Literature professor Erik Dussere has long been a fan of film noir, but it wasn’t until he taught a course on detective fiction in the mid-1990s that he became interested in noir as a scholarly subject.
“I had never read any American detective fiction at that time,” he says, “and reading the hard-boiled books of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler got me thinking about the relationship between those books and the noir films they influenced.”
Dussere’s new book, America Is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture (Oxford, 2013), explores these connections and the postwar concept of authenticity. He starts with detective fiction from the 1940s, around the time of World War II, and goes on to look at texts and films influenced by noir, including conspiracy stories from the 60s and 70s and media from the 80s and after.
Noir is always engaged as a response to consumer culture, Dussere explains. After the war, consumer culture exploded in the United States. It was everywhere.
“That sense of its omnipresence,” he says, “leads Americans to feel that something about life in America has become inauthentic, tainted, or spoiled by commerce.” Noir responds by trying to create an alternative version of America—an America that has not been affected by commerce, that is “somehow darker and weirder and less open to being bought and sold.”
Dussere examines how noir portrays different kinds of commercial spaces, like gas stations and supermarkets.
“The supermarket is a very useful stand-in for an idea of America itself,” he says, “because it’s big, and it’s all about the illusion of freedom of choice.” It seems to represent the American ethos of freedom and democracy—and the freedom to choose whatever we want from all of the options available to us.
“There’s this idea that America in the postwar era seems to live in these places of commerce more than anywhere else,” he says. But it’s not just commercial spaces: abstract spaces, like corporations, also represent American consumer capitalism, Dussere argues.
He makes the case that film noir is the opposite of what the supermarket represents. “If the supermarket is this brightly lit, apparently cheerful place, then film noir involves plots that are all about being fated and doomed.”
Take Billy Wilder’s 1944 film, Double Indemnity, about an insurance agent who helps a woman kill her husband to collect on the insurance policy. Dussere describes a scene in the film, after the murder.
The two must find a place to meet, discreetly: they choose a supermarket. “They walk around pretending to shop, and there’s this sense that they have crossed a line, and they can no longer be a part of this world,” he says. “They’re much more exciting and dangerous than the [other] people in the supermarket, but they’re also doomed to unhappiness.” It’s a nice sense of contrast, he says, an “authentic” noir scene and the possibly tainted commercial context.
Dussere says he can’t pin down the American feeling toward consumerism. “It’s the thing we love to hate—or claim to hate—while we’re also busy madly buying stuff,” he says.
“This is exactly what my book is about: the way that American life is defined by the conflict or tension between our consumerist appetites and our desire for an undefined ‘something else’ out there, an elsewhere,” he says, “an authenticity that we imagine could serve as an antidote to consumerism."