so awake to the real, soul-deep fears and desires of its befuddled protagonists, slinky femme fatales, brutal underworld bosses, and corrupt cops and politicians. Foster Hirsch’s “Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen and Barry Gifford’s “Out of the Past” capture this feel and quality better than Osteen’s stolid work, as does any column by Dave Kehr in the New York Times. Reading “Nightmare Alley,” one longs in vain for the kind of aphoristic, sizing-up moment so common in film noir, as when a business-minded gangster in “Body and Soul” opines, “Everything is addition or subtraction. The rest is conversation.” (Hugh Iglarsh)

“Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream”
By Mark Osteen
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 336 pages, $34.95  

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